Michel Gondry: Pleasure of the Unknown

     |    Monday December 31st, 2012

Along with David Fincher, Michel Gondry is arguably the most acclaimed of the music-clip-whizkids turned movie directors. This elite club also includes Anton Corbijn, Antoine Fuqua, Floria Sigismondi, Mark Romanek, Tamra Davis and Spike Jonze (part of a loose collective of kindred spirits with screenwriter-director Charlie Kaufman, a frequent collaborator with both Jonze and Gondry). Jonze’s Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Where the Wild Things Are catapulted him onto the Hollywood A-List. Yet the latter film was made in 2009. Since then, Jonze has focused on music-centered projects like “Scenes from the Suburbs”, a short accompanying Arcade Fire’s Suburbs album, the Absolut Vodka sponsored “I’m Here” (music by Sleigh Bells) or cinematography for the LCD Soundsystem documentary Shut Up and Play the Hits. Her, a love story between man and operating system starring Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara, is due in 2013.

While Jonze momentarily seems to be pursuing a strategy of concentration, Gondry is diversifying. His first features – Human Nature (2001), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Science of Sleep (2006) and Be Kind Rewind (2008) – were natural extensions of concepts and working methods first developed in his clips: cinematographic techniques used to investigate and challenge perception (physiological and philosophical), ingenious and demonstratively handmade special effects, a childlike yet knowing sense of humor.

The We and the I (2012)

Between Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (for which Gondry, Kaufman and Pierre Bismuth won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar) and Science of Sleep Gondry was approached by comedian Dave Chappelle to direct a documentary about a free concert Chappelle was staging in the Clinton neighborhood of Brooklyn. (Gondry now resides in that borough.) The lineup featured hiphop and neo-soul artists like Dead Prez, Talib Kweli, The Roots, Mos Def, Jill Scott and Erykah Badu – none of which Gondry had previously worked with as a clip director. (Hiphop is the one genre the otherwise eclectic Gondry had rarely engaged with.) Gondry was unsure at first about taking on the project, but perhaps it was precisely the resulting curiosity and open-mindedness that made Dave Chappelle’s Block Party such a success, touted as a music documentary milestone. Mos Def later starred in Be Kind Rewind. Gondry’s next documentary, A Thorn in the Heart (2009), was another departure: Gondry returned to his native France and uncovered some surprising family history. The Green Hornet (2011) was Gondry’s stab at a superhero flick (and potential franchise kickoff), shot in 3D. The We and the I (2012) shows Bronx kids traveling by bus after their last day of school. The film is the product of an afterschool workshop Gondry conducted with the teenagers. While Gondry’s most recent work has evolved in different directions from his earlier clips and narrative features, a consistent thread is his desire to experiment.

Gondry’s proclivity to try new things is visible in these lesser known, not-so iconic music clips that are worth revisiting.

Oui Oui – Les cailloux (1989)

Gondry was also Oui Oui’s drummer. This clip is not really rare and unseen, but worth sharing here because this is where it all began. The story goes that Björk saw Oui Oui’s videos – the start of a long and fruitful collaboration.

Thomas Dolby – Close But No Cigar (1992)

Dolby was a renowned clip director in his own right (most notably of the video for his own 1983 smash hit “She Blinded Me With Science”). “Close But No Cigar” marks a passing of the torch. Recurring themes of Gondry’s work like multiple levels of reality are already in evidence here.

The Rolling Stones – Gimme Shelter (1998)

Companion piece to Gondry’s more famous clip for the Stones’ long overdue “Like A Rolling Stone” cover version. “Gimme Shelter” blends bleached out Larry Clark style suburban malaise with Gondry’s characteristic surrealism. Featuring the late Brad Renfro.

The We and the I will open the Unknown Pleasures – American Independent Film Festival on New Year’s Day at 7:30 p.m.