By Piers Handling, Director and CEO, TIFF
David Cronenberg has achieved the status of the iconic. His name has become an adjective. Use the word “Cronenbergian” and a set of assumptions instantly spring to mind: excess, horror, violence, chaos, body transformations. Imagery in his films is among the best-known in contemporary cinema: the exploding head (Scanners), the body slit (Videodrome), the twins (Dead Ringers), the car crashes (Crash). His films have attracted acolytes and detractors alike. The release of a new film is the subject of international scrutiny. The most prestigious film festivals have embraced his films and elevated him as an establishment auteur. Articles and books, scholarly and journalistic, have placed the work under a microscope. He is now clearly considered a major artist: a filmmaker with a definite vision, something to say, who has remained true to himself and forged a personal cinema, a cinema of distinction.
But what exactly is going on in Cronenberg’s universe? Open, as the work of any interesting artist should be, to many interpretations, his films have elicited a growing body of critical work. The pioneers were horror and science-fiction critics who situated him within these genres. He became known, somewhat facetiously, as “The Baron of Blood,” a descriptor that provided good copy but which he rapidly outgrew. The gore and viscera that marked his early career have morphed into different forms of horror—psychological ones, of the mind and imagination.
Nevertheless, throughout his career, Cronenberg has remained remarkably faithful to a set of ideas that he has made his study. He is a living, active artist, still highly productive. Even as he celebrates his 70th birthday, he will no doubt write fresh chapters in his life. But at this point in his career, after twenty feature films, there is an unmistakable arc to his work.
Questions surrounding identity comprise a key element, perhaps the core of his films. Metaphysical and existential questions that have obsessed artists and philosophers for centuries provide a solid basis on which to examine the films of this singular director. Questions like, Who am I? Where have I come from? Who created me? Am I free? Am I a social creature? What form do my relationships take? inform all of his films, and on closer examination show a man moving through distinct world views.
Closely tied to this idea of identity is a related idea, that of control, for in the Cronenberg universe both are intertwined and come under intense scrutiny, from his first short films, “Transfer” and “From the Drain,” through all of his work up to Cosmopolis.
In the first part of his career, Cronenberg asks the question, Who is my creator? Father figures in the form of doctors or scientists determined to better the world experiment on unwitting patients/victims. These projects soon turn in unsuspected directions, creating chaos, and the patients/victims are generally seen as having only partial control over their lives.
Cronenberg’s middle period witnesses a significant transformation as his protagonists struggle to regain and exert control. The doctor/scientist figure has all but disappeared. The struggle has been internalized and the protagonists of these films are battling demons of their own making. Who am I? becomes the defining question.
By the time Cronenberg arrives at the third stage of his career, his canvas has broadened. The question is no longer as narcissistic. His protagonists engage with the world, become concerned with groups of people: family, community. The Who am I? is turned outwards to become Who are we? or Who are you?
(Stereo, Crimes of the Future, Shivers, Rabid, Fast Company, The Brood, Scanners)
This is the question that underlies the first chapter in Cronenberg’s career. The early films all depict a struggle between a father/authority figure, in the form of a scientist/doctor, and the subjects of his experiments. The dramatic core of each film revolves around this brilliant scientist/doctor attempting to improve the human condition in some way. Each of them is well intentioned, the sole exception being Scanners, in which the palette of intent darkens significantly. Western notions of progress underscore these men’s work. They are trying to improve humanity in some way. But there is a pattern of unintended consequences, and Cronenberg adopts a complex and subtle argument when he comes to unpacking what this means.
Telepathic communication and the delights of extrasensory perception, a hot topic in the 1960s, are investigated in Stereo, Cronenberg’s first low-budget, quasi-experimental, intensely controlled featurette. A cure for “pathological skin conditions caused by contemporary cosmetics” is searched for in the equally playful and striking Crimes of the Future, which features a world where a disease has wiped out the population of post-pubescent females and is now attacking everyone.
As he steps into the commercial sphere with the gory, outlandish Shivers, Cronenberg depicts a doctor trying to breed a parasite to replace failing organs in the human body. Plastic surgery provides the backdrop to the dystopian Rabid as a young woman, badly injured in a motorcycle crash, finds herself in the care of a doctor experimenting with new forms of skin-graft technology. In The Brood, the new, here an advanced form of psychotherapy pioneered by another “visionary” doctor who encourages people to give physical shape to their anger, lies at the core of his study of a custody battle. In Scanners, we see an experiment conducted by yet another unorthodox scientist, overseen by a corporation specializing in international intelligence and security that carries ominous overtones from the get-go. “Scanners” who are created by this technology can read other people’s minds and, when needed, can control and kill on command.
