Something Bad: David Cronenberg
By Daniel Kraus

From Gadfly June 1999

Obsessions are generally looked on as encompassing, galvanizing inclinations that are limiting, dangerous and, basically, undesirable. However, we reward filmmakers who have obsessions. Theirs are just as neurotic and fixative as ours but at least represent commitment—something we don't see enough of in film. These obsessed, methodical (and, yes, often repetitive) filmmakers, whether it be Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen or David Lynch, are undoubtedly self-possessed, self-centered and ego-driven. Which is why the obsessions of David Cronenberg (director of such critically acclaimed works as The Fly, Dead Ringers and Crash) are so paradoxically interesting: They are intrinsically personal (because they are sexual) yet undeniably cold (because they are "technical"—that is, involved with machinery and technology).

Many would claim that Cronenberg's films are emotionally distant, and that he is good with special effects but bad with actors. However, he is not impersonal at all—he merely approaches the film from a different angle, usually the point of view of the disease or evil threat (this is most obvious by looking at the one example to the contrary, the character-driven Dead Zone). His films are, I think, emotionally involving, but their mode of attack is intellectual, circumstantial (given our natural sexual fears) and, most appropriately (given that surgical imagery pops up in Shivers, Rabid, Scanners, The Fly, Dead Ringers and Crash), clinical and scientific.

Although it's tempting to assume that Cronenberg's on-screen alter ego would be sex-and-violence peddler Max Renn of Videodrome (a director being betrayed and used by his producers, anyone?), Cronenberg himself has described the ever-present scientist characters (and usual source of the disease/evil) as his persona in his films. He is the bespectacled child twins in Dead Ringers, approaching the answers to life not through emotion but through "dissection." Even his body of work supports this identification; his films are thematically constant, "experiments" that, in proper scientific fashion, care not about their outcome, only their process. (Not to mention that he played the gynecologist that delivered the maggot-baby in The Fly.)

Cronenberg is known as the father of a sub-sub-movement in fright movies, "venereal horror." His first feature, Shivers, is a highly effective little movie about a strain of parasitical beasties that look like diseased penises and, after infesting inside someone, give them maniacal and uncontrollable sexual appetites, spreading their disease exponentially (also note the STD-like terrors of Rabid and The Fly). The AIDS parallel is obvious, but Shivers was made in 1975, long before AIDS was the cause célébre in Hollywood.

This was only the first example of Cronenberg's ability to anticipate global trends and use our natural trepidation and worry over these new attitudes/technologies to terrify us. With Videodrome (1982), it was the rising accessibility of VHS technology (soon to prompt hasty "classifications," or censorships, everywhere—subtly in the U.S.A. and blatantly in Britain with the Video Recordings Bill of 1985), as well as today's quandary over rating television violence. With The Brood (1979), it was psychotherapy; with The Fly (1986), it was genetic engineering; and with this year's eXistenZ, it's virtual reality. He infuses each new scientific or technological phenomenon with that which is most primal and opposite of "civilization": namely, sex.

And what's more inherently sexual than something living inside of you? Disease, says Cronenberg, is just two organisms making love to each other. The usual point of entry for Cronenberg's gallery of evil spirits is sexual, and men and women share the burden equally. Just as the monsters in Shivers penetrate vaginally, Max's stomach opens vaginally to accept an evil videotape in Videodrome. Men are invaded/penetrated (psychically in Dead Zone, psychically/physiologically in Scanners) and even give birth (Shivers, The Fly). The woman in Rabid grows a death-penis from her armpit, killing people in embraces that look and sound just like sex. In a 1983 interview, Cronenberg said, "My instinct tells me that an enormous amount of sexuality, and everything that springs from that in our society, is a very physical thing. Human beings could swap sexual organs, or do without sexual organs per se, for procreation. We're free to develop different kinds of organs that would give pleasure." Sex isn't about sex in Cronenberg films. It is, if you'll allow it, a metaphor for the entry of alien or "mutant" thoughts or actions. As Cronenberg himself says, his films deal with life and death—sexuality is merely a natural by-product.

As the '70s turned into the '80s turned into the '90s, America had to come to terms with a highly traumatic event—the end of the Cold War. Filmmakers, being chief among those who deal artistically with great human fears (right up there with television news), turned their sights, domestically, outward and, most effectively, inward. Cronenberg recognizes what scares us more than anything: the revolt of our own bodies. Our bodies, we know in the backs of our minds, will eventually betray us. We will lose control of our legs, our mouths, our bowels, our minds. It is the oldest, most unavoidable fear.

