Has anybody been as ubiquitous along the post-Nirvana alterna-indie-hipster continuum as Spike Jonze? Coming of age too late for hardcore (though he shot some videos for SST label vets: Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Mike Watt), Jonze networked like hell during the MTV cash-in. If you were within the demographic radius of the Buzz Bin, you saw his ’90s videos: Weezer at Arnold’s Drive-In. Beastie Boys as vintage TV cops. A human torch sprinting, unnoticed, without context, down a city street.
Jonze the videomaker worked off quotable conceptual hooks—and if they don’t last the song, just go slo-mo (a 1995 Flaming Lips video drags footage of the Reagan shooting out, to hypnotic effect). And the hook for MOMA’s career retro—the title jokes at its prematurity—is the big Where the Wild Things Are release (not screening here, but the upcoming movie is this series’ structuring absence). The program includes some of Jonze’s most memorable videos. Many are for crap tunes that, without their fresh-novelty shine, beg a channel change. Björk’s commissions hold up—squelchy, night-vision “It’s in Our Hands” especially—but Jonze’s best hip-hop work, the genius live-action cartoon for “Get Back,” starring a Popeye-armed Ludacris, is missing, while the Breeders’ slot should’ve gone to the sublime, contorted come-on “Divine Hammer” over “Cannonball.”
Hype Williams (where’s that retro?) led the charge of video directors segueing to feature filmmaking. Jonze followed, then Tarsem, and Gondry. With Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, director Jonze retrospectively seems to be the enabler for screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Maurice Sendak provided the skeleton of Wild Things, but this movie is fully Jonze’s. Tributary obsessions from the director’s video days all empty here: the furry menagerie (Weezer, “Island in the Sun”), sun-kissed late-afternoon lens flare (Beck, “Guess I’m Doing Fine”), roughhouse physicality (the Jonze-produced Jackass). More in next week’s paper, but the little idea in Jonze’s big-budget pic is that kids and adults are the same. This disrespecting of the complex emotional realities should appeal to arrested-development cases who will follow the trail of “This is our movie” signifiers (congested deadpan, handicraft shabbiness, brittle folky mewling) to the ticket line.
Before Wild Things‘ kidult monsters, Jonze did better by unstructured youth in Amarillo by Morning (1998), a perfect, unpretentious short doc tagging a crew of suburbanite Houston teens who get together to ride a homemade mechanical bull and dream of future rodeo glory. A child of skate-park day-care, Jonze recognizes kindred spirits. Two features he produced play here, Heavy Metal in Baghdad and Jackass: The Movie; both originate from the same admiration for DIY ingenuity. The idea is that creativity is its own end—so why does Jonze’s cleverness now feel like a vacuum?