Watch: Michel Gondry’s Relentlessly Mercurial Creative Mind

Watch: Michel Gondry’s Relentlessly Mercurial Creative Mind

Michel Gondry is a French filmmaker most famous for directing and co-writing the 2004 film ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ for which he, Charlie Kaufman, and Pierre Bismuth won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Prior to his feature film debut titled ‘Human Nature,’ he made a name for himself as a music video director—working with such artists as Daft Punk, The Chemical Brothers, Bjork, and The White Stripes. He often incorporates his personal thoughts and fears from his childhood into his work—most notably, a recurring nightmare in which his hands grow to an enormous size.
Gondry actually got his start as a music video director after making music videos for his own band called Oui Oui—he was the drummer. Icelandic singer Bjork noticed his work and hired him to direct the music video for her song ‘Human Behavior.’ He has also directed a variety of television commercials and one he made for Levi’s holds the Guinness World Record for ‘most awards won by a TV commercial.’ His style most resembles that of a creative child. Everything is inventive and crafty—with practical effects and production design often made from ordinary materials. And this mise-en-scène always fits the narrative of his films, which often follow creative and child-like protagonists. Gondry has described himself as someone who has been twelve years old ‘forever.’
Two years after directing ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,’ Gondry directed the first film he wrote entirely himself titled ‘The Science of Sleep,’ which follows a quirky young man who falls in love with his neighbor. The film plays heavily with dreamlike imagery, which Gondry has had a strong interest in since his early work. After ‘The Science of Sleep,’ he wrote and directed the Jack Black/Mos Def comedy ‘Be Kind Rewind.’ The film wholly incorporated his hand-made budgetless aesthetic, which ignores imperfections in favor of creative solutions. In ‘Be Kind Rewind,’ a video store clerk and his friend must remake or ‘swede’ all of the movies they carry after the tapes get erased. They go on to remake the movies using whatever they have on hand, much in the same way children might creatively play around with a video camera. With the era of YouTube in full swing, people from around the world were encouraged to express their creativity and ‘swede’ their favorite movies in short form with whatever materials they had. This included a remake of ‘Taxi Driver’ by Gondry himself.
Gondry followed ‘Be Kind Rewind’ with 2011’s ‘The Green Hornet,’ which was a slight departure from his low-budget aesthetic. ‘The Green Hornet’ applied Gondry’s inventive charm to a more mainstream and high budget studio film. Gondry was originally attached to the project back in 1997 and the film was going to be his feature film debut. After the film entered ‘development hell,’ many other directors were attached and then removed until it finally ended back with Gondry as the director.
He returned to the low-budget indie world the following year with ‘The We and the I,’ a film that takes place entirely on a bus as students travel home from their last day of high school. The film was an American production shot in New York City, but he would return to France for his next two films—the first of which was an adaptation of a 1947 novel— ‘Froth on the Daydream’ by Boris Vian. The film is titled ‘Mood Indigo’ and follows the relationship of a couple as they fall in love and the woman falls ill. The film is tremendously clever and whimsical, despite such an ultimately tragic story.
Gondry has also done three documentaries—‘Dave Chappelle’s Block Party,’ ‘The Thorn in the Heart,’ and his most recent, ‘Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?’ in which Gondry animates a conversation he had with notable philosopher Noam Chomsky. His latest film titled ‘Microbe & Gasoline’ for which Gondry was the sole writer, follows two young boys who build a house/car hybrid to travel away from their hometown and all the people who mistreat them. Gondry said that the first half of the film is based on his actual experiences growing up and the second half is a fantasy. The film perfectly mixes Gondry’s unique personality and creativity and sheds light on his personal perspective.
“I really had the complex that my father had at some point— to not be good enough. And then I decided I would go for it. I decided I would be as good as Picasso or whatever and obviously there is a difference. But, I mean, at some point, if you want to consider yourself as somebody who creates things, you have to just ignore all that and just say okay, what you’re doing, what you’re putting out is different because you put yourself into it.”

Clips used:

‘Human Nature’ (2001 dir. Michel Gondry)
‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ (2004 dir. Michel Gondry)
‘The Science of Sleep’ (2006 dir. Michel Gondry)
‘Be Kind Rewind’ (2008 dir. Michel Gondry)
‘The Green Hornet’ (2011 dir. Michel Gondry)
‘The We and the I’ (2012 dir. Michel Gondry)
‘Mood Indigo’ (2013 dir. Michel Gondry)
‘Microbe & Gasoline’ (2015 dir. Michel Gondry)
‘Dave Chappelle’s Block Party’ (2005 dir. Michel Gondry)
‘The Thorn in the Heart’ (2009 dir. Michel Gondry)
‘Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?’ (2013 dir. Michel Gondry)
‘Around the World’ by Daft Punk (Music Video dir. Michel Gondry)
‘Let Forever Be’ by The Chemical Brothers (Music Video dir. Michel Gondry)
‘The Hardest Button to Button’ by The White Stripes (Music Video dir. Michel Gondry)
‘Human Behavior’ by Björk  (Music Video dir. Michel Gondry)
‘Bachelorette’ by Björk  (Music Video dir. Michel Gondry)
‘Everlong’ by Foo Fighters (Music Video dir. Michel Gondry)
‘Drugstore’ by Levi’s (Commercial dir. Michel Gondry)
 ‘Junior Et Sa Voix D’Or’ by Oui Oui (Music Video dir. Michel Gondry)
 ‘Dance Tonight’ by Paul McCartney (Music Video dir. Michel Gondry)
‘Be Kind Rewind Sweded Trailer’
‘Taxi Driver Sweded by Michel Gondry’
‘I’ve Been 12 Forever’ (2004 dir. Michel Gondry)

