When director Spike Jonze was asked in interview why he sometimes made short films instead of focusing on features, he responded: “for lack of a better answer, you know, they’re shorter" (Sciretta). He elaborated on how a short film enables him to quickly act on an idea and product a result, as opposed to the lengthy process of making a feature: “That I can have an idea and just have an idea, have a feeling that I want to try and make something about. And then, just go and do it. And put it out in the world, you know, and make something else" (Sciretta). Shorts are an integral part of his artistic output; a way of balancing the laborious process of making a feature with projects that have a much faster turnaround from concept to completion. But there may be more to it than that.
Jonze began his career making short films, but shorts were not just stepping-stones for him, and he has continued to direct shorts even as a successful feature film director. As he states, they are satisfyingly swift to produce, but they are also less influenced by industry concerns which makes them an attractive option for a director like Jonze. The outlay for making a short film is usually modest compared to making a feature and fewer commercial demands means greater artistic freedom. Jonze came up through the ranks in Hollywood starting out by making music videos and skate videos and has not entirely cast off that renegade image.
In exploring the short films of Spike Jonze, this essay aims to do four things. Firstly, it seeks to present Jonze’s short films as a popular cultural phenomenon. Short films are not as ‘popular’ as feature films in the way that popularity is measured in the film industry – there is often no box office at all, and not even any way to saying with certainly how many people have seen them. However, they are imbedded within popular culture itself and are an index of its diversity, its variety, and its fluidity. They are participant in the popular cultural context out of which feature films emerge, and they also comment on this context. Jonze’s shorts show the fruits of collaborations with celebrities including handbag designer Olympia Le-Tan and musicians Arcade Fire and Kanye West. They sometimes have direct links to other projects that he has worked on: an idea from a music video may be expanded to make a short film; a short may have its origin in a commercial, or emerge out of work on a feature film. The shorts are now all available online, even if they were originally produced in other formats, and this facilitates immediacy of access. This collaborative energy, the shorts’ generic variety, and their online availability for circulation and comment demonstrate how imbedded they are in the fabric of popular culture and its modes of communication.
Secondly, the essay traces common themes and techniques that can be found across Jonze’s short films from the 1990s to the present, illustrating the coherence of this body of work, despite its obvious variety. These themes include marginalisation and isolation, destructive, self-sacrificing love and desire, and the relationship between love and violence. Repeated dramatic techniques also occur across the short films, including the use of incongruity, mirroring and the collision of real and fictional worlds and characters. Thirdly, the essay identifies thematic and technical relationships between Jonze’s shorts and his feature films: Being John Malcovich (1999), Adaptation (2002), Where the Wild Things Are (2009), and Her (2013), illustrating how these shorts are not merely a footnote to the director’s work but an integral part of its ongoing development. Finally, the essay explores the blurred generic boundaries of Jonze’s short films, metamorphosing as they cross over with feature film, music video, advertising and television, and suggesting ways in which the short film can be given new life in the popular cultural phenomenon in the twenty-first century.
Jonze made his directorial debut with Video Days, a skateboarding video made for Blind Skateboarders in 1991. Skate videos can be difficult to categorise generically. According to Dinces, they “tend to muddle the boundaries between different genres", containing “documentary, staged drama and comedy, and sports reportage" (1516). Jonze made this blurring of genres, already a feature of skate videos, characteristic of his work, here and in later shorts. Video Days created a new and influential style of skate video, which was based on street-skating. A series of close-ups –of road-markings, a wheel in motion, a car symbol – open the short. Jonze delivers the sense of fast-paced motion by following the skateboarders through city streets and public spaces, with tracking shots, often at low-angle, that convey the exhilaration of the skateboarders’ speed. Fish eye lenses and panning shots allow the viewer to appreciate the skaters’ tricks and stunts at close range.
The short is perhaps deliberately rough around the edges, with some clunky cuts in the film and slightly jarring transitions in the soundtrack. There may be an artistic reason for this - the short is presenting a group of street skaters with no obvious sponsorship or corporate logos. They seem to be resisting commercialism (even though of course this film is of course a commercial enterprise), so if the short looks a little amateur it only adds to the sense of authenticity being conveyed. Also, Jonze perhaps partly made a virtue out of necessity. He was 22 when he made Video Days and portable, cheaper, video-recording technology was becoming available: “That was probably the first time in history that video cameras were that small and that cheap, and it allowed us to make skate videos that way" (Wilkins). It anticipates the popularisation of the video form when cheap technology and the availability of online platforms allows mass recording and sharing of video by amateurs.