The focus of all these films is placed on the victims of these scientific experiments. In fact, the scientists of the first two films, Luther Stringfellow (Stereo) and Antoine Rouge (Crimes of the Future), make no appearance at all, and serious screen time is really only given to Dr. Hal Raglan in The Brood. Indeed, the weight and power in these early films consistently lie with the unwitting individual who appears normal, and in some respects becomes a stand-in for the Everyman or Everywoman. In every instance, they have no control over what happens to them. Forces beyond their power and comprehension invade their bodies, take them over and turn them into “monsters.”
Does the creation myth lie uneasily beneath the surface of these early films? If there is no religious intent, and I think none was conscious (Cronenberg has reiterated many times that he is an atheist), the relationship between the Everyman or Everywoman and the scientist/doctor who in effect creates them, or at least their new persona, is nevertheless worthy of further investigation. Arguably, the scientist/doctor has in effect become the new God, playing with life, but there is also an undeniable Freudian element at play.
The films of this period relentlessly explore this idea, as an omnipotent father figure, blessed with knowledge, creativity and curiosity pushes at the boundaries of human knowledge and sees his experiments go awry. The need to invent, experiment and tamper is an inevitable part of the human psyche, but the unintended consequences are tragic. While Stereo and Crimes of the Future conclude in ambiguity (“It will be some time before the data is fully evaluated” is the last line of Stereo), Shivers ends in a kind of anarchic celebration of the release of the libido (an ending that can, and has been, read in a variety of ways). This is certainly not the case in Rabid or Scanners. The death of Rose in the former is tragic—she simply becomes a piece of trash to be discarded in a dumpster—while the ambiguity of the ending of the latter speaks to a hesitant, uncertain future. In The Brood, a highly personal film in the Cronenberg oeuvre, good appears to win out over evil: the doctor who releases chaos is killed, the father retrieves his child, and the malevolent mother whose rage released the vengeful brood in an orgy of mayhem is murdered.
If most critics see Fast Company as lying outside the neat arc of Cronenberg’s career, both stylistically and thematically, this reading reclaims the film. While there may be no mad scientist, there are three distinct father figures, one of whom, a corporate track rep, pulls all the strings in the lives of his racing team. His formal role and position clearly act as obstacles to the boyish protagonist who just wants to race cars, a young man who initially shares similar characteristics with other Cronenberg heroes of the period. They do not control their lives; others do.
The key dynamic of these early works positions normal, ordinary people who see their lives spiral out of control due to forces that either they cannot see, or are certainly powerless to affect in any meaningful way. While the protagonists of these films are not passive, outside forces are certainly far more powerful than they are. In an earlier article 1 , I argued that this could be tied to our own colonial history as a country, a feeling that we were not in complete control of our destiny.
An inability to control one’s fate is tied to notions of adolescence and immaturity. Cronenberg’s early protagonists all fit into this mould. The father in The Brood, ironically taking on his wife’s shrink in an ugly battle over custody of their child, is the only Everyman in this period who ends up victorious, but his victory is Pyrrhic: in the ambiguous final moments, bumps of rage appear on the arm of the daughter he has saved, pointing to an inconclusive future. With some caveats, the same is true of Fast Company, in which the evil father figure is destroyed at the end, but by a proxy of the young drag-car racer—his mentor, an older established driver. The protagonist does not yet have the individual power to alter their life.
Perhaps the emblematic image that completes Scanners ends this first chapter of Cronenberg’s career. The two brothers, one good, the other bad, having engaged in a climatic scanning battle, merge into one, with neither having apparently prevailed, as the surviving body and voice contain elements of both.
(Videodrome, The Dead Zone, The Fly, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly, Crash, eXistenZ)
Videodrome marked a substantive change in the Cronenberg project. Most critics have singled it out as one of his major films; some regard it as his best work. It is unquestionably a seminal film, marking a break in more ways than one. Certainly it was evidence of a new maturity, complexity and control. It saw Cronenberg moving slowly away from the two genres, science fiction and horror, that had tethered him up to this point—ones that provided safety and guidance but that were beginning to constrain his imagination.
