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Category:    Home > Reviews > Music Videos > Shorts > Work of Chris Cunningham (Directors Label/Palm DVD)

The Work of Chris Cunningham

(Music Videos, short films, and advertisements)


Picture: B-     Sound: B     Extras: B-     Main Program: B



Palm Pictures has issued some of 2003’s most important DVDs with the release of the first three volumes of The Directors Label Work Of series.  This second volume offers the remarkable work of the incredibly talented Chris Cunningham, who is easily the most underexposed and underrated of the first three filmmakers in the United States featured in this series.  While Spike Jonze has gone on to feature film success and Michel Gondry has had far more airplay of his work, Cunningham has been working on a deep level of darkness that is not as commercially viable as his co-founder partners of this series.


Instead of the “it’s dark for darkness’ sake” school of very bad filmmaking, Cunningham’s work comes from actual feelings and experiences from his precocious young days as an early thinker.  Even before the 52-page booklet confirmed this, the actual amount of vision is rare and rich here.  So many posers want to be thought of as “artists” with “vision” when they are interviewed, and it gets really tiresome (and frankly embarrassing to such people without them knowing it) to hear them tell us how important they are because of their supposed artistry.  Cunningham, like all true artists, lets his work do the talking.


In the world he had constructed without pretense, we see a near future that is familiar and inevitably approaching.  Unfortunately, there is no more room for the organic homo sapiens as we know our species to organically be.  Only two options are offered: either the human becomes robotic and technologized, or they must transmute into another non-human creature in order to remain in a state of freedom and in the natural world.  However, in the latter option, a loss of identity and individuality is still inescapable.  Along with the uncompromising hard edge of the images, sounds, technology, darkness, unseen worlds, and brutal images of distorted or mutilated carnage (always human so far), you get an often sardonic sense of humor.  This is mature and often intense subject matter, so it is no wonder that “false happiness addicted” and dumbed-down media tries to marginalize him, though

he has had better response in Europe.


For this reason, it is not a big surprise that early on, it would be Stanley Kubrick that would call on him to try and create an artificial “mecha” boy at the time the all-time genius director was attempting to do a mature, adult version of A.I. – Artificial Intelligence, before finally giving in and turning it over to Steven Spielberg.  Kubrick had left such an imprint on the work, that Spielberg’s changes were in vein and the film was a colossal disaster for reasons to numerous to explain here.  It did some curiosity business, but the styles of the two filmmakers contradicted each other more severely than water and oil.


Kubrick was reportedly disappointed the “mecha” did not work, but it was certainly not due to lack of talent and ambition on Cunningham’s part.  As a matter of fact, we now know Kubrick’s version of the film had its best possible shot thanks to his choice of Cunningham, but we can chalk it up to a lost Kubrick film and move on.


Though Cunningham has not done any feature film work yet, the collection of Music Videos, abstract films and television ads not seen in the United States more than states the case of how much of a very talented filmmaker and auteur he is.  Using the criteria already established, let us look at his eight music videos offered here, all framed at 1.78 X 1 unless noted otherwise:


Second Bad Vilbel – The Industrial Electronica track by Autechre essentially is the state of two insect-like robot’s “personal” points-of-view, but is done with such extraordinary artistic design, editing, and imagery, that you are immediately in another world that is unstable, void of nature, and in a perpetual state of confusion.  This is very impressive.  One robot creature alone is now joined by a very different one, and the existential dread applies to them too.


Come To Daddy – Without a doubt, this wild, stark, and even Expressionistic clip for the song by Aphex Twin is a descendant of David Cronenberg’s 1983 exercise in the cyber world and post-modernism, Videodrome.  The lead singer, in the best tradition of a Blood, Sweat & Tears album cover, has been duplicated into a series of midget-children in his demented facial image.  This clip also demonstrates one of Cunningham’s “primal scream” moments where one “creature” yells-down another point-blank with its voice and mouth.  As with the previous clip, analog video creates a world of distorted reality that seems inescapable.


Only You – This video by for the song by Portishead (whose big hit had the female lead singer crying “nobody loves me” in a pained refrain, while the instrumentals sounded like something from a vintage John Barry/James Bond soundtrack, which a sample resembles towards the end of this track) has a slower, more naturalistic pace than most of the songs in this set.  Weightlessness is purposely made to be dreamlike and was done with a large share of underwater photography.  This clip proves that both the artist and the director were far from one-hit wonders.  It is framed in a 2.35 X 1-like Scope frame.


