Wednesday, August 24, 2011

David Cronenberg and His Rather Disgusting Cinematic Art and Psychosis of Bodily Mutilation and Transmogrification

The following is my contribution to The LAMBs in the Director's Chair #19: David Cronenberg.  And as a warning, there are probably some spoilers ahead, so if that is a concern of yours, ye have been warned.

He made people's heads explode in Scanners.  He turned James Woods into a living breathing VCR in Videodrome by putting the most vaginal of openings in his belly.  He shoved bio-mechanical USB cords into slimy, fleshy spinal holes of his gamers in eXistenZ.  He put parasitic venereal diseases into promiscuous young women in Shivers.  He gave erotic pleasure to mutilated auto accident victims in Crash.  He gave a woman an oozing phallic underarm stinger in Rabid.  He made emotional states dictate how your body would deform in The Brood.  He had a demented, drug-fueled Jeremy Irons go to town on women with the most medieval of gynecological contraptions in Dead Ringers.   He gave grotesque physical life to the warped creatures in William Burroughs' head in his adaptation of Naked Lunch.  He transformed Jeff Goldblum into a freakin' fly for crying out loud - a filthy, disgusting, pus-covered freakin' fly. 

Now I have a rather strong stomach and can take pretty much anything in stride, but let's face it, David Cronenberg isn't the kind of director you go see with lots of snacks in hand.   The images that are brought to mind from the above-mentioned cinematic moments are merely the tip of the proverbial (and quite repugnant) iceberg of what can be called Cronenbergian cinema.  What I am trying to say is that the career of Cronenberg, one-time master of the genre known as body horror (yes, every genre has a name), has been strewn with the most repulsive, oft-times horrific images of body mutilation ever put on film.  Other directors have tried their respective hands at the genre (Lynch with Eraserhead, Carpenter with his remake of The Thing, del Toro with Cronos) but it is Cronenberg who has made a lifetime commitment out of the whole grotesque affair.   It is Cronenberg that has come to nearly perfect a certain type of Grand Guignol filmmaking style that at once titillates and repulses.   Like his characters in Crash, an erotic turn-on in the midst of death and destruction and mangled human flesh.  Guns and flesh becoming one in revolting nightmarish style.  Pulsating, talking typewriters that resembles melting assholes.  Goldblum's transmogrifying insectoid vomiting up his own food.  Nauseating, offensive, turns-one's-stomach kind of stuff.

Now I am not saying any of this as a negative critical reaction to the filmmaker and his work - his films feature repugnant imagery and that is just what they are meant to do.  Cronenberg's oeuvre has ranged from the awful to the spectacular (leaning perhaps more toward the latter than the former) but it has always been the outrageous ick factor (for better and for worse) that has given the director his auteurial signature.   As of late though, this ick factor has gone by the wayside, to be replaced with a more strictly psychological bent.  Still a horror-based psychological bent when all is said and done (or at least a horror-based undercurrent) but still a more thinking than seeing kind of horror.  Granted, even Cronenberg's earlier, more pure horror (or more precisely, 'body horror') films were of course laced with a certain type of demented psychology, but as the man has grown as a director, his films too have grown - grown into multi-headed beasts - and Cronenberg has grown into a more mature, and more multi-faceted filmmaker.

This transformation came not abruptly, but over a matter of time and a matter of films.  Beginning with Dead Ringers in 1988 and working through Naked Lunch in 1991, Crash in 1996, and eXistenZ in 1999, his work would eventually lead to films like Spider in 2002, A History of Violence in 2005, Eastern Promises in 2007 and to his latest work, A Dangerous Method coming to US theaters later this year.  The director's more recent works look more at the mind than the body (although the body is still a large part of his oeuvre, and shows in these films) and delve into subjects of hallucinations, dreams and the ideas of sex and violence on humanity.  Still though, even as Cronenberg transforms his cinema from the outside to the inside, he still manages to creep his audience out - he has now just invented new ways to do so.  But then Cronenberg has always been inside our heads, just as his imagery has come out of his own - and sometimes his own life as well.  In his 1992 book Cronenberg on Cronenberg, the director revealed that The Brood was inspired by events that occurred during the unraveling of his first marriage, which caused both Cronenberg and his daughter Cassandra a great deal of turmoil. The character of Nola Carveth, mother of the brood, is based on Cassandra's mother. Cronenberg said that he found the shooting of the climactic scene, in which Nola was strangled by her husband, to be "very satisfying".  Now how's that for some inner turmoil bubbling to the surface?


Tom Clift said...

Great piece! I'm a huge Cronenberg fan, both his early gore-oriented films and his later, more cerebreal stuff (as you point out, there's a very clear evolution over the course of his filmography)

I had no idea THE BROOD was semi-autobiographical. Pretty amusing really!

Kevyn Knox said...


Yes, the Brood story is kinda hilarious actually. I'm guessing the ex isn't a fan.