In this middle period, Cronenberg’s protagonists are probing to the full the idea of their own individuality and what this means. They are free to explore their own bodies and minds through sex, drugs, literature, art, medicine and technology. As in the early films, there are unintended consequences, but control—and identity—are theirs.
Max Renn in Videodrome straddles the worlds of early Cronenberg while marking an important turn towards this middle portion of the director’s career. The demons now all lie within the protagonist. Max Renn is a driven, tormented, curious, renegade television executive with a taste for the trashy underbelly of pop culture. This eventually leads him, via a slow descent into sadomasochism and degrading fantasy, to his own suicide. The mad scientist is Brian O’Blivion, but he is a peripheral figure: marginalized, only seen on television monitors, in effect an absent presence. A Marshall McLuhanesque media philosopher (“Television is reality and reality is less than television”; “There is nothing real outside our perception of reality”), he provokes thoughts and ideas but is in effect powerless. Max is complex: he makes his own decisions, tries to assume control over his life, his sexual fantasies, and ultimately, perhaps, even his death, but he is not entirely free. Videodrome, the hallucinatory allure of Nicki Brand, and the shadowy presence of O’Blivion’s daughter mean that he is still struggling against outside forces.
In The Dead Zone, a film that bears some resemblance to Scanners, a man named Johnny Smith discovers he has extrasensory powers after being in a coma for five years after a car crash. He can see events in the future. There is a doctor in this film, gentle and kind, who is helping Johnny recover, but the film charts the manner in which Johnny starts to use his new powers for good: initially to track down a killer, and eventually to intercede against a candidate running for state senator who will unleash a nuclear holocaust if allowed to live. Johnny makes a conscious decision to intervene, to change the way things are, and his actions make a difference, ruining the candidate’s campaign. With this film, we are moving away from the tragically powerless victims of Shivers, Rabid and Scanners.
With The Fly, scientist and subject merge into one character, Seth Brundle, who, in his words, is “working on something that will change the world as we know it.” This is language that we have heard in one form or another from the voices of the scientists/doctors in the early work: Dr. Roger St. Luc (Shivers), Dr. Dan Keloid (Rabid), Dr. Hal Raglan (The Brood), Dr. Paul Ruth (Scanners) and Brian O’Blivion (Videodrome). But all these men experiment with other people; Brundle experiments with himself. In a step forward from Videodrome, the source of the failed experiment increasingly lies within the willing victim, even if Brundle’s impulsiveness proves to be his undoing. Cronenberg is beginning to reclaim power of choice, decision-making, and the future within his protagonists.
This sense of self-empowerment is a shift of epic proportions in Cronenberg’s cinema, and continues with another of his masterworks, Dead Ringers. In the mode of the early films, the scientific experiments, this time in the hands of twin-brother gynecologists, are projected onto other subjects, here an actress who wants to become pregnant. However, the key moment comes when their experiments are turned in on each other, with fatal consequences. Combining as it does two major ideas in Cronenberg’s work— experimenting on another and experimenting with oneself— Dead Ringers remains one of his most tragic and controlled pieces of filmmaking.
The investigation into the self and the question of Who am I? receives different, but no less meaningful treatments in subsequent films: Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly, Crash and eXistenZ. Each holds up this idea for examination in a different way. As control begins to revert to the self, Cronenberg explores the fragility of identity with a prismatic complexity. In Naked Lunch, which could be seen as a sly, ironic self-portrait, Cronenberg employs Burroughs’s novel to delve into places where reality and fantasy intersect. The film is a finely modulated examination of creation and creator, in this case a writer experimenting with drugs that fuel his life, imagination and finally his art. Self-actualization may actually involve losing control. Almost the same idea is explored in M. Butterfly, in which a French diplomat falls in love with a beautiful Chinese opera singer only to discover that “she” is in fact a “he,” and a spy at that: how could he not have known? The fantasy of exotic projection, an inner reality that perhaps denies, or certainly suppresses, knowledge, ultimately wins out.
