Originally published in URB, May 1999
Director Chris Cunningham’s openly calibrated marriages of audio and visual codes lead to a new synthesis of video communication.
Words: Daniel Chamberlin
Chris Cunningham is a director who works best when he doesn’t have to worry about other artists’ personalities interfering with his vision of sound. His images come from what he repeatedly refers to as “the pictures in my head:” images of sound divorced from the performers’ personal emotions. It’s made a bit clearer by comparing two of his most commercial and antagonistic efforts.
With Madonna’s “Frozen,” Cunningham is in top form for effects, helping the Material Girl escape the material plane as she shatters on the ground into a flock of ravens and morphs into triads of herself all the while singing about cold hearts, sorrow and generic pop sentiments. “I wanted to see how you could get her across, how you could apply . . . style [but] get her image across,” the director explains from the RSA Films’ London office.
Besides the uncooperative sandstorms of the Mojave locale, it’s obvious Cunningham has sublimated his vision to his subject — not William Orbit’s pop-trance beats, but Madonna and her feelings. “It wasn’t the time to be flexing my muscles as a conceptual artist,” he concedes.
Cut back several stages of commercial success. Cunningham’s obnoxious band of child-hooligans, all wearing the same Richard James grin, are rampaging about a council estate in complete and total synchronization with “Come to Daddy”’s brutal spasms of thrashed techno. A granny cowers and yuppies flee as the children frolic violently and pay tribute to Videodrome by coaxing an albino demon ‘daddy’ from their television. “You know with the Aphex video,” he continues the comparison, “he doesn’t want to be in the video. I’ve got a fucking playground to run around in.”
Cunningham developed a keen eye for music while growing up in the English countryside. Both his father and stepfather introduced him to audio’s visceral pleasures. “All my [step] father listened to was electronic music . . . from [musique] concrète to Kraftwerk to Donna Summer.” With these early electronic music pioneers scoring his childhood, he quickly gained an appreciation for new textures emanating from metal machine music culture. “I spent so much of my childhood laying by my dad’s speakers with my eyes closed listening to music . . . trying to imagine stuff. My earliest memories are of doing that, you know.
“Because my real dad was a classical music obsessive,” he continues, “I had these two weird influences as a child: classical and electronic.” While his choices in contemporary sonics belie his synthetic sound preference, the appreciation of classical form attests to his ability to develop complex themes set to the intricate stylings of Autechre or Squarepusher. “The thing I loved about classical music was the structure; it was very fluid, the way it evolved,” he says. “The way I make music videos is to break it down the way a choreographer would break it down to a tempo so the whole thing evolves purely from music, rather than being a filmmaker who is working in music, imposing his ideas onto tracks. My ideas [are] determined completely by [the] structure.”
Cunningham took a less lucid journey in the early ’90s through the music of the Pixies and Nirvana, only to return to his roots upon hearing Aphex Twin. Like the audio components of his childhood, experimental techno’s more abstract sounds weren’t explicitly linked to instruments, helping to re-initiate the birthing process of musical images in Cunningham’s fertile headspace. “Some music I love, but it doesn’t put pictures in my head at all,” he says. “When I listen to music which is played [with] bass, drums, guitar and a singer, all I can picture is four people standing there playing instruments.” It’s the disembodied spaces between the sound and its source that Cunningham is quick to fill with his crisp visual manifestations of the audio codes.
“Windowlicker,” his second collaboration with Aphex Twin, focuses on a cluster of polysexual ‘women’ with James’ face graphed on, groping with James himself during a limo ride to the beach. What follows is a choreographed dance sequence involving suggestively handled umbrellas, overhead shots of twirling dancers and the exotic gyrations of the production’s focus — a mutant hybrid of James’ face with buck teeth and a voluptuous female body. “She’s been locked in the cellar for four years,” he laughs. “She has finally been let out and she has no concept that she is actually ugly.”
Cunningham’s perverse prima donna is only rejected by the machismo-steeped parodies of LA homeboys — they ogle her from behind but flee once her visage indicates that she’s outside their strict boundaries of sexuality. The rest of the dancers showcase and celebrate her difference in choreographed exaltation echoing vintage Busby Berkeley.
Cunningham’s understanding of the visual possibilities of electronic music is so on point that the tracks he uses sound incomplete without their visual accompaniment. “With ‘Windowlicker’ . . . when [the music] opens out and turns pretty and [James] fucks around with the drum sounds, slips in and out of time and stuff, it really sounds like they’ve been done quite wildly, quite off the cuff,” he says of the naked audio. “But if you put an image to them, they suddenly seem completely, utterly ordered . . . by putting an image that syncs well with the sound you can make the sound seem intentional, even if it was some weird audio accident.”
Dictated by Cunningham’s psyche, it’s often an order of unrestrained, youthful unraveling of sexual expectations. Focusing on two copulating robots, his video for Björk’s “All Is Full of Love” gently rewrites the phallocentric world of pistons, gears and engines into a more androgynous act of synthetic love. In others, undaunted youth takes center stage: Both “Come to Daddy” and “Come On My Selector” revolve around headstrong youngsters running the grown-ups around in circles. These images of chaos are told through his synthesized language of digital media, his synchronized choreography of both sound and image. The music is sutured to the stream of visuals, whether it is a guard banging on a cell door according to Tom Jenkinson’s stuttered breakbeats or a flowing kerchief changing direction to Portishead’s slow scratches.
