08 July 2008

Thoughts on David Cronenberg.

This was Uncle Crizzle's idea.

I'm a chatty motherfucker to begin with, and when you bring the films and philosophies of David Cronenberg into the mix, even moreso. But he asked me some questions to help promote a DC double feature going on in Durham last night, and me, always eager for attention, went batshit and wrote back several tomes on the subject.

The edited piece can be found here, and it does a very good job of making me look like someone capable of speaking rationally and with thoughts properly organized, which, as those of you who know me may well attest, is far from the truth.

Many thanks to CDL for talking with me about it.

But now, for shits and giggles, I've decided to post my original complete responses. I do this because I think it's the most concrete illustration of how my mind works that has ever been put down on print this side of my 1992 AP exams. It's rambling, to be sure, but it covers much of where my current fascinations with all things Cronenbergian lie.

Check it out...

CDL: How did you first get into Cronenberg's work?

JS: My first actual encounter with Cronenberg's work was "Faith Healer," an episode he directed of Friday the 13th: The Series. I was and am a big fan of Horror-based TV, but at the time that that show was airing, I had little or no film-based taste or consciousness. But one of the things that I've since learned to love in film and culture is what my colleague Charles Bass calls 'the ironic distance of being Canadian.'

You'd have all of these shows that were geographically vague as to where they were taking place, so theoretically anyone anywhere could assume that what they were witnessing could be as near as the closest metropolis. And they were all made in Canada, with casts and crews that have continued to be part of our global entertainment culture.

There's never an explicit declaration of Canadianness; but because these shows were willing to explore the weird and the political and the sexual and the violent in ways that were, even for twelve year-old me, different from the Mass American culture around me. So I cultivated an appreciation for that aesthetic, which for the Friday the 13th series was initially shaped by several of Cronenberg's longtime collaborators (production design goddess Carol Spier, Editor Ron Sanders, and casting director Deirdre Bowen). I didn't understand this at the time, but having become a Cronenberg devotee, I've since gone back and looked at a lot of the old Canadian-made syndicated shows that I dug, and I've found that throughline.

I first got hardcore into Cronenberg after seeing Crash (on opening day in Tampa, Florida with my Dad). I had gone because of the scandal, because of Holly Hunter, and because I try and support any NC-17 film that looks halfway interesting. Ever since then, his films have always been a part of my life.

CDL: What are your favorites in the Cronenberg canon?

JS: Crash. Naked Lunch. Videodrome. eXistenZ. And, even though I think it's probably his weakest film on the whole, the ideas in Scanners are so amazing that I'll still show it love whenever I can.

The way he reconceives telepathy as a physical interaction between two nervous systems is one of the most radical and astonishing approaches to psychic phenomena that the fantastic has ever produced, and even if it only gets remembered for exploding heads and eyes, what I take away from Scanners is the idea of the Group Scan. When Cameron and Kim are on the run, and they meet up with the scanner underground, there's that moment when all these tormented artists and fugitives find a moment of cosmic peace by flexing their nervous systems and becoming one collective organism (until Revok's men burst in and things start dying).

It's a great concept, and certainly the aspect of the film that distinguishes it from just about every other movie that deals with telepathy- there's always power struggles of some sort, but here, for just a bit, we get a glimpse of an egalitarian cultural evolution, and it's astonishing. Pure fiction, of course, as anyone who's ever tried to get three or four artists to work together on anything will attest. But I still find it inspiring.

CDL: What do you find so appealing about his films?

JS: There is a gleaming amorality in his films that I love. His films take place in an atheistic universe, and I find that representative of modern life. Religion, ideally, should be a personal journey of philosophy and experience, and it's been perverted into a political force- a monolith of oppression. But truthfully, to even the most devout individuals in any society on the earth today, rapid and radical creation from nothingness doesn't trigger thoughts of the Garden of Eden or the Great Flood, it means cancer. When we can't even explain why our bodies do what they do, how could we even hope to extrapolate an abstract belief system completely removed from the physical?

I also like that death means more in a Cronenberg film than in almost any other director working today, and that is specifically due to his atheism. I believe it was in talking about Eastern Promises, he said that when you eliminate the possibility of any sort of afterlife, the act of killing becomes infinitely more shocking and horrifying, and he's absolutely right. So many religious movements and cults are built on the promise of some next life, and horrifying things have been done by individuals who are betting on those same odds. It's horrifying, really. That we have to look to an atheist director to show that kind of respect for life in his work says a lot about the casual acceptance of death that being part of a vaguely-religious society brings with it. Teleology is always an interesting tool with which to approach the world and art.

CDL: The double feature that'll be playing in Durham next Friday is THE DEAD ZONE and THE BROOD. Got anything to say about those?

JS: Well, The Dead Zone is the best Stephen King adaptation ever made. There have been others that work as good films (The Night Flier, Firestarter), and some where great directors have used King's material as a canvas on which to explore their own issues and styles with exciting and entertaining results (Carrie, The Mist, Kubrick's The Shining), and there's even something like Dreamcatcher, which is bugfuck crazy and absolutely true to King in a way that no other adaptation of his work is. But The Dead Zone is a remarkable work.

I love Christopher Walken, and I love when he does that thing he does now. But he is heartbreakingly good in The Dead Zone, and it's the finest performance of his career. And what he and Cronenberg do is prune a lot of frippery away and hone the dark heart of King's novel into something a lot more emotionally bleak and haunting than its source material. This is the first film of Cronenberg's where he began Brundleflying together the source material with his own aesthetic, and even after the decades of SNL skits and Anthony Michael Hall-starring TV show, The Dead Zone holds up better than any other film that came out in 1983. Because of it, there was never a time when I could seriously watch The West Wing without thinking that Josiah Bartlet was going to kill us all.

The Brood was initially a problematic movie for me. When I first viewed it, it seemed to have a primal streak of misogyny laced through it, as well as a nihilism that didn't really seem tonally right to me. I can't say that something just clicked for me one day, or that reading up on the circumstances behind the film's making made things fit into place, and that I immediately realized the film's brilliance. But I've grown to love it.

It's an angry film; Cronenberg made it coming off of a vicious divorce as well as in response to the manufactured bullshit of Kramer vs Kramer, and each time I watch it I notice something new. The whole subplot about Psychoplasmics is remarkably ahead of its time, and I would love to see Cronenberg make a movie about the narcotizing of the Western World. Do we even have a universal human biochemistry any more? But I digress…

The Brood is one of the best films about divorce ever made- it's like the splatter movie equivalent of Abba's album The Visitors, where the emotional pain of an imploding relationship alters a recognized aesthetic in a way that marks it as different. And the way it illustrates how patterns of abuse spread outward through families and relationships, even removed from the visceral wrench of the film itself, is patently devastating. I also love how it addresses the schizophrenic nature of a children; the line between sweet-faced hope for the future and mallet-wielding assassins of potential is so much finer than society wants to admit. And that's the key to what makes Cronenberg great- he admits it. His films tell us things that we know on a cellular level, and he's unafraid to lock lens on the abyss for a little while.

A Cronenberg double feature on the big screen is a remarkable occasion, not to be missed or taken lightly. I'm envious of Durham's moviegoers, and would be making the trek myself were it not for a friend's wedding. Perhaps a DVD of The Brood would make an appropriate gift?

CDL: Were you as offended as I was when people started saying that A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE was the greatest thing he's ever done, after all the subversive films he has made over the years?

JS: A History of Violence is a great film, but I think the reason why it got such a rapturous response was because it felt like it could be a regular movie. There were traditional elements that any moviegoer could tap into and find some commonality with, and it made it a much easier film to like than many of his others. I've since made it my default film for introducing others to the world of Cronenberg.

I mean, even Eastern Promises is a damned weird film when you get down to it, structured almost as a seduction. It's almost impossible to even evaluate it as a film and experience until after it's over and you realize how every minor point and moment has been set up to facilitate a transition on the individual (the character of Nikolai) and cultural (Russia as an entity) levels. Eastern Promises is like one of the Dune books in that respect.

-and, as a special bonus-

JS: You don't have to take drugs to enjoy a Cronenberg film, because his films, at their best, provide all the benefits of the best hallucinogens. 'Reality' and social institutions are sloughed off, and one's experience is first and foremost that of a biological organism. The flesh is both Absolute and in flux, and all terror resolves into terror of the body. But there's an emotional purity to his work that I don't think anyone can touch. The Fly remains the most beautiful love story ever put on screen, Naked Lunch says more to me about writing than any other film on the subject, and Spider was the film that let me finally get some peace with regard to a schizophrenic Great Aunt who had died several years before. Nobody does better DVD commentaries about their films (though I would put Paul Verhoeven and John Waters just behind him), and there are very few directors whom I will put as much trust in. There simply is no finer artist working in film today.

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