Wednesday, September 20, 2006

GONDRY REDUX

Michel Gondry earned his celebration.

The 43-year-old French director was fresh from the premiere for his newest film, The Science of Sleep, at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Immediate responses were predictably favorable. Gondry, distinguished connoisseur of magic realism and pop sensibility, had undoubtedly made his most personal work yet. It was an elegy to the mysticism of dreaming set in his native country, incorporating his trademark stop-motion animation, featuring a heartbreaking tale of unattainable romance. It didn’t hurt that international screen star Gael Garcia Bernal, a commodity on his own, portrayed the lead character. According to various reports, Warner Independent snatched the film for a modest $6 million before the projector had time to cool. But for the time being, it was booze, not business, on the menu for the after party on Main Street.

“Michel was tanked,” recalls MC Paul Barman. The New York-based Jewish rapper accompanied Gondry to Sundance in order showcase their off-and-on musical collaboration, Leaf Birds. It was the first semi-public set for the band, combining Gondry’s keyboard and drum skills with Barman’s vocal agility. When the duo took center stage, Barman was forced to improvise. “We went on right before the whole party was going to be shut down because it was so late,” he says. “The set list got thrown out the window and we just did a couple of things. There were a bunch of Mexican musicians there who dug it. And there was this raver guy with his shirt off who kept giving me the ‘get off the stage’ movement.”

It was an eclectic crowd— and right up Gondry’s alley. “It was great,” he says over breakfast at a midtown Manhattan restaurant several months later. His dense accent extends syllables and squishes vowels. “I was at Cannes [International Film Festival] for my first film. Then I went to Sundance, and it was much nicer.” Rampant commercialism has encroached on both annual gatherings, but Gondry still enjoys the American festival. “There is a strong schizophrenia; all the big movies that they are constantly advertising are not good,” he says. “[But] at Sundance, you show your movie and they are not snobs. At Cannes, they are snobs.”

Gondry has been a part of the mainstream entertainment industry for most of his career, as a prime contributor to the MTV video boom and stylized commercials of the 1990s, then later working with marquee names like Tim Robbins and Jim Carrey in his films. But his creative inspiration has more in common with bohemian conceits than Hollywood pizzazz. “I basically grew up worshipping surrealism,” he says, citing the capricious style of directors Luis Bunuel and Jean Vigo as central aesthetic influences. He has technically contributed to Vigo’s infectious 1934 romance L’Atalante, his favorite film: The DVD of L’Atalante features a colorful, simplistic chalky sketch of the title cruise ship and the story’s fictional couple that Gondry drew for a freelance gig in 1991 (but no byline). “I was not working at the time,” he says. “I’m not so proud of it, but it was a privilege.”

His career skyrocketed around 1993 with a slew of acclaimed videos for fellow European émigré Bjork, followed by work for high profile bands like The Rolling Stones and Radiohead. These projects coincided with a number of commercials for practically every brand name under the sun, from Levis to Air France. Employing fast-paced visual schemes that adhered to an otherworldly logic, several of his shorts function as miniature films. It seemed like the logical next step when Gondry became a full-fledged director for the Tinseltown crowd in 2001 with Human Nature. But the underappreciated satire of laboratory ethics was widely considered uneven and bizarre, hardly raising his bankability. Building on that experience and applying a more nuanced approach, 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind combined a surprisingly solemn Jim Carrey with trippy sci-fi concepts to become widely celebrated as both a hipster romance and a psychological adventure. Still, Gondry’s panache remains somewhat intangible to American audiences. Like Orson Welles’ hit-and-miss career, they enjoy the movies, but struggle to fully grasp the many layers of his vision.

When Gondry moved to Los Angeles roughly ten years ago, he intended to make blockbusters. “I didn’t think I had the capacity to do opera,” he says. “I wanted to do popular movies, like Back to the Future.” His initial ambition was not unlike another European filmmaker who took his craft abroad: Dutch sensation Paul Verhoeven. But while Verhoeven’s Robocop launched the director on a slew of action and exploitation projects imbued with caustic wit, Gondry was less successful. An attempt in 1998 to adapt The Green Hornet fell flat. “I wanted it to have the quirkiness of Superman III,” he says. “They wanted something sleek, like The Matrix. I don’t see myself with this kind of darkness.” He gets increasingly impassioned as the memories flow back. “The producer was an idiot,” he says. “This guy thought I was a cool director. But I was not cool, even if I was popular with artists. It wasn’t about having an attitude. It was about not having an attitude.”

