By David Balzer
David Cronenberg wasn’t always a Canadian icon. In his 1983 essay “A Canadian Cronenberg” for the anthology The Shape of Rage, Piers Handling begins by asserting that the director’s films “are looked upon as aberrations in the cinematic landscape of this country.” The standard entry point into Cronenberg’s anomalousness on the Canadian scene is, as Handling proceeds to explain, a comparison with what it had been up to that point: documentary and realist, a tradition largely promulgated, since 1939, by the National Film Board of Canada under the aegis of John Grierson.
“I looked around to see what kind of film industry there was in Canada,” says Cronenberg of the work leading up to his first commercial feature, 1975’s Shivers, “and there really wasn’t one.” Inevitably, the outrageously graphic horror film about a parasite that overtakes residents of a Montreal condominium was not fully embraced in this country. Journalist Robert Fulford, writing under the pseudonym “Marshall Delaney,” sparked a debate in Saturday Night magazine over the film’s partial public funding—one that eventually reached the House of Commons. Handling, at the time of The Shape of Rage’s publication, noted that Cronenberg “never really recovered from this article in Canada.” Indeed, Cronenberg went on to make several films under Canadian tax-shelter laws, but after 1983’s Videodrome he (like so many Canadian artists) appeared to have moved on to international renown. His next film, The Dead Zone, was an adaptation of the novel by Stephen King, and starred Christopher Walken and Martin Sheen.
To speak of David Cronenberg as a Canadian icon is, then, tricky. He is often in Canada, but never easily of it. In a chapter of The American Nightmare (later published in The Shape of Rage), critic Robin Wood—in a tetchy repudiation of Cronenberg’s work—lumps him in with stateside horror directors such as Wes Craven and George A. Romero. As Wood’s essay shows, the films of these directors are not always taken seriously by neither audiences nor the critical establishment. One could say that Canada sheepishly followed the mainstream in embracing Cronenberg: only after 1986’s Oscar–winning The Fly was it possible to speak of the director as an artist of global repute and, in turn, of growing Canadian legend.
Yet as Cronenberg himself has contended, Wood was not right to associate him with these Americans. Critic Serge Grunberg concurs, noting in the preface to his 2006 collection of interviews with the director that “[Cronenberg] was able to escape the invasive influence of Hollywood… Those who began their careers in Hollywood (even in the Roger Corman ‘school’) have always had to meet certain expectations.” What enabled this escape? Canada, in significant part—its inchoate film industry (at the time of Cronenberg’s early efforts, at least) and commitment to public funding for culture played a key role in the director’s autonomy. Instead of being invaded by Hollywood, Cronenberg would remain in Canada and stage his kind of own invasion.
It is worth noting that Cronenberg’s use of Canada to make non-realist films—ones in which “place” as we commonly understand it is only faintly present—is not, NFB precedent aside, atypical to culture-making in this country. “My general background as a would-be writer made me isolationist,” says Cronenberg of his early attempts at filmmaking, when he was a student of literature at the University of Toronto. “I suppose it’s a very Canadian thing to do.” The conclusion is reminiscent of Northrop Frye’s famous concept of the “garrison mentality” in Canadian art, wherein the Canadian artist protects herself or himself from the harshness and vastness of the landscape by retreating into the life of the mind. This retreat, romantic in nature, is accompanied by the release and escape of imaginary probing and, in turn but also paradoxically, feelings of claustrophobia and confinement.
This retreat is mirrored in Cronenberg’s films, in which artist and scientist anti-heroes stubbornly reject what is around them in favour of alternate, often interior, realms and possibilities. In the words of critic Geoff Pevere, writing on Crash in Toronto on Film, Toronto in Cronenberg is “a closed set, an airtight metaphor.” It is not strictly real. Cronenberg’s Canada is everywhere and nowhere; it is an incubator, a haven for observation and experimentation, a jumping-off point. Cronenberg’s Canadian icon status is thus dependent, ironically but definitively, on his very capacity to assimilate, reject, and transcend that status.
