Archive for the ‘cronenberg’ category

Rabid (2019)

December 8, 2019

Rabid-2019-3If you’re going to remake a David Cronenberg film, you’d better not try to ape his ideas, because Cronenberg’s ideas are inextricable from his filmmaking. They are the source of the horror: in much of his work, a disease is a misunderstood monster, just doing what it has to do to survive. Jen and Sylvia Soska, who like Cronenberg are Canadian, have now remade Cronenberg’s 1977 cult favorite Rabid, and they have filled it with their own notions about surgery and transhumanism and fashion. The Soska sisters don’t try to be Cronenberg, but they sure pay tribute to his films throughout their own. Their Rabid, a project that was offered to them and possibly would have been made with or without them, expresses more than anything their deep and abiding love for Cronenberg’s work. As Cronenberg is one of my movie gods, I’m on board with that.

The new Rabid takes off from a premise similar to the original. A woman, Rose (Laura Vandervoort), is badly disfigured in a motorcycle accident. Her case is taken up by a surgeon (Ted Atherton) who applies experimental skin grafts. Rose’s looks are restored; the procedure even smooths out scar tissue from a previous, less extreme accident. But Rose is also left with a craving for blood, and when she feeds off of a victim, that person in turn is infected with the blood delirium. It all boils down to the doctor trying to cheat death (aren’t they always?) by developing this grotesque parasite that perpetuates itself violently. But in the Cronenberg aesthetic, the horror is that this new thing — this new flesh — brought to life is not in itself evil. It just evolves incidentally into a threat to humans. In the Soska playbook, it’s simply one of many things that twist mind and flesh, generally to the detriment of women.

The script, by the Soskas and John Serge, puts Rose to work for a fey, decadent fashion designer. The Soskas seem to liken the fashion world to the moviemaking world: in both, art and transgression are possible — a post-infection Rose produces some tormented gothy dress sketches that her boss flips over — but so are body dysmorphia, drug abuse, and a self-destructive quest for perfection. The Soskas’ interests and emphasis deviate from Cronenberg’s own, but the end result honors his work. There are any number of Easter eggs for Cronenberg fans, such as a wink to the famous “college of cardinals” scene in Dead Ringers, and others I will leave you to discover. Eventually the action leaves the realm of Cronenberg and incorporates elements of, if I’m not mistaken, Re-Animator and John Carpenter’s The Thing. Like many young filmmakers, the Soskas like to pile everything they’ve been obsessing about into the latest film because there’s no guarantee they’ll be granted the keys to another.

Ultimately, Rabid has a warmer center than the original — Cronenberg had to make do with adult-film actress Marilyn Chambers as Rose (he’d wanted Sissy Spacek), and about the most you could say about Chambers was that she was surprisingly competent. Laura Vandervoort brings a lot more vulnerability and pain and spiky anger to Rose, and when the action around Rose gets outlandish, Vandervoort grounds it all in credible female angst. When Rose feeds on a loutish, abusive man, it’s partly you-go-girl revenge, but it’s also pragmatic: a dude this stupid and single-minded makes the perfect prey. Vandervoort doesn’t play it like Zoë Tamerlis in Ms. 45; Rose is driven by her need for blood, and this idiot makes himself known to her.

There was a certain way-before-its-time non-binary/intersex thread in Cronenberg’s Rabid — his Rose was left with what read as male and female sex organs in her armpit (!), with which she fed on blood. We see a bit of that in the new film, but since it deals far more organically with a female point of view, the threat is mainly and viscerally phallic. The Soskas’ 2012 body-horror original American Mary showed they had more on their minds than grrl-power snarls and splatter, and Rabid confirms it. It ends on an image comparable to the bleak nihilism with which Cronenberg sealed his film, only with a distinct nightmarish Gilead tinge to it. As in Alien: Resurrection, perhaps the most Cronenbergian (and most underrated) of the Alien films, a woman isn’t even going to be allowed the peace of death if her existence will benefit men.

Shivers

October 16, 2016

shivers-1975_022Sometimes a writer-director might want to make a film solely to capture one scene, one performance, even one bit of dialogue. For the Canadian auteur David Cronenberg, making his feature debut with 1975’s Shivers (aka Frissons, The Parasite Murders, or They Came from Within), the impetus may have been a monologue late in the game, when a nurse (Lynn Lowry, that cult fan favorite with features as pristine as a doll’s) tells her doctor lover (Paul Hampton) about a dream she had:

Roger, I had a very disturbing dream last night. In this dream I found myself making love to a strange man. Only I’m having trouble you see, because he’s old… and dying… and he smells bad, and I find him repulsive. But then he tells me that everything is erotic, that everything is sexual. You know what I mean? He tells me that even old flesh is erotic flesh. That disease is the love of two alien kinds of creatures for each other. That even dying is an act of eroticism. That talking is sexual. That breathing is sexual. That even to physically exist is sexual. And I believe him, and we make love beautifully.        

