Discovering the happy medium between homage and critique through gleeful duplication, Spike Jonze composes giddy and celebratory visual confections out of mid-to-late century kitsch, enlisting the artist as co-conspirator in a venture to repurpose the past as high art. Employing Georges Méliès-inspired camera tricks and optical illusions as built in selling points, Jonze’s shorts evade the cultural graveyard of spoof by championing their artistic subjects, sprucing up sitcom sensibilities with contemporary power chords and technical innovation. By avoiding a self-righteous wink, Jonze makes postmodernism personal, reinventing the music video as a catalog of sacred items, interlacing stylish nuance with reflective nostalgia.
Encapsulating the sensory overload of a Manhattan childhood into a song’s length, Jonze packages “Sure Shot” as a love letter to the Beastie Boys’ encyclopedic knowledge of ephemera, utilizing subliminal shots as a visual representation of their rapid-fire references. Abandoning narrative in favor of artist-appropriate hyperactivity, Spike shifts photographic methods as swiftly as his edits, rifling through reverse motion, submarine shooting and fisheye lens with a childish exuberance. His infectious impetuousness galvanizes the band into fits of inspired mugging, etching their contorted gestures into the public consciousness through the quirkiness of jagged jump cuts and stop-motion animation.
“Drop” ushers this excess to its ne plus ultra, compelling The Pharcyde to spout their rhymes in reverse, then inverting the footage to reveal the disparity between their unnatural poses and the lyrics that pour from their lips in sequence. The band’s exaggerated physicality and forward motion confuse the mind into assuming the action is linear, that is, until bandmembers rocket from the street to the sky without warning and clothing leaps from puddles onto their bare backs.
Jonze treats the elaborate conceit at the center of his work as a sacrament, bonding with the artist through the labor-intensive process and extolling their virtues in the finished product. This is never more evident than in “It’s Oh So Quiet,” where Spike adorns Björk’s gorgeous rendition of a jazz standard with an equally blissful choreographed dance number. As the songstress prances through the drab decor of an auto body shop, the environment blooms around her, displaying mechanics in full twirl and umbrellas fanning out like flower blossoms, bearing all the hallmarks of a Busby Berkeley musical, but adapted to the tarmac.
Despite the diverting hullabaloo, the sea of hoofers are only the chorus, functioning to sing the praises of the jubilant chanteuse as she ascends into the clouds. Jonze wields these gimmicks exclusively in service of his artists, a policy that affords him free rein to indulge in elaborate ruses, whether it be guerilla performance art or the retrofitting of modern power pop into an iconic television property.
The contrivance in question is Spike’s “Buddy Holly” exercise, which implements modern footage of Weezer into a 20-year-old episode of Happy Days with chroma key technology, misleading the viewer into perceiving interaction between the band’s performance and members of the cast. The concept reads like a hollow stunt on paper, but Jonze’s sentimentality mutates the art of his youth into a vessel for his musical taste, eulogize the sincerity of the 70’s and repurposing it as 90’s fashion sense. His bookish attention to detail and spirituality spawns transfigurative images of nostalgia, exuding passion and heft that mirrors the vigorous riffing and crooning of the band, who share in his participatory excitement. It’s as if, by modifying epochal fragments of culture, Spike Jonze and his fellow outsiders can enter the zeitgeist and stake their claim on it, resculpting pop art in their likeness.
The Work of Director Spike Jonze (Palm Pictures, 1993 - 2000)
Music by Beastie Boys, The Pharcyde, Björk, and Weezer