By Noah Cowan, Artistic Director, TIFF Bell Lightbox
The struggle between science and received wisdom is a founding legend of the modern age. From Galileo and Leonardo, through to Newton and Linnaeus, scientists developed methods of inquiry that changed how we saw the world, and made discoveries increasingly at odds with organized religion. This tension came to a climax with Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution, which made God unnecessary to the study of natural history. Scientific inquiry was then rapidly applied to remaining subjects previously reserved for religion: most spectacularly by Sigmund Freud (the mind) and Albert Einstein (the metaphysical). Thus the modern age was born, with the scientist as its liberator and philosopher king.
But just as theism requires spirits and hellfire to operate effectively, so evolution necessitates a popular expression of its dark side. As Darwin’s theory entered the mainstream, dystopian science fiction rose alongside it. H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine makes for a fine example: a horrific ride into our cannibalistic future, it maps Darwin’s theories onto late-Victorian politics, and sets the template for speculative fiction of all kinds to come. Wells positions the scientist as a lodestar of Victorian moral responsibility—the likely source of our future happiness, despite the horrible mistakes he might make in science’s name 2 . Wells’s vision was enormously influential in subsequent decades, inspiring a steady stream of evolutionist fiction. Only after Hiroshima is the scientist’s moral leadership placed in serious doubt in popular culture, most notably by author Robert Heinlein (who, along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, formed the “Big Three” science-fiction writers of the era) and through the (perhaps unexpected) agency of iconic comic-book villains, such as Lex Luthor, Superman’s archrival. Yet even in these texts, the core of traditional evolutionist thinking remains intact: science will ultimately bring us a better world and the ostensibly good scientists will understand better than most the moral consequences of new inventions.
Only with the rise of television and computers, complex technology without a single inventor/scientist, does a contemporary, more radical discourse around science’s place in society emerge. In short order, Marshall McLuhan insists that technological innovation has no relevant relationship with morality. William S. Burroughs takes on scientists themselves, calling them “reality addicts” 3 and disputing their central role in shaping society. J.G. Ballard speculates on how we might (re-)construct useful core value systems, however perverse, now that science is no longer a useful dominant narrative. 4 David Cronenberg, several years later and in casual alliance with these men 5 , continues their deconstruction of traditional evolutionist storytelling. In his films, he deploys scientists, often in their most morally questionable forms, to posit speculative (though never explicitly futuristic) scenarios that undermine science’s exalted role.
Cronenberg’s interest in science is not at all surprising. While growing up, he had competing interests in writing and science, unresolved until he was well into his university career. His first story intended for public consumption was in fact for a science-fiction magazine 6 even while his head was being turned around by Vladimir Nabokov and Burroughs—both known for their love-hate relationship with science fiction as a genre. Film, introduced to Cronenberg through underground screening parties in 1960s Toronto, appealed as much for its technical complexity—Cronenberg likes to quote Orson Welles: “This is the biggest electric-train set any boy ever had”—as its narrative possibilities.
Cronenberg’s fascination with science is modulated by a deeply felt atheism, developed through his university encounters with the writings of existentialist philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger. Sartre’s insistence on man being alone in the world, and on the need to reconstruct our identities in full awareness of the finality of death, can be found throughout Cronenberg’s films and in his interviews. With Heidegger, Cronenberg shares an enthusiasm to get at the root of what fundamentally (and tragically) connects us as human beings—and an appreciation of the difficulty of caring about such things once God is removed from the equation. Cronenberg also mimics Heidegger’s retracing and upending of the history of philosophy with his own, ongoing deconstruction of traditional evolutionist narrative. Existentialism leaves Cronenberg ambivalent about science’s role in society; it must not act like another falsely comforting grand theory of the universe.
These various elements—a skeptical fascination with science and scientists; a curiosity about new social structures; the futility of imagining life after death—inform a remarkably consistent and crucial impulse in Cronenberg’s films: the overwhelming and hubristic desire of his characters to witness the next stage of human evolution. These “new evolutionists” impatiently conduct biological and social experiments in an artificial effort to force humanity forward. We find them in three distinct forms. In Cronenberg’s early work and, then, dotted throughout ensuing films are traditional scientist-inventors re-imagined, deconstructed and stripped of moral authority, such as Emil Hobbes ( Shivers ), Seth Brundle ( The Fly ) and Allegra Geller ( eXistenZ ). Then there are amateur, civilian social scientists—one might call them sociobiological explorers—who create controlled experiments to test out their theories of possible futures. Examples include James Ballard ( Crash ), Bill Lee ( Naked Lunch ) and Eric Packer ( Cosmopolis ). Finally, there are superheroes, with significantly advanced powers already, and wary of integrating the rest of us into their worlds despite enormous pressure on them to do so. These are Tom Stall ( A History of Violence ) and Nikolai Luzhin ( Eastern Promises ), but also, to a lesser extent, Johnny Smith ( The Dead Zone ) and Cameron Vale ( Scanners ). ( Videodrome, Cronenberg’s most influential masterpiece, plays with all three forms, with Brian O’Blivion, Barry Convex, Nicki Brand and antihero Max Renn himself periodically interchanging the roles of hungry evolutionist.)
