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The Work of Director Chris Cunningham

Review Written by: Joe Earp
Film: A+
Video/Audio/Extras: A+/A+/A-

Directed by: Chris Cunningham and Lance Bangs
Produced by: Lance Bangs, Richard Brown, Cindy Burnay and Nick Wrathall
Starring: Carl Antolin, Aphex Twin, Sigtryggur Baldursson, Robert Ball, Stephen Ball
Buy it!, Buy it, rent it or skip it: Buy it!

I have never really liked music videos. Too often they seem to be pointless exercises in style, boring articles of visual fluff. I thought that a music video was just an excuse for an artist to rip off all their clothes or drape themselves in jewellery and fur. However, Chris Cunningham changed all that for me. The English music video director is one of those master craftsmen who manages to meld his amazing visuals with brilliant ideas and concepts. Although admittedly disturbing, his videos for Aphex Twin are unrivalled in contemporary music.

Unlike most music video directors who recognise their limitations and decide to simply have the musician singing to the camera, Cunningham uses his five minutes of fame to fire off explosive political potshots at such targets as sexism, racism and humanity's obsession with technology. Take for example his infamous video Windowlicker, a ten minute 'short film' that attacks racism and sexism simultaneously. Disturbingly memorable, the piece centres around a group of black men looking to pick up a prostitute or two. The group speak in the typical 'jive talk' we hear from television all the time. Cunningham fills their dialogue with swear words (including the infamous 'N' word) in order to make fun of the music videos that fuel the stereotype that all black men speak in a typical clichéd manner. This alone is a brilliant idea, a critique of a society that loves to stereotype other races.

However Windowlicker does not just end there. When the central protagonists finally do pick up a brace of prostitutes, we see the women only from the neck down. To say the least these prostitutes are 'very shapely' and for the moment it seems as though our central heroes have hit the jackpot as it were. As soon as the audience is presented with these figures they accept it as the norm: we see semi-naked women on television all the time. However in a matter of minutes, Cunningham inverts the norm completely: he cuts to the 'women's' faces to reveal they are all horribly mutated. Many have the body of a gorgeous woman, but the face of a bearded man. By taking what we know and twisting it into something new and disturbing, Cunningham questions to what extent our society is sexist. The fact that the audience suspects nothing when they see a camera directly framing a woman's breasts means that the talented young Brit makes the audience as guilty as the worst misogynist.

Windowlicker is just one of Cunningham's amazing music videos featured on the new 'Directors Label DVD'. Another one of his famous pieces is the All is Full of Love video he made for the Icelandic singer Bjork. The work depicts a pair of female robots who fall in love in the stark, barren environment of a plain white warehouse. This simple tale is Cunningham's way of questioning to what extent we rely on technology. Computers do everything for us. Perhaps they could love as well. But Cunningham never fully spells out his message. All is Full of Love could just as easily be pointing out how humanity's emotions have been entirely drained away. Maybe a computer, a lifeless, inanimate object could be more capably of love more than humanity itself. The DVD also features a number of Cunningham's short films, including his horribly disturbing Rubber Johnny. The slang word in Britain for a condom, the title refers to a deformed boy locked up in his parent's basement. Perhaps however, deformed isn't quite the word. Johnny doesn't even look human. Instead, he is a quivering mass of flesh, a wretched creature who barely even seems to be alive.

Johnny (played by Cunningham himself under a huge layer of prosthetics) is an isolated figure, alone in the world, save his friend Elvis (a tiny Chihuahua) and his violent parents who scream down the stairs at him every few minutes. The film questions the extent to which parents are embarrassed by their children. Johnny's mother and father are never even seen. Instead their loud abuse fills the soundtrack every now and then as they chide their young son. Again however, Cunningham makes sure his audience is as guilty as the 'villains' of the piece by making sure that we too are disgusted by Johnny's physique. As a result we directly question our own tolerance for difference. How 'unusual' does someone have to be before we shun them from society?

Flex, another one of Cunningham's short films on the DVD, explores a similar theme. In the piece, two isolated, naked human figures (one male, one female) make love in a huge vacuum of darkness. However after a moment the sex turns violent, with disastrous results. As explicit as it sounds, the film is not pornography in any sense of the word. There is absolutely no nudity: the figures are covered in deep shadows. In fact we can barely even see their faces. They are ciphers to the audience, mysterious figures symbolising the whole human race. In Flex, Cunningham suggests that sex is the only way humans can ever really cure their loneliness. The characters are completely isolated from each other at the beginning of the film: two lone figures floating in darkness. However when they do find each other their love is short and furious. The editing becomes frantic, with shots lasting no more than half a second. But the very fact that things turn dark very quickly perhaps implies that no good can come about from human contact. Soon the two do not seem two be in love at all. Instead they are violently attacking each other, driven by the desire to end their loneliness. The fact that the two are stark naked implies that maybe humanity is so primal sex is our only concern. In fact the very first shot of the movie creates images of the womb as the male figure floats in darkness. One could write a whole essay on Flex. I haven't even begun to talk about the final burst of light that separates the two. And yet this is a major advantage of the film. In a story without a single line of spoken dialogue Cunningham raises themes and concepts that even a feature film with have difficulty comprehending.

The DVD also features several TV advertisements and it is just as wonderful to see Cunningham cheekily poke fun at the products he is selling. For example his infamous Playstation commercial featuring a young Scottish girl with huge, circular eyes, seems to be suggesting that technology is more harmful than we could ever imagine. Computers and electronics have deformed the child and yet she laughs at the camera, telling us about the wonderful achievements of Playstation. Another amazing commercial is Cunningham's promo for Nissan. The thirty second short, featuring naked, brittle characters huddling around puddles in a dark landscape is deeply disturbing for a car ad. Especially affecting is the scene where a voice-over announces: 'five years of your life will be spent in a car'. With this line, Cunningham cuts to a five year old child, beaten and brittle, dipping her hand into a puddle of water. Without missing a beat the voice-over tells us that 'You will be assaulted by abusive drivers over one hundred times.' With this, a huge, brutish, stark naked man screams at the girl, spittle flying off his lips. This simple shot demonstrates to the audience how utterly insane our fascination with cars and technology really is.

In most circumstances it would be stupid to spend such a long time analysing TV ads and music videos. However Cunningham, a real visual genius, manages to disturb his audience while still making them think. This new DVD is a wonderful celebration of the artist. There are so many more music videos, adverts and documentaries I would love to discuss but I feel I have rattled on for too long anyway. Instead I urge you to either buy the DVD or check out any of Cunningham's music videos/adverts, all of which are available on YouTube.

Cunningham is currently working on a feature film project so it will be very interesting to see whether or not he can pad out his exceptional concepts to make them as compelling as possible. But even if his foray into Hollywood is unsuccessful, nothing will ever be able to dampen the pure genius of his shorter subjects.

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