On Film: David Cronenberg

David Cronenberg

David Cronenberg

Writer/Director David Cronenberg discovered film while studying science and literature at University College of Toronto. After graduation he  taught himself the rudimentary’s of the craft and by the 1970’s, with the help of the Canadian Film Development Corporation, he was churning out profitable horrors. Artfully conceived, abstract and psychologically unsettling they laid out the basic template for what was to follow. In 1983 he released what would become the quintessential Cronenberg film, Videodrome, a film Andy Warhol described as the “Clockwork Orange of the ’80s”. Starring James Woods, Videodrome examines the power of television to shape thought and reality. Surreal, strange and imbued with that particular Cronenberg quality often missed by critics, his endlessly warped sense of humor, at 31 years of age Videodrome continues to influence filmmakers and audiences alike.

By the 1980’s Cronenberg had come to the attention of Hollywood and his his next two films were critical and commercial triumphs. 1983’s The Dead Zone is an adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name. A school teacher is involved in a car crash that leaves him comatose. When he awakens 10 years later, he discovers that he has the power to see into the future. Putting aside his usual bag of tricks, Cronenberg creates a relatively straightforward and thrilling narrative about good versus evil, one that remains endlessly faithful to the novel and like the Fly that was to follow, still works extremely well today.

1986 film The Fly is a remake of the classic 1958 horror about a scientist whose experiments in teleportation result in his DNA being mixed with the DNA of a fly. Jeff Goldblum sets the screen alight with his crackling and darkly humorous performance as Seth Brundle, the unfortunate scientist in question. A certain homage to the kind of B-Grade Hollywood Horror Cronenberg would have been exposed to growing up, The Fly is brilliant fun and remains Cronenberg’s biggest ever box-office hit.

Like  contemporary Martin Scorsese, Cronenberg’s films are as much about his love of cinema as they are about  stories. His 1991 adaptation of the William S Burroughs novel Naked Lunch, is a carefully composed paean to film noir. Based on Burroughs allegorical novel about heroin addiction, it weaves plot with biographical details from Burroughs own life. From the Saul Bass inspired titles to lead actor Peter Weirs laconic private eye/spy this movie is every film noir you’ve ever seen with a good dose of the ‘proto-noir’ Casablanca thrown in for good measure.  Strange, alluring and inventive, Naked Lunch continues to divide audiences as does 1993’s M. Butterfly which  chronicles the story of a gauche French Diplomat who forms a doomed relationship with a male Chinese Opera singer parading as a woman. Based on a true story,  this film is a beautifully conceived style piece that pays tribute to British melodramas of the 1940’s and 50’s, in particular the work of the Powell and Pressburger, with particular reference to their great masterpiece, Black Narcissus. This is an unashamed and  hedonistically romantic film that creates great beauty from great tragedy.  Though poorly considered by many critics,  in my mind, it is one of Cronenberg’s best.

With 1999’s claustrophobic Existenz, Cronenberg  returns to the themes of Videodrome, but this time its not television culture that’s under the spotlight, it’s gaming. In this film Cronenberg takes us through a strangely cool and insular, labyrinthine world of realities set within realities, leaving us at the end, lost, bewildered and gasping for breath.

With 2005’s A History of Violence and 2007’s Eastern Promises Cronenberg applies his singular vision to the genre of crime. Both films star Viggo Mortenson as a flawed hero, in in the former as an ex- mobster unwittingly drawn back into the world he thought he had escaped and in Eastern Promises as an undercover cop prepared to sacrifice everything in his quest to infiltrate the London chapter of the Russian mob. These films are pulsatingly violent and thrilling, with some of the most carefully choreographed fight scenes a cinephile could ever hope to see.

Cronenberg’s filmic vision arises from the deep heart of the human psyche. In his 2011 film, A Dangerous Method, he explores this landscape, not through allegory as has been his usual method, but directly, through the  story of Freud and Jung,  two of the founding figures of modern psychiatry.

His 2012 film Cosmopolis is an exploration of the excesses of free market capitalism, a journey through a bleak world populated by players without integrity or conscience. In his latest film Map to the Stars we tread similar ground though this time the culture under the spotlight is celebrity and it is with visceral delight that Cronenberg tears away the facade of Hollywood to reveal a soulless world consumed by its hunger for power, fame and money.

Cosmopolis is a bleak and claustrophobic  film that at times is hard to fathom and often exhausting to watch. Map to the Stars is an altogether more accessible affair. A penetratingly dark satire littered with glorious, and in the case of Julianne Moore, brave performances, Map to the Stars is Cronenberg at his very best. For fans of this director, this is a must see film and a welcome addition to his considerable oeuvre.

At 71 years of age Cronenberg shows no signs of slowing down.  He was recently awarded Canada’s highest civilian honor, The Companion Order of Canada. He has just released his debut novel, Consumed, and son Brandon shows every sign of being a chip off the old block with his first feature, Anti-Viral,  treading ground that could only be described as Cronenbergian.

On that note, let’s leave the last words to Cronenberg himself:

“I have no rules. For me, it’s a full, full experience to make a movie. It takes a lot of time, and I want there to be a lot of stuff in it. You’re looking for every shot in the movie to have resonance and want it to be something you can see a second time, and then I’d like it to be something you can see 10 years later, and it becomes a different movie, because you’re a different person. So that means I want it to be deep. I have aspirations that the movie should trigger off a lot of complex responses.”

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