Video Director Spotlight: Chris Cunningham

As promised, here is the first installment in my new feature spotlighting music video directors. While his music video career only lasted about three years (save two since then), Chris Cunningham was still able to create some of the greatest and most memorable videos ever produced.

Autechre – “Second Bad Vilbel”

No, I do not know what the heck that title means. This video for Autechre from 1996 represents Cunningham first directorial work. He got his start doing work on a series of horror films such as Hardware, Dust Devil, Nightbreed, Alien 3 (and later Alien: Resurrection, and Death Machine as well as the sci-fi titles Judge Dredd (he also did work for the comic) and A.I. Artificial Intelligence (back when it was still a Stanley Kubrick project).

The video for “Second Bad Vilbel” is incredibly 90s industrial with quick cuts and grainy visuals. It also introduces a number of visuals that Cunningham would later return to including the old TV scan lines, the deformed humanoid with unnatural movements and the smooth, yet detailed robotic form which quickly develops into dated CGI. It fits the music perfectly but in many ways this feels merely like a rough draft for better works.

His works after words were largely of the band performance variety with little more to them with The Auteurs’ “Light Aircraft On Fire”, Lodestar’s – “Another Day” (the later shots of a bunch of men feeling around another man’s face as it turns more to horror is somewhat interesting at least), Holy Barbarians’ “Space Junkie”, 12 Rounds’ Personally, and Jocasta’s “Something to Say” (which depicts the lead singer getting caught by his girlfriend cheating but since it never bothers to actually show what he was doing, maybe he was just masturbating to furries or something else embarrassing), along with surprisingly numerous subgenre of “band standing at different angles on the walls and ceiling” with Gene’s “Fighting Fit”, Jesus Jones’ “The Next Big Thing, and Geneva’s “Tranquilizer” (what a truly awful song).

Aphex Twin – “Come to Daddy”

After a dozen little remembered videos, Cunningham had his first big success with “Come to Daddy”. Honing the washed out visuals that defined so much of his prior work, it depicts a decrepit, trash filled and seemingly abandoned London council estate (seen also in A Clockwork Orange). An old woman walks her dog by, a figure quickly appearing before dashing off, before her dog pisses an old TV to life.

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From the TV springs forth the horrifying distorted face (of Richard D. James/Aphex Twin) which contorts throughout the video.

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Understandably freaked out, she walks away before being confronted by a gang of new friends; creepy children all wearing Richard D. James masks.

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These new friends start running about, carrying the haunted TV around just for the added fun of it all. They find a truck driver and scare him off with rocks and their rather freakish appearance

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Their mayhem only grows and the fighting between them increasing until a figure starts to emerge from the TV.

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The camera plays coy with the reveal, the song building back up as more and more of the body is revealed until we are given the video’s most iconic image (and longtime personal desktop image) of a tall, gaunt man with a freakishly large head, inhuman teeth, and gaping maw (very reminiscent of his video from “Back With the Killer Again” which features a similar one with a reduced head that has nothing left but the gaping maw) yelling down the old woman from before as if the very sound of his voice is going to blow her away.

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The figure gets his own mask and gets to show up his inhuman twitching which is probably his form of dancing as the already frenetic editing grows only more. What makes the video work so well besides all the iconic shots is largely tie up in the editing. Cunningham wisely slows things down in the softer sections while building up along with the song, the louder it gets, the quicker it cuts. They almost handheld feel and quick cuts that a decade from then would become the stuff of every awful action movie fight scene, works so much better in horror since obscuring and distorting the truth only builds to the atmosphere. In an action scene it feels cheap as if to hide the lack of fighting ability of its star and lack of skills of its (second-unit) director/action choreographer. In a short form horror, it creates a sense of unease and only increases the unnatural feel of everything else in this. The heavy use of CRT lines is a continuation of what Cunningham had done in some of his earlier videos but feels far more perfectly suited here.

Unsurprisingly, Cunningham’s video production start to fall off here in quantity (also dabbling in some unsettling British adverts) but he made up for it in quality. For his next video, he moved to one of my favorite bands (and one of my favorite songs by them off perhaps their best album) to create their definitive image.

Portishead – “Only You”

Set in a dark alleyway, the occasional window with a creepy mouthless or eyeless person staring on, the video for Portishead’s “Only You” takes a far simpler approach focusing mostly on two people, a young boy and Beth Gibbons moving about, once again unnaturally.

