By Caroline Seck Langill
The menace of things: David Cronenberg’s vibrant objects
“I’m very worried about my body.”
— Ted Pikul, eXistenZ
“We live in overstimulated times.”
Well, we still live in overstimulated times. Ever-prescient, David Cronenberg predicted our reliance on and interconnection with technology and its commingled objects. In order to bring new attention to the props and other objects that appear in his films, and to emphasize their role as material agents, this essay situates Cronenberg’s work within contemporary discourses focused on the object and its “thingness,” while recognizing that in many ways his films are beyond situated theorizations. 1
Not since Hitchcock has any filmmaker created such menace with things. One only has to catch a glimpse of the Mantle Retractor in Dead Ringers (1988) to know the mind that invented such a threatening instrument was unsteady. For Cronenberg, these particular props are “crucial to the movie…touchstones to get me around and through” (Rodley 139). Objects are integral to the Cronenberg oeuvre. They often appear early in the film as ciphers that signify plot points, relieving the necessity for remedial narration. In Spider (2002), Dennis Clegg gets off a train wearing four button-down shirts, quickly establishing the obsessive nature of his character; in the opening scene of Crash (1996) Catherine Ballard presses her naked breast against the fuselage of a plane, immediately setting in motion a techno-fetishistic story of the car as erotic enabler. This essay will sketch out the ways that Cronenberg’s objects move beyond the context of the prop to become as significant to his films as the McGuffin was for Hitchcock.
As a former science student turned English major, Cronenberg was keenly attuned to the zeitgeist of the late sixties, the period from which he emerged as a filmmaker. A brief but foundational study of biology deeply informed the content and aesthetic of his work. Science has always been about sex. What is evolution, if not a narrative of sexuality? And where does science happen? In the lab, where the hard instruments of that discipline meet the soft membranes of the organic life form. For British sociologist Andrew Pickering, scientific instruments become collaborators of experimentation, material agents in the production of knowledge. For Cronenberg they become the means to convey fear and dread, but also to perform their intended function, sometimes abominably, as seen in the Dead Zone when serial killer Frank Dodd commits suicide by falling onto pair of barber scissors. Or they migrate from the lab into the bedroom, becoming erotic collaborators enabling Elliott Mantle’s ligature of Claire Niveau to the bed with assorted tubing and surgical clamps. This theme can be identified with any occurrence of the penetrated (read: gynecological) body, regardless of gender. These are liminal moments moving beyond science to suggest the existential affordances of Cronenberg’s objects, such as the point at which Roni refuses to undergo teleportation in The Fly (1986). Seth’s response: “I bet you think you woke me up about the flesh, don’t ya’. But you only know society’s straight line about the flesh. You can’t penetrate beyond society’s thick, grey fear of the flesh. Drink deep or taste not the plasma spring. See what I’m saying? I’m not just talking about sex and penetration. I’m talking about penetration beyond the veil of the flesh, a deep penetrating dive into the plasma pool.”
The science and technology aesthetic, in conjunction with Cronenberg’s recognition of the peril from within as the ultimate uncontrollable threat to our mortality, serves to shape his dark narratives with their courageous, melancholic outcomes (Rodley 58). Unlike representations within the science fiction cinema of his youth, the experience of technology in a Cronenberg film is an embodied one. As the University of Manchester’s Anna Powell notes in her book Deleuze and Horror Film, “ [t]he Videodrome (1983) cassette exhibits a variant of life, with organic attributes” (81). For Powell, this film in particular “exemplifies Cronenberg’s assemblage of ideological critique and re-mapping of the body’s corporeality” (80). As hybrids, Cronenberg’s props suggest the posthuman to be a condition that involves distributed cognition and agency, emergent consciousness, and information coding through multiple levels of knowing. 2 But is there really a clear distinction between the “props” and the actors that inter(act) with them in Videodrome ? When the television screen softens and bulges, calling for Max Renn to “come to me, come to Nicki,” can we really refer to it solely as a prop? Cronenberg swings both ways in this regard. Max eventually takes on the attributes of hardware—becoming machine—when he develops a slit in his stomach which becomes a repository for a video cassette and, later, a gun, which remerges as a prosthetic confluence of his hand, connected by flexible electronic conduit which is woven above and under the skin. Philosopher and Utrecht University professor Rosi Braidotti would recognize this as a reification of “the fascination for the monstrous, the freaky body double,” and with regards to Videodrome observes that “of special relevance are the scenes where the video/TV screen comes alive, alternatively as an alluring female body, a bleeding, dying, tortured body, and, at the end, a mass of bleeding organs” (249). Hard and soft meet, metal and flesh, flesh and voltage, voltage and consciousness, consciousness and hallucination, in a chaotic heterogeneous muddle of seemingly disparate ontologies.
The film set of The Fly is located in the laboratory of Seth Brundle, a scientist who uses himself as subject in order to experiment with the prospect of teleportation only to end up as the orchestrator of his own demise. The telepod in the film, despite being based upon the cylinder of a vintage Ducati motorcycle, appears to be a cross between a fifties-era spaceship and an exaggerated insect body. During a demonstration of the teleportation technology, a fly becomes trapped inside with Brundle, resulting in the splicing of their DNA. Unknowingly an admixture of Homo sapiens and Musca domestica, the scientist begins to lose his human features while gaining insectivorous ones. “I seem to be stricken by a disease with a purpose… I’m becoming Brundlefly!” The metamorphosis is gradual, facilitated by Brundle’s conversations with his cyber-assistant, the computer embedded in the telepod. Jane Bennett, Professor of Political Theory at John Hopkins University, has commented on the strange beauty of late modernity’s “admixtures of animal and human, organ and machine, the given and the made” (4). Referring to these as “technoenchantments,” Bennett counters the post-Enlightenment assumptions regarding the disenchantment of the world, and sees hybrids as potentially confounding dualities. Brundle is only a hybrid in as much as his DNA has been spliced with that of the fly, but he is wholly another creature. Film and literature scholar Eric Santner’s work on “creatureliness” comes to mind here, and while The Fly is fiction, the viewer knows they could just as easily metamorphose should the right disease come along. When Seth’s body parts fall off, they are immediately archived. Speaking to himself, he points out, “You are a relic, yes you are,” and refers to his ear, his fingernails and even his penis as “artifacts of a bygone era—of historical interest only.” The medicine cabinet becomes the reliquary, the “Brundle Museum of Natural History.” Seeing body parts lined up along a counter in Brundle’s increasingly derelict loft/lab, we get the sense of the chaos entering his personal ecosystem. The body parts are present through their absence, and as viewers we identify with Brundle’s loss and the fear associated with becoming something other than ourselves. Finally, the pathetic image of Seth as a man/fly/machine and his/its request for termination of the deeply inadequate hybrid, or even cyborg body, is a far cry from the utopic dreams of the android so prevalent in the films shown in theatres during that decade.
For Cronenberg, the cyborg body can be deeply flawed, but it is not without its erotic potential. In Crash, what you see is what you get—people dealing with the integration of the body and technology, and the incommensurability of that integration. Various types of metal prostheses, from leg braces to full body armatures, as in the case of the character of Gabrielle, serve as recollection-objects arousing the protagonist, James Ballard’s sexual proclivity for the ultimate clash between the body and the car. 3 Gabrielle’s body-brace-cum-exoskeleton has a complement in the surgical instruments of Dead Ringers. In both cases they are highly stylized and sculptural, designed to adapt to the body’s curved surfaces; although metal, the designs are intended to fit upon or within bodies. It is this particular type of prosthetic that creates the vibrancy so necessary for the viewer to collapse one into the other, machine into body. The braces supporting the characters in Crash can be considered interveners, but it is important to see the car and the scarred body as parts within the same network of agents. 4
In her catalogue essay accompanying the exhibition Crimes Against Nature featuring the work of Mark Prent and David Cronenberg, the Art Gallery of Hamilton’s Louise Dompierre shares her preoccupation with finding shape to Cronenberg’s world. With regards to Stereo (1969), she observes, “What is remarkable about this film, as with most of Cronenberg’s films, is his use of architecture as an element of the plot. And if it can be said that the body is the site of horror in his work, architectural space and form, the human created environment, is the other dynamic factor, without which horror could not manifest itself” (8). The spaces Cronenberg chooses to work with and within are instrumental, as Dompierre suggests and, once again, Hitchcock can be evoked for his insistence that the house in Rebecca was as much of a character in that film as any of the actors. 5 The lavish restaurant in Eastern Promises (2007), the 19 th century farmhouse in A History of Violence (2005), Seth Brundle’s loft-cum-laboratory in The Fly, and the Cathode Ray Mission of Videodrome typify Cronenberg’s attention to site as instrumental to the mise-en-scène.