This is essentially an Arthur Schnitzler moment out of Traumnovelle given the standard perverse tweak by Cronenberg, whose cinema of tortured flesh runs long on ruminations like this. The thing that sets Shivers apart, of course, is that under Cronenberg’s watch it takes the point of view of the monster — the disease, the parasite. In form, the movie is sort of Night of the Copulating Dead. A community bound together by convenience, an island apartment complex peopled by the moderately well-to-do, is invaded by a parasite that passes from body to body. Ensuring its survival, it also creates powerful lustful feelings in its host body. So the film is also pornographic in structure, though not in practice (it’s erotic but not very explicit).

The doctor, an upright, Graham Chapman-resembling sort, is the putative hero, though it’s a while before we figure out that this is Cronenberg territory and that the parasites (slimy, red, phallic things made by special-effects guru Joe Blasco) are the heroes. Cronenberg takes a relaxed, measured, very Canadian approach to the parasite; he asks, in effect, why it shouldn’t survive, why it shouldn’t get what it wants. What it wants, in brief, is to procreate and to be, just like the rest of us. This was, and remains, a prickly and unique way of looking at horror. The horror, if any, resides in leaving the known and comfortable behind en route to a new and radical way of thinking, feeling, living.

Because Shivers is also Canadian tax-shelter pulp and not just Cronenbergian art, naturally, there’s nudity and gore and taboos not so much broken as dismissed and tossed aside. Intimations of pedophilia and incest stand alongside more upfront depictions of male and female homosexuality. Since this is the supremely nonjudgmental Cronenberg, though, we know that as long as it’s consensual he doesn’t have a problem with any of it — at least within the context of this film. People will be messily infected but will stride into a more authentic and less repressed future.

You do have to give early Cronenberg the benefit of the doubt. His filmmaking hadn’t yet really caught up with his ideas; a lot of the movie, borderline boring, has the inert compositions and staging of ‘70s television drama. But the film is wild where it counts, and in various ringers — Lowry, genre queen Barbara Steele, deep-voiced Joe Silver creating a fresh portrait of casually insensitive intellectualism — Cronenberg has the actors he needs. (God knows the dull, top-billed Paul Hampton doesn’t light any fires.) Shivers announced to general audiences (at least those who hadn’t caught his short films) a genuinely original voice in horror cinema — maybe the only one who owed more to literature than to Hitchcock or to Universal monsters. Has there been another since?

 

 

The Fly

April 24, 2016

flyIt’s hard to fathom that it’s been decades since David Cronenberg was actually a horror-movie director. Yes, some of his films of recent years have had horrific elements — say, 2014’s Maps to the Stars — but The Fly, released thirty years ago, represented Cronenberg’s farewell to a certain type of sci-fi/horror movie he’d practically patented, the icky bio-horror film that treated bodily mutation not as a threat but as a source of fascination — even self-realization. Movies like Shivers, Rabid and The Brood were 101 courses; The Fly was Cronenberg’s doctoral thesis, and it turned out to be the biggest hit he would ever have.

For a brief moment in the summer of 1986, the mass audience bought what Cronenberg was selling — a doomed romance packaged as a dare-you-to-sit-through-it gross-out. The Fly was the perfect vehicle to introduce Cronenberg to the larger mainstream, which he then wasted no time alienating (Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly, Crash). Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum, never more charismatic) is the foxiest and most attractive of the Cronenberg avatars, a genius whose motion sickness has driven him to develop a means of teleportation. Seth shows his work to science reporter Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis in a sharp early performance), though it isn’t quite ready for prime time — the “telepod” has trouble with organic material like flesh.

Cronenberg readies us for the nausea to come when an early experiment involving a baboon goes haywire. The Fly goes incredibly fast — Cronenberg’s regular editor, Ronald Sanders, clips the scenes to a bleeding edge, and it’s not long at all before Seth — jealous because his new lover Veronica still has contact with her old lover and magazine editor (John Getz) — gets drunk and decides to teleport himself. Of course, a fly stows away for the ride, and when Seth is re-integrated in the other telepod, the molecular-genetic structure of the fly has fused with Seth’s. He becomes Brundlefly, and he gains superhuman strength and speed before deteriorating into a lumpy, grotesque creature who has to vomit on his food to digest it. (Emetophobes are, understandably, not among the movie’s fans.) Eventually Seth begins to lose his humanity and pass over into insect consciousness, leading to his frightening monologue about “insect politics,” which serves to explain his personality change. “I’m an insect who dreamed he was a man and loved it,” Seth clarifies (sort of), “but the insect is awake.”

