In an unspecific way, it seems, these four movies have always been about me in the way that they are specifically unspecific in being about Spike Jonze. And everyone else.
Everyone was mad at me for months after the release of Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. Since my early twenties, since before the movie was in production, I have had the image of the wild thing most prominently featured in the artwork of Maurice Sendak’s children’s book tattooed on either side of my collarbone. That character doesn’t have a name in the book, but Spike Jonze named him Carol and James Gandolfini gave him life.
When asked about these tattoos, I always explained that Where the Wild Things Are is the first book I remember reading to myself without anyone’s help. In that sense, I advertise it as a very important part of who I am.
So everyone who had an interest in knowing me as that person then—friends, family, even ex-girlfriends– wanted to accompany me to that film. I told them all, during the years between the film’s announcement and its release, that I would go with them even as I never had any intention of going with them. I only went to see the movie twice, actually, abandoning at least ten people who had developed plans and established loose reservations to join me.
It ended up being the first movie I watched with my then four-year-old nephew and my girlfriend. It was as if I was more interested in making the movie a part of their life than I was in exposing it as part of mine.
Everyone ended up mad at me because, through the whole thing, I behaved like an insecure child really. So, in a way, my behavior about the film became its own sort of matching vehicle with which to mine the film’s thematic content and, ultimately, the entire filmography of its director Spike Jonze.
In Jonze’s version of Where The Wild Things Are, Max, like essentially all of Jonze’s main characters, is just a boy. That is not meant as criticism or lazy, reductive characterization. Quite the opposite. Max’s boy-ness is what makes him at once complex and universal. Max Records, the actor who plays the character with whom he shares a first name, draws Max-the-runaway as irritable, moody, damaged, scared, sensitive, caring, and petulant. The young actor’s layered and burdened performance saves pages of scripted backstory that would have held the movie back. If anything, the character’s childishness holds as one of the film’s most prominent strengths.
In fact, it seemed every immediate critical discussion of the movie was anchored to Jonze’s authorial position in relation to Max’s boy-ness. Even the most positive reviews of Where the Wild Things Are were forced to slow down for or sidestep the complexity of the internal psychology playing out as a sort of projected stream-of-consciousness theater between Max and his recognizably imaginary playmates.
The adaptation of ten sentences, 37 pages, and 338 words into a 104-minute movie necessitated the building of structures that did not exist on the page, but the liberties Jonze takes with the source material are still jarring for many who, like me, cherished the source material in that sentimental way that instinctively sees deviation in adaptation as some sort of indirect personal attack.
First, there’s the aesthetic distance placed between narration and its subject, between the teller of the story and the story itself—the wild rumpus removed from the lively, tropical leaf-filled frames of Sendak’s pages and transplanted to Melbourne, Australia, where the bulk of Jonze’s movie was filmed. On the screen, Jonze teams up for the third time with cinematographer Lance Accord on visuals that are often sun-stained and sepia toned, like a faded photograph that was actually the source of a story its viewer was once told.
The soundtrack and score was composed by Karen O and the Kids, a makeshift outfit that saw the legendary alternative rocker lead a raucous chorus of children while applying the loosest discipline to their melody. It’s an arrangement of music which, much like the film, sees the electric energy of youth shaped by the calm, nostalgic hand of adulthood looking back at youth with longing and understanding.
But most reservations or criticisms toward Wild Things came in reaction to what these elements serve—a melancholy and almost formless interpersonal melodrama between a boy and the giant monsters pulled from his imagination. More specifically, critical and general audiences fumbled with the misguided aggression that erupts between Max and his friends and the sadness of the creatures, defined in the wild things’ voices and through the expressive CGI effects added to the animatronic creatures developed by Jim Henson’s Creature shop. Jonze is working from a script, written by himself and Generation X wunderkind Dave Eggers, that is unlike anything in mainstream children’s movies. It is, at times, very un-childlike, at least in the way we are conditioned to think about children’s stories.
When the wild things close in on Max, menacing him about whether his little chicken bones will choke them when they eat him up, it’s a whole lot scarier than what we remember from the more joyous and adoring literary promise to do the same. And when Max is being considered for the position of King of The Wild Things, Douglas’ asking “Will you keep out all the sadness?” feels world-weary, heavy with the sincere disenchantment of Chris Cooper’s delivery, something, perhaps, we would like to think that children wouldn’t grasp.