All of Cronenberg’s new evolutionists inevitably and tragically fail. While he acknowledges that their attempts to form “a man-made, man-controlled environment short-circuiting the concept of evolution" is "noble in that [it is] an attempt by human beings, however crazy, to try to structure and control their own fate,” 7 the scientists-inventors unwittingly cause mayhem and, often, mass murder. The sociobiological explorers find their experiments unstable—leading to suicide, prison or catatonic despondency. The superheroes cannot protect those around them from danger; the next stage of human evolution will manifest itself despite their efforts to delay its arrival.
In other words, Cronenberg actively undermines them. They represent the old heroes of evolutionist narrative, false gods of science’s fallen kingdom, their arrogant attempts to father a new form of humanity cut down by existentialism’s dictate, You will die alone. Some of the scientists, especially ones that resemble Wells’s Victorian inventors, are made to look particularly foolish: Seth Brundle ( The Fly ) engages in his tragic experiment because he gets drunk, not out of any noble class consciousness. Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud ( A Dangerous Method ), the bumbling fathers of psychoanalysis, bicker with one another rather than constructing a useful treatment for their patient. Other, more up-to-date scientist types are quickly executed—by the end of reel one in Shivers and Rabid, utterly marginalized from what should be their own stories. Sometimes, they seem outright incompetent, like Hal Raglan ( The Brood ) and Paul Ruth ( Scanners ), caught in their own narcissism and unable to see the underlying dangers of their constructs. Even the superheroes get a rough ride. In A History of Violence, the dashing Stall is relegated to a life of monastic lividity with his dour family after saving their lives.
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Cronenberg’s new evolutionists, pilloried as they are, serve as key agitators in an ongoing, sometimes hopeful project: how can we eradicate theistic narratives and theistically inspired moral codes from cinema? Once we toss out all forms of theism, including the scientist as philosopher king, how do we organize society in a functional way? Can atheism, existentialism and the principles of scientific inquiry, working together, lead us to a greater understanding of social organization and even the meaning of life? To address these questions, Cronenberg creates a unique, shifting, personal cinema, infused with the traditional tools of speculative fiction: cautionary tales, counterfactuals, experiments gone wrong. In his early work, he seeks ways to free speculative fiction from its Victorian roots, especially any and all socially constructed, hegemonic narratives, be they Christian, scientific or something else. Next, he questions the very roots of Judeo-Christian thinking about the self, suggesting new ways of considering ontology and society. It is unlikely that such a quest is fully conscious for Cronenberg. He in fact compares his filmmaking process to “the philosophy of emergent evolution, which says that certain unpredictable peaks emerge from the natural flow of things and carry you forward to another stage. I guess each film has its own version of emergent evolution.” 8
Cronenberg’s first “unpredictable peak” emerges in his student film, “ From the Drain.” An organic military weapon kills a soldier, throwing into question his current mission but sparing another who has no such doubts. Often read as a political text, the film is equally an existentialist intervention: the soldiers’ moral superiority has no bearing on the weapon’s behaviour. Such moral indifference continues in Cronenberg’s first feature, Stereo. It chronicles a failed large-scale experiment in which surgically created telepaths devolve into vegetables and sex-crazed maniacs. A dystopian vision to be sure, Stereo nonetheless sees Cronenberg adopting a calm and even eulogistic tone, suggesting a fatherly pride in this attempt to construct a new social structure without theist underpinnings. Cronenberg encourages us to excise traditional morality from any authentic vision of our future and from the very concept of evolution.
Then comes gore. Bodily fluids, new body parts and parasites become the tools of choice for Cronenberg. Gore first appears in his second feature, Crimes of the Future. A virus accidentally carried by a new kind of makeup has wiped out all adult women. As a side effect, it causes gooey secretions that are irresistible aphrodisiacs to the healthy. The film’s oblique, experimental form and Kenneth Anger–inspired Bacchanalian wilfulness make it more of an oddity than a prospective thesis. But it signals Cronenberg’s use of bodily fluids to make a range of arguments in his next two, more commercial efforts, Shivers and Rabid. In Shivers, a parasite infects an isolated apartment complex, turning the residents into sex-crazed, blood-drenched zombies. In Rabid, a phallic feeler generates as a side effect of experimental organ surgery, driving its carrier to feed on human blood, and thereby to infect her victims with rabies.