Aside from having a Fox-produced (and Mel Brooks-sponsored) big-movie sheen — and Howard Shore’s most dramatic score this side of Lord of the Rings — this may be Cronenberg’s most emotionally accessible film, and it really only has the three characters, other than sidebar figures who drift into Seth’s path briefly. It’s fast, and it’s also stripped down; you’re out of there in less than ninety minutes, but by then, you might be ready to go. The Fly also marks the beginning of Cronenberg’s second phase of films, the terribly sad meditations on the fragility of sanity (his next, Dead Ringers, is among the most depressing movies ever made). The movie follows Seth through the twin breakdowns of mind and body.

The transition wouldn’t work nearly so well, of course, without Geena Davis convincing us that she still loves the man underneath the monstrosity, and without Jeff Goldblum persuading us the man is still there. There’s none of Goldblum’s later grinning, apartments.com-hawking smugness in this hyperverbal turn. Seth maintains a lively scientific interest in his own grotesque transformation, more for his own edification than for posterity. Cronenberg was right to keep Seth restlessly eloquent right up to the full transformation — Seth crests on his own ersatz insights, like someone on a cocaine rush, and then collapses into rage and lust, while Veronica looks on helplessly. (Without being condescendingly dumbed-down — she does know her way around a lab, after all — Davis’s Veronica is the audience’s stand-in, staring aghast as Seth riffs mumbo-jumbo about “the plasma pool.”) Seth has a way of dancing rhetorical circles around his topic, then focusing his ire abruptly on his listener and spitting vituperation. Nobody can keep up with Seth; he’s the foremost expert on his condition because he’s its only host body.

The emotions as well as the intellect carry us through the gushers of goop. At its best, the movie comes close to the power of classic tragedy — the moods are exaltation, dread, disgust, grief. Some have taken it for an allegory about AIDS or cancer, but Cronenberg means it to be less ripped-from-the-headlines and more timeless: a meditation on anything that changes us physically, and the corresponding mental changes. After The Fly, there was really nowhere else Cronenberg could take his body-horror obsessions. It’s a remarkably economical distillation and commercial apotheosis of his pet themes, and it works brutally well in the realms of heartbreak and skin-crawl. It’s a full package.

Maps to the Stars

March 1, 2015

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The world of David Cronenberg is usually hushed, intimate, frequently antiseptic, but within this hermetic construct people suffer, orgasm, howl in elation or agony, transform, die. Cronenberg’s is a tightly ordered vision of chaos. In Maps to the Stars, the Canadian director’s first film in his 46-year career to be shot in America, the Hollywoodites we meet are damaged, monstrous to others and to themselves. It’s been called a Tinseltown satire, but Cronenberg doesn’t think of it that way, and neither do I. It is, if you will, a horror movie about how living on the toxic soil of Hollywood deforms human beings, body and soul. This is a place where a woman can gleefully celebrate the death of a little boy she’d been cooing over not a day earlier — where, indeed, children in general are drowned, strangled, drugged, sexually abused, almost set on fire, or just die alone in a hospital of blood disease.

Hollywood is a graveyard of innocence/innocents, though it could also be every other place in America, only more so. Maps was written by Bruce Wagner, the eternal insider (his novels are long on L.A. grotesques, and he wrote the comic strip that became the surreal Wild Palms) turned Castaneda mystic. Wagner is hip to the ways that Hollywood chews up and spits out spirituality, perverts it and monetizes it. One of the creatures in the movie is Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), who sells ersatz therapy to suffering stars; his approach hasn’t much helped his family — his daughter (Mia Wasikowska) is a burn-scarred schizophrenic, his son (Evan Bird) a teenage star of hacky comedies who’s already almost washed up. Among Stafford’s clients is Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), an aging actress with heavy mommy issues.

In this ghastly atmosphere, there’s no way to raise children without ruining them as human beings, no way to live without putting your soul at hazard. Often, Cronenberg puts characters alone within a frame, talking into a void. He brings Robert Pattinson back from his previous film Cosmopolis, this time driving a limo instead of riding in one. The two movies are bookend pieces, the monetary insanity of New York and the rancid dream factory of Los Angeles, a sleep of reason that produces monsters¹ … and ghosts. Maps to the Stars is loaded with guilty visions of dead kids, dead parents. People speak to each other in grave whispers, as if attending a funeral — maybe their own. Yet the movie also sneaks in deadpan humor whenever it can. It’s a pretty good joke, for example, that Carrie Fisher — as clear an example as anyone of how Hollywood can deform people into self-medicating neurotics — plays herself here as the (unwitting) instigator of the movie’s entire twisted plot.

