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Retrospective: The Films Of David Cronenberg

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist November 22, 2011 at 11:50AM

It’s been a long journey to “respectability” for David Cronenberg. In the early days of his career, the helmer was a favorite of the Fangoria crowd, crafting genre entertainment that relied heavily on nightmarish prosthetics to sugar (or rather, gore) -coat the elemental, sometimes philosophical ideas he was preoccupied with. Many of these ideas are captured succinctly in early-year masterpiece “Videodrome”: we are but slaves to our outer sheaths, mutation is the only real evolution and matters of the heart are merely an illusion, while the mind's fragility and propensity to conflate reality with dreams or hallucinations will always make it ultimately subservient to the desires of the flesh. Pit logic against the darker recesses of human nature, he suggests, and logic, control and intellectualism will always fail.
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Cronenberg Retrospective

It’s been a long journey to “respectability” for David Cronenberg. In the early days of his career, the helmer was a favorite of the Fangoria crowd, crafting genre entertainment that relied heavily on nightmarish prosthetics to sugar (or rather, gore) -coat the elemental, sometimes philosophical ideas he was preoccupied with. Many of these ideas are captured succinctly in early-year masterpiece “Videodrome”: we are but slaves to our outer sheaths, mutation is the only real evolution and matters of the heart are merely an illusion, while the mind's fragility and propensity to conflate reality with dreams or hallucinations will always make it ultimately subservient to the desires of the flesh. Pit logic against the darker recesses of human nature, he suggests, and logic, control and intellectualism will always fail.

Which is ironic, considering one the most frequently leveled accusations by Cronenberg's detractors is that his films are entirely too passionless, too intellectual, and too clinical in their emotional detachment. And this criticism is not without some basis: sympathetic characters are few and far between in the director's oeuvre (there are very few puppies in Cronenberg), and if we identify with anyone it's usually reluctantly, perhaps recognizing in them some of the uglier aspects of ourselves that we'd rather not think about. And that's precisely the point: his is a cinema of discomfort, of unease, which is why he found his greatest early success in the horror genre, where audiences pay to be challenged viscerally, and if you can slip in some psychological shocks amid things going splat in the night, all the better. But now that he is reaching ever wider audiences with seemingly more and more accessible films, where do those concerns go? Has he simply sold them up the Swanee for the chance to work with R-Patz, or has horror's great intellectual channeled his formidable smarts into finding more subversive ways to further his creative theses? As a filmmaker, has he evolved, or has he mutated?

It's probably obvious which side of the fence we're on, but with his latest, “A Dangerous Method,” in theaters tomorrow, we delve into the back catalog of the man who came from whips and chains on Civic TV, to the Lincoln Center stage for the New York Film Festival, so that you can judge for yourselves.

Stereo

"Stereo" (1969)
Cronenberg's debut feature, "Stereo," which purports to be an education science video sponsored by a large plastics conglomerate (yes, he was a giant weirdo from the very beginning), shows the filmmaker as the clinical intellectual that his critics often unfairly label him -- it turns out that, this time, they're right. The "plot" of this black-and-white oddity concerns a nameless hero (Ronald Mlodzik, a frequent Cronenberg collaborator) who is brought to a compound to take part in a series of experiments wherein sexual activity is meant to bring out inherent psychic abilities. While the underlying thematic material matches up nicely to later Cronenberg works ("The Brood," "Scanners," and "Shivers"), "Stereo" is undone by lengthy narration that adds a level of authenticity but makes your head spin (and not in a good way). But for completists, its a glimpse of the filmmaker-in-gestation, before he learned how to blow our minds via the perfect balance of kinky ideas and oversized entertainment. [C]

Crimes of the Future

"Crimes of the Future" (1970)
Like "Stereo," "Crimes of the Feature" is about an hour long and features spell check-resistant actor Ronald Mlodzik. It also, like "Stereo," was shot silently, with narration and various sound effects added after the fact. This time, though, it's in color! Mlodzik plays Adrian Tripod, the director of a dermatological clinic with the strip-clubby name The House of Skin. Tripod is searching for his mentor in a post-apocalyptic wasteland wherein all sexually mature women have been wiped off the face of the earth thanks to deadly cosmetic products. Cronenberg shows us this gradually, first as a man paints another man's fingernails, but later things become more gross and, well, Cronenbergian, with a man who grows modified organs in his body, only to have them removed, in a grotesque simulation of childbirth, not to mention these men also produce a weird foam that must be siphoned from their bodies. "Crimes of the Future"'s greatest similarity to "Stereo," though, is that it's too heady and weird to be truly engaging; ideas-wise it's a trip, but sitting through it, even at an hour, is a slog. [C]

Shivers

"Shivers" (1975)
People talk of cinema as a populist medium that humans escape into to forget the banalities of their dull, quotidian existence. But for David Cronenberg, a lapsed biochemistry major who switched to English and drifted into cinema before, to some minds, conquering it, escapism has never been at the forefront of his mind. Instead, the director’s commitment to penetrating and confronting the darkest impulses of his audience’s imaginations manifests itself in films that probe the human psyche; both psychologically and--more crucially--with physical violence. Nowhere is this truer than in “Shivers,” his first commercial feature, conceived of as the “Orgy of the Blood Parasites” or “The Parasite Murders,” and sometimes known as “They Came from Within.” It’s a little film with grand intentions, his “Mean Streets”--a crystallization of later thematic concerns (“even old flesh is erotic flesh”), with an uncommon and unsettling stylistic verve that hasn’t lessened in the three decades since its release. Culled from an image in the director’s head (a spider emerging from a sleeping woman’s mouth) the thrust of the film prefigures Ridley Scott’s “Alien," and caused a minor scandal upon its initial release in Canada, funded as it was on the taxpayer’s dime. It's barmy and sociologically-minded plot, involving engorged parasites that are simultaneously an aphrodisiac and an STI messing with the middle class residents of Starliner Towers, may meander like a creaking Jalopy with amateurish acting performances, but when the history of cinema is written with Cronenberg as one of its key practitioners, “Shivers” will no doubt remain one of his most profoundly weird, disturbing and totemic texts. [A-]

This article is related to: The Essentials, David Cronenberg, Features


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