Sunday, December 14, 2014

Disease, Delusion, and Delight

[Originally published at the defunct Cinespect.com in early 2012 on the occasion of a retrospective of Cronenberg's work at the Museum of the Moving Image. I think I was a bit too harsh on Crash, but otherwise I mostly stand by my comments below. Incidentally, I finally saw A Dangerous Method, and found its peculiar mixture of mordancy and pity affecting, though many seemed put off by the clinical, baldly presentational way Cronenberg depicted hysteria and its political and therapeutic consequences - which is really another way of saying that a lot of people still don't much like Cronenberg.]


David Cronenberg’s 40-plus-year legacy is up for review over the next three weeks at the Museum of the Moving Image, offering the opportunity to explore the filmography of the most idiosyncratic of all the North American horror filmmakers who emerged during the 1970s, and the only one who didn’t doom himself to dissolution or infinite repetition over the intervening years. By this point in his career, typing Cronenberg as a horror filmmaker is reductive, since many of his most celebrated and interesting works don't fit within the genre. But for me, and I suspect most admirers, Cronenberg first warranted attention due to the way his movies stood out from the gore-drenched crowd on the horror video shelves on which his movies hid out in the 1980s, waiting to disorient anyone looking for more than the run-of-the-mill nauseating obscenity to enjoy on a tense Saturday night.

Of course, Cronenberg’s earliest experimental works were never part of that lot of Saturday night shockers. For years, the only way a concerned connoisseur could see such curios as “Stereo” (1969) and “Crimes of the Future” (1970) was through bootleg video catalogs catering to the tastes of deviant videophiles willing to tolerate eighth-generation prints of movies that time and tide forgot, all because the pulsating, grimy, phallic dream images of “Shivers (1975) or Rabid (1977) had touched something deep and moist in their rotten Lilliputian minds. And those early student film works, including his rambling short film, "From the Drain” (1967), are precisely the kinds of movies most likely to benefit from being seen in impossibly faded VHS prints, since the inevitable muddiness always permits hope that maybe there’s something one simply isn’t able to see on the flickering television monitor, since when seen in relatively pristine condition, the movies play all too much like the awkward student films that they are. “From the Drain” is a particular stand-out a a thesis project casualty, a one-joke film that rambles along for a few minutes while mincing actors sit together in a bathtub in what looks like the shabbiest apartment in all of Toronto, and mumble their way all the way to the other side of afinal shot whose twitching, bewitching menace is the only noticeable foreshadowing of the hang-ups to come.



Both “Stereo” and “Crimes of the Future” are more pointedly Cronenbergian, which isn’t to say that either is particularly good (although the latter has an eerie ennui that enchants for all of seven minutes of its seventy minute running time). Both were filmed silent and then had a voiceover tacked on in post-production, a z-movie gimmick that echoes the formal delights of such brought-back-from-the-bowels-of-hell travesties as Beast of Yucca Flats (Coleman Francis, 1961) and The Creeping Terror (Vic Savage, 1964), which create an all-exposition-all-the-time sensation that’s generally less than enthralling. All of the information comes to us through a somnolent voiceover as the film mainly shows people drifting through long, empty corridors and open fields in interminable long takes. But it remains vaguely interesting because of the sheer oddness of Cronenberg’s approach and the narrative ideas he throws around.

 Both “Crimes” and “Stereo” stand out thanks to the language Cronenberg employs, a way with names and descriptions that’s perhaps Cronenberg’s greatest gift as a storyteller. The protagonist of “Crimes of the Future,” for instance, Arthur Tripod, works at an experimental dermatological clinic called the House of Skint and he’s trying to discover the whereabouts of the clinic’s founder, Antoine Rouge. Even at the start of his career, Cronenberg had a knack for word combinations that possess an electric, seductive eeriness (a place named “The House of Skin” run by a man named Tripod offers its own invitation and its own warning). Cronenberg’s way with words is very evocative of the gee-whiz macho paranoia of sci-fi literature of the late’50s/early ’60s (Dick, Bester, Sturgeon, early Ellison), as well as the late ’60s/early ’70s psychedelic SF-by-way-of-S&M erotica of Samuel Delany and Philip Jose Farmer, and no one has ever done a better job o. translating the terminological neuroses of those eras to the screen than Cronenberg. Which is to say that while the soporific narration that dominates both “Stereo” and “Crime” is spacey, drugged-out, not-even-pseudo-science nonsense, it’s intermittently really fucking cool spacey, drugged-out, not-even-pseudo-science nonsense.

