Sunday, May 1, 2016

Inner worlds

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2003)

I don’t really think of myself as a big David Cronenberg fan, but there must be something about him, because over the last year I’ve watched several of his movies for a second time. The most rewarding revisit was Crash, which I’d hated the first time, but which after a few years seemed utterly fascinating in how it constructs its own language of desire and engagement. In a way the movie’s impact is based on sheer persistence as much as on its specific achievements, and the emphasis on celebrity car crashes seems to me to be making a conventional point about star worship, but overall it’s still a stunning vision of tragic displacement. People often disparage sex films for not actually being erotic – but here’s a film that really merits the distinction: it’s hard to get aroused when the sexuality is so completely about negation. I don’t quite know how meaningful Crash may be as a metaphor for anything real, but at the very least, it’s one of the great gloomy fantasies of the age.

Rewatching Cronenberg

I also saw Naked Lunch, which has a surprisingly dour tone for such an outlandish piece of material. Again, the film’s structure, which has sickness seeped into its pores, is mesmerizing, but the theme of the relationship between writing and death doesn’t seem as productive as anything in Crash. The movie is a key submission for those who think Cronenberg is basically just weird.

The other film I rewatched recently is the 1977 Rabid. Cronenberg’s reputation is still heavily coloured – maybe excessively – by this and other early works like Scanners and The Brood; most accounts of him tend to turn pretty quickly to his supposed obsession with bodily ickiness (admittedly he does return time and time again to devices of basic repulsiveness, all the way up to his last film existenZ). Rabid is about a woman whose skin graft operation goes horribly wrong and turns her into a carrier for a vampire-like condition, visualized in a way laden with sexual metaphor. The movie isn’t much more than a low-grade zombie movie, and Cronenberg was still on a heavy learning curve when he made it. It presages one consistent aspect of his style though – a deliberate, cool approach toward uniquely transgressive subject elements. In interviews, Cronenberg seems very much like his films – a well turned out, low-key individual who could clearly go over the edge at any second.

His latest film Spider may be the best reviewed of his career. Respected critic Amy Taubin considers it one of the ten best films ever made. That may be the far point on the scale of enthusiasm, but it’s hard to find a bad review of Spider. Nick James in Sight and Sound called it “slow perfection and a true work of art”; Stephen Holden in The New York Times called it “as harrowing a portrait of one man’s tormented isolation as the commercial cinema has produced.” Ironically and bizarrely, although it qualifies as a Canadian film, it didn’t even get into the five Best Film nominees at this year’s Genies, despite Cronenberg himself winning the prize as best director.


Ralph Fiennes plays Spider, who’s released from a mental asylum after many years and goes to live in a halfway house in London. Initially the film chronicles the sparse rituals of his new life, then it changes into a memory of Spider’s childhood, with Gabriel Byrne as his father and Miranda Richardson playing both his mother and the cheap tart who disrupts the family. The film places the adult Spider into the middle of these childhood scenes as an unseen observer, compulsively watching events unfold, his lips occasionally muttering the “lines” along with his young self. This is intercut with frequent shots of Spider in his room, compulsively scribbling in a notebook in some secret code (or maybe it's pure scribbling). The film’s distinctiveness is in the ambiguity over whether we’re watching his memories, or a pure fiction written by Spider, or a mixture of both. Cronenberg maintains this ambiguity beautifully, almost until the last possible minute.

Cronenberg’s theme of bodily self-disgust manifests itself subtly here – in repeated shots of Spider’s nicotine-stained fingers for instance, but especially in what retrospectively seems like the film’s key scene: he goes into a pub looking for his father, and one of the local tarts flashes her breast at him. Beyond recording the kid’s obvious embarrassment, Cronenberg doesn’t linger on it at the time, but this moment seems to spark Spider’s escalating confusion. The use of Richardson in both parts, representing both poles of a crude good-evil opposition, is very subtle in that we’re never sure whether Spider actually sees them as the same woman, or whether this is a symbolic device for the benefit of us, the audience.

Similar points could be made about much else in the film: Spider moves through almost abandoned streets, seldom encountering anyone except the figures in his head – is this a representation of his objective surroundings, or of his mental landscape, or both or neither? I know of course that movies needn’t be analyzed so literally, but Spider seems to demand it – it foregrounds the process of image creation. The film’s most “normal” shot is the opening one, where the camera moves along a railway station platform as the passengers get off and walk to the gate – eventually they’ve all dispersed and then there’s Spider. It’s the only time in the film we look directly at so many people, and seems designed precisely to make that point – that we’re departing now from straightforwardness.

Puzzle Movie

Ultimately, Spider is a bit too much of a “puzzle” movie (something signaled by its shots of jigsaws, a broken window rearranged on a tabletop, and suchlike) – it reveals the “truth” and then it’s over. I think it’s possible to see the praise it’s received as actually a bit of a mixed compliment for Cronenberg: it tells him his more ambitious visions aren’t wholly successful, that he needs to rein himself in – in other words to deny much of what made his reputation. After a first viewing, I find the film distinctly easier to write about than I did his other films (I wouldn’t have had a clue what to say about Crash), and ironically that leaves less reason to see it again in the foreseeable future. It seems much more self-effacing than his other films (excepting perhaps his motor racing movie Fast Company, which I’ve never seen), and as such does perfect service to Spider’s inner world. I admire it immensely and yet, ironically, while watching it I missed those Cronenbergian extremes.

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