Music Videos Shot By Great Cinematographers: Madonna, “Frozen”

(Welcome to a Solute-exclusive feature, at least for the time being, in which The Narrator discusses that most underrated of cinematic forms, the music video.)

Who Shot It: Darius Khondji. Khondji is one of the best cinematographers currently working, a man with an impeccable taste for golden hues and inky blacks. He has also shot a stunning amount of bad or mediocre movies. Of course, I wouldn’t have a series going if every cinematographer made a good movie every time, but almost half of Khondji’s (easily available) filmography is crap. Lemme give you an idea of this. He’s worked with Woody Allen four (soon to be five after his next one comes out) times, but three of those times were To Rome with LoveAnything Else, and Magic in the Moonlight (to be fair, the other one was Midnight in Paris). He worked with Michael Haneke, on Amour and the American remake of Funny Games. He worked with Neil Jordan (that’s good!) on In Dreams (that’s bad). He shot the forgotten tennis rom-com Wimbledon and the equally forgotten “killer plants” movie The Ruins. He shot Sydney Pollack’s final film, The Interpreter. He had the bum luck of collaborating with Roman Polanski on The Ninth Gate. For chrissakes, he shot The Beach. Of course, it’s not all bad. He worked with Jean-Pierre Jeunet before he got too insufferable, on DelicatessenThe City of Lost Children, and Alien Resurrection. He worked with David Fincher on Seven and at first Panic Room before being replaced by Conrad W. Hall. He was nominated for his only Oscar for shooting Evita with, whaddya know, Madonna. And he shot this and another video for Chris Cunningham.

Who Directed It: Chris Cunningham. Cunningham is known for making videos which delight in showcasing bizarre and frequently disturbing imagery. His breakthrough was his video for Aphex Twin’s “Come to Daddy”, which featured, among other things, a monster crawling out of a TV and screaming at an old lady and children with Richard D. James’ face terrorizing a particularly seedy of area of England. But somehow, that was just a warm-up for his next Aphex Twin video, “Windowlicker”. A 10-minute opus which deconstructs the hip-hop video, that of rampant profanity, booty-shaking, and champagne spillage, until you’re left wanting to take a shower to wash it off of you. Other notable works include Portishead’s “Only You”, where the actors were shot underwater and inserted onto an alleyway where their movements take a beautiful and unnerving gracefulness, Leftfield’s “Afrika Shox” (also shot by Darius Khondji), where a man literally falls apart in Manhattan’s Financial District, and Bjork’s “All is Full of Love”, a lovely tale of loving someone despite their seeming defects, with those people being played by Bjork robots. Unlike many of his comrades in the music video form, he has yet to move into films (his long-rumored adaptation of Necromancer is now in the hands of Vincenzo Natali), although he did do design work on Alien 3 and Resurrection and Kubrick’s original incarnation of A.I.

What Do You Mean, Song?: Coming from Madonna’s “comeback” album Ray of Light, “Frozen” was the first single, reflecting the album’s more restrained, electronic vibes (built with the considerable aid of producer William Orbit). The single and the album were acclaimed upon release, and they hold up really well today. Well, this section’s done.

The Story Behind the Video of the Song: In many ways, the video’s genesis is a more interesting topic than the video itself. One would not expect that Chris Cunningham, the guy who gave you the nightmare fare of the “Come to Daddy” video, to make a video for a pop superstar immediately afterwards. But Madonna liked the video, and decided he was the guy to direct the video for this song. The shoot was a rough experience for all. There was a lot of complicated motion control shots that needed to be done, and yet the shoot was cut to two days. Cunningham admits in the booklet of The Work of Director Chris Cunningham that he had to structure the video a lot in post to resemble his original treatment, which he felt never went beyond cool images in search of a point. He also wanted to junk a lot of the motion control shots, which the label outright refused, because those things cost them a lot of money and they want that money up on America’s TV screens. Cunningham has been kind of disappointed by the finished result, although it’s on the DVD (perhaps because its absence, as it’s by far Cunningham’s most commercially known work, would be very glaring). It was well-received at the time, but how does it fare viewed now?

Screw That, Let’s Talk Pretty Pictures: When two people with as big a love of dark images as Cunningham and Khondji (who has been deemed the new Gordon Willis by people that may or may not share my name) join forces, you know the final result is going to be none more black. And sure enough, that’s the case here. The concept of the video is Madonna, wearing a Jean-Paul Gaultier black dress, performing the song in a barren desert, the colors ranging from black to blueish black. As the video goes on, she breaks apart and forms a flock of ravens, a black (what else?) dog, and even different versions of herself. Contrary to what Cunningham felt at the time, the motion control shots hold up quite well even viewed now, the effects being largely seamless. And there are some beautiful shots in play here (more on those a little bit down), but it doesn’t much have Cunningham’s largely recognizable stamp. It’s a good video, a very good video even, but not a great Cunningham one.

Favorite Shot: A late sequence featuring an inky morass of Madonnas writhing and singing could be mistaken for a great lost painting out of context.

Stray Observations:

– While reading up on the video, I encountered a Pitchfork interview with Cunningham which reveals a few interesting things about him. One is that he really wanted to do a video for Pavement and even consulted Stephen Malkmus about doing one before abandoning the idea (I can’t even fathom what that would look like, and I would be overjoyed to see it). The other is that the reason he never did a video with Radiohead was that he just wasn’t a fan (he knows they’re really good, they’re just not his speed), although he did love “Subterranean Homesick Alien”.

– While watching the video on YouTube, I encountered multiple comments accusing it of being satanic. Please, this is probably the least satanic thing Cunningham has ever done. Try watching “Come to Daddy”, see if you still believe in a benevolent God afterwards.


Up Next: Words are useless, especially sentences. They don’t stand for anything, how can they explain what’s coming next?