Dinces notes “these sequences reveal skaters’ capacity to re-imagine space in new ways" (1523). In Her, Theodore is also seen navigating the public spaces of the city: on trains, on foot, in elevators, restaurants and offices. For him, the city seems to be at a remove: the crowds highlight his isolation and loneliness and the space that matters to him is digital space. In this early short, in contrast, there is a sense of ownership of the city by the skateboarders, albeit temporary, as they skate through gas stations, car-parks and streets, and past motels, malls and banks. Even though the skaters seem to claim the city, at least while they are skating through it, Video Days shows little political drive from its protagonists. When the skaters’ encounter a demonstration about the Gulf War while driving through the city, the camera shows close-ups of the signs held up by the protestors, such as “USA All the Way". There is little engagement from the skaters with the protesters: they appear amused, look out the windows and laugh, and drive past. The political establishment is not the enemy of the skaters – it is just irrelevant to them. In this way, the skaters resonate with many of Jonze’s characters who live eccentric lives at the edge of mainstream society, culture and politics, like the unappreciated puppeteer Craig Schwartz in Being John Malkovich and the pensive romantic Theodore in Her.
In Video Days, Jonze uses moments of incongruity to surprise his audience, a recurring motif in his work. Twice the skater footage cuts to uncontextualised short clips from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). Such incongruity is common in his shorts and features, like the close-up of an owl in flight on a huge screen behind Theodore in the urban space of Her, or the tunnel to John Malcovich’s head accessed from a door in an ordinary office in Being John Malcovich. Perhaps the Willy Wonka clips connote escape from the drudgery of ordinary life that can be found in skateboarding. The importance of creativity and artistry in society seems to be the message of Willy Wonka’s statement in the first clip: “We are the music makers. And we are the dreamers of dreams." A reference to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory occurs again at the end of Torrance Rises, when Richard Koufay (Spike Jonze) sings Wonka’s song “Pure Imagination" to his dance group, where the reference also seems to indicate the joy of artistic creativity. The reference may also signal that popular culture itself may be the ground of this creativity, as it is in this short.
Although Video Days is primarily a documentary, Jonze fictionalises the characters at the end of the film. In the skit ending, the skaters’ car goes off the road and crashes, seemingly as a result of drunk driving. It is similar to the first fantasy sequence in Adaptation, which is “presented without any textual markers that we should not believe it" (Hilderbrand 37). The final scene of Video Days shows footage of each skater in slow motion, with his name, year of birth and year of death – 1991 in each case (except for Rudy Johnson, who gets a 1900 number!). The final credits state that the film was made possible by Adolescents Against Drunk Driving and Pleasant Hills Mortuary, amongst others. With this comic, fabricated ending, Jonze is creating a fictional version of these real skaters, blurring the lines between the real world and the fictional world of cinema in a characteristically self-reflexive way. He uses a similar strategy by getting the actor John Malkovich to play a version of himself in Being John Malcovich, and in Adaptation, the screenwriter Charlie Kaufmann writes characters who are versions of himself trying to adapt a screenplay. Even in Jonze’s earliest foray into directing with this short skater documentary, his trademark motifs and preoccuptions can be observed, showing how fundamental a short can be to a director’s work.
How They Get There (1997) is one of Jonze’s shortest films at under three minutes in length. Having directed many music videos and advertisements, he is accustomed to creating a narrative in a very short time span. The film is framed at the beginning and end by shots of a sneaker at the edge of a sidewalk, and the main body tells the story of how the shoe got there, as the title suggests. The short opens with a close-up of an apparently abandoned sneaker on its side, which is righted and the sneakered foot begins to tap. The character of the male protagonist, known only as Guy, is sketched out through a series of small details and gestures. This skill is especially important in a short film, in which there isn’t time for expansive character development and every detail matters. Guy is careless: he throws a wrapper on the street and later discards his empty milk carton on a fence-post. He is seen sniffing the milk, uncertain about its freshness, but then drinks it all anyway – he is possibly a risk-taker. He is unobservant of his surroundings, too pre-occupied by the pretty Girl on the other side of the street to notice the angry man coming towards him whose car he is leaning against, and he stumbles when he gets to the sidewalk. The camera tracks along the street following the characters as they mirror each other’s gestures playfully and flirtatiously, acting out comic walks as they stroll. Too late, Girl realises that Guy is about to walk out into traffic, but he interprets her frantic waving as just another playful gesture, and mirroring it, steps in front of a car. There is a dramatic crash, and the camera tilts upwards to show Guy’s sneaker falling from the sky onto the sidewalk. The narrative arc is closed perfectly by returning to the start with the image of the abandoned sneaker, the question of “how they get there" answered. The camera then tracks down the kerb to show another, different sneaker, ending with a new question about the story behind this one.
How They Get There is an example of the common dramatic technique of mirroring in Jonze’s work. The technique appears again in We Were Once a Fairytale when Kanye West’s character takes out the knife and a little creature in the scene takes out a miniature replica. The idea of mirroring is taken to another level in Being John Malcovich, in which the puppeteer Craig makes puppet versions, mirror images, of himself and the people in his life. Mirroring creates connections between characters but also shows how aspects of identity can be copied or reproduced in quite a postmodern way, contributing to the disquiet about identity in Jonze’s films. How They Get There is also an example of Jonze’s exploration of the relationship between love and violence. Guy’s desire for Girl, and his efforts to entertain her and impress her, distracts him from his surroundings and causes his horrific death in the car crash. A similar relationship between love and bodily violence can be seen the short I’m Here, in which the robot Sheldon gives his body to his girlfriend Francesca one part at a time until there is nothing left of him but his robotic head.
Jonze’s use of music in this short is also worth mentioning. The short contains no dialogue. Outside of silent cinema, this rarely happens in feature film, though as Felando notes it is “one of the most consistent and persistent strategies in the short film" (13). This lack of dialogue accentuates the music. Juan Garcia Esquivel’s recording of “Sentimental Journey" plays throughout this short. This popular piece, played in a lounge-music style, is easy listening, with a catchy tune. It seems to perfectly suit the charming, slightly comic, scene being played out on the street between Guy and Girl. The car crash happens as the melody begins to be played by the brass section. The sudden big sound echoes the drama that is happening on screen, but the cheerful tune that is being reprised acts as an ironic counterpoint to the crash and the presumed death of Guy, and is an example of a frequently-used device by Jonze: incongruity.
Amarillo by Morning (1998) originated from a series of commercials that Jonze directed for Wrangler in 1997, and is an example of how his work often cross-pollinates over different media. The commercials are shot in a documentary style and feature interviews with rodeo riders about the sport and the injuries that they have sustained, ending with the line “Worn by 99 out of 100 rodeo riders." While filming these commercials, Jonze met some teenage boys who aspired to have a career in the sport. The documentary short creates a greater sense of intimacy than the commercials through the overt use of a hand-held camera, and extended close-ups of the interviewees. The first few seconds of this short, like Video Days, and How They Get There, is a series of close-up images, in this case of a bull’s hoof, horns, and a cowboy hat being pulled down to cover a face. Along with interviews, Jonze uses footage of the sport, like the footage of the skateboarders in Video Days. Here, the shots of the teenagers in action show them practising on a “barrel bull," a barrel suspended by elasticated ropes that are pulled in different directions to imitate a bucking motion. Like Video Days, this documentary short attempts to offer an insight into a sub-culture, in this case bull-riding.
Jonze uses music in this short to reflect the boys’ musical tastes and complement the country atmosphere of the short. It is used sparingly: there is one song at the beginning and one at the end. Both are by country music singer Chris LaRoux: “Time" and “Amarillo by Morning". The boys claim that LaRoux’s music is all they listen to, and this is perhaps unsurprising as the singer’s music and his personal life are imbedded in the subculture of rodeo that this short focuses on. LaRoux was a professional bull-rider and NFR winner in 1976. His music was intrinsically connected to the world of bull-riding – he even had a mechanical bull on stage at his concerts, which he would ride between songs. In this short, music is not used to comment on what is being filmed in any way: it is parallel sound rather than contrapuntal sound – connected with the image on the screen. In the last song, “Amarillo by Morning", Amarillo refers to the location of a rodeo. In the final scene, aspiring bull-fighter BJ is in the front seat of a truck with his girlfriend Charisse. He turns on what he says is their favorite song, “Amarillo by Morning’, and asks if it’s okay if he turns it up. The sound quality is probably too good for it to come from the sound system in the truck itself, but this is the illusion that Jonze wishes to create. The sound, as this song begins to play, is not only parallel but also synchronous – it has it source within the frame, or at least, that is the impression that is being sought. The fact that the music seems to come from the truck in this scene, that it’s the teenagers’ favourite song, and that it’s about the life of a rodeo man, makes this final piece of music almost programmatic. The music and life of a real-life singer-songwriter, a celebrity in this sub-culture, is used to comment on the subjects of this documentary. In his later collaboration with Kanye West, We Were Once a Fairytale, Jonze used West’s real life and real music as context and commentary in a similar way, showing the coherence of this body of work over Jonze’s career.