The violence is abrupt and sometimes shocking — a dog is shot to death, and that’s only a warm-up — but we’re never sure how much of it is real, since it seldom has any consequence (unless, of course, it involves a prosperous comedy franchise). A scene in which someone self-immolates at poolside might be intended to be taken as “real,” but the flames look so fake it’s hard to know. We could, if pressed, shelve this film alongside any number of other Cronenberg efforts; it seems to me to be less a screed against Hollywood than a study of a particularly fucked-up family, a theme that aligns it with The Brood and A History of Violence and Spider. Once again, Cronenberg meditates on the split between mind and body, the perfect Hollywood bodies and the deformed minds within.

¹ Indeed, the movie is rather Goya-esque, and the epigram for Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters would fit the film as well: “Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters; united with it, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels.”

A Dangerous Method

December 4, 2011

How would a psychoanalyst analyze David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, the story of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and the wild woman who came between them? The woman in question is Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), referred to Jung as a “hysterical” patient before getting better and becoming a therapist herself. In the movie, Sabina comes to terms (amusingly quickly) with the knowledge that being spanked, as her father used to do, turns her on. For Freud, everything is about sex; Jung is starting to think beyond the physical into the metaphysical, but his interest in Sabina gradually becomes more Freudian than Jungian. Sabina is, if you will, the daughter of both men, drawing inspiration from both — and, some say, inspiring both as well.

Splits/doubles/twinning are all over the place in A Dangerous Method, which makes this a pure David Cronenberg film despite the level of violence being held down to bottom-thwacking and one neat cut delivered to Jung’s face. Cronenberg has always been preoccupied with what he calls the “Cartesian split” between mind and body; he’s a bit of a psychoanalyst himself. He brings his usual pensive rigor to the proceedings, with little flashes of perversity now and then. Most of the drama is the drama of ideas; we can almost hear angry swords clanging in a prideful comment from Freud and its politely dissenting rejoinder from Jung. The irony, not lost on Jung, is that Jung must kill his “father” — a key Freudian concept.

Once Keira Knightley’s Sabina calms down, all of this unfolds in quiet talk in immaculate period settings. Michael Fassbender’s Jung, never less than exquisitely courteous, represses his feelings for Sabina while Viggo Mortensen’s Freud pulls on his cigar and sees everything coming (or would like to think he does). A little-noticed feature of much of Cronenberg’s work is that of a woman who yanks a man out of his comfort zone into strange new territories; sometimes it doesn’t end well for the man, but such is drama, and there’s always some sense of bold discovery, even if it’s entirely interior (and frightening). A Dangerous Method is about as interior as a movie can get; some of it feels stagebound (it originated as a play, The Talking Cure, by Christopher Hampton, who also wrote the script), but Cronenberg long ago graduated from drive-in gore-meister to actor’s director, and his camera attends to the smallest subtleties in the performances. We don’t need to know beforehand that Freud was a middle-class Jew who envied the gentile Jung’s marrying into wealth; a tiny, disapproving “hmph” from Mortensen says it all.

It may be that A Dangerous Method is less fun the more you know about the actual figures; to answer my opening question, at least one prominent therapist accused Cronenberg and company of “missing the story.” Well, that may be true if what you want is a textbook. For Cronenberg fans who didn’t desert him after he stopped blowing up heads and started exploring them, it’s yet another intensely calibrated portrait of repression and expression. Cronenberg remains the pre-eminent droll philosopher of English-speaking films, inviting us into his well-appointed office and probing us inside and out. Right at the start, in his first short film Transfer 45 years ago, Cronenberg told a seven-minute story about a psychiatrist and his fixated patient. A Dangerous Method takes him full circle.

Eastern Promises

September 14, 2007

At first glance, it may seem out of character for director David Cronenberg — master of twisted body-consciousness films like The Fly, Dead Ringers and Crash — to take a tour of the Russian underworld of London in his new film Eastern Promises. But it doesn’t take long for this supposedly “conventional” Cronenberg outing to announce its place in his portfolio. It begins with blood and slime, the primordial fluids of life and death, and coasts for the next 90 minutes on our unease. Though the remaining violence is sparingly parcelled out, we know we’re in a universe where live flesh has ink or a price on it, and dead flesh is subject to rude post-mortem depredations in the freezer of a restaurant.

