[4 August 2011]
Our second day of “100 Essential Directors” could loosely be described as one that defines “influential.” Each of the auteurs sandwiched in between Robert Bresson and David Cronenberg has left a lasting mark on cinema, each employing a signature style that is unmistakable.
Three Key Films: The Diary of a Country Priest (1950), A Man Escaped (1956), Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
Underrated: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945) It would be hard to find a Bresson film that has not been the subject of superlative praise at one point or another, but Bresson’s elegant adaptation of the Diderot novel Jacques le fataliste was certainly underrated upon its release; despite, and perhaps because of, its premature date in Bresson’s oeuvre, it’s a charming mixture of pathos, subtlety and melodrama rarely found in the purism of his later films. With a script by Jean Cocteau, the movie follows the jilted lover Helene (Maria Casarés) as she exacts revenge from her coy betrayer Jean (Paul Bernard) in an intricate manipulative plot worthy of the darkest film noir.
Unforgettable: The young priest’s confrontation with the local countess in The Diary of a Country Priest. The countess (Marie-Monique Arkell) has hardened her heart against resignation to the will of God, but in this scene, the priest (Claude Laylu) carries out his own prediction that “God will break you”, instilling in her a profound spiritual peace. Bresson orchestrates her transformation with his most reliable and well-loved techniques—an advancing camera, musical crescendos and closeups of the hands—and Laylu’s performance is as powerful as it is vulnerable.
A Man Escaped (1956)
The Legend: In an industry haunted by the individualistic expectations of auteur theory and often hobbled by the overbearing ministrations of government intervention, Robert Bresson stands out as an unmistakable independent with a formidable personal vision. Justified by the principles and philosophy outlined in his personal notes, Notes on the Cinematographer, written from 1950 to 1974 and published in English in 1997, Bresson set about fashioning a new kind of cinematic language. He rejected traditional film elements such as professional actors and commissioned scores, which he described as filmed theater, and limited himself to the essentials, striving to create in his films an organic synthesis of music and painting.
Bresson put his beliefs to work most effectively in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when he established himself as a master director with such astonishingly stark and original works as Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped, Pickpocket (1959) and Au Hasard Balthazar, but he continued to have international success until his retirement with 1983’s L’Argent, itself widely praised as a masterwork. Bresson’s almost fanatical essentialism served him well, for his films stood aloof from the dominant trends of his long career. From the “tradition of quality” of the post-war period to the rebelliousness of the Cahiers du cinéma circle to the professional realism of the early ‘70s, Bresson’s style maintained its uncompromising rigor. His movies remain testaments to his genius, full of poetry, drama and mystery.
In his most celebrated and accomplished works, Bresson applies his radical minimalism to questions of sin, crime and redemption, drawing on literary and personal sources: the stories of Dostoyevsky and the trial of Joan of Arc; his experiences as a POW in a German camp in 1939 and his intense, probing engagement with the Catholic faith. His vision of the world is violent and bleak, to the point that many find his later, more pessimistic movies unpalatable. For Bresson, however, there is always the possibility of redemption, though sometimes it remains unrealized. Even in such a bloody work as L’Argent, the story of a mass murderer’s slow descent into amorality, the sensitive viewer may find hope that, as the young priest declares at the end of The Diary of a Country Priest, “All is grace.” Dylan Nelson
Three Key Films: Un Chien Andalou (1929), Los Olvidados (1950), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise (1972)
Underrated: Illusion Travels by Streetcar (1954). Not revelatory by any means, Illusion flattens out in sections and admittedly doesn’t live up to that fantastic title. But it’s quite fun nonetheless, and despite the noticeable detachment that Buñuel seems to have with the material, the film is refreshingly cheerful. Plot? Two friends romp through Mexico City as they take a streetcar for a last ride. Foibles and satire ensue.
Unforgettable: The eyeball-slicing is the one that everyone remembers, and the gorgeous tones of Belle de Jour shouldn’t be overlooked. But it’s a later image in Un Chien Andalou that’s just as striking: the girl left alone with her shadow as all the other shadows scatter away, and that same girl soon lying limp on the street like a fly caught in a concrete spider web.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise (1972)
The Legend: That crotchety old man shouldn’t fool anyone: Spain’s finest filmmaker was farcically compelled by humanity’s blemishes and particulars—he just filtered them through stinging humor and outlandish narrative. And while Luis Buñuel is remembered for the lingering threats of violence or frank sexual encounter in his films, his aesthetic was so loosely-confined that he was never exploitative; there’s a casual sensuality to even his most seemingly-mundane scenes.