Frozen – The video for this fine Madonna song was an award-winning hit for her and is the most exposure Cunningham has received for his work to date, but despite his disappointment in some of the final result, it is a beautiful video that does an exceptional job of covering her spiritual themes, while keeping within the confines of his own thematic.  He wanted Madonna to turn into more creatures that were even and more exotic, but the point is taken.  Madonna was shifting into previously uncharted territory for this song, among the tracks on her Ray of Light album, and it is one of her most unique Videos.  For a woman who has been responsible for more great Music Videos with more talented directors, for a longer period of time than anyone else, that says something great about Cunningham.  This clip is full frame.


Afrika Shox – This clip for the Leftfield featuring Afrika Bambaataa track essentially is a remarkable statement about the continuing state of racism, poverty, ignorance, and neglect that the United States still needs to work out.  Inspired by the citing of a Vietnam veteran, Cunningham’s clip offers a famished, tired African American man walking the streets of pre-9/11/01 New York City.  In what is practically a nod to the great cult classic Sci-Fi film The Incredible Melting Man (1978,) the man slowly loses his body limbs piece-by-piece.  The parts cannot be reattached, because they simply crumble.  The conclusion can also be taken as a nod to Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop (1987) which itself was referencing Incredible Melting Man.  There are many great original touches too.  The framing offers a Scope-like 2.35 X 1 image.


Come On My Selector – The Squarepusher track has a video set in a ward for the mentally handicapped in Osaka, Japan, but this is not going to be a drama by any means.  Instead, we get a world of scientific quackery to match and surpass any mental illness.  Once again, the theme of being trapped and wanting to escape is front and center, which comes into play with the old standby of a mind-transference machine and a pet dog!  It even tends to stand in as a metaphor for the concept of psychological transference.  Cunningham again had issues with the final result, yet his thematics are all over the work.  The framing is again a Scope-like 2.35 X 1.


Windowlicker – This is the unedited version of the Aphex Twin clip with a strongly humorous dose of expletives.  Two guys go looking for women, with at least one of them being far more aggressive than the other.  Suddenly, the strategy backfires when they get more than they bargained for, especially with the arrival of some competition that is bizarre and “catchy” in the wrong way, to say the least.  The framing is yet again a Scope-like 2.35 X 1, and the edited version is in the supplement section.


All Is Full Of Love – This final Video offers the always daring singer/performer Bjork as a robot in the making.  This may give us a hint at what Cunningham was trying to come up with for Kubrick’s A.I., but also is the strongest implication of his influence by the director, which is obvious throughout his work.  No wonder it is used as the cover of this set.  A Making Of program about this clip is at the beginning of the supplements section, which runs approximately seven minutes long.  Those interested in the exceptional animation can use their frame-by-frame and still capacities to slowly search between picture changes and find instruction notes on how each step was taken to composite the final result.


The other shorts include:


Monkey Drummer – This is a strange, abstract video piece where a robot with a monkey’s head and human arms “plays” music.  This offers an interesting juxtaposition of the aforementioned themes.  Music by Aphex Twin.


flex – Takes erotica and technologizes it, as a male and female nude dance around, on, and all over each other ((and at various camera speeds.  The THX-1138 influence is strong here; including the fact that this couple is trapped is some unspecified dimension.  The full-frame presentation is set to music by Aphex Twin.


Mental Wealth – An ad for Sony Playstation from Europe offers a girl with unique facial features: her head seems to have a huge brain inside and both sides of the actual face are symmetrically similar.  This is full screen video.


Photocopier – This unseen Levi’s ad simply criticizes the competition for being unoriginal, while also noting that they were there first.  However, the ad never explicitly says this; it just has a giant truck run though a copier.


Engine – This ad for the Nissan Primera has a moderately-built male body somewhat robotically moving to electronic sounds that actually turn out to be music by the group Boards of Canada.  It is brief, but to the point.



As was the case with the Spike Jonze installment, video quality varies throughout, with image quality having a slight edge in the less commercial works.  The various aspect ratios are just fine, but it is too bad the widescreen clips could not have been anamorphically enhanced.  The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo is stronger-than-usual as it was on the last DVD, which is often the case with Palm music releases.  Despite some reservations, this makes for exceptional playback for this kind of a title.


Stills from what looks to be eight other Music Videos not on this DVD are in the thick booklet and hopefully will surface soon on DVD.  Cunningham is a very important filmmaker who will hopefully continue to make uncompromising, groundbreaking work form his vast wealth of ideas.  It will be years before most will finally appreciate how vital these films are, which is why you need to experience this DVD.



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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