Torrance Rises (1999) is another result of cross-pollination between Jonze’s work in different media and the short has an interesting history within music video that is worth outlining. Initially, Jonze made a video of himself dancing to Fat Boy Slim’s “Rockafeller Skank". Norman Cook (Fat Boy Slim) liked Jonze’s video so much that he asked him to direct the official video for his next single “Praise You". Jonze wanted to do something similar, but this time, he suggested including a small troupe of dancers as well as himself. He named this troupe the “Torrance Community Dance Group," and the video was filmed in the same guerrilla documentary style as his first solo and unofficial Fat Boy Slim video, with some of the same dance moves. The music video was filmed in a mall in Los Angeles. The dance troupe’s performance shares many of the characteristics of a flash mob, four years before the first recorded flash mob is said to have taken place.
Flash mobs are usually organised via social media and open to public participation - in this respect the Torrance Community Dance Group’s performance may not accord with contemporary flash mobs. In all other respects however, it does. Georgina Gore notes that the flash mob is “designed to create a visual stir, to intrude into and even disrupt the quotidian," and that it “marks out space and time. It territorialises anonymous spaces of public passage ... [and] disrupts schedules and programmes" (130). Jonze’s unofficial video for “Rockefeller Skank" and the official video for “Praise You" both take ownership of urban public spaces – the street, the shopping mall – and give them new meaning, just as the skateboarders’ skilful demonstrations did in Video Days. The dancing in both is a physical and temporal disruption to passers-by, causing them to stop and watch or to go out of their way to avoid the physical obstruction.
In interview, Cook describes how initially his music label were unhappy with the “Praise You" video and that for the first month MTV refused to play it, describing it as “substandard." The video was picked up by VH1, where it won a viewers’ poll, and it went onto win three MTV music video awards that year, for Best Breakthrough Video, Best Direction and Best Choreography. If a video was propelled to public attention and critical validation by a popular groundswell of recommendation in the present day, we would describe it as having gone viral, but like “flash mob" this was not a term that existed in 1999, and perhaps demonstrates how Jonze was again slightly ahead of a popular cultural trend.
The Torrance Community Dance Group was a fictitious entity put together for the purposes of the “Praise You" music video. Jonze then used the group to create a fake documentary about their journey to the MTV music awards for the short film Torrance Rises (1999). He had previously made a straight documentary short – Amarillo by Morning - and what I have called a documentary-style short – Video Days. Video Days is not strictly a documentary because of the car crash ending, in which fact morphs into fiction, and I use the term “documentary-style" with full awareness of its problematic nature. Writing about Borat (2006), which is equally difficult to categorise, Lewis MacLeod discusses how the term “documentary-style" was used by the producers to describe that film: “‘style’ is made to bear a tremendous amount of weight. It marks the disjunction between a ‘real’ documentary and a movie that’s simply procedurally similar to a documentary in a variety of ways" (114). Amarillo by Morning is a “real" documentary, in as much as such a thing exists. Video Days, because of its fictitious ending, requires a different label. It has many of the characteristics of a documentary, but it also has some fictitious elements – it is a documentary-style short rather than a documentary short. Torrance Rises requires a different label from either of these previous docu-shorts. Although there are some “real" elements – the group really are nominated for MTV awards and they really do go to the awards ceremony at the Met in New York - the group, their choreographer and their backstory are all fictitious. The fictional element of this short is much higher than Video Days and it is closer in form to a mockumentary.
But Torrance Rises is not a straightforward mockumentary either. Jonze plays a character called Richard Koufay, the choreographer to the Torrance Community Dance Group. The short is interspersed with scenes of him driving around Torrance, describing how he came to live there, and pointing out local places of interest. Jonze did live in Torrance for a time while writing and taking photographs for Freestylin’, a BMX magazine (Knafo), so this aspect of Richard’s story merges fact with fiction in a typical Jonze manner. The shots of Richard driving around Torrance are cross-cut with scenes of the nomination being announced to the group, flying to LA, preparing for the show and giving their performance. Procedurally, the short conforms to a documentary, with titles that describe locations and times – “New York City, Sep 9, 1999"- and a typical mixture of interview and fly-on-the-wall documentary footage. But fact and fiction overlap when The Torrance Community Dance Group go onto the streets of New York City and on stage at the Met with their fictional identities. When Richard and the group are presented with the three awards that they win on the night, there is no mention of Jonze’s real name or the real identities of the group– he accepts the award as Richard Koufay, in his “costume" of sweat pants and muscle top.
