The Golden Spike

Actor and rock video director Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich is an odd masterpiece. So why is Jonze scared of his own shadow?

In a strange new film that opened last week, people pay for the pleasure of slipping through a small door in an anonymous office building and spending 15 minutes inside John Malkovich's head. Turns out celebrity's not all it's cracked up to be: Those who make the trip watch Malkovich reading the Wall Street Journal, heating up leftover Chinese food, and ordering bathroom towels over the phone.

According to Malkovich himself and some of the film's other stars, this is pretty much what it's like to be famous. "When we go to McDonald's, we have to decide if we want to park or go through McDrive," says the edgy and inscrutable star of stage and screen. Cameron Diaz, the former model and Something About Mary lead, who appears in this new film as a frizzy-haired pet store owner, concurs: "I think what the movie says is that the grass is always greener -- everybody else [seems to] have it better."

For most of the film's stars and for its producer, R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, celebrity is a known quantity, something they've wrestled with long ago. But one member of the crew of this Kafka-meets-Alice in Wonderlandsatire -- director Spike Jonze -- has little to say about celebrity or voyeurism. He has even less to say about himself and his own background. For Jonze, who has developed a formidable underground reputation over the past decade as a video director par excellence, the real demands of celebrity have come calling for the first time.

Though he has made one of the year's funniest movies -- Being John Malkovich is up there, in its own eccentric way, with South Park and Rushmore -- and is MTV's most celebrated director, he has almost no public profile. He turns down interviews, decides not to show up for others, or stages bizarre pranks in lieu of them. His publicity firm has to hire paparazzi photographers to get a shot of him. Walking into a New York press conference that seems to fill him with fear, and asked by a reporter when he changed his name, the blond and sheepish 29-year-old responds: "Ah, 1933."

Despite the director's frequent impersonation of an innocent bystander, Jonze's new work is one of the most personal and unpredictable films to arrive in a long time. Incongruously, it's also controlled and polished. Much of the movie takes place on floor 7 1/2 of an obscure New York skyscraper and involves a 100-year-old lech who exists almost entirely on carrot juice and a monkey struggling to get in touch with its inner child. The film's early reviews have been uniformly positive -- upon the movie's recent screening at the New York Film Festival, The New York Times' Janet Maslin deemed it "irresistible" and "endearingly nutty." But it's hard to know whether Being John Malkovich will go down in history as "the last great movie of the century," as Esquire has called it, or as an endless midnight movie, a '90s version of The Dark Backward.

as ubiquitous as his work is, Jonze himself is a study in the elusive. Most Americans under the age of 35 have probably seen one of his videos for musicians like Sonic Youth, Björk, or Dinosaur Jr., but the man himself exists as only a vague mystique. His videos are consistently the best and most inventive in the business: His clip for Weezer's "Buddy Holly" set the alternative rock band onstage at Al's Diner, with old, kitschy footage of Richie Cunningham, Potsie -- even the Fonz. His manic video for the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" -- an imitation '70s cop show, complete with bad mustaches and aviator sunglasses -- is equally beloved for its retro fashion sense and its constant on-screen movement. Björk's "It's Oh So Quiet" was a Busby Berkeley homage set in a Valley tire shop, with dancing mechanics and twirling umbrellas, and this year's video for Fatboy Slim's "Praise You," which chronicles an amateur dance troupe, swept the recent MTV Video Awards. The fact that most Gen-Xers who admire his videos know little more than his name is no accident.

"He just doesn't like to talk about himself," says Megan Baltimore, who, with Jonze and two others, owns the Torrance-based Girl skateboard company and was once his roommate. "I don't know if I should say anything," she replies when asked more about him. "I don't want to give away any of his secrets." Asked if Jonze attracts misinformation and mythology, she says, "Would I be giving away his mystique if I said yes?" This kind of closed-mouth treatment is typical of the way Jonze's friends from the skateboard world discuss him.

"Spike has a wonderful persona because the people around him help create his mythology," says Jacob Rosenberg, a fellow skater and video director who has known Jonze casually since the early '90s. Rosenberg says Jonze likes to play with his image and reputation out of the same sense of boyish fun that motivates his shooting and directing. "Life is much more interesting the way he does it."

Part of the Jonze myth is that he's a reclusive, almost preverbal genius -- the image he likes to convey when members of the media are around. When, in 1995, a New York Timesreporter asked Jonze if his real name was Adam Spiegel (which it is), his response was: "Yeah, that's a ... you know, it's all ... it's a mastermind PR plan I'm working on." Or when asked if he was dating actress and director Sofia Coppola, daughter of the Godfather director: "You know, it's all a ... I have no ... I don't know what you're talking about." (Jonze married Coppola this spring at her father's Northern California vineyard, in a ceremony serenaded by Tom Waits.) For an early segment for an MTV series of interviews with video directors, Jonze sent his friend Chris Pontius, who writes for skateboard magazines, to pretend to be him. For Mean magazine, Jonze posed as a frazzled publicist who couldn't get Jonze to cooperate. For Spin, he asked some friends to act like strangers and repeatedly beat the hell out of him in front of a reporter. Even when interviewing with friends at a skateboard magazine, he invents stories and agrees to every outlandish rumor -- wild honeymoons, cross-country BMX bike rides -- the reporter serves him.

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