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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Something about David Cronenberg

Canada’s body horror master stands unrivaled

David Cronenberg’s films have the rare effect of inspiring total hopelessness in the viewer. Not in the way of token shock, or in the way a description like body horror might initially suggest, but in another implacable way that derives its power from first challenging the mind and body, and then defiling them. The obvious impact of scenes in which characters’ heads explode in gratuitous slow motion and car crash fetishists have penetrative sex with wounded legs doubtlessly play a key role in this overwhelming sensation of bodily uselessness that Cronenberg films create, but they alone are not sufficient. What is sufficient is the rejection of humanity that prompts and accompanies them. 

See “Naked Lunch,” from 1991 and based on the writings of William S. Burroughs, for a prime example. The film is less of a cogent narrative than a series of hallucinogenic vignettes, all vying for the viewer’s attention and tracing the protagonist’s descent at the hands of his “literary high.” Characters mainlining insecticide and typewriters morphing into hideous, fleshy beetles are some of the more obvious shocks at play, but strangely enough the most off-putting part of the film has no such visuals: it’s when the protagonist, sitting in the passenger seat of a car and half-shaded, delivers a monologue about a man who “began waking up in the morning with transparent jelly…like a tadpole’s tail all over his mouth. He would tear it off his mouth and the pieces would stick to his hands…like burning gasoline jelly and grow there. So, finally, his mouth sealed over…and the whole head…would have amputated spontaneously. Except for the eyes, you dig?” 

This piece is taken directly from Burroughs’ writing but puts the carnage that has taken place in the film up to that point into perspective. It’s not just the physical form that’s in danger in these movies, but the idea of the person—loss of identity, humanity and decency are found in every Cronenberg movie, and it is those concepts that elevate the body horror in his films from cheap gore to something genuinely unnerving. 

Cronenberg’s movies are those that form, as William Beard puts it in “The Artist as Monster,” “exactly the cannibalistic consumption of people by people…a sense that desire itself is ‘inhuman’ in its instinct for the most predatory, the most degrading, the most transgressive.” Desire in these movies, which most often takes the form of sexual desire, is so often put into these humiliating contexts—most obviously in “Crash” (1996), where characters are only able to satisfy themselves by crashing cars. But of course Cronenberg’s other films aren’t short on macabre sexuality either (see: “Videodrome” (1983) and “Rabid” (1977) for distinct examples). 

Given his status as a director whose career has been defined by clashes with the studio system, Cronenberg’s stuff is unsurprisingly non-Hollywood. What’s more surprising is that a lot of his output in the ‘80s, notably “The Fly” (1986), was actually able to turn a profit with some consistency. Flops like “Naked Lunch” and “M. Butterfly” (1993, also his worst film, probably) made it clear he was no reliable cash cow, but audiences seemed to respond to his style from time to time.

It’s on the back of (relatively) conventional stories like “The Fly” and “A History of Violence” (2005) that Cronenberg was able to make his less marketable movies, but even his strangest projects see returns on occasion. It’s totally possible that there’s something in Cronenberg’s morbid philosophy that the general public identifies with or, at the very least, finds fascinating. The practical effects in films like “Scanners” (1981) remain impressive to this day, and as dry and unpleasant as Cronenberg’s films can be, they’re possessed by no lack of technical skill.

Whatever it is that Cronenberg sees in the destruction of the human mind and body has the ability to connect with viewers in the visual, tactile way that only cinema can: Every frame appears to lurch out at you, whispering in some anomalous language. There’s something ritualistic about watching his films—like watching gruesome nature footage or news coverage of horrible tragedies—that nags from the back of the brain as you’re pressed up against the screen and never quite makes its way out. Cronenberg rarely gets the analytical treatment afforded to “higher brow” directors like Robert Bresson or John Cassavetes, but I don’t think there’s any denying that his films deserve unique distinction. Not for demonstrating what it is to be human, but for demonstrating what it is to be inhuman.
Written by: Jacob Anderson — arts@theaggie.org

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