Crash remains the penultimate example of this parallel genre. It is extraordinarily beautiful and everything, including the road, seems to come alive. Cronenberg has discussed the set of Crash as one that was highly sexualized, where even the city itself had a sexual quality, but perhaps we can replace sexual with vibrant or, to use another Bennett term, evanescent. Bennett asks where evanescence lies, as property of stuff or of people? In Crash it oscillates between the two entities, and the elaborate braces facilitate the sexualized agency of these strange hybrids, bridging the relationship between humans and machines.
Cronenberg excels at the creation of liminal objects that evoke the uncanny and contest the purity of the human corpus. The braces of Crash are one iteration, but they are no match for the insectivorous typewriters of Naked Lunch (1991) that speak to their writer, Bill Lee, who is deeply embedded in the Interzone, or the fleshy game pods of eXistenZ (1999). The typewriters are phenomenal objects—sculptural, animate, abject reifications of the control exerted on the writer by his tools. Like a bug that has managed to escape the clutches of the exterminator only to mutate into a talking typewriter, Lee’s is glistening and dark, its carapace separating to reveal a sphincter-like orifice that speaks to its proprietor. If this is one of Cronenberg’s most base prop/agents, the game pods of eXistenZ are his most elegant. The pods are enchanting. Attached to the gamer’s body via a pulsing umbilicus, they are of the body, made of flesh and, like a child attached to its mother, genetically one with the gamer. OCAD University’s Dot Tuer argues for a hybrid subjectivity within the new media landscape in which there is “an apprehension of the self that is struggling to bridge the natural and artificial, the sensory and the constructed” (5). For Tuer, it is a condition that is “reflexive, radical, and crossbred…[transforming] the phantasmagorical terror of a devouring matrix or the utopian ecstasy of cyberspace into a fluid apprehension of the self that interacts with simulation without being dominated by it” (15). Certainly the gamer, in fact any gamer, would argue they are the model of this particular type of subjectivity, but within this discussion of material agents and their role as actors in the progression of narrative in the aforementioned films, they are not only objects but subjects. The beauty of the pods and the maternal care demonstrated by Allegra Geller when she caresses her own, makes for very complex object relations.
Things change after eXistenZ. Instead of objects signifying the threat from within, the characters themselves bear that burden. But certain typologies remain.
Eric Packer: When I was a child I figured out how
much I’d weigh on all the planets.
Elise Shifrin: I like that… such science and ego
1 Heidegger, “The Thing.”
2 N. Katherine Hayles, online colloquium slides, http://online.kitp.ucsb.edu/online/colloq/hayles1/oh/04.html
3 The Skin of the Film , 81.
4 Vibrant Matter, Jane Bennett discusses Bruno Latour’s actant as neither a subject nor an object but an “intervener.” (9)
5 Truffaut, Hitchcock, 131.
Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: The Political Ecology of Things Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.
Braidotti, Rosi. Metamorphoses: Toward a Materialist Theory of Becoming. Polity: Cambridge, 2002.
Dompierre, Louise. Prent/Cronenberg: Crime Against Nature. Toronto: The Power Plant, 1987.
Marks, Laura U. The Skin of the Film. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.
Pevere, Geoff. “Why cars drive cult movies,” Globe and Mail, April 19, 2013. R2.
Pickering, Andrew. The Mangle of Practice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
Powell, Anna. Deleuze and the Horror Film. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.
Rodley, Chris, Ed. Cronenberg on Cronenberg. London: Faber and Faber, 1997.
Truffaut, François. Hitchcock. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.
Tuer, Dot. Mining the Media Archive: Essays on Art, Technology and Cultural Resistance. Toronto: YYZ Books, 2005.
Wilson, Andrew. The Culture of Nature: North American Landscape from Disney to the Exxon Valdez. Toronto: Between the Lines, 1991.