Wednesday, August 24, 2011

the Directors: David Cronenberg

Alternative realities.  Subjective versus objective narratives.  Psychoanalytic fascination with man’s obsessions.  Sexual masochism.  These are some of the attributes most commonly associated with David Cronenberg, one of cinema’s leading auteurs of the desperate and the depraved. 

While most frequently tied to the science fiction and horror genres that made him famous (and that he, in turn, helped propel), Cronenberg has recently stretched his narrative landscape to more conventional, but no less thrilling, storytelling.  In drafting short reviews of Cronenberg’s entire filmography, I found that I wasn’t all too impressed by some of his earlier work.  But, like all great filmmakers, when he’s on, he’s on.

For me, the sole criterion for labeling an auteur is being able to tell whose film you’re watching after only a few moments of the movie.  And while many of these films share similar themes, several of them differ vastly in content and execution.  Regardless, when you watch a David Cronenberg film, you’re watching a David Cronenberg film.  There’s no mistaking, no denying, you’re in it.  Be afraid.  Be very afraid.

Shivers: They Came From Within (1975)
In a disquieting debut, Shivers tells the frantic story of a scientist who accidently manufactures a parasite that basically makes those exposed to it have sex with anything in sight.  The movie isn’t at all revelatory, but does well in the shock factor, which appears to be its main goal.

Much like Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape, Shivers promises fresh explorations of a tired genre; an announcement showcasing what is to come, only to be drowned out by a slew of less-than-inferior follow up films.  Yes, the production value is utter crap, but for loyal Cronenberg fans, Shivers is vital viewing.  B

Rabid (1977)
Rabid is best known as the zombie flick starring porn star Marilyn Chambers, and honestly, it’s not really much more than that.  After the starling motorcycle accident that opens the film, Rabid quickly turns into nothing more than a dull edition to the then thriving, and now reemerged, zombie genre.  Boring, clichéd, and not at all reminiscent of the sci-fi/horror greatness that would later dominate Cronenberg’s career. D

Fast Company (1979)
I watched Fast Company less than a month ago and from what I can remember, it’s about a… professional dragster racer who is constantly arguing with his… gruff manager?  Fast Company is easily the biggest head scratcher of Cronenberg’s career. I have no idea what his motivations were in directing it, or how he managed to crank out such a seemingly random, uninteresting film.  A complete bore.  D-

The Brood (1979)
A few years ago, I made the mistake of purchasing The Brood, simply because the tagline was something like: “From the early mind of David Cronenberg comes THE BROOD!”

The Brood, more or less, chronicles a psychoanalyst’s investigation as to why people are being killed by a demon-like dwarf, thing. Questions are answered, music shrieks, clichés abound, cheesy dialogue ensues; it’s all very movie-of-the-week.  With that in mind, The Brood is, I suppose, worthy for three reasons.  It highlights techniques that would soon come to identify Cronenberg, its final scene often ends up on Scariest Movie Moments of All Time lists, and it was apparently based heavily on Cronenberg’s first marriage, which is oddly amusing.  D+

Scanners (1981)
If you’ve never seen Scanners, about a hunted group of people who can control others by “scanning” them, you’re probably aware of two scenes that will be forever stapled as essential moments in horror film history.  The exploding head and the final Scanner battle.  But honestly, you can watch those two scenes separately and not lose much of the context offered in the film.  Scanners, like many of the films already mentioned, is dated, dull, and forced beyond repair.  For die hard horror fans, and Cronenberg enthusiasts, Scanners is a must. For everyone else, YouTube the aforementioned scenes, and you’ll be good.  C-

Videodrome (1983)
In Videodrome, James Woods’ cable station owner stumbles across a channel that seems to only broadcast actual violence and torture.  As he investigates the genesis of the channel, he soon becomes immersed, and obsessed, by apparent alternate realities brought on by the newfound network.

Perfectly fitting for the best of Cronenbergian themes – surrealist obsession, heightened reality, device ownership over its user – Videodrome delivers early on its promise, but soon fades into tiresome obscurity.  The discovery of the channel, and of Woods’ genuine shock, is infinitely more amusing than the film’s ultimate payoff.  Videodrome is 90 minutes long, and could be 20 minutes shorter.  Essential for Cronenberg buffs only. C+

The Dead Zone (1983)
A kind, timid man suffers a traumatic accident and suddenly discovers that, upon touching people, he can see the badness they’ve done and experienced, and the badness they will soon do.  Sounds familiar, right? Watching The Dead Zone, I couldn’t help but think of how shamelessly M. Night Shyamalan ripped it off for his Unbreakable, a film, for the record, I like very much.

Regardless, The Dead Zone is a completely decent, pseudo sci-fi/horror flick, with an as-you-might-expect central Christopher Walken performance.  Walken’s zany, now parodied antics fit perfectly with Stephen King’s material.  And while Walken and the rest of the cast, including Brook Adams, Tom Skerritt, and Martin Sheen, make the film worthy, it never once feels like a Cronenberg film.  It’s controlled and limited in scope, like a superior part of a drive-in double bill.  The Dead Zone is enjoyable and evolves smoothly with each passing act, but it’s holding something back.  B-
The Fly (1986)
As far as I’m concerned, there’s David Cronenberg before The Fly, and David Cronenberg after The Fly.  Here’s a guy who had yet to live up to his potential, and then struck down the naysayers in one fell swoop.

The Fly, one of the very best science fiction films ever made, is a tour de force on many levels.  Its pace is careful and engaging, its script includes nothing but necessities, its score, by Cronenberg collaborator Howard Shore, propels the action, but doesn’t force it, its makeup is game changing, and it has the rarest of all sci-fi attributes: a stellar leading performance.

A career-best Jeff Goldblum embodies everything about Seth Brundle.  His obsession, his carnality, his physicality; it’s a demanding role, both physically and mentally, and Goldblum kills it.  Every facial twitch and insect movement is executed seamlessly.  Most of the time, actors in such roles let the heavy makeup do the acting for them, such is not the case here.  How Goldblum’s performance didn’t merit an Academy Award nomination is beyond me.

The Fly is inarguably the most important film of David Cronenberg’s career.  It elevated him from a wannabe to a master.  It is essential viewing for any fan of cinema.  A

Dead Ringers (1988)
Dead Ringers, more so than any of Cronenberg’s films, rests solely on the performance of its leading actor. The story – about identical twin gynecologists who are bored with their genius and deicide to share just about everything – while engaging, is nothing really new.  The cinematography and score, while cold and appropriate, is far from revelatory.  Basically, all of that would be lost were it not for Jeremy Irons.

As Elliot and Beverly Mantle, Irons delivers what could very well be the best dual role in the history of film.  When both are on screen (which is seamlessly done with exceptional digital effects), it’s difficult to tell who is who. When the two are apart, forget about it.  This is not a flaw, mind you, this is dynamic acting. Irons’ performance(s), while horribly overlooked awards wise, is frankly one of the best I’ve ever seen.  When he finally did win his Oscar (for Barbet Schroeder’s Reversal of Fortune), Irons very selflessly thanked David Cronenberg.  His performance is masterful, and the film is seriously elevated because of it.  A

Naked Lunch (1991)
In adapting William S. Burroughs' “unadaptable” novel, Cronenberg created something of a cult masterpiece.  Which fans of cult cinema rightly know, doesn’t necessarily equate to a movie of full comprehension, but one hell of a ride in the moment.

It’s best not to give away too much, mostly because it’d take me four paragraphs to even describe exactly what this movie is about, but in short, Naked Lunch details the trials and tribulations of a ‘50s bug exterminator who may or may not be using his product for recreational purposes, and as a result, may or may not share beers (among of things) with very large, talking bugs.

If you dive into the Burroughs/Cronenberg world, there’s only one way to do it: head first without looking back.  Naked Lunch only gets weirder as its running time lessens, leading up to a real mindfuck of a finale.  Remember... dive, don’t jump.  B+

M. Butterfly (1993)
Note to avid Cronenberg fans: if you have any interest in seeing M. Butterfly, do yourself a favor and watch it without doing any research.  I was clueless going in, for which I benefitted immensely.  The film tells the sort-of true story of René Gallimard, a French diplomat in 1960s Beijing who was eventually tried for treason. M. Butterfly isn’t a great film, but it is anchored by yet another flawless Jeremy Irons performance, and best viewed uninvestigated. B

Crash (1996)
Please, for the love of God, do not get Cronenberg’s masterful film about a subculture of people who get equal gratification from car crashes and sex, confused with Paul Haggis’ inferior film of the same name.

Cronenberg’s Crash, while not using science fiction or horror as a theme, is essential Cronenberg.  Crash, better than any of the films on this list, details human nature’s obsession with… you name it: sex, death, desire, self longing, betrayal, violence.  This being one of the best sexual thrillers ever made, Crash is a ballsy film filled with fearless performances, namely by Deborah Kara Unger and Elias Koteas.  With its realistic violence and frank sexuality, the NC-17 rated movie continues to polarize audiences and critics today.  You’re either going to completely dig it, or dismiss it as smut trash. 

Me?  I dig it, and then some.  And Cronenberg fans, I suspect, will too.  A-

eXistenZ (1999)
Much like Videodrome, eXistenZ shows how the things we own end up owning us.  Much like Naked Lunch, eXistenZ morphs into parallel realities and lucid hallucinations, with little to no warning.  Frankly, I was a little bored with eXistenZ, which isn’t a fault of leads Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh, or with the look and tone of the film; I suppose I was bored by the overall material.