Despite intermittent interest, however, the early films are best approached as manifestos of intent, outlining a collection of obsessions and aesthetic strategies more dynamically explored in his subsequent output. For the next several years, Cronenberg worked mainly in Canadian television, churning out documentaries and TV shows that are today largely unavailable for viewing. But in 1975, he produced his first feature film, Shivers (a.k.a. They Came from Within), which remains one of his most distinctive, and which lives up to the barely discernible promise of his early projects. Following the spread of a phallic parasite that turns its hosts into sex-crazed zombies, Shivers makes brilliant use of minimalist settings to creating a feeling of dread and paranoia. Setting the film inside an antiseptic high-rise, Cronenberg takes obvious delight in desecrating the building’s modernist fa├žade, as blood and other assorted bodily fluids flow freely while the parasite triumphs over hygiene and Puritan morality. Featuring cult movie sirens Barbara Steele and Lynn Lowry in major supporting roles, the movie also includes a brief cameo from Cronenberg himself as one of the high-rise’s resident nympho-zombies. 



The film caused a minor scandal upon release, as it was partially funded by the taxpayer-supported Canadian Film Development Corporation, and the ensuing controversy led to Cronenberg getting evicted from his apartment on the grounds that he had violated his lease’s morality clause, The film’s images of gleeful, sex-crazed bodies cavorting their way deliriously through abstract, modernist spaces recalls Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963), another famous film scandal similarly imbued with a sex-crazed mock-deviant doomsday glee (and which was officially deemed obscene by the very perceptive New York criminal courts). 

Shivers's combination of bold sexuality and po-faced camp outrageousness underscores Cronenberg’s debt to the New York Underground of the 1960s, with faint echoes of Smith, Kenneth Anger, and the Kuchar Brothers reverberating across the Cronenberg oeuvre. The opening images of Cronenberg’s next feature, Rabid (1977), lifts the biker-punk imagery of Anger’s “Scorpio Rising” (1964) as we see two impossibly beautiful losers, decked out in leather and stylish disaffection, race their way into oblivion and mutation across the open roads of Canada. The film stars the very pretty Ivory-Snow-Soap-model-turned-porn-star Marilyn Chambers as the distaff member of the biker duo, who, following a road accident, undergoes reconstructive surgery at an experimental clinic (a franchise of the House of Skin, no doubt). A new kind of skin graft soon mutates into a phallic parasite (ah yes, that old saw again) that infects anyone human enough to fall for Ms. Chambers’s charms. Anyone affected turns into a rabid killer, and soon enough the streets of Ontario descend into zombie-plagued chaos. 


Released just a few years after martial law descended upon Quebec in the early ’70s, Rabid, with its budget-conscious images of military vehicles descending upon the deserted streets of Montreal, engenders a powerful feeling of paranoia and dread, but its allegorical charge isn’t half as powerful as the great absurdist images of bodies lying around in dumpsters waiting to be collected along with yesterday’s trash as hazmat-suited garbage men make their dutiful rounds on another bright shining morning of the day after the apocalypse. Its pitiless pulp exuberance over the disintegration of beautiful things feels bracingly if accidentally consonant with the blaring vitriol of punk rock’s designer nihilism, blaring from nobodyz in-particular’s turntables throughout 1977. Speaking of the musical fads of the late ’70s, keep an ear open and unbloodied during a brief scene in a gas station, where you’ll hear on the radio Ms. Chambers’s song “Benihana,” her unsuccessful attempt to catch-up with Andrea True in the disco-hit-by-porn-star sweepstakes. It’s lively pop ephemera almost lost to the solid gold dustbin of history. 

