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.
But it isn’t only a joke, because The Brood has more to tell us on the subject of ruptured relationships, the role of blame and the mortification of physical intimacy than any traditional take on the divorce drama could ever bespeak. Nola’s anger is directed towards all of those (husband, mother, father, love rival) she perceives as having obstructed her personal happiness—virtually everyone, in other words. But unlike Meryl Streep’s put-upon Joanna Kramer, who must first fess up to her failings as a mother and wife on the witness stand before redemptively acquiescing to her ex-husband’s custody pleas, Nola strikes back. Her instrument of attack, to inflict crushing pain on those Raglan has helped her define as enemies, is the natural one for an embittered woman who is soon to be a newly-empowered divorcée: she wields her children. And what peculiar, homicidal freaks the titular brood are. Cronenberg intends them as literally the progeny of rage— mutant dwarfs, born in fleshy sacs outside Nola’s womb, which grow to do her bidding by clobbering her adversaries. Crucially, they have no father, or at least not in the ordinary way, though Dr. Raglan could be perceived as symbolically their “Daddy.” They are immaculately conceived minions of the Id, not so much deformed, with their brutish, angular features, as perfect expressions of their biological purpose, which is to hate and kill, thereby salving the hurt of their broodmare. Raglan’s treatment has literally taken on a life of its own, in that the standard therapeutic mechanism of blame has evolved, thanks to these vicious little tykes, into elimination of the blamed. Not that we can imagine Columbia letting Cronenberg within ten miles of the set, but if he’d applied this idea to the literal scenario of Kramer vs. Kramer, Dustin Hoffman wouldn’t get to forgive Streep for her wayward parenting because he wouldn’t get the chance. She’d send her psycho-dwarf legion in to bash his brains out.
By allowing the core emotion of fury to drive his story, and to drive it essentially off a cliff, there’s a strong argument that Cronenberg’s picture does fuller justice to the psychic “drama” of divorce than the sort of contained, whitewashed theatrics that win acting awards. Structurally, the equivalent scene in The Brood to Streep’s surrender—the scene where the mother shows her true colours—is both its ickiest set piece and firmest rejoinder to the other film’s neo-patriarchal, Papa Knows Best agenda. Hindle’s Frank confronts Nola in her quarters at Somafree, a scene Eggar plays seated, as with all of her others. She proudly bares herself to show us the pulsating sac by her midriff, with its new brood-foetus inside. It hatches, and Nola licks it clean. Cronenberg was highly aggrieved by cuts made to this scene by the UK’s film classification board, and for good reason.
I had a long and loving close-up of [Eggar] licking the foetus … when the censors, those animals, cut it out, the result was that a lot of people thought she was eating her baby. That’s much worse than I was suggesting.
Not only is it worse, but it seriously damages one of the film’s key ideas, about the mother-child relationship evolving into a state of perfect self-sufficiency and implicit loyalty. If the fate of the father in this equation needed further underlining, what the brood are about to do to Raglan when he wakes them up makes it fairly clear he’s not a desirable presence. It isn’t pretty.
Though it’s often bracketed as the third in an unofficial trilogy with Shivers and Rabid, The Brood really belongs with Cronenberg’s two other overtly Freudian melodramas of sex and death, Dead Ringers (1988) and Spider (2002), both films about boys—whether twin gynecologists or Oedipal headcases— who can’t stop crawling back into the womb. His vision of motherhood is undeniably disturbing, but only because it’s asking us to consider the bonds within the family unit as psychically umbilical— if you sever them, they spurt. It’s a curious anomaly that this kind of metaphorical reading lives side by side in his work with the seething, tactile reality of what’s happening— his cinema is both unbreakably corporeal and figuratively adaptable, or perhaps it posits an alternate reality of more or less equal validity to our own, like the sensory mirror-worlds in Videodrome and eXistenZ. In any case, it’s both the corporeality and the gift for metaphor that sets Cronenberg apart, because, by extrapolating beyond the “normal,” he can reach right down into the marrow of a subject, as he does in The Brood, while more cautious filmmakers continue to prod politely at its epidermis.
On top of this carnal honesty, the absence of any spiritual component in Cronenberg’s worldview is crucial to his appeal, because what meaning his characters derive from life resides entirely in what they do with their own minds and bodies. As an artist who wants his own work to have meaning, metaphorical or otherwise, it’s not surprising that he feels this imperative particularly acutely, and it leads to a relationship between the corporeal and the creative in his pictures that’s actively—often graphically— symbiotic. Elias Koteas’s Vaughan in Crash, arranging road-side pile-ups and fucking the victims, would consider himself an artist. Bill Lee (Peter Weller) in Naked Lunch is a surrogate for Burroughs himself, and his typewriter is a fragile organism which he must caress almost sexually. Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the game designer in eXistenZ, is the Salman Rushdie-like victim of a fatwa from anti-gaming fundamentalists, and her life’s work is a quivering, fetal pod whose health she constantly attends to. Cronenberg’s gynecologists are artists too: the instruments Jeremy Irons’ twins have devised for operating on “mutant women” in Dead Ringers are exhibited as sculptural curios. Sex is art in Cronenberg, and because sex is everything, everything is art.
Even turning into a fly, or using rage as a new type of reproductive organ, is presented as a way to procreate and self-exhibit, proof in each case of a radical (if horrifying) scientific breakthrough. Cronenberg goes where few other filmmakers dare in seeing us, like every other living creature, as essentially mutants, freaks of evolution—and what’s to say we can’t evolve or mutate further? Why limit our biological destiny? He is able to enfold the specific human dramas of illness, divorce, psychosis, sex addiction or whatever, into the question of what further states of being might be implied or unlocked by these conditions. For Cronenberg, if no one else, a disease-of-the-week movie is ripe with potential—imagine if sickness, rather than just a grim fact of existence, could be seen as a kind of reproductive activity between our own cells and those of a hungry alien life form. Where might this take us? Other filmmakers, backing away into uncontentious but basically conservative notions of being and staying human, make his willingness to float such hypotheses quite special.
Our make-up can be a dull given in movies, a stock template for storytelling of whatever type, but Cronenberg, an anthropologist of the possible, wants to poke it, experiment with it and change the template. He can’t help himself. Filmmaking, with the options it gives him to fabricate illusions of change—of adaptation achieved through cosmetics and prosthetics, with close-ups ringing those changes and a Shore score giving them eerie weight—feels more like his toolbox than his religion, a means to his art rather than the end of it. The paradox is that “disembodied” nails Cronenberg’s technique well enough, but his intent not at all, because the effects he’s chasing demand something close to its opposite: speculative sculpture in the medium of the flesh.