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Depth of Field: David Cronenberg - Let's Get 'Physical'

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Wednesday, Oct 18, 2006


As part of a month long celebration of all things scary, SE&L will use its regular Monday/Thursday commentary pieces as a platform to discuss a few of horror’s most influential and important filmmakers. This time around, the biology-based terror of David Cronenberg, Canada’s premier horror maestro.


For many, sex and sexuality is an issue best left private. It involves so many idiosyncratic and deeply personal aspects that it can cause considerable individual angst. But in the mind of Canadian macabre maestro David Cronenberg, the physical act of intercourse, and the ancillary essentials that make up eros, can be more terrifying than any monster, more horrific than any visit from a violent slasher. It all has to do with the body – as a temple and temptation, a place easily violated and poisoned by facets from without and within. In a career that has spanned three decades, several sensational films, and a genre-defying approach to narrative, Cronenberg has managed to locate the fear inside the most fundamental aspect of existence – life itself – and as a result he created a canon where being human is the most potentially precarious thing a person can do.


For some, he is a difficult auteur. His work is overloaded with ideas, plagued by invention that both amplifies and occasionally addles, his efforts. Because of his background – Cronenberg studied both science and literature in college, taking a degree in the latter from the University of Toronto before dabbling in film – his themes usually clash, creating cinematic chaos before coming together at the end. After several strange and unique independent efforts (and more than a couple of TV films for Canadian broadcasting) in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, Cronenberg was desperate to explore the unnatural ideas rolling around in his head. He finally got the chance in 1975 with Shivers (released in the US and better known as They Came From Within).


With a narrative that would come to exemplify much of the director’s works – a parasite overruns an apartment building, turning the residents into lust-crazed maniacs whose goal is to infect each other – Shivers started Cronenberg’s career long march toward discovering the mysteries of sex. Acknowledging that for many, the physical act of love (or without emotion, pure carnal copulation) can be a daunting, even devastating act, the director designed his cinema to symbolize such an internal struggle via brash external means. In the case of Shivers, it was the loss of intimacy as represented by a small, squishy slug that brings on uncontrolled desire. Seen by many today as an AIDS metaphor as well as a comment on the disease spreading revolution that marked most of the Me Decade, the movie was an auspicious start to a soon to be impressive career. 


Next up was Rabid, which took the whole pornography of fear (and visa versa) element one step further by featuring real life adult film star Marilyn Chambers in the lead role. She played a woman whose botched plastic surgery leads to an insatiable desire for blood, and a small penis-like appendage jutting from her armpit. Never one to shy away from the more graphic aspects of imagery, many fright fans were repulsed by the decidedly disturbing nature of Cronenberg’s visuals. Still, Rabid was well received and after the one-off car cult action pic Fast Company, Cronenberg was back in biological territory. Using children as the source of all evil, he fashioned The Brood. Noted for taking the concept of psychosomatic illnesses to an all new, literary level, the director dissected birth, and the legacy of procreation, and inserted them into the closest thing to a condemnation of offspring this side of David Lynch’s Eraserhead.


Though he was now a considered cult filmmaker, Cronenberg had yet to matter to the mainstream. All of that would change with his next effort, 1980’s Scanners. Completing a kind of queer quadrilogy that followed terror from creation, to birth, to a kind of mutated maturity, the filmmaker established the perfect way of meshing physicality with fear, while also tapping into areas revolving around power and purpose. In this popular hit (which used the explosion of a man’s head from the film’s first act as a decided gore selling point), two adult ‘scanners’ battle for a kind of metaphysical supremacy, one arguing that the telekinetic skills he was genetically engineered with are a curse. The other, of course, sees nothing but superiority. Thanks to the bloodletting and special effects which accented Cronenberg’s complex screenplay, what could have been a geek show turned into a brave, bravura statement.


But he wasn’t done manipulating both mind and body. In his minor masterpiece Videodrome, Cronenberg considered the meddlesome effects of the media on human nature, and personal physicality, all with devastating results. Predating many of the symptoms post-modern punditry would imply were destroying the human race (TV, violence, sex, cults, religion) the director melded technology, terror and temptation to produce a kind of arch acid flashback, compete with living televisions, torso vaginas, and guns that were an actual extension of one’s anatomy. Some consider the last act where star James Woods has become a bio-sexual assassin (all thanks to a brainwashing signal implanted in a pirate satellite transmission) to be a meandering mess that looses much of what Cronenberg was commenting on. While definitely gruesome, the finale is a flawless wrap up to a story that’s surrealism sets up all the symbolism to come.


At this point, Cronenberg had arrived and was presented with his choice of projects. Scanners was a hit, and Videodrome proved he could match wits with even the wildest industry innovators. His next step threw the fanbase a substantial cinematic curve when he agreed to film an adaptation of Stephen King’s paranormal political thriller The Dead Zone. Antithetical to his whole corporeal creep show concepts, he still delivered a searing socio-political drama that resonates as realistically today as it did three decades before. It so impressed the individuals holding the option for a remake of the ‘50s insect schlock The Fly that Cronenberg was given the job of bringing the troubled project to the screen. Perhaps the perfect match of material and maker, the resulting effort would become one of horror cinema’s greatest achievements.


The Fly functions on many magnificent levels – love story, splatterfest, acting tutorial, monster movie – that to try and narrow its success to one or the other is futile. With a remarkable Jeff Goldblum giving life to one of the most difficult roles in all of fright filmmaking (man turning into a creature) and effects that added emphasis to the horror this human was experiencing, the sci-fi aspects of the narrative function perfectly as an analogy to how love impacts and changes a person. Before his relationship with Veronica, Goldblum’s character Seth Brundle was an insular and introverted man. Passion, and physical love transform the sullen scientist into a man eager to explore the possibilities of the world. Sadly one said adventure involved his teleportation device, an errant insect, and a gradual transformation into something quite grotesque.


An unquestionable achievement, Cronenberg’s creation touched a substantial genre nerve. Fright fans found it almost impossible to ignore the depth of emotion that existed between the characters, and saw the ending, a Grand Guignol spectacle of violence and loss, as one of Cronenberg’s most powerful. Few thought he could do better, but again, he baffled his devotees by delivering another amazing movie, the dualistic thriller Dead Ringers. It was a narrative that brought all his obsessions full circle. More psychological than physiological and using the almost telepathic connection between twins to tell a tale of obsession and possession, the narrative seemed like a response to all the critics who commented on the director’s own fascination with the human body and all its amniotic aspects.


At this point, Cronenberg could have merely coasted. Numerous projects came his way, many of which were Hollywood’s way of “rewarding” him for years of outsider excellence. But instead of bowing to blockbuster pressures, the filmmaker followed his heart, and attempted the near impossible – an adaptation of William Burrough’s notorious novel Naked Lunch. Instead of coming to terms with the demented descriptions in the author’s stream of consciousness screed of drugs and their use/abuse, Cronenberg fused a fictional Burroughs’ biopic with an interpretation of how such haunting, harrowing passages were prepared, and created a kind of mental Molotov cocktail. Fans hoping for a quixotic slice of pure Burroughs felt betrayed. Others argued that there were vast, varied differences between Croneberg’s Lunch and the ersatz story on the page. While celebrated today, Naked Lunch was lamented at the time of its initial release, considered disappointing in both cinematic and literary camps. 


It didn’t stop the auteur from continuing to court controversy. He brought the Broadway hit M. Butterfly to the silver screen, amplifying the homosexual angle of an already scandalous story of a French diplomat who fell in love and lived with an Asian transvestite. Next, he pushed the acceptability envelope even further by retrofitting J. G. Ballard’s brave book, Crash to fit his filmmaking ideals. So scandalous that it barely got released, the story of sexual deviants who get physical thrills from accident scenes and injury, put a preemptive halt to the director’s ascent into universal adoration. Arguably one of his best films, Crash can also be seen as penance for all the peculiarity Cronenberg placed upon his audiences.


Instead of a retreat, however, the filmmaker merely pressed on. His next big screen effort, eXistenZ was a weird, wooly trip into virtual reality, and proved a professional disappointment. Viewers apparently weren’t ready to see a motion picture mindfuck that actually was mindfucking itself. Then came the criminally underrated Spider with Ralph Fiennes delivering a devastating turn as a mentally unhinged man whose past and present seem to coexist simultaneously. In 2005, Cronenberg stunned everyone, from film critic to fervent supporter, with his Oscar caliber comment on the brutal nature of the human race, A History of Violence.


For a filmmaker used to accolades, the love this masterpiece received was outrageous. Nominated for numerous awards, and high on almost all film critic’s year end ‘best of’ lists, the story of small town America shaken by murder, and mistrust violates almost every single aspect of the filmmaker’s venereal style. Gone are the multiple references to the human form – in there place are stellar statements about the nature of evil, and how a loved one can hide their true self from even those they profess to care about. In fact, many reviewers responded favorably to the film for the very reason that Cronenberg appeared to be giving up his biological fascinations once and for all.


In fact, when looking at his upcoming projects (including a comedy -??? – and another graphic novel adaptation ala Violence) it does indeed look like he has abandoned his genre roots for good. While it wouldn’t be surprising if he never made another horror movie, fans of the creature feature art form would have a real reason to be upset. When he was part of post-modern macabre’s making, there was no one better than this crafty Canadian. The cinematic category surely misses his cruel, considered tone as well as his outstanding ‘body’ of work. 


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