Auteur of the Week: Spike Jonze

My first memory of Spike Jonze came about when I was 13 years old and I read about his upcoming film Being John Malkovich in a Q&A between John Malkovich and then Time Magazine reporter Joel Stein. At the time I was madly in love with both Malkovich and Joel Stein. I was an odd child. Needless to say the movie did not come anywhere near my little hamlet of a town and I had to wait and rent it. At the time we still didn’t have a DVD player so I had to rent it on VHS tape and I hadn’t gotten my own TV/VCR yet (a present I would get upon 8th grade graduation a few months later) and thus was stuck watching it out in the living room. Let’s just say every time a parent or my brother came out of their respective rooms to get something from the kitchen, I immediately turned it off and pretended I was watching something on television. I really do not think I could have watched that in mixed company. Regardless, I really loved it and it marks the beginning of my love for strange, offbeat films.

Spike Jonze (née Adam Spiegel) was born October 22, 1969 in Rockville, Maryland. He attended The Field School in Washington, D.C., and Walt Whitman High School. He fronted  an international BMX club called Club Homeboy, and, along with two others, founded the youth culture magazines Homeboy and Dirt in 1992. That same year he began directing music videos. Some of his more notable music videos include 100% for Sonic Youth, Cannonball for The Breeders, Buddy Holly for Weezer, Sabotage for The Beastie Boys, Electrolite for R.E.M., Sky’s The Limit for The Notorious B.I.G., Weapon of Choice for Fatboy Slim (featuring Christopher Walken), Flashing Lights for Kanye West and most recently Drunk Girls for LCD Soundsystem. Jonze got his big break when screenwriter Charlie Kaufman sent a draft of his screenplay of Being John Malkovich to Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola showed the screenplay to Jonze, who was then married to his daughter Sophia Coppola. Jonze then approached Kaufman about directing the film.

Which brings me to Charlie Kaufman, who I feel I have to talk about a little bit if I’m going to discuss Spike Jonze’s work. Kaufman wrote comedic articles and spoofs on spec for National Lampoon magazine, between 1983 and 1984. He then moved to Los Angeles and worked as a television writer, working on  Get a LifeThe Edge, Ned and Stacey and The Dana Carvey Show. Kaufman’s influences include Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, Stanisław Lem, Philip K. Dick, Flannery O’Connor, Stephen Dixon, Shirley Jackson, David Lynch, Lars von Trier, Patricia Highsmith, Italo Svevo  and the Alexander Pope poem Eloisa to Abelard. I love Charlie Kaufman’s writing. I’ve yet to see either Human Nature or Synecdoche, New York, but I love Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

This film is just so wonderfully odd. Like I said earlier, I was really excited to see this after I read about it in Time Magazine. John Malkovich is just so wonderful and the plot of this film is so wildly different from anything I’ve ever seen. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards – Best Director, Best Supporting Actress – Catherine Keener and Best Original Screenplay – Charlie Kaufman. Jonze was also nominated for Best Director at the Director’s Guild of America. He lost both awards to Sam Mendes for American Beauty.

Apparently it took a lot of convincing to get John Malkovich, who loved the screenplay, to actually star in the film. In the end he agreed to do so and the result is one of the greatest performances of his career. His performance ranked #90 on Premiere Magazine’s 100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time. I really love when actors play caricatures of themselves (see Neil Patrick Harris in the Harold and Kumar films) and Malkovich really goes all out in this film. He always brings a palpable intensity to his performances and this is quite possibly his most intense of all.

I also happened to be in love with John Cusack since I was 10 years old, which made Con Air, starring these two and my other early love Nicolas Cage, the perfect film for my little ten year-old self. But it also made my need to see this film all the more great. Cusack is wonderfully eccentric in this film. He once said he’s ashamed of all but ten or so of his films, this being one of the ten of which he’s proud. It makes me sad that such a talented actor is often stuck with a lot of crap films. It makes me wonder if he’s doing for the money, he has a bad agent or both?

Catherine Keener was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her turn in this film, losing to Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted. I will admit I do not like her character in this film. She really irritated me and thus for the longest time I did not like Keener. I have this bad habit of disliking an actor or actress because I hate a character they’ve played and I can’t divorce the two in my head. It’s for this reason that I used to hate Laura Linney (she’s so despicable in The House of Mirth; she’s now one of my favorite actresses) but I’ve recently realized that often, not always, but often it’s the mark of a fabulous performance if that actor/actress can make me truly hate a character. It took Keener’s other Oscar-nominated performance in 2005’s Capote to get me over hating her.

I do not like Cameron Diaz. It has nothing to do with the characters she plays. It’s her. There’s something about her that just rubs me wrong. That being said, occasionally I don’t hate her performances. This is the case with her performance in this film. It’s a very different kind of Diaz and I think a lot of it is due to Jonze’s superb direction.

I just re-watched this movie for the first time in years last night and I loved it even more than I remembered loving it. It is just so amazingly odd. Kaufman was hired to write an adaptation of Susan Orlean’s nonfiction book The Orchid Thief, but suffered from major writer’s block. He then wrote about this writers block, at one point explaining, “The idea of how to write the film didn’t come to me until quite late. It was the only idea I had, I liked it, and I knew there was no way it would be approved if I pitched it. So I just wrote it and never told the people I was writing it for. I only told Spike Jonze, as we were making John Malkovich and he saw how frustrated I was. Had he said I was crazy, I don’t know what I would have done.” The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, winning one: Best Actor – Nicolas Cage, Best Supporting Actress Meryl Streep, Best Supporting Actor – Chris Cooper (he won) and Best Adapted Screenplay – Charlie and Donald Kaufman (Donald being Kaufman’s fictitious twin brother). Donald became the first truly fictitious person nominated for an Oscar.