But that protective maternal reaction is a bit disingenuous (not to mention a somewhat murky critical lens). The dramatic element of Where the Wild Things Are only feels a bit too mature for a children’s film, not for a child’s mind. As the film documents the in-fighting of the wild things, we see Max is using the fights to understand his parents’ divorce, his mother’s seeking to date again, his sister’s growing into an age in which she has little interest in him, all the way down to Max’s science-inspired fear of the sun’s someday dying (an early existential fight with mortality). And if the fights are adult-like perhaps in their accusatory and inflammatory content, that cognitive processing is astonishingly child-like. I would imagine that most critics recognize that, even if they hold it as a mark against Jonze’s film. Largely, it’s recognizable because we know, deep down, that using our toys and stories and imagination to come to terms with our own sadness, with the world’s unfairness, is something we still do and have always done.
Because that’s what Jonze’s movie is really about. There is no sweeping adventure narrative or some cleanly packaged and repurposed Pixar theme underneath. It’s just a movie whose subject is play, the utility of it in youth and maturity, the comfort of it and the assurance of having it cradled in our favorite art and stories. That is why Where the Wild Things Are is a movie for children and adults, a new generation’s introduction to Sendak’s classic, delivered with a complete forthright lack of condescension about the confusion and difficulty of real life, and a comforting affirmation that the undying machinations of childhood, while rusty, still operate inside its older audience.
Because Jonze happens to be familiar with and very learned on that particular topic.
There’s always been an element of playful and assertive boyishness in all of Jonze’s work, even before and beyond just his feature film direction.
Jonze famously directed music videos at the start of his career. His videography is highlighted by Beastie Boys’ Sabotage, a functional short film playing homage to 1970s low-budget cop shows, wherein the Brooklyn rap trio star as boys playing men performing as TV-defined law enforcement in a little bit of delightful musical meta-theater, and Fatboy Slim’s Weapon of Choice, in which a nearly sixty-year-old Christopher Walken shakes the rust off of his bones and the dust off his shoes and shimmies toward the camera in an unspooling of youthful charm and athleticism.
And in the few instances in which Jonze has moved in front of the camera, he’s proven to be an actor of near-zero dramatic ambition, initially recognized for his work on David O. Russell’s Three Kings as Conrad, the goofy and somewhat racist simpleton. But, perhaps his most famous performance (if also his least recognizable) is his turn as Gloria, who appears on the infantile prank-and-hijinks show Jackass, in the show’s feature length films, and in the spin-off film Bad Grandpa. In terms of acting effort and character development, Gloria is all top-of-the-line age prosthetic and a slightly higher pitched voice. It’s a vehicle that allows Jones to take on the form of an elderly body–and elicit its sympathies –while catching the targets of the prank off guard and intensifying the bit’s sophomoric punchline.
In recent years, Jonze has even teased an interest in shifting into the world of video game development.
So it seems Spike Jonze, in any role other than filmmaker, is always playing, while Jonze the Director has been building with his work an intense fifteen-year study of the psychological, sociological, and artistic value of play. In a 2011 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Director Lee Yoon-ki said of filmmakers: “We only make films that we do because we cannot put on clothes that don’t fit us.” This seems to be both a true measure of Jonze’s auteur motivation and his cinematic thesis. Maybe Jonze makes movies because he is too old to live a life of play and too limited in screen acting talent to play on the necessary stages. So he turns his art backward, points it at itself, and his movies end up asking questions about why we want so badly to play. They ask: What does playing do for us?
Jonze pursues this line of questioning so unabashedly that his feature filmography, essentially his career as a filmmaker, opens with a stage curtain and tiny doleful marionettes. Being John Malkovich, Jonze’s first feature length and his first effort at a Charlie Kaufman script, among the best and certainly the most interesting films of 1999, serves as a sort of older, more cynical sibling companion to Where the Wild Things Are. Jonze’s earlier film unleashes the same concept of playthings being used to exercise personal demons, but twists it into an at-first nihilistic and then warmly empathetic interplay of adult characters all seeking “something else” with their toy.
