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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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Videodrome

"Videodrome" (1983)
Marking the end of the opening chapter of Cronenberg's many-phased career, "Videodrome" is a near-perfect early encapsulation of many concerns that crop up time and again for the filmmaker: the body vs. the mind, illusion vs. reality, and the seductive, erotic power of technology. And as such it still works like a key that unlocks his filmography: it may be the most Cronenbergian Cronenberg film. It also perhaps marks the first time the director struck a convincing balance between the body-horror genre he was working within, and the sublimely chilly cerebrality of his tone: even as guns graft, claw-like onto bone (prefiguring the much less successful "eXistenZ"), and our protagonist grapples with his disintegrating reality, and Debbie Harry writhes in pleasure at a self-inflicted cigarette burn, the film remains cool to the touch, emotionally. This intellectual remove could make proceedings less visceral, and yet that tightrope is walked with characteristic intelligence (like or loathe his films, there is no doubt Cronenberg is crazy smart). Prescient to the point of clairvoyance, yet entirely of its period too (Betamax!) the story of sleaze merchant Max's (James Woods) descent into techo-induced madness and mind control somehow manages to reward even more in light of the work that would come later. Dated, current and futuristic all at once, "Videodrome" was then, is now and will always be, terrific. Long live the new flesh, indeed. [A]

Dead Zone

"The Dead Zone" (1983)
After the disturbing and odd "Videodrome" (released the same year), Cronenberg retreated to the relatively safe world of the big-budget Hollywood thriller, adapting a nifty little Stephen King novel called "The Dead Zone." Christopher Walken (in a performance King frequently cites as the best of the actor's long and varied career) plays Johnny Smith, a small town teacher who, after an accident and ensuing coma, wakes up with new-found psychic abilities with which insights from a person's future can be transferred to him via touch. Jeffrey Boam's tight script condenses much of the novel while still delivering an appropriate amount of scope and otherworldly dread (an interlude where Smith assists a cop, played by Tom Skerritt, is particularly haunting). Martin Sheen, too, adds a dash of charming menace as a political candidate exposed by Smith's abilities as a power-mad zealot (he portrays him not unlike then-president Reagan…). The stakes may be high, but the movie's headier themes (it directly asks under what circumstances a political assassination might be morally justified) leave less of an impact than its strong emotional undercurrents. When Smith wakes up and finds that the love of his life (Brooke Adams) is married and has a child, you can't help but get choked up - a rare occurrence at a Cronenberg movie up to this point (unless you were choking back something other than tears). Here, the lump in your throat nicely accompanies the chills down your spine. [A-]

The Fly

"The Fly" (1986)
Though it seems today like we live in an age of excessive remakes, it’s not as if this is something new to Hollywood. Like theater, popular films and good films are constantly re-imagined, re-contextualized and re-fashioned for a newer generation. But with “The Fly,” David Cronenberg clearly understood, as did John Carpenter with his “The Thing” remake, two of the more salient ingredients of a successful re-do. Another take on a movie that has at least the kernel of a good idea that perhaps turned out not so great in the first place, or has become dated in the years since, is always welcome, and can prove to be a place of considerable advantage for a filmmaker. Also, and this is a biggie, like a good cover song, a good remake is one that’s distinctively different from its predecessor(s), one with its own DNA and fingerprints. Like “The Thing,” which came out four years prior to Cronenberg’s brilliant re-envisioning, “The Fly” is a makeup, prosthetics and special effect gore enthusiast’s wet dream (Chris Walas and Stephan Dupuis won the Oscar for the makeup), slowly building towards a tragic conclusion that sees the master of body horror pull out all the stops. Wanna give a pregnant woman nightmares for months? Show her the larva birthing scene, itself a nightmare within the film. Upon catching up with the film again for the first time in many years, this writer was pleased to discover a tightly scripted romantic drama, using a classic three-act structure and containing perhaps Jeff Goldblum’s greatest performance (seriously, how was he not nominated for an Oscar here?). In the lead, as Seth Brundle, and eventually Brundle Fly, the lanky, odd but utterly captivating thespian has multiple degrees of difficulty to balance, believably going from sweet geek genius to hot-shot asshole and finally to grotesque freak. And Cronenberg, never one to shy away from sly, often funny social commentary in his work, adds layers of subtext (AIDS, male insecurity, abortion rights, etc.) while also showing an understanding of women (in many ways, this is a feminist horror movie) that is rare in a male director. That he does all this in a romantic, disgusting, scary and touchingly sad piece of mainstream entertainment is worthy of high praise. [A]

