Under the Circuit: David Cronenberg

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Born: March 15, 1943
Place: Ontario, Canada
Major Awards and Citations:
48th Berlin Film Festival Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Achievement (eXistenZ)
49th Cannes Film Festival Jury Special Prize (Crash)
32nd Toronto International Film Festival People’s Choice Award (Eastern Promises)
Boston Society of Film Critics Award for Best Screenplay of 1991 (Naked Lunch)
Central Ohio Film Critics Association Award for Best Direction of 2005 (A History of Violence)
Chicago Film Critics Association Award for Best Director of 2005 (A History of Violence)
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Director of 1988 (Dead Ringers)
National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Director of 2005 (A History of Violence)
National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Director of 1991 (Naked Lunch)
National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Screenplay of 1991 (Naked Lunch)
New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Screenplay of 1991 (Naked Lunch)
Online Film Critics Society Award for Best Director of 2005 (A History of Violence)
Toronto Film Critics Association Award for Best Director of 2005 (A History of Violence)
Vancouver Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director in a Canadian Film of 2007 (Eastern Promises)
Oscar Snubs: Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, A History of Violence

So here we are, at the end of David Cronenberg Week and at the opening of his latest film A Dangerous Method.  What was the purpose of all this, besides an excuse to wax poetic on one of my favorite working directors?

I don’t often demand a token “career honor” Academy Award nomination.  Young or old, distinguished or new to the industry, I have almost always advocated for a strict merit-based approach to justifying nominees and winners.  But I am also a realist, and I have accepted that people are rarely Oscar-nominated for their most deserving accomplishments.  Sometimes the Academy is very slow to accept the talents of others…if at all.

That is why I am going to admit upfront that – in a betrayal of principle – I am rooting for A Dangerous Method to be a big player at the next Academy Awards.  Unless the film is flat-out bad, I cannot imagine not cheering if his name is called among the Best Director nominees.  Hopefully if and when I finally see his period piece I can legitimately cheer it for its quality as well, though his career arc has had me worried lately…

Let me explain.  The man started off very early in his career establishing himself as the King of Body Horror as early as the late seventies with his films Shivers and Rabid, which as I explained in my top ten were gruesome variations on the zombie/epidemiological thriller and were essentially about AIDS before genre films Were Really About AIDS.  Rabid in particular was a breakthrough for horror and arguably was the precursor for even more cerebral horror fare like Dawn of the Dead.  They were social commentaries, and skewed rather conservative considering their subject matter.  Shivers, for example, was not-very-subtly a harsh critique of what he saw as the selfish hedonism of the “Me” generation.  To him, Shivers was the logical extreme of the sexual revolution.

His first masterpiece...

From those two announcements of his subversive talents, he entered into arguably the most creatively superlative of his career phases, when from about 1979 to 1988 when his horror became more personal in scope, changing his focus from society to the individual.  This of course was obvious in his first outing in that territory; you can practically feel the rage towards his ex-wife seeping out of The Brood.  But though he stumbled into the eighties with Scanners (a strangely iconic thriller that is needlessly convoluted and emotionally distant) and The Dead Zone (a bland thriller featuring an admittedly superb Christopher Walken performance), he then hit us with Videodrome.  In his first bona-fide masterpiece, he goes far deeper than simple social indictment and instead weaves Miltonian observations about technology being the dreams of humanity made tangible, and furthering that by making it a form of biological evolution.  Max Renn – played by a never better James Woods – would become the template for countless future Cronenberg male protagonists; obsessed with and eventually addicted to his own mutation.

Cronenberg has always maintained that disease and mutation were never enemies, but rather a form of transformation, and he continues this assertion (though far more tragically) in The Fly, a remake of a hoary “science is bad!” 1958 flick.  This time, his fascination with biological deterioration, fusing the body with technology, and the dreams of mankind are elevated to the level of an operatic, romantic tragedy.  If there was one film that I would use to help cinematic novices “break into” Cronenbergian horror, it would The Fly, as I can’t imagine anyone not empathizing with the painful process of someone being ravaged by disease and aging.

But just after what seemed to be his most mature film to date, he soared even higher with Dead Ringers.  I’ve already written a great deal on his chef-d’oeuvre about duality and what makes us uniquely and agonizingly human, but needless to say that if he made no other great film, I would still assert him a talented director on this work alone.

From there his career again evolved into psychological solipsism, blurring the lines between perception and reality.  Once again his first effort in the phase is the most obvious example of this: Naked Lunch, which was not only one of the most jarring head trips of the nineties, but an outstanding and all-too-rare example of an auteur taking necessary artistic liberties to a popular source material to make a better movie.  This blurring of internal sensations with external experiences continued with Crash, which was perhaps not surprisingly the most unpopular film in my top ten.  I still stand by it as a maturing of his themes of flesh and blood merging with chrome and steel in ways that were provocative, unsettling and yet entirely sympathetic and enlightening.  eXistenZ is an even more crazed tapestry of perception, technology worship and sex (You may have noticed that I left out M. Butterfly.  This was intentional.  Let’s move on…).

In the new millennium he then morphed into his current directorial phase: the more restrained, earthy dramas that tackle issues like violence and domestic upheaval.  I know that I’m probably in the minority of Cronenberg fans on not falling head-over-heels in love with Spider, for all its formal accomplishments.  Luckily, I do join mainstream critics and audiences in being enthralled by A History of Violence using the specter of violence to break down comforting Western ideals, though it will always bother me that William-friggin’-Hurt’s cartoon villain was the first Cronenberg performance to garner an Academy Award nomination.

Eastern Promises fans finally get their explanation from me.

His film before A Dangerous Method was another popular outing that I simply can’t get behind.  Many of you demanded to know why I left off Eastern Promises from my top ten, and while I do concede the brilliance of Viggo Mortensen’s striking performance, I find the film as a whole a frustrating series of storytelling gaffes and missed opportunities.  Ostensibly about an unseen side of London without ever really exploring it, packed – through visual, sonic and acting choices – with “ooga-booga!” clichés about Eastern European criminals, and containing huge script flaws (Why would you introduce Naomi Watts as the female lead if she only acts as the plot catalyst and nothing more?  Why would you throw in a plot twist mere minutes from the end of your film so that nothing really develops from it?), Eastern Promises to me is his most overrated film.  As someone who observes directorial decisions very carefully, I found Cronenberg’s choices with tone and staging way off here, with lively scenes (the infamous shower fight being an obvious example) surrounded by visually dead ones, not to mention one of the only times he ever portrayed unstated sexual longing in a tawdry and immature way.

Now we are exposed to his biopic about two intellectual figures who have no doubt crept into many college student essays about his own films, and I wonder where he goes from here.  I have to admit being a little worried that Cronenberg, in yearning to be taken “seriously” as a director, has sacrificed the eccentricities of his thematic explorations.  If an Oscar bid fails this year, his next film is Cosmopolis, and while I would be interested in his take on Don DeLillo’s relatively unpopular novel, his casting of Edward Cullen only increases my anxiety as to what kind of legacy this man I so admire will leave.

It is looking increasingly unlikely that I will be the one to review A Dangerous Method, but I’m sure that I will eventually see the film and let you all know where I stand on it.  Until then, I’d love to your thoughts on David Cronenberg and this little series.

  • gwarren

    Have to admit I have only really seen recent Cronenberg material with The Fly being the exception. I admire his work and style, so thank you for introducing me to some if his films. Now I will definitely head out and try to see more of less known work. Thanks.

  • Yeah, he springs to mind as the most snubbed director. Tragic considering lesser people get in, shocking they didn’t at least go for A History Of Violence.

    And I love that you put Dead Ringers in Historical Circuit. That was on my list, but it gives me more reason to watch it and it’s great to see more obscure old films examined (well, as obscure as ones with famous directors can be).

  • koook160

    I actually agree with you about Eastern Promises. It was too restrained compaired to his other works. I loved Videodrome, The Fly, and Dead Ringers was BECAUSE they were unrestrained in their looks at violence and sex.

  • Jim Wilson

    It’s a very unpopular opinion of mine, but I think A History of Violence is terrible. You say William Hurt’s character was cartoonish; I feel that way about the whole thing. Everything with the son is especially horrible. I actually find your description of Eastern Promises – “I find the film as a whole a frustrating series of storytelling gaffes and missed opportunities” – fits A History of Violence just as well.

    • Robert Hamer

      You know, it’s interesting, I’ve actually run into (well, on the internet) a few people who absolutely DESPISE A History of Violence. Obviously I don’t agree, though it does make me interested in how its execution strikes a certain type of moviegoer as just plain bad…

      • Jim Wilson

        I know of one other guy whose opinion I respect that hates it, but the rest love it as much as all the critics did. I can’t even really explain it either, I just simply think it’s not a good film.

  • Robert Hamer

    BTW, by a stroke of luck, I *will* be the one to critique A Dangerous Method. Stay tuned for my review…