Born at the start of the 20th century, Buñuel was able to witness (and take part in) the changes that were carried through that century’s premier art form. Un Chien Andalou, needs little explanation to cinephiles: made with one Salvador Dalí, it remains a quintessential example of 1920s Parisian decadence, standing as the first great cinematic immersion into full-blown surrealism.
Buñuel cast satiric barbs toward the European class structure and particularly toward Catholicism, an understandable result of being an artist in pre-WWII Spain. Yet his films never lost their astute sense of pace, compounded through strangely mesmerizing imagery (a mountain goat tumbling to its death in Tierra Sin Pan, the disturbingly direct framing of a merry-go-round in Los Olvidados). The people in his films behave both fluidly and mechanically, which is beneficial: as in dreams, subjects function through a playful ambience of de-tuned normality.
This oeuvre peaked (in my view) with The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise. Released as America’s films entered their last golden age, Bourgeoise was an eccentric comedown from the turbulent France of the late ‘60s, providing characters who seem culled from past work and somehow managing to warmly espouse their quirks and cleverly jibe them simultaneously. Like an engrossing dream, you accept it against your ‘better’ judgment, left with images and scenes that you recall with the fondness of an old friend.
Buñuel embraced counterculturalism with a knowing, satisfied ease, and his run from 1961 through his breezy farewell in 1977 stands as a high point for both surrealism and for the rejection—cinematic or otherwise—of established systems and aesthetics. Rigidity and perversity were still present, but used expansively, exuding an assured love of film—and, crucially, of filmmaking.
It’s a shame that the eyeball scene in Un Chien Andalou has been trivialized as a depraved pass-along phrase (thanks, Frank Black). Sure, it’s visceral, but Buñuel compels us to look beyond repulsion or confusion, to ask ourselves if these are truly our only reactions; he was a subverter of form who stands for any medium’s boundary-breaking. One’s accepted view of the world stands on the edge of being warped—or eviscerated—at any point. “L’art pour le bien de l’art,” as I’m sure the man said. Nathan Wisnicki
Three Key Films: Killer of Sheep (1977), My Brother’s Wedding (1983), To Sleep with Anger (1990)
Underrated: The Glass Shield (1994). In some respects, we’ve seen this film before. A Los Angeles police station is assigned their first black officer. Guess what happens next? But the predictability of the set-up is also the point. This is not some esoteric art film. This is your classic police procedural. Good cops, bad cops, courtroom drama and city corruption. Get Ice Cube to play the suspect and there you go. Finally, a Burnett film everyone will see. Unfortunately someone at Miramax decided to feature Ice Cube’s giant mug on the poster, disappointing audiences who expected a more significant role (and a different movie) than Cube’s small part would deliver. Time has treated this film well though. Avoiding the simplistic values and early ‘90s anachronisms that have aged so many of its contemporaries so early, The Glass Shield succeeds as an indictment of both the system and the individual, bravely scathing the sympathetic protagonist for his own poor decisions.
Unforgettable: Stan dancing with his wife in Killer of Sheep. Desensitized by his work in the slaughterhouse, stunned by his inability to support his family, and perennially shirtless, we’ve come to know Stan as a distant, desirable and drowning man. His wife wants desperately to pull him to the surface. As they dance in the darkened room, framed before a window, she kneads his skin, her mouth tracing his neck and chest. The song (Dinah Washington’s plaintive and aching “This Bitter Earth”) and the sustained mid-shot accentuate the sense of longing and hopelessness. We know that Stan will pull away.
Killer of Sheep (1977)
The Legend: Born in Jim Crow Mississippi and raised in riot-era Watts, the early years of Charles Burnett were typical of the people living in his neighborhood and atypical of the people making or being represented in film at the time. And while cinema has since aspired to capture some aspects of the South Central neighborhood where Burnett grew up—mostly the gangs, cops, and Korean groceries—we remain frighteningly unfamiliar with the lives of the people who live there. Burnett’s films are necessary because they confront this reluctance. But this is not what makes them great.