Dead Ringers

"Dead Ringers" (1988)
Inspired by the stranger-than-fiction (unless that fiction is Cronenberg's) story of real-life twin gynecologists, this disturbing film tempers the director's long-running body horror fascination with some of the more psychological and philosophical conundrums of the human experience. Protagonists Elliot and Beverly Mantle (both played by Jeremy Irons), identical twins so close they are almost one person, share literally everything and take to impersonating each other as it suits them, which leads to decidedly unethical situations both in their medical practice and their personal lives. Though one is slightly more sensitive and recalcitrant than the other, they both, like many Cronenberg "heroes," lack basic emotional intelligence, something which, coupled with their chosen field of gynecology, allows them to take hideous advantage of women at their most vulnerable. Its not until a woman comes between them (graphically symbolized in a vivid dream of said woman attempting to chew though the fleshy umbilical cord that binds the twins in their symbiotic existence) that things start to fall apart. Mostly taking a break from the gross-out prosthetics of "The Fly", "Dead Ringers" was Cronenberg at his most restrained, served well by the aristocratic Jeremy Irons, whose masterful double performance, enabled by motion control camerawork, allows the audience to tell the identical twins apart, most of the time, by mannerisms alone. The role was initially turned down by Robert De Niro and William Hurt before it fell to Irons, whose dry-as-a-bone delivery makes it uniquely disturbing as well as darkly funny, and though he didn't win the Academy Award that year, he was savvy enough to thank Cronenberg in his acceptance speech when he won the following year for "Reversal of Fortune." "Dead Ringers" was also Cronenberg's first collaboration with future longtime cohort, cinematographer Peter Suchitzky, whose starkly colored vision works beautifully with Cronenberg's own. [A-]

Naked Lunch

"Naked Lunch" (1991)
Cronenberg’s attempt to film the unfilmmable, "Naked Lunch" is his adaption of Beat writer William Burroughs' most famous work. He had shown interest in an adaptation back in 1981, but it wasn't until he met producer Jeremy Thomas, and later Burroughs himself, that the project got off the ground. However, realizing that a faithful, authentic adaptation would be banned around the world and cost hundred of millions to make, Cronenberg had to find a different way of exploring Burroughs' work. In the process he gave free rein to his own fascination with the grotesque and his knack for finding the funny in it all, exploring that deeply fucked-up world by combining the text with major events from Burroughs' own life and pieces from other works of his, like "Exterminator!," "Queer," and "Letters to Allen Ginsberg." Protagonist Bill Lee (the Burroughs surrogate, played by Peter Weller) is an exterminator who gets high on bug powder, to which his wife (Judy Davis) is also addicted. Together Davis and Weller both deliver droll performances, until the notorious true-to-Burroughs William Tell scene is replayed, Bill is plunged into the hallucinogenic world of the Interzone, and bizarre-noir adventures spring forth. Clark Nova, the infamous typewriter bug who talks out of a butthole, is one of the film's best devices, addressing both the latent homosexuality of his protagonist and the catharsis of the creative process in one foul, fell swoop, and the collaboration between Ornette Coleman and Howard Shore (Shore has scored all of Cronenberg's films, bar "The Dead Zone") creates an eccentric noir score that keeps the crazy pulp vibe going. Shame, then, that it never comes together into anything like coherence: the director didn't make his name with easy watches, but this is near impenetrable. As a grandly ambitious failure, however, it is still somewhat admirable; a case of the director aiming high and falling short, but leaving some fascinating artifacts in the debris. Even at his worst, Cronenberg is more interesting than most. [B-]

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


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