Gondry was attached to direct famously neurotic writer Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind years ago— before The Green Hornet dissipated, and before Human Nature (another Kaufman script) tanked. When the project reached fruition in 2004, he had finally found acclaim as a film director, but his fame lingered in the shadow of Kaufman’s oddball reputation. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind told the fantastical story of a service that deletes stinging memories from former romances— the same sort of bizarre plotting found in Adaptation and Being John Malkovich, Kaufman’s collaborations with Spike Jonze, another erstwhile music video director. This time the edge was softer, sweeter—evidence of Gondry’s touch behind the camera and as a co-writer— but nothing to detract from the emphasis placed on Kaufman’s contribution. When presenter Samuel L. Jackson announced at the 2005 Academy Awards that the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay was going to writing trio Kaufman, Pierre Bismuth and “Michael” Gondry for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the mispronounced director stood to the side of the stage grinning while Kaufman hounded the mic.

If Gondry’s music videos signaled the first major stage of his career, and the Kaufman collaborations form the second stage, his recent features suggest a third stage marked by a singular, unhindered vision. In 2004, he accepted an invitation to direct Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, a live concert film showcasing noted hip hop performers Kanye West, The Fugees, and several others, with Chappelle, the country’s favorite racially-charged comedian cause celebre, as host. Gondry used his refined music video talent to tie together an unlikely narrative, intimately revealing Comedy Central’s former humor god as a chilled out quasi-metropolitan. A surprisingly effective, unpredictable formula, it demonstrated that Gondry’s version of a documentary is no less quixotic than his fiction.

The Science of Sleep, which Gondry filmed around production for Block Party, might be reasonably considered his swan song. As solo screenwriter, Gondry has incorporated all the thematic elements discernable throughout his career, sans the intrusion of collaborative influences. The protagonist, his self-professed alter ego, is a weary young artist named Stefan (Bernal), who leaves Mexico after his father’s death to join his mother in France. Stuck with a dead-end printing job that leaves no apparent outlet for his aspirations as an illustrator, Stefan’s sad life is temporarily heightened when he falls for his affable neighbor Stefanie (Charlotte Gainesbourg). But even that ambition is an awkward disaster. In a Kafkaesque twist to the typical romance yarn, Stefan can hardly distinguish between his dreams and reality, confusing expectations with his far-flung fantasies. The dreams set the stage for spectacular set pieces, as Stefan drifts through an imagined kingdom of animated cardboard and churns together psychedelic tie-die concoctions by combining memories to tailor his own television show. The stop-motion animation (completed several years before the rest of the production) is pure Gondry, recalling both the memorably unsettling creatures in his seminal video for Bjork’s “Human Behavior” and the jarring, fast paced Lego musicians from his collaboration with The White Stripes, “Fell in Love with a Girl.” Whether or not these sequences are too over the top is ultimately a matter of taste.

Even when Gondry worked with Kaufman, his own style was clearly distinguishable from the resolutely morose vibe of the screenwriter’s contribution to Jonze’s films. Gondry’s outlook has been interpreted as a childlike Spielbergian sweetness, with profound philosophical ruminations lurking beneath the innocuous surface. The Science of Sleep confirms those suspicions and, at the same time, it contradicts them. Despite his amiable intentions, Stefan is quite the depressing character, caged in by his own pretensions about life. Gondry’s script holds no solution to the protagonist’s conundrum, except possibly suggesting he take up permanent residence in dreamland.

Nevertheless, it offers a compelling probe into the subconscious realm. The story drifts through ephemera in a way that defies specific categorization, leaving confounded viewers struggling in vain to pin down an antecedent. The London Times called it “an inspired marriage between Francois Truffaut and Dr. Seuss,” which Gondry considers off the mark. “I don’t judge what people say about me,” he says, then does just that. “I think Truffaut was great for his first movies, and then he was super-conventional. Dr. Seuss is very imaginative, but he’s not coming from a real subconscious place.”

Speaking like a true surrealist, Gondry claims that the far-off scenes of the film are always chained to actual events. “I was trying to connect dream with reality, and see how they interact with each other,” he says. “If you just drown in the dream for the whole film, it can get tiring. All those movies that are masterpieces are sometimes good to watch, like Alice in Wonderland or The Magician of—The Magician of—

His English floundering, Gondry looks across the table for help.

The Wizard of Oz?

The Wizard of Oz. They are brilliant, but you’re in the dream for 90 minutes. It’s really difficult to follow. You don’t have a sense of jeopardy. It’s only their imagination that they want to go back home.”

