Writing about this week’s DVD release of “Where The Wild Things Are” in the LA Times, Dennis Lim notes that to really understand Spike Jonze, you can’t stop at his three feature films. “A true appreciation of Jonze’s sensibility requires a familiarity with his shorts, videos and promos,” he writes. It’s true — you can learn more about Jonze from a 90-second Gap ad than from “Adapatation.” and “Being John Malkovich,” both great fun, but both about Jonze putting his skills at the service of Charlie Kaufman.
Watching that “Pardon our dust” spot gives you all of the Wild Rumpus and Jonze’s skater background in a condensed fashion; watching “Adaptation.” just tells you he knows how to keep a straight face.
Jonze is an extreme case, though a lot of filmmakers now work outside of features on a regular basis. Many supplement their income with commercials, but there’s other ways to go. The L.A. Opera has brought in film directors: Woody Allen, William Friedkin, David Cronenberg — even (yes!) Garry Marshall. It’s possible that Franco Zeffirelli’s staging of “La Boheme” for the Met — performed more times than any other production in the company’s history — is more important than any of his movies, except for maybe the 1968 “Romeo and Juliet.”
Or look at the art world. The sum total of Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s shorts and installations likely adds up to something close to the duration of his five features. (Weerasethakul’s unspeakably awesome “Anthem” condenses his entire body of work down to its most purely pleasurable five-minute essence — if it were on YouTube, he’d be famous by Friday.)
Atom Egoyan also puts out the odd video installation and he’s made at least one film — 2006’s “Citadel” — he seems positively thrilled was seen by hardly anyone. In an interview that’s not, unfortunately, available online in “Dekalog 3,” he purrs “I really haven’t shown it at any festival at al because it wasn’t meant to be a commercial project and was made with no budget whatsoever. […] I prefer to see it as a purely artisanal project.”
That film directors can do non-film work is a fairly recent innovation: Frank Capra dabbled in educational TV in the ’50s, but he was an anomaly. Decades into the auteur theory, many directors seem self-conscious about how their movies are scrutinized and pieced together as a larger body of work. I’d imagine there’s a certain amount of relief in working in areas it’s harder to keep track of, to blow off steam and try new tricks in an arena that either won’t be preserved for posterity or will take years for most people to be able to access. At least when Wes Anderson makes an IKEA commercial no one’s going to talk about how twee it is, you know?
[Photos: Spike Jonze’s unused Gap ad, 2005; “Anthem,” made for LUX/Frieze Art Fair, 2006]