All these oozing fluids signaled to critics that Cronenberg was a horror director. He was duly compared to contemporaries like Wes Craven ( Halloween ) and George A. Romero ( Night of the Living Dead ). The dominant model for reading horror films then and now involves sifting them for evidence of a collective unconscious and its (often scary) archetypes that, in part, govern our interpersonal relations. Critics twisted themselves into pretzels to squeeze nightmarish archetypes out of Cronenberg’s films, but they simply don’t function that well as horror. They lack certain basic elements for such a reading, failing (a) to conjure up a central figure of evil that is (b) formed somehow in our nightmares and (c) caused (usually) by our repressed sexuality, and that (d) upturns conventional society 9. In Shivers, the joyous penultimate scene, a swimming pool orgy, suggests the parasite’s effects, all things considered, might not be that bad. In Rabid, the feeler is an object of fear for the uninfected but not an object of evil. The carrier is both a victim and beneficiary of an agent that does not care about her, reflecting existentialist moral codes rather than issues with repressed collective memory. The deployment of horror-film elements seems to be a red herring, then: an interpretive trap laid by Cronenberg, not unlike the political reading easily found in “From the Drain.”
The Brood, Cronenberg’s next film, perhaps settles the case. The mother of a small girl wills into existence creatures that act out her rage, prompted by her psychiatrist’s radical therapeutic techniques. Although the film contains brutal, bloody killings, grotesque fetal excrescences, and seems to satisfy some of the conditions of horror listed above, Cronenberg extinguishes the power of these creatures at a crucial juncture. He literally deflates them—they are kept alive through a temporary air sac—when their acts of terror are no longer needed for his story. This immediately reduces their status to non-human, despite the mother’s ritual cleaning of them once they drop off her body. It also strongly suggests they are manifestations of the mother’s personal unconscious, not of that of a collective. They are parapsychological pests, rather than a waking nightmare—and so only questionably associated with the monsters of horror.
Why does it matter if these are or are not horror films, or if the creatures in The Brood are or are not manifestations of the collective unconscious? The answer lies in the ontological status of these three creatures: the parasite, the feeler and the brood. They are examples of evolution artificially accelerated by invention. They are products of bad science. And in each case, there is some question about their relationship to humans and the collective unconscious. Cronenberg reinforces this connection through the creatures’ physical connectivity to the human body, the gore factor. If these creatures are in fact to be found in our collective unconscious and are built to be part of us, there are elements of ourselves that could potentially live on and act as ersatz souls. But Cronenberg rejects this, especially if it includes a definition of the collective unconscious that sounds suspiciously like Christian heaven. And so, with great force, the creatures’ roles in a putative collective unconscious are effectively dismissed by each film’s end as anthropomorphological fallacies. They have no actual, authentic relationship to us. The fact remains: we die alone.
By the time Cronenberg gets to Videodrome, The Fly and Dead Ringers, the deployment of gore more directly relates to evolutionary pressures on human beings as a species—and we find the new evolutionists more directly involved and implicated. In Videodrome, a small-time porn mogul is infected by a televisually transmitted virus that brings on a brain tumour and hallucinations that create evocative orifices in his body. He finds himself in the middle of a conflict between a religious cult and a corporation, both of which use the virus to exert control over consumers of sexually violent media. In The Fly, a scientist mistakenly teleports himself with a fly, causing his body to mutate into a new hybrid creature. In Dead Ringers, twin gynecologists share everything, including a sexual affair with a patient. Her discovery of the ruse leads to a conflict between the brothers and their ultimate demise; their shared consciousness cannot take the strain. Distinct from the earlier trio of films, these films portray humans who evolve to a new stage of existence without the aid of non-human creatures 10. Even at the end of The Fly, with Brundle fully mutated into a grotesque mess of atoms, he still carries a recognizably human self-awareness.
Cronenberg deploys gore at this stage in a more systematic way. There are fewer instances of it and, when those moments appear, they have a baroque intensity and an unmistakable power. More is at stake. Could Cronenberg actually be going after a larger philosophical target than the collective unconscious? If so, the probable candidate is theism’s most powerful argument, the Cartesian cogito ergo sum (“I think; therefore, I am”): the mind/body distinction at the core of Western thought and oft-cited proof of an extra-physical soul. To radically reset evolutionary discourse along an existentialist pathway—a continuing project of evolutionary biology, with its reading of the soul, if at all, as an inherently physiological entity—all traces of the superstitious, the unknown, the independent character, epitomized by this mind/body binary, must be erased. Otherwise, one could escape the finality of death.
