Science & Tech

Spike Jonze Welcomes Political Solipsism

British musician and dancer FKA Twigs appears in the Welcome Home ad for Apple’s HomePod. (YouTube screengrab via Apple)
His new ad Welcome Home is the best cinematic expression today of our alienation and humanity.

Where has Spike Jonze been since Her, the pervy digital fantasy about love between a man (Joaquin Phoenix) and his computer operating system? He hasn’t made a feature film in five years, yet, in that lapse of time, the shrinking moviegoing audience and the growing market for home-streaming all kinds of digital content via private devices attest to his ahead-of-the-curve instincts. Jonze has, instead, made several advertising spots that are more exciting than most theatrical films. His newest, “Welcome Home,” opens out the modern spiritual state beyond any current Hollywood feature.

While Jonze pitches HomePod, Apple’s new home-speakers system, “Welcome Home” also imagines the story of a woman who, like the protagonist of Her, meaningfully retreats from the workaday world. Her eyes downcast, she addresses her “intelligent personal assistant” named Siri: “Play me something I’d like.” While she dances to “Til It’s Over,” by Anderson .Paak, the release of previously constrained emotion changes her drab apartment into an ever-shifting, psychedelic vaudeville. The spot’s female black urban professional (fBuppie) is a British singer-dancer Tahliah Debrett Barnett who goes by the name FKA Twigs. All these monikers suggest avatars, chosen forms of anonymity, that indicate social detachment — alienation in the age of depersonalized social media. The only clues to individuality are FKA Twigs’s beige skin and dark curly hair, which imply the biracial identity that advertisers have promoted during the past eight years. Despite that, “Welcome Home” is most notable for avoiding a sense of community. Its four-minute running time is about depicting solipsism.

When French New Wave master Jean-Luc Godard finally gave in and made his first TV commercials in the 1980s (selling jeans), he famously remarked, “It’s only 60 seconds. Any longer and I’d have to lie.” Jonze, for the past five years, might have been sidestepping the unavoidable disingenuousness of feature-length films such as The Shape of Water, Get Out, and Three Billboards — all conceived in political sentiment, mendacity, and banality. Madison Avenue innovation allows him to evade the inherent hypocrisy of commercial-making and follow his high-art pursuit of the private and eccentric.

“Welcome Home” recalls Jonze’s celebrated 2000 music video “Weapon of Choice,” for the group Fatboy Slim, in which Christopher Walken danced out a businessman’s anomie in the vacant spaces of a hotel lobby. There’s more context to FKA Twigs’s dance, but here is where Jonze gets in trouble. Although expressing a theme consistent in all his work, Jonze’s vision of an fBuppie’s inner life is a trifle sappy. As an idealized Apple consumer, she is soft-voiced and shy, politely pleading, “Sorry, excuse me,” to the drones jamming her in on the subway, on rainy streets, and in an elevator. Jonze’s idealization of the typical young Apple customer avoids the get-out-of-my-way isolation of the iPod-wearing, bicycling bourgeois who populate urban centers as the new ruling class. Hollywood doesn’t dare make feature films that are honest about this oppressive new breed, yet Jonze strains to remind us of their (flawed) humanity.

Hollywood has lost touch with common experience, especially when celebrities embark on partisan tirades. (They pretend concern with “bringing us together” while driving us further apart.) The recent Oscar-winning films sentimentalize a culture that hates itself, while Jonze’s specialty is exploring social retreat. Yet Jonze knows that music and dancing are part of socializing rituals — even if the connection is private and wishful. So the more FKA Twigs exudes recognizable joy (and effort), the more a viewer can’t help but identity with her endeavor.

The musical fantasy of “Welcome Home” is also a statement of our social and political isolation. The momentary satisfaction of consumerism is not entirely hidden or bedazzled by her domicile’s sudden limitless expanse or the rainbow-hued striations that recall graphic artist Peter Saville’s luminous Christmas wrapping-paper design. Jonze’s visual jests resemble drug-culture hallucinations that imply the deceptive fulfillment of materialism. And who among us can honestly say he has never felt that?

The great dancer Cyd Charisse, of MGM’s movie-musical golden age, never had a moment like FKA Twigs approaching her own mirror image or coming face to face with her psychic doppelganger and enjoying the idiosyncratic pas de deux. This part of the dance advertises the community of self. It differs from “Weapon of Choice” and Jonze’s popular 2016 video spot “Kenzo World (My Mutant Brain),” in which actress-dancer Margaret Qualley, who starred in last year’s anti-clerical film Novitiate, grimaced and flounced her own nervous breakdown just to advertise a new perfume. Qualley’s broad, heavy lurching conveyed the psychosis of solipsism. Her movements, choreographed by Ryan Heffington, suggested the Brazilian forro as if danced without a partner. She defied the gracefulness that comes from training, discipline, and strength (such as Kanye West spotlighted in his 2010 ballet-themed “Runaway” music video) — sharing instead Jonze’s love of quasi-amateurish dancing as politically expressive gesture.

Jonze’s visual jests resemble drug-culture hallucinations that imply the deceptive fulfillment of materialism.

Ever eccentric, always brilliant, Jonze seems to have forsaken Hollywood features to caution us that solipsism affects current politics. Highlighting the community of self — as “Welcome Home” does — is the clearest recognition so far of the generational shift in which young consumers are prompted to let their naïveté on issues (whether gender, gun control, or social justice) determine solipsistic responses to contemporary society. Til it’s over.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.


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