McLeod writes that the mockumentary is an “unproblematic mode of mimesis … Its stance is always fictional and both the film’s participants and its implied viewers unproblematically recognise it as such" (114-5). Torrance Rises is not an unproblematic documentary. The fictionality of the mockumentary is not contained and continues to be performed in the real-life situations of the short. Allowing real and fictional worlds to combine and collide in chaotic ways is something that Jonze revels in doing in his feature films also. In Adaptation and Being John Malcovich, Jonze explores in a detailed way relationships between fictional characters and real people, and these later explorations have their genesis in these early shorts.
We Were Once a Fairytale (2009) is a case in point. The short emerged out of a friendship between Jonze and Kanye West that was cemented when they co-directed the video for “Flashing Lights" (Kanye West feat. Dwele). Jonze had the idea of creating a short that would explore the theme of love and isolation in 808s and Heartbreak, an album made after West’s mother died and he broke off his engagement with his fiancée (Itzkoff). The short presents a fictionalised version of West, who is quarrelsome, unlikeable, and vulnerable: ‘“We rehearsed the night before we shot, and talked about trying to get to that raw place, that sad, pathetic, drunken, lost place,’ Mr. Jonze said. ‘I told him, the more shameless it is, the more pathetic it is, the better. He just went for it"’(Itzkoff). Although West’s celebrity inevitably dominated the film’s reception, the relationship between West and Jonze is very different in this short than it was in the “Flashing Lights" collaboration. Describing the difference between music videos and shorts, Jonze states “with a video, you’re still representing the artist. You’re trying to making something that’s, both, you and the artist. And a short film, you’re just trying to make something that’s just you" (Sciretta). West is a celebrity but in this short, he’s an actor in Jonze’s film, who is “kind of, playing himself in some way" (Sciretta).
In We Were Once a Fairytale, Jonze creates deliberate confusion between the “real" West and his character in the short. West plays a successful music star, and in the nightclub where the short is set, his character recognises West’s song, “See You in My Nightmares", as his own. In this short, music is used in parallel to the character, to highlight the actor’s real-life celebrity status. He sits in what seems to be a VIP area of the club at the start of the short, and literally flashes his cash when something is heard being smashed off-camera, insisting on paying for it. However, there is a dark, belligerent side to this character that the audience cannot assume equates with the “real" West. His encounters with women show him imposing unwanted physical contact on them. He lifts one woman off the ground, puts his arm around another and kisses her, leans on another on the dancefloor. None of the women decry this behaviour. They appear embarrassed for him, and attempt to rebuff him politely, while he smarts with rejection, shouting at one point, “I’m just trying to have a conversation! I’m not thinking about sex!" and at another “Do you know my name?" The sequence where he moves through the dance floor interacting with women in this way is particularly disquieting. The character appears to be using his celebrity, and the power that comes with it, and it works, at least to the extent that none of the women tell him that his behaviour is unacceptable. Jonze blurs fact and fiction in an interesting way, using the real-life celebrity status of his actor to critique the latitude that the fictional character’s behaviour is given in the scene.
The first half of the short is shot in busy, crowded areas of the night club, but the second half shows West’s character in a private curtained area and a men’s restroom. This symmetry of public and private locations is echoed by the character’s portrayal: a distasteful public side to West’s character is shown in the first half, and a more sympathetic view of his interior world is shown in the second half. The camera is adept at showing us the character’s distorted perception throughout the short. In the first half, the camera sways and bumps; it moves in and out of focus; there is poor lighting and tight focus, and the camera varies between point of view shots from West’s character to shots of him, demonstrating both his own warped perspective and how he appears to others. When he moves to a private room, a woman in a leopard-print dress enters and he appears to engage in sexual intercourse with her. The camera zooms out, fades to black and zooms back in again on West’s character to show him face-down on some leopard-print cushions. It is a moment in which the film moves into fantasy, into fiction, without signalling this shift to the audience, a strategy also used in the short Video Days and the feature Adaptation. When the viewers realises that this is fantasy, it sets them up for understanding and interpreting the short’s final sequence. Alone in the restroom, West vomits a shower of petals. Lying on the floor in the foetal position, he spies a knife, stands up, looks at himself in mirror and digs the knife into his stomach, dragging it from one side to another, emitting another shower of petals from the wound.