Cunningham refuses to make claims about the ideological bent of his sometimes-controversial stories. “Windowlicker,” in particular, probably won’t be aired on MTV anytime soon. His Leftfield video, “Afrika Shox,” is open to various racial interpretations: A black homeless man’s body crumbles as the citizens of New York look on. A white breakdancer accidentally kicks the frantic man’s leg off. Afrika Bambaataa offers a helping hand. The director shrugs his shoulders, content to focus on the structure of his work and leaving its politics up for discussion. “It’s very hard for me to have an opinion because the way I’m working, I’m reacting to sound on different levels, making links, almost a circle out of it” he says. “It’s almost for other people to decide what the end product is. I’m always very suspicious of artists who say, ‘It was supposed to be this or that.’ How can they know exactly how something is going to trigger someone else’s mind?”
At the very least, the tales he tells communicate an abstract subversiveness, at times obnoxious but never superficial. “I don’t believe in shock value,” he asserts. “I don’t believe in going out of your way to upset people. I find that really insulting when people say, ‘You’re just trying to shock people,’ just because it upset you.” In an industry rampant with Marilyn Mansonesque shock-chic, Cunningham manages to make you think about what you’re seeing. His focus on the relationship between sound and image yields unstable effects, not calibrated to provoke specific reactions. His hybridized, surreal characters are open fields for cultural theorists trying to instill an ideological order in much the same way that Cunningham’s images have applied order to the sound.
For the time being, Cunningham has halted directing music videos. He’s working on an Aphex-scored short film “that’s much more abstract than anything I’ve done,” as well as two more film scripts which he stresses are “really, really music-based.” Next comes the daunting task of adapting William Gibson’s cyberpunk novel Neuromancer to the big screen. He’s currently mulling over a script with the author, well aware of the challenge. “When I read the book I was flabbergasted to find out how far removed all these films were,” he says, making references to the glut of sub-par Gibson-inspired projects. “I suddenly realized why this book had been so big. I think that all the films based on this genre have sort of given it a bad name.” Of the directors that come to mind, Cunningham seems contemptuous enough of Hollywood’s lowest-common-denominator output that he might actually pull it off. His assertion that Hollywood’s standards have dropped holds up (his catalog of videos easily outdistance the current sci-fi special effect gimmickry of The Phantom Menace or even The Matrix upon repeated viewing).
As Cunningham moves into the limelight, mainstream and underground critics are more than willing to attribute hallucinogens as his muse. And while they have served as a tool in his visual constructions, it seems highly derivative to attribute his aesthetic strictly to the same drugs which have also produced endless black light paintings and nouveau-hippie/raver products, more surreal for their enduring popularity than for any actual psychedelic properties. Instead, he seems far more interested in talking about the influence of Lucas (think Stormtroopers, not Jar Jar Binks) and Ridley Scott or hours spent as a child imagining pictures to accompany Donna Summer and Stockhausen. “Music is the most important art form in my opinion, but I think the only thing that can be superior to it is when an image and a sound come together perfectly. Something new is created out of it. Some weird trigger happens and it makes you feel like you’re experiencing emotion, but you’ve almost been tricked by the[ir] marriage.” Stanley Kubrick on acid? It’s a cliché which may eventually fit (he designed several robots for the recently deceased auteur’s unfinished A.I. project), but with the emphasis firmly on Kubrick.
“Come On My Selector”
Cunningham was awarded three 1999 Music Video Production Association awards (Video of the Year, Best Alternative Video, Best Editing) for his work on Squarepusher’s “Come On My Selector.” In this short film, a young Japanese girl escapes from a mental institution, swapping the brains of a pursuing guard with her dog in the process. Cunningham’s cutting is synchronized to the point where the girl typing commands into a computer interface is choreographed with Jenkinson’s slap-happy bass kicks. “If there is any kind of music that you should not bother doing the video if it does not fit the music perfectly, it is drum & bass,” he says. “[Jenkinson] is someone who understands structure and timing so brilliantly. I almost couldn’t listen to other electronic music for quite awhile after hearing [his] stuff.”
One of Cunningham’s more subtle explorations of desire, “Only You” is no less intense. A young boy gazes at Beth Gibbons as she croons in a dark alley and sinister faces peer from windows far above. Both the boy and Gibbons were filmed in submersion tanks, so the water pressure on their entire bodies forcibly expresses Portishead’s suffocated torch songs. “[‘Only You’] is my favorite thing that I’ve done,” he says. “The most important aspect of that video to me was getting the atmosphere of the music across.” With virtually no storyboarding, it was a freeform effort. “It was such a nice surprise that that chaotic experience which was considerably less controlled than the other videos, ended up being closer to what was in my head than on the ones where I’m a control freak.”