The return of looney tunes

How did the music-video directors Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry and Chris Cunningham revolutionise a hackneyed genre? All you have to do is dream, they reveal to Gulliver Cragg
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The Independent Culture

"I don't really like attitude," says Michel Gondry, 39, the world's most sought-after music-video director. "Attitude, either in rap or in rock, is what you project if you are a little bit of a vacuum inside." Gondry is taking part in a four-way conversation with myself and his fellow video-makers Spike Jonze and Chris Cunningham; later he'll accuse Jonze of "handing a perfect tool to the critics by saying I'm all about the visuals and surface".

To those who regard MTV as a triumph of style over content, it may come as a surprise to hear one of its golden boys make such pronouncements. Gondry's the guy who made the White Stripes out of Lego, gave us four Kylies in a single shot, and took Björk on fantasy adventures through computer graphics and dolls-house theatres.

Watching Gondry's videos tends to inspire "how on earth did he do that?" bafflement. On an artistic level, however, credit is still wont to go to the musician. Yet these videos constitute one film-maker's body of work, as much Gondry's own as Björk's albums are hers. His new DVD compilation seeks to redress the balance. "When we put all the videos together, it was like a diary," he says. When I saw my video for Massive Attack ("Protection"), I realised it's totally about my break-up with the mother of my son, and I didn't know that at the time. But when I look at it now, it breaks my heart; I see all these people separated, with single parents ..."

Gondry's sumptuous product features not only videos, commercials and short films, but also a long book explaining where his ideas came from and how they were achieved, and a 75-minute documentary about himself. It would be a torturously egotistical project were he not at once so intriguing and so genial. He looks like an exchange student from La Rochelle who forgot to grow up, and talks in a camp, sing-song voice. He claims that it was out of a desire to overcome this effeminacy that he became a drummer - he made his first music videos for his band Oui Oui. His subsequent success has clearly given some confidence to the man who describes himself as "nerdy and shy", and he dominates the conversation today.

Gondry's DVD is accompanied by releases from Cunningham and Jonze, in an attempt by the trio to do for the music video what the French nouvelle vague did for the feature film: reclaim authorship for the director. So it is rather pleasing to discover that the three auteurs are great mates, and make up a strange and charming trans-atlantic triumvirate.

Alongside the Versailles-born Gondry, the Englishman Cunningham is an art-school type who exhibits none of the freakish negativity you might expect from the director who put the Aphex Twin's head on a gang of marauding midgets ("Come to Daddy"). The American Jonze talks in a high-pitched drawl and comes across like a skater brat who has only reluctantly grown up.

The DVDs bring out the differences between the artists. Cunningham, a former special-effects designer, clearly has a dark imagination. Along with more sombre, slow-burning work such as Portishead's "Only You" (where Beth Gibbons was filmed underwater and then composited on to a dark alleyway), he is responsible for the outrageous Aphex Twin video "Windowlicker". Perhaps the most disturbing music promo ever made, this features near-pornographic images of bikini-clad dancing girls all sporting Aphex Twin Richard James's bearded face.

Anointed as an artist by the establishment after the Royal Academy showed his "Flex" video, Cunningham finds such scrutiny "unsettling", and doesn't see any difference between "Flex" and his other work: "I'd rather they were all sitting right next to each other."

Jonze, meanwhile, has found fame as a features director with Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. The cerebral, ironic comedy of those films is seen in miniature in his videos. From The Beastie Boys' cop show spoof, "Sabotage", to rapper Fatlip's clown act in "What's up Fatlip", he casts the musicians as characters and develops a plot. "When I went to do a movie, I was nervous because I felt it was a different thing, but then I realised that the visuals in my videos come out of the story and characters."

"I feel that movies were at their best when they were purely visual," says Gondry. His remark leads into a discussion about the merits of shooting a movie with no script, Mike Leigh-style, that ends with Jonze offering to send Cunningham the outline that his wife Sofia Coppola worked with for Lost in Translation.

Though keen to emphasise their differences, they agree they share a fascination with childhood and dreams. "The thing that we've got in common is that our work's really childish," says Cunningham, and a childish excitement at playing with new toys is evident in the directors' work with special effects. But it is in the use of visual humour and fantastical stories, and the general sense of fun, that these works most evoke childhood.

More striking is the preoccupation with dreams. "My primary objective is to try to recreate things that have the atmosphere of dreams," says Cunningham. "One of the hardest things to do is to accurately portray dream logic." Dreams often function by translating one sensory experience into another, so the translation of musical sound into pictures is inevitably dream-like - in Gondry's video for the White Stripes' "The Hardest Button to Button", the duo's instruments multiply on screen with each beat. "It's mathematical," he says, defending himself against Jonze's comment: "Michel creates these visually conceptual pieces."

The same description can be applied to all three directors' work. They and some of their contemporaries (future installments in the Directors Label series are expected from Jonathan Glazer, Quentin Dupieux and Mark Romanek) have effectively found a mass audience for experimental short filmmaking.

Happily, although all three are currently working on features, they don't intend to turn their backs on the form. "I'd hate to look at it like, you know, we graduated to movies, or something like that," says Jonze.

'The Work of Director Spike Jonze', 'The Work of Director Chris Cunningham' and 'The Work of Director Michel Gondry' are out now on Palm Pictures' Directors Label