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The Science of Michel Gondry

Michel Gondry shows up late to the interview suite at the Ritz Carlton. He’s in Berlin to promote his new film, Be Kind Rewind, which is the closing selection of the Berlin International Film Festival and opened in the U.S. on Friday. He is wearing a turquoise sweater with a red plaid shirt, and is fingering a miniature Rubik’s cube, the perfect symbol for this puzzling artist who started out working in the condensed format of commercials and music videos.

With his seemingly inexhaustible trove of visual innovations and ideas, the Versailles-born filmmaker resembles a modern-name Méliès. In his five feature-length films to date (including one documentary, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party), he has proved himself a meticulously crafty auteur with a bittersweet--and sometimes downright tragic--sensibility. Gondry’s films are both conceptual and arty, while managing to reach a wide, if not entirely mainstream, audience.

Gondy has been able to establish a signature style by taking traditionally small-screen gimmicks--such as the stop-motion animation and clever manipulations he employed in music videos for Björk and The White Stripes--and transplanting them into his big-screen work. Many of his feature films include, for example, tricks with continuity, holographic exposures, and running film backwards through the projector. The same fantastical sensibility of his films Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and The Science of Sleep (2006) are visible in his many award-winning commercials for Levi’s and in his recent music video for Paul McCartney’s “Dance Tonight.”

Gondry is far from the only director to have made a successful transition from music videos to feature films. But his continued insistence on integrating short-film techniques into his longform work distinguishes him from other commercial and music video veterans, such as David Fincher and Spike Jonze. Fincher, with six big-budget films to his name, has made the most complete transition to feature filmmaking. His trademark polished visual aesthetic--seen in such films as Zodiac, Fight Club, and Se7en--is reminiscent of his slick and tightly edited music video work. This connection is more difficult to see with Jonze, whose surreal comedies like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation have a manic energy that seems to bear the mark of their screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman. Gondry's aesthetic is the most clearly linked across the various formats--such as the stop-motion animation he uses to increasingly sophisticated effect in videos like Oui, Oui’s "Les Cailloux" and the elaborate animated sequences in Science.

But the most striking holdover from Gondry’s work as a short-form director is his miniature montages--such as the vanishing memories in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the delusional dream sequences in Science of Sleep. In his new film, Be Kind Rewind, he pushes this concept even further: When two video store clerks discover that all their tapes have mysteriously gone blank, they decide to remake the entire stock (a process referred to as “sweding") using a camcorder and homegrown special effects--creating a whole crop of mini-movies within the larger film. It is this focus on the poetic, jewel-like possibilities of short-format films that also sets Gondry apart from former small-screen directors like Fincher and Jonze.

Gondry’s use of these montages has evolved over the course of his feature-length work. In Eternal Sunshine, which Gondry co-penned with Kaufman, they appear most fully integrated into the scenario. To depict memory erasure, Gondry uses a variety of techniques that he honed in his music video work, such as distortions of focus, unsynched sounds, intrusive spot lighting, and an unstable hand-held camera shots. Many of these elements are present in his trippy video for the Foo Fighters’ “Everlong,” in which a couple manages to tap into each other’s dreams.

The fusing of music video techniques and feature film strategies comes fully to fruition in Gondry’s 2006 feature, The Science of Sleep. Gondry uses many similar animation techniques to the ones in his video for Björk’s “Human Behavior,” which features a teddy bear roaming around a storybook forest, and in his video for the Rolling Stone’s “Gimme Shelter,” where drawings on a blackboard come violently to life. The challenge that he set for himself with Science, however, was to find a narrative strategy in which to deposit his surreal reveries. He pulls it off, managing to incorporate the poetics of the small screen into the novel-like contours of feature filmmaking. Science works as a movie because of how far Gondry is able to take us inside the main character's head, until distinguishing between dream and reality becomes all but impossible.

His approach in Be Kind is a decided departure from his earlier films. Unlike the fragmentary and fragmenting dreams in Science, the “sweded” videos in Be Kind Rewind unify the film, giving the mini-scenes a more central dramatic function. “They could be just seen as clips, but overall there’s an arc," he says. "I think you feel something when [the main characters] eventually achieve their project and watch the film altogether.”

Like Science’s dreams, the “sweded” videos are also an opportunity for Gondry to let loose. The difference in Be Kind Rewind is that Gondry lets us see how the sleight of hand is done (at times rather transparently). This comes across most elegantly in an ornate montage where Jack Black and Mos Def “swede” a succession of films, including Carrie and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is edited together to look like one continuous shot--using a variety of foreshortening techniques, tricks of perspective, and speeding up the film--and resembles his single-take videos for Radiohead’s “Knives Out” and Kylie Minogue’s “Come into My World.”

Gondry feels as though his visual aesthetic has been criticized for having a foot in both the music video and feature film worlds. “Sometime people say to me, ‘You’re the darling of MTV, that’s your culture,'" Gondry complains. "And I say, 'Fuck you! I’m not.' Because not only I was rejected from this world, but now people want to reject me from the movie world by saying that I belong to the MTV world.”

Part of what belies this point is seeing that Gondry has carried over distinctive narrative strategies and patterns from his music videos to his film work. This overlap may be what’s getting him into trouble, as if people feel that his music videos are too cinematic, or that his films are too much like music videos.

Blurring the lines between the aeasthetics of music videos and shorts and feature films makes Gondry one of the most refreshingly unpredictable filmmakers working today. And he shows no sign of quitting this format-jumping. Two months ago, he collaborated with Björk on a new video. In addition, he’s been making a name for himself on YouTube (he is one of the first professional filmmakers to exploit this new technology), where he has posted some playful recent video work--most humorously a “sweded” trailer of Be Kind Rewind, in which he plays all the parts himself. This concentrated gaze on small-screen poetics guarantees that regardless of his chosen format, Gondry’s creativity will win out.

A.J. Goldmann writes about culture from Berlin and New York. His articles have appeared in such publications as
The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and International Herald Tribune.

By A.J. Goldmann