The name “Spike Jonze” can immediately evoke a number of connections and, depending on your particular frame of reference, they can vary quite a bit. “That’s the dude dancing in that Fatboy Slim video, right?” “Wasn’t he married to Sophia Coppola?” “He’s a skateboard photographer, isn’t he?” The answer to all of these questions is “YES” but, these days, Adam Spiegel (as he was born) is probably best known for his film work. Jonze began with a history in the BMX and skateboarding worlds, even holding positions as a major photographer for both Freestylin’ and Transworld Skateboarding magazines. These roots aided in Spike‘s smooth transition into the filming of street skate videos, the co-founding of Girl Skateboards, and in producing/co-creating Jackass (both on TV and the films). He is also an accomplished commercial and video director, having been nominated by the Directors Guild of America for “Outstanding Achievement in Commercials in 2005” and directing such music video classics as Pavement‘s “Shady Lane“, Sonic Youth‘s “100%” (starring himself and Jason Lee), “Sabotage” by Beastie Boys, “Feel the Pain” – Dinosaur Jr., and Weezer‘s “Buddy Holly“. He has produced, written, and even appeared in a few films, but Jonze truly became a household name in 1999 after the breakthrough success of Being John Malkovich. Having only directed a total of 3 and with a 7 year gap before the release of his most recent, it may seem odd that he would be primarily acknowledged as a feature film director and that it could overshadow his previous efforts. However, these few films have been incredibly successful. Being John Malkovich and 2002‘s Adaption (both written by Charlie Kaufman) were honored with Oscar Nominations and last years Where the Wild Things Are has already already begun to collect numerous award nominations of it’s own. Fortunately, while the latter film was in the making for nearly a decade, Jonze remained active in other projects and has even reconnected with the art of the short film. Last Friday (March, 19th) one such short by the name of I’m Here was released for free on the internet.
In late January, my little brother sent me a link to the trailer of I’m Here. This weekend he sent me another link; this time it was to a website which would “allow” me to view the half hour movie in it’s entirety. Much like with last years We Were Once a Fairy Tale, which originally premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival, I’m Here was first unveiled at Sundance before making it’s appearance on the internet. Unlike the previous short, which was leaked on the internet by it’s star Kanye West and later pulled for an exclusive iTunes release, I’m Here was released for free via an elaborate website that was designed specifically for the project. The site is so “elaborate” that, regardless of previous attempts, I actually had difficulty viewing the film until yesterday. Upon visiting the site, it’s necessary to enter your birth date, before being allowed to progress further. The film itself wasn’t too explicit, but this check-poing can be attributed to the fact that the full title of the film has been posted as “I’m Here: A Love Story In an Absolut World“. This is obviously because the film was sponsored by, or at least made in collaboration with, Absolut vodka. Fortunately, the short does not center around the product at all, considering that the main characters are actually cybernetic organisms. Once admitted through the age “filter”, the screen displays a giant image of a movie theater as viewed from across the street. The marquee and posters out front advertise for the film and cars drive past to simulate a point of view perspective of the viewer on their way to an actual theater. Once the box office window is clicked, the screen will advance/zoom towards it with an image of a man in an old-timey usher’s uniform with his face blocked by a speaker. The man presents an angled computer moniter/check-in screen allowing you to choose to view such options as the trailer, cast info, etc. and, of course, the option to view the movie itself.
At this point, I think it’s important to explain that this is only how the site is supposed to operate because, for the first couple of days, I was having quite a few issues. Sometimes, it would tell me to install the “latest version of flash” which I already had and, once I installed it again, it would still only present that screen over and over. Only seldom and randomly would I even be able to advance beyond it, but that may be due to the site’s inability to handle an influx of visitors and those glitches with hopefully be fixed soon. Another interesting thing about the site is that it doesn’t involve a scenario that is as simple as clicking on a Youtube video and watching it at your own leisure (especially since the only Youtube copy was instantly removed by Absolut for copyright violations). The first visit that I made stated that the “NEXT VIEWING” wouldn’t be for 35 minutes or so. The next time that I tried to watch the film, I was told that it would be at least another Hour and 1/2 before that could happen. When I finally did achieve the opportunity to view the movie, I was provided with an exact number count of seats that were left for the screening (somewhere around 900), which means that only a couple thousand or so people were being allowed to view the film at any given time and only during allotted windows/time periods. Although this may seem like a deterrent for those who love the instantaneous benefits of the internet age, I appreciated the more drawn-out, humanistic touches and real-life nature instilled by the step by step process, which work as a reminder of the magic of theater and of the unique human experience therein. This relaxed, “no rush” approach further adds to soul of the piece as a love story and prompts the viewer to pay more attention to the film that they’ve waited for, rather than a video clip that they might pull up at will and only half acknowledge as they multitask. Once the option to watch the film is chosen, there are multimedia options which allow the viewer to connect with their Facebook accounts and, once connected, I was handed a VIP-style laminate with my own picture on it. From there, the screen continues with the first person POV of entering into the theater, being seated and even receiving a text message from someone else “in the theater” reading, “I’m Here“. After the movie finishes, there is an equal amount of effort put into the first person scenery, reminding the viewer of the distinct experience that the simple exit of a theater post-feature can also possess.
