In a CGI-saturated summer movie season, there’s something refreshing and honest about Michel Gondry’s films. Eschewing digital effects in lieu of the laborious art of stop-motion animation, puppets, and, in one case, cities constructed entirely from toilet paper rolls, Gondry makes offbeat romantic comedies with a wildly imaginative but comparably low-tech aesthetic. Even when the narratives meander or annoy (and they do), you can’t help but admire the person working really hard behind the scenes to create the magic.
The French-born director, best known for his music videos and 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, sat for a free-flowing conversation with Chicago Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum last night at Walker Art Center. On the heels of last month’s Gondry retrospective, the latest installment in the Walker’s always entertaining Regis Dialogue series (think Inside the Actors Studio, minus the imperious James Lipton) sold out in a record three hours to a hipster crowd that Rosenbaum quickly acknowledged was more familiar with Gondry’s music videos than he was—the first indication that this odd-couple pairing wouldn’t be among the series’ strongest.
The cerebral critic did seem out of step with his subject, but Gondry gamely and often humorously fielded questions in his soft-spoken, heavily accented English. He touched first on his artistic upbringing in the Parisian suburb of Versailles, where he cut his cinematic teeth making videos for his pop band Oui Oui (Gondry was their drummer—“I don’t know why people laugh at that,” he quipped, responding to the audience’s chuckles). A fortuitous meeting with Björk, his creative soulmate it would seem, led to several other video gigs and eventually to the Foo Fighters and The White Stripes, whose “Everlong" and “The Hardest Button to Button” videos, respectively, Rosenbaum illuminated as small showpieces for the kind of highly allusive, dense narratives Gondry is drawn to as film subjects.
Claiming that he can’t always decipher the lyrics of the songs he’s hired to direct videos for, Gondry said the language barrier has actually proved to be more help than hindrance, joking that “I learn to follow certain words and create my own little reality on the side.” Part of creating that alternate reality includes handcrafted-looking visual effects that have a timelessness, he argued, that of-the-moment digital technologies simply don’t. He can always find the means to realize for the screen the wild ideas he sketches in elaborate storyboards (“technically there’s always a solution,” he insists), hinting instead that it’s the scheduling and other demands of the stars he works for that are more of an impediment to realizing his creative vision.
Although more than half of the evening’s clips and questions were reserved for Gondry’s videos, when the conversation finally turned to his feature films, the focus was on his collaborations with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who wrote the screenplay for Gondry’s feature-film debut, Human Nature, and the Oscar-winning script for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The Kaufman partnership has done much to build Gondry’s critical and commercial reputation, but has had the unfortunate effect of illuminating the muddled results when he’s left on his own, namely on last year’s semi-autobiographical, Gondry-scripted The Science of Sleep.
During the audience Q&A that ended the evening, Gondry acknowledged the uncomfortable position this puts him in. “People might think that there’s more depth in the work I do with [Kaufman],” he said. “But I want to give myself a chance to be a writer.” In some respects, it was a fitting reminder of the unusual place this talented filmmaker finds himself in—heralded as a gifted visual stylist with a great imagination, but having to defend a small, uneven body of work that might be a bit too premature for a retrospective and dialogue such as this.