In The Fly, we get to watch a sickeningly speeded-up version of this dreaded "aging process" as the housefly genes mixed with scientist Seth Brundle's human genes slowly cause his body to degenerate. It is so terrible and so inevitable that both Brundle and the mutating Max Renn of Videodrome (and, really, all aging people) come to see their deteriorations as a "transformations." What other choice have they?

Likewise, every one of Cronenberg's films deals with some type of mutation. The Brood features a woman whose rage malforms her sexual organs, growing malicious, mutant children from external sacs. Rabid's accident victim has a skin graft that develops into a new organ that sucks blood. In light of these horrifying inevitabilities, self-mutilation is often an attractive, almost euthanasia-like option. Revok drills a hole in his head in Scanners to "let all the people out." The freak-mother in Brood bites her own placenta open, a girlfriend bites the Siamese twins in half in a Dead Ringers dream sequence, and a pregnant woman in The Fly begs for an abortion to kill the maggot she dreams is inside of her.

But slowly Cronenberg's movies also began touching on a different sort of mutation, that of the psyche. Johnny Smith, the hero of Dead Zone, blessed (or cursed) with the gift of foresight, says that using his power "sucks life" from him, not unlike the ghoulish parasites of Cronenberg past. Johnny gets headaches and bloody noses and grows weaker (grows old, or "mutates," in other words) each time his mind becomes anomalous. Dead Ringers follows a similar path with twin gynecologists whose psychological dependence on one another is so much more freakish than their apparent physical abnormality that they tumble into a drug-induced pit together, each one concluding that he must keep up with the other's mindset or die. The film concludes with another self-inflicted mercy-killing, one twin dissecting the other in a bittersweet act of "separation." Cronenberg knows that just as stress can cause rashes and headaches, the psychological can influence the physical—he merely extends that principle.

Only recently has Cronenberg embraced what he has been skirting around: the final, most essential mutation, the one that includes and transcends both body and mind, the mutation/perversion of sex. He has played with it constantly for twenty years: The end of Scanners features a literal rebirth of body; the psychologically spawned (and therefore, according to American logic, evolutionarily supreme) children in Brood have no sex organs; the sex-fiends in Shivers devour man, woman and child alike. In his last three films, Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly and Crash, he has finally let sex speak for itself.

And its message is certainly not a clear one. All three films are based on difficult external materials (William S. Burroughs' thoroughly unfilmable "novel," David Henry Hwang's stage play and J. G. Ballard's 1973 story of people aroused by car wrecks), and each gets a rather imaginative, yet non-accessible reading by Cronenberg. All three were far too obtuse to gain mass popularity, and Crash alternately garnered boos and praise (a weird award for "audacity") at Cannes.

Naked spliced Burroughs' writings and life story with Cronenberg's own visions and concerns (much like Brundle splices himself with a housefly in The Fly), resulting in an new entity all together. Naked embraces the conceit that sexual deviancy may be a mutation—physically, socially, emotionally. The protagonist, Bill Lee, monotones in the beginning that he used to be troubled, but, "I'm married, now. Straight." Straight being the opposite of crooked.

Once Bill's experience begins to include that of the homosexual encounter (and the homosexual encounters are portrayed as highly disturbing, body-twisting transfigurements), the entire world begins to erupt. Slimy, sex-obsessed bugs talk in men's voices, saying to Bill, "homosexuality is the greatest cover an agent ever had." Considering that these homosexual "agents," like Bill, are grouped with junkies, writers ("It's a literary high," one raves about Naked's fictional drug) and, we must extrapolate, directors, a bond appears between the sexual aberration and the artistic expression. Why do we create art? To balance an inner imbalance, an inner abnormality or "mutation." A telling scene in Naked involves a typewriter turning into a sex organ as the typing becomes more passionate and fervent. The medium itself turns into a sex organ, implying that, as an artist, you cannot help yourself from creatin—it is an instinct as primal and as necessary as sex. Suppressing these artistic urges is as shameful and harmful as Bill's sexual ambivalence—his constant assertion of non-sexuality ("I'm just writing a report") is seen as the greatest sin in the mythical land of Interzone.

The danger (or attraction) of creating such art can be illustrated in the story Bill tells of "The Asshole That Learned to Talk": Soon, the asshole got so proficient (it could talk, eat and shit) that it didn't need the mouth anymore, so the mouth closed up. Given that the bug-typewriters speak from their assholes, we can thusly see the danger of the muse (writing, directing) overtaking the life, as Burroughs' muse (drugs) overtook his.