‘Generique Stephane’ by Jean-Michel Bernard
‘Around the World’ by Daft Punk
‘If You Rescue Me’ Science of Sleep Sountrack
‘Theme’ by Jon Brion

Tyler Knudsen, a San Francisco Bay Area native, has been a student of film for most of his life. Appearing in several television commercials as a child, Tyler was inspired to shift his focus from acting to directing after performing as a featured extra in Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come. He studied Film & Digital Media with an emphasis on production at the University of California, Santa Cruz and recently moved to New York City where he currently resides with his girlfriend.

Some Things Are Best Done the Old-Fashioned Way, Pixar Studios: The Beauty of IS THE MAN WHO IS TALL HAPPY?

Some Things Are Best Done the Old-Fashioned Way, Pixar: The Beauty of IS THE MAN WHO IS TALL HAPPY?


Imperfection will always be more interesting than perfection. We will always be drawn towards a work, be it a film, a novel, or a piece of music, for the ways in which it swerves, for the decisions the creator of the work has made which make it distinct from others of its type, or elevate it. And yet our culture does not necessarily move this way—in fact, accuracy, perfection, flawlessness, whatever you would like to call it, receive tremendous cultural validation. This sort of striving is desirable in the sciences, but disturbing when it edges over into the arts. The most recent trend in animated films, for instance, has been to make them smoother, to make their figures more polished in appearance and strangely realistic, even as their actual proportions are distorted; we don’t see the shaky hand of the animator in these works at all, because many times the animator’s physical hand has been replaced by a mouse or a computer key, or maybe a stylus, dragged across a specially constructed pad. And the result of this? Gradually, the public memory of, and appreciation for, older, more personal ways of creating films is being erased, to be replaced by images which give the illusion of being more “advanced” because they have been created with more advanced technology. Why watch Fantasia when you could watch Toy Story? Why watch the early Warner Bros. cartoons when you could watch Monsters University? Michel Gondry’s latest, Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?, is an animated film on a linguist and political philosopher, seemingly an invitation to disaster. However, the film is anything but. Gondry tells two stories at once, here: one is a plain-spoken, relaxedly paced conversation with Noam Chomsky about his life and thought; the other is the story of a filmmaker’s attempt to understand Chomsky’s words, expressed through highly personalized and gloriously imperfect drawings. Technology was obviously quite important to the making of this film–nevertheless, in telling both of these stories, Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? is a strong reminder of the power of the human touch, for lack of a better phrase, in artistic works.

The first story the film tells is one which many Chomsky fans may be familiar with already. Gondry asks Chomsky a number of questions, both personal and impersonal, and Chomsky gives dry but straightforward responses. Chomsky has a congenial, warm, and fairly comforting tone, even as he issues intellectual challenges. We learn about Chomsky’s father, and his love of classic Hebrew tales; we also learn about Chomsky’s school days, and how he hated sports, asking why anyone would want to be better than anyone else (there’s a foreign policy statement in a nutshell); we also learn that Chomsky is uncomfortable speaking about his late wife, the only moment in a continuous stream of monologic explanation in which the interviewee is simply silent. The explanation present here addresses Chomsky’s ideas about language: why and how words might have certain meanings for us, and where we get our ideas about what those words mean. Gondry does his best to parry productively, in a verbal way, with Chomsky, but often comes up short, even by his own admission. Chomsky’s solution to the problem–how does one have a meaningful conversation across a vast language and (possibly) intelligence gap?–is profound. He draws. And the drawings move, and they also speak, albeit silently.

But saying they move is an oversimplification. They cavort; they shimmer; they dominate, at times, with poor Chomsky reduced nearly to the size of a talking footnote. And what does Gondry draw? All sorts of things. At time the designs take the shape of rows of parallel lines extending outwards, up, down, over, back; at time Gondry draws huge machines that push their robotic arms across the screen; at times Gondry draws simple, childlike figures, meant to represent him or Chomsky. Of course, calling them childlike isn’t so accurate: drawing is, in this particular instance, an immediate form of communication, however long (several years) it took Gondry to make the film. Gondry is trying to translate the concepts he is facing in visual terms–and this makes the second, more interesting and complicated story in the film. In constructing the film in this way, Gondry makes himself vulnerable–very few of us, who aren’t professionally trained, can draw flawless representations of anything. This imperfection is, in fact, a sign of humanity. Despite their roughness, though, the illustrations in the film communicate, with their energy, and perhaps with some other indescribable element, akin to those notes that only dogs can hear, that Gondry does grasp Chomsky’s concepts (even if he denies it). And, knowing that, we feel that we can grasp them as well.

