Monday, September 17, 2007

Long Live the New Flesh!

With the release of his newest film, Eastern Promises, David Cronenberg has once again entered the minds of great men. He has also brought with him age-old feuds, pitting brother against brother, friend against friend. Specifically, pitting me against my brother Brad and my friend Conor. Let us draw the lines early and clearly; I think Cronenberg is amazing, and Brad and Conor are idiots. Shall we begin?

There are a few points that I’d like to address early and get them out of the way. First, though I think A History of Violence is a good movie, I have to agree with the anti-Cronenberg camp in that I’m surprised and confused at the amount of critical acclaim it has received. I didn’t find it particularly probing or thought provoking, simply entertaining. I think efforts to dissect and analyze it to find deep examinations into the nature of man and identity are misguided and giving the movie way more credit than it deserves. Second, I acknowledge that his films can be slow (Brad says “boring,” but I prefer to say they are “deliberately paced”). I don’t think this is necessarily a fault, but I do want to acknowledge that I’m well aware of their pace.

We’ll start at the beginning, Cronenberg’s early days as a low-budget horror auteur. In fact, we’ll start with his very first feature length film, Shivers (aka They came from Within). Cronenberg’s debut film already features his trademark themes of modernity, isolation, and technology. In an upscale condominium complex, people live in almost complete isolation from the rest of the world. Located on an island off the Canadian coast, the complex features a grocery store, restaurant, and in-house doctor’s office. When one of the tenants, a biologist (with suspiciously similar fears to Cronenberg himself), tries to manufacture a parasite that will allow repressed modern society to remember and re-embrace its baser, natural urges. Naturally, the parasite goes wildly out of control, spreading throughout the building, sending tenant after tenant into a sex-crazed, violent, murderous frenzy. The building’s doctor fights an uphill battle as he tries to figure out what is happening, while also keeping an eye on the door. Too bad that door only leads to the Atlantic Ocean.

Though it’s not his most subtle or complex film, it does illustrate the style and themes of his early works pretty well. Shivers mixes graphic violence and sex, staples of low budget horror, with more meaningful intentions. Cronenberg doesn’t decry our baser impulses, but he does recognize their destructive power. Rather than criticize or linger on the horror that man is capable of, he warns us all of the dangers of simply whitewashing over them. Locking the human animal in an antiseptic cage of convenience and complacency doesn’t remove those more “undesirable” aspects of human nature. All it does it let them seethe under our skin, until the day comes that a giant slug parasite infects our bodies, and the whole damned world explodes in an orgy of violent sexual free-for-all.

This idea of repression and its inevitable consequences are as prevalent in Cronenberg’s early work as his fear of modernization. Now is a good time to introduce the term “body-horror.” A term, an entire genre, practically invented to describe Cronenberg’s work. The lynchpin of body-horror is the idea that the worst, most horrific thing imaginable is your own body turning against you. The vulnerability felt knowing that your own body is killing you. Thanks to Cronenberg’s crack team of special effects wizards, as viewers, we are treated to this betrayal in the most horrific of fashions. See his wonderful, better than the original, remake of the Fly for one of the most disgusting examples of body-horror.

The betrayal of the body due to modern repression and technological advances can be seen throughout his early career. The Brood (also “deliberately paced”) is a meditation on the destructive nature of repressed neurosis growing and festering into full-blown psychopathy (or in this case a hoard of evil psychotic midget fetuses). Scanners, similar to A History of Violence, lacks the social commentary, but retains many of the superficial aspects of body-horror. One must look no further than cinema’s greatest head exploding scene or the borderline grotesque climatic showdown that ends the film to see why a new term need to be coined and an entire subgenre created just for Cronenberg.

Which brings me to an interesting crossroads. Videodrome. Videodrome, a true masterpiece, leads in a multitude of directions. I could talk about how all of Cronenberg’s various pet themes (i.e. technology, modernity, isolation, repression/expression of primal nature, body-horror) all coalesce in a brilliant psycho-noir-thriller. I could speak of the turning point in theme and style. I will leave it at, simply, see this fucking movie.

Following Videodrome, with the notable exception of the Fly, Cronenberg’s work took on a less graphic, subtler approach. Moving on from his themes of technology and manifestations of social-turned-personal ills, Cronenberg began adopting explorations of reality (objective v. subjective) and identity’s dependence on that reality. Videodrome already began these explorations, as the viewer has the rug pulled out from under him right along with James Woods’ Max Renn, leaving all involved completely without solid ground to stand on come the closing credits. The concepts of what is real, what is in the mind, and which matters more are all explored in his mid-career films, such as Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, and Spider.

If Videodrome is Cronenberg’s masterpiece of body-horror and the culmination of his earlier themes, then Dead Ringers stands as his masterpiece of his explorations into his later theme of identity. The sensationalistic plot revolving around twin gynecologists (both played by Jeremy Irons, in one of the greatest feats of acting I have ever witnessed) who both become obsessed with the same woman, who has a rare gynecological malformation, betrays the mastery of storytelling on display. The film takes the viewer not only through a descent into madness, culminating in one of the most disturbing off-screen climaxes in film history, but also a journey into a complete loss of personal identity. The twins, each with their own faults and identities, are dragged into a world of drug-fueled confusion. Just as the viewer gains the ability to differentiate between the two (thanks to Irons’ brilliant acting), the twins begin to lose their ability to differentiate between one another. Just as the viewer gains a foothold, we see the main characters losing theirs.

Cronenberg’s mid-to-later work also covers issues of subjective reality. Unfortunately, many people point to sub par work like eXistenZ to illustrate this movement in his career, probably because it’s easy and heavy-handed. Better examples of this theme can be found in films like Naked Lunch and Spider. I’ll leave eXistenZ dead on the table. It’s a serviceable sci-fi adventure movie, but by no means anything worth discussing (not unlike A History of Violence, but also not nearly as good).

In his attempt to adapt William S. Burroughs’ beat classic Naked Lunch, Cronenberg doesn’t so much as translate the book to screen as he tries to adapt Burroughs’ general story telling style, incorporating aspects of Burroughs’ personal life as well as other works, into film format. I have never read any Burroughs, so I cannot speak to Cronenberg’s success in this regard, but I will say that the film is amazing. Part-noir thriller, part 8 ½-style examination into the creative process, part-drug induced disconnect from “objective”-reality cautionary tale, Naked Lunch is a thrilling, confusing, entertaining film that has features amazing special effects, great performances, and a plot that is as gripping as it is intractable. The film progresses like a fever dream, you understand what is happening, but for the life of you, you can’t make sense of any of it.

Spider, on the other hand, is a less exciting, more deliberate exploration into the idea of subjective reality. I don’t think the word “schizophrenia” is ever mentioned, but it’s at least a solid adjective for this atmospheric film. As our protagonist, a middle-aged man recently moved from a mental institution to a half-way house, tries to piece together his past, we follow along as “Spider” attempts to sift through years of delusions, hallucinations, and half-forgotten memories. The brilliance of Spider lies in its ability to start the viewer in a place of total confusion, build trust along with Spider as his memories convalesce, lead us along to a place that seems to be real, only to drop the floor out from under us. We are left to piece together the incongruent aspects of a story told by a deranged mental patient. Granted, this movie is extremely slow (again, I prefer “deliberately paced”), but hopefully the style and atmosphere are enough keep your interest through to the end of this very rewarding story.

Given A History of Violence’s continuation of this identity/reality theme (albeit in a much less interesting and less enlightening fashion) and its incorporation of noir tropes is in interesting turn. Considering what I’ve seen of his newest film, Eastern Promises, this seems to be yet another shift in Cronenberg’s illustrious career. Who knows, maybe years from now, I’ll look back on something like A History of Violence and see it as a turning point towards new themes, new styles, and an open future for Mr. Cronenberg. For now I’ll maintain that A History of Violence is overrated and leave you with a list of must-sees from the Cronenberg archives:

Shivers (aka They Came from Within): If you are interested in seeing how Cronenberg has developed not only his ideas, but as a director in general, it’s a fantastic way to start. Not only because it’s his first, but also because it’s a fun-ass movie.

Videodrome: A true masterpiece. Regardless of what you think of Cronenberg, you should still definitely see this movie. An excellent example of body-horror, as well as the greatest of Cronenberg’s early work

Dead Ringers: Arguably a second masterpiece, coming only five years after Videodrome. An amazing movie and a wonderful starting point for delving into Cronenberg’s second era.

Other notables, though hardly required: the Brood, Naked Lunch, Spider.

I don’t expect to change many minds. If you’re dead set against Cronenberg, there isn’t a whole lot I can do to change that. But, at the very least, I’m hoping to give some perspective on why everyone who isn’t an idiot is in love with this man’s work.