Spike Jonze is surely one of the most imaginative and innovative filmmakers creating movies today. (See what the experts at the Museum of Modern Art think at: http://www.moma.org/visit/calendar/films/996 Spike - Psike - Psyche. His name is almost an anagram, and certainly his work, fascinating and psychologically surreal as it is, cries out for a psychobiographer.

Jonze' self-image??Recently, our local film club watched and discussed Jonze's three feature films: Being John Malkovich; Adaptation; and Where the Wild Things Are.  The music videos and the skateboard films I find much harder to read in any psychological way, although there is a lovely, dreamy  commercial for Adidas that he did with Karen O. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Zvqf3sF0b4  It shows some of the same characteristics as the feature films.

What are those characterisics?

To me, Jonze's most striking pattern is going into someone's head and putting the contents out on the screen. Wild Things shows the tactic most clearly: Max's fantasies become the huge creatures on the island, as does the dream in the Adidas commercial. In Malkovich, various characters go into the actor's mind and we in the audience see through his eyes. In Adaptation, the fictitious twin (Donald) acts out the suffering twin's wished-for personality.

Closely related to this psychic move, Jonze uses odd representations of people's bodies: the fictitious twin; the huge wild things' bodies; or the puppets in Malkovich. Not only does he project dreams and wishes from a character's mind onto the screen; he projects the character's body. Adaptation in particular is a meta-film: a film in which the film includes its own making--another kind of projection. In Malkovich, strangers go into the actor's body.

Many people have commented on Jonze's own physicality. Take a look at his peculiar dancing with the Torrance Community Dance Company. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cliHaTV2V6w . Jonze duplicates the style in John Malkovich's puppet-dance when his body is taken over by the puppeteer.Jonze also shows a lot of interest in the stages of life, childhood, old age, and mid-life problems. Many of the music videos focus on children and, of course, Wild Things does. In Adaptation, we witness a mid-life crisis with a "Mom" in the background, a crisis solved when the twin into whom the hero has projected his wishes dies, and the hero can fulfill his wishes himself. In Malkovich, he concerns himself with aging and finds a way to avoid it. But he titled his show at MoMa: Spike Jonze: The First 80 Years.

Many people have commented on Jonze's trying to preserve his "juvenility" (the relentless teen-agery he maintains). What other major filmmaker makes skateboard movies? And Jonze even used a skateboard to "get" one scene in Wild Things. In the few videos that show him in person he looks, even in his early forties, like a teenager (and acts like one).

Another striking thing about Jonze: he chose this pseudonym.  Born Adam Spiegel into the very wealthy Spiegel catalog family, he took a new name when fellow workers at a BMX store called him Spike Jonze.  (His brother goes by Squeak E. Clean.)  Adam's parents divorced when he was young, and he grew up with his mother and older sister.  With the Torrance dance group, he uses the name Richard Koufey (goofy?).

Can we put all this together into what I like to call an "identity theme"?  Something distributed widely in the brain as procedural memory?  That is, can I find a phrasing that lets me understand Spike Jonze's life and work as the expression of a core theme?  What I see is a forty-year old man who doesn't want to be a forty-year-old man. He would like to go on being a teen-ager with all the possibilities (and risks) teen-agers have.  Or, more generally, I see someone who wants to escape his own mind and body and who is so spectacularly creative that he can succeed-superbly--in doing just that.

Sources in the background:

Grigsby, Jim and G. Hartlaub. "Procedural Learning and the Development and Stability of Character." Perceptual and Motor Skills 79 (1994): 355-70.

Holland, Norman N.  The I.  New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1985. Available at: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/users/nholland/theihome.htm

About the Author

Norman Holland

Norman Holland, Ph.D., specializes in the psychology of the arts. His latest book is Literature and the Brain.

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