There's a fine line between artful and pretentious, and everyone's barometer is different. I'm sure Michel Gondry's style of home-made special effects wizardry grates on the nerves of lots of people, but he's easily one of my favorite filmmakers. I love that Gondry approaches his neuroses with a broad, unusually cheerful sense of humor instead of biting, bitter sarcasm (Charlie Kaufman's great, but his work can be a suffocatingly cynical downer sometimes), and he's got a clever, almost mathematical sense of cycle and pattern. The latter is never more present than his music videos, which allow a free-standing canvas on which Gondry can indulge some of his more eye-popping concepts.
Of course, a treasure trove of his videos and commercials were compiled for The Work of Director Michel Gondry, which, along with the discs by Spike Jonze and Chris Cunningham, represent one of the best DVD investments I've ever made. I liked movies before, but it's that first Director's Label set (purchased both as an Amazon bundle and again as an official set with a bonus disc) that really got me interested in the mechanics of a motion picture and the artists behind them, and none of the discs grabbed me more than Gondry's. Not only did he have the most instantly dazzling videos, but it also had the most videos period, and the documentary "I've Been Twelve Forever" is a fascinating insight into his creative process. Since then, I've seen his movies (The Science of Sleep being my personal favorite) and gobbled up the second Director's Label box set (which can't top the first set but certainly isn't short on directorial vision). When I interviewed him in 2006, he said a second volume was on the way, and while it took three years (and no participation on the part of PALM Pictures, who put out the other seven Director's Label DVDs), it's finally here courtesy of Gondry's new official website.
At first, Michel Gondry 2: More Videos Before & After DVD 1 seems less instantly accessible than Gondry's previous collection. His first-volume video for Kylie Minogue's "Come Into My World", for instance (which has Kylie walking around a circular plaza several times in a continuous shot that literally traces the same steps until there are four Kylies singing the song), has an instantly appealing visual hook, but some of the new stuff is more obscure. Beck's "Cellphone's Dead" is a baffling blend of morphing in which Beck and two animated doppelgangers (one made out of a skyscraper, the other made out of a door) trade places in space like a video Rubik's Cube. It's a dazzling effect, but the meaning (if any) is harder to discern. Thomas Dolby's "Close But No Cigar" fares a little better; there are nice touches like mismatched pajamas and clever video effects (also used in Eternal Sunshine), but it's just puzzling what Gondry's point is when floating televisions start crushing people. On-screen lyrics might have helped, perhaps I'm missing some sort of subtext in the songs themselves. Once, Gondry's style even clashes with the video: the grungy look at the start of The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" is excellent, but he sticks in an animated tank sequence that's both signature Gondry and completely out of sync with the established tone.
Luckily, not all the videos are subtextual mysteries. I was surprised to discover that Sheryl Crow's "A Change Would Do You Good" is the best video on the disc, featuring a rotating, ViewMaster perspective on several people's busy lives (including Mary Lynn Rajskub, Heather Matarazzo, Molly Shannon, Ellen DeGeneres, Jeff Garlin and Andy Dick). Cody Chesnutt's "King of the Game" features some sweet line animation, with and without a trippy 3-D effect. Some of the videos are even simpler. "Mad World", by Michael Andrews and Gary Jules, is a single-shot, bird's eye view of kids forming shapes on a playground with the occasional pan to the pair on the school's roof. Gondry's visual stamp is also all over Steriogram's "Walkie Talkie Man" (the band plays in a ridiculous, meticulous yarn-knit world, complete with a giant woven villain that tries to rip the band out of their Capitol Records recording studio), The White Stripes' "Denial Twist" (which distorts the picture in all directions to give the illusion of motion), and Paul McCartney's "Dance Tonight" (a fun song with Gondry using a projection effect -- common on this disc -- to create a houseful of spirits for Sir Paul to sing to, including UK "Office" star Mackenzie Crook and Natalie Portman).
At the beginning of Michel Gondry 2, I started to wonder if maybe he'd actually grown out of the music video, thinking I'd gotten much more out of his recent movies than I did from this second batch of clips, but as I progressed through the disc, I found myself returning to videos I thought were underwhelming, until the DVD had completely won me over. Of course, as a fan, I'm an easy mark, and it can't hold a candle to his first DVD (which still beats this one in both quality and volume), but anyone who picked it up should give this a look as well. I may be more overwhelmingly excited to see what Gondry delivers next year with The Green Hornet, but I'm already making space on my shelf for a third collection of whatever he cooks up for the next wave of MTV superstars.
As much as I like Gondry, I'd say most people will probably find the front cover more grotesque than striking, but seeing as the DVD is currently exclusive to his official website, it shouldn't scare off too many potential buyers. Still, it's definitely not as appealing or iconic as the shot from his LEGO-style "Fell in Love With a Girl" video that graced the first volume. The back cover is simpler, choosing a similar design to Vol. 1 to list the vids. The disc comes housed in a transparent single-disc case so that the inside cover can display further disturbing photo-mesh images, and the disc art displays an 8-bit video game theme that continues on the DVD's inspired, crudely funny menus (you follow a dog sprite around that poops on the videos you choose, complete with MIDI farting -- classy). The only disappointment is the lack of booklet, since the last one had an awesome 52-page tome will all sorts of cool stuff. Can't win 'em all...
