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The Work of Director Michel Gondry by Michel Gondry (Review)

An example of pure genius on display, and one can’t help but be inspired and excited while watching it.
The Work of Director Michel Gondry

The timing couldn’t have been better. Now that Michel Gondry has thoroughly floored audiences and critics alike with the surreal work of brilliance that is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it’s a perfect time for Directors Label to really push this disc. People are obviously leaving the movie dazzled, and chances are more than a few of them are going to want to know where this Gondry cat came from, and what else he has done.

I first perused this DVD a few months ago, so I sort of knew what to expect going into Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (though to say Gondry exceeded my expectations is a gross understatement). After being dazzled by the movie for a second time, I came home and popped in this DVD as a sort of refresher. And I found it, in some ways, even more enjoyable the second time around. The Work of Director Michel Gondry, which pulls together a number of the man’s music videos, short films, and other assorted works, not only provides an incredibly indepth overview of the man’s portfolio, but also some great insight into his creative process and just what it is that fuels that process.

Even scanning just a small portion of this DVD’s content reveals a couple of things about Gondry’s work. First of all, he loves toying with reality. And not just the reality contained within the context of his videos, like the kaleidoscopic waking dream in The Chemical Brothers’ “Let Forever Be,” but also the viewer’s concept of reality. There were several moments, such as Cibo Matto’s palindromic “Sugar Water” or Kylie Minogue’s “Come Into My World,” when I found myself scratching my head and rewinding, wondering if I’d really seen what I just saw. Trying to wrap my head around what Gondry seems to pull off with such ease can often be quite a brainmelter.

But secondly, and perhaps even more noteworthy, is the incredibly clever and often playful ways in which he does his toying. I find it interesting and frankly, quite refreshing, that Gondry’s videos often have a very lo-fi feel to them, and yet the results are nevertheless astonishing. Sure, he uses CGI and computer effects all over the place — The Rolling Stones’ “Like A Rolling Stone” is morphed to within an inch of its life, seemingly crafted entirely out of digital putty, and the lego effect in The White Stripes’ “Fell In Love With A Girl” would’ve taken much, much longer without computer assistance. But even with digital tools at his disposal, he’s just as apt to use clever projection techniques, claymation, ingenious set designs and costuming, and stop-motion photography.

Regardless of whatever approach Gondry might use, what truly sets his videos apart aren’t the visuals and effects — though he arguably uses more effects in his videos than most directors out there. It’s that his videos are so conceptual without ever coming across as pretentious. In an interview, Gondry states that he’s no big fan of music videos where you see the band actually acting like a band (i.e. playing their instruments), but rather prefers to do something far more unusual. And what’s funny is that his videos are somehow often closer to the spirit of the song than a more literal video might be.

Perhaps the best example of this is his video for Bjork’s “Bachelorette” (Gondry’s most prolific output has been with the Icelandic singer, with 6 collaborations on the disc). In a concept that would make Charlie Kaufman proud, the video opens with Bjork’s character finding a book in the forest that begins writing out her life story. She takes it to the city, where it gets published and then turned into a play. We’re then inside the theatre, watching the play unfold and depict the events we just saw.

The events repeat themselves, and we’re then in another theatre, inside the “real” one, watching the events repeat again. With incredible skill, Gondry stacks the layers of reality on top of eachother until we’re on the cusp of seeing 4 versions play out simultaneously. It’s a credit to Gondry’s skill and creativity that the video remains comprehensible and emotionally resonant, never getting bogged down by the unusual concept.

Another great example is The Foo Fighter’s “Everlong.” Presaging his work on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the entire video occurs across a spectrum of dreams, as the hero (Dave Grohl) has to race through his subconscious to rescue his beloved. Just casually watching it, it’s a fairly humorous and clever video — but when you really start thinking about it, there’s a bit more than meets the eye.

While it’s impossible to delve into all of the videos on the disc (there are nearly 30 in all, and not all of them are great), some of my other faves include: the aforementioned Cibo Matto video, which can really throw you for a loop until you realize the video is a visual palindrome intersecting with itself (if that makes sense); Daft Punk’s “Around The World” and The Chemical Brothers’ “Star Guitar,” which use dancers’ movements and passing landscapes respectively to mirror the music in unusual ways; and the 3 videos he’s done for The White Stripes, which use Lego sets, time-lapse photography, rear projection, a large number of drumkits and guitars amps, and what must have been an insane amount of pre-visualization.

In one of the video clips that opens the disc, Gondry says that when he was compiling this DVD, he had to choose between quantity and quality. He opted for quantity because, in his words, “quality goes and quantity lasts.” When I first went through the disc a few months back, I thought that might’ve been a mistake. Normally, I’d never fault a DVD for having too much content, but a lot of Gondry’s content seemed a bit extraneous, for lack of a better term.

But watching it again, and this time with a bit more scrutiny, does away with this criticism of mine for the most part. True, some of the stuff still seems rather unnecessary, especially “One Day” (a very crass short featuring comedian David Cross as a piece of fecal matter that sees Gondry as a father figure, and later becomes a Nazi character that terrorizes Gondry). However, watching “I’ve Been 12 Forever” (a 75-minute film split across both sides of the disc that is full of interviews, behind the scenes footage, and Gondry self-deprecatingly discussing his inspiration) puts much of the disc’s content in a whole new light.

You learn that many of Gondry’s films and videos often contain attempts to make sense of childhood fears, traumas, and dreams. For example, in the video for “Everlong,” Dave Grohl’s hands grow to a tremendous size, allowing him smack around the villains. It’s rather comical — until you learn that Gondry had childhood nightmares of his hands growing large, and his mother had to massage them until he was convinced they were fine. And “La Lettre,” a wonderfully done black and white short about a young boy dealing with a broken heart on the cusp of the year 2000, was inspired by his brother stealing a girl that Gondry had liked.

When you know details like these, and then watch the rest of Gondry’s work (including Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), you can’t help but wonder how much of Gondry’s work is actually an attempt to come to terms with trauma that would otherwise remain unexpressed. It’s a sobering thought, but also an inspiring one, and makes me all the more appreciative of his work. It also causes me to wonder where my inspiration comes from. Does it come from half-remembered childhood memories, or dream fragments that somehow get connected in my subconscious? Or is it perhaps a sub-conscious attempt to exorcise demons from my youth? Like I said, a sobering thought.

“I’ve Been 12 Forever” also delves into Gondry’s family life. Gondry comes from a long line of creative folk — his grandfather was an inventor, both of his parents were musicians, and his brother is a computer programmer who works on Gondry’s videos. Watching it all, you realize how much of Gondry’s work is actually a family affair — they work behind the scenes, building sets and figures, working special effects, etc. And one of the more amusing anecdotes is when Gondry’s young son starts talking about his first movie, a rather bloody, slasher-type affair.

In my review of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I state that nothing in Gondry’s ouevre had prepared me for what I saw on display in that movie. But having gone through this DVD again, I realize that statement was a bit off. After re-watching The Work of Director Michel Gondry, I realize I should’ve had a better idea of what I was in for with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (though I’m sure it still would’ve blown away any expectations). The Work of Director Michel Gondry is an example of pure genius on display, and one can’t help but be inspired and excited while watching it.

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