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The Work of Director Michel Gondry

The Work of Director Michel Gondry

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Feature by: Leo Goldsmith

Posted on: 26 September 2004

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“My generation is really the Lego generation.” This is Michel Gondry’s explanation for his music video of The White Stripes’ Fell in Love with a Girl, which is meticulously animated using only Lego blocks. As with much of the material included in the new DVD anthology of his videos and short films, the video is whimsical, vibrant, and fascinating in its aesthetic and technical detail. But it is also typical of Gondry that the inspiration for this work should come from a childhood toy, as much of his work is inspired by memories from his childhood and is filled with teddy bears, train sets, model airplanes, and colorful creatures.

But Gondry’s statement is also emblematic of the director’s approach to the pop music and culture that his music videos are intended to promote. He does not consider himself a part of “Generation X”, much less the more obvious “MTV Generation.” Rather, Gondry aligns himself with a children’s toy that is both an internationally popular commercial brand and a creative medium. For Gondry, pop music is much like Lego: it is a mass-produced commodity, but it can also be manipulated in creative, even deeply personal ways for the individual who enjoys it. Indeed, he uses pop music much like a child might play with Lego blocks, to create a unique, expressive universe of bold color and dream-like imagery.

Because of this, Gondry’s videos never seem to serve as star-vehicles for their respective musicians. They never use their subjects as mere pop icons alone, but as part of a surreal world that is peculiar to Gondry, sometimes even autobiographical. The DVD’s booklet is filled with anecdotes and reminiscences from Gondry’s life and their relation to the videos he has made for Björk, The Chemical Brothers, Beck, Cibo Matto, and Daft Punk. In the documentary included on the disk, Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters explains that details of his band’s Everlong video were inspired by Gondry’s childhood nightmares about having enormous hands. In the video, Grohl attacks his girlfriend’s would-be assailants with similarly oversized hands. Perhaps the best example of the director’s merging of real life and pop music is his video for Radiohead’s Knives Out (sadly absent from this collection) that tells the story of Gondry’s relationship with his ex-girlfriend and her struggle with leukemia, starring singer Thom Yorke as Gondry himself and using, among other materials, a toy train set, a dancing skeleton, and a life-size Operation board game.

In this respect, it often seems that Michel Gondry is less a music video director creating short, artful commercials for major-label pop albums than he is an idiosyncratic auteur with a distinctive and personal body of work that happens to feature internationally famous pop stars as actors. But such a statement makes Gondry sound like a bit of an egomaniac, and it also fails to convey the sense of fun and wonder inherent in his work. Through his videos, interviews, and anecdotes, Gondry comes across as playful, charming, and decidedly French (yes, in a good way). His work displays some of the magic and ingenuity of Méliès; the cuddly nostalgia of Amélie and Toto le Héros; and the experimentalism of the comic books of Moebius, Luc and François Schuiten, among others. The result is a style that is eccentric on the one hand, but inviting and accessible on the other.

The documentary included with the collection is entitled I’ve Been 12 Forever, and indeed part of the accessibility of Gondry’s work is a result of this essentially childlike style. It is freely associative and colorful and would be unbearably twee if not for the tinge of nostalgia that accompanies his references to the world of his childhood. For these reasons, Gondry’s work, with its warm eccentricity and surrealism, and affection for dazzling visual and technical detail, is continually a pleasure to watch. Indeed, to compare Gondry with Georges Méliès is not so far-fetched: both directors delight in all types of technical trickery, from the sophisticated to the rudimentary. Gondry’s affinity with early cinema pioneers like Méliès can be seen in his video for Deadweight in which Beck is led down a city street by his own shoes. The trick was achieved almost entirely in-camera, by reversing footage of Beck walking backwards, dragging his shoes, which are tied to his ankles with fishing wire. It is an utterly simple but successful effect which Beck himself describes as a “Buster Keaton trick.”

Many of Gondry’s videos eschew complicated special effects in similar ways. All of his three videos for The White Stripes avoid digital technology in favor of more crude effects that match the simple, raw quality of the band’s music. In Dead Leaves & the Dirty Ground, video images projected directly onto scenes with live actors function as flashbacks or disconnected fantasies of events that had previously occurred in the same locations. The video for The Hardest Button to Button does not utilize any special effects, merely a metronomic editing rhythm that mimics the song’s structure and creates the illusion of movement within the frame. And the previously mentioned Fell in Love with a Girl is animated with Lego blocks without digital manipulation of any kind. Similarly, Gondry’s video for Cibo Matto’s Sugar Water, while mind-bogglingly complex, uses only a single, minutely detailed take that is split into two panels on the screen (one of which is played in reverse) to illustrate two narratives that converge in the exact midpoint of the song. Again, the video uses no effects, other than sheer ingenuity and compulsive precision.

