The Modern Fantastic

The Films of David Cronenberg by Michael Grant

by Matthew Wolf-Meyer


Grotesque Visions

David Cronenberg is a director worthy of extended scholarly discussion, and as such Michael Grant’s collection of seven essays and an interview with Cronenberg is a welcome entry. Unfortunately, the assortment is uneven, often too narrowly focused, and includes too few essays of import to necessitate reading in its entirety. While the variety of methodological approaches is rather interesting, the utility of the majority of the essays is limited, hardly explaining the film (or films) that the authors attempt to unravel, and doing little to explain science fiction/horror films or Cronenberg’s oeuvre.

Parveen Adams’s “Death Drive”, a Lacanian analysis of Crash (1996), is the most interesting and well-written of the essays in the collection that directly engage Cronenberg’s work. Adams attempts to unravel the stylistic complexity of Crash and to align Cronenberg’s directorial effects with the narrative estrangement at the heart of the film. While Adams’s study is limited only to Crash, she sees beyond the film, linking Cronenberg’s visual manipulations in the film to Luc Besson’s earlier work and, by implication, to work outside of Cronenberg’s. Engaging and interesting for its use of Lacan and Cronenberg, Adams’s essay is worth considering for any film scholar.

cover art

The Modern Fantastic

Michael Grant

The Films of David Cronenberg

(Praeger Books)

The best of the essays dealing with Cronenberg is a larger context is Andrew Klevan’s “The Mysterious Disappearance of Style: Some Critical Notes About the Writing on Dead Ringers”, which chides both specific film scholars and film scholarship as a field for its lack of consideration of a variety of filmic elements other than simply narrative. While inflammatory, Klevan’s analysis of contemporary scholarship is a vital critical entry, acting as repudiation of the earlier essays in the collection (Klevan is placed last, directly before the interview with Cronenberg, in which Cronenberg also chides scholars for their lack of critical scope). Grant’s editorial introduction spends a great deal of space attempting to find faults in Klevan’s argument, but his defense is too much a protest, and in both the introduction and Grant’s contribution to the collection it is quite clear what Klevan is attacking: scholars who are too concerned with their own scholastic exercises to actually attempt to engage the text at all, instead building a fortification of “theories” to hide ignorance behind. As such, Klevan’s contribution should be required reading.

The interview with Cronenberg is rather interesting, more for his concerns about the uses of scholarship than for his autobiographical revelations. The majority of the interview is spent considering critiques of his films, as well as arguing against attempts to understand his oeuvre through broad biographical or psychoanalytic means. Thus Cronenberg appears to be endorsing the methodological approaches embodied in the collection, which, with the exception of Grant, employ more contemporary theoretical modes. Otherwise of interest in the interview is Cronenberg’s extension of his earlier discussion of the aesthetics embodied in his work and the response of the audience to the grotesque visions in his films, which he attributes more to the reception of the audience than to his directorial intent.

Finally, the collection is rather myopic in its cinematic interests: a predominant number of essays concern M. Butterfly (1993) and Dead Ringers (1988). Crash and The Fly (1986) are also widely considered (although a number of the essays insist on redundantly summarizing identical scenes); eXistenZ (1999) is largely ignored, as are The Dead Zone (1983), Videodrome (1982), and Scanners (1981), with many of Cronenberg’s earlier, more horrific and science-fictional works mentioned only in passing. The collection also includes an extensive filmography and selected bibliography of Cronenberg criticism and reviews, which should prove useful for future scholars. Hopefully they will learn from the mistakes of The Modern Fantastic.

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This review originally appeared in the SFRA Review.

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