Cronenberg next project, Fast Company (1978), is usually regarded as an odd duck in his filmography, and typically written off as a dud. It's unusually warm for Cronenberg, but it carries over several of his recurring themes in its portrait of race car drivers who live and die through their romance with their automobiles. The film’s best scene occurs when our heroes remake and remodel a racing car inside and out, a sequence given a seductive, erotic charge that foreshadows and arguably betters the auto-eroticism of Crash (1996). But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. “Fast Company” is actually substantially better than its reputation suggests, especially if you have any affection at all for its collection of cult movie stalwarts (William Smith, Claudia Jennings, John Saxon) and for the "You must pay the rent!" Victorian-melodrama-by-way-of-the-drive-in  plot mechanics the movie adheres to both slavishly and quite affectionately. A warm, funny hang-out movie, it’s the only Cronenberg film one might be tempted to call Hawksian. 


The Brood (1979) found Cronenberg back in familiar territory, though with a deeply personal angle that gives the film a particularly nasty, mean-spirited undercurrent. Made while Cronenberg was undergoing a bitter divorce, the film follows a recent divorcee (Art Hindle) involved in a custody dispute with his ex-wife (Samantha Eggar), who is the prize patient of a radical psychotherapist (Oliver Reed) whose methods produce startling and dangerous results in the form of the psychic offspring who act out Eggar’s violent desires. The little monstrosities are intensely unnerving creations, faceless tykes who recall the psychotic dwarf from Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), and embody an extremely visceral misogyny, as all women seem vaguely associated with the vicious anonymity of Eggar’s offspring. An unpleasant but sublimely creepy film, ii might be the masterpiece of Cronenberg’s early period, demonstrating a focus and formal mastery new to Cronenberg’s work. It’s also another Cronenberg movie that righteously got under some people’s skin, particularly Roger Ebert's, who concluded his original pan with the rhetorical question, “Are there really people who want to see reprehensible trash like this?” Which I think would have made a great tagline. 



Everybody remembers the exploding head scene in Scanners (1981), one of the great pop trash images of cinema history, one that has become unmoored from its original context and exists as an eternal punchline in any respectable hodgepodge of cinematic greatest hits. The film is essentially a nihilistic spin on Theodore Sturgeon’s novel More Than Human, as Michael Ironside plays the leader of a new breed of powerful psychics (called “Scanners”) bent on wreaking all manner of havoc. Stephen Lack plays the scanner recruited ts find him, and the movie plays out his search for Ironside within the bohemian back-channels of Canada, winding its way among assorted losers and burn-out cases across the hinterlands. The scanners in the film seem less like superheroes than like a gang of frazzled acid casualties and radical chic poseurs. Lack’s stone-faced portrayal of the hero comes under a lot of criticism in most commentaries on the movie, but the performance fits the movie’s allegorical purposes, and it’s also very much of a piece with the whole run of laconic-to-narcoleptic male lead turns in Cronenberg’s early films, a performance aesthetic that, whatever its flaws, clearly seems to have been carefully crafted by the director. The film benefits enormously from Howard Shore’s throbbing synth score, a pulverizing, menacing work that’s among the best music he’s ever composed for movies. 



 Cronenberg’s next film brought him to Hollywood to work with a major studio for the first time, and oddly enough he did so with a project that in some ways remains his most idiosyncratic and disorienting–Videodrome (1983). The film sums up most of Cronenberg’s obsessions and visual ideas, and might fairly be called the most Cronenbergian Cronenberg movie. James Woods, in an entertainingly smarmy performance (is there any other kind of James Woods performance?), plays Max Renn, a cable TV programmer looking for the most sensationally exploitive TV programming available. He happens upon a disturbing S&M/snuff porno program called “Videodrome” and decides to track down its origins so he can air it on his station. But as he attempts to track down the source of “Videodrome,” Renn uncovers a right-wing conspiracy and increasingly finds his grasp on reality slipping. The movie also features Debbie Harry as Nicki Brandt,  Rand’s temporary partner-in-hedonistic-deviance, and the whole movie hums with a slick and sleazy New Wave vibe that makes it appealingly evocative of its very analog times even as it can reasonably lay claim ts being one of the first cyberpunk masterpieces. By most accounts a somewhat fraught shoot, the movie feels slightly out-of-control and half-mad, considerable assets in this particular case. 


Seemingly in response to the tensions that afflicted him during the shooting of Videodrome, Cronenberg’s next movie was the rather comfy and slightly bland adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone (1983). The film chronicles the travails of Johnny Smith (Walken), a psychic who receives a vision of the end of the world and sets out to stop it from becoming a reality. The movie is decidedly minor, but pleasant, thanks to attractive camerawork from Mark Irwin, and an excellent performance by Walken, one of the last times his assortment of mannerisms added up to a poignant character portrait rather than just a catalog of amusing quirks. 


Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) seemed to suggest another relatively safe project, a remake of the semi-classic 1958 horror movie starring David Hedison and Vincent Price, but the resulting film is among Cronenberg’s finest, and among the half dozen best movies to emerge from Hollywood in the 1980s. Jeff Goldblum plays Seth Brundle, a scientist trying to perfect a teleportation machine, whose endeavors lead to a mishap involving y housefly that soon finds Seth degenerating into a half-human, half-insect monstrosity. The film’s first third might be the best romantic comedy of the era, as Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis achieve an engaging, flirty interplay, demonstrating a kind of warmth and humor not really seen in any other Cronenberg film aside from Fast Company. The film proved both critically and financially successful, and in 1986, the portrait of Seth’s sad physical and mental decline seemed allegorical of everything from drug addition to the AIDS epidemic, readings the movie is ambiguous and complex enough to support. Goldblum gives a great, funny performance, never missing a comic beat even when his character’s body is falling apart, and it’s just about the last time that Geena Davis seemed like she might be a terrific actress. 

The success of The Fly allowed Cronenberg to explore projects that, while still distinctly resonant with his thematic preoccupations, weren't so easily consigned to the genre ghetto where good films go to get pissed on. Dead Ringers (1988) represented the full-fledged emergence of Cronenberg- Respected Auteur. The film follows a pair of twins, both gynecologists (and both played by Jeremy Irons), who mischievously swap identities on occasion so that they can manipulate and screw their female patients. Genevieve Bujold plays an emotionally and physically damaged woman who enters their lives and sets in motion a series of crises with ultimately catastrophic results. While one may at times miss the gore and griminess of his earlier shockers, Dead Ringers is nevertheless a great film, a disturbing and moving portrait of emotional and sexual dysfunction that features Irons, alternately funny and frightening, in one of his finest performances (only his performance in Jerzy Skolimowski’s mordant 1982 feature “Moonlighting” might be finer), while Bujold’s twitchy, erotically neurotic turn gives the film a nervy, off-center volatility. 

By the end of the ’80s, Cronenberg had confirmed his status as one of the most interesting directors in North America, and had become both critically respected and commercially dependable. The ’90s, in constrast, seem like an uncertain era for him, a period of experimentation and provocation, bookended by two striking films, one an exploration of the outer boundaries of his talent and the other a return to familiar territory. 


