DAVID CRONENBERG: Born March 15, 1943 Toronto, Ontario
He is prolific, profitable and perhaps one of the most “commercial” directors in Canada. Not surprisingly, he is also one of the most misunderstood. His is a thinker and a sensationalist, a survivor and a nihilist, a humble outsider and a self-absorbed snob, a proud Canadian and a disciple of Hollywood genre. Fortunately, David Cronenberg loves a good dichotomy. In his godless universe, meaning must be self-derived through a process of personal investigation — and no mental tools can chisel away at the subconscious like conflict and a good intellectual challenge. For this reason, Cronenberg movies inevitably deal with a character in the midst of a transformation. In most cases, the transformative agent is something tangible and hostile from the outside, but inevitably born from within — either mentally or physically.
For instance, in Shivers, his early feature film shot in Montreal, Cronenberg subjected an entire apartment building to the transformativeÙ sexual powers of a sewer-bred parasite. Once “normal” people living private lives in secluded dwellings were now sexual omnivores, cavorting with perfect strangers. Similarly, in eXistenZ, Cronenberg showed two sane employees of a software manufacturer completely lose themselves in a pre-programmed maze after plugging directly into the biomechanical hardware through a “bioport” at the base of their spines. Even his biggest “Hollywood” film to date, The Fly, dealt with similar transformative issues as a scientist (Jeff Goldblum) accidentalluy splices his genetic material with that of a house fly, with horrific results.
In almost every case, Cronenberg shows us uptight or emotionally repressed people altered by acts of their own imagination, or else symbolically altered by grotesque creatures of Cronenberg’s own imagination. In this way, Cronenberg is able to deconstruct the “creative” moment from inside out: he shows us people digging away at their insides, desperate to get something out of them -- desperate to express themselves in some way… or other. While many have tried to look into Cronenberg’s personal history for some explanation for his apparent affinity for perverting the human form, the film-maker denies his taste for the macabre and the grotesque have anything to do with his past, watching his father atrophy from Crone’s disease, or the fact that his parents died before he realized any genuine success as a film-maker.
“Barbara Frum never gave up. She believed I was forever altered by my parents dying. Maybe it was because she was dying of leukemia — I don’t know. But she never got anywhere with that line of questioning. The truth is, I think I always had an existentialist tendency,” Cronenberg told me in a 1999 interview.
The son of a journalist-philatelist father, Milton, and mother, Esther, who played the piano for the National Ballet, Cronenberg grew up surrounded by books and the wide open spaces of an as-yet untamed Toronto with his sister, Denise (who currently works as a costumeÏ designer, and does many of her brothers’ movies). He remembers riding his bike through the remaining wooded areas and catching butterflies, then going home and analyzing his catch. His house was packed with books.
“I remember row upon row of them and thinking it was a giant treasure trove of information. I loved the books, but I also read comics. I read early Donald Duck and Superman comics. I haven’t thought about those in years, but you know, they all have a creepy tone to them. Even Donald… ducks really shouldn’t be wearing suits.”
Young David tried his hand at writing his own stories. Most were science-fiction tales and fantasy-laden romps into the pre-pubescent male imagination. Cronenberg sent some of these early manuscripts to publishers, and while none were published — he did receive encouraging letters, urging him to continue. Cronenberg remembers the first story he wrote in grade 6 showed a premature interest in death, and that was before his parents became ill.
“I always had an awareness of death. In that short story, death was a character. It was pretty Bergmanesque as I remember. It sounded like it was written by a 100-yearò-old man.” In addition to writing short stories, catching butterflies, reading comics, hanging out with the neighborhood kids and playing Scrabble, Cronenberg was also a fairly avid musician. He played classical guitar until the age of 12, clerked in a record store and still fancies the “Old World” orchestral style of music he grew up with. Originally registered as a University of Toronto science student, Cronenberg switched to English, where he developed a fascination with film.
In Mondo Canuck, Geoff Pevere relates a story about Cronenberg seeing a film by David Sector that changed his life. The Winter Kept Us Warm was shot in Toronto, and seeing his own city portrayed on the big screen not only gave Cronenberg the confidence to try to make a film himself, but the desire to make films about Canadians set in Canadian places. While he was still a student, Cronenberg began experimenting with a 16mm Bolex and made a few short films, including Transfer and From the Drain — a story that offered filmdom a glimpse of what was to come as scary things emerge from the bathroom sink. (I feel compelled to make a note that another Canadian-born film-maker, Alison McLean, who made Crush and Jesus’ Son, also began her film career with a movie about things coming out of the drain — in her case, it was a lot of hair that transformed into a man. There may be a good master’s thesis here… or else a good ad for the Drano people.)
The first film that captured the attention of critics was a film called Stereo, the story of a crazy Dr. Luther Stringfellow who heads up the Canadian Academy of Erotic Inquiry. Within this hightly institutional setting, seven young people volunteer for a sort of labotomy that removes their speech-centre but gives them telepathic abilities. As they begin to master their new brainwaves, the doctor introduces new stimuli and new drugs, exposing an Õinbred “polymorphous perversity” within the subjects. Eventually, they all freak out and two of them self-destruct. His second feature, Crimes of the Future, follows a similarly dark arc: As one scientist comes up with a new disease, called “rouge’s malady,’ that makes people engage in homosexual fantasy and other acts of so-called sexual deviance, another man of medicine regnerates human organs by using venereal diseases.
Not much in the Cronenberg formula has changed over the years. He’s still obsessed by the limitations of “the flesh” contrasted against the vast wilderness of the mind that just loves playing tricks on us gullible humans. “I am a fairly confirmed atheist. I don’t believe in an afterlife at all. I understand human psychology and I understand why there is the desire, and perhaps the compulsion, to believe in an afterlife and therefore reincarnation. I’ve even talked about it in [eXistenZ] — that it’s impossible for a self-conscious being ¯to imagine not existing,” Cronenberg says. “I think it’s all about our inability to accept the human body as the first fact of human existence, which I think it is, and therefore accept mortality — which is what it’s all about. There is nothing else but the body. Anyone who believes otherwise, I think, is fooling himself.”
All the same, the people in Cronenberg’s universes desperately try to fool themselves, especially the scientists, who think they can make new limbs and prolong life — only to realize they make one monster after another. In modern western culture, we call this the Frankenstein myth, but it’s actually much older than Mary Shelley’s 1818 classic about a disturbed doctor who tries to animate bits and pieces of dead flesh. In ancient Hebraic societies, it was called myth of the Golem, and it was about a rabbi who tried to save his village by creating a monster made of dust and sand, only to discover the Golem would destroy the foes — and everyone else, too. Not least of all the rab‚bi. As a confirmed atheist, it’s hard to know if Cronenberg would have been exposed to any of these old folk tales.
Whether he did or didn’t doesn’t really matter — he is well-aware of the phenomenon, as he revealed to Elizabeth Aird in The Vancouver Sun in a 1992 conversation about dealing with the media, and his nickname ‘Dave Deprave Cronenberg’: “[You can say] I am the Baron of Blood of Canada… and they [the media] can just hook into you without much effort. Then, of course, it returns to haunt you. But that’s perfect because, I mean, as Jean Genet used to write, and as is partly the subject of Naked Lunch, one of the scary things about being creative on any level is that you create something that then has a life of its own apart from you, and can come back to haunt you.” Certainly, most of Cronenberg’s life has been haunted — by success, by failure, by repeated images of warped genitals, blood, guts and oozing body fluids. Cronenberg has made it his mission to challenge society through horror, and yet he has been slammed by culture-vultures such as Robert Fulford (then known as Saturday Night writer Marshall Delaney) for taking tax-payer dollars to make garbage. In the article titled “You Should Know How Bad This Film Is — After All You Paid For It,” (Saturday Night, 1975, pp 83-85), Delaney unleashed his critical wrath: “If using public money to produce films like The Parasite Murders [retitled Shivers] is the only way that English Canada can have a film industry, then perhaps English Canada should not have a film industry,” Fulford wrote in Saturday Night in 1975.
He has been called worse since then — especially after Crash — but the effects of the slam reverberated for years. He was evicted from an old apartment, his film was excluded from the Canadian Film Awards (precursor to the Genies) and his next film, Rabid, was almost passed over by funding agencies despite the overwhelming commercial success of the maligned Shivers — which recouped its original investment faster than any Canadian movie at the time. Cronenberg, good Canadian that he is, survived. He made Rabid starring porn star Marilyn Chambers, which proved to be another smash success, raking in $7 million on a $500,000-budget. He then went on to make Fast Company (a racing car movie) and The Brood, a story about a couple on the skids that is supposedly inspired by his real-life divorce from his first wife, Margaret, and a subsequent custody battle.
