A brilliant artist I knew (a woman) once said to me “If David Cronenberg was a woman he would have been forced to get over his shit by the time he was 14”. Which is so true it almost throws him in a dumpster as this transgressive figure. Being obsessed with the body, with the venereal (he would call himself master of “Venereal horror” in 80s interviews), is his deal. I think that is so core to his work but it’s also an insight into why it’s special. A male director being obsessed with bodies tends to mean he’s someone like Mel Gibson, where the extremeness of the violence is just openly about his derangement. Or being aware of bodies is the realm of dance directors Minelli and Fosse and Donen — the way De Palma says he prefers leading men with dance training, because then you can just watch them do stuff.
Cronenberg is out her with essentially prurient fixations — sex, gender, the body, disease — and treating them with a uniquely distanced approach. The rage in Cronenberg, especially his early films, is processed by the characters not the filmmaking. Shivers and Rabid have the feel of someone who wants society as a whole to die, but is smart enough to know that wouldn’t benefit him. The Brood is a refutation of Cronenberg’s ex-wife that is virulent in it’s depiction. I’d still say it comes down on the side of Samantha Eggar. Like Possession and Antichrist, the performances take what might be material that is hostile to women and make it impossible not to sympathize in the rampage. As an artist, he works from the libido first — when showing Scanners to my friend Shaun (check out his podcast, he’s been on mine a lot lately) for the first time, he noticed the strangeness of the way he framed women. It’s not the typical movie director male gaze but it is a sexualized gaze.
Kubrick always being called “cold” is proof that critics have trouble distinguishing form from content. Kubrick is a moralist presenting things at a distance. Both Cronenberg and Kubrick are a lot funnier than given credit because of their distance, I would say. The better the actors he worked with, his movies get funnier. eXistenZ has JOKES.
I think the inherent male-ness of Cronenberg is very interesting because he’s the only sexually progressive artist of his generation that doesn’t feel like an old man. Like I could see Cronenberg having a conversation with a trans teenager who really dug his work without being a real creep about it (something I’ve literally watched happen at comic conventions). I mean, of the baby boomers, he seems like the one of the few of his peer group who was progressive but REALLY progressive not just woke enough to fuck hippie girls.
My favorite story about Cronenberg is that he didn’t like the way Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello were performing the second sex scene in A History of Violence (which is one of the best sex scenes ever filmed?), so he made the actors watch him and his wife act it out the correct way. My other favorite story about him is that after his wife joined a cult and kidnapped his children to america he hopped on a plane and kidnapped them right back. I’ve always said there’s a movie in Cronenberg, Pierre David and Ivan Reitman swindling the Canadian film board for funding and temporarily getting blackballed for making fucking SHIVERS with public money. Incidentally, one of the things that may have driven Sam Peckinpah into full blown paranoid schizophrenia is that for a while they were secretly producing Rabid on the books of the Convoy budget. There’s a story of Cronenberg snubbing John Carpenter at one of those Masters of Horror dinners. He considers himself a fine artist. He’s said he was always a novelist masquerading as a filmmaker. When asked if History of Violence (a comic book adaptation) was a comic book movie, he dismissively said that Frank Miller doesn’t understand what the axis or crossing the line is. When asked why he’s never been interested in film preservation like his friend Martin Scorsese, he’s said that he doesn’t care about preserving film because he’s okay with dying and that’s ultimately a grasp at immortality. He said he’s never thought about his Jewish identity until he read that Hamas wanted to “exterminate every jew on earth” (which inspired this masterpiece). To me, all these are essential to the person he is — the pretentious snob, the psychopathic pervert, the frustrated novelist, the atheist jewish intellectual, the politically radical professor with the really expensive home.
He is a literary director — a lot of times “literary” is thrown around to describe either directors who are theatrical or who make movies about upper class wasps like Alex Ross Perry or Noah Baumbach or Hanna and Her Sisters-era Woody Allen or something, people who want to pretend to be Philip Roth without the scale or depth of a novel. Have you read The Corrections? I HAVE NOT. Cronenberg is legitimately literary, his primary references are on the screen. It’s Ballard and Borges and Burroughs and Dellilo and Philip K Dick — many of them he’s actually adapted. I think there is a film literacy thing that goes on with a lot of my favorites, but very few of them are out here adapting 5, 6 of their favorite authors (do you think your favorite filmmaker has more than one favorite author? Maybe Mike Nichols?). Cronenberg’s images are germane metaphors, instead of being purely surrealist. His weird effects shit is always of a piece with the story and characters. He doesn’t do the thing that David Lynch does, where he takes an image and layers in meaning to that visual. Cronenberg never dwells on his symbols, the same way he never dwells on his props. His most makeup effects heavy movies — Scanners, Videodrome, Naked Lunch, The Fly — treat the props with a matter of factness none of his peers ever dare. He’s not getting off on the gore, he’s getting off on the people.
I think the real trick of Cronenberg is that the body stuff is a dodge. He’s someone that fundamentally believes that all we are is physical. He is an atheist in the purest sense. All we have is the physical world, and the mind is an extension of the body. When De Palma made a more physical variation of psychic powers in The Fury, you can see it’s a novelty to him. It feels like Cronenberg came to the biological distortion aspect of Scanners on his own. The science fiction books that he’s riffing off of — Dune, Slan, Naked Lunch — have nothing like the way he makes telepathy feel like a stomach ache. That’s a trick though. He’s never as interested in the body as what people do to each other. His movies are inherently sad, inherently about the lack of connection between people. “Disease is a romance between two organisms” is a line from Shivers. Rabid ends with Marilyn Chambers, following her catastrophic sexual awakening that has destroyed an entire city, screaming “IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT” at her boyfriend. Naked Lunch comes to the conclusion that the only way to be a writer is to re-live your trauma again and again. Crash and Dead Ringers are about the physical effects of heartbreak and nothing else, the rest is set dressing.
Crash, incidentally, is the sexiest movie ever made.
I’m writing about Cronenberg because in short succession I’ve watched Scanners and Videodrome for the first time in a few years, both with my friend who’s never seen any Cronenberg movie. I’m not interested in going in to talking to him about these movies with this surface level constant reiteration of his themes when to me, his themes are emotional first.
Videodrome is a masterpiece — watching it this time I felt like it was a new movie. I hadn’t seen it in three or four years, following a lot of very heavy real life parallels. Videodrome is a lot realer when you’ve had a psychotic break. After a real relationship with someone smarter, someone who had a better handle on the person they are. After the internet and politics became too hostile and insidious to pretend to be apolitical. After virgin reddit mass shooters, George Romero dying (“Where’s the signal coming from?” “PITTSBURGH”), James Woods publicly brainwashing himself with the dominant political ideology of the day. A movie about the effects of internet without even the conception of the internet (Demonlover is essentially a remake with the internet as a context). “it has something you don’t have, Max: a philosophy” the idea of media having a weaponized purpose is absurd to Max, because he doesn’t understand the rules yet.
This time, there seems to be much more of a malleable line between the good guys and the bad guys — Bianca O’Blivion and Barry Convex are warring factions using an unsuspecting schmuck for their radical political agendas. Convex and Spectacular Optical are certainly the moralist slime — video pirate Harlan’s dialog is straight up proud boy, talking about purity and strength and being a strong nation in the dumbest most phallic way possible, with ironic russian slang thrown in for good measure. It’s no longer satire. A lot of this stuff isn’t anymore, the curse of truly prescient satire (you ever read Bug Jack Barron?). The idea of toxic hallucinatory pornography is a lot sexier than algorithmically developed youtube videos. Everything after Nicki Brand disappears functions as a hallucination, and the galvanized warrior version of Max Renn slides away once he’s completed his suicide bomber task. Cronenberg ends the movie with the same scene twice, truly Brechtian/Godard-ian and also literal. Watch this man shoot himself, watch it again but real. What’s the difference?
Nicki Brand and Max Renn are the characters that truly felt like I was seeing them for the first time. Renn always struck me as kind of a sleazed-up version of Jack from Blow Out. This time, he’s a piker. He’s a morbidly curious pervert, a burgeoning edgelord. He’s looking for the next taboo to turn him on, sell as the edgiest man in the room. Nicki presents herself as moral, together, and she is. She also knows what she wants, and it’s enticing to Max. It’s also so far above his pay grade as a guy who talks a big game. Nicki is into Videodrome, she gets it. Max just can’t stop watching it. He’s falling down a tunnel of pornhub links while she’s already figured herself out enough to know how to coach well meaning idiots through it on first dates. It’s a tragic romance in a way. In the classical sense of the word with Max but Nicki, she really just knows what she wants… the tragedy is that Max just sees it as the kink in front of him.
Scanners is one of those situations where it feels like a commercial idea in the hands of someone incapable of making commercial work. Or of even knowing much about the genre — Scanners is like an X-Men movie (or Akira, Gantz, any psychic war narrative of your choice) from someone who’s only been described the basics of the idea. It’s shockingly similar to De Palma’s The Fury but all the pieces are wrong. Instead of good guys or bad guys it’s corporations making backdoor assassinations, developing mutations for weapons. Governments aren’t real, peaceful elements are sitting targets, the hero psychically rapes a middle aged woman in the opening scene for LOOKING at him. Cameron Vale is scarily blank as a character. He is forceful and completely unresponsive in equal measure. He discovers the scale of his power by nearly killing a man, and wins the day by allowing his nemesis to destroy his body. His morality is childish until it’s cosmic. If he is nothing but a weapon of the mind, he doesn’t have to stick to any of the morals heroes are supposed to have.
Again, it’s a movie that towers in my imagination but little moments this time felt revelatory. On one of the dozens of hours of behind the scenes Blade Runner documentaries, Rutger Hauer said that he asked Ridley Scott if he could put all the parts that weren’t supposed to be there in his performance as a robot. I kind of feel like that’s a great way to inject life into anything. My favorite moments are the oddly tender “I’ve missed you” Patrick MacGoohan throws to his long lost son when he calls about the assassination job he’s been sent on. Or the way the double agent bad guy is actually smart. You see him not only figure out the hero’s plan, but he then quickly decides he wants to turn the situation to his favor — “I wanna hurt him. How do I hurt him?”. All the dialog is excellent, bizarre, and uniquely literary. Characters spring to life out of single sentences. “My art keeps me sane”, “You’re barely human”, “You’re starting to sound like THEM”. I love Michael Ironside’s performance, which is grand and savage and built on looks in a movie full of monologues, he even builds up to one in the final scene then discards it because he can see his brother isn’t listening.
One last thing about Cronenberg that sticks with me hard, as a writer — I’ve mentioned this in several pieces of writing before — that when he was asked if Eastern Promises was meant to be a nativity story, and if he was an atheist why would he tell a nativity story. He said he may not believe in anything but that wasn’t true for the characters. It’s a great lesson to not allow your personal prejudices to get in the way of the story you’re telling. Their shit is not your shit. It’s the kind of lesson you probably don’t learn all the way until you make two dozen or so movies.
So I’ve been thinking about Cronenberg a lot lately and I’ve wanted to write about him, I love writing about him. There’s a problem though, it’s that I would much rather writing something like Videodrome than writing about it. Watching these movies makes me think about creating rather than applying some sort of critical lens to it. I’ve been dwelling a lot lately on what I want as a writer and as much as I feel like I am great at being a critic, I don’t necessarily think it’s what I want to be doing with my life. I have film criticism book ideas (some of them very far along considering no one has ever entertained the idea of publishing one, except this one guy who refused to pay me for a fucking magazine article for six months), I work extremely hard on even free things like this, but it’s not The Work for me. It never is. The past few years, writing anything has felt like a push through an enormous wall of cognitive noise. Part of that is mental health and part of it is pharmaceutical. I feel like I needed to re-learn how to write anything but now I’m looking around and thinking why I’m writing only critical or “personal” pieces (ugh, someone save me from ever writing about my naked feelings ever again).
This is probably a weak place to end this, as I find that Cronenberg is someone who has never had fear with communicating exactly what he wants. Especially when it’s difficult, or repulsive. As a writer, especially a screenwriter, there aren’t many who allow themselves to be smart without being self-censoring. There’s very little of the ass-covering you see with other grand pervert filmmakers. He’s not interested in justifying his imagery. He’s fearless and that’s a true inspiration. His movies make me want to stop everything and write to the best of my ability and to the most vile of my impulses. It feels like a waste of time to take the feeling I get from these movie and to sit down and simply react.
P.S. — The Zola Jesus / Johnny Jewel remix ep WISEBLOOD is perfect and beautiful and has really helped me through an insanely difficult week of health and personal issues.
Crash (1995), Rabid (1977), Shivers (1975), Dead Ringers (1988), Videodrome (1983), Scanners (1981), The Brood (1979), eXistenZ (1999), Naked Lunch (1991), Stereo (1969)
- Cronenberg on Cronenberg, edited by Chris Rodley
- High Rise and Crash by JG Ballard
- Howard Shore’s perfect scores for Scanners, Dead Ringers, and eXistenZ
- The Fury (1978), directed by Brian De Palma (overshadowed by not being Carrie or Scanners, brilliant in its own way)
- Ubik by Philip K Dick
- Exterminator by William Burroughs
- Demonlover (2002), directed by Olivier Assayas
- Nightbreed (1990), directed by Clive Barker — the theatrical version with Cronenberg in the final scene
- — - - Sean Witzke, October 2018
(crossposted from my tinyletter, TIME TO MEET THE DEVIL)