The idea of control is central to Crash. A group of thrill-seeking, zoned-out semi-cultists explore the limits of their obsessions with technology (cars) and sex (their bodies). Each character in the film, much like Max Renn in Videodrome, explores a full range of fantasies available to them. Unlike Renn, there is no cathode-ray Brian O’Blivion pulling strings from afar. These people are all free to act and do as they please. Indeed, their identities, much like in Naked Lunch, are bound up with their fantasies, the re-creation of famous car crashes.
Another group of cultists, this time video gamers, function in much the same manner in eXistenZ, a troubling and complex film that blurs reality and fantasy, an idea that recurs throughout Cronenberg’s work. Ted Pikul, the male protagonist, again reminiscent of Renn in Videodrome, is both free but under the thrall of a temptress, Allegra Geller, the creator of the eXistenZ game. She could be seen as another of the mad scientists who populate Cronenberg’s early work, but here she has a group of willing gamers eager to experience her new invention, and the conceit of the film lies in the tease that everything might be a game or fantasy anyway, and that she remains elusive, impossible to judge.
(Spider, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, A Dangerous Method, Cosmopolis)
Spider, like Videodrome, is another transitional film in Cronenberg’s career, a work that stitches together ideas from the second stage with what follows. The interest now extends from the individual, and the couple, into broader social relationships. Family was never entirely absent from the previous films (just think of The Brood) but neither was it a central idea to be explored. As Cronenberg’s protagonists began to assume control over their lives, and reach out beyond themselves, they did so within the context of singular relationships (Johnny and Sarah in The Dead Zone, Seth and Veronica in The Fly, Beverly/Elliot and Claire in Dead Ringers, Bill and Joan in Naked Lunch, René and Song Liling in M. Butterfly). Both Crash and eXistenZ begin to move away from the traditional couple to a more polymorphous portrait of groups of people.
And for the first time, significant maternal figures make an appearance, beginning to balance out the proliferation of paternal figures seen in the early work. If father figures in the form of the doctor/scientists dominate the early work (and much has been made of the one mother figure in these films, the hideous Nola Carveth in The Brood), recent Cronenberg has recurring mother figures—if not exactly at the centres of the films, certainly at points close to them. In Spider, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises and even A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg’s relationship to the feminine, the source of much critical debate, points towards a desire to reconcile with another part of the Freudian world.
In Spider, the family centres the narrative and its concerns. Spider’s struggle is the battle to work out his relationship with his father and mother. Spider also shares many attributes with Naked Lunch. It is an examination of an individual trying to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Spider, essentially mad, is attempting to make sense of an Oedipal moment from his past involving his mother and his father. The entire film is a working out, and a reworking, of a trauma—the death of his mother—that has ended in him losing his mind.
A History of Violence contains a beautifully delineated sketch of an ordinary family living in a small town. It is unquestionably one of Cronenberg’s greatest films, a work of subtlety and complexity, focusing as it does on a man who has hidden his past from his family. The past, as it must, resurfaces with a vengeance, the Freudian id in full force, disrupting the quotidian rhythms and patterns of an ordinary household. This family could be a Norman Rockwell cliché. How the film disturbs this Edenic reverie is compelling. As the palette shifts towards darkness, the moral dilemma that the husband, Tom Stall/Joey Cusak, must confront will test who he is as a man and individual, and explore ideas of responsibility, honesty and trust. Conversely, his wife and children come face-to-face with a husband and father who is indeed a different person from the one they knew.
Family is central to both Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Method. In the former, we are in the world of London’s Russian mafia, where notions of family are attached to codes of behaviour even more stringent than those associated with the normal nuclear family. Dishonesty and betrayal put life on the line, a distinction clearly different from the codes at play in A History of Violence. Nikolai Luzhin, an outsider, is ritualistically brought into the vory v zakone family where he begins to face his own moral dilemmas. As Ernst Mathijs notes, within this detailed examination of family are not only biological concepts, but also concepts of race, class and religion. Each forms a structure within which the individual exists and operates, along with different notions of family, belonging and indeed identity.
Identity, always mutable and fragile in the Cronenberg universe, begins to be associated with the idea of concealment. Both Tom Stall and Nikolai Luzhin create carefully constructed identities that are not their own. Tom is an ex–contract killer, Nikolai an undercover policeman, and both are living external lies.