[UPDATE: site now specifically states that “they” are putting in “Double Shifts” and that the film will be screening once every 2 hours. ]
The film itself revolves around two robots that live fairly casual, everyday lives. Whether it’s intended to take place in a futuristic version of Los Angeles, I don’t know, but it seems to exist in more of an alternate present day environment, where the robotic characters appear to be viewed as slightly lower life forms amongst humans. The main character, “Sheldon” wears a sweater and rides a bus to his library job every day. His head is constructed from an outdated PC. After the monotonous routine of his life is established, he quickly meets a quirky female in a dress and bob cut that attracts his attention. Her features are more similar to that of a crash test dummy. The beginning of the movie is interesting enough, but I didn’t feel very engaged. What’s fascinating about acknowledging that lack of connection, for me, is what it represents: “This is a ‘short’ film, so I better connect with these characters quick. I need to make an assessment about how I feel. Do I love this yet?” Before I knew it, I was completely drawn in to the film, but I don’t know when it happened. I’m not sure of the exact moment that I crossed the line from detached observer to being sympathetic and compassionate, but it definitely happened and the fact that the transition occurred seamlessly is what I view as one of the greatest achievements of this film. Once we meet Sheldon, there’s just enough time to get a feel of him and what it means to be the type of life-form that he is. Sure, the use of robots has a risk of becoming a bit gimmicky, but we move ahead. He meets a “lady” and likes her, the freedom she represents, and the unorthodox shit that she does, like tagging poles with signs that say “I’m Here“. Barely acquainted with Sheldon, anyone with a history of love and love lost should be skeptical of his new found infatuation (my personal skepticism lasted until the end of the film). Jonze does an amazing job of capturing the anxiety and excitement of new love, the uncertainty that’s constantly embedded deep within it, and the faith and reckless abandon necessary to fling yourself off that cliff with nothing but the hope that you will somehow land safely. The attempt to instill otherwise inanimate objects with human characteristics and draw compassion for them isn’t new but, as evidenced through this film, it isn’t a mute effort or dead art either. Despite being constructed of nothing but wires and machinery, or perhaps because of it, the characters are able to portray the subtlety of complex emotions and vice-versa. I’m Here works admirably in it’s format as a short film and succeeds where overly “hip” and overt feature-length films like 500 Days of Summer (with it’s shameless J.D. Salinger references) fell flat for me. These junkyard contraptions have more personality than self-obsessed hipsters that fancy themselves as “obscure”, “unique”, and “interesting”, because they listen to multi-platinum bands that “no ones ever heard of” like The Pixies and The Smiths and shop at Modcloth and Urban outfitters. Jonze doesn’t ever polish or buff out the uncertainty or uncomfortable risk involved in the interactions between the main characters. Instead, he leaves them in, ambiguity and all. These are the elements that ultimately make I’m Here a piece that is original, interesting, engaging, authentic, and above all…. successful.
One more thing that I feel is important to bring attention to is the soundtrack. Given equal consideration as the actual film, it features music by Sleigh Bells, Girls, Animal Collective, Gui Boratto, and the “fictional” group, “The Lost Trees Band” which includes Aska Matsumiya (Moonrats, ex-Your Enemies Friends,) and Nick Zinner (Yeah Yeah Yeahs). Also credited with being part of Lost Trees is “Nick Thelan“, which I’m assuming is a typo for Nick Thelen, who is formerly of Pretty Girls Make Graves and currently works with Matsumiya in Moonrats. The credits also make note of a “cover” of Of Montreal‘s “The Past is a Grotesque Animal” by the listed members of The Lost Trees Band with Kevin Barnes (Of Montreal) himself. Additional music/production was also contributed by Jonze‘s brother, Sam “Squeak E. Clean” Spiegel.