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Chris Cunningham: Video Retrospective

Published in Blog, Culture Bully. Tags: .

With his recent buzzworthy video for The Horror’s “Sheena Is A Parasite” Chris Cunningham proves once again to make something stunning out of something mediocre. Nothing against The Horrors, I mean, being on the cover of NME is fairly cool and all, but the single really doesn’t offer much. It made me think of which other Chris Cunningham videos that I felt were impressive despite a luke-warm song; sometimes it is the video that makes the radio star, I thought. But after reminiscing for a while it dawned on me that Cunningham typically had a lot more to work with musically than he had for his latest video.

“Second Bad Vibel” has an Alien-like quality that harnesses blurred figures that lures you in without committing to fully acknowledging what it is that is truly there. But suddenly something happens, there’s action but you don’t know what the point of the action is and then again it stops. Nothing happens and you’re left contemplating the role that the video played in illuminating the song. It takes a fairly representative Autechre track and supports it, proving a crutch to help the underground originators grasp at some recognition.

Though there’s not a huge hunk-o-cheese moon with a face on it, the start of this video makes you wonder where the concept for Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” came from (even though we all know good and well that it didn’t come from Cunningham, it’s still fun to imagine that it did). All things considered, many spots in the video were completely unique at the time and “Light Aircraft on Fire” served as a true medium for Cunninghams’ ingenuity.

How long did it take to film the above to below water sequences? Looking back at it, the video serves as a window allowing obvious connections to modern goth-punks. It’s absolutely dark throughout while the ending sequence is scattered with sunlight above the surface of the water, characteristic of Placebo’s dark yet warm androgynous appeal. Seriously, how much does Davey Havok look like Brian Molko throughout “36 Degrees?”

One of the cleanest songs that Cunningham’s work has surrounded, the video for Dubstar develops an average clean cut character until about two thirds the way through when diverging shots make you wonder if there’s something far more dirty underneath the surface.

“Come To Daddy” served as an introduction to the crazy Richard D James-faced characters that would later plague “Windowlicker,” but more importantly it served as an introduction for many, including myself, to Aphex Twin. It is haunting, unrealistic on all levels and undeniably nihilistic. It’s scary and it’s creepy. It is good. “Come To Daddy” is a direct look at what happens when two very curious, very experimental minds collide, James and Cunningham.

The video for this Portishead track represents somewhat of a dark embodiment of trip hop as a whole. It is completely eerie and while listening to it you know that something’s just not exactly right. It’s a bizarro scenario where everything is familiar but it all takes place in another universe, under different rules. Typical of other Cunningham videos this hints at some deeper storyline that is never revealed. Why is the boy watched while he’s floating?

To be honest, I had forgotten that this video existed. I had actually forgotten that I knew the lyrics, and re-watching it made me shiver…how much time did I waste watching this video? What was/is its appeal? It is entirely stripped down, as far as Cunningham’s work goes, but to do otherwise, given that it is in fact a Madonna video, would come off as unnecessarily arrogant and over the top. Instead, by understanding both his audience and his artist, Cunningham created something distinct and underwhelming without neglecting the music or the celebrity that accompanied it. Furthermore it helped shift Madonna’s image from that of the sexual ‘bitch’ character (as portrayed in her “Human Nature” video) into the Kabala-reading, Guy Ritchie-loving, monogamous soccer mom we know today.

The dirty English setting now becomes familiar but this scene begins to recall the Biblical story of the leper as we see a man shun from society. No Jesus appears, however and the leper is left to continue falling apart, literally. The look on the leper’s face when facing the break dancers are close to damaging him is truly shocking, putting an exclamation mark on this entire video. Funny to think that despite the ending, Bambaataa took the role of the momentary hero, helping the leper off the ground. In some ways, history too looks at Bambaataa as a hero, helping many to a rebirth in life.

Clips of this video were used in advertisements on Canada’s Much Music for the longest time and it took me forever to find out who the song was by (pre-internet). Essentially, again, Cunningham is responsible for introducing me to another amazing electronic artist, this time Squarepusher. The video, placed in the Osaka Home For Mentally Disturbed Children, predates the American trend of thieving Japanese movies showing that (it’s getting old saying this) Cunningham was again ahead of the curve. Combined with the song it serves as some sort of live-action anime with violence and a bit of humor to boot – really cool stuff.

This is my favorite of all Chris Cunningham videos. It comes at a time close to when he would remove himself from the genre and work on other projects for half a decade. It is his longest music video, clocking in at over ten minutes, and by far the crudest, sexiest, funniest…the best. Also, the Richard D. James masks make a return, but this time they’re not disturbing…well, not in the same way as they were with “Come To Daddy” at least. If a director can help give an artist like Aphex Twin mainstream attention and attention on modern music video channels, it speaks volumes for him. (If you want to skip the dialogue and start the video skip ahead to 3:50)

One of oddest love scenes ever in the history of on-screen robot love scenes. (Having never seen the movie, I feel fairly certain that my assumptions are correct) Two words: I Robot.

It really makes me wonder why Cunningham would come back from his long absence from making music videos to work with this particular band and this particular song. Maybe it inspired him, who knows. I do find it interesting that it goes back to the Alien-type theme first scene in Autechre’s video, this time going the route of the gross-out theme. It is quick, short and absolutely disturbing.

[This post was first published by Culture Bully.]