Hidden identity is not a new idea in Cronenberg’s films. But now it becomes increasingly important to him in his analysis of the idea of the individual. The horror genre is built around the idea of becoming a different person, of having one’s personality altered in some fundamental manner. In M. Butterfly and Dead Ringers, Cronenberg begins to deal with this idea free of the constraints of a genre that had previously provided a framework for his films.
A Dangerous Method fits clearly within this growing fascination with families of various kinds. Played out against the backdrop of a young Carl Jung falling into the orbit of the older and more established Sigmund Freud in the early days of psychoanalysis, Cronenberg portrays Jung as a family man, somewhat unhappily married, who has an affair with a patient, Sabina Spielrein. This triangle plays off against another: Jung, Freud and Spielrein, who oddly create an alternative family structure.
At the same time, two other “families” compete for attention: the religious and the professional. Freud and Spielrein are Jewish, and no small point is made of this. Freud also appeals to Jung’s sense of belonging to a nascent, fragile and threatened movement of psychoanalysts. This push-and-pull between the personal and professional, marital and vocational, proves to be a combustible cocktail, ending in emotional and professional separations. But in A Dangerous Method, each of the three major protagonists is completely free to live their lives, and to make their own choices.
A further interesting element of the late work is Cronenberg’s own reference to his Jewish roots, which he first acknowledged in his four-minute contribution to 2007’s Chacun son cinema, “At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World in the Last Cinema in the World.” In this short film and in A Dangerous Method we see for the first time Cronenberg—an acknowledged atheist and existentialist—hinting at an identity that he has never fully owned, but which, like the bumps on the arm of the young child at the end of The Brood, persists.
We are now left with Cronenberg’s final film, Cosmopolis, a work that initially appears little concerned with family but which is certainly interested in the intersection of a man with community and the wider world around him. At first glance, Eric Packer, the steely-eyed, financial wunderkind, rich beyond imagining, seems to be a throwback to earlier Cronenberg protagonists. Like Max Renn (Videodrome) and Seth Brundle (The Fly), he knows what he wants. His strong sense of identity and self suggest the assurance of Tom Stall (at least in the first half of A History of Violence) and Nikolai Luzhin. But, more than any other Cronenberg protagonist, he is in absolute control of every facet of his life. There is no authority figure, no family, his wife only a ghostly, unconsummated apparition. Locked away in his fully outfitted limousine, he lives in a carefully constructed, hermetic environment, allowing the outside world to enter at his choice when he is joined by a series of advisors, lovers and doctors. Totally self-contained, passionless and monotone, he is already one of the living dead—and the voyage traced is of a man moving towards his own, willed death.
But beneath the surface, family is ultimately the itch that must be scratched. Packer’s voyage through a New York seething with unrest, gridlock and protest is motivated by his need for a haircut. Initially a descent into a Dantean purgatory, Cosmopolis becomes almost a Homeric search for home. When Packer finally arrives at the barbershop, family bubbles to the surface. Memories of his father, his own first haircut, his father’s death when he was five, are all triggered by the barber, who is likely the only remaining connection the young man has with his past. Family is absent, but lives on, and drives a man disconnected with himself and his own ruin into its clutches. But it will not save him, as it does not save Stall in A History of Violence. Packer, haircut unfinished, abruptly gets up—“I’ve got to leave this place”—and propels himself into the night and towards a confrontation with his own death.
If the arc of Cronenberg’s work moves from disempowerment to empowerment, from a world that is controlled by others to one where control is regained, along the way he indeed ventures boldly into what an identity, free and independent, might mean, and into how this unique identity intersects with the other. Lonely are the brave, these Cronenberg protagonists who explore new worlds of media, literature, science, finance and medicine only to meet with their own deaths, more often than not at their own hands. Suicide is indeed a recurring motif. Is it another form of control, or an abandonment of faith and hope? Max Renn, Seth Brundle, Johnny Smith, Elliott and Beverly Mantle, René Gallimard, Vaughan, Eric Packer: all have escaped the suffocating power of the doctor/scientists of the early films. They are free. And even if all of Cronenberg’s protagonists do not die as they do, the survivors—Bill Lee, James Ballard, Tom Stall, Nikolai Luzhin and Carl Jung—are caught in a Sartrean huis clos. There is no exit.
1 Piers Handling, “A Canadian Cronenberg,”The Shape of Rage: The Films of David Cronenberg, ed. Handling (Toronto: General Pub. Co., 1983) 98–114.