The Work of Director Spike Jonze (2003): When MTV Played Videos

Some filmmakers, like writers, seem to produce their best work in short form. This is how I feel about Stephen King; there’s a level of menace, of ugliness, to his short work that is absent in his novels, which always need to end on some act of heroics, with the protagonist saving the world (or increasingly so; King left the world of quiet, intimate horror decades ago). I recall one short story from Skeleton Crew titled “Survivor Type,” about a shipwrecked man who slowly severs and consumes increasingly important body parts to stay alive – there is not a happy ending. Ugh. Also, kind of awesome. Even in his modern short stories, he appears comfortable letting the ending be sinister, scary, hopeless – which he would never permit in a novel. I must be drawn to the macabre, as this is the only time I enjoy reading King’s work. (Sidebar: I have a theory that my gumdrop, lollipop, and sunshine upbringing is the reason I’m so attracted to dark matter, whereas those who have actually experienced the macabre in life can’t imagine revisiting it for entertainment’s sake. It’s the same reason I’ll never write great fiction. Thanks a lot, loving parents.)

Spike Jonze is a rare example of a filmmaker whose short work I enjoy more than their feature length movies. However, in this case, it is merely a situation in which his short films are so inventive, original, and off the wall, that they trump his nearly as excellent feature films. Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002) are fantastically entertaining flicks, but there is something about the freedom provided in short form that really lets Jonze go wild with ideas. I mean, just see what he can do with an Ikea commercial. That is, quite possibly, my favourite commercial of all time. His comment about how crazy I am to care for the lamp only makes me even more concerned for it.

The hostage and I ordered The Work of Director Spike Jonze (2003) to revel in his absurdity. The collection contains numerous music videos, as well as several short films and documentaries. On any collection of this sort, you are bound to have a few missteps, and Spike Jonze is no different from any other director in that some of his pieces work better than others. However, en masse this is a collection of intensely enjoyable oddities. I’ve noted my personal highlights below:

Music Videos:

Drop by Pharcyde: Jonze has a tendency to work with interesting underground artists as opposed to mainstream stars. I’m not sure if this is because the artists are more attracted to his novel video style, or if he personally chooses to work with the underdog, but it means that often beyond the music video, the music itself is of good quality. This video for Pharcyde is several long sequences filmed in reverse, and then spliced together. It is very fun.

Sabotage by The Beastie Boys: I know this is a bold statement, but I think this is my favourite music video of all time (no disrespect to John Landis). In it, each member of the Beastie Boys takes to the street as a member of the police squad… from 1976. This video is a brilliant send up of 70s cop action shows, complete with cheesy costumes and glued on moustaches, high-speed chases, and ridiculous police names (ex: Cochese and Bunny). The footage is edited together to appear as the opening credits to the cop program. In addition, the music fits the action perfectly, with the police drama rising in sequence with the musical drama. And the Beastie Boys could not have thrown themselves into it any better; they are having ridiculous fun. It is an example of an ideal marriage between song, concept, and execution.

Feel the Pain by Dinosaur Jr.: Watch as the band members play a game of slash golf throughout New York City; just don’t get in the way of their ball – these guys are serious about playing where they land. And this video is seriously funny.

Sky’s the Limit by Notorious B.I.G.: I had never seen this video before, and at first glance, it seems identical to any other rap video: gorgeous production values, huge mansions, pool-side parties, cars, boats, furs, jewellery… this does not seem like typical Jonze. But it is, because every person in the video, whatever role they are playing, is a child. I am convinced it is Jonze’s sharp commentary on the world of the rap star – little children playing as adults – but perhaps I’m trying to see meaning where there is none. Maybe Jonze just thought it was a fun idea for a video, and it is. The kid who plays Biggie is outrageously deadpan in his gansta sneer. Meaning or no, it’s still a great video.

Weapon of Choice by Fatboy Slim: Sometimes the simplest ideas yield the best results. This video consists of nothing more than Christopher Walken dancing through a hotel, and that is all it needs.

Shorts and Documentaries:

How They Got There: Jonze’s ability to tell a fully fleshed out story in mere minutes is a wonderful gift. Here we see how horribly wrong a charming flirtation can go. Jonze’s whimsy is never overwhelming, because whenever it starts to tiptoe towards “too much”, he cuts your legs out from under you.

What’s Up Fatlip? (1999): This is a half hour documentary on Fatlip, the former lead singer of the Pharcyde, compiled through interviews conducted during the course of filming a music video. At one point, the Pharcyde (and thus Fatlip) was very famous. Now he is facing the reality of the music business, as his solo career has not taken off in the same way, and he sees his days as a professional musician coming to an end. Listening to Fatlip harkened back to the interviews with McNamara in The Fog of War (2003); there is a similar kind of frank self-exploration going on that I both admire and appreciate. Fatlip examines his life, taking stock of how he used to think and how he sees things now. He cites learning that Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. were not as they were marketed as a turning point for him: “when I found out these artists I respected weren’t real killers, it was a relief.” This kind of honest expression is always interesting to watch. As the film ended, I was struck by how intelligent and talented people with something to say rarely make it big in music. That seems so backwards to me.

The Dud: 

Amarillo by Morning (1997): Of all the pieces we watched, only one was a disappointment: a short documentary on a day in the life of several suburban cowboys. In the brief description on the DVD menu, we are told that these young cowboys grew up in a hip hop community and have suffered endless mockery at the hands of their peers. The reality is that they live in Whitebreadville USA, and maybe a couple of kids have said they’re strange for doing what they do. Basically, this flick is Jonze following them about their day (which is pretty much what you’d expect) while they wax poetic about their dreams to be ridin’ free in the rodeo, and speak in tired clichés of all the work they’ve put in and where they want to be in life. I turned to the hostage and said, “I think Jonze finds these kids WAY more interesting than I do.” The hostage rightly pointed out that I grew up with many of these suburban cowboys (and more than a few real ones), and that might be why I wasn’t interested. So I locked him away to punish his insolence.

Until the next


~ by K. Harker on May 16, 2011.

2 Responses to “The Work of Director Spike Jonze (2003): When MTV Played Videos”

  1. Love it. Just posted a pingback to it on my older blog. Sometimes I still think in “music video.” I always wanted a 5 million dollar budget and some great sets to try to shoot my own. Thanks for posting!


    • Thanks! Much appreciated. I’m going to sound 80 right now, but they don’t seem to put the same creative effort into videos anymore.

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