That is, until the film’s final ten minutes.

I dare not give it away here, but the final scene of this film is one that will have you amusingly puzzled long after the credits have rolled.  “What does it all mean,” you may think.  I’m not sure, but somehow, I’m now more impressed with the experience. B-

Spider (2002)
Better than more popular, Hollywood-glam like A Beautiful Mind and The Soloist, Spider allows its viewer to experience what I assume actual schizophrenia is like.  The film drifts in and out of consciousness, seamlessly shifting narratives and time periods.  Actors play multiple characters, scenes are repeated once, twice, three times; yet, by the end, it all makes jaw-dropping sense.

Like some of his best work, Cronenberg’s Spider depends on a terrific lead performance, which Ralph Fiennes dutifully delivers.  As the titular schizophrenic, Fiennes rarely speaks above a whisper, constantly mumbling, seemingly confused yet oddly in touch.  While Spider never found the audience it deserved, it’s bound to be appreciated by fans of our auteur in question.  B+

A History of Violence (2005)
In one way or another, all of the films mentioned thus far deal with at least one form of obsession.  Whether imposed by the characters themselves or by outside factors, Croneberg is a man amused with the obsession of human nature.  Which is why I find it most interesting that A History of Violence, while having nothing whatsoever to do with obsession, is David Cronenberg’s best film.

A History of Violence tells the story of Tom Stall (played expertly by Viggo Mortensen), who, after defending himself and others from a wicked spat of violence, soon becomes the victim of mistaken identity, incidentally putting himself and his family at serious risk.

This is a simple film about a simple man living a simple life. And when I first saw it in 2005, I wasn’t quite sure why (or how) it succeeded so fabulously.  You can credit all the actors involved, chiefly Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris and particularly William Hurt, who gives a brief but humorously haunting performance that, all things considered, probably should’ve resulted in him winning the Oscar he was nominated for.

Like the performers, most everyone involved in the film put egos aside and delivered natural, unflashy work.  From Josh Olson’s country-charm script, to Howard Shore’s subtle score, to Peter Suschitzky’s cool photography, to Ronald Sanders’ smooth editing; everything simply works.  No tricks, no gimmicks, just genuinely masterful storytelling.  I called A History of Violence one of the top 20 films of the 2000s, a rank I happily stand by today.  A+

Eastern Promises (2007)
Much like A History of Violence, Eastern Promises is similar in conventional tone vesus superior execution. Riding high off his newfound acclaim, Cronenberg helmed another simple story about otherwise simple people stuck in extraordinary circumstances.  After a midwife (Naomi Watts) discovers the journal of a dead 14-year-old girl, she quickly finds herself immersed in London’s sect of the Russian Mafia.  This mob faction, led by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his crazed son (a convincing Vincent Cassel), are a forced to be reckoned with, especially at the hands of entry-level enforcer Nikolai (Mortensen, again achieving greatness).

Most notable for people who’ve seen the film is its graphic violence, which is never stylized, and wholly realistic.  Many prefer Eastern Promises to A History of Violence, and who can blame them?  Regardless, both films would make one hell of a double feature.  A

A Dangerous Method (2011)
After back-to-back works of art, I’ve been seriously missing David Cronenberg, which makes me all the more excited for his Carl Jung/Sigmund Freud character study.  Make no mistake, I am predicting that 2011 will slightly beat 2010 in terms of cinematic ingenuity (which isn’t saying too much).  But here’s to hoping Cronenberg, with the help of Mortensen, Cassel, Michael Fassbender and Keira Knightly, can resurrect a seemingly written off year.

In summation:
The Fly
Dead Ringers
A History of Violence

Eastern Promises

The Dead Zone
Naked Lunch
M. Butterfly

The Brood

Just Plain Bad
Fast Company
Listen to my podcast on David Cronenberg!


  1. Nice coverage man. I have one glaring disagreement, though. Dead Ringers. Dude, I couldn't stand that film. While I admired Jeremy Irons performance, I found very little else to like and just wanted it to end. I found some of the plot developments to be a real stretch, and while it evoked some sickening emotions, I found it to be really dull. Maybe I should watch it again.

    I haven't seen all of Cronenberg's films, but here are how mine stand:

    Masterful - The Fly, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises

    Great - Naked Lunch, Crash

    Good - Videodrome

    Eh - Scanners, Dead Ringers

  2. Your thoughts about Dead Ringers are completely fair. Critics and audiences never really liked that movie, but for whatever reason, I completely dig it. The first time I watched it, I remember sitting there in complete shock by the whole thing.