Naked Lunch (1991) came about after his efforts on the Philip K. Dick adaptation Total Recall came to naught (the film, of course, eventually got made by Paul Verhoeven as an entertainingly goofy Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle). The resulting film doesn't so much adapt the William S. Burroughs novel as paint a hallucinatory portrait of the various contexts, cultural and pharmaceutical, that produced it. Peter Weller’s portrayal of Burroughs appropriately recalls the spaced-out Cronenberg performances of yore, as his Bill the bug exterminator wanders from a New York shit-hole apartment to the netherworld of middle-eastern dens of inequity, having lucid conversations with his loquacious insectoid typewriter along the way. Where nearly every other Cronenberg film can be seen as an allegory for drug addiction, in Naked Lunch overt drug addiction becomes allegorical of the creative process, as Bill tries to write his way out of oblivion, losing track of time, reality, and friends as his various delusions alternately provide sustenance and diversion from the hard habit of living some kind of meaningful life away from the printed page. It’s a bold, often jarring work that makes interesting use of its source material, although Cronenberg’s formal predilections, always intriguingly rigid, border on being awkwardly stiff here, a foreshadowing of the problems plaguing his next film. 

M. Butterfly (1993) is the only unmitigated failure Cronenberg has made to date. The problems seem ts originate partially with the source material, a play by David Henry Hwang loosely based on the true story of a French diplomat (Jeremy Irons) who engages in a decades-long affair with a Peking opera singer (John Lone), unaware that she is biologically male, which eventually leads to him becoming a spy. Conceived as a critique of western orientalism, which we can discern because roughly a third of the dialogue consists of characters virtually saying, “Look ma! I’m critiquing western orientalism!”, the material is often pedantic and shrill. Irons has a rather impossible role to play, and is ultimately defeated by the part, and Lone never convinces as an object of obsession, not so much because he doesn’t ever come across as believably feminine, but rather because he’s so stiff and awkward in the role that he’s immediately off-putting. Worse still, Cronenberg never finds a way into the material, even though he clearly seems to be playing with his usual tone and form. Only the startling, operatic finale shows any panache, and one suspects it’s why Cronenberg wanted to adapt the play in the first placer 

Unfortunately, some of the film’s formal awkwardness carried over to Cronenberg’s Crash (1996), a much more successful film that nevertheless doesn’t prove to be quite the dream marriage of director and material one might have hoped for. The film tells the story of a group of car accident fetishists, led by Elias Koteas, who stage car crashes in order to both get off  and achieve a kind of vital, refreshed connection to the world. The film’s chilly, clinical aesthetic reflects the disaffection of its characters, and at least superficially seems in line with Cronenberg’s typical filmmaking habits, but in films like Shivers and Dead Ringers, Cronenberg had at least fallen in love with the disease if not the victim. Here, everything remains at arm’s length, and Cronenberg never seems as interested in his subjects’ peccadilloes as one might expect. One measure of the film’s limitations is that the cars themselves are never as eroticized as much as they were in Fast Company, a movie which comes much closer to expressing J.G. Ballard’s beguiling erotic perversity (as does the average episode of Top Gear for that matter). Nevertheless, the film is generally compelling and strangely poignant, thanks partly to a superb ensemble cast led by James Spader and Deborah Kara Unger. 


Existenz (1999) found Cronenberg writing his first original script since Videodrome, and it remains one of Cronenberg’s most interesting films. It got lost in the shuffle among a wave of false reality movies that camp out at the end of the ’90s (e,g,, Dark City, The Thirteenth Floor, The Matrix), Cronenberg’s movie treated its virtual reality scenario as a moral problem rather than an epistemological one, as Jennifer Jason Leigh plays a designer/player of an organic video game software that dissolves meaningful distinctions between game play and reality. It’s a murky, grimy movie that contrasts noticeably with the very pristine, clean look that characterized Crash. It’s another film about the ways an obsessive subculture closes itself off from reality in search of a thrill, and perhaps because its scenario works so well as a metaphor for cinema itself, Cronenberg seems much more invested in the material. 