But, all this aside, why are the drawings important? So Gondry made an animated film about a subject most people would think to be unanimateable–so what? Well, the significance is this: the problem with films such as Toy Story 1, Toy Story 2, Toy Story 3, Up, Monsters University, Brave, or Ratatouille is that, entertaining and complex as these films might be, and as impressively droll and clever as their storylines might be, and as purely dynamic as they might be, and as impressively realistic as they might be, hovering somewhere between animation and photography, they’re not real in the right sense, in that they don’t tell you anything about the person who made them. They don’t tell you if their creators could actually make a real drawing, in pencil, on paper; they don’t tell you how the creators feel about their subject, as this film so often does; while they might have grand themes, as in Brave, or Up, you’re never entirely sure who it is who’s communicating it, as an absence of style becomes an absence of, well, presence behind the camera. Is there a camera, even? It’s okay to take for granted that our telephones will become smarter and smarter; it’s okay to take for granted that travel will become more and more comfortable, or that even that all cars will someday drive themselves. But is it okay for filmmakers to take for granted that all their viewers want is more accuracy on screen, more “polish,” leaving out the possibility that the reflection of “reality” viewers want might be one more clearly filtered through a human being’s perspective?

Max Winter is the Editor-in-Chief of Press Play.

Welcome to the Cannes Film Festival 2012!

Welcome to the Cannes Film Festival!


Editor's Note: Press Play has two critics covering the Cannes Film Festival this year. Simon Abrams and Glenn Heath Jr. are tag-teaming their way through the most anticipated collection of screenings in the film industry. This is your ticket to Cannes. Enjoy!

nullGlenn Heath Jr.


nullSimon Abrams

Glenn Heath Jr. and Simon Abrams pick the winners at Cannes 2012. 

CANNES 2012: Michel Gondry’s THE WE AND THE I

CANNES 2012: Michel Gondry’s THE WE AND THE I


Michel Gondry brazenly announces the difference between The We and the I and most other contemporary coming of age movies and/or teen sex comedies with a strategically planted poster for an imaginary film called Megalomania (which happens to be a project Gondry is developing with his son Paul). Contemporary filmmakers like Todd Phillips (Project X) and Josh Trank (Chronicle) ostensibly examine their young protagonists' narcissism, but in The We and the I, Gondry is more ostentatious than they are, and also more genuinely concerned with indulging and then deflating his teens' egos. 

Gondry's film follows a group of high schoolers on the last day of school. The long ride home on the fictional Bx66 bus gives the film's protagonists' ample time to goof off, hurt each others' feelings, and realize that they're all on the verge of drifting apart from each other and becoming new people. So The We and the I starts with a lot of crude jokes/dises about fat girls, gawky guys, and tiny penises, and it ends with John-Hughes-by-way-of-Spike Lee-style declamatory speeches. Gondry and his two co-writers don't quite tack on The We and the I's ending; they prove, rather than just claim, that they're down with this unruly Breakfast Club 2.0. 

The We and the I's plot largely concerns the roundabout way various disparate high school cliques interact with each other. For example, Michael and Theresa (Michael Brodie and Theresa L. Rivera, two stand-out amateur performers), a pair of estranged ex-lovers, serve as the film's emotional anchors. But Michael's group of bullies also teases the hot girl and her dorky best friend, who in turn razz the arty nerd, whose nose is buried in his sketchpad, who also was picked on earlier by Michael and his friends. The film's plot is an amorphous series of testosterone and estrogen-fueled encounters spurred on by maniacally catty urges that are, thankfully, not all redeemed at the film's eleventh hour.

Gondry makes a point of showing that some truths about the unwitting cruelty resulting from being young and horny are universal. While YouTube and texting has changed the way The We and the I's teens tease each other, these kids also still play Truth-or-Dare and agonize over who to invite to their Sweet Sixteen parties. When Gondry and co. launch their characters into "The Chaos," the film's second of three narrative chapters, which is best characterized as a haze of undiluted teen Drama, Gondry's kids are irredeemably mean to each other—sometimes to great comic affect, as when a curvy girl is called "two pounds of bologna in a one pound bag." 
But these characters' more bratty, sadistic actions also often have immediate consequences. The broad beats of The We and the I's narrative may be arranged on a series of criss-crossing schematic laundry lines, but the film is at its best when characters' actions create a chain reaction. Once Gondry's characters bluntly tell us what the stakes of the film's drama are, the movie loses potency. But at the height of its frenzy, Gondry's latest movie buzzes with hormones and posturing and All That Angst.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.