    Granted this is mostly because of Irons, but that flick has always stuck in my head as pure Cronenbergian bliss. Ha, maybe I need to watch it again.

    Funny how we match up on damn near every one of your choices, though.

    As always, I really appreciate you reading.

  3. Interesting. I'm on the same page with you on The Fly, Eastern Promises, A History of Violence, The Dead Zone. I'm not a fan of Naked Lunch, but it certainly is ballsy enough to earn some respect.

    I'm going to have to give some of the rest another viewing. Some of these I never had any intention of watching before (existenz, crash) and am now intrigued with. Others (Videodrome, Scanners) I recall being fairly impressed with when I first saw them 10+ years ago. Your summaries sound fair, I just can't believe my young self could be that wrong.

    Oh well, I guess I'll just have to spend some more time with a master director. Oh, darn.

  4. Thanks for using the time and effort to write something so interesting.

    My blog:
    rachat de credit marseille

  5. Naked Lunch is completely polarizing, I didn't like it at all the first time through (due mostly to my utter confusion), but I kind of like it now.

    You can do without eXistenZ, but Crash will definitely, uhh, get your blood pumping.

    thanks for commenting!

  6. Wow, what a comprehensive post. I am still new to Cronenberg -- I have only seen A History of Violence and Eastern Promises -- but I keep hearing so much about him. Thanks for putting together this detailed list, as now I have a good idea of where to start with his catalog.

  7. Hey thanks so much for reading. If I were you, I'd go with The Fly next. Pretty iconic stuff.

  8. "I have no idea what his motivations were in directing it"

    Usually when a director makes something that's really out of character for them, I suspect the primary motivation is the paycheque. (Cf. some of the TV work he's done, which I can't imagine is stuff he felt a burning need to make for artistic reasons.)

    What do you make of the early short features Stereo and Crimes of the Future? I bought the Fast Company DVD in order to get those two, but wound up liking the main feature a hell of a lot better than the featurettes.

  9. Oh man I've never seen those shorts, but I'd love to get a hold of them.

    Yeah Fast Company to me was just a complete waste of time. It wasn't horrible or anything, but definitely pointless.

    At any rate, I really appreciate you commenting!

  10. Even though Dangerous Method is one of this year's worst films I still adore Cronenberg and I've been looking for a guide like this for a while, because I want to see his earlier work.
    Great post!

  11. "Worst"? Oh no that's a bummer. Hasn't been wide released here yet. What movies of his have you seen/liked?

  12. I have found Cronenberg's filmography to be a lot more patchy than I would have liked. I'm not as crazy for AHoV as most people are and have found some of his early work to be meh, but I think gems like Videodrome, Dead Ringers, The Fly, and Eastern Promises more than makes up for his early horror work. I also really enjoyed A Dangerous Method and Cosmopolis (which I know you really hated).

    1. I agree that his body of work can be patchy at times, but I still love him, you know? When Cosmopolis hit Netflix, I sat down and gave it another shot, hoping I'd dig it more. I actually enjoyed it less, which I didn't think was possible. Just not one for me. But plenty of his other films are.

  13. As I'm now starting work on the 2nd part of my Auteurs series on David Cronenberg w/ only Cosmpolis and a short called Camera to watch. Here is my list of my favorite films by Cronenberg. I think I like his early horror stuff a lot more than you did though I think you and I disagree on M. Butterfly.

  14. OK, I'm sure I've posted something a comment yesterday as I'm about half-finished w/ the 2nd part of my Auteurs piece on David Cronenberg as I only need to see Cosmopolis. As of right now, here is my list of the films of David Cronenberg that I've seen so far including shorts and early films. It's obvious you're not really fond of his early work which I definitely like while we both disagree on M. Butterfly. Yet, we definitely agree on the 3 films you picked as his masterpieces.

    1. Yeah man, sorry for the late response. Was traveling all last week. You like M. Butterfly a lot less than me judging from your list, right? It's an okay film, I guess. I've only seen it once, for this post. And that was enough.

      Cosmopolis, man, I hated that film.

    2. Well... it looks you're going to have more company. I've updated my list and you're absolutely right. It was fucking horrible. I never want to see that piece of shit film ever again!!!! It felt a lot longer than 109 minutes as it took me more than 3 hours to watch that piece of shit! I hate the fact that Cronenberg is working w/ Pattinson again for the new film. BOO!!!!

    3. Honestly, I am so glad to hear you say this. If you read the comments for my review of that film, a few people RIPPED into me. I actually started doubting myself and then I was like, "No, wait, that movie is complete dogshit."

  15. How to explain Cronenberg's films? Some people do mechanical sci-fi; he does goopy sci-fi. Done.