Chris Cunningham: Cunning Man
- Words: Piers Martin
Chris Cunningham is the award-winning film director who built Björk into a robot and morphed Madonna into a murder of crows. Best known for grafting Aphex Twin's head onto a gang of unruly kids and a bevy of bootylicious babes in the "Come To Daddy" and "Windowlicker" videos, in his latest work Cunningham has turned the camera on himself–with typically freakish results.
In the six-minute Rubber Johnny, his first new piece since 2000's art flick Flex, Cunningham used his own skinny naked body as the model for Johnny, a cellar-dwelling wheelchair-bound boy cursed with an abnormally large head and genitals. Shot on grainy grey-green nightvision DV and meticulously edited in time to Aphex Twin's Drukqs track "Afx 237v.7," the short catches naughty Johnny goofing around in his domestic dungeon with his equally bizarre pet dog. Released on Warp Films, the electronic label's burgeoning movie and DVD imprint, the disc is packaged with a 42-page book of Cunningham's grotesquely prurient drawings and photography. An Italian firm due to print the book refused, claiming the images of impossible anatomical configurations were too offensive.
While his groundbreaking human animation in Rubber Johnny is technically dazzling, impatient fans of the 34-year-old director will rightly wonder what he's been doing for the last five years, particularly when he returns with this relatively low-key work. "Rubber Johnny might look like a six-minute sketch but it's technically more advanced than anything I've done before," insists Cunningham, resplendent as ever in tatty jeans and a once-white cardigan, in a noisy bar in London's Soho. "It's sketchy in that it's not on the same scale as other videos I've done but on a technical level it's light years past them. When you watch it you'll see that just about every aspect of my craft has improved."
Like the star of his new short, Cunningham has spent the best part of this century locked away, developing his craft in his north London apartment (bought with the proceeds from directing Madonna's "Frozen" promo in 1998). With no desire to direct more pop videos, despite regular offers, he embarked on a series of treatments for scripts based on William Gibson's Neuromancer, cult Italian graphic novel RanXerox, and a Philip K. Dick tale, none of which worked out. "I think that directors in the feature film business spend a lot of time on projects that don't happen," he sighs.
This time indoors wasn't an entire waste, however. "I've been doing nothing but crafting for five years," he admits. Surprisingly old-fashioned in his approach to art, Cunningham–an exquisite draughtsman who didn't attend art school–firmly believes that artists should do their utmost to master their chosen craft. "I think if you want to play around with the rules then first you have to know the rules inside out," he says. "Let's say you're making music videos but you hate big-budget MTV videos, that doesn't mean you should make cheap and nasty videos. You should try to make videos which are as technically accomplished as the cheesy clichéd ones."
When he started working in the film industry as a teenage assistant to Stanley Kubrick, Cunningham wasn't just attracted to being a sculptor or an engineer or a make-up artist–he wanted to excel at every discipline, like a latter-day Renaissance man. "My plan is to be really multimedia," he says. "I don't want to be a jack of all trades and master of none, but be a master of all of them. I'm not saying I've mastered any yet but that's the aim."
With this in mind, and given his obvious love of music, Cunningham attends all manner of gigs and raves in London and can occasionally be heard DJing a fine blend of synth pop, soundtracks, and musique concrète–it's not shocking to learn that he's written stacks of his own tracks. "I love learning stuff and setting myself challenges," he says. "Making those videos I became more interested in music to the point where I realized I spent all my time studying and writing music. What usually happens is a video director goes off and makes a feature film. I'm in a weird position where I'm more interested in music than I am in film."
It's a tantalizing prospect, certainly. As to the precise nature of his compositions, Cunningham isn't giving much away. But you don't need to be Fox Mulder to figure out what his music might sound like. "The bottom line for me has always been songs," he says. "If something crosses over it's to do with the songs, the craft of the songwriting. The trouble with most electronic music is it's just one long verse. That's why I love Kraftwerk–Computer World is innovative sonically but it still has incredible songs. And that was my rule: I'm not doing anything unless I've got a really good song first and then I go off and start."
Cunningham says he's always sketched out songs on his guitar and keyboard. For him, refreshingly, melody is king. For this reason he adores Aphex's celestial harmonies and French techno whiz Vitalic's stirring anthems. "My favorite kind of pop music is melancholy pop music: Giorgio Moroder, Abba, you know, Tears For Fears' first album. All the best songs are sad songs about missed opportunities and longing."
Whether his music will be released remains to be seen. But there's no doubt he's keen to master this latest craft. "To people I know, it looks like I haven't been doing anything," he adds. "But in a year's time it's going to be obvious what I've been doing because I'll have a load of stuff out. And everyone will be like, how the fuck did you find time to do all that stuff?"
And with that he shuffles out of the bar and into Soho. He slips his headphones over his long hair. What's he listening to? Phil Collins. You have been warned.
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