SHARED DEFINITIONS: WITH DAVID CRONENBERG
IN THE ARENA
What if we were allowed to define ourselves rather than come into this world already labeled? What would the world be like? Miles Davis never favored the term jazz. He considered his music to be more akin to social statements and preferred using the term, 'social music'. Imagine if he had his way of defining and labeling his music. What if we were all able to add to dictionaries? Sort of open source-like. Dictionaries would certainly be incomprehensible yet our individualized perceptions, not to mention our 'shared definitions ' of the world would be very different. Then too, in particular realms of life such as the arts, literature and film would authors of books , painters, illustrators and filmmakers have new categories to plug their own creations into?
What of film makers? Filmmakers have become our writers of the post modern world. Mankind is increasingly replacing words with images. As time goes on will filmmakers always ascribe themselves to the same labels used by critics and reviewers of film? All these questions matter greatly when we seek to condense a persons works into an article for immediate consumption. When it comes to defining movies and in particular those from outside America, what is considered universal can become a foreign language to creatives not conditioned on our national diet of words and meanings. In this paper I will focus on not film makers in general but one in particular. David Cronenberg.
This paper will deal with the conflicting definitions that emerge during face to face interviews with Cronenberg. The definitions often used to define the body of works by this Canadian film maker give reason for pause. This papers takes the position that in their haste to belittle or to compartmentalize Cronenberg, is to slice his oeuvre into disputable terms. Intentional or not, often film critics themselves create Frankenstein-like words and deceptions. These words, while helpful to some audiences, may not fit the intent of the film maker nor fit the stereotypes that come with them and become directly attached to the director's person-hood.
Often reduced to being a cult leader from horror who had segued into mainstream, here we share what many know to be more the truth - that Cronenberg is in fact a cultural hero. While this daunting task has consumed many an hour and taken the mind of this writer into millstreams of thoughts, what becomes evident is that this papers is but an assemblage of evidence that critics who position themselves as the guardians of the gates of mass consumption, differ on Cronenberg's importance. The differ from scholars who treat film as more than entertainment but as 'message is the medium”. The latter renders film the equivalent as important to the exchange of ideas were with the novel during its arrival at the close of the 19th century. Finally, we find herein that the gulf streams of terms used to define films instead of remaining shallow, open into a vast world of words and specialized disciplines . Overall, Cronenberg is an auteur who possess intelligence, wit and skills capable of unraveling the definitions ascribed him.
In 2015 Cronenbeg turned 73 years old. During his longevity, he has given a plethora of interviews, has had essays and books written about him, hosted seminars and talks and appears in numerous youtube videos. As referenced -above, his recently published novel ,“CONSUMED” has been gestating with him for over 12 years. He is as much a master of word play as he is of the techniques used in film making. By the late 20th century, it is a known fact that the HORROR genre itself offers new film makers a way to break into the film making industry. Financing a film based on fears can draw attention for an unknown film maker. Film festivals are the still the swap shops where these sellers meet and seek to impress studio and investors. Cronenberg has himself availed himself at film festivals. There he is sure to sit and chat awhile with those stimulated by his unique style.
Yet Cronenberg seems to have labored so long in the pastures of Horror that he became labeled as a founding father. From the dawning of one of his first feature length movies, SHIVERS, to the critically acclaimed VIDEODROME, he manged to plant such new approaches to horror per se that it grew into a sub-genre all its own: BODY HORROR. Still when it comes to the asking him about his time spent making BODY HORROR films, the term itself, seems to make his blood boil. Many who have interviewed him fall into this trap by posing questions using the both the term BODY HORROR and GENRE despite the fact that he seems to reject them all. Since the late 1970's Cronenberg's subject matters have diversified from depicting the body as the central focus of a movie to perhaps the mental trials of his protagonist, yet critics and interrogators alike seems to remain unable to step away from the trapping dropped by previous writers.
Fore the sake of argument: If it is safe to argue that Cronenberg wishes to deny most of the adjectives used to define he himself (and by extensions his movies) as much as he bothers to explain what his intentions are, then it is best to allow this man the space and time to define himself. One could pick any interview and see how Cronenberg speaks. Like a basketball player, he tends to dribble his words... he turns, swivels, looses his pursuer... then fades... begins to suggests other definitions (luring we listeners into an alternate universe: preferably his own) he falls back, shoots and often scores on challenging our previous notions. Often Cronenbeg is faced with a person who holds him in high regard, if one is intimidated by his intellect, he manages shake the foundations the interviewer stands on. He is a skilled debater and oftentimes buttresses interviewers with his self serving terminology. Read and see if you don't agree, its always his word play that dominates any conversations. Indeed what this paper consists of are fragments of conversations, interviews and clips from critiques on David Cronenberg and his body of work. In this manner, we allow ourselves to juxtapose how Cronenberg defines himself against how others have tied yet failed to define him. Every effort is made to respect the authorship of the publishers and the interviewees from whom the excerpts are taken.
Excerpts from a interview with
Andrew Parker October 30, 2014 You also just published your first novel, Consumed, which a lot of people have been terming a return to “body horror” for you. Would you consider going back to horror at some point?
First of all, as you know, “body horror” is not my term. That just stuck and now I’m the creator of the “body horror” genre, even though I’m not sure what it is. (laughs) I don’t think it’s horror with the body at all, but a fascination with the body. Anyway, that’s a whole other conversation.
But I never really felt like I turned my back on any genre at all. Horror, let’s say, or [science-fiction]. I just feel like I’ve done it. Most of the projects I get offered in those genres these days are often just remakes of my own movies. They’ve been so influenced by the films that I’ve done that people seem to think I would like doing them again. For me, that’s just boring. And I have many other interests.
Now read what transpired with one interview on the concept of GENRE
O: Do genres interest you at all? Is there a genre you'd like to work in?
DC: I absolutely don't think in terms of genre. I could imagine thinking, "That's a great film I'd like to do," and recognize that it's a horror film. But I don't think in those terms at all. It's another way of putting your mind in a box. For example, when I'm doing Naked Lunch, do I worry about whether it's a horror film, just because it has special effects? Or Dead Ringers–which category is that? To me, genre is a marketing problem. Or it might be a critical question, but it's not a creative issue at all
IN THIS CORNER: THE AUTEUR
...”Perhaps artists can only hope to be slightly out of sync with their times so that they may develop images of the world from a slightly skewed perspective...” ROBERT HOBBS.
Cronenberg has shared that he himself has no Christian values that limit his films. His characters are not positioned to represent good nor evil. Cronenberg is an self ascribed 'atheist existentialist' who wants to make films that, while using the medium of the screen, uses the motifs of a genre where he can creates new viewing experiences. Often disguised in disgust, a disgust he him shares with some, when confronted with playing devil's advocate, he recoils at the suggestions. He could be hiding behind walls erected via satire, ridicule or lacking resolve because he knows the terms used to flush him out are imbued with false premises. He knows many of our traditions in defