Wild Things Make His Heart Sing
It's true the Museum of Modern Art's new film retrospective, Spike Jonze: The First 80 Years, opened on Thursday night, so I'm a little late getting to it. But don't mistake my tardiness for a lack of enthusiasm for either its subject or the event itself. (Really, it's a result of the American Theatre Critics Association's busy NYMF schedule, fodder for another even later post.)
Jonze is a personal favorite, though by the time I was introduced to him via the Beastie Boys' brilliantly appointed Sabotage video (Moustaches all around!), he was already a camera-strapped, guerilla skate-video-directing, gen X anti-hero. However, Jonze's mild demeanor and minimalist responses during curator Joshua Siegel's between-screening discussions reveal him to be less irony-soaked iconoclast than pensive and understated messenger of joy. Which sounds corny, I know, but seriously it's true.
The retrospective kicked off with an evening devoted to Jonze's and Maurice Sendak's close friendship, featuring three short films: a documentary about Sendak; a comic short-short Jonze and actor Catherine Keener made as a gift for Sendak's 80th birthday (they reenact an incident during which Sendak's sister ditched him at the New York World's Fair to sneak off with her boyfriend, and which served as the inspiration for In the Night Kitchen); and a scene from Jonze's upcoming full-length adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are.
The most remarkable thing about the films is that watching Jonze's shorts is much like watching his excerpted Wild Things, except with Sendak cast as Max (Sendak disagreed with Jonze about Max's age anyway, saying "Who cares how old he is?") and Jonze as the monster. In a way, the whole enterprise seems geared to force Sendak into acknowledging that perhaps his life isn't quite the torment he'd like to believe. When Jonze asks Sendak to name just a few of the people and circumstances that have thus far made his stay here less of a burden, his list is long, lovely and sad: Eugene Glynn, his late partner of 50 years; his sister, who helped raise him; his brother, who helped him craft tiny toys out of wood.
It's too bad the Sendak doc isn't being shown in multiplexes before its companion feature; they'd obviously make a great pairing. But it sounds like the main event will stand on its own just fine, traditional narrative or not. Chicago Tribune film critic and At the Movies host Michael Phillips says it's the best film he's seen all year (but don't tell, because he hasn't reviewed it yet), and he's already been to Sundance and Cannes.
However, the real strength of the MoMA's retrospective isn't that it's an effective publicity machine for Jonze's newest film, although it is. Its strength is that it pays tribute to a director whose eclectic work is finally becoming a clear vision. Look no farther than the Torrance Community Dance Group's unaffected street theater and Christopher Walken's unexpected bouyancy for proof. Jonze's work is greater than the great Sendak, and the MoMA's collection serves to show that he's been singing an ode to joy all along.