Graphic of a mugwump from Naked Lunch

Cronenberg and TIFF: Cronenberg at TIFF

By Piers Handling, Director and CEO, TIFF

The Toronto International Film Festival and David Cronenberg got off to an “interesting” start. In 1979, the organization (then known as the Festival of Festivals), which prided itself on its populist roots and street smarts, decided to mount a significant retrospective of the horror film. The intellectual rigor would be provided by one of the English-speaking world’s most notable film critics, Robin Wood. Best known for his groundbreaking work on Alfred Hitchcock, but also the author of monographs on Arthur Penn, Ingmar Bergman, Claude Chabrol, Satyajit Ray, and a regular contributor to Movie, Robin had recently turned his sharp eye and discerning pen to popular genres, especially the horror film. Wayne Clarkson, the Festival’s director and an admirer of Robin’s critical contribution, turned over about a quarter of the Festival to this programme, a bold and audacious move.

Amidst the fifty-seven films screened, a mix of classic and contemporary horror, Wood presented Shivers and The Brood. The Festival produced a slender but important publication, American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film, edited by Robin and Richard Lippe, to accompanying the screenings. In its introductory essay, Wood came down hard on David’s work, calling it reactionary. This kind of criticism was not new to Cronenberg. A few years earlier, Robert Fulford writing in Saturday Night under his Marshall Delaney alias had ripped into the government for funding Shivers.

After the screenings of the two films at the Bloor Cinema, Cronenberg shared the stage with Wood, and they passionately debated their differences. Cronenberg noted that he never understood how Wood could read his films as being reactionary. More recently, he commented to me that over the years he has seen how reactions to his work have been radically different from critic to critic, and that his decision to work in a genre that was controversial and confrontational meant that there would be strong reactions, both pro and con. But the Wood article polarized people, and certainly set an agenda that partially put Cronenberg on the defensive about his films.

Three years later, in 1983, a different set of circumstances was in play. Clarkson was still running the Festival, but had given me the go-ahead to mount the largest programme of historic Canadian cinema ever presented. It was so big that we decided to spread it out over two years. The first would focus on the documentary film; the next, on fiction. We decided to do a special homage to one filmmaker during Year One—a retrospective of David’s films, now numbering eight features.

Wayne and I were in complete agreement that the timing was right. David was working outside the overarching realist tradition within our cinema, functioning within genres—horror and science fiction—that were essentially alien to this country. Plus, Videodrome had just been released. With this film, an interesting iconoclast began to turn into a film artist of considerable potential. Videodrome prompted our belief in him as a director who deserved a place of distinction within the context of a film Festival.

We also decided to add an extra dimension to the programme by publishing a book on his work—in fact the first one. Film studies professor William Beard had approached us with a lengthy, unpublished study, which became its core. Other critics were enthusiastically advocating for the work: Tim Lucas, John Harkness, Geoff Pevere and Maurice Yacowar all contributed essays, and the result was The Shape of Rage: The Films of David Cronenberg, a collection co-published with the Academy of Canadian Cinema that grappled seriously with his films.

If David was wary of his previous Toronto Festival encounter, he didn’t show it when we approached him with the idea of mounting the first major retrospective of his films in Canada. He had just one condition: that we only include the films he had shot on 35mm. This meant that we would not be showing his first two 16mm shorts, or any of his television work, which included some half-hour dramas he had made for the CBC: “The Italian Machine,” “The Lie Chair,” and “The Victim.” We discussed these omissions, urging him to reconsider, but David insisted. He wanted to be seen as a fully professional filmmaker working within the 35mm format that was the commercial industry standard. He was very careful about projecting a certain image, and in light of the Fulford/Wood episodes, this was fully understandable.

In retrospect, it was a propitious moment. David had been making films since 1968 but was still a contentious figure in Canada who few took seriously as an artist. The Fulford piece still cast a shadow, and the fact that the genre magazines had labeled him the “Baron of Blood” and the “King of Venereal Horror” consigned him to the margins in the eyes of many. Unquestionably, the 1983 retrospective began to reposition him, providing the beginnings of respectability in his home country.

We also asked him to programme a large selection of films that had influenced him as a young man. He selected thirty-six features and shorts: classics such as “Un chien andalou,” Vampyr, War of the Worlds, Freaks, and Creature from the Black Lagoon. As well, there were more eclectic choices: Duel, Performance, The Bed Sitting Room, and Alphaville. Bambi was one of his selections, but Disney refused us permission to screen the film. David’s reputation still preceded him.

The other interesting wrinkle that year was our attempt to land The Dead Zone as a major premiere. David was fully supportive, as was his producer Debra Hill, and conversations proceeded apace. Everything looked to be on track for us to premiere this film as in our Gala programme, until Wayne flew down to New Jersey for a test screening.  Paramount owned the film, so the final decision would be theirs. Senior executives from the company were in attendance, and after the screening Wayne was told emphatically that the film would not be coming to the Festival.

Five years were to pass before we opened the Festival with one of Cronenberg’s masterworks, Dead Ringers. It was controversial, it divided our audience, and, in hindsight, it was not a perfect opening night film. But it is a film Helga Stephenson, Festival director at the time, and I are immensely proud of programming in this slot. We took a risk, and the film’s stature has only grown over the years. Its complexity, control and command of the medium further confirmed our belief in David as a major artist.

Another five years later we opened the Festival with M. Butterfly, a film that played with far less controversy. The fact that it was a critically acclaimed stage play had prepared the way.

Since then, Spider, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and A Dangerous Method have all made their way into the Toronto Festival as Gala presentations. Reasons of timing and distribution meant that eXistenZ, Crash, and Cosmopolis— films we admired greatly—did not. Crash did not go quietly into the night. We battled hard to have it included, but the film was so controversial, and the commercial release so delicate, that other factors came into play. If the distributor had chosen to release the film just one week sooner, Crash would have been a part of the Festival.

Festivals are ultimately relevant because they spot talent before they are discovered, and continue to support them over the years. David was not our discovery—he had made four features before the Festival was founded—but I’d like to think we changed the debate around his work, added to his respectability, and provided an ongoing platform as he grew into the major artist we know today. As a result, the major European film festivals have picked up the torch that Toronto lit so successfully in 1983. David went to Cannes for the first time in 1996, Berlin in 1999, and Venice in 2011. He had arrived on the international stage as an auteur with impeccable credentials and the Festival of Festivals/Toronto International Film Festival had been an integral part of that story.