In 1981, he made Scanners — the movie where a bunch of talking heads explode like so much pus between a pair of tweezers. The film gained more critical attention and Newsweek even called him the next heir to the horror throne. Two years later, he made Videodrome — the last film he wrote and directed until 1999’s eXistenZ. Videodrome tells the story of a greedy and slimy television executive who finds a strange TV signal off a satellite, and gradually becomes unnable to separate reality from fantasy. Woods’ character, said to be a satirical take on CityTV honcho Moses Znaimer, is a sex-obsessed sleaze who has a giant hole in his abdomen — which plays, what else but videotapes, the tool of his seduction inevitable destruction.
Success bred more of the same, and in the the same year, Cronenberg came out with The Dead Zone, a Stephen King story that finds Nicholas Campbell (DaVinci’s Inquest) as a homicidal pedophile. Filmed with American cash, Cronenberg considers The Dead Zone one of his most commercial movies because the characters fmollow a classic arc — right into the pointy end of a pair of scissors in the bathtub. Dead Zone was another critical success, and Cronenberg earned seven Edgar Allan Poe nominations for his work. It was around this time that Cronenberg found himself facing a new type of criticism: That he was “un-Canadian” because he borrowed from Hollywood genre. Also, he was successful — easily the most successful film-maker in the country — and success doesn’t tend to sit well in socialist-minded Canada where we like everyone to be the same.
In his defence, Piers Handling (current grand poobah of the Toronto International Film Festival, and former film professor) wrote an article entitled “A Canadian Cronenberg” which pointed out the film-maker’s preference for Canadian themes. Despite the slick horror production values and his use of fantasy over realism, Handling maintained that Cronenberg was firmly rooted in the Canadian tradition because his characters were generally placed in hostile environments (in this case human-made hells rather than naturally occurring ones). Also, his men are usually misguided scientists victimized by their own creations. “Cronenberg’s men fall into the time-honored tradition of Canadian men. Most are uninteresting, particularly when contrasted with the scientists, have a certain flatness as characters and find themselves consigned to the periphery of much of the action.” (P. 84, Take Two). Handling continued in this Frye and Atwood-inspired vein of analysis and suggested there was one more way in which Cronenberg was wedded to Canadian film tradition — and it was his alleged lack of rebellious zeal: “For someone as interested in the repressed consciousness as Cronenberg is, there is a surprising lack, or failure, of rebellion in his work. If the order of society is sterile and controlled, the forces of chaos, when they are released, never result in complete apocalypse or the complete destruction we saw in Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He has yet to take this step.” On the surface at least, Handling is correct in his observation. Cronenberg never opts for complete destruction, or for that matter salvation. Things are open-ended and ambiguous at the end of a Cronenberg movie, but that doesn’t necessarily mean his characters are not good rebels — or possessed with a revolutionary heart.
Quite the opposite, in fact. Almost every character in Cronenberg’s canon tries to change the world and believes he is on the edge of a brave new frontier thanks to advancements in technology. They are revolutionaries, but the change they so desperately seek never turns out quite the way they hoped: patients die, bodies mutate, diseases run rampant. The failure comes when the revolutionary agent cannot be controlled. In the 1970’s framework of “phallo-nationalism,” the male protagonist is supposed to undergo an Oedipal Revolution that sets him free from his mother’s grasp once and for all. But as we’ve seen, the whole idea of phallo-nationalism seems completely at odds with the doughnut hole idea of Canadian culture. Canada is not a nation in which the principles of phallo-nationalism readily apply.
We are a country formed in a female tradition, which may well explain Cronenberg’s incredible gift for turning men into women by giving them body cavities where no cavities have gone before. It might also explain why he gave Genevieve Bujold not one, but two vaginas in Dead Ringers: one for each identity, one for each twin, one for each linguistic tradition. Interestingly, Dead Ringers, this film with so much Canadian symbolism lying right beneath the surface, was seen as a departure from Cronenberg style by the director himself. “Dead Ringers is not science-fiction and the fantasy element which is in most of my films is not there. The film is much more naturalistic,” the director is quoted as saying in the notes to the graphic novel, eXistenZ. In other words, Cronenberg wasn’t simply exploring Canadian themes, he was venturing into the back closet of Canadian cinematic tradition, where holes of all kinds are likely to suck in unsuspecting strangers.
For the most part, the holes or cavities in Cronenberg movies carry no potential for creation whatsoever. If they do, their progeny is evil — as in The Brood. Besides, most of his body cavities are closer to anuses than anything remotely labial, which may explain a lot about Cronenberg’s repeated “fear-of-penetration” motif as well as his repeated use of homosexual subtext. In the heirarchy of fears, Cronenberg’s obsessive quirk would be classified under “body envelope disgust.”