What makes Burnett great is that he is far more interested in the poetic mundanity of everyday life than he is in polemics. His early work especially relies on this quiet, observational style. Ditching plot-driven narrative for a series of loosely connected vignettes, Burnett’s seminal Killer of Sheep and his assured first short Several Friends (1969) can feel more like cultural artifacts than movies. Kids pummel a passing train with rocks; men wrestle a washing machine through a tight doorframe; a woman rubs lotion on her leg. It’s easy to forget there’s a camera in the room.
The events may seem incidental, but the effect of their accumulation is devastating. Simultaneously heartbreaking and beautiful, Killer of Sheep is a deeply effective film—edited, written, and filmed by Burnett as his master thesis for UCLA film school. The film cost less than ten grand and was made on weekends over the course of a year and what emerges is a remarkable and lasting response to the Blaxploitation flicks that ruled the day. Employing a contemporary soundtrack of pop songs and blues, the film manages that rare feat of feeling both timeless and immediate, eventually propelling the Little Master Thesis That Could to win the Critics’ Prize at the Berlin Film Festival in 1981. Unfortunately, copyright issues concerning the songs relegated the film to private screening and film festivals, but word of the unseeable picture spread. The Library of Congress placed it among the first 50 films in the National Film Registry. The National Society of Film Critics named it one of the 100 essential films of all time. Burnett had made a masterpiece. Now he had to make a career.
The path that follows is tough to navigate. There are documentaries and shorts and several features. Many of them are difficult to find, though most reward the effort. And in them all, you can find the visionary behind Killer of Sheep. To Sleep With Anger (1990), for instance, is another knockout that took home a slew of awards but was seen by far too few people. Also notable is The Final Insult (1997), a strange and resonating pseudo-documentary on L.A. homelessness. Burnett continues to work today, mostly making documentaries and films-for-television that are better than their budgets suggest, forever intertwining his deep sense of morality with a satisfying unwillingness to lean on moral judgments. Ultimately, Burnett’s great talent lies in his ability to ask the toughest questions, and then mesmerizingly refuse to answer them. Joshua Ewing Weber
Three Key Films: Batman (1989), Edward Scissorhands (1990), Ed Wood (1994)
Underrated: Frankenweenie (1984). This charming short (soon to be remade by Burton as an animated feature) about a boy who resurrects his dead dog is a humorous homage to both Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein and the 1931 James Whale movie of the same name. Burton spins the concept into a tale of childhood loss and adult prejudice that unfolds in a seemingly innocent slice of suburbia. This movie never seems to receive much attention and is often forgotten in the midst of Burton’s more famous films, but it remains an engaging example of Burton’s imagination run adoringly amok. Stuffed with clever nods to the imagery and design of Whale’s classic picture (the incorporation of a windmill into the narrative is particularly smart), Frankenweenie offers an early look at Burton’s careful ability to transform parody into something uniquely refreshing.
Unforgettable: When titular hero Edward Scissorhands (Johnny Depp) crafts his ultimate masterpiece, an ice sculpture of love interest Kim (Winona Ryder), his sharp appendages rain ice chips down from the sky and fabricate a sense of snow finally falling in the perpetually warm suburban town. Kim takes this gentle, unique moment to dance in the snow as Danny Elfman’s score soars effortlessly. It is a magically romantic moment in a story of forbidden love.
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
The Legend: Born in Burbank, California Tim Burton began his career as an animator and artist at Walt Disney Animation Studios, where he developed an interest in exploring dark, personal projects. His big break came when he was selected by Paul Reubens to direct a big-screen Pee-Wee Herman movie titled Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985). The financial success of that movie opened the doors to large-scale projects such as Beetlejuice (1988) and Batman. These first three features (and nearly every movie to follow) allowed Burton to explore many of his favourite themes (innocence, loneliness, social awkwardness, heroic responsibility in the face of unusual obstacles) and then reconcile the pain of these themes into something dramatically meaningful and visually fascinating, mixing art with commerce.
The look of a Burton movie is unmistakable and he has managed to define a unique style (a sort of decrepit, fantastical exaggeration of something recognizable) in nearly all facets of his cinematic designs. He tends to favour a polarizing colour palette, with dark blues and greys being offset by splashes of red or a rainbow of pastels. He did employ a black-and-white approach for his biopic about cult classic filmmaker and tragic figure Ed Wood (his most grounded film to date and quite possibly his best, too), but he rarely strays from his iconic blend of gothic darkness and whimsical brightness (see the deceptively dark summer blockbuster Batman Returns  for one of the best examples of this). Burton’s strict adherence to a singular style may feel repetitive in later movies, but his overall filmography reveals a gifted storyteller with a slightly demented Willy Wonka-esque flavor all his own.
Burton has a grand ability to gather all of his inspirations (Vincent Price movies, Hammer horror, fairy tales) and then employ them to populate a very personal vision. But such employment only occurs once the inspirations have been internalized and reshaped to emerge with Burton’s specific stamp. Even when tackling a biopic about a specific inspiration (Ed Wood) or directing Vincent Price in a small role (Edward Scissorhands) or paying tribute to Hammer’s fright flicks (Sleepy Hollow ), Burton’s imagination always shines through. His style and dedication to whimsical weirdness is impossible to eclipse. When he marries that style to a story filled with heart and humour, the result is often something magical, an emotionally poignant flirtation of loneliness and acceptance. In a triumph of personal passion, Burton’s best movies play like immersive odes to the outsider, viewing from the fringes and felt deeply from within. Aaron Leggo
Three Key Films: An Angel at My Table (1990), The Piano (1993), The Portrait of a Lady (1996)
Underrated: Holy Smoke! (1999) Though one could make a solid case for any of Campion’s post-Piano features as the most “underrated” of her canon, The Portrait of a Lady and Bright Star (2009) both earned passionate supporters and Oscar nominations upon their release, and the demented In the Cut (2003) at least enjoyed significant infamy. Her 1999 effort, Holy Smoke!, on the other hand, opened to barely a whisper, despite the presence of leading lady Kate Winslet riding her post-Titanic buzz wave. The film is constructed as an extended tete-a-tete between two unreliable narrators: unruly post-adolescent Ruth (Winslet), “rescued” against her will by her Australian family after a stint in an Indian cult, and sleazy American de-programmer PJ Waters (Harvey Keitel), whose unorthodox counseling methods lead to psychosexual warfare with his resistant client.
What begins as a somewhat academic dissection of gender roles quickly devolves into a bizarre fever dream of hallucinations, public humilitations, and some of the most disturbing pop music cues seen in film since A Clockwork Orange—and maybe this chaos is Campion’s point. Objectivity and thoughtful, civilized analysis can only get filmmaker and -goer so far when the subject matter is this sticky and personal, and Holy Smoke! features perhaps the most compelling integration of Campion’s trademark surrealist flourishes. This is a film where cars have antlers, macho men wander deserts in red dresses, acting ingénues dance sari-clad in the horizon, and Pam Grier is the calm and sensible voice of reason. You want an auteur at her least filtered? Then give Holy Smoke! a second chance.
Unforgettable: The titular object in The Piano can be read as a symbol for just about any of the film’s primary thematic concerns: voice, sex, power, love, trust, authority, happiness. But above all else, Ada McGrath’s piano is a vessel of pleasure, and when Campion reunites her protagonist with her most prized possession during a trip to the beach with the enigmatic George Baines, camera, performer, music and mise-en-scene seem to soar. Joy is a difficult emotion to portray with complexity, but Campion and lead actress Holly Hunter offer a truly multi-dimensional portrait of Ada’s soul during this short, nearly wordless sequence. Ada is visibly a mother, a lover, and a wife in this scene, but she’s also a woman incapable of being defined by her relationship to the film’s other characters. The name of the piece she performs is “The Heart Asks Pleasure First”. It’s a statement Ada understands well in this moment.
The Piano (1993)
The Legend: New Zealand native Jane Campion has been riveting and enraging audiences in equal measure for nearly thirty years now, ever since her short film Peel (1982) received the short competition’s Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Born in Wellington, Campion earned degrees in both anthropology and painting before studying film, and both disciplines have clearly influenced her unique, idiosyncratic cinematic style. Shortly after finishing her studies at the Australian School of Film and Television, Campion made a name for herself in the Australian film and television scene, with several acclaimed short films and a television feature, 2 Friends. Her first feature film, the bizarre and acidic Sweetie (1990), premiered to boos at Cannes, but like much of Campion’s work has since been reclaimed as a significant work of art. She had better luck with An Angel at My Table, a television miniseries adapted from Janet Frame’s autobiography, which earned her plaudits around the world (including the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival).
The cornerstone of Campion’s career, and the film that she will probably remain best remembered for, was 1993’s indescribably haunting The Piano, starring Holly Hunter as a mute mail-order bride shipped to meet her husband in the wilds of New Zealand with her daughter and beloved piano in tow. Cannes was kinder to Campion this time, to say the least: she became the first female director in history to win the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or for feature film. More success followed: The Piano became an art-house sensation worldwide, and Campion, along with Hunter and nine-year-old actress Anna Paquin, earned an Oscar for her work. The film immediately posited Campion as one of the most significant female directors in the world, and remains one of the touchstones of that slippery category, “women’s cinema”.
Not one to rest on her laurels, Campion used her clout to move in even stranger, more controversial directions, and every project she has made since The Piano has suffered from negative comparison to that film. 1996’s fascinating The Portrait of a Lady did not jive with purists seeking a more conservative adaptation of Henry James’ novel, but Campion’s complex authorial voice and the towering performances of Barbara Hershey and Martin Donovan have ensured its rightful status as a major work. Campion’s next two features, Holy Smoke! and In the Cut, led many critics to claim that she had lost any gifts she once had, but what those films lacked in narrative legibility they made up for in stylistic bravery. 2009’s Bright Star was hailed as a return to form of sorts, though those of us paying attention knew that Campion never really lost her touch; nonetheless, the film is an effortlessly beautiful reminder of Campion’s signature approach: turning traditionally “feminine” subject matter inside out through evocative staging, unconventional imagery, and raw (even ugly) emotionality, she’s the inverse of the Merchant & Ivory mold: a bonafide rule-breaker committed to showing us women we have never seen onscreen before. Lee Dallas
Three Key Films: Faces (1968), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Opening Night (1977)
Underrated: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976). Cassavetes’ free-form neo-noir is an oddity even in his filmography, yet it’s also an essential, exemplary work. Ben Gazzara plays sleazy strip club owner Cosmo Vitelli, whose gambling debts lead to do a favor for the mob by killing a Chinese bookie. At turns pensive, desperate, and absurd, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie profits from Gazzara’s nothing-to-lose performance, its hellish urban milieu, and the appearance of unhinged character actor Timothy Carey. Unforgettable: The welcome home party for housewife Mabel Longhetti (Gena Rowlands) in A Woman Under the Influence. Having just been institutionalized for six months, Mabel is surrounded by friends and family—as well as her domineering husband, Nick (Peter Falk), who demands normal conversation. The scene is unbearably tense, and one of Cassavetes’ most painfully sustained views of a broken marriage.
A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
The Legend: It’s easy to throw around the phrase “godfather of independent cinema,” but actor-turned-director John Cassavetes earned it with his sweat and blood. His move out of the Hollywood system is the stuff of film history legend, and he set a powerful example, showing just how much a rogue, impassioned filmmaker could accomplish. Between Faces in 1968 and his death from cirrhosis in 1989, Cassavetes directly a series of visceral, highly personal dramas that still feel caustic, and fresh. Forged through sacrifice and suffering, his films contain some of the greatest performances you’re likely to see.
Cassavetes made several attempts to break away from the mainstream before it finally stuck; his first was the groundbreaking Shadows. Shot in New York across two difficult years, using money raised however possible, its very creation was an aggressively independent gesture. But still Cassavetes found himself financially bound to the mainstream film industry, playing roles that increased in prominence across the 1960s, like the doomed racecar driver in The Killers (1964) and the husband in Rosemary’s Baby (1968). The paychecks for these jobs went to fund his passion projects, like the Oscar-nominated Faces and Husbands, an arduous slog through ruined masculinity.
Over the course of the 1970s, Cassavetes made one brutal landmark film after another. Formally loose and narratively shaggy, they present love and loss from the perspectives of dysfunctional characters like the title couple in Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) and the traumatized actress in Opening Night (1977). Cassavetes collaborated on these films with a tight-knit group of recurring actors: Peter Falk, Seymour Cassel, Ben Gazzara, his wife Gena Rowlands, and himself, each of whom did revelatory work under Cassavetes’ direction. The palpable rapport between cast members was matched by the evolving relationships between characters, leading Cassavetes’ films to feel organic and all too real.
Before his tragically early death, Cassavetes only made three more films, but his imprint on filmmaking goes far beyond his relatively small output. In Minnie and Moskowitz, Rowlands remarks, “You know, I think the movies are a conspiracy.” In his films, John Cassavetes unraveled that conspiracy, inverting Hollywood clichés and digging deep (maybe too deep) into everything his actors had to offer. Films like A Woman Under the Influence aren’t just impressive in the short-term; they’re lasting, haunting, and even for all their little imperfections, great. Andreas Stoehr
Three Key Films: The Godfather Trilogy (1972-1990), The Conversation (1974), Apocalypse Now (1979)
Underrated: Rumble Fish (1983). Widely known as the artsy cousin to Coppola’s previous film, The Outsiders (1983), Rumble Fish should be recognized as another superior sequel (sort of) from the commander of continuation (lest we forget the astounding achievement that is The Godfather Part II). Starring a never better Matt Dillon and a never better looking Mickey Rourke, the black and white teen noir carries a wallop of fierce nostalgia like nothing else Coppola has done. Perhaps the director’s most experimental film, Rumble Fish shows the director’s inclinations towards pushing the boundaries of Hollywood productions, a penchant he has recently resumed with his last few films.
Unforgettable: The complete first two Godfather films. Ok, ok, fine. If it has to be a shorter moment, I’ll take Don Corleone’s near-death outside the fruit stand. Though “the horror” scene from Apocalypse Now is certainly up there in terms of cinematic relevance, reverence, and parody, it’s hard to top Coppola’s grandly orchestrated assassination scene where Vito Corleone, while casually shopping for those ominous oranges, is shot 10 times in the back. Oranges spill. Fredo fumbles the gun. “Papa!” It is so brief, but so powerful.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
The Legend: Francis Coppola is a mainstay on lists like these. A member of the Hollwood elite, the 72-year-old director earned his spot during the New Hollywood movement of the 1970s. Obviously, helming The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather: Part II, and Apocalypse Now in the same decade would cement anyone’s legacy in film, but the man just kept going.
Though some would argue he fell off a bit in the 1980s and 90s, The Outsiders, The Cotton Club (1984). The Godfather: Part III, and The Rainmaker (1997) are enduring pictures that lesser directors would likely put at the top of their resumes. Although Bram Stoker’s Dracula was not entirely embraced by critics, the artistic bravado—including Eiko Ishioka’s stunning work on the film’s costumes—is in every frame, popping with vibrancy, just as it was with One From the Heart (1982).
Most recently, Coppola has gone back to what he calls his film school roots. Youth Without Youth (2007) received mixed reviews, but Tetro (2009) was a solid critical success. Both productions were small and each earned less than half a million dollars, but it’s clear the five-time Oscar winner hasn’t run out of inspiration just yet. Modern critics may have seen Coppola as a little more hit and miss than the gangbusters ‘70s, but nevertheless, he continues to push his avant-garde ideas on a wide audience, keeping the maverick spirit of his earlier work, like The Rain People (1969), alive and well in films he produces for his Oscar-winning daughter Sofia. Last year’s Somewhere is a prime example of this dedication. Ben Travers
Three Key Films: Videodrome (1983), Dead Ringers (1988), A History of Violence (2005)
Underrated: Shivers a.k.a They Came From Within (1975). Starting out in art films and television, David Cronenberg decided to work in horror because it was a genre where on could work on a low budget with few content restrictions and still gain attention and commercial success. Shivers got its share of both, being given hearings in The Canadian House of Commons over its subsidized financing and becoming Canada’s most successful taxpayer-funded film to date. The film (produced by Ivan Reitman, of all people) concerns a disease that is a “combination of aphrodisiac and venereal disease”, which spreads through an insular high-rise housing complex via a phallic, parasitic worm that turns all the building’s inhabitants into depraved sex-starved lunatics. This marks the inaugural entry into Cronenberg’s obsessive catalogue of films about the decay of social order, but the ideas and techniques at play are just as fresh, subversive, and unsettling as those in his later, more-acclaimed works. Unlike many other controversial movies of this period, Shivers is just as disturbing as at was upon its initial release, not least of all because of the ways in which the parasite (the story’s protagonist) seems to have a liberating effect on its hosts.
Unforgettable: There’s little that says it better than the exploding head in the beginning of Scanners (1981). Weapons manufacturer ConSec holds a press conference to unleash the power of their latest biological technology, drugged telepaths called scanners. The ConSec scanner representative asks the audience for a volunteer to demonstrate his psychic capabilities and is ambushed by a rogue scanner named Darryl Revok, who overpowers the ConSec scanner and detonates the poor bastard’s brain from deep inside of it. The sequence reads like the official Cronenberg calling card; a moment of shocking, unexpected, visceral violence that is ontological and psychic in nature, framed by an atmosphere of Ballardian clinicalism and Burroughsian corporate control, and involving intense body disfigurement enacted by figures with a unique evolutionary trait. Ejaculatory blood splatter cements the Freudian connection between eroticism and violence. That this violence is realized in the mind- indeed, the physical brain- serves as an elegant demonstration of the way Cronenberg has repeatedly studied the connections between mind and body, two impermanent objects on a constant path of deterioration. Few directors get to pick their most memorable imagery, but it’s fitting that Cronenberg, a man so perceptive about the power of images, is rewarded with one with so many active signifiers of his entire oeuvre.
Dead Ringers (1988)
The Legend: One of the most established voices in cinema, Canadian-born David Cronenberg is perhaps best known as the father of “body horror”. It’s this that will always define Cronenberg the adjective (though it has yet to be established whether this is Cronenbergian or Cronenbergesque), despite the fact that much of his work deviates wildly from the narrow constraints of what these descriptors commonly mean. Even his most mainstream films though involve troubled relationships between humans and their bodies, whether by masking sexual transgression through fantasy (M. Butterfly ), brandishing tattoos as an underworld code (Eastern Promises), or using disfigurement to signify a history of violence (A History of Violence).
Cronenberg’s thoroughly atheistic view of biology as destiny (and technology as a potential mitigating factor) has lead him to conduct some of the most provocative and challenging works of art in the modern age. Like Dick, Ballard, and Burroughs, Cronenberg began his career filtered through the lens of pulp genre fiction (horror), but he eventually gained commercial and critical acceptance through The Fly (1986) and Dead Ringers. Yet, Cronenberg did not use his cultural capital to cash in. Instead, he made films that were increasingly challenging:Naked Lunch (1991), Spider (2002), eXistenZ (1999); the controversial Crash even received a rare NC-17 rating amidst a cacophony of ire and kudos from various film critics.
As difficult as Cronenberg got though, his films were never difficult to follow. Their demand comes not from abstraction, but from the contortion of expectation. The plots of his films are unhinged and impossible to predict, the audience thrust out of their comfort zone and forced to submit to disarming alternative systems of control. Therein, Cronenberg shows how liberation can be hideous and moribund and how repression can be masked and perfunctory. The only hope, if there is any at all, is in aberration, experimentation- which often proves just as disastrous as the status quo being defied (witness the “liberated” protagonists of Crash, The Fly, Videodrome, and A History of Violence).
Cronenberg, has been repeatedly criticized for being clinical and cold, with little concern for the morality and ethics of his invented worlds. Much of these accusations stem from the popular conceit that a director must always underline a clear position, which Cronenberg would dismiss as a ridiculous notion in a late capitalist world of ambivalence and uncertainty, where mankind does not exist alone, but rather operates in relation to the social and technological world that surrounds him.
At times though, Cronenberg can appear to be more sympathetic to disease, perversion, and psychosis than he is to his characters. But it’s important to note that he tells the stories of his characters as much through physiology and the unconscious as he does through narrative and dialogue. Often tackling what are noted to be “unfilmable” novels (Naked Lunch, Crash, Spider), he is successful where other lesser directors might not have been because he uses the creative liberties of film’s fantasy otherness to enunciate ontological disparities. His films often provide competing layers of reality, not just in his more hallucinatory work (Videodrome, eXistenZ), but also in a film like A History of Violence where Tom Stall’s biography remains wrapped behind an impenetrable series of internal mechanisms. Elaborate gore and special effects, generally only used for spectacle elsewhere, are in these films metaphor, manifestations of the unconscious, and commentaries on systems of control (the body being the ultimate control system with its own inherent constrictions and limitations).
Even sexuality is mechanical and functional. For a director known for graphic and transgressive eroticism (Crash, Videodrome, M Butterfly, Dead Ringers), there’s not a single titillating moment in Cronenberg’s canon, making him that rare talent daring to go beyond the pleasure principle. Desire in his films is always intimately linked with the means of destruction, the dual forces of creation and destruction ever competing at the cellular level, as well as in the nervous system of postmodern culture. There is frequently light in a Cronenberg film, but it is so obscured by darkness that it is barely visible. Therefore, Cronenberg makes a far better diagnostician than a treating doctor. He is the one tasked with the unfortunate function of telling the mind that the body is going to die.
A Dangerous Method starring Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley and Viggo Mortensen will soon be making the festival rounds and will be released later this year. Timothy Gabriele