Part of the plot’s motor (via the tight script by Steven Knight, author of Dirty Pretty Things) emerges into the film coated in both fluids — a baby born to a teenage Russian ex-pat prostitute who died in childbirth. (The film’s title refers to the way she and others like her are lured to London by the mob with promises of big things, then put to work in the sex trade.) Anna (Naomi Watts), a doctor at Trafalgar Hospital, delivers the baby and finds the girl’s diary, which contains sensitive information about various players in the local vory v zakone (“thieves-in-law”) outfit. This includes avuncular mob boss Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his impetuous, not-as-closeted-as-he-thinks son Kirill (Vincent Cassel).

In another film, Anna would be the lead character, spending perhaps five episodes of a BBC miniseries to get to the bottom of the Russian decay. Cronenberg, however, pretty much dismisses her as a necessary plot agitator — the sand in this oyster — and focuses on Kirill’s sardonic driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). In their previous film together, 2005’s A History of Violence, Cronenberg and Mortensen explored the nightside of a kind man with a dark, grisly past. Here it’s almost the reverse, as the outwardly unfeeling Nikolai develops shadings of compassion. The two movies are bookend pieces, and Mortensen makes Nikolai even more disturbing when traces of humanity sneak through his contemptuous façade — when Nikolai tells Anna “You belong in there, with nice people,” he may be thinking how dangerous it is to be so naïve about life’s underbelly, and how comforting it must be. He wouldn’t know.

As in all Cronenberg films, God (or the devil) is in the details — the way, for instance, Semyon brings out a cake for a woman’s 100th birthday party, and she pays him and the cake no mind, focusing on the accordion player — she’s not fooled by Semyon’s charm, she knows what he is. Eastern Promises is an inquiry into various kinds of scars; the whole business with the tattoos, which Russian thugs get in prison to denote where they stand in the food chain, was added to the script by Cronenberg and Mortensen, and a turning point comes when Nikolai receives his coveted star tattoos on his chest, signifying total loyalty to the vory v zakone. Long live the new flesh. The most celebrated and notorious scene, of course, involves the attempted removal of Nikolai’s tattoos by two Chechen assassins while Nikolai is clad only in a towel, and soon not even that. Leave it to Cronenberg to redefine the fight scene, so often glossed over in routine action flicks, but here lingered over to emphasize the grasping pain and effort of hand-to-hand combat.

Like Elias Koteas’ character in Crash (“Prophecy is ragged and dirty,” he said to his own tattooist, “so make it ragged and dirty”), Nikolai is an illustrated man whose body is a guidebook to a dangerous subculture. A development near the end makes him perhaps too readable, but Mortensen finishes his role here exactly as he did in A History of Violence, sitting at a dinner table and contemplating his life of brutality and what comes next. Here, though, Nikolai has rejected the trappings of civilization — a woman, a baby — to spend more time in the shadows with shadowy men. Eastern Promises completes a trilogy begun with Cronenberg’s underseen Spider, a trilogy dealing with family shattered by secret horrors. It is Cronenberg firing on all cylinders, probing the imperfect human machine underneath the fleshy surface, meticulously detailing his findings.

A History of Violence

September 23, 2005

a-history-of-violence_lIn A History of Violence, brutality hurts and has sickening consequences in a way it hasn’t in any American movie since Unforgiven. Men expire inconveniently, gurgling face-down in their own blood on a diner floor; they get pounded in the face until the nose effectively disappears in a smear of cartilage and ripped skin. The movie, however, sets up situations in which we want, need, the killing and maiming to happen. The tension builds in a slow boil, then ignites furiously when we’re not quite ready for it. Man is a violent species, and director David Cronenberg, who has spent thirty years studying that species in such films as Dead Ringers and The Fly, implicates his audience and himself in the violence, as he did in 1982’s grotesque Videodrome. The theme of the movie could be: Killing feels good until it’s over — then what do you do?

The mystery of the film, adapted loosely from a mediocre 1997 graphic novel by John Wagner (writer) and Vince Locke (artist), is whether small-town diner owner Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) — an aw-shucks guy to all appearances — is hiding dark and bloody secrets from his past. One night, a couple of thieves and thrill-killers invade Tom’s diner. (Aside: Suzanne Vega’s song of the same name — I am waiting at the counter/For the man to pour the coffee — will take on inadvertent macabre humor after this film.) Tom dispatches them with suspicious ease, is crowned a local media hero, and attracts the attention of shadowy men led by a scarred Ed Harris (dropping his usual intensity and coming across all the more frightening), who seems convinced that Tom is actually a man named Joey Cusack, from back in Philly. We assume that Joey, whoever he is, wasn’t a kindly city hot-dog vendor or puppy breeder.

Cronenberg isn’t terribly interested in artificial mysteries, though. Nor is he all that impressed with the novel’s emphasis on mob connections. What he’s after is simple: Is the human machine hard-wired for violence, and what happens when the machine tries to rewire itself? Tom, played by Mortensen with effortless precision in moments both cruel and gentle, is a classic movie figure — the man capable of ghastly carnage who has chosen a peaceful path until circumstances force his hand. In Cronenberg’s hands, this neo-western becomes a meditation on the essence of all those movies. Family life (civilization) is nurturing; killing is exciting. But switch “killing” with “going to strip clubs” or the disreputable bachelor pastime of your choice, and you have a metaphor for how a man changes — or doesn’t — when he opts for the credibility of wife and children.

A great deal of the movie’s impact depends not on Viggo Mortensen but on Maria Bello, who should be ready to take over the planet any day now. She plays Tom’s wife Edie, a lawyer who, I think, was attracted to safe homespun Tom and his small-town life and moved away from city stress (her voice still has an urban cadence; Tom has an Indiana drawl that eventually slides into something more threatening and razory). Edie finds Tom exciting, going so far as to recreate the innocent devirginizing neither of them really had, fantasizing being a cheerleader in bed with her quarterback boyfriend. The first of the movie’s sex scenes is warm and playful (unusual for Cronenberg); the second, a thrashing and bruising event on a stairwell after Edie discovers the truth about Tom, is considerably uglier, more disturbing, and — this being a Cronenberg film — more erotic. Bello performs in both scenes, and everything in between, with deeply committed delicacy. We believe in her love and her revulsion.

A History of Violence is of a piece with Cronenberg’s other work, though it seems to offer easier catharsis (but doesn’t really). A confrontation late in the movie between Tom and a bad man played with cool, self-amused malevolence by William Hurt is played out almost as drawing-room comedy, with the violence no longer painful because we’re now in a world where life is meaningless. Ultimately, we find Tom at the dinner table with his son — who seems infected with his father’s virus of swift retributive force — and his little daughter and Edie, and volumes of the unspoken pass between man and wife. That’s the movie’s true mystery, and the one Cronenberg prefers to leave us with: Then what do you do?

Spider

December 13, 2002

David Cronenberg’s Spider is some sort of master class in rigorous filmmaking; this director cuts to the bone now, with absolutely no flab and no ingratiation to the mainstream. Cronenberg tells bizarre and psychologically gnarled stories, but he tells them with a calm and measured sense of purpose, as if he had all the time in the world, and he assumes a high level of patience on our parts. Spider is slow but deadly, fixating on minute details as if weaving a world around us, and the world becomes a web smothering reason.

Working from Patrick McGrath’s screenplay (based on his novel), Cronenberg gives us an unreliable narrator — Dennis “Spider” Cleg (Ralph Fiennes), a schizophrenic who takes up residence in a dingy halfway house. Spider is haunted by his past, which we see in fragments, with Spider standing off to the side and observing. We see Spider’s working-class parents, a plumber (Gabriel Byrne) and his wife (Miranda Richardson), who seem to be more or less existing together. The joy seems to have gone out of the marriage; the father frequents a local pub, where he begins an affair with a local “tart” (also played by Richardson). One night, the mother catches the father in flagrante delicto with the tart; what follows convinces the young Spider that a murder has been committed.

We’re not convinced, though. For one thing, the movie often shows us events at which Spider was not present. Spider pursues the mystery anyway, though, a rumpled gumshoe unsure of his own perceptions. Playing this cracked inquisitor, Fiennes builds tension and heartbreak out of indecipherable mumbling and ritualistic, twitchy gestures. Cronenberg’s precise direction keeps us breathing the same stale air as Spider, and the lying, manipulative essence of cinema itself forces us to share Spider’s viewpoint even as we’re questioning it. Miranda Richardson also has a tough role — a triple role, actually, since she also takes on the part of the nurse running the halfway house (played at the beginning by Lynn Redgrave). Richardson is encouraged to play the mother sensibly, the tart and the nurse as threatening caricatures, which of course is how Spider would experience those two women. Gabriel Byrne, too, manages a difficult balancing act as the father, playing against decades of abusive, drunken working-class dads in movies. He drinks, and he fixes toilets, and he seems to be having sex with a local whore. But is he a murderer? And is she a whore?

Spider is bound to be misunderstood by literalists and Freudians, and those who persist in seeing misogyny in Cronenberg’s work. He presents, without comment, a programmatic view of women as either saints, whores or bullies that’s rooted in psychosis; all women become perversions of Spider’s beloved mum. Spider sifts with trembling fingers through the shards of his life, picking out pieces that may not reflect the truth. Cronenberg fixates on the possibly irrelevant and makes it relevant to the complete picture. Martin Scorsese used to be capable of films like this — small gems that root around in a damaged brain, persuading you that no subject could be larger or more important. Cronenberg, who came from visceral drive-in movies, is in his way as obsessive and as purely cinematic as Scorsese. His worlds are hermetically sealed; no outside perspectives are allowed to intrude, no glimmers of pop culture. Spider is Cronenberg’s most delicately poetic work yet, a shattered mirror whose reflection is false but finds its own truth.

eXistenZ

April 23, 1999

In the agreeably low-tech world of eXistenZ, the elaborately entertaining new film by David Cronenberg, technology has sort of gone backwards, or sideways, and become technobiology. Those who fetishize computers and hardware won’t find much to plug into in this movie, which imagines, among other things, guns made out of flesh and bone and virtual-reality gamepods that resemble nothing so much as pulsating sex toys. This is not the Cronenberg of Crash, a stark icicle of a film; eXistenZ finds him in a witty and playful mood. The whole movie is a game, visceral as well as philosophical; it’s a great wild ride to stand alongside Cronenberg’s Videodrome and Naked Lunch.

To attempt a plot synopsis would be folly; I will limit myself to the basic set-up. Jennifer Jason Leigh is Allegra Geller, a renowned virtual-reality game designer preparing to unveil her latest masterpiece, “eXistenZ.” Unfortunately, a Khomeini-like fatwa has been issued on her life, and she goes on the run with public-relations rookie Ted Pikul (Jude Law), who becomes her bodyguard by default. What follows is 90 minutes of guess-what’s-real hijinks. In Cronenberg’s hands, however, such games are never played on the audience for their own sake: not for nothing do the game and the film have a metaphysical ring. A clue is provided the first time we hear someone pronounce the name — “ex-is-tenz” — which sounds closer to “existential” than to “existence.” If, as existentialism has it, we are responsible for our own acts in this reality as we know it, what happens if that reality is false?

As the middle film in 1999’s unofficial trilogy of virtual-reality fantasies, eXistenZ will no doubt be compared with the big hit The Matrix and the also-ran The 13th Floor, but Cronenberg works his own side of the street. He gets better and better as a filmmaker; every frame is meticulous in its control and purpose. Regular composer Howard Shore and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky build a firm aural and visual backdrop for Cronenberg’s complex ideas and structure. Ted Pikul, the latest in a long line of passive Cronenbergian observers, is our onscreen counterpart; we share his confusion and are grateful when Allegra briefs him on the rules of “eXistenZ” (first rule: there are no rules).

Even without the icky organic biomechanics, eXistenZ would be completely in keeping with Cronenberg’s method, which is to suggest that the world as seen through the eyes of the protagonists (and therefore through the audience’s eyes) shouldn’t be taken at face value. Cronenberg uses the multilevel construction of a game to show us what he has always shown us: that there is more than one way to experience reality. As the plot of the game keeps shifting, we are left without any bearings, without any way to know whether to trust anyone, even ourselves. This, of course, is life — or existence.

Depressing? Not the way Cronenberg approaches it. He’s a laughing existentialist here, a philosopher who sees the comedy in disorientation. In his version of Naked Lunch, everything we saw was merely the lead character’s self-protecting fantasy filter for what was really going on, and here we go deep inside a game designer’s contrived, cliched view of what’s happening around her. eXistenZ comes complete with its own self-critiques, but it’s not a shallowly amusing exercise in deconstruction á la Scream; it’s closer to our own detached experiences of watching ourselves watch ourselves until reality becomes a hall of mirrors in which we can’t escape the reflection of our own perceptions. eXistenZ is a fast and engaging joyride; it takes you around in circles, but you don’t see the same things twice.

Crash: The Family-Values Edition

September 1, 1998

film-crashWhen David Cronenberg was editing Crash — a movie he always intended to be rated NC-17 — he put together an R-rated version as well. Why? Partly out of curiosity and partly, I suspect, because he knew that Fine Line Features would want a version palatable to Blockbuster (which prudishly and hypocritically refuses to stock NC-17 films), and he preferred to oversee the bowdlerization himself, rather than have some Fine Line intern mutilate his minor masterpiece.

Since I own a copy of the original, uncut Crash, I thought it might be fun to compare it to the MPAA-approved R-rated Crash — the version Blockbuster is proud to carry in its stock of family entertainment. I figured: Who knows? The cut version might include footage unseen in theaters — as did the TV version of Cronenberg’s major masterpiece, Videodrome (of which there are at least three versions: the TV version with added footage, the trimmed R-rated theatrical version, and the uncut, unrated video version).

