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March 17, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

It’s 4 a.m. on a subfreezing night in Philadelphia, and rock duo Gene and Dean Ween have just been caught red-handed stealing the Liberty Bell. They look terrified, and they should be: A dozen very irritated, ninjalike SWAT commandos have M16s aimed at their heads. They also look petrified because 100 yards away on a ladder, Spike Jonze, the 25-year-old video director of the moment, is chuckling fiendishly and shouting at them to ”look more scared!” As surreal as this all-night shoot for Ween’s ”Freedom of ’76” seems, stealing the City of Brotherly Love’s prized monument isn’t any more insane than the action in Jonze’s other heavily rotated videos. Consider: the Beastie Boys hamming it up as badly dressed ’70s cops a la Starsky and Hutch in ”Sabotage”; Weezer crooning bubblegum pop in a Happy Days scene at Arnold’s Drive-In for ”Buddy Holly”; and Japanese teens lip-synching R.E.M. karaoke- style for ”Crush With Eyeliner.” Later, a tired and cold Aaron Freeman, a.k.a. Gene Ween, contemplates the absurdity of this roughly $100,000 production: ”If it doesn’t get played on 120 Minutes, we’re going to do the next video ourselves for 10 bucks.” The Ween guys, as Jonze calls them, shouldn’t lose any z’s over MTV apathy. These days, Jonze’s smart-ass musical high jinks dominate the Buzz Bin. ”Basically, Spike rules the planet,” says Weezer bassist Matt Sharp. ”I’m a pro!” says Jonze in his nasal squeak. Pointing to the director’s lens hanging on a string around his neck, he adds, ”Whoever’s got this thing is the man. If you had this around your neck, you could make this video.” Gold star for modesty. More likely it is Jonze’s demented, fast-forward signature style, a high-speed blender of pop-culture references, that has elevated him to such heights so fast. ”Spike has this wicked sense of humor and a unique way of getting that across visually,” says Sheri Howell, an MTV VP of music. ”It’s fresh with every song he does-you never know what you’re gonna get.” Before Spike ruled the world, he was pretty much just like the kids who gawk at his whacked-out videos-a Bethesda, Md., teenager into BMX (bicycle motocross), skateboards, and thrash music. Except that he was also Adam Spiegel, Spiegel catalog scion. Jonze refuses to cop to this, offering instead rambling, deadpan tales, including one of growing up with a black blues singer. But friends say his success has little to do with his heritage. ”He definitely (doesn’t act like a) trust-fund kid; he’s a self-made guy,” says Mark Lewman, who’s been tight with Jonze since their days as editors of Freestylin’ (a BMX mag) and cofounders of Dirt (a Sassy spin-off for teenage boys). ”Spike had a reputation at 15 for being crazy. He would hang out of the side of (moving) cars, do daredevil stuff, and that’s what he does with his music videos. There’s an element of danger; he’s like Jackie Chan.” Jonze started out as a photographer, then switched over to videos full time when a friend, movie-video director Tamra Davis (Guncrazy), asked him to shoot skateboarding footage for Sonic Youth’s ”100%” video. Davis’ husband, Beastie Boy Mike D, later asked Spike to direct the kitschy and hilarious ”Sabotage,” the video that got every alternative band, pardon the expression, jonesing to work with him. The coupling of the Beasties and Jonze seemed almost preordained. In addition to sharing the trio’s obsession with all things ’70s (to psych himself up for the Ween shoot, Jonze watched Rocky), he delights in being, well, strange. When asked about the rumor that he was approached to direct an Ace Ventura sequel, the merry prankster’s BS machine kicks into overdrive: ”My stepdad sells juicers to a lot of people in Hollywood and he knew Jim Carrey through his juicing connection. In Hollywood all the big deals are made through juicing.” Should the maverick auteur decide to go Hollywood, chances are he won’t have to sweat a sweet deal. In addition to his talent, there’s his current girlfriend, Sofia Coppola-celebutante daughter of you know who. For now, Spike is happiest in his role as alternative court jester and behind-the-scenes scenester. At the New York City taping of Hole’s MTV Unplugged, Courtney Love made a point of singling out Jonze, seated in the balcony with pals Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. Rather than wallow in this grunge anointment, Jonze turned beet red and fled to a back row. His preference for low profiles doesn’t surprise his friend Lewman: ”He’s met some pivotal people in the alternative music scene, but I don’t think he’s changed that much. You know, he still cuts his own hair.”

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