Inspiration: The Thorn in the Heart
When describing this month’s film, I cited Scorsese’s Italianamerican as an influence (see my previous post). Another source of inspiration, from another of my favorite directors, is the recent The Thorn in the Heart by Michel Gondry. The film was quietly released last year in only a few theaters with little to no promotion. Given the personal nature of it, and its low budget aesthetic, I guess it didn’t seem like a good fit for a filmmaker who lately seems more interested in breaking into the Hollywood mainstream. It has now found a home on DVD from Oscilloscope (the Beastie Boys-affiliated label) and on is available on Netflix Instant view.
The Thorn in the Heart is a documentary Gondry made about his own family, namely his aunt Suzette. Suzette had been a school teacher for almost 40 years in various parts of France. Gondry takes her on a tour of her former work sites as she recalls stories from them and meets former colleagues and students. Interwoven are brief scenes that display Gondry’s knack for DIY filmmaking such as stop-motion animation, and sequences involving model trains (side note: in my opinion, it is this approach to film that Michel needs to make a return to, and stop focusing on the big-budget, star drive vehicles like Green Hornet). Also touched upon are personal familial stories, especially the relationship between Suzette and her son Jean-Yves.
The film isn’t groundbreaking, nor does it possess any major message, but it’s worth a view. I found Gondry’s scenes with his aunt endearing and coming from a place of genuine respect. The biggest question in all of this is Gondry’s motivation to make the film. Suzette’s life has certainly been a full one, but is it remarkable enough to warrant a 80-minute documentary? Also curious is the open discussion of private matters between Suzette and Jean-Yves. Was Gondry’s intention to provide a platform for resolving their tension, or to compare and contrast Suzette’s relationship with her students to her own son? The likeliest explanation is that Gondry wanted to make a personal film about the remarkable (and unremarkable) people in his life. He just happens to have enough public attention to show that film theatrically. One of the most telling scenes in the film is towards the end when Michel screens the film for his family and records their reactions (a theme explored in Be Kind, Rewind and the simultaneous Deitch Project installation/book). If, as Clay Shirkey writes, every piece of media has its audience, were we really meant to see this glimpse into his personal life?
In keeping with this theme of personal storytelling, I’ll conclude with one of my own Gondry-related experiences. I have always been a fan of Gondry’s work, namely his music videos. They are a major reason I continue to be fascinated with the music video as an art form, despite its arguable relevance in the MTV-less world. While I was enrolled at the New York Film Academy, our second assignment was to make a music video or a film set to music. I immediately knew the song and idea I wanted to shoot (The White Stripes’ cover of “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself”). I decided to shoot it in Williamsburg’s McCarren Park, got my first film permit and assembled my crew of classmates. During shooting, I noticed a passerby looking at us. It turned out to be Michel Gondry himself, pushing his son in a stroller. (I later learned that he is in fact a resident of Greenpoint, having relocated to New York from France after filming Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). I took this sighting as a sign that I should continue pursuing filmmaking-seeing my favorite music video director while I was shooting my first music video couldn’t be pure coincidence. We’ll see if I was right…
The theatrical trailer for The Thorn in the Heart: