Perfect Directors: David Cronenberg

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Cerebral, dark, oddly humorous, and obsessed with the inextricable relationship between the body and the psyche, David Cronenberg’s work is difficult to describe. Is he a sci-fi director obsessed with body horror? A dramatist that uses horror as a way to externalize inner turmoil? Or are all of his films horror stories– whether they be about telepaths with the ability to explode people’s heads, a scientist slowly transforming into a fly due to a science experiment gone wrong, or how a group of outsiders deal with trauma through paraphilia? After all, the most disturbing horror stories take place within the mind’s eye; Cronenberg’s work simply depicts what our nightmares would be like if they came true.

David Cronenberg has been making movies for nearly 50 years, and his filmography reflects a singular vision. He could be described as Canada’s David Lynch, as both have worked with similar themes through their films: transgressive acts bubbling beneath the placid surface of polite society; nightmare scenarios that descend upon increasingly bewildered protagonists; and the (often ignored) idea that sex is a psychological act that humans partake in as a sort of denial of mortality or death—and how the implications of this idea may transmute through action. Above all, both directors aim to unsettle the audience by provoking assumptions and presenting a reflection of human nature through a glass, darkly.

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But Cronenberg is no pale imitator: he began making films before Lynch, after all, and although both may share a compartment on the same train, the content of their luggage is wholly different. One of the first directors to introduce “body horror” into cinema, Cronenberg’s work explores his character’s fears of infection and body transformation, with their psychological turmoil often manifesting into physical deformities. Unlike Lynch, who prefers to obscure psychic and emotional trauma behind symbolism and purposely clashing semiotic arrangements, Cronenberg tends to bare his characters’ souls on-screen, representing the disturbing truth that haunts them by marring their physical being.

Much of his work also details the intersection between either government or private organizations that are involved in experimental biotechnological concerns, often involving covertly “evolving” human beings through intrusive methods. Often involving a vast conspiracy of some sort, his protagonists are usually involved in either investigating or stopping the dire consequences of these dangerous circumstances.

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Of course, Cronenberg has also gained a reputation in the film world as creating some of the more disturbing films of the past thirty years. 1986’s The Fly brought him mainstream success while also grossing out audiences that didn’t expect the visceral, horrifying transformation of Seth Brundle into “Brundlefly,” and 2005’s A History of Violence was yet another hit that found a wide audience. But Cronenberg’s best work is also relatively inaccessible to mainstream audiences, which makes sense given his oft-repeated themes of gross body distortion, graphic violence and gore, and overall unsettling tone.

But controlling that tone—effectively establishing such an elusive air of menace, foreboding, and otherness in which his films reside, and then holding that tone and intensifying it as the narrative develops—is the mark of a director that knows exactly what he’s trying to convey on-screen. That sort of control, and Cronenberg’s ability to produce films following his specific muse and vision for decades, and often producing unique masterpieces as a result, is what makes him a perfect director.

David Cronenberg – A Perfect Director

Appropriately enough, Cronenberg’s early work are horror films, a genre that would allow for him to investigate his highly specific thematic recurrence of the body’s relationship to the psyche. His early films centered established themes and the visual stylistics Cronenberg would employ in his subsequent films: his first feature in 1969, the low-budget Stereo, details the strange educational institution, the Canadian Academy of Erotic Enquiry. Here, young telepath volunteers are encouraged to develop polyamorous relationships in an effort to replace traditional family structures, which takes a violent psychological toll on the volunteers. His next film, 1970’s Crimes of the Future, follow the director of a clinic called House of Skin as he searches for his mentor, who has disappeared after a plague caused by cosmetic products kills all sexually mature women on the planet.

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But his breakthrough film was 1975’s Shivers. This body horror film details a doctor’s developments of a parasite that works as both an aphrodisiac and sexually transmitted disease, which soon infects an entire apartment building, leaving those exposed to it consumed by an uncontrollable sexual urge. Edited in a jarring style that reflects the breakdown of order in the apartment building as it’s consumed by this parasite, and also works as a satire of social and sexual mores in Canadian society at the time. It was also the most profitable film made with government Canadian funds in history, which lead to a debate in Parliament as to the social and artistic value of such a film. But Cronenberg was undeterred by this: he had made a hit film, and one in service of his highly specific vision. He also introduced a new idea to the film canon—body horror. From here, Cronenberg would develop upon this idea until he became regarded as a master of not just the horror genre, but as one of the world’s greatest contemporary filmmakers.

Exploring and Exposing the Interior

Encouraged by the success of Shivers, Cronenberg followed it up with the similarly themed Rabid before making the quick cash-in movie (and his worst film) Fast Company. And although that movie didn’t do much for his artistic career (it was the first film he made in which he didn’t write the screenplay, and was an action film with no horror or psychological elements), it brought him into contact with several people—including his long-serving cinematographer Mark Irwin—that would work on many of his later films.

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Then in 1979, Cronenberg began what would become a streak of some of his greatest films: The Brood, a sci-fi psychological horror film about an unethical psychologist subjecting his institutionalized wife to unorthodox treatments while mutant children go on a killing spree; 1981’s Scanners, which follows a drifter telepath who is drawn into an underground world of telepaths that had been created from injecting pregnant women with a drug meant to make them,  who battle a powerful telepath that seeks to make a new generation of telepaths in a similar manner; 1983’s Videodrome, one of Cronenberg’s most distinct and best films, which details the mental unraveling of a television executive after being exposed to a television signal that warps his perspective of reality and drives him to serve as an assassin for the organization that transmits the signal; 1983’s The Dead Zone, a top-notch adaptation of Stephen King’s novel about a man who awakes from a coma with the power of second sight that can see the future of anyone he touches, uncovering the apocalyptic future of a presidential hopeful; 1986’s The Fly, which is about the horrifying personal ramifications on a scientist after a teleportation experiment goes wrong, leaving him turning into a human-sized fly; 1988’s Dead Ringers, a disquieting study of identical twin gynecologists whose intertwined sexual and psychological lives begin to deteriorate after a love affair goes wrong; and 1991’s Naked Lunch, an intertextual adaptation that mixes elements of Beat writer William S Burroughs’ life and his seminal eponymous novel.

This series of films fully realized Cronenberg’s interest in exposing the often difficult interior lives of his protagonists by manifesting them either physically or depicting their inner psyche on-screen. Scanners quite literally depicts how its characters have the power to affect the external world—and penetrate the invisible conscious—through thought alone; Videodrome exploits the ability cinema has in depicting a character’s perception of reality, as its main character is increasingly loses his grip (and sanity) and begins hallucinating bizarre occurrences, like inserting a video tape into his stomach and later pulling a gun from his gut. The Dead Zone also takes advantage of cinema and its editing techniques to depict the visions of the future its protagonist finds himself having upon physical contact with another person.

Cronenberg’s body horror aesthetic is perfected over this 12-year, 7-film period: Scanners features the disgusting effects of a telekinetic’s ability to use their power for violence, such as one highly memorable (and now memetic) scene of a man’s head exploding; Videodrome employs body horror to stunning effect, bringing the twisted visions the protagonist from which the protagonist is suffering to life and heightening the surrealism of the film; and The Fly is an ultimate body horror film as a man slowly, painfully transforms into a human-fly hybrid before the audience’s eyes. Cronenberg has been accused of using body horror for shock effect, but at least in these films his employment of the tropes of this stylistic choice (which he helped develop) have a narrative purpose.

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In these films, as his budgets became larger, so did the style and art design of his films. Cronenberg’s distinct aesthetics begin to emerge and have since become both his signature and highly influential on science fiction and horror films: Scanners has a number of dynamic set pieces, including the bizarre art of a disturbed telekinetic and featuring the cool, detached tone that would become synonymous with a Cronenberg film. Videodrome similarly embraced the meta aspect of its story, with televisions being used as symbolic totems for a society quickly tumbling down a media-saturated rabbit hole. The Fly also employs the cool cinematography seen in Scanners while the design of Brundle’s laboratory and the iconic teleport pods are both an homage to and have become as easily identifiable as Dr. Frankenstein’s lab. Naked Lunch is a signature Cronenberg film, one that features detached characters who seem to exist in a perpetually stoned state, bringing Burroughs’ bizarre Interzone to life reflects the drugged-out consciousness of a controversial writer at a moment in his life when he was being investigated for the death of his wife and the beginning of his writing career. Being directed by bug/alien agents that command him to write, given a living typewriter, and falling deeper and deeper into a perplexing conspiracy whose origin and purpose are difficult to discern, Naked Lunch seems to take all of Cronenberg’s preoccupations and throw them into a blender, making an intriguing, singular, and often difficult to describe drama in the process.

Experiments and Moving Towards the Center  

Depending on one’s tastes, either Cronenberg made some of his best work in the 1990s or his worst. Starting with 1991’s Naked Lunch, Cronenberg slowed his work schedule, releasing just three more films that decade. 1993’s M. Butterfly was a psychological drama, his first film in over a decade that didn’t incorporate body horror in one manner or another but still preoccupied by the nature of the human body and our understanding and relationship with them. Assigned to Beijing, China in the 1960’s, a French diplomat begins an affair with a Chinese opera performer, who has been ordered to spy on the diplomat for the government. However, traditional Chinese opera has men performing all of the roles on-stage—a fact which the diplomat keeps himself willfully ignorant about. Intriguing but not particularly engrossing, M. Butterfly is a muted Cronenberg film, one whose themes of gender and homosexuality were far ahead of their time.

1996 saw the release of possibly Cronenberg’s most controversial films, Crash. Adapted from the J.G. Ballard novel, Crash details a sordid underground society of fetishists who are sexually aroused by car crashes. An attorney who shares an open relationship with his life suffers from a car crash, which kills a woman’s husband as she exposes herself to him from the passenger seat immediately following the accident. He and the woman are drawn to each other and begin a charged sexual relationship, which leads to his introduction to a secret society of other people who are also fixated sexually on car crashes.

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Bizarre and filmed with Cronenberg’s trademark cool aesthetic, Crash explores the nature of fetish and how sexual obsession can quickly take over one’s life. Highly controversial due to its extremely explicit sexual content—and that both sex and violent car accidents are arranged in a way that is both lurid and repelling to the viewer. Released on DVD with both the R and NC-17 rated cuts, Crash is an essential Cronenberg film in that it seems to serve as a skeleton key to Cronenberg’s entire oeuvre, where literally smashing together two incongruent ideas—sex and car crashes—leads to uncovering deeply repressed raw human instincts (or aversions, or both) that are difficult for many viewers to resolve within themselves.

Fans of Videodrome found a spiritual “sequel” of sorts in 1999’s eXistenZ, which depicts a world where a highly futuristic video game system is being demonstrated for the first time. This system ports directly into the user’s body through a port at the base of their spine, which provides a nearly seamless virtual reality experience, while the system itself is some sort of pulsating, living biotechnology. But when corporate spies interrupt the demonstration, injuring the video game designer in the process, a representative of the game company brings her under his protection as they run to find who’s trying to stop her game from being released.

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The biggest strength of this film is how Cronenberg plays with the audience’s perceptions throughout: are what we watching real, or is it all part of the video game? Stylish and with a far-ahead of its time premise, eXistenZ is one of Cronenberg’s finest films and one that’s easily accessible to audiences unfamiliar with his work.

Mainstream Success?

30 years into his film career, it seems Cronenberg decided to try his hand at making mainstream films. Ones that still employ many of his themes and visual stylistics, but also films whose stories would be more accessible and familiar to a more widespread audience. The first hit of the 21st century Cronenberg encountered was 2005’s A History of Violence. This crime thriller—adapted from a graphic novel—follows the increasingly harrowing circumstances a café owner in a small town finds himself confronting his past life as an enforcer for the Irish Mob. Utilizing Cronenberg’s ability to handle jarring tonal and content shifts, creating a collection of riveting moments, and exploring the difficult duality of human nature, A History of Violence was a solid hit for Cronenberg, leading to nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor. Most importantly, it proved that Cronenberg could make a film with mainstream appeal without having to strip away his signature stylistics and themes.

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Following up with 2007’s Eastern Promises, one of the most “normal” films he ever made—ostensibly a gangster film—Cronenberg tried his hand at historical drama with 2011’s A Dangerous Method. Set just before World War I, A Dangerous Method detailed the often difficult relationship between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, with Jung entering a psychologically dangerous relationship with his patient Sabina Spielrein, who would go on to become the first female psychoanalyst. Cerebral and filmed with a fine polish, A Dangerous Method is an interesting look at sexual repression and one that features two of the leading figures of psychoanalysis that explored the psychological nature of human sexuality.

2012’s Cosmopolis, adapted from postmodern writer Don DeLillo’s novel, follows a wealthy young man as he travels around the city and navigates his life as it quickly disintegrates around him. Filmed and edited with surgical precision, Cosmopolis seems to be satirizing all of capitalist society and every facet it both creates and violently represses, it’s a fascinating film—and one that did terribly at the box office. Not every attempt at appealing to the mainstream works for Cronenberg, and Cosmopolis is a great example as to how his films will nearly always appeal to one particular audience, who are there for the very themes and stylistics Cronenberg is known for, while largely failing to interest most of the potential audience.

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Cronenberg’s latest film was released nearly four years ago, 2014’s Map of the Stars. A social satire that aims to tear apart its one-percent protagonists, who glide over the numerous tragedies they cause in life—both past and present—Map of the Stars is another toned-down Cronenberg film, and one that couldn’t find an audience, even with his most dedicated fans. Perhaps Cronenberg should take the hint and give his audience what they want rather than guessing at what he thinks a mainstream audience would enjoy.

Cronenberg’s Legacy

The term “perfect director” is not only a subjective one but a tricky one to affix. Obviously, no director makes uniformly perfect films, and the longer their career the more likely the average quality of their films will noticeably dip. Such seems the case for Cronenberg: after a stunning 7-film streak where each one is as impeccable, interesting, and unique as the last, Cronenberg’s filmography begins to get spotty. For every eXistenZ there’s a middling Eastern Promises; for every innovation like Videodrome there’s somewhat ineffectual films like M. Butterfly.

But an important aspect of Cronenberg’s work to consider is his own paradox: making razor-sharp, clean, and polished films that are transgressive, bizarre, and unsettling. It’s maybe his greatest strength overall: creating visual paradoxes. This may also be why cinephiles have such an affinity for his work—after watching enough movies, one understands the visual vocabulary that film employs. A slow steady-cam pan leads to a reveal, but what’s at the end of that journey in a Cronenberg film is often disturbing. While his films have a vivid style and are filled with clean lines and well-lit scenes, there is so much ugliness and oddness filling the frame that it seems to defeat the purpose of such clarity. This paradox can be summed up in one image from Naked Lunch:

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Normalcy on one side, unfathomable oddness on the other. Cronenberg’s work plays both sides of audience expectation: it begins with normalcy and then subverts established norms by infusing its narrative with the bizarre and nightmarish. Much like body horror, it shows the ugliness lurking just beneath a placid surface of normalcy. Even worse, that normalcy reminds you of your own normal surface, which makes the viewer question what’s lurking beneath their own placidity. It’s this reason—of Cronenberg riding a tight wire along the human mind’s hemisphere, dipping his balance pole between logic and reason and the wild Id, knowing both are situated just millimeters away from each other and may even depend upon each other for their survival—that makes him a perfect director.

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