Catching up with the late-20th-century truism that pop promos are the closest mass culture gets to poetry, Palm Pictures’ overdue Directors Label series—the first ever auteur-driven video anthologies—kicks off with Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and Chris Cunningham, the three men responsible for some of the most copied music videos of the past decade, as well as the least reproducible. Often bracketed together as paragons of Macworld coolness (and in opposition to ex-vid hacks McG and Tarsem), the three share little artistic common ground (though Jonze and Gondry have a Charlie Kaufman connection) and each has over the years nurtured a distinctive cult of personality: Jonze the L.A. skatepunk surrealist, Gondry the Francopop optical illusionist, Cunningham the London techno art-terrorist.
THE WORK OF DIRECTOR MICHEL GONDRY
Designed for maximum wonderment, predicated on fractal patterns and mathematical series, Gondry’s videos are labor-intensive and never afraid to belabor a concept. His “Like a Rolling Stone” clip for the Stones is credited with inventing freeze-and-pan bullet-time, and he has a knack for physics- and metaphysics-defying technical trickery (a looped Paris saunter with proliferating Kylies mimics the concentric trance-pop of “Come Into My World”). But his work is most endearing—and perversely magical—when it dispenses with sleight of hand and emphasizes primitive, manual process, i.e., when the persistence of vision is less relevant than a vision of persistence. “Let Forever Be” (for the Chemical Brothers) replicates the kaleidoscope cheese of ’80s video reverb effects in real time (an even more counterintuitive exercise than constructing Lego likenesses of the White Stripes); the Stripes’ “The Hardest Button to Button” dovetails Gondry’s cartoonist and drummer backgrounds into a live-action flipbook animation powered by Meg White’s bass drum stomps.
Tellingly, the interview profile I’ve Been 12 Forever meanders often into stoner dream theory. Gondry’s at his best when he commits to the beauty of a gimmick (the split-screen palindrome for Cibo Matto’s “Sugar Water”); when he ransacks REM sleep for material, the results veer toward sylvan whimsy, as in his overrated Björk videos. A notable exception: “Bachelorette” ‘s Russian-doll nest of self-writing autobiographies, a conceit worthy of Charlie Kaufman.
THE WORK OF DIRECTOR CHRIS CUNNINGHAM
Of the three, Cunningham, an F/X prodigy whose CV includes Alien ooze, A.I. animatronics, and the Venice Biennale, has the most intoxicating visual style—a burnished alloy of Kubrick, Cronenberg, and Ridley Scott—not to mention an unnervingly developed taste for anatomical incorrectness that recalls Lucian Freud and installation artists Jake and Dinos Chapman. His oeuvre, a terrorizing rebuttal to the Finchery gloom of Nine Inch Nails and Prodigy clips, ratchets up abject-chic disconnect to a convulsive extreme—gorgeous slate-and-cobalt cinematography dripping with sulfurous dread. Aphex Twin’s “Come to Daddy” clip remains most notorious, for the face graft and the Munch-via-Bacon screaming creature that springs from the TV, scarier than any Ring movie, Japanese or Hollywood. Cunningham’s ability to engender genuine discomfort in the briefest durations is uncanny, perhaps unrivaled among working directors. There’s never been a more upsetting video than Leftfield’s “Afrika Shox,” in which a disheveled black man lurches through a concrete jungle as his limbs snap off and shatter like clay.
Cunningham’s images are so overpowering—even when leached to near monochrome tastefulness for Madonna and Portishead—that they can tip the balance between sound and image; the spastic bleepscape of Squarepusher’s “Come on My Selector” seems to have been composed especially for Cunningham’s J-horror shock-corridor clip, and not vice versa. Best extra: a snippet from his 2000 installation flex, an abstract, densely edited blur of body parts and bodily fluids.
THE WORK OF DIRECTOR SPIKE JONZE
As Björk notes in a commentary here, “Spike’s definitely slapstick”—which may be the key to Jonze’s feature film success. (Cunningham’s projects, including an adaptation of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, have yet to emerge from development, and Gondry’s Human Nature misfired in all directions.) An intuitive and unpretentious high-conceptualist, Jonze is fluent in physical and cerebral comedy, and wholly at ease in contradictory modes: the eccentric populist and the unselfconscious ironist. Crucially, his poker face is unbeatable. It takes several viewings to fully appreciate that his gymnastics high drama for the Chemical Brothers’ “Elektrobank,” with Sofia Coppola on floor exercise, is an inspired joke about the “invisible” match cut—as is, of course, his celebrated Happy Days mock-up for Weezer’s “Buddy Holly.”
Jonze’s DVD may be the most essential—no other music video director has so casually ignored the limits of the format. The extras are good value, too: The Oasis Video That Never Happened salvages a man-on-the-street concept that the band despised. Lance Bangs’s faux doc, in Christopher Guest fashion, follows Richard Koufey (Jonze’s cornball B-boy “Praise You” alter-ego) to the MTV VMAs. Jonze’s love of dance—of raw, expressive physical movement, more to the point—is truly a thing of beauty. His two best videos are transporting, meticulously choreographed mini-masterpieces: Björk’s “It’s Oh So Quiet,” which relocates The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to a Valley auto shop (the shifts in light and film speed are as thrilling as the MGM routine), and the now justly legendary “Weapon of Choice” for Fatboy Slim, which sends Christopher Walken pirouetting, soft-shoeing, and flying through an anonymous hotel lobby, a sequel to Malkovich’s Dance of Despair and Disillusionment that locates new undertows of absurdity and melancholy. Jonze’s rapport with his subjects is never in doubt—whether it’s Meryl Streep snorting green orchid powder, or suburban cowboys demonstrating their oil-barrel bronco in the short doc Amarillo by Morning (included here). As magically as silent slapstick, his best work catches the performers in the act of surprising themselves, and mainlines that pleasure to the viewer. You could think of Jonze as the most generous of escape artists: His is a sensibility that exists on the threshold of embarrassment, only to take flight when you least expect.