In a footnote to his discussion of the garrison mentality, critic D.M.R. Bentley mentions the faint possibility that the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus, designed by brutalist Australian architect John Andrews (who also designed the CN Tower) may, in his suggestive construction of a fortress-like complex, have been influenced by Frye’s theories. It is a pleasant coincidence nonetheless that Cronenberg’s first feature, Stereo (1969), is set here. Even earlier, in Cronenberg’s first two shorts, “Transfer” (1966) and “From the Drain” (1967), one sees a focus not on outsides but insides, a condition both of the director’s obvious budgetary constraints and, especially in retrospect, of his sensibility. His shorts have continued to exhibit this quality: the house-bound “Camera” (2000) and “At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World in the Last Cinema in the World” (2007), with the same lavatory setting as “From the Drain,” bring us back to the Beckettian claustrophobia of his earliest works.
The use of U of T Scarborough in Stereo and of U of T’s Massey College in Cronenberg’s next film, Crimes of the Future (1970) is, similarly, not intended to give an outward sense of place but rather to disorient. Ronald Mlodzik is the star of both films, and his presence echoes that of the architecture. His frame is angular, androgynous, yet covered in a Medieval-style black cloak; he is anachronistic, out-of-time. The only sound component of these films is Mlodzik’s voice: decadent, sibilant, dryly cynical, and clinical. Like the concrete exteriors and interiors he traverses, this voice alienates and unsettles. Mlodzik is a template for what Grunberg identifies as the Poe-esque “man of the crowd” in Cronenberg’s works. As with Cronenberg himself, specific notions of place are not of interest to this figure, who lives in the “absolute solitude” of a nondescript North American or European city. “He no longer belongs to a people, tribe or clan,” Grunberg writes. “Cronenberg is interested, above all, in the ‘sphere of intimacy’—not only the apartment [his hero] lives in, but also its interior, the bedroom and the bathroom, places where he goes alone or at least only with a sexual partner.”
Such places are paramount to Cronenberg’s first commercial feature, 1975’s Shivers. Made, schizophrenically, with funding from both Montreal exploitation film production company Cinepix and the government of Canada through the Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC), its genesis and success have curious similarities to the parasite it represents. Too brainy for a midnight movie and too crass and crude for a publicly funded artwork, Shivers seems to fit nowhere, yet nonetheless feeds on the markets and audiences of both. Furthermore, Shivers’ setting, architect Mies Van Der Rohe’s Starliner Towers on Montreal’s Nuns’ Island, became a residence for its film’s cast and crew. Cronenberg had not only found a dystopia for his film, but also an incubator—a veritable network of bathrooms and bedrooms—for his effects-heavy production process, which innovatively employed the use of bladders to portray the parasite swimming under the surface of the skin. At the end of the film, Starliner’s parasite-carrying residents escape to Montreal, breaking the claustrophobic space of the film by, in effect, terminating it.
Cronenberg’s subsequent tax-shelter films were part of a larger movement in Canadian cinema, where private investors in the film industry were given various write-offs. Such conditions not only produced Cronenberg’s films from Fast Company to Videodrome, but also less hallowed fare, such as Porky’s and Prom Night. Recent scholarship on this era stresses the tax-shelter films’ curious thematic parroting of their financial conditions, in which Canadian personnel quotas had to be met while, conversely, fretting investors looked for ways to make films appear more American and thus more bankable. Professor Peter Urquhart of Wilfrid Laurier University notes a fixation with “selling out,” and with the resistance to controls and impositions of various kinds. Such tensions fit so well with Cronenberg’s preoccupations that, in a certain light, the tax-shelter years seem a dystopia of his own making—as if, with the hybrid American-inflected productions Shivers and its follow-up Rabid (1977), he had formed a model for, and even presaged, them.
