I found myself contemplating Spike Jonze's career today in a somewhat David Thompson inspired thought process. Here's what we know, he got his start in skate videos, and a codirecting stint on The Breeder's Cannonball led to more work, with The Beastie Boys sabotage the breakthrough piece. This led to more music videos, commercials and two movies, both from scripts by Charles Kaufman.
Jonze has been lucky in many regards, but perhaps his false moniker (his real name is Adam Spiegel, of which he's lied about in regards to his relationship to the Spiegel fortune) tells the story by itself. He's an authentic phony. And that seems to be what comes through in both his Kaufman adaptations, the sense of the blurring of self, and hiding behind masks, though (perhaps thankfully) not in the Brian Singer mode. There is a sense in both pictures that the endings take off into an entirely different feel and flow than the rest of the film, and it's hard not call them disingenuous. What feels like the most honest moment in adaptation, in which brother Donald tells of his unrequited love for a girl to Charles, it comes in the center of preposterousness. What are we to make of a movie when two of the most talented film people around suggest that they have no solution to their movie but to sell it out? At what level does this become "real?"
And is it too much to draw upon his other assumed name, Richard Koufey, and suggests that it too tells a story? There is also a sense of the errant prankster in Jonze, the man who produced Jackass, and there is an element of that in his dance instructor appearances, but all accounts of the man is of someone mischievous, perhaps in the best possible way, but someone who doesn't like being himself to the public. And for someone with so much indie cred, he gets cut a lot of slack for directing numerous commercials. Perhaps that sort of street cred is meaningless when it comes to getting paid, but another generation might have asked (even ten years earlier): Why do them? What is this money for? Or is the joke on the commercials, as his work invokes the modern irony of selling/not selling that he and others (like Hammer and Tongs) have become noted for? But is this not effective is the purpose of ads is to draw attention to the thing itself by any means necessary? Again, at the heart of all of Jonze's work there comes the question of "How much of this is meant to be read ironically?" which can be translated into "Where is the real?" But with Malkovich, in the end I feel like if that ending's the real/serious, then give me the fake.
Which is why I think he's best work (or inarguably his most sustained work) is in the short form, specifically music videos. He is, as a friend put it, a one concept visionary. And his best work can usually be summed up in a sentence pitch. A guy on fire running in slow motion. Christopher Walken dances. A musical theater group dances on the street (poorly). A gymnast succeeds.
After the drubbing he received in Lost in Translation, it's hard not to feel sorry for the guy, and what Coppola did by airing their dirty laundry to the public (can that film be read without reading their relationship into it, and for bonus points, is the film more or less interesting without it?) But, all things considered, movies and film are better off having him and his sensibilities around. The question becomes, though, can he mature as an artist, and if he doesn't how long will it take for his sensibility (or schtick) to wear thin?