When Gondry does use CGI or other more advanced technologies, he usually combines them with simpler devices, so that the result is rarely plastic or coolly technical. Many of his videos with Björk combine CGI with a number of effects, models, and real footage in astonishing and even bewildering ways. Joga combines aerial photography of surreal Icelandic landscapes with rather artificial digital manipulations, confounding the viewer’s ability to distinguish between the two. In Hyperballad, Gondry layers multiple images of the singer (some real, others animated) with lights, models of cityscape, and digitally animated clouds with disorienting results that surprise the viewer without trying her patience. Similarly, both of Gondry’s astonishing videos for The Chemical Brothers integrate multiple technologies with real footage. Star Guitar features a rhythmically mutating landscape seen from the window of a train, created from a combination of actual images and digital manipulation, while Let Forever Be combines cheesy 80’s video effects with a precisely choreographed dance sequence that mimics those effects (plus a touch of morphing). The viewer is thus not immediately able to determine how all this trickery is achieved, and so a certain sense of wonder and magic is maintained. “I still don’t really understand it, I have to say,” confesses one of The Chemical Brothers of the latter video.

However, lest one get the impression that Gondry’s body of work amounts to a bag of tricks, his videos also reveal an approach to cinematography that is unique, even antithetical to the conventions of music videos in general. The average shot length of a Gondry video is often far longer than videos by other directors on MTV or elsewhere. Indeed, some of his videos (such as Star Guitar, Sugar Water and Hyperballad) consist of only a single take, or what appears to be one. Often it is the use of this device that makes Gondry’s most rudimentary tricks more effective – the apparent simplicity of the camerawork and editing make the images seem more realistic and less manipulated. His videos for Massive Attack’s Protection, Lucas’ Lucas with the Lid Off, and Kylie Minogue’s Come Into My World (which consists of a single, cleverly edited 1440 degree pan) all achieve temporal and spatial disorientation by combining long takes with other effects. In other instances, the long takes (as well as tracking and use of the steadicam) establish a particular mood that is not otherwise created by the video’s scenes or effects. In Daft Punk’s Around the World, Gondry choreographs a Busby Berkeley romp featuring skeletons, mummies, robots, and “athletes with small heads,” but the entire dance number is filmed in meditative long takes and slow tracking shots. The effect is hypnotic and oddly reminiscent of Kubrick’s cinematography, even as the dance number itself is intentionally absurd.

Gondry’s sensitivity to the structure of pop music is another of his peculiar strengths as a director, due in part to his experience as a drummer in the French neo-punk band Oui Oui (for whom he directed his first music videos). Indeed, his facility with matching visual images with music in the video form is perhaps part of the reason that his debut feature film, Human Nature, lacked much of the charm and visual intensity of his shorter work. (Also, the primarily linguistic appeal of a Charlie Kaufman script may not be the best basis for a film by a director who, as he confesses in the documentary, does not generally understand the lyrics to songs written in English). In particular, Gondry’s affinity for synchronization is unmistakable in the way his videos match visual elements with sound (the mutating landscapes in Star Guitar and Joga, the dancers in Around the World). Also, his analogous interest in synchronicity (evident in the mind-bending narrative loops of Sugar Water and Björk’s Bachelorette) correlates with the repetitive structure of pop music in general. Electro-pop, like Kylie Minogue’s Come Into My World or The Chemical Brothers’ Star Guitar, is often maddeningly cyclical, and the images that Gondry creates for these songs mirror their repetitive arrangements. In this regard, the Minogue video is particularly interesting, as it depicts a potentially infinite series of multiple Kylies, multiplying with each 360-degree pan of the camera. Thus, the pop star herself becomes a literally mass-produced commodity, and Gondry blithely uses her image as one of the many figurative Lego blocks that make up the video.

This new DVD collection of Gondry’s videos reveals many aspects of the director’s inventive visual style, his facility with technical manipulations, and his consistent personal symbolism. At the same time, it also speaks to the creative possibilities inherent in the music video form and the vitality and depth that a unique sensibility can bring to it. Though it may strike some as a shallow commercial medium, without redeeming aesthetic value or cinematic interest, the work of Michel Gondry demonstrates that the music video can not only sell records, but also invest pop music with intimacy and emotion.

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