Spike Jonze: Examining the Collective Work Behind the Indie Brand Name

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Directory of World Cinema: American Independent 3, edited by John Berra, published by Intellect Books, 2016

Inscribed beneath the film title on the promotional materials of Being John Malkovich (1999) are the words ‘A Film Directed by Spike Jonze’. One of the central philosophical ‘jokes’ of the film is that one man can not maintain control of, and be entirely responsible for, the distribution and public comprehension of his own ‘brand’; yet ironically, the advert generates a commodified aura of authority around the first-time director.

The commercial context of this attempt to anchor meaning can be traced across Jonze’s films. In the posters for Adaptation (2002), Jonze’s name is prominently placed in close proximity to that of the screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, reinforcing their well-documented collaborative process. After a fallow period of film-making, in attempting to lend promotional weight to Tarsem Singh’s The Fall (2006), the early advertising half-heartedly misspelled: ‘David Fincher & Spike Jones Presents’, and following such a difficult and lengthy development process for Where the Wild Things Are (2009), Jonze’s name is conspicuously relegated to the fine print at the bottom of the poster. Nevertheless, the considerable critical and modest commercial success of Jonze’s fourth film, Her (2013), has dramatically elevated the director’s name to a genre modifier. With a special emphasis on auteur ownership, Her is prominently advertised as: ‘A Spike Jonze Love Story’.

Prompted by the thematic content of Being John Malkovich and its unknown director, New York Magazine published a biographical feature entitled ‘Spike Jonze Unmasked’ (1999), in which journalist Ethan Smith implored: ‘Will the real Jonze please stand up?’ The article states that ‘Jonze is a pseudonym used by Adam Spiegel’, from his high school days working at the Rockville BMX store, Maryland. Subsequently, the Jonze name became ‘an entire persona’ that was adopted by Spiegel. Spiegel may have created ‘Jonze’ outside of Hollywood, but in looking for the ‘real Jonze’, the article also feeds into this evolving public discourse, incorrectly asserting that Jonze is ‘heir to the $3-billion-a-year Spiegel catalogue business’. The Internet is now littered with numerous biographies on Jonze that erroneously reiterate this factoid (for example, see O’Hagen 2003).

Jonze’s early work in the late 1980s, and throughout most of the 1990s, helped to pioneer fanzines and subcultural magazines (Freestylin’, BMX Action, Homeboy, Dirt and Grand Royal). In the retrospective documentary, Joe Kid on a Stingray (2005), this contribution is said to have significantly helped define Generation X. Jonze’s photographic work for TransWorld Skateboarding magazine demonstrated that he operated with an extremely dynamic style;1 but it is his no-budget skateboarding videos that show Jonze’s talent for comically playing with genre and elevating the final product in the process. For example, Goldfish (1993) features a scene that would find a fuller form in the Jonze-directed music video, ‘Sabotage’ (Beastie Boys, 1994), playing out like a knowing homage to 1970s action-cop movies. In Las Nueve Vidas de Paco (1995), the skaters are presented in a series of shorts with a sepia cowboy movie setting, and in Mouse (1997), Jonze presents pro-skater, Erik Koston as Charlie Chaplin.

Jonze unwittingly used these cinematic tropes to help hone his craft on a microbudget prior to becoming a feature film director. However, post-Being John Malkovich, Jonze shot the introduction to the skate video, Fully Flared (2007), which featured grossly exaggerated slow motion, explosions, flames and impossible stunts. Jonze was taking his style to its logical conclusion, but numerous reviews accused him of being a commercial ‘sell out’. Nevertheless, on the Crailtap blog, which is affiliated to Jonze’s own skateboarding company, Girl Skateboards, there are constant teasing references to Jonze’s desire to ‘keep it real’ and remain authentic; and they frequently present embarrassing or comical photographs and videos, almost in an attempt to prove that Jonze does not follow the Hollywood director stereotype.

Assembling a ‘real Jonze’ from media information alone is impossible…


The full 2,600 word version of this essay is published in Directory of World Cinema: American Independent 3, edited by John Berra, published by Intellect Books, 2016. 

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