First And Last: Comparing The Early And Later Work Of Hollywood’s Hottest Directors

SPIKE JONZE: BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999) / HER (2014)

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When Spike Jonze pitched Being John Malkovich to the studios, the exact response was apparently, “why the f—k couldn’t it have been “Being Tom Cruise?” John Malkovich’s response wasn’t much better. People were not convinced. It was true that Jonze didn’t have many credentials at the time, having spent most of his career up to that point shooting band documentaries and music videos. (He was, however, then married to the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, who had been given the script by its writer Charlie Kaufman. Which helped).

Even after the success of Malkovich, Jonze carried on doing very much what he had been doing before, with the exception of directing 2009’s Where the Wild Things Are, and creating and writing Jackass in both its TV and movie formats (as much as I would like to breeze right on past that, just bear that point in mind for a moment). But when it comes to filmmaking, there are generally two things that Spike Jonze does. The first is that he takes concepts that are entirely strange and unbelievable and throws them into entirely ordinary contexts, and the second is that he wins awards for doing it.

Being John Malkovich and Her are – at first glance – two completely different movies. Malkovich is a surreally inventive fantasy comedy drama, full of strong characters and bizarre plotlines. Jonze – even in his debut – handles the brink between fantasy and reality so confidently that the film dares anyone to question it, and its sheer uniqueness gave the film an instant cult-status. Her, on the other hand, is in many ways a much simpler film than Malkovich. It still requires an as-yet-slightly-futuristic-level of technology for the storyline, but mainly it is a quietly touching romance, gently suffused in soft focus and even softer colours, featuring at its heart an unseen character whose voice and compassion alone make it so extraordinarily real that if Kristen Stewart were to get too close we might lose sight of which one was the actual human being.

But despite the obvious differences, Jonze’s bookend films do actually share more fundamental similarities than we might think. Both involve disembodied sex, both involve a degree of the extraordinary that the audience has to accept as fact. But this is why it is so interesting to notice how much Her is altogether a more sophisticated affair. Although the storyline was less complicated, Jonze clearly didn’t take a simple approach when it came to actually directing Her. Warm, hushed tones reflect the sweetness of the relationship between Theo and Samantha, as the frequent red of Theo’s clothes matches almost exactly the colour of the OS packaging. The soundtrack – which includes the enveloping, resonant pitch of Samantha’s speaking voice as much as the music– is often entirely organic, provided by Samantha herself. A moment in which we see reflected light playing across Theo’s face represents Samantha’s own point of view through a lens. The sex in Malkovich involves at least three people, in some form or another – the sex in Her actually only involves just one physical body, yet the sheer emotionality of it is incredible.

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For a few, the extent to which Jonze was willing to go in Malkovich resulted in it just not being able to sustain its brilliance quite to the end. The believability of the technology in Her not only convinced the audience within moments that the love was going to be real, but made some serious work for the real life smart technology creators, if they want their customers to ever look at their own OS’s with anything like the same level of respect again. Every last aspect of this film’s careful creation is designed to do one thing – to exude the blissful simplicity of being in love. This is the moment at which I just wanted to repeat – Spike Jonze wrote Jackass.

Whereas Malkovich was a story on the screen, Her is a story of the screen, which absorbs and captivates the audience right alongside Theo. Both Being John Malkovich and Her deserve credit for originality and execution, but in Her we have Jonze at his most grown up. There can be very few other examples of a director keeping such unconventional themes, but developing them with such mature finesse as this.

Seriously – Jackass.