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The quick cutting of so much of his work his gone here (save for when timed to some of the record scratches) with far longer shots. There’s also a very distinct sense of floating as if they are under water, the way the hair moves, the shoelaces, everything.

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Which of course they were since this was shot in a tank and then digitally inserted but it just creates a gorgeous appearance complete with plenty of soft lighting on the subjects creating a truly unique look.

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It recalls his earlier work on Placebo’s “36 Videos” which also shot significantly underwater but felt more like a gimmick there. Even knowing how the seamless effects work, it is still amazing to look at and leave you wondering just how they got it to work so well. Just a simple beautiful video that manages to film mostly in the dark and yet still make it so clear what is going on.

Madonna – “Frozen”

Fresh off making two of my favorite videos (for two very different reasons), Cunningham took on an even bigger artist, Madonna. Now I am not at all a Madonna fan (expect to hear this again when David Fincher comes up in the rotation) but it’s impossible to discuss Cunningham without bringing this video up both for it being the most famous video he’s ever done (at least with the mainstream), and also because it is quite beautiful. It opens up on a desolate desert wasteland (notable quite the opposite of frozen) which in actuality is the dries up remains of Cuddleback Lake with a solitary black figure standing in its midst.

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This figure is Madonna who forms the centerpiece of the video, the wind sweeping across her and a shawl, her body transforming into various animals from crows, to other Madonnas, to a black dog.

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The whole video continues the trend of “Only You, as it trades the quick cuts for even fewer cuts and smooth pans and slight zooms. It’s also got the Cunningham trademark washed out visuals that are traded for darkness later on (which makes screencapping this challenging especially on a non-HD Youtube video) which quite literally flows into Madonna. The video is simple but effective, evocative, and most importantly a perfect fit for the song.

Squarepusher – “Come On My Selector”

“Come On My Selector” takes the form of a Japanese horror film (before they even took off since this was 1998). Set in what appears to be a children’s hospital of some sort (where they keep all of the creepy kids seemingly locked away), “Come On My Selector” features a 3+ minute long intro with lots of slow building tension and a girl carrying a dog on her head in a giant lab coat.

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When the song actually kicks off we get a bit more uptempo, teasing for a second it is just going to be “Come to Daddy” Part 2 with the girl running about, instead she finds a computer and powers up a brain swap program as the orderlies pursue.

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The color here isn’t so much washed out here as naturally covered in whites, blacks and greys. This one is far more comedic in nature with some goofy sound effects and a small girl beating up some large orderlies with martial arts. She also swaps one of those orderly’s brains with that of a dog in a scene that becomes classic Cunningham as the short speeds up and bodies seem to move inhumanly fast, with some quick cuts thrown in. The camera work is much smoother though and it seems more reminiscent of a Fatboy Slim video then his electronic fare.

Björk – “All is Full of Love”

Björk has become synonymous with her music videos and she sure knows how to pick directors having worked with Michael Gondry, Spike Jonze, John Kricfalusi, and others. While those videos are great, they took a more arty approach after her first couple albums, and Cunningham’s video for “All is Full of Love” both ushered in and highlighted this later stage of her career.

“All is Full of Love” has the distinction of being the first DVD single released in the US and it’s CGI was groundbreaking. While there were a couple of obvious moments of CGI especially on multiple rewatches (it’s the faces at times), the computer effects still look amazing to this day and it’s challenging to separate what was on set (her eyes and mouth and some of the robots) with what was crafted on the computer. The video opens and closes on shots of cables bathed in darkness, panning to (and later from the main set piece)

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The video follows a female humanoid robot (with Björk’s features), introduced lying down in a bright white environment not too far from “Come on My Selector”, having work performed on it by other machines which recall those from “Second Bad Vilbel”.

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The video frequently cuts to the work which is accompanied by lots of liquids being shot along her machinery and we even get a few shots recalling the one standout part of his video for Life’s Addiction’s “Jesus Coming in for the Kill” with the liquid being shot rising in reverse.

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It is here that we are introduced to our second character, another female humanoid robot who sings to the Björk one.

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The two embracing in passion as the lights darken and rise, the closeups of the other machines working on them acquiring erotic overtones.

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Frankly the whole video from start to gorgeous, but I’m just a sucker for these wide shots where the figures become almost silhouettes.

