Spike and Sofia on the Skids?

Opposite aesthetics would seem to spell splitsville for indie cinema's power couple

It may well be the most exhilarating three and a half minutes in the last decade of movies. A tired businessman (Christopher Walken) sits in the empty lobby of a chain hotel--a Marriott, if you look carefully. He hears the sound of Fatboy Slim's "Weapon of Choice" creeping in via a nearby maid's pushcart. (It takes many viewings to spot the transistor radio on top.) Listless, depressed, the businessman can't help but bob his head to the beat, and in seconds he's erupting into a full-on dance routine: vaulting through the hotel, leaping off a balcony, flying around in half-circles, dangling in front of the Marriott's generic Painting of a Ship, then plummeting down to earth--where he retakes his seat and slumps back into a deep melancholia.

Not since the salad days of Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen has there been a director who contributes so brilliantly to film choreography as Spike Jonze, maker of the music video "Weapon of Choice." Jonze knows very well what works here--mainly the disconnect between Walken's loosey-goosey body movements and the weary tough-guy gravity of his face. The actor understands, too, because roughly half of the joy of "Weapon of Choice" is in Walken's gleeful surprise at what he's doing, and in how well he and the filmmakers are pulling it off.

So: Next time your house burns down or your parents are crushed by an oil truck, pop in the miraculous DVD The Work of Director Spike Jonze, click on the "Weapon of Choice" video, and experience instant relief. But the genius of "Weapon of Choice"--what makes it more than, say, one of the snazzier set pieces in Ziegfeld Follies--isn't just the spiffy choreography or Walken's élan in performing it. It's in the visionary choice of the setting, the star, the costumes, the tone. Jonze isn't just a hipster's Ann Reinking, re-tailoring old-school dance moves for a post-hip-hop generation. He's also riffing on the cultural language of contemporary America.

Lost and found: Sofia Coppola and Spike Jonze on their respective sets
Focus Features/Palm Pictures
Lost and found: Sofia Coppola and Spike Jonze on their respective sets

In his three-minute clips, Jonze has a unique genius for aping a discredited or sheerly cruddy pop-culture form and simultaneously sending it up, writing it a love letter, and giving it a 100-percent original spin. In his video for the Chemical Brothers' "Electrobank," Jonze puts his wife Sofia Coppola through the paces as a Nadia Comenici-like gymnast who is, to quote the '80s AM-radio hit, at "the final countdown." One grins at the discovery that Jonze hit on the whole Afterschool-Special style of the video because of a funky break in the middle of the Chemical Brothers' sustained, carpet-pattern groove: a lacuna that suggests the slow-mo breakdown right before the KO in a late Rocky sequel. Jonze delivers both the thing itself and its mockery with perfect, silent, "What is the vibe here?" aplomb. (Similarly, the director delivered the dumbed-down, Donald Kaufmanized last act of Adaptation so unwinkingly that more than half the people who saw it thought that Jonze had actually gone native.) In the oddly touching Notorious B.I.G. clip "Sky's the Limit," Jonze effortlessly reproduces the flossy imagery of P. Diddy's Bad Boy Records videos while staffing the whole enterprise entirely with children. There's an overweight 11-year-old Biggie Smalls strutting like Little Caesar, there's a 12-year-old P. Diddy sulking in the limo, there's a prepubescent Li'l Kim; the kids' presence somehow certifies the clip as parody and seals it in the realm of the affectionate.

The lasting contribution of Jonze the videomaker is in his utter devotion to high concept, in playing out that concept all the way to the end. The single most brilliant idea on the DVD comes in "The Oasis Video That Never Happened": Jonze went to London just as the new album by the then-huge Oasis was coming out, and asked random Londoners on the street to listen to a CD of the record and then give their suggestions for what the video should be. The director planned to intercut the everyday folks' descriptions of their dream videos with brief realizations of those dreams--but the idea was too uncool for the Gallagher boys. What's left is the song and the British passersby's suggestions, many of which are as artful as anything on the DVD. (One middle-aged man deadpans, "I'd listen to them if you stuck their decapitated heads on the Spice Girls' bodies.")

To some, Jonze is a high-concept guy only, a coiner of gimmicks in the fashion of Michel Gondry and Chris Cunningham (who also have new retrospective DVDs on the same label). But detractors would do well to revisit Jonze's video for Wax's "California," which limns the movement of a man who appears to be on fire, then is revealed to be a mere digital simulacrum of "a man on fire." The emphatic yet somehow offhanded final movement of the camera--a swerve inside a car, where the entire immolation has been either viewed or imagined by a grade-school girl--insists that Jonze is no mere shtickster, but one of the most formally and emotionally sensitive of young American directors. The degree of irony in The Work of Director Spike Jonze is often tantalizingly out of reach, but the degree of human investment is never in doubt.

 

His wife's work is a different story. In Coppola's Lost in Translation, a seemingly privileged young spouse (Scarlett Johansson) gets blown off in darkest Tokyo by her Velcro shoe-wearing schmuck of a photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi, who's in no way evoking Jonze's public persona). Surrounded by all three flavors of Silly Japanese People, our heroine finds the one person (Bill Murray) who possesses the qualities she most admires: sarcasm, emotional frigidity, and tiny flecks of tenderness making their way through the hepcat mask. Lost in Translation is the tale of two emotionally defended hipsters fighting through their game faces and their attitude issues to make a flicker of connection--which arrives in a climactic scene that has to rank as the biggest movie copout since the final reel of The Blair Witch Project.

Despite what most of the film's fans will tell you, the success of Lost in Translation isn't because it's soooo romantic, but because it provides a forum for young/smart/urban audiences to pretend to be as cool, accomplished, and sharply dressed as Scarlett/Sofia and as wry and worldly-wise as Bill. These moviegoers are invited to flex their attraction-and-engagement muscles with no muss, no fuss, and no aftermath--nothing but the pleasant hum of frictionless flirtation. It's trademarked passion for the PlayStation era, a chance to display one's most desirable qualities not as part of any human transaction, but just for show. (Tellingly, Coppola's follow-up to Translation is the video for the White Stripes' cover of "I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself"--featuring Kate Moss pole-dancing in an empty room.)

Like her spiritual sibling Wes Anderson, Coppola resists putting sexuality in her movies not just out of emotional guardedness, but out of a fear of feeling gravity's pull--part of the process that leads to aging, decay, and the Big Nowhere. Where the neuroses of the aging Woody Allen are getting a big "Ask Again Later" from the masses' Magic 8-Ball, Coppola's fear of cooties touches a major nerve. Almost 10 years ago, hipsters made a massive hit out of Pulp Fiction, mainly because the posing and teasing of John Travolta and Uma Thurman put the ironic jive of your pierced and tattooed friends and neighbors in the gilded wrapping of a big-time movie-movie. Johansson and Murray can be seen as a 10-years-later version of that couple: cooler, burned-out, less patient, more corporate in their dealings with the world and each other. Me, I'd be afraid to go anywhere near the poker-faced abstainers of Lost in Translation. I might order them the wrong vodka and never hear the end of it.

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