The films themselves, with their drab, wintry settings (tax-shelter films were typically kick-started at the end of the calendar year, resulting in winter and early spring productions) and displaced American stars abet a Cronenbergian "placelessness" that increasingly verges on the surreal. The director's last tax-shelter film, Videodrome, gives itself over completely to such surrealism. In Toronto on Film, Geoff Pevere argues that Videodrome is one of the definitive Toronto films, an astute contention in so far as it, though openly set in the city, concerns protagonist Max Renn's (James Woods) stubborn search for something else (a yearning to escape Toronto being a very Torontonian sentiment). At first Renn looks outward, to faint signals from the titular American porn station, and then inward, and literally through the city, to media-infected perceptions of home and being. If there is a recognizable Canada here, it is that of the "man of the crowd"—of paranoid contemporary consciousness, divorced from specificities of place, with labyrinthine channels offering escape, even renewal, but which move inward, not outward.
The Fly, despite its Hollywood stars and gloss, and its Oscar, extends this fascination. The film was shot in Toronto but underscored by spatial restriction: Seth Brundle’s (Jeff Goldblum) loft-cum-laboratory and, within that, his teleportation pods. These are definitive garrisons, spaces that at first function as sites of thrilling experiments with imagination, sex, and superhuman mobility—in which Brundle masters both teleportation and his lover, journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis)—and then imprison, with, in the film’s grotesque and moving denouement, the machinery of the pod fusing with Brundle’s insect-man body. It is no wonder that in 2007 Cronenberg chose to turn this film into an opera, its baroque claustrophobia a perfect fit for the stage and for the art form’s inert hysteria. Similarly, Dead Ringers, The Fly’s unlikely follow-up, is, although again filmed and set in Toronto, in famous locales such as Casa Loma and Trinity Square, very private. It devolves into a chamber piece, with the drug-addled, symbiotic relationship between its twin gynecologists, both played by Jeremy Irons, finding a doomed end in their shared luxury condominium.
After Dead Ringers, Canada continues to be elusive as a specific place in Cronenberg. If it is anything, it is a mental condition, a state of mind. Pevere’s theory on city-as-metaphor in Crash—a film that, with its high-rises and underpasses, signifies Toronto as much as any developed, postmodern North American city—is, he concedes, the director’s own luxury. At this point in his career, Cronenberg could set his sights beyond the city in which he was born and raised and where, advantageously, he would always be welcomed back to film if he so wished. (Crash was an international co-production between several Canadian companies, including Telefilm, and Britain’s Recorded Picture Company.)
Naked Lunch, Cronenberg’s film previous to Crash and an adaptation of the well-known William S. Burroughs novel, was in fact intended to be filmed in Tangiers but, due to the first Gulf War, ended up being shifted to a Toronto warehouse. Interviewing Cronenberg for Eye Weekly in 1992, Angela Baldassarre asked if the director was disappointed. His response is telling: “For one day. Only for one day,” he answered, proceeding to explain Burroughs’ hallucinatory Interzone and its inherent sense of (non-)place—also, observably, his own. “It was obvious that Interzone was meant to be a state of mind, and that's where its significance was. [Burroughs] really never left New York, he probably never left his apartment, this was an interior voyage. And to have actually gone to the real other city, but also have it be partly a state of mind, would have just confused things. [Filming in Canada] was really, in a bizarre way, a stroke of luck.”
The last decade or so has seen Cronenberg filming in the UK (2002’s Spider and 2007’s Eastern Promises ) and Germany and Austria (2011’s A Dangerous Method). This may signal an increased sociability on the director’s part (he has been known to hate travelling), yet Canada exerts a perennial magnetism. For A History of Violence (2005) and Cosmopolis, Cronenberg returned to Toronto, for the latter using it as the New York traversed by Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) in his limousine. Locals recognize Yonge Street and Union Station and, in typical Canadian cinephile fashion, imagine how this not-quite-right-ness might appear to those who do not call the city home. Writing recently about Cosmopolis in The Globe & Mail, Pevere notes that nationalist agendas have never quite suited Cronenberg, and yet he has refused “to budge or go away.”
“If Cronenberg couldn’t be made to fit the definition of Canadian artist,” Pevere writes, “then the definition of Canadian artist needed to change to fit him.” Indeed, if Canada has anything for which to blame Cronenberg, it may be this: that, through his sly use of our cinematic infrastructure to retain artistic autonomy, he is so individualist as to be inimitable. Cronenberg may be a national treasure, but our claim to him, and his raging singularity, is no assurance of a successor.