Being John Malkovich’s puppet show opening expands into another puppet show. We meet Craig (John Cusack), Lottie (Cameron Diaz), and Maxine (Catherine Keener) on metaphoric stages. We watch them in cramped and dingy apartments, bare and shadow-blackened bars, and in the shoebox claustrophobia of the office on floor seven and a half. Deliberate and artificial blocking and set design are used to communicate that these lost souls are the playthings of an unseen artist (Jonze), their figurative strings glimmering in the light of maddened storytelling having caught fire. Each, upon introduction, is already engaged in their own chosen form of play. Craig uses his puppets to express his despair. Lotte obsesses over pet psychology in a way that can only be seen as projection. And quick-talking charmer Maxine toys with people as a means of entertainment and power. Each of them performing with their chosen toys as a method of self-understanding and/or self-escape even before they find the portal into the consciousness of famed actor John Malkovich’s. This absurdist twist, ultimately, moves the characters toward liberation, imprisonment, and certain psychological damnation, assigned not through moral deservedness, but an almost arbitrary distribution of fate. In a weird way, it’s almost as if the character arcs double down on the general necessity for play because of the unjust indifference of life.
Kaufman and Jones paired up again to revisit much of the same material in 2002’s Adaptation. This time puppet stages were excluded. Instead, a stranger figurative stage was fabricated with the materials of reality, literature, creativity, a screenplay, and the screen. And, if the satirical edge of this second product was less sharp than the introductory exercise’s, the characters were more defined by their play and accompanied by the more looming phantom presence of their creators. Here, instead of twisting the players into a roadway of knotted intersection, Jonze and Kaufman stack them atop one another and drive their movie through the layers, like François Truffaut’s Day and Night being invaded by a meta-theatrical nerd version of Christopher Nolan’s Inception crew. John Laroche (Chris Cooper) is an arbitrary collector who uses his collections to remedy a certain loneliness, Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) is a writer who uses her subject and work to fill an emptiness, the movie’s fictional Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) uses his screenplays to medicate a crippling artistic and social self-doubt, while the real world’s non-fictional Charlie Kaufman uses all of these characters, his non-existent twin brother Donald (also Nicolas Cage) like action figures in a vanity project.
When Laroche explains the fleetingness of his ever-changing hobbies in two sentences, moving chronologically through fossils being “the only thing that made sense to [him] in this fucked up world” to a world-recognized tropical fish collection that he gave up on simply because “Fuck fish,” the entire structure wobbles atop of his revealed dispassion, collapses, and rights itself again into something blended, the four layers of the tower of play each seeping into one another.
But one level of the structure stays relatively uninvolved and mostly hidden: If non-fictional Charlie Kaufman the screenwriter places himself above the characters in his script, then Spike Jonze must be seen as the next level up, given all of the lower characters as toys in addition to Kaufman’s script to play with. And yet he never makes an appearance in the film’s text, even as studio representatives and agents and others involved in its filming pop up all over the film.
There’s a characteristic detachment in Spike Jonze films. In an empty space where one might expect to see introspection or biographical fingerprints in his stories, Jonze remains largely uninterested in even vaguely inserting himself into his work. “What happens when a man goes through his own portal?,” Craig Schwartz asks in Being John Malkovich before we see the answer, a cinematic version of Nabokov’s assertion that “The square root of I is I,” a dizzying nightmare of suffocating self-awareness. Perhaps, in a vacuum, that existentially terrifying invasion of Malkoviches is an intentional metaphor for Spike Jonze’s aversion to self-curiosity.
But this impersonal, biographically unrevealing storytelling seems to be in keeping with a larger personal brand.
There’s a video interview filmed for the Special Features on the Being John Malkovich DVD which sees an increasingly bothered Spike Jonze pull over and vomit out of his car door two minutes in. It’s difficult to find any interviews for the promotion of Adaptation that don’t have the director yielding to his then-more celebrated screenwriter. An Interview magazine discussion, moderated by fellow indie-filmmaker Nichole Holofcener in promotion of Her, sees Spike made to answer questions about The Three Stooges and his preferred pubic grooming style. And when GQ magazine profiled the director, they confronted him directly about this elusiveness, only to be answered with a weird interruption by Jonze, who called over his lawyer and accused the interviewer of character assassination, a weird joke against which even the attorney seemed befuddled.
It’s not exactly camera shyness. Jonze is, after all, an actor, and he is more than ready to film interviews to celebrate the technology and teams behind his films—Jonze speaks with a certain boyish excitement about the creatures and CGI of Where the Wild Things Are, for example. It’s just a seeming desire to keep things impersonal.
Even his working name is a play thing, an artifact on display to create distance between his identity and our perception of it, “Spike” having been assigned to him in recognition of his punk hairstyle when he was a skateboarding youngster and “Jonze” appended to complete an edge-modified connection to the legendary bandleader of yesteryear.