In the same year that he directed Existenz, Cronenberg presided over the Cannes Film Festival jury, a confirmation that he had achieved elder statesman status and that his reputation as a director worth taking seriously was secure. Subsequently, his films in the aughts saw him exploring new material, going further afield from narrow definitions of what constitutes a Cronenberg film while still turning out interesting, if not always entirely satisfactory, movies. Spider (2002), adapted from Patrick McGrath’s novel, follows an emotionally damaged man (Ralph Fiennes) recently released from a mental institution who slowly reconstructs the traumatic events that led to his mental collapse as a child. The many shots of Fiennes walking around looking quite dejected in the atmospheric London gloom echo Cronenberg’s early student work, and the film’s central mystery is in fact rather obvious from the start, but the film maintains a dark, claustrophobic mood that replicates the mental states of its protagonist, producing a profoundly unsettling picture that works not so much as an explanation of mental illness (the film fails whenever it attempts to explicate) but as a convincing evocation of it 


With A History of Violence (2005), Cronenberg channeled the lurid True Crime pulp tales that his father wrote for a living, as Viggo Mortensen plays a small town family man who may or may not have once been y dangerous gangster. Although Cronenberg lays the Our Town ambiance on a bit too thick near the beginning, the film hangs together thanks to Mortensen’s canny performance and Cronenberg’s ability to suggest that things are about to go bug-fuck insane at any moment. The film as a whole is a bit of a tease, since it never gets as weird as one hopes it will, but it’s an agreeably tense, nervy production that shows Cronenberg dealing effectively with a kind of milieu and character relatively new to his work. 

Eastern Promises (2007) saw Cronenberg further exploring pulp crime material, but to lesser effect. Mortensen, appearing in his second Cronenberg film, is very effective as an enigmatic Russian gangster, but Naomi Watts’s character, a midwife trying to find the identity of a teenage girl who died in childbirth, never feels convincing, and the scenes focusing on her have a halting, awkward air that prevents the film from ever being more than intermittently effective. The film’s highlight, a naked steam-room brawl between Mortensen and some would-be assassins, demonstrates Cronenberg’s skill at presenting brutal violence in a straight-ahead, unflinching manner that’s genuinely bracing, but the narrative surrounding that set piece never has the same urgency. Not a disaster by any means, but a mildly disappointing effort.

 In addition to his features, Cronenberg produced two short films in the aughts that constitute his best efforts in the past decade. “Camera” (2000) has the bland look of a PSA, with a seemingly genial commentator reflecting on the nature of photography as a group of kids play with an old motion picture camera. But the short slowly builds a sense of dread by overlaying the increasingly morbid commentary with shots of kids fooling around with camera equipment, so by the end innocence comes to feel malevolent, and the little kids almost come of. as first cousins to the mutant homicidal children from The Brood. “At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World in the Last Cinema of the World” (2007) is even more disturbing. Starring Cronenberg himself in the titular role, the short assumes the form of a news broadcast excitedly reporting the eponymous event as news commentators perkily spout anti-Semitic and anti-cinephilic banalities. Partly because he cast himself in the film, the piece feels like Cronenberg’s most strongly personal film since “The Brood,” and like that film, it is profoundly bitter and frightened, a direct expression of rage over incessant, genocidal anti-Semitism, as well as the threatened obsolescence of film history in the face of digital progress. But the short also happens to be savagely funny, as its two chattering doofuses manage a perfect mockery of news anchor imbecility masquerading as wisdom.

Last year saw the release of A Dangerous Method, a film that I still haven’t had the chance to see, what with being stranded in the benighted, third-world hinterlands of North Florida. The film received a respectful but mixed response and, despite widespread praise of some of the performances, was shut-out at this year’s Oscar nominations, a heartening sign that for all the accolades he’s garnered over the years, Cronenberg remains slightly out-of-bounds for strictly respectable society, a creepy eccentric working the edges of normality and good taste. He’s the kind of filmmaker who still makes polite people of good taste and good sense nervous, as the gentle folks fidget and grumble and whisper, “Is he really serious about all this? Is he really good enough?” May their dis-ease be your pleasurer.

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