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The whole thing feels slower than he’s ever done before and in four minutes, is seemingly the culmination of his career in videos.

Aphex Twin – Windowlicker

Cunningham had one more classic up his sleeves in a reteaming with the artist whose video was his big break, Aphex Twin. “Windowlicker”, like its predecessor, is an odd duck. For nearly four minutes, it depicts two men in a convertible cruising along, the one cursing every third word, and hitting on a couple women who want nothing to do with either of them and they take turns insulting each other.

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That is until their car out of nowhere rear ended by a seemingly endless limo which takes 20 seconds to scroll past.

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The window rolls down to reveal a familiar image, the haunting, smiling visage of someone in a Richard D. James mask.

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One who has some serious Michael Jackson-esque dance moves at that and who can seemingly reverse time as part of his moves.

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Seducing the women who too now have the visage of James.

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It’s true daylight horror as the film continues the trend of generally long shots and is always bright, to the point of being washed out at times and there’s just something about that mask that is unsettling especially as attached to the bodies of attractive women. The smile, the beard, the way it just seems to appear and no one seems like they recognize there is anything off with it, just everything. With any other face, it would just be a generic electronica or rap video complete with dancing, scantily clad women, but with that one change, it’s surreal horror.

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Just when it feels like the joke is going to get stale (it is a very long video), we meet a brand new face.

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“How’s it hanging guys?”

A new face with even more exaggerated features including giant from teeth, uneven sloppily done pigtails and a flower headpiece which is enough to finally freak the guys out. Still the video proceeds as if there is nothing off, the typical rap video tropes taking on even more sinister context as it becomes more and more waking nightmare and deconstruction, once again only by doing one simple change.

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After “Windowlicker” and a video for Leftfield with Afrika Bambaataa (both in 1999) which depicts a man stumbling through a city, with body parts occasionally shattering when they hit something as people look on with little concern, Cunningham turned his attention to more commercials, art and video installations and even a documentary of sorts but I’m not going to really focus on that.

He has only done two videos since in The Horrors’ “Sheena is a Parasite” which is simply a quick band performance video with lots of strobe lights and a girl dancing about like crazy, her body occasionally undergoing a quick bit of campy body horror while goofy band members staring off trying not to show any emotion and Gil Scott-Heron’s New York Is Killing Me (Chris Cunningham Remix). The second fearues three screens and is seemingly a combination of his music videos and video installation projects (I debated whether to even include it but I was swayed by the song being pretty great). The center screen features the singer in almost complete darkness (as well as being only moderately opaque), while footage from trains are depicted on either side (and sometimes in the middle) is only occasionally illuminated by light.

I’ll admit I was nervous going in that there wouldn’t be enough of a through line considering his short career of his and the necessarily artist driven nature of many videos, but thankfully there was. Cunningham moved from more gritty, quick cutting pieces interspersed with fairly generic performance videos to slower and more contemplative fare. Even through, the washed-out colors only gave way to clean, stark whites and blacks. His works simultaneously felt appropriate to the music, bringing it out and enhancing it, and like small capsules of art the way the best videos are. There are very few whose top five videos can match his and there’s was no one like him then or since.

Complete List of Videos
Autechre – “Second Bad Vilbel”
The Auteurs – “Back With the Killer Again”
The Auteurs – “Light Aircraft On Fire”
Gene – “Fighting Fit”
Lodestar – “Another Day”
Holy Barbarians – “Space Junkie”
Placebo – “36 Videos”
12 Rounds – “Personally”
Life’s Addiction – “Jesus Coming in for the Kill”
Jesus Jones – “The Next Big Thing
Geneva – “Tranquilizer”
Dubstar – “No More Talk”
Jocasta – “Something to Say”
Aphex Twin – “Come to Daddy”
Portishead – “Only You”
Madonna – “Frozen”
Squarepusher’s “Come On My Selector”
Björk – “All is Full of Love”
Aphex Twin – “Windolicker”
Leftfield with Afrika Bambaataa – “Afrika Shox”
The Horrors – “Sheena is a Parasite”
Gil Scott-Heron – New York Is Killing Me (Chris Cunningham Remix)

Next Up: We take a look at the work of husband and wife duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, now best know for their work on Little Miss Sunshine and Battle of the Sexes.