The way that Gondry lightly rebukes films and filmmakers while acknowledging their rightful place in the history books demonstrates the specific etiquette of cinephilia. It also shows how his next film, Be Kind Rewind, makes perfect sense. The offbeat comedy, currently filming in New Jersey, stars Jack Black and Mos Def. It relates the strange tale of a construction worker (Black) whose magnetized brain erases all the videos in a rental store. To compensate for the loss, the two leading men embark on a project to remake the deleted movies. Gondry is shooting the film with an anamorphic lens, a neglected technique used to create extra space within his detailed frames. Such experimentation has become his signature. “It’s an attempt to be more established, not more Hollywood,” says Michael Hausman, Gondry’s 71-year-old first assistant director. “He has to think on his feet like the rest of us.”

Lately, that has meant last minute script revisions. Initially, the story had Black and Def remaking Back to the Future, but Gondry couldn’t get the rights. That gap has now been filled by Ghostbusters “I always find if you lose an actor, you always cast better anyhow,” says Hausman. “He’s happy with it.”

Since moving to New York City after completing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Gondry has settled comfortably into artsy urbanity without neglecting his appeal to a larger audience. The first headline-grabbing example of this development was Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. His new film offers a different sort of New York bonus: This month, the Deitch gallery in SoHo is showing “The Science of Sleep; an exhibition of sculpture and pathological creepy little gifts,” combining the movie’s bizarre sets and elements from Gondry’s personal life, breaking the fourth wall of his fiction and underlining its autobiographical significance. The five modest rooms of Deitch’s Grand Street location are packed tight with artwork and multimedia from the movie, including a nifty recreation of the set from Stefan’s faux TV show and the entire cardboard city from his dreams.

One room is dedicated entirely to random items Gondry has used to romance his former lovers, a technique employed by Stefan in the film. The so-called “gifts” are actually a disjointed collection of random artifacts. Among the more original objects: An “unsymmetrical bra,” a “nail-ckless,” pieces from a “lazy puzzle” and a glass quiche containing an image of The Who.

The gallery opened more than two weeks before the film, suggesting sly publicity tactics, but Gondry says he’s hip to it. “Initially I wanted to just do an exhibit of these creepy little gifts,” he says, “but [owner Jeffrey] Deitch said it was not enough for an exhibition, and should comprise of stuff from the film.”

Judging by the hefty crowd that turned up for the opening on September 6, Deitch made the right call. A line quickly snaked around the block as droves of Gondry fanatics flocked to the exhibit, with security allowing only a few antsy visitors in at a time. Amid the chaos, one of Gondry’s collaborators on the project, illustrator Baptiste Ibar, managed to slip by security but encountered trouble when attempting to gain admission for his friends. “It was a madhouse,” Ibar recalls later in an e-mail message. “I did not expect it to be such an event. I feel very honored to work with someone so inventive.”

After Ibar exited the gallery to rejoin his crew, a companion nudged him.

“Is Michel in there?” he asked. Ibar shook his head, and the man’s face fell.

The incredible turnout for the exhibit is illustrative of Gondry’s cultish fanbase, a loose collection of esthetes and scenesters who dig his cross-over appeal. It’s a craze that recalls the sort of niche market of directors like David Lynch and George Romero, for whom box office success is often secondary to pleasing a core contingent of supporters. The combined domestic theatrical gross of Gondry’s first two films is a hair below $50 million— meek by most industry standards, but in his case, it doesn’t really measure anything. To truly grasp the range of his profitability would require calculating the product-selling success his commercials and the ability of his videos to heighten the awareness of innumerable musicians. But even then, who cares? His individuality drives the upward swing of his career. “There isn’t a filmmaker under 40 who doesn’t want to be Michel Gondry,” says Hausman, more gushing than paternalistic of his younger colleague. The recent hype buries the important point that Gondry has been doing this artist thing for quite some time. Even his diehard fans can’t comprehend the entirety of his output.

Case in point: The clandestine musical operation known as Leaf Birds. Gondry and Barman say they have recorded close to twenty songs in between other projects. In separate interviews, they both talk excitedly of the partnership, which makes it a doozy that a drunken Sundance crowd has so far been their only audience. Lyrics provide a clue to the mystery. “The only roast I want from friars is barbecue/ Breaking up is easy, it's growing up that's hard to do,” Barman opines in the Leaf Birds track “It Can All Be Taken Away,” referencing when the duo were introduced at a Brooklyn barbeque gathering hosted by The Roots drummer Questlove. “Michel is a community builder,” says Barman. “He doesn’t sleep.”

It’s either ironic or fitting that an insomniac makes movies about dreams, but either way, no big shocker— a restless mind yields radical results. Asked to comment on Bunuel’s belief that imagination is the only thing protecting freedom, Gondry responds effortlessly, his eyes drooping from fatigue. “Imagination transports you to a place that feels magical,” he says. “I think people want to kill it because they want you to rationalize it. Life is much more complex than that.”

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