Feature by: Matt Bailey
Posted on: 26 September 2004
features: The Work of Director Michel Gondry
features: The Work of Director Spike Jonze
Chris Cunningham is one of those music video directors whose work, when you stumble across it on occasion on MTV, makes you stop whatever it is you’re doing and stare at the television screen. You may not like the artist whose music the images accompany, but the creativity and singularity of those images holds you in thrall nonetheless.
Those expecting a complete retrospective of Cunningham’s work over the last ten years will be disappointed by this DVD collection. There are only eight videos, three commercials, and two excerpts from video installations included. His early music video work for such artists as The Auteurs, Placebo, and geneva is not included, but the greatest letdown is that we only get a three-and-a-half minute excerpt from his experimental and controversial film flex. Of course, all that is missing does not tarnish the brilliance of what is included.
Each of the eight videos included, with the possible exception of the first for Autechre’s Second Bad Vilbel, is a masterwork of the genre. The clip only suffers from being Cunningham’s first music video work and thus overly ambitious yet not quite successful in achieving its ambitions. It is almost laughably primitive and amateurish, but it exhibits many of the obsessions of the director’s more accomplished later work including industrial robotics, bleak and indistinct landscapes, video distortion, lens flares, and computer animation, all assembled with clinically precise editing and a great attention to detail.
While Cunningham directed several better videos after that personally disappointing debut, it is the next to appear on the DVD that truly made his name: Aphex Twin’s Come to Daddy. You might remember it as that strange video that was a minor hit on MTV late in the 1990s—no small accomplishment for a video for an essentially tuneless piece of electroburble that features children and midgets terrifying the residents of a council estate while wearing grotesque masks of the artist’s face. The video, a stunning piece of work even several years later, possesses some of the most disturbing and horrific images created in any medium in the last twenty years. Why Madonna saw this and said to herself, “I’ve got to get that guy for my next video,” I will never know, but that is what happened.
Before Cunningham worked with Madonna, however, he made a stunning video for Portishead’s Only You. The video, shot largely underwater with the air bubbles removed digitally, features some of the most precise and beautiful choreography of movement in any video. Not only does this video prove Cunningham a master of capturing in images the personality of an artist and the mood of a song, but it also proves him a director with a keen eye for the possibilities and capabilities of the human body in motion, something he would explore in greater depth in his more recent work.
With his video for Madonna’s Frozen, the lead single from her Ray of Light album, Cunningham’s ambitions once again got the better of him. Prepared to shoot for four days in the desert on a massive budget with one of the biggest stars in the world, Cunningham dealt with two days of monsoon rains, a demanding artist dressed like Morticia Addams, and meddlesome corporate executives. That the video is one of Madonna’s best in a twenty-year career is testament to Cunningham’s skill and vision.
I wish that I could be witty and erudite about the next video included on the set, Leftfield’s Afrika Shox, but the imagery always leaves me startled and stupefied. I am sure the message has to do with the co-opting of black culture by whites or the ignorance of racial problems or something along those lines, but the images seem so emotionally direct and desperate as to make political messages irrelevant. It may not be Cunningham’s best video, but it is definitely in the running for most profound.
Cunningham’s videos for artists he actually listens to and likes are almost always better than those he has done for the money or experience, which is why Squarepusher’s Come On My Selector is such a fantastic little work. More a mini sci-fi horror comedy short film set in a Japanese mental hospital than a music video for children, Selector features choreography and editing so precisely timed to the music that you would be forgiven for thinking that the music was composed for the images instead of the other way around. This is Cunningham working at the peak of his ability.
If Cunningham’s previous music videos are all among the best of the genre, then the next on the disc is perhaps his masterpiece. Like the video for Squarepusher, Aphex Twin’s Windowlicker is really a self-contained short film with music. At more than ten minutes in length with a four-minute prelude in which every other word is “motherfucker,” “nigger,” or “pussy,” Windowlicker is an astounding and hilarious ghetto fabulous epic. It spoofs everything from Michael Jackson, Busby Berkeley musicals, the “pimps up, hos down” iconography of rap videos, and Cunningham’s own previous video for Aphex Twin. MTV refused to play it, so many people, even Cunningham and Aphex Twin fans, may be seeing it for the first time on this DVD. I hope they are ready for it.
The final video included on the DVD may be Cunningham’s best known. A new video from Björk is always something to look forward to, so Cunningham had his work cut out for him when he signed on to direct All is Full of Love for her. A visionary artist who has worked with such directors as Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, and John Kricfalusi and who has strong ideas of how she wants her work represented, Björk told Cunningham that she wanted him to make “a white heaven” and provided him with erotic Chinese ivory sculptures as an inspiration. The result of the collaboration was one of the most talked-about videos of the year and remains one of the best in the careers of either artist.
Cunningham was Stanley Kubrick’s head of visual effects on his version of A.I., which failed to come to fruition before Kubrick’s death. None of Cunningham’s work on the robotic boy survived in the subsequent Spielberg version, replaced as it was by the insipid Haley Joel Osment, so I like to think that this video is Cunningham showing the Wizard of the San Fernando Valley how the movie should have been done. There is more awe-inspiring beauty and emotion in Cunningham’s brief clip than in the entirety of the final movie version of the project on which he once worked.
Unlike his compatriots in this series, Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, Chris Cunningham has yet to make a feature film of his own. His long-rumored adaptation of William Gibson’s Neuromancer has failed to come to fruition and Cunnigham has since returned to his experimental film roots. The only result of this latter era represented on this DVD is a brief excerpt of the opening of flex. Cunningham, always obsessed with the contortions and transformations of the human body, here strips away all distractions other than the body in an exploration of its extremes from beauty to grotesqueness. The clip exhibits all of the signatures of Cunnigham’s work including the surgically meticulous editing and the fastidious choreography of movement, but at less than four minutes, it is far too short to stand apart from his music video work and thus only becomes a tease for what Cunningham might achieve in a long-form work.
The Chris Cunningham entry into the Directors Label series of DVD compilations does not reveal any heretofore-unseen gems; does not provide storyboards, commentary, or other insights into the director’s working methods or creative process; and does not even pretend to be comprehensive. What it does is provide a greatest-hits collection of an imaginative and inventive director of music videos who seems to have abandoned the genre for what one hopes the future will not reveal to be navel-gazing.