The Video and Audio
Seeing as this is a compilation disc, featuring videos from at least the early 90's all the way through to the last year or so, the video quality varies widely throughout the DVD. The majority of the videos look about as good as you'd expect older videos to look on DVD: a little bit soft, with a bit of interlacing and a touch of overblown contrast, but otherwise okay. The videos' aspect ratio also varies, although everything on the disc is essentially presented in full frame (widescreen videos are letterboxed). A couple of the videos are framed ever so slightly to one side or the other ("Close But No Cigar" seems to be shifted to the left) and one video, Energy Orchard's "How the West Was Won", seems to have information on all four sides of the screen that were meant to get scanned out on the sides of a TV. Still, I would have been surprised if the disc looked much better than it does. All of the videos are presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, which is actually fairly good, although music fans are probably going to be disappointed at the lack of 5.1 mixes.
First, we get a number of clips. "The Simpsons Parody of The White Stripes Video" (1:04) is pretty much what it says it is, from the second episode of the show's 18th season. Unfortunately, a quick glance online reveals that a couple of bits have been edited out of this clip (to avoid paying Nancy Cartwright, no doubt). Next, "Michel Gondry Solves a Rubik's Cube With His Feet" (2:05) is an amusing short that made a small sensation on YouTube. Clever viewers figured out how it was done, but no solution is presented on the DVD, so you'll have to look for that yourself. Next, "Michel Gondry Solves a Rubik's Cube With His Nose" (0:20) ratchets up the stakes with an even more impressive feat, and finally "Jack Black Beats Michel Gondry With His Rubik's Cubes" (1:09) puts an end to the puzzle nonsense once and for all. Demented, but oddly hilarious. The last in this section is "Booker T and the Michel Gondrys" (7:18), which features the singer, the director, and Donald "Duck" Dunn and Steve Cropper (of The Blues Brothers Band!) performing a few Fats Waller songs for Be Kind Rewind. The only thing missing is Gondry's "Will it De-Blend? video.
Next, there are six "making-of" segments for selected videos: The White Stripes - "The Denial Twist" (8:21), Beck - "Cellphone's Dead" (7:49), Paul McCartney - "Dance Tonight" (5:41), Radiohead - "Knives Out" (4:08), Steriogram - "Walkie Talkie Man" (5:11), and Björk - "Declare Independence" (5:30). I'd been thinking the lack of an overall making-of would hurt the disc, but while it's a shame there isn't a clip for every one of the videos, some of these featurettes are just as good as "I've Been Twelve Forever". You get to hear from Conan O'Brien (who cameos in the White Stripes video) and meet a 6 foot 12 performer, see the original concept for "Cellphone's Dead" (with a hilarious microphone gag) and learn how the video was inspired by David Cronenberg's Fly remake, see the shockingly elaborate set for "Dance Tonight and watch the awesome ghost effect occur live, see the complicated hanging camera rig used on "Knives Out", and explore the challenges of creating a gigantic yarn hand. The clips for "Dance Tonight" and "Declare Independence" seem to have been done for other reasons, while the rest feel like they were specifically shot for the DVD. The first two and "Walkie Talkie Man" were directed by Jeff Buchanan, one of the five co-directors of "I've Been Twelve Forever", and they're the best ones, as Buchanan seems to have a friendly connection to Gondry and understand his process. Only "Knives Out" (by someone else, but produced for the DVD) is disappointing in that we don't get to hear from the band or Gondry on the challenges of the complicated one-shot video, as the featurette is a silent montage with the song laid over it.
Lastly, a few odds and ends round out the disc. "How to Blow Up a Helicopter (Ayako's Story)" (14:10) follows Gondry's Tokyo! star Ayako Fujitani around the streets of NYC and then to Canada to interview her father. I actually didn't know who her father was (no spoilers, although you can find it on IMDb), so I was surprised watching the piece develop. It's also interesting to see how Fujitani was influenced by both Japanese and American culture: she seems very Japanese in Tokyo! and very American in the featurette, which she touches upon. It's one of the best pieces on the DVD. "Conan and the Big Head" (0:32) is a television clip in which Conan gets the gift you see in the "Denial Twist" video. "L'Histoire De L'univers" (1:07) is an awesome animated short similar to the Cody Chesnutt video advertising Forum Des Images. Michel's son Paul contributes a music video of his own in The Willowz "Take a Look Around" (3:15), which is impressively twisted, slickly animated and makes me think of various demented pieces of CD liner art. The feature also includes a weird penis-and-vagina animation by Michel that's likely to disturb some viewers. Finally, I'm not really sure what to make of Herve Di Rosa's "Viva De Rosa" (3:51), a bizarre French-language animation that Gondry directed.
The pooping theme turns into a humping theme for the little dog-sprite menu icon in the special features. The only real complaint I have (pretty much about the whole disc) is the lack of English subtitles. Over the years, I've gotten pretty good at deciphering Gondry's French accent, but there were a couple of times (like when Gondry is describing why he ditched the original "Cellphone's Dead" concept) that I just couldn't understand him.
Michel Gondry 2 is highly recommended to fans of his work, fans of the videos/artists on the disc, or completists, although patience is a virtue; the videos will grow on you as you explore the DVD. The special features are also great (especially "How to Blow Up a Helicopter"). Still, any newcomers looking for a batch of inspiringly cool music videos should definitely check out the first volume (if not the entire first Director's Label box set) before considering this second, more esoteric anthology.
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