At the end of a party the other night, we decided to leave the apartment and go on a nighttime stroll. I sat on a bench by the elevator with Emma, my friend's very young daughter, waiting for family and others. Emma carried a stuffed animal—a grey pony named Jasmine. "I feed her carrots every day," she said, petting the bedraggled little creature, peering from a miniature purse.
Emma is assuredly in a developmental stage called animism, in which very young children imbue inanimate objects with life and emotion. "Calvin and Hobbes," by Bill Waterson, offers the most famous example of animism. The tiger Hobbes is five-year-old Calvin's best friend: lanky, living, breathing. Yet in panels where adults interact with Hobbes, he's nothing more than a slumped, stuffed animal.
Most adults leave the whimsical world of animism far behind—but not one of this planet's truly inventive minds, the French film director Michel Gondry. I thought of Gondry when Emma petted Jasmine. Her stuffed animal looked just like the animated pony from Gondry's 2006 film, "The Science of Sleep." In Gondry's world, stuffed animals can gallop across the screen, a mane of yarn billowing.
A recent resident artist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Gondry has used stop-motion animation and other archaic film tricks to create playful, offbeat videos for pioneering musicians such as Bjork and Beck.
The Beck piece is one of Gondry's more recent videos. Beck sits in a checkered suit in a cloistered film noir room. A cityscape in the window turns into a golem-like creature, and the wood door turns into a faceted creature of moving planks. The entire room seems shape shifting. One is reminded of Henri Matisse, proclaiming that he could find emotion even in a table.
In keeping with his shape-shifting muse, Gondry has gained online notoriety for solving a Rubik's cube with his feet. It turns out that Gondry is part Orson Wells, a la "War of the Worlds," and part the "Wizard of Oz": to give us the impression of an impossible feat, he simply jumbles a completed Rubik's cube with his deft feet, then re-edits the video backwards to give the miraculous appearance of a four-sided cube of unmixed hues.
Though many viewers feel tricked by the video, they would do well to see Gondry's films and realize he playfully abides by Picasso's motto: "Art is a lie that tells the truth." No matter how odd or surreal, Gondry's winning films bring back that lost, imaginative realm of childhood, where even stuffed ponies can whinny and come to life.