What we know of Spike Jonze is, in terms of artist’s biographies, rather unspectacular. Born Adam Spiegel, Jonze is a descendant of the founder of the Spiegel catalogue empire. His mother was a successful artist, writer, and communications consultant and his father founded APM Management Consultants and, for a portion of his youth. The family lived in Bethesda, Maryland, now one of the more affluent towns in America. In his youth, Jonze was interested in extreme sports, founding clubs and magazines centered on the culture before attending the San Francisco Art Institute. When he was 29, he married Sofia Coppola, the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, a now equally celebrated filmmaker in her own right. This in-law pathway famously provided Jonze and Kaufman the connections necessary to contact John Malkovich to solidify his participation in their script bearing his name and centered on his likeness.
So, really, Spike Jonze’s self, in a factual sense, might actually carry an anchoring weight of whiteness, advantage, and headstarts in terms of his supplementing interest in his art through his biography in a modern critical landscape that rightly seeks diversity in representation and complex auteur theory and biographically-informed readings. There is really nothing exceptional about his story. His background, free of superficial dramatic struggle, offers little mystique to account for the psychological complexity of his art. His documented interest in games and pranks is a post-modern retelling of those old anecdotes about how Franz Kafka’s friends found him to be incredibly fun and well-humored company.
But I’m reminded here, at this point in my consideration and the chronology of Jonze’s career, of another throwaway line from Being John Malkovich. When Greg has permanently occupied Malkovich’s body and taken advantage of his host’s star status by launching into a more acclaimed career as a puppeteer, you hear Craig, through Malkovich, shout directions: “Until the puppet becomes an extension of you, it’s a novelty act.”
Maybe it’s because Jonze’s most recent film was made from a screenplay he authored by himself. Or maybe it was his subsequently being unchained from Eggers’ and Sendak’s circumstantial generational irony and Kaufman’s trademark absurdism. Or maybe it was just growing up. But for whatever reason, in 2013, Jonze offered up his most personal effort as an artist.
That isn’t to say he walked away from the concept of hiding inside of play, though.
In Her, Jonze opens with a facial close-up as our introduction to Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix). The straight on, uncomfortably close angle is framed so that Theodore’s round, thick-rimmed glasses and bushy mustache feel distinct and prominent beneath his aggressive brow. The effect is that Phoenix looks very much like someone costumed in novelty Groucho glasses. Immediately, even before we learn that the epistolary poetry that he is mumbling is also a form of performative roleplay, we subconsciously recognize Theodore as someone pretending to be someone else by using toys.
A few scenes later, we see Theodore in bed by himself as he has a flashback of a happier time with someone who we quickly recognize to be his ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). Theodore’s immediate response to this is to find a virtual sex-chat line and, in a futuristic version of random phone sex, he uses an insincere playful outlet to emulate the intimacy he is missing (to hilarious effect).
Theodore—and seemingly everyone else in this minimally futuristic world (we’re getting very close, aren’t we?)—lives an entirely virtual life. Everything is an automated replacement where conversation once held place, all correspondence goes directly into his ear, and he walks through crowds of people busily engaging with their mobile devices in a similar fashion. The expediting of information, in Her, seems to have removed the flavorful fat of the human element.
But the movie lacks the preachy narrative judgment of like-minded films. Even as Jonze’s first-time collaborator Hoyte Van Hoytema lenses this society so that the film aesthetically resembles a glossy and contrived Apple commercial, Jonze never loses the narrative empathy for Theodore. Modern life is hard, information comes fast, and if virtualization of communication dilutes a certain personal element from interactions, it also makes them easier to come by, more frequent and constant. We may never get as close in these exchanges, but we are close more often.
Perhaps that frequency of closeness is why it becomes so easy to accept when Theodore falls in love with the artificial intelligence of his new Operating System, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johannson). The temptation is to read their romance as a poetic measure of identity, love, space, togetherness, etc. Jonze himself has commented on his story’s symbolic representation of folks who, in the present, participate in a taboo culture or carry a romantic relationship that has not been 100% accepted by our still-too-hatefully conservative society.
But it’s also necessary to remember, in all philosophical and scientific measure, Samantha is not consciousness. She is not intelligence or life. She is, by every biological and existential definition, not alive and thinking. While Samantha explains that she’s “just like him” in her ability to evolve through her experiences, she also confesses that she is really based on the millions of personalities of the developers who coded her. Samantha is not consciousness, she is information filtered through simulation. And what she shares with Theodore is not love, but practice for love. Somewhere between sparring and playing.
Because Samantha is a toy.