Alas, the slashed Crash offers no such goodies; it’s just ten minutes shorter than the NC-17 version (which itself is pretty short, clocking in at 100 minutes). Unlike, say, Paul Thomas Anderson (“I hated losing this scene! I hated losing that scene!” he blurts repeatedly about the deleted scenes on the Boogie Nights DVD), Cronenberg is ruthless in the editing room. He isn’t much of a deleted-scenes guy: what you see in the finished movie is what he wanted to put there (since he has final cut). Ironically, for all intents and purposes, the NC-17 Crash isn’t much more explicit than the fun-for-the-whole-family Crash. This movie was never particularly explicit — the sex scenes merely suffered from the MPAA’s twin no-nos: length and frequency.

What we’re missing in the R version, with three major exceptions, is a few seconds shaved off all the sex scenes. Just as a few spurts of blood make the difference between an R-rated horror film and an NC-17 horror film, so a few frames of writhing and bumping make the difference between the NC-17 Crash and the R-rated Crash. Some of the trims are unnoticeable unless you watch both versions side by side; most of the cuts amount to a stroke or thrust here, a semen-stained hand there. That’s not to say there’s no difference, though.

In one case, the R-rated cut eliminates one of the film’s bits of deadpan humor — when Helen Remington (Holly Hunter) is mechanically straddling James Ballard (James Spader) in a car, asking “Have you come?” (He mumbles “I’m okay.”) The R version picks them up when they’re finished, adjusting their clothes. Another funny bit — when Ballard, Helen, and the maimed Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette) fondle each other while watching Swedish crash-test videos — is only alluded to in the R version, which deletes the panning shot of their heavy petting.

The most eye-opening difference is the loss of an entire scene — when Ballard is copulating with his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) and she’s talking him through a homosexual fantasy involving the car-crash guru Vaughan (Elias Koteas). Both parties are totally nude in the scene, which is probably the most explicit in the movie (actual genital contact is about all you don’t see). So the MPAA’s objection to the scene isn’t surprising — but it is stupid.

What do you lose when you lose this scene? Well, let’s see. You lose the set-up for Ballard’s later tryst with Vaughan. You lose the information that Ballard is disclosing his new explorations to Catherine (as they disclose other such extramarital activities), and so, when Catherine goes along for a ride with Ballard and Vaughan in the R-rated cut, it’s jarring (how does she know about Vaughan?). You lose what Cronenberg called the three-way sex — they’re having sex with an imaginary third person in bed with them (Vaughan).

Most of all, you lose Cronenberg’s complex, subtle sexual syntax — who’s fucking whom, and who’s positioned where, is the source of much unspoken information in this movie. In this case, we see that Ballard (who is boffing Catherine from behind) is beginning to distance himself from his wife — and perhaps readying himself for anal sex with Vaughan. (Incidentally, this scene also comes right before the “Have you come?” scene, where Helen is straddling Ballard but is no longer facing him, as she was in an earlier scene.)

Another brief scene completely gone from the R-rated version — perhaps because it links sex and violence in a direct and disturbing way — is the one after the car-wash sequence, when the nude Catherine reclines and displays the bruises Vaughan left on her body during their rough backseat sex. We no longer see the physical toll Ballard’s journey is taking on his wife, and we lose the visual foreshadowing (“Prophecy is dirty and ragged”) of the tattooing scene that precedes the sex between Ballard and Vaughan. And the movie now ends on the famous line “Maybe next time,” without the final roadside sex between Ballard and the dazed Catherine as the camera pans up and away.

Oddly, the film’s most celebrated/reviled moment — when Ballard mounts (not unlike a dog in heat) the vagina-like scar on Gabrielle’s leg — remains, to these eyes, pretty much intact. Whether a few frames have been clipped here isn’t really relevant; you get the sense of what he’s doing, as you did in the NC-17 cut — and is this what Blockbuster Video considers acceptable R-rated family entertainment? Gee, maybe Blockbuster is more radical than I thought. Ditto the MPAA — or maybe they didn’t understand what was going on in the scene. And yes, all the car-accident gore is intact; the MPAA approves of mangled bodies but disapproves of naked bodies — what else is new?

In any event, your best bet is obviously Cronenberg’s NC-17 version, available in video stores without sticks up their asses. I’ve also seen the uncut tape for sale at Suncoast; it’s not letterboxed, but Cronenberg usually shoots 1.66:1, which is so close to TV’s 1.33 aspect ratio that you don’t lose much in the transfer. You certainly lose less than you will if you watch the R-rated version — which isn’t Crash, but merely a fender-bender.