According to a University of Pennsylvania researcher, Paul Rozin, “body envelope violation disgust” relates to our fear of seeing things that are supposed to be inside the body, outside the skin, and vice-versa. For instance, the scene in Videodrome where Woods feels his chest and pulls out a videocassette, or the scene in Alien where John Hurt’s belly explodes with a baby creature are examples of body-envelope violation and they related back to a primal phobia of being entered by a force or a thing beyond our control.
Because Cronenberg can conjure more body envolope openers than most, he is considered a master of horror. But he is probably much deeper than simple a horror king in the tradition of Wes Craven or Stephen King — who prefer to “show” rather than “suggest” psychological terror. Because Cronenberg is an intellectual with a penchant for drilling right into the bone of a given issue, his films operate on several levels. This not only gives him plenty of room to play with form and expecation, but it provides a platform for own distinct brand of humour.
His humour works best when it is in the same frame as one of his grotesque concoctions because that way he gets the shock of the disgust reaction, and a recognition of the familiar — the two main ingredients needed to prompt a laugh reflex. For instance, there is a sequence in eXistenZ where the publicist Pikul (Jude Law) and the developer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) find themselves in a hotel room on the lam. The conversation drips with innuendo:
ALLEGRA: “Don’t tell me you were never fitted [with a bioport]?
PIKUL: “… Look, I’ve been dying to play your games. But I have a phobia about having my body penetrated — surgically.”
All sex in Cronenberg movies is transformative, and usually in a bad way. “I talked about it endlessly when Crash came out, the relationship between sex and death. My God. I’d love to take the credit for being the first to put those two together! But, you know, I think we’ve got 5,000 years of human history doing it first,” he says. “I’m always amazed when people ask me why I would link sex and death. And it’s like, `Hello, don’t you read?’ I believe the body is the central fact and everything in my movies reflects that — the imagery, the props, everything. I mean this is not Carol [Spier’s] inner life you are seeing, it is mine.”
Despite the bizarre, bent or perverted nature of sex in Cronenberg films, racy scenes have a habit of selling tickets at the box-office, and that phenomenon has given Cronenberg an international profile. At first, he was seen as a Canadian Roger Corman — a hip schlock artist who put pop idols like Debbie Harry of Blondie in the same frame as weird sex and corporeal mutilation, thus paving the way for the likes of latter-day scenesters like Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie.
When The Fly came out in 1986, starring Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum (as well as Cronenberg himself, featured in a cameo as Davis’ gynecologist), Cronenberg’s reputation in Hollywood soared even higher. He was smart and marketable and the film even picked up an Oscar nomination for best makeup effects, but the Toronto son had no intention of leaving Canada. He was still firmly rooted in Canadian soil and with his newly discovered commercial pull, he set out to make Dead Ringers — a story about twin gynecologists (both played by the ever-creepy Jeremy Irons) who trade places to feed their strange, sexual habits. The film was disturbing, decidedly smart and rather successful. At a time when people were getting rich on junk bonds, snorting cocaine off toilet seats and sipping Beaujolais Nouveau at downtown bistros, Cronenberg’s landscapes laced with weird sex and psychological addictions seemed to capture the essence of the era. As the crazy ‘80s drew to a close, Cronenberg attempted one of his most ambitious projects to date: a filmed version of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.
Long considered “unfilmable,” Naked Lunch (1991) starred Peter Weller as William Lee — a haunted artist who kills his own wife (by mistake), turns to hallucinogens for escape, and realizes through a fog of mugwumps that he is actually a homosexual. Naked Lunch won the best director and best screenplay awards from the U.S. National Society of Film Critics. Naked Lunch was also awarded a string of Genies and earned a best screenplay prize from the Boston Society of Film Critics. With Naked Lunch classified as a success, Cronenberg — who was long considered too non-linear by Hollywood’s straight-line loving production community — was given the cash to adapt David Henry Hwang’s Legit Hit — the Tony-award winning sex tragedy, M. Butterfly. Based on the true story of a French diplomat who falls in love with a Beijing Opera diva only to discover his true love is a man, and funded in part by Warner Brothers and David Geffen, M. Butterfly opened the 1993 Toronto Festival of Festivals (as it was then called) with much ado. But even as one floated around the harbour-side party where Cronenberg flapped around under a big black cape, it was clear the film didn’t have the magic. At that moment, people didn’t want to talk about the film that starred John Lone as the diva and Jeremy Irons as his hapless French embassy wooer — and in most cases, people still don’t.
Crash, on the other hand, is a movie that generally inspires long, drawn-out conversations about sex, death, cars and whether or not Cronenberg is just a shlock artist scamming himself off as an auteur, or the real thing. The 1996 movie that starred Holly Hunter, James Spader and Rosanna Arquette had its international premiere at Cannes, where it was the sole Canadian film in competition for the coveted Palme D’Or. It didn’t win, but it did cause a big commotion. As journalist Craig McInnis reported from Cannes: “During the screening of the film, peals of laughter had rung through the auditorium as the film’s characters engaged in a variety of kinky sex acts, including a backseat tryst in a car wash and a chest-licking encounter between two men.” By the end of the festival, Cronenberg was either a genius or a brain-addled deviant — depending on who one spoke to — leaving the jury no other option but to create a prize just for Crash: a special jury prize for ”audacity and innovation.”
A few years later, Cronenberg was asked to take on the prestigious post of chief juror at Cannes, becoming the first Canadian to ever do so. By 1997, Cronenberg was interested in returning to the typewriter and began playing with a story idea about a writer being trapped by one of his own creations. When he was asked to interview Salman Rushdie for the Canadian tech-culture magazine, Shift, he used the opportunity to take his idea a bit further. Because Cronenberg was also playing Myst ( a popular fantasy-oriented videogame) at the time, he decided to use the “author” idea against the backdrop of the $8-billion world of videogame publishing — thus allowing him to explore the Frankenstein syndrome, as well as his personal, ontological interest in the nature of reality and the function of free will. The project was originally in development with MGM, but when he told the head of the studio he wanted to cast Jennifer Jason Leigh in the role of Allegra Geller in eXistenZ, the executive shriveled in his swivel chair. “He said `When I think of Jennifer Jason Leigh, I think of dark, depressing little movies that don’t make any money.’ And I said, `Yes, that’s what I want to do.’ … ” said Cronenberg, who was clearly frustrated at MGM’s withdrawal from the project at the 11th hour. While some critics, including myself, saw eXistenZ as an astute statement on the massively popular brand of self-willed brainwashing at the hands of videogames, audiences were far more reluctant to embrace this highly challenging piece of work. For some, it was too disjointed to be satisfying, while others were simply too depressed by this mental landscape — especially after seeing the similarly-themed action-packed thriller The Matrix, which opened just a few weeks before eXistenZ.
Cronenberg hasn’t said much about the critical reaction to his most ambitious film to date, but there’s no doubt he takes what some critics say to heart. “I remember Jay Scott had written some fairly negative things about my first couple of movies,” Cronenberg said in 1999. ”But then he told me this story…. He was telling me his mother was dying and he’d gone to New Mexico to be with her and she had seen, weirdly enough, Shivers. She told him how much I understood about death. After that, he promised he’d go back and look at the films again and write something from a different perspective, but he never did… He passed away before he had the chance.” Once again, Cronenberg is haunted by the spectre of things that never came to pass, but as always — entertaining ghosts of his own creation is something that pleases the bespectacled film-maker. “If you live in Hollywood, you can’t really believe in yourself as an artist,” says Cronenberg. “I remember doing an interview with John Landis and John Carpenter and me — I was just talking about art and the responsibility of the artist, and the artist does this, and the artist does that. Then I stopped talking. And then I looked at them — and their mouths were hanging open. And I said `What? What?’ And they said, `You called yourself an artist.’ And I said `Yeah.’ And they said, `We would never do that. At least, not in public,’ ” he says. “You know, it’s interesting and kind of sad, but the ultimate taboo in Hollywood has nothing to do with all those usual taboos, it has to do with thinking of yourself as an artist. You can’t be an artist. You have to be an entertainer — keep the folks all up and perky…. I don’t really get that. Given the choice between that or art, I’d rather be an artist.”
– Katherine Monk (from Weird Sex & Snowshoes: And Other Canadian Film Phenomena, 2001)
FILMOGRAPHY: Transfer (1966), From the Drain (1967), Stereo (1969), Crimes of the Future (1970), Jim Ritchie Sculptor (1971), Shivers (a.k.a The Parasite Murders, They Came from Within) (1975), The Victim (1975), The Lie Chair (1975), The Italian Machine (1976), Rabid (1976), Fast Company (1979), The Brood (1979), Scanners (1980), Videodrome (1982), The Dead Zone (1983), The Fly (1986), Dead Ringers (1988), Hydro (1989), Naked Lunch (1991), M. Butterfly (1993), Crash (1996), eXistenZ (1999). Camera (short, 2001), Spider (2002), A History of Violence (2005), To Each His Own Cinema (segment, 2007), Eastern Promises (2007), A Dangerous Method (2011), Cosmopolis (2012), Maps to the Stars (2014), The Nest (short, 2014), Consumed (video, 2014)