When I was 18 I bought a copy of The Work of Director Chris Cunningham on the day of release, and pretty much watched it weekly for an entire year. I find it hard to believe that someone could sit down and watch the DVD in its entirety, and not come away shaken, queasy, and confused, but ultimately with the conclusion that Cunningham is one our most interesting and unique film-makers.
Genius is an overused term, and saying genius is an overused term before labeling someone a genius is an even more overused term, but I’ll point to anything on that DVD as evidence that Chris Cunningham is prodigiously talented in a way that maybe a handful of film-makers have ever been.
The DVD contains pretty much all of the video work Cunningham had done up to that point, including the famous ‘Mental Wealth’ adverts for Playstation, and music videos for Bjork, Squarepusher, Madonna, Leftfield, and of course Aphex Twin.
Interestingly, since the DVD’s release in 2004 Cunningham has only produced a handful of new stuff, including the disgusting and hilarious Rubber Johnny, and well-received videos for Gil Scott Heron and The Horrors. His main focus over the past few years has been on his burgeoning career as a VJ, bringing his set of punishing short films and ear-splitting glitch techno to parties all over the world (his take on Star Wars which features in this set is definitely worth watching if you haven’t seen it already).
It’s hardly surprising that Cunningham made the transition to VJ as one his most impressive talents is his ability to perfectly synchronise the aural and the visual so that they compliment each other perfectly. One of the best examples of his ability is Monkey Drummer, a 2001 music video-cum-art installation with music supplied by Cunningham’s own DeNiro, Aphex Twin.
Monkey Drummer isn’t close to being the best bit of work Cunningham has done – it’s a one-joke film that is pretty much just Cunningham showing off, but when you’re as good as he is, one joke is still enough to create something absolutely amazing. Monkey Drummer is also a succinct overview of all the elements of his work that have led to him becoming so revered and admired in the worlds of music, art, and film.
Firstly, his aforementioned talent for synchronization is demonstrated as persuasively here as it is in any of his stuff – it’s hard to believe the music wasn’t created alongside the video, but apparently it was, and Cunningham’s ability to deconstruct the audio layer-by-layer and construct a compelling visual around it is really something to behold. Normally he acheives this with incredibly tight-editing, as seen in Rubber Johnny and his video for Squarepusher Come On My Selector - in Monkey Drummer, he somehow manages to achieve the same effect iwhile holding one long take.
Secondly, it’s technically astonishing – we live in an age where CGI has desensitized us to the wonder of special effects, so it’s become increasingly rare that a film-maker can make us sit back and wonder, “How in the fuck did they do that?” Cunningham used his background as a special effects technician to create some images of genuine wonder in his videos, even if more often than not they have a horrific edge to them. It’s a testament to his craftsmanship that his videos have retained their ability to awe on a technical level over a decade after their initial release.
Thirdly, it’s one of Cunningham’s lighter pieces, but it’s still steadfastly weird in a way that is instantly recognizable as one of his works. It’s also pretty disturbing, especially if you think about what the monkey’s appendages might be for too long.
And fourthly, it’s really, really funny.
I’m sure I’ll come back to Chris Cunningham in this column in the near future – I could fill a whole blog with writing about his work – but for now, here’s the brilliant Monkey Drummer in all his creepy glory: