Tuesday, March 8, 2011

David Cronenberg

In an article defending David Cronenberg's film, A History of Violence, a commenter referred to Cronenberg as, “film for film, the most audacious and challenging narrative director in the English-speaking world.” And when one looks over Cronenberg's fairly sizable body of work, it becomes clear that this comment does not go undeserved. Cronenberg's movies are known for being unsettling, disturbing, surreal, and in no small part, somber. Yet, when Cronenberg combines these various elements, he uses them to create a number of compelling stories that are, if nothing else, memorable.

Born in 1943, not much is known about Cronenberg's life, other than the fact that he was heavily interested in bugs as a child. Cronenberg states that he was inspired to take up film-making when, during his time in the University of Toronto, a friend of his by the name of David Secter directed and screened a film called “Winter Kept Us Warm.” After writing and directing two short films, Cronenberg went on to direct a number of smaller films, none of which gained any particular notoriety, until Shivers was criticized by a prominent film critic as being disgusting, repulsive, and, as it was made using funds from the Canadian government, a gross waste of taxpayer money. Although the ensuing controversy greatly hindered Cronenberg's film-making career for a long time, making it much harder for him to find funding for his films, one could argue that it also ironically made his career what it is to this day.

The films I will be describing, which are Cronenberg's remake of the classic 1958 film, The Fly, as well as the film adaptation of William S. Burroughs' novel, Naked Lunch, are both examples of various stages throughout his film career. One of the predominant subjects Cronenberg examines is psychology, and the mistakes humans make as a result of their natural desires and fears. In earlier films, such as the aforementioned Shivers and Rabid, Cronenberg explores how our advancement of science and the various ways we tamper with our bodies can lead to disaster on a large, even global scale. By trying to control the body, to make humans more aware of it in Shivers, and to keep it from dying in Rabid, doctors and scientists unwittingly unleash dangerous, disease-like organisms that threaten to overtake humanity.

In The Fly, though, Cronenberg marks the second phase of his films, where he strips down much of the chaos and allows us to explore how such changes affect people on a more personal level. Scientist Seth Brundle invents a revolutionary device which, with some significant tweaking, manages to properly teleport organic matter. To have the device approved by the company he works for, Brundle teleports himself to make sure that the method he found is foolproof. The problem is, he does this while his mind is clouded with jealous rage and copious amounts of alcohol, so he fails to notice when a fly makes its way into the pod with him.

And it is from here that the film introduces us to Cronenberg's bigger trademark. Cronenberg is widely known as the father of the “body horror” movement, a movement of stories in various media that take human beings and horrifically alter their bodies, often turning them into beings that are virtually indistinguishable from the humans they once were. In the case of The Fly, the consequences of having the fly merged with Brundle's DNA is what Brundle himself refers to as the “Brundlefly”-over the course of the entire movie, he makes a slow, agonizing transformation, wherein what appears to be an allergy rash slowly worsens, blisters and lesions forming all over Brundle's body to the point where his extremities are bloated and tumorous in appearance. His nails fall off, his hands and feet grow pads that allow him to walk on walls, and he has to puke an enzyme compound onto any food he eats, because it has become the only way he can eat it. Finally, Brundle's jaw detaches from his head, which promptly splits open and reveals a gigantic bug head underneath, and with his skin falling off to reveal a mostly insectoid body, the grotesque transformation is completed.

A few interesting things to note about The Fly are the context in which it was released, which had an impact on how the narrative was interpreted, and the steps taken to realize the iconic final transformation. The film was released in 1986, in the midst of the AIDS epidemic in the United States. When people saw the slow, grueling processes the fly transformation forced Brundle through, many of them saw the transformation as an allegory for AIDS. This, apparently, surprised Cronenberg, who had intended the transformation to be an overarching metaphor for general disease, aging, and death. Cronenberg also utilized a new technique to achieve the head-splitting scene; rather than use an air bladder, which was the standard at the time and becoming increasingly well-known amongst the public, Cronenberg chose to use an animatronic insectoid head constructed from a number of plates and springs, the force of which, when released, split open the more humanoid head.

The later phase of Cronenberg's work mostly discarded the pretense of science gone awry

and the consequences of body modification in favor of exploring the human psyche,

therefore moving further inward in his explorations of humanity, his latest two films discarding

the body horror trope altogether. Naked Lunch is one of the first movies in this vein, a story

about an exterminator who, through a series of events that would be near-impossible to

describe in a coherent fashion, is forced to retreat to a colony of alien beings in North Africa and

write reports to an agency he has only recently discovered he is a member of. As he comes to

discover that a doppleganger of his wife, who he accidentally killed earlier in the film, is living in

the colony as well, he chooses to follow her down a deep, nightmarish spiral of deception, crime,

and above all, the total breakdown of everything he has accepted as reality.

In its incoherence, Naked Lunch evokes images of the work of Franz Kafka-both works deal

with a bizarre reality that is far detached from our own in nearly every aspect. If The Fly were

The Metamorphosis, a story where a man transforms into a giant bug and slowly succumbs to

his new instincts as he struggles to stay hidden from his loved ones, then Naked Lunch is The

Country Doctor. The pacing is frantic and rushed throughout, hurling event after event at the

viewer, and the events themselves are bizarre and nightmarish for the sake of being bizarre and

nightmarish. In one particular scene, Bill, the exterminator, gives his lover a dose of a highly

potent drug and asks her to write on her husband's prized typewriter. The viewer is expected to

have come to terms with the fact that, in Interzone, typewriters are actually living beings that

resemble bugs with sphincter-mouths on their abdomens. This particular typewriter is a special

case, though, as the viewer soon learns... Joan, in her sudden ecstasy, fails to notice as the

typewriter's keys flip around, and without paying it any mind, she digs her hands into a vagina-

like orifice with the same diligence she typed with just a few seconds prior. The disturbing

sexual imagery only escalates as a hole in the typewriter's back opens, releasing a phallic muscle

that “erects” itself, stiffening and quickly growing in length. The typewriter's margins inhale and

exhale like lungs, and bit by bit, the typewriter unfolds itself until it is no longer a typewriter,

but a grotesque flesh insect. Forgetting the typewriter altogether in their shared arousal, Bill

and Joan proceed to make love, completely unaware that the typewriter creature is trying to

join in, flopping about on both characters' shoulders and snarling with some carnal desire.

While the majority of the film explores sex and how one man struggles to cope with a world alien to his own, Cronenberg does manage to sneak in a subtext of the consequences of body modification through drug usage. Bill's problems first arise from his wife's abuse of the very insecticide powder he uses on a daily basis... forced to confront her after running out of powder on the job and angering his employers in the process, he is eventually talked into taking a dose of powder himself. He is later confronted and arrested by a pair of detectives (Presumably after his boss left a tip that he may be stealing the powder). Using the powder as a segue, they introduce him to a cockroach creature, who first informs Bill of his standing in the agency, his wife's position as an agent of the opposing forces, and the existence of Interzone.

Later on, Bill discovers a drug known as black meat, which is produced from the bodies of giant centipedes (Another motif in the film is that centipedes appear frequently), and begins using it himself. Part of it is the pressures of the people around him, but above all, his use of the black meat is an attempt to cope with the frightening new reality he is being forced to accept. Even as he learns of the unfortunate side effects, namely withdrawal symptoms and sores that form wherever he applies the drug, he continues to use it freely. And if not a direct cause, the effects of the constant abuse of the drug do nothing to alleviate the mental breakdown he suffers as he is left by his friends and struggles to find someone, anyone, that he can trust.

Finally, at the climax of the film, drug usage is also portrayed as a means of slavery. Twice, the viewer has familiarized themselves with the Mugwumps, vaguely humanoid beings who, as the viewer has been told, secretes a highly addictive hallucinogen from glands protruding from their heads. As Bill enters the antagonist's compound, he finds a number of Mugwumps chained up and muzzled, with people who were assumed to have been jailed in a more proper fashion chained up nearby and continuously suckling off the Mugwumps' glands. There, they are left to spend the rest of their lives in unending bliss, but at the cost of their own freedom-their chains keep them from ever running away, and with the Mugwumps always freely accessible, they will never have the desire to.

The ending to the film also matches the endings to many of Cronenberg's other films. Upon finding Joan being held captive in the compound, Bill offers to defect from the agency to the antagonist's home country in exchange for her freedom. In effect, Bill is abandoning the very mission he was always intended to accomplish in exchange for a woman who reminds him very much of his deceased wife. He is exchanging security in a world he fails to comprehend for the last fragment of his former life, and, by extension, his sanity. Upon reaching the border, though, he is stopped by soldiers who, learning that he is a writer by trade, demand to see proof that he is what he claims he is. Rather than write something, though, Bill is forced to murder Joan in the same exact way he murdered his wife.

As he is allowed into what is essentially enemy territory, it becomes clear that, for all the things he has endured throughout the film, Bill has come out of it empty handed. His companions have either been murdered somehow, or traveled somewhere he can never go again. He has surrendered himself to the forces behind everything wrong with the new society, and the only thing he has to show for it is the corpse of the woman who would have helped him endure it all.

The Fly ends on a similarly somber note-as his condition worsens, Brundle finds himself forced to surrender to the primal instincts and insanity he has been staving off over the course of the film. In a last ditch effort to ground himself, Brundle kidnaps Veronica, his love interest throughout the film, and attempts to fuse himself with her, as well as his unborn baby, confident that this will help him to retain what remains of his humanity. The process is stopped by Veronica's ex-lover, though, who manages to deactivate the pod she is kept in just as the teleportation process begins. As Brundlefly attempts to break free, it is teleported with a sizable section of the pod, further mutilating its body as the two are fused.

Brundle, or what remains of Brundle, is reduced to a crippled, crude rendition of a cyborg, with bits of machinery and wire protruding out of its various extremities. If Brundle is allowed to live, it is all too clear that all its existence will be is a never-ending life of agony. Veronica is initially unable to deliver the coup de grace to Brundle, but with his last act of humanity, Brundle holds the barrel of the shotgun to his head, wordlessly begging Veronica to put him out of his misery. The last image is of Veronica collapsing to her knees in despair... she has not simply killed a creature, but her lover, the man she has fallen for over the course of the film and the man she fought so hard to save.

Cronenberg has stated that he is an atheist, and that he firmly disbelieves in an afterlife of any sort. Using this information to add further context to his consistently somber endings, it seems that Cronenberg presents us with an idea he himself has long since come to accept, that he almost demands we accept as well. The world is a cruel place, and the only thing that is lasting and consistent is chaos. Nothing you do, whether it be a scientific discovery you pursue or a life of virtue, can save you from your inevitable fate, or the turbulent forces of nature around you. In this world, the “good guys” do not always win, and more often than not, they actually find themselves punished for their efforts. And there is no “but” that can alleviate any of this, so live your life while you can, because once you die, there is nothing.

And in this, Cronenberg would again parallel with Kafka's work-Kafka himself continues to be notorious for his own series of somber stories with downcast endings. In The Country Doctor, the titular doctor's efforts to save a young boy from death only result in the ruin of his own life, which echoes the ruin of Bill's. His beloved maid is ten miles away, being violated by a perverted stranger with nobody to help her. Upon arriving at the house of the boy's family, the doctor found himself stripped naked and forced into bed with his horrifically wounded patient, who only grew more irritated at the doctor's presence. The boy's injury proved to be incurable and fatal, the only relief the doctor was able to provide being spiritual in nature. And now, after all of this, the demonic horses that took the doctor to the boy's village at an incredible speed move at a slow speed, hardly sufficient to bring the doctor back to his home, ten miles away, in time to save himself, much less the maid. And now, naked and alone, the doctor is left to regret the choice he made in attempting to save the boy: “Once one responds to a false alarm on the night bell, there’s no making it good again-not ever.”

Whether or not he is a modern-day Kafka, though, Cronenberg's work is very important. Cronenberg forces us to think. He forces us to re-evaluate our own interpretations of the world around us. He forces us to question the miracle cure of the day, from stem cell research to nanotechnology, and ask ourselves-”what's the catch?” And anything that forces us to think, in this day and age, is completely invaluable.

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