I love Nicolas Cage. I really do. He’s been a favorite actor of mine since forever. He’s made a lot of crap in the last eight or so years since this film came out, but the bulk of his filmography prior and up to this film is chock full of wonderful performances. He even won the Oscar for Best Actor in 1995 for Leaving Las Vegas (in a truly devastating performance). This is one of my favorite of his performances. And really it is multiple performances. Much like Sam Rockwell in last year’s grossly underrated Moon, most of Cage’s screen time is with himself, in the dual roles of Charlie and Donald. Arguably, his performance as Charlie is the lead and Donald is just another of the film’s many wonderful supporting performances. I’ve been told by non-Cage fans that this is one of the few films in which they actually like him. So even if you hate Cage (Who are you? Go away!) I guarantee you’ll enjoy this film.

I love Meryl Streep and I love her in this film. It’s one of her more zany roles. I remember hearing a lot of complaining on the internet about Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago beating her at the Oscars. As much as I love Streep she does not dominate this film the way Zeta-Jones completely dominated Chicago and I think the Academy made the right decision in that category. But really, the two performances are so completely on the opposite sides of the spectrum, they can’t really be compared.

Chris Cooper did win in his category and after giving so many memorable performances over the years it was well deserved. That being said, my favorite performance in the Best Supporting Actor category that year was Christopher Walken in Catch Me If You Can and I was really rooting for him. I think it may have been a case of Walken having already won an Oscar and Cooper having had such a fine body of work/being snubbed for a nomination for American Beauty. I do really love him in this film though. The character of John Laroche is so alive and Cooper attacks the role with such passionate abandon; It’s a real pleasure to watch.

Apparently the author of Where The Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak, favored Spike Jonze as director, saying that he was “young, interesting and had a spark.” Originally the film was to be made by Universal and a teaser trailer was to be attached to the studio’s 2000 adaptation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. However due to disagreements between Universal and Sendak over Jonze’s approach to the story, the film’s production was transferred to Warner Bros. In 2005 Jonze and acclaimed writer Dave Eggers completed a 111-page screenplay which expanded the original ten-sentence story. After months of open auditions Max Records was cast in the lead role.  After seeing the completed film Sendak said, “I’ve never seen a movie that looked or felt like this. And it’s [Spike Jonze’s] personal ‘this.’ And he’s not afraid of himself. He’s a real artist that lets it come through in the work. So he’s touched me. He’s touched me very much.” Despite mostly positive reviews and placing on numerous Top Ten lists (including #1 on the list of A.O. Scott of The New York Times), the film was not nominated for a single Academy Award.

I thought Max Records gave an astounding performance, one of the greatest child performances I’ve ever seen. Definitely on par with Anna Paquin in The Piano and Dakota Fanning in I Am Sam. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone said Records gave, “a vibrantly alive performance that is surely a high-water mark for child actors.” I could not agree more. He was the anchor of this movie and he carried this film better than many an actor twice is age would have been able to do.

Catherine Keener gives a small, but poignant performance as Max’s mother in the beginning and end of the film. I love when directors re-team often with actors, I think it builds a wonderful rapport that shines off the screen. Such is the case with Keener in this film; although she is only on screen briefly, her presence is always felt.

James Gandolfini gives a phenomenal voice performance as Carol, one of the titular Wild Things. Voice performance is really an under-valued aspect of modern cinema and this film is chock full of wonderful voice performances. For me, Gandolfini’s had the biggest impact. It was a tender, often-tumultuous performance reminiscent of all those mixed-up, crazy feelings you have but can’t really understand as a child. The whole film is in essence about those feelings, but I feel it is most perfectly expressed though Gandolfini’s performance.

I can’t not mention the other wonderful voice performances by Lauren Ambrose, Chris Cooper, Paul Dano, Catherine O’Hara and Forest Whitaker. Each Wild Thing has its own distinct personality, each representing a different facet of childhood, I think. And each actor takes on their roles perfectly.

Jonze’s latest project was a short film funded by Absolut Vodka. Entitled I’m Here, the film is a science fiction/romance short starring Andrew Garfield and Sienna Guillory. It is loosly based on The Giving Tree, about two robots living in a Los Angeles where humans and robots coexist.. The film made its debut at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and was a standout favorite among some, including Erik Davis of Cinematical.

If you’re interested in buying any of Jonze’s films (including a collection of his music videos) you can do so here.


About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on August 3, 2010, in Auteur of the Week and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I loved Where the Wild Things Are and was not happy when it didn’t receive any Oscar nods. It was probably confusing for people because it was based on a children’s book but wasn’t really a children’s film. I believe it was for adults. A reminder of childhood – perhaps a disturbing one :). We all have secrets from childhood, the confusing mix of reality and our childhood fantasies which not uncommonly include violence.

    I loved the way Max’s hurts from his sister and his mother led to his outburst and the fact that he couldn’t really explain himself. He was angry and perhaps had a right to be but was just a big bundle of emotion. As adults we know what happened to him. But when we were children we had to tell our secrets to stuffed animals creating a barracade of them for protection.

    I think it is a masterpiece.

  2. BTW You were an adorable Wild Thing last Halloween. 🙂

  1. Pingback: Auteur of the Week: Spike Jonze « the diary of a film awards fanatic | Angelina Jolie

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