It has to observed that Spike Jonze, who divorced from Sofia Coppola in 2003 and had semi-public failed relationships with Michelle Williams and Rinko Kikuchi after that, writes and directs a film in which his main character, a boyish manchild of sorts who likes video games and who, according to the woman who left him, “always wanted to have a wife without the challenges of dealing with someone real,” learns from his devastation and ends the film sending an apology to his former, real-life lover. Her is a grown up adult love story about the true difficulty of relationships hiding behind a more starry-eyed sci-fi love story of the naïve and romantic variety. Throughout the movie, flashbacks and an appointment to sign divorce papers show Catherine and Theodore in more naturalistic lighting than all of the other scenes, and Arcade Fire’s sanitary and ambient waiting room-style score is silent during these exchanges. Catherine and Theodore’s irreparably damaged love is the real love of Her, and the victory is his understanding and accepting the pain that he absorbed and the pain that he caused.
When Samantha leaves, that does not mean that Theodore’s devastation and emotional turmoil over her departure is any less felt, or even sincere. It’s not a fake thing he has to get through to find real feelings. The primary feelings of his playing are very real, if perhaps borrowed. Just as it’s real when Carol and Max say goodbye to one another, with Max’s boat puts more ocean between the. And just as it’s real when a teary-eyed Charlie Kaufman learns from his non-existent twin brother’s death a profound life lesson in the end, just as his self-indulgent playwriting self once refused to do. It’s just that all of those feelings are found and affirmed and strengthened in play, so that these characters, and their author, might use them more familiarly in the much more difficult game of life.
Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote, “All of us who are worth anything, spend our manhood in unlearning the follies, or expiating the mistakes of our youth.” And Jonze, whose worth we could not even begin to give its fair measurement until the release of his fourth film, is spending his time and artistic energy doing just that, it turns out. Without his artistry, Spike Jonze is just a man now on the back half of his forties who enjoys video games, cool music, extreme sports, and movies (We are all very lucky that he loves movies). Spike Jonze is a grown adult who wants to play, but possesses the public maturity to seek play in a way that does not prevent a healthy life or cause peripheral pain to those around him, the way that it may have in the past.
The same way I have covered my body with tattoos, not just of the wild things, but my favorite band’s logo, an excerpt from my favorite poem, and a character from one of my favorite films. It’s the way I always shield myself from personally revealing conversation by defaulting to discussion on my favorite movies, books, and music. Or the way, when I started losing touch with all of my real life friends due to the standard business of one’s late 20s and early 30s, I started my own film blog to keep our discussions alive. Or how, when my grandmas, my cousins, and my aunts died, I wrote about The Revenant. And when my mind started humming with a louder anxiety that exploded into a panic disorder, I dealt with it by writing about Groundhog Day, United 93, Game of Thrones. And now, as I struggle with trying to pick up and reconstruct a better identity from the damage left in the aftermath of that typhoon—as I try to figure out who I was before and what parts of that are worth keeping—I’m writing about Spike Jonze movies.
We all have our sandboxes.
And the truth is, if you take away the things, the toys, the virtual artifacts, the collections, the performative obsessions, the artifice, and the carefully sketched pop culture mosaic portraits of self—all that’s left of any of us is a child pretending not to be scared. Pretending not to be hurting and afraid. So perhaps a collectivist life full of superficial hobbies and toys is a life with loneliness at its core, but I’m not so sure that the alternative is any less lonely.
In As You Like It, Orlando states: “Oh! How bitter a thing it is to look into unhappiness through another man’s eyes. (5.2.47)” After four films, Spike Jonze suggests that a warmer, sweeter, more comforting approach is to look into unhappiness through another man’s toys. There is more to be learned that way, about ourselves, the other man, and humanity in general.
And if you look at just the right angle, you might actually start to feel better, maybe even happier about it all.
Shortly after I took my nephew to watch Where the Wild Things Are, he found, at a yard sale, a stuffed Carol figure meant to be displayed on the rearview mirror of a car. It cost him one quarter of his weekly allowance. The display string was broken, so when he gave it to me as a gift, I sat the doll on the center of my dashboard and pushed it tight enough between its seat and the windshield that it held its place. Two cars and all these years later, that toy still sits in that spot, the tiny captain of my ship, by a fraction of a second the first of my possessions to reach any horizon. To this day, when my nephew gets in my car, he almost always asks with feigned annoyed disbelief: “You still got that wild thing?” And I tell him, yes, of course, and I probably always will.
Featured Image: Praise You Video, Fatboy Slim, Skint Records