Jonze contrasts sight and sound in an interesting way in this scene. When West’s character vomits and when he eviscerates his stomach, the noises heard are realistic – they are noises of retching, and of slick, slimy intestines – but the image seen of red petals is conventionally beautiful and highly stylised. It is the opposite to the finale of How They Get There, when a horrific scene was shown but a cheerful tune was played. West’s character digs further into his stomach and pulls out a tiny, furry creature, called Henry in the credits, which is attached to him by an abdominal cord that he slices through with his knife. The appearance of the creature is another example of Jonze’s love of incongruity, of shock, and of the unexpected, just as in the music video for Fat Boy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice", when Christopher Walken breaks the laws of physics by jumping off the balcony and flying. Animators and puppeteers worked together to create this creature, as they did on the creatures in Where the Wild Things Are. The creature and West’s character are doubles, which are common in Jonze’s work, and these doubles mirror each other. A miniature knife is attached to the handle of West’s character’s own knife, which he removes and presents to Henry. Reluctant and fearful at first, shaking his head, he repeats the actions of West’s character, slits his stomach, falls over and dies. The short ends with West’s character looking on, silently witnessing this spectacle.
That Henry is attached to him by an umbilical cord puts West’s character into a female position - he almost gives birth to the creature. Jonze had previously experimented with swapping male and female bodies in Being John Malcovich when Lotte enters the head of John Malcovich. This fantastical positioning of West with maternal biology is in contrast to the macho demeanour that he exhibits in the club. The fact that the creature he gives birth to immediately commits an act of suicide, encouraged and witnessed by West’s character, is unsettling and enigmatic. Felando notes that the ending of shorts tend to be more “intense" (57) than features and that they often contain either a surprise or a twist. The ending of this short has a surprise (Henry), a twist (Henry commits suicide), and something else. It is provocative; it is open to wide interpretation; it provokes further questioning, and it refuses narrative closure.
I’m Here explores the relationship between two robots, Sheldon and Francesca. Like the feature film Where the Wild Things Are, the short is based on a children’s book, in this case The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein (Sheldon’s character is named after the author). In the book, a tree gives to a boy, who grows into a man, at different stages of his life, providing for his needs: an apple, a branch, timber, and finally, when the tree has been reduced to a stump, a place to sit. Like the tree, the robot Sheldon gives away pieces of himself to his girlfriend Francesca – an arm, a leg, and finally, his torso, until there is nothing left of him but his head, which Francesca cradles in the final scene. The short places artificially intelligent robots into a recognisable cityscape that is not futuristic in any other noticeable way, and avoids an alienating hi-tech look by giving the robots a distinctively retro styling. Sheldon, who is an older model of robot than Francesca, has a classic box-shaped robot head, which seems to be inspired by a PC hard drive from the late 80s or early 90s. With a similar mixture of costuming and animation used in Where the Wild Things Are, the actor (Andew Garfield) wore this box-like head, and then the expressions were animated over the head later. Sheldon’s naturalistic expressions are created by recording Garfield’s own mouth and eye movements while wearing the headpiece and using that as a template for the animation (‘The Making of I’m Here’).
By creating this deliberately retro-styled future, the short anticipates Jonze’s feature Her, in which the central character Theodore falls in love with an artificially intelligent operating system, Samantha, in the familiar surroundings of an American city in a near future time. Here too there are retro stylings – in this case the costumes and the interior sets. In both short and feature, the AIs present an element of incongruity in an otherwise familiar setting, a favourite device of Jonze’s. I’m Here is a commentary on the potential relationships between humans and artificially intelligent entities in the future. Robots are treated as second class citizens. They make up an essential part of the workforce, but are denied the same rights as humans: for example, they are not allowed to drive cars and must use public transport. Sheldon’s girlfriend Francesca challenges this treatment – she is rebellious and carefree. During the short, we see her laughing, dancing, and sculpting. She is the antithesis of the stereotypical rational robot and is spontaneous, sensitive and emotional. In Her, Samantha is characterised in a similarly human manner prompting parallel questions about the agency and rights of AI beings.
In both I’m Here and Her, questions of artificial intelligence are secondary to the presentation of the central characters and the exploration of their love for their partners. The loneliness of both Sheldon and Theodore is foregrounded – Theodore has recently separated from his wife, and we see Sheldon making unsuccessful attempts to be friendly with other robots in his building before returning to his stark, silent apartment. Both characters desperately crave the attention and love of their clever and vivacious partners. Both suffer at the end of the film: Theodore is abandoned in favour of a non-material existence with other artificial intelligences, and Sheldon literally gives of himself to Francesca until there is almost nothing left - in this way I’m Here resonates with the violent outcomes of romantic relationships in his other shorts such as How They Get There and To Die By Your Side.
