The best word I’ve come across to describe David Cronenberg’s filmmaking style is “disembodied.” It was voiced as a criticism, but I think he’d own up to it. Whatever squelchy or peculiar or downright disgusting thing is going on in his pictures, the camera tends to exhibit an almost serene, floating detachment, like a severed head calmly looking down at its own twitching torso.
Detachment is hardly the same thing as disinterest, and if Cronenberg has shown us one thing in his now 40 year career, it’s that cinema can both squelch and think. He has a habit of reaching for Descartes in discussing his films, which consistently operate at this interface between the visceral and the cerebral. I suppose it’s possible to be put off by both sides of the equation—the chilly rigor of his tonal strategies could very well disconcert the casual viewer as much as, say, the bugs with talking anuses. But when you’ve got the hang of Cronenberg, his filmmaking comes to seem forensically exploratory, and engaged in brave and singular ways with the potentials, as well as the pathologies, of the human animal.
“Body horror” was the term coined to contextualize Cronenberg’s work in the 1970s and 1980s, the period of his career when he worked almost exclusively in the science fiction/horror genre. Like all such phrases, it’s a shortcut: there’s more to understand than just an obsession with mutation and organs falling off. Cronenberg’s great concern has always been the body—he calls it “the first fact of human existence”—but his films differ substantially from the other horror cinema of their era in exploring our anatomies from the inside out. Limbs are rarely under threat from chainsaws in his films—they are more likely to atrophy or multiply or go the way of an arthropod.
Even when he has reached across to other genres—as in his most recent picture, the London mob drama Eastern Promises (2007)—there’s a lingering interest in the totemic importance of physique. Every wound or scar stands as an entry on these gangsters’ curricula vitae. It’s notable that the film’s most heralded set piece is a knife fight in the chambers of a Turkish bath house, in which Viggo Mortensen’s hero combats two assailants while stark naked, a statuesque male nude contorted into a dance of death. Meanwhile, the ritual of gaining star tattoos, prized status symbols within the ranks of the Vory v Zakone, draws Cronenberg’s attention as an eroticized spectacle in itself, not just a cultural pointer. All this—Naked Lunch (1991) and M. Butterfly (1993) too—and he isn’t even gay.
Eastern Promises may be conceptually one of Cronenberg’s least ambitious films, but it has a kinky, perverse quality no other director could quite have approximated. No one else is quite like Cronenberg—not even his exact contemporary David Lynch, another freakshow auteur of passing resemblance but utterly distinct sensibility, or Atom Egoyan, another cerebral, bespectacled Canadian who has used a few of the same actors (Elias Koteas, Ian Holm, Sarah Polley, Don McKellar) in projects which do share a certain warped carnality with his compatriot’s. Cronenberg, like Lynch but not like Egoyan, has carved out his own genre. As he learned his craft throughout the 1970s and 1980s, developing greater skill and subtlety with actors, his films seemed to inform each other, even repeat each other, allowing roughly sketched ideas to evolve and gain emotional weight on increasingly broad canvases.
Cronenberg’s 1969 black and white featurette Stereo, made with funding obtained from the Canada Council under the pretense of writing a novel, is remarkable both in itself and as a testing ground for many of his key motifs. Though several shorts precede Stereo, he considers it his first finished, complete and autonomous film. There is the use of imposingly institutional modernist architecture—the movie was shot on the brutalist campus of the University of Toronto’s Scarborough College, a concrete prison which puts the small cast of characters on display, its dehumanizing bulk somehow exoticizing their every personal urge. They are test subjects, with Scarborough doubling as the Canadian Academy for Erotic Enquiry, a prototype for the scientific or medical institutions in Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979) and Scanners (1981). In all these subsequent films, the organizations fail, often cataclysmically, in their attempts to impose order on the human species. The more benign idea in Stereo, which feels like an experiment of Cronenberg’s own creation, is that the endowment of these volunteers with telepathic abilities will break down the heteronormative tyranny of the “obsolescent” family unit, encouraging them to fool around and form omnivorous sexual groupings. The whole film is basically a pansexual orgy waiting to happen, its chances increased by the choice of lead actor, the dapper, overtly gay Ron Mlodzik, whose debonair gait in a black cloak, and expansive facial manner, are its funniest and most idiosyncratic assets.
Starting with Mlodzik, who reappeared in Cronenberg’s follow-up Crimes of the Future (1970), you can trace a line through the director’s male protagonists to see them consistently positioned as outsider figures, uncanny presences and the lodes of an alien sexuality which isn’t necessarily homosexual (but can be). Cronenberg’s men are both emotionally impenetrable, and all too often literally penetrated—like James Woods as the gutter-trawling TV exec Max Renn in Videodrome (1983), whose torso grows a vaginal slot into which videotapes or even firearms can be inserted, and Jude Law’s poor security guard Ted Pikul in eXistenZ (1997), who is queasy enough about having a game port installed in his lower spine before various organic appendages get lubricated and shoved up it. Jeff Goldblum, in the early stages of transformation in The Fly (1986), gains a bristling hormonal potency which makes him a demon in bed—in a good way, at least until his fingernails and ears start falling off. Meanwhile, the erotic possibilities in Naked Lunch and Crash (1996) proliferate, Stereo-like, between every cast member, not just along exclusively gay or straight lines: Holly Hunter + Rosanna Arquette + James Spader + Elias Koteas = six one-on-one copulations. There’s certainly an argument to be made that Cronenberg has done fuller justice to the permutations—the options—of how and who we fuck than any other living filmmaker, including such queer-cinema heroes as Haynes and Almodóvar. He is his own Academy for Erotic Inquiry.