Cronenberg's controversial, NC-17-rated Crash took the next and almost inevitable step down Cronenberg's highway of physical and mental abnormality. It featured characters that looked on hideous scars and leg braces and wanted those irregularities and perversions as permanent parts of their lives and bodies, injuring themselves emotionally and physically with intentional auto wrecks and dangerous sexual relations. Audiences rejected it, finding the film cold and thoroughly unpleasant, its only attraction being the very attraction of a car crash—the proceedings are so unpleasant that you have to look. Perhaps Cronenberg was just too far ahead of societal trends once again. Or perhaps he was fixated, as always—really, Naked, Butterfly and Crash are much like his first film, Shivers. They all entail people making love any which way, sexual anarchy. According to Cronenberg, the original end to Videodrome had the three main characters "sexually intertwined... Max's abdominal vagina matched by Nicki's and Bianca's newly found penises." This is the "New Flesh" that is constantly referred to—a new, creative, erotic nirvana.

Given that Cronenberg will never actually see the consummation of the idea of the New Flesh, what does he hope his art will achieve? A mad painter in Scanners resists mind control by practicing "rehabilitation through art." Of course, not only are these words said deeply sardonically, and not only is the painter way off his rocker, but he is gunned down minutes later by those who are better adjusted. Turning your focus inward, toward the mind, isn't Cronenberg's advice either (the earthy, séance-practicing good guys in Scanners and The Brood are indistinguishable from the homicidal bad guys), and we know focusing on the body is futile (for all of their bodily obsessions, Crash's characters end up only worse for wear).

Perhaps if we are to take Cronenberg as a scientist, we should take him as a modern-day Dr. Frankenstein, just like his counterpart Brundle in The Fly. Says Brundle, "I'm a bodybuilder. I take 'em apart, and I put 'em back together again." But Brundle is not only the mad scientist but also the Monster, smashing up his own lab and kidnapping the girl. Brundle and Cronenberg both combine the "bad curiosity" of Dr. Frankenstein with the "bad body" of the Monster. Brundle's attempt to merge himself with his wife and child at the end is a Frankensteinian act of sewing body parts together. Heck, Brundle even starts to look like the old Hammer Films' Frankenstein monster (circa 1957).

Appropriately, then, one of Frankenstein's chief concerns is also one of Cronenberg's persevering themes: the disappearance of humanity via increased technology, or the non-human wiping out what is essentially human. "With all these voices in your head, how can you develop a self, a personality?" they ask in Scanner—the "voices" being brought on by a new drug technology. You could read these voices as the over-saturation of technology—the constant "voices" of television, radio, newspaper, the Internet, all clouding out one's own personality. Not only do the (malicious, technology-bearing) scientists refer to Scanners' hero as a machine ("He seems to function"), but he is forced to act like one, accessing computers over telephones just as he accesses people. The scientific/psychological spawn in Brood have no personality at all—they are, in fact, living abortions. Most blatant, Max's hand in Videodrome merges with his metal gun ("the next phase in the evolution of man as a technological animal," quotes a Videodrome controller).

Even Cronenberg's choice of actors—most of them rather monotone, rather unattractive, rather ineffective—is devoid of much humanity. It is also hard to ignore the omnipresence of rather bug-eyed actors (Allan Migicovsky in Shivers, Stephen Lack in Scanners, Christopher Walken in Dead Zone, Jeff Goldblum in The Fly). As film theorist Caroline Clover points out in her landmark book Men, Women, and Chainsaws, eyes are, in the words of Videodrome's evil Spectacular Optical company, "the window to the soul." Eyes in a horror film are like a movie theater scene in a movie; it is the point at which horror is given (Max's tumor-resulting viewing of T.V., Dead Zone's prophetic eyesight) and received (by us, watching the film). Clover writes, "horror films attack their audiences; we take it in the eye. [The eye can be] physically assaulted by the projected image—by sudden flashes of light, violent movement of images plunging outward, fast-cuts... the stock-in-trade of horror." Quite simply, the bigger the eye, the harder we fall. And, as Stephen King deftly puts it in Danse Macabre, "Eyes are the most vulnerable of our sensory organs, the most vulnerable of our facial accessories, and they are (ick!) soft. Maybe that's the worst... "

Ultimately, perhaps Cronenberg is cautioning against what is evidenced in his most polished and accomplished work, The Fly. Simply told, the social-misfit scientist Seth Brundle finds himself with no woman. So he does what many of us would do, given too few social skills and too much technological know-how: he builds a womb out of metal, a telepod ("tele" = technological, "pod" = womb), and emerges from it pregnant. This pregnancy is the death of humanity and the birth of something else.

Something bad.