To Die By Your Side (2011) is another example of Jonze’s collaborative approach to filmmaking that brings in creative input from outside the world of film. The short was written with Olympia le Tan, a handbag designer, over an eighteen-month period. It is inspired by Le Tan’s hand-embroidered felt handbags, which are designed to replicate the shape and cover designs of books. The short is made using stop-motion animation and features 3000 felt figures that were created and cut in the designer’s studio (Judkiss). It is set in the iconic Parisian bookshop Shakespeare and Company after closing time, when characters from the covers of books come to life. The skeleton from the cover of Macbeth waves at Mina Harker from the cover of Dracula. Attempting to reach her, his body is swallowed by the whale from Moby Dick, and Mina, skull-head in hand, leaps into the book to rescue him. As they move together to kiss, the knife that protrudes from the skeleton’s body buries into Mina. The short demonstrates again Jonze’s interest in the relationship between passion and violence, love and death, caused by the reckless folly of desire. A similar theme can be heard in The Smith’s song “There is a Light that Never Goes Out" from which the short gets its title:
“And if a double-decker bus
Crashes into us
To die by your side
Is such a heavenly way to die."
In this whimsical short, Jonze flips the potential tragedy into comedy in the end. Mina transforms into a skeleton and as the credits roll, the skeletons are seen having sex, hanging out, and finally, cradling a tiny pink-swaddled skeleton baby.
Scenes from the Suburbs (2011) is the result of another collaboration, this time with the band Arcade Fire. Jonze had already filmed a music video for the title track to their album The Suburbs (2010). The music video followed a group of teens in a suburban landscape through moments of a summer. In the background of the shifting relationships between the teenagers a war is ongoing. Army helicopters fly overhead, and soldiers in balaclavas stop and search citizens. Jonze expanded the music video into a 30-minute short, including some of the same shots, but developing them to show more of the characters’ personalities and more of the story of their lives that summer. The relationship with Arcade Fire was central to this short. They provide the soundtrack and the writing credits are shared between Jonze and Will and Win Butler, members of the band. Like Amarillo by Morning, the short was a development of another project, and like We Were Once a Fairytale, it built on a relationship formed through music video. Scenes from the Suburbs returns to the exploration of youth culture seen in Jonze’s earlier career in the short films Video Days and Amarillo by Morning. Just as in Video Days, we see the teenagers taking ownership of the physical space of the streets, as they cycle their bikes around, happy and carefree. The camerawork is also similar to that of Video Days in places – a mixture of low-angle tracking shots that capture the speed and thrill of their bike-riding and panning shots that show their tricks and horseplay. The camera is slightly jerky, with subjects sometimes moving out of the frame and is an example of Jonze’s documentary-style filmmaking discussed earlier.
In contrast to Jonze’s early shorts about youth culture, in Scenes from the Suburbs, the high-spirited antics of the teenagers have a dark underside. Kyle’s relationship with his best friend Winter changes irrevocably during this summer. They are so close that at the start of the short, Winter’s girlfriend Zoe comments, “You guys are in love with each other." Winter gradually retreats from Kyle and becomes angry towards him for reasons that Kyle does not understand or that are not shown in the short, culminating in Winter viciously beating him. Another change from the early shorts on youth culture, Video Days and Amarillo by Morning, is that this one is presented as a retrospective. The voiceovers at the beginning and end of the short inform us that Kyle is looking back on this summer from several years in the future. That these are memories and that memory is necessarily incomplete is foregrounded in the short. The story with is punctuated with fragments of footage, each only a few seconds long. They are usually grouped two, three or four together, each fragment separated by a black screen from the next. The fragments include Kyle’s mother looking at him in the car, Winter and Zoe holding hands, a man being shot in the chest by a soldier in the street. The fragments may represent memory, and how memory is disjointed and partial. In the final voiceover, Kyle says that the memory of the fighting on the streets “seems so distant now. I guess those aren’t the pieces you remember." Winter’s behaviour has become even more strange since that summer, and Kyle muses on the mutability of memory: “Sometimes what he’s become changes how I remember him. Sometimes it doesn’t." Just like in How They Get There, I’m Here, and To Die by Your Side, love turns into violence. In this case, the love is that shared between two best friends. Like the subjects in Video Days, these teenagers are apolitical. As teenagers they play a marginal role in politics and combat and the war going on is not discussed or contextualised – it merely echoes and amplifies the fears and anxieties of the teenagers in their personal relationships.