Stereo is a manifesto for the style question, too. Cronenberg took the plunge into 35mm with this film (not the cheaper 16mm, a natural choice for less ambitious student filmmaking) and made it entirely without recorded sound. This had a practical explanation—the Arriflex camera he was using made a lot of noise—but he exploited it superbly. The subjects seem walled off, their methods of communication entirely non-verbal. The voiceover he added late in production, laden with psychological jargon, gives the film a flavor that is portentous and satirical at the same time.
A sample: The proper use of psychic aphrodisiacs is not to increase sexual potency or fertility, but to demolish the walls of psychological restraint and social inhibition which restrict persons to a monosexuality or to a stunted bisexual form of omnisexuality…
Cronenberg’s care with screen space, his rectilinear frames, gliding camera, hard cuts and preference for a sound design dominated by ghostly quiet all announce themselves in this film.
By the time of Scanners, he had succeeded in surrounding himself with a sympathetic cadre of collaborators who have remained, by and large, in place through his entire subsequent career: editor Ronald Sanders, production designer Carol Spier, composer Howard Shore. Cinematographer Mark Irwin stayed with him until The Fly, but a conflict of commitments led to his replacement by Peter Suschitzky (The Empire Strikes Back), who has shot everything since. With either of them, and with either Shore or Michael Kamen, who provided a memorably rich one-off score for Cronenberg’s first Hollywood studio project, The Dead Zone (1983), this is one of the most reliable creative teams in the history of commercial filmmaking. Like the great novelists who can be recognized and appreciated for their quality of their sentences, the cinema of Cronenberg and his crew has reached a plateau of auteurist achievement through sheer, shot-by-shot concentration of technique. Everything that makes A History of Violence (2005) jolting and resonant is a matter of formal architecture, down to the level of shot selection, location choices, music and cutting. By this point in his career, Cronenberg knows exactly how to fill the frame, how to get actors to fill it and which actors he needs. There’s a wizardry in his process: it just works.
Though Cronenberg has sometimes described himself as a thwarted novelist, he has only been the originator of about half his material, and from Naked Lunch onwards has worked, with the sole exception of eXistenZ, from other people’s books or scripts. That said, his attraction to “unfilmable” novels necessarily entails a very personal process of adaptation—there is much in both Naked Lunch and Crash that is pure Cronenberg, for all the serious attempts to honor their sources. Perhaps there’s less of this driving directorial personality in The Dead Zone, adapted from an early novel by Stephen King, though it is an elegant and haunting achievement, and Christopher Walken’s spectral charisma has rarely been put to better use.
Cronenberg’s first great film, The Brood, has the intensity of theme and structure that distinguishes all his most feverishly apt projects, and marks an important foray into the psychoanalytical, beginning as it does with a public confessional between a disturbed patient and an experimental therapist, Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed), who is monopolizing the role of father-confessor by literally calling himself “Daddy.” Raglan’s clinic, which looks a little like an Alpine spa, is called the Somafree Institute for Psychoplasmics. Here patients such as Nola (Samantha Eggar) have committed themselves in the hope of healing their psychic wounds through a drastic process of self-exposure, as explained by Raglan in his self-penned book on the subject, The Shape of Rage.
The idea is that these troubled souls externalize their own traumas by developing psychosomatic symptoms, like ulcers on the skin. Though that same satirical edge from Stereo is present from the very first scene, as Raglan goes in for his Daddy-hug with a subject who burns with hate for his own father, the film can’t be reduced to a crude attack on quack therapy, because Raglan’s methods end up being anything but the Emperor’s New Clothes. They work too well—ulcers and boils turn out to be the least alarming shape that rage might take, though it’s left to our assessment where any of the movie’s swelling prosthetic outgrowths leave the afflicted on their road to recovery.
Because the dramatic spine of the movie is a custody battle between Eggar’s Nola and her estranged husband (Art Hindle), who’s nominally the hero, Cronenberg had a great gag in store on The Brood’s release—he could refer to it forevermore as his own version of that year’s Oscar winner, Kramer vs. Kramer. Consider what that might mean. Robert Benton’s movie is a quintessential example of what Hollywood, in this transitional period between the auteur radicalism of the 1970s and the Spielbergian family values of the 1980s, considered a classily made, well-acted film about an Important Social Issue. It was even a trend film, at least as far as the Academy Awards were concerned—it’s hard to find a sequence of Best Picture winners which leaned more heavily towards conservative (i.e. proto-Reaganite) morality than the one started by The Deer Hunter (1978) and continued with Benton’s picture (1979), Ordinary People (1980) and Chariots of Fire (1981). (This is clearer still when you think that the likes of Apocalypse Now, Raging Bull and Reds (!) were widely considered robbed of those very trophies.) Nothing, we imagine, could be less Cronenbergy than Kramer vs. Kramer, with its lachrymose courtroom monologues and beige, civilized emotional investment in a dead marriage. This is why the joke works.*
*This article appeared in Issue 2’s symposium “What is film for?” To read the rest of the article, buy the issue here.