Cronenberg tests the mind/body binary with the most outré examples imaginable. His dramatic uses of intense gore are final proofs of mind and body’s indivisibility. In The Fly , mind and body—at least what’s left of them—remain firmly melded, even under great duress. In Videodrome , despite the various powers at work within his psyche, Renn appears to face death in full command of his own mortality (“Long live the new flesh!”) regardless of the ravages of the Videodrome tumour in his consciousness. And in Dead Ringers , despite their best efforts, the twins, with their shared consciousness, cannot be severed by medicine, physical trauma or even death.
But laying waste to the cogito is serious business. A much greater intellectual vacuum is created by this than by Cronenberg’s previous attacks on scientific and psychoanalytic fallacies. By dismantling the mind/body split, Cronenberg is forced to rehearse a new theory of personal identity. If the notion of a mind separate from and governing the body is discarded, how are our identities formed? How are we motivated into action? What might a new set of ethics look like within these new self-definitions?
Cronenberg’s answer, in keeping with a former microbiology student and continuing enthusiast of body science, is to embrace mutability itself as the basis for reconstructing personal identity. In a recent interview 11, Cronenberg cited Gerald M. Edelman’s Neural Darwinism to illustrate how ongoing environmental stimuli for years after birth share the shaping of our brain with our genetic preprogramming. In fact, our brains are perpetually in a state of change, much like a rainforest. Also cited was Matt Ridley’s The Agile Gene: How Nature Turns on Nurture which extends this reasoning to the cellular level, describing how certain genes contain within their own biological structures both preset programs and mechanisms that alter their own structure based on environmental pressure. For Cronenberg, these scientists demonstrate a built-in biological uncertainty about identity and a porousness between experience and consciousness, inherent in our deepest atomic layers, that makes us ongoing, active participants in the destruction and reconstitution of ourselves. And yet, Cronenberg resists the idea that this inexorable process might deny human beings free will. We also self-consciously resist entropy—or as mighty physicist Erwin Schrödinger would have it, “living matter evades the decay to equilibrium.” 12 And so there is a constant, ongoing effort to reconstruct an identity at multiple biological layers. Cronenberg sees the push-pull of environmental pressure and entropic resistance as inherently inspiring, certainly the wellspring of human creativity and perhaps the basis for ethical, authentic living itself.
Cronenberg starts to make proposals for new social structures suggested by these findings in Naked Lunch , Crash and eXistenZ, all isolated to specific communities connected by related obsessions. The new evolutionists now also have a new role, as catalysts for social change. In Naked Lunch, drugs and, to a lesser extent, sex connect the residents of Interzone in a highly contained paranoiac universe. In Crash, the erotic thrill of car crashes brings together a secretive group seeking enlightenment. The beta test for a new video game unites a community of gamers in eXistenZ. What connects these groups is far away from the usual bonds of community and traditional moral values or structure, and yet they all function fairly effectively, for a time, as coherent, authentic, family-like entities. They also illustrate Cronenberg’s biological theories of personal identity and suggest how new social structures may operate along those same lines. In each film, the protagonist requires constant stimulus and reinforcement from his group in order to function, just like our biological tissue. Members also need to defend the group against inevitable entropic decay, and they do so through the creative act of writing, playing video games and elegantly crashing cars. They come to these new social structures as narcissists, to exploit the group for their own sexual or professional needs, but find themselves enmeshed in a community that requires their authentic participation and care to function. That these projects ultimately fail does not diminish how exciting the communities feel in full flush. In some sense, their failure is part of their authenticity. For a rigorous atheist existentialist like Cronenberg, any extension of human life, even one as marginal as a car-crash club, smacks of life after death.
Though the films teem with polymorphous perversity, there is little need for gore now; gruesome moments still occur but they rarely carry the explanatory weight of Cronenberg’s earlier work. For example, the Chinese restaurant of eXistenZ is an amusing demonstration of the lack of moral codes written into the game being played, but a far cry from the exploding head of Scanners, a truly shocking gambit in the director’s mind/body discourse. What they share is mind and body operating in lockstep, building on his findings in the Shivers - Rabid - The Brood trio, with little doubt expressed by the characters about the strangeness of their many environments, both mental and physical, or about the actions they perform within them.
Such hermetic worlds become difficult for Cronenberg to sustain. After Spider, his next two films, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, seem to question the entire intellectual project of rebuilding society from scratch. His superheroes, Tom Stall and Nikolai Luzhin, both played by Viggo Mortensen, desperately try to sustain far more traditional and iconic ecosystems, small-town America and a gangster underworld respectively, even though they and their hidden identities do not belong there. Of course their very presence creates an unstable social ecosystem that guarantees its collapse. Perhaps Cronenberg seeks to explore how a person at the next stage of human evolution might attempt to lead us into a more authentic life, but these guys are not especially capable of such a manoeuvre. More likely, after a period of exploring utopian impulses of community, Cronenberg wants to make sure we understand the dark side: that any attempt to resist entropy too completely, to try to bottle a social structure, is doomed to fail.
This reading could be taken into account to explain his motivation for making the most recent film represented on this website, Cosmopolis, a claustrophobic and cautionary tale of a businessman isolated in his car, and seeking a very dangerous haircut while angry anti-capitalists riot in the streets. Despite its hermetic setting, the film’s ambitions appear to exceed the modest social ecosystems of small-town America and gangster life. Cronenberg in fact appears to call into question the inherent stability of, and to identify the points of weakness in, the governing stories and structures of capitalism itself—a megasystem positioned as aggressively as science as a worthwhile, dominant narrative in contemporary society.
While a sequence of films devoted to undermining capitalist pretensions would be a most exciting prospect, one senses Cronenberg’s coming targets will be more personal—further reflections on the interior consequences of his philosophical inquiries, so poignantly addressed in his shorts, “ Camera” and “ At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World in the Last Cinema in the World .” These provide a platform for the director to admit his own entropic biorhythms: that his own physical decay and increasing paranoia are essential to his filmmaking process. He builds on these thoughts in his interviews, asserting a deep, rigorously existentialist skepticism about his career trajectory and, really, about any kind of personal betterment. “History is absolutely not a continuous move towards perfection,” he says, suggesting that film, like the human body, is “not very architecturally together; its interior is chaotic and messy. It is absolutely not schematic.” 13 And yet he, too, has reconstructed a value system and identity to resist entropy’s relentless approach and existentialism’s grim march to an empty death. He insists on being an artist who is “not a citizen of society,” and who is “bound to explore every aspect of human experience.” 14 For Cronenberg, personal creativity, expressed freely, authentically and with deep personal awareness, is a necessary biological function to ward off entropic decay. It is a wellspring for a career that promises many more surprises before it is complete.
1 Chris Rodley, Cronenberg on Cronenberg (London: Faber and Faber, 1997) 58, 5.
2 The best example comes much earlier, in the Faustian, proto–science fiction classic Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. The novel essentially presents an ethical quandary: will the doctor help his repugnant creation live a good life, or will he extinguish it for society’s benefit?
3 Interview with Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg, Journal for the Protection of All Beings vol. 1 (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1961) 79–83.
4 In a 1962 article entitled “Which Way to Inner Space?” Ballard stated that "science fiction should turn its back on space, on interstellar travel, extraterrestrial life forms [and] galactic wars,” a sentiment fully in line with Cronenberg’s rigorous approach. In his 1974 introduction to Crash, Ballard also tossed off this juicy quote: “Over our lives preside the great twin leitmotifs of the twentieth century—sex and paranoia.” It’s as influential a statement on the world of David Cronenberg as one could imagine.
5 And there are others: Wilhelm Reich, Philip K. Dick, Thomas Kuhn, plus a whole host of existentialists.
6 Cronenberg relates, “It was about a kind of a dwarf who lives in a cellar. He has a painting and he fantasizes about living in that painting. He would be more than what he was. He finds out later that the painting was painted by a guy just like him, a dwarf who lived in a cellar.” (See p. TK)
7 Rodley, 27.
8 Rodley, 41.
9 These rules are based on Robin Wood’s contribution to The American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film (1979). Wood was a harsh detractor of Cronenberg but several critics, among them the late John Harkness, have since suggested that Wood misread Cronenberg as a horror, rather than a science-fiction, filmmaker.
10 And now there is no longer the generic question; these films and their effects are decisively situated in science fiction, not horror.
11 With Piers Handling and myself in preparation for the exhibition, “David Cronenberg: Evolution,” at TIFF Bell Lightbox, 2013.
12 Erwin Schrödinger, What Is Life?: With Mind and Matter and Autobiographical Sketches (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012) 69.
13 With Piers Handling and myself in preparation for the exhibition, “David Cronenberg: Evolution,” at TIFF Bell Lightbox, 2013.
14 Rodley, 158.