In 2013 Jonze co-directed a live short film with Chris Milk for the YouTube Music Awards called Choose You. The short was inspired by the idea of deconstructing the traditional stage performance of an awards show, instead having various “sets" where live videos would be filmed. Some of the short videos on the night had a narrative, some did not, and the live audience interacted with the performers. The live short Choose You crosses over generically between the short film and the live music video. Jonze is no respecter of genre and the thrill of filming live clearly appeals to him. In the story, a depressed young man stares at the DJ box where his ex-girlfriend is dancing and drinking with the DJ. The DJ is Avicii, played by Michael Shannon: in typical Jonze fashion, a real celebrity is played by an actor in a fictional short at a real awards ceremony, challenging the division between fact and fiction on multiple levels. The jilted young man chats to a girl and tells her how his ex-girlfriend took advantage of him to pay for veterinary school and then left him. The girl approaches his ex-girlfriend, berating her behaviour and pulls her down to the ground to hit her. The actors freeze as presenter Jason Schwartzmann announces that it is time for the “choose your own adventure" segment of the short. The audience can choose between a happy ending for the new couple or double-tragedy. They choose the latter. The young man states “I like you so much I’d love to die with you." Despite its experimentalism, this short clearly resonates with the themes of How They Get There, I’m Here and To Die by Your Side, dealing with the desire and love turning to violence and death in a moment of folly. The couple climb a ladder, jump and disappear amid red paper streamers signifying blood. As a live performance, in its cross-over with the music video, and with an ending chosen by the audience, Choose You innovates the form of short film, yet remains true to Jonze’s thematic preoccupations and his characteristic sense of fun and playfulness.
Jonze continues to revolutionize the world of short film and re-imagine its rules, its boundaries and its relevance. In 2016, before his appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Jonze created a new one-off introduction for the show. It is a playful short in which Colbert is wandering the streets, ignored and laughed at, when the muppet Grover sees him and befriends him, talking to him and sheparding him into the TV studio where the audience stand to applause and Colbert smiles widely. It is an example of how the relative speed of short filmmaking fuels the creativity of Jonze. Continuing to challenge the boundaries of short filmmaking, in 2017, Jonze wrote and directed Changers: A Dance Story. This is a 30-minute, dialogue-free story of a relationship told through dance and movement. It was created for the fashion label Opening Ceremony and features clothes from one of their 2018 collections. The actors Lakeith Stanfield and Mia Wasikowska dance the lead roles. Various performances will be cut together which Jonze plans to release online. The Changers enterprise is typical of Jonze’s enthusiasm for the imagination that small, short film projects allow and his willingness to collaborate with artist outside the film industry, drawing from the rich creative pool of the artists, musicians, designers, dancers and celebrities, embedding his work in this popular cultural context.
Analysis of Jonze’s short film reveals thematic coherence, despite formal and generic diversity, across a career of almost thirty years. There is an ongoing interest in individuals and groups who are isolated and marginalised; on the periphery of society to some degree: whether through discrimination, like the robots in I’m Here; age, like the teenagers in Scenes from the Suburbs; or celebrity, like Kanye West’s character in We Were Once a Fairytale. Fact and fiction constantly merge into each other in Jonze’s work, in style like the “documentary-style" Video Days, or the mockumentary Torrance Rises, and in characters, like the relationship between Jonze and Richard Koufay in Torrance Rises, the real and fictional Kanye West in We Were Once a Fairytale, the real and fictional Avicii in Choose You. The duality of fact and fiction is echoed in his interest in character doubling and mirroring, like the copycat couple on the sidewalks in How They Get There or the two skeletons in To Die By Your Side. He is fascinated by how love transforms into violence, through misfortune or misdirected passion (To Die By Your Side, Scenes from the Surburbs, We Were Once a Fairytale, Choose You), and all of these thematic strands can be found echoed, developed and reframed in his feature films. His uses music in a variety of ways – as parallel to characters’ actions (Video Days) programmatically (Amarillo by Morning), contrapuntally (How They Get There), or simply as inspiration (Scenes from the Suburbs). He refuses to respect generic boundaries, finding ideas and collaborative possibilities from music, dance and fashion, merging his live action shorts with music videos, dance videos, live videos, documentaries, puppetry, CGI, fashion and talk shows. He loves moments of incongruity, shock and the unexpected, like the car crash in How They Get There, or the appearance of the creature in I’m Here.
Jonze’s short film oeuvre demonstrates that short film is integral to the work of this director; that it should be taken seriously and not dismissed as juvenile, peripheral or disposable. It reveals overtly how concepts, characters, techniques, and themes travel and transmute between work in different media within popular culture, between work with different collaborators, and how features can influence shorts as well as vice-versa. In fact, any analysis of Jonze’s features would be lacking if it was not carried out with an awareness of the richness of his work in short film. Jonze’s shorts strongly indicate that most important future platform for short film will be the internet, rather than the film festival or the televised screening. In his career, the rapidity of distribution and reception of shorts seems to both fuel and satisfy the creative impulse. As a film scholar and fan, I look forward to seeing how Jonze’s thematic preoccupations and will be reprised and the conventions of short film further challenged in the future career of this intriguing director.
From guest contributor Paula Murphy, Dublin City University