Peeping Toms and Bedroom Dancers: Muses on Spike Jonze’s Afterlife

Spike Jonze

Spike Jonze

Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

—Ferris Bueller

The trickster’s function is to break taboos, create mischief, stir things up. In the end, the trickster gives people what they really want, some sort of freedom.

—Tom Robbins

A series of instructions, followed by a brief history

First, some instructions.

  1. Watch Spike Jonze’s 1998 Praise You video, performed by Richard Koufey and The Torrance Community Dance Group. For extra credit, watch Torrance Rises, which can be found on Director’s Series, Vol. 1 – Spike Jonze.
  2. Watch The Dance of Despair and Disillusionment, in Spike Jonze’s 1999 film, Being John Malkovich.
  3. Watch Spike Jonze’s 2001 Weapon of Choice video, performed by Christopher Walken.
  4. Watch Napoleon Dynamite, released in 2004, or this, if you find yourself short on time.
  5. Watch The Squid and the Whale, released in 2005, directed by Noah Baumbach.
  6. 2010 was a big year. Watch Spike Jonze’s The Suburbs, Noam Baumbach’s Greenberg, starring Greta Gerwig, and Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture.
  7. 2012 crystallized it. What it? You’ll see. The crystals include Noam Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s Frances Ha and Lena Dunham’s dance scene in Season 1 of Girls. But, actually, watch all of Girls.
  8. On November 3, 2013, it was revealed. With understanding, you will find Spike Jonze’s live YouTube Video Afterlife, the opener for the first-ever YouTube Music Awards. For extra credit, watch Spike Jonze’s Her, released in American movie theaters in 2014.

Spike Jonze is kinda hard to pin down. The ultimate prankster, Jonze is the kind of figure you collect facts about, whose career you learn about through entering various permutations of words in Internet search engines followed by + Spike Jonze. Even for the most devoted followers, Jonze somehow remains a hologram—it is he who controls when the hologram fully forms its three dimensions before our eager eyes, and it is he who controls when the hologram flickers blank, only to reappear in whatever form he will entertain us with. He is a writer, a skateboarder, a dancer, a filmmaker, a photographer, a stuntmaker, a trickster, a heartmaker. He does a very good job at seeming to play by the rules while not playing by any of them. He does a very good job of seeming within arm’s reach, while handfuls of his fabric dissolve into sand, transform into gusts of color and float into the air. Don’t try to convince anyone that he was literally, right here, in front of you. They won’t believe you. And anyway, the truth is, we love Jonze for his pranks and his tricks, although of a different manner than those of that other trickster whose name is quoted so oft alongside his own that the two might as well be sidekicks. But Jonze’s pranks are quieter than Gondry’s sleight of hand. Those who have traveled down the rabbit hole in order to discover the secrets of Spike’s wonderland shouldn’t be too surprised. Gondry was born of inventors and musicians, Jonze was born Adam Speigel, heir to the $3-million catalogue business, according to New York Magazine. And, also according to New York Magazine, Jonze’s parents divorced while Jonze was still in high school, and the teen was often left to his own devices. He raised himself, so the story goes, or perhaps you could say that the Rockville BMX store lent a hand. (Cue video: The Suburbs)

Los Campesinos provides the subtitles

If there’s one thing that I could never confess
It’s that I can’t dance a single step

It’s you!
It’s me!
And there’s dancing!

Not sure if you mind if I dance with you
But I don’t think right now that you care about anything at all
And oh, if only there were clothes on the floor
I’d feel certain I was bedroom dancing
And it’s all flailing limbs at the front line
Every single one of us is twisted by design

—You! Me! Dancing!

Spike makes peeping toms out of all of us

When I was in high school, I used to throw dance parties for myself in my bedroom. I was the only attendee. I was the only invited guest. Sometimes my twin would crash the party, but that was okay. I would have invited her if I wasn’t too embarrassed by my own moves (particularly those caused by my face) to add her to the list. She had her own moves to worry about, I soon found out. Mine crossed hers out. Hers crossed mine out. Besides, this way, we took turns archiving such sacred moments with my Vivitar 35mm point and click.

During these parties, I would put on this seafoam green sweater that I inherited from my stepmother, who no longer had any use for it. It was enormous on me, but it hung off both shoulders, and made me feel fancy. I would put it on over a pair of blue jeans, apply lipgloss and cheek stain, and I would dance to Stacy Q’s Two Half Hearts until I was breathless. Breathless from what? I was never the kind of dancer I wanted to be. I could only spot enough for one turn before the spots of my dizziness circled me like the halo of stars hovering above a cross-eyed cartoon. Although I felt immensely happy during those three years of ballet, tap, and jazz before my father decided it was too costly for my twin and I to continue, I mostly froze on stage, the pressure of being the best too high for me to shine. Instead, I fumbled just enough to fail at dancing. I can’t think of a single time that I danced on stage as flawlessly as I did in the studio, when I believed no one was watching me. I also can’t think of a single time on stage in which I performed an old mistake. My body, nervous and jittery, owned more by the audience than my own heart, carved out new mistakes, saving its perfections for me and me alone, like it did during those dance parties I held in my room, with my overly zealous lipsync face and my routine made more memorable for its excessive enthusiasm than for its virtuosity.

addie tsai

I don’t know how, but Spike knew. He knew about all of those teen boys and teen girls who couldn’t dance, but wanted to feel their bodies. He knew those boys would never admit their need to move like Michael Jackson, he knew those girls were devastated when their bodies just didn’t work with ballet. And so in 1999, Jonze made Praise You, standing in as Richard Koufey and joined by Torrance Community Dance Group. With cheap 16mm film and a broken-into California movie theater, a cheesy dance routine that starts in the bedroom then becomes a performance, then gets turned into a flash mob, then becomes a solo breakdance number, then ends in a prank, then turns into a music video, then morphs into a music video award nomination, then gets produced into a mockumentary, then ends in a legend.

But, Praise You isn’t a bedroom dance. And it isn’t a spontaneous flash mob. It’s a music video. And perhaps Spike Jonze’s biggest prank of all is that he uses the rhetoric of bedroom dancing (along with routines found most often in jazzercise studios from the 70s and 80s) to make us believe that we’re getting to peek behind the curtain and watch a group of bedroom dancers in imperfect unison. That, somehow, we’re seeing something that wasn’t meant to be seen. And not only that, but that he has figured out a way to film and choreograph a performance that can look like the anti-performance, but that, guess what, we can (and have) watched a million times. This is the dance that the pre- and post-millennial yearns for. The dance that feels like no one’s watching. But the dance that everyone watches. This is the dance that democratizes a nation of Americans.

If you play Praise You, and then you play Afterlife, you will see it is Praise You, all grown up.

Lots has happened since Praise You.

Let’s recap: LenaDunhamGretaGerwigNapoleonDynamiteTinyFurnitureChristopherWalkeninahotellobbyflashmobproposals
FrancesHaGirlsShakeItOffMeghanTrainorBuzzfeedvirallyshareddancevideosandandandand.

But one thing remains clear. Spike Jonze is still our favorite prankster. This time Spike Jonze is dressing up the prank, but that prank still beats with the same heart.

Jonze’s live YouTube Video Afterlife, performed in real time at the first-ever YouTube Music Video awards in 2013, features Greta Gerwig, who is as close to the female version of Richard Koufey (and whose dancing matches the choreography of Praise You) as Spike Jonze is ever gonna get. By the way, it may interest you to note that Spike Jonze was the director of the entire YouTube Music Awards, and as such, he should be credited with pioneering the first series of live YouTube videos this awards show welcomed with open arms, and who directed a majority of the videos that followed the awards show opening, Afterlife.

Afterlife is a perfect representation of what has happened in video dance since Spike Jonze’s inimitable (although highly encouraging of mimicry) Praise You. The only way to watch this performance is through a YouTube link, and most of the posts of Afterlife will indicate that the video is a recording of a live performance. It’s really too bad, because without that information, it would take almost two full minutes to discover that Greta Gerwig is performing live. The video opens with the indie darling of dance and quirkiness kissing a lover goodbye, as if for the last time.

Praise You is a video pretending to be an impromptu performance.

Afterlife is a live performance pretending to be an overly produced video.

After her lover, whose face we never see, says goodbye to a saddened Gerwig, she begins to dance.

She dances angry. She dances in flourishes. She dances ecstatic through a snowy forest. Her arms are daggers. Her arms are bows and arrows. Her arms are frenzy. Her arms are jazzercise. Her hand is a microphone. Her hand is a greeting.

She shimmies. She turns. She jump-kicks. She jetés.

She runs down a set of stairs to a stage surrounded by audience members, while she repeats her routine in unison with a gaggle of background dancer girls who look no more than ten shadowing her.

Like Praise You, the unison calms down the chaos of the imperfect but emotive dance routine, the badly but sweetly performed moves by our favorite emotive dancer, Greta Gerwig. We figure she must have had dance training, somewhere. But do we care? She was a ballet dancer who learned at adolescence that her body wasn’t the right kind. She was devastated, like a girl with a heartbreak. She was devastated, and then she found fencing. And then she found she could dance some other kind of dance, become a different kind of virtuoso.

In fact, we like her better this way.

This way, she becomes one of us.

And this way, we are not only peeping toms on Greta Gerwig’s bedroom dancing made public by Spike Jonze—perhaps in Afterlife, Gerwig is as much a prankster as Jonze, pretending to be as awkward and unknowing in her body as the rest of us—but through Jonze’s direction, we lift the curtain on our own awkwardnesses, our own overly enthusiastic bodies, our own joyous wonderlands.

Read more of Addie Tsai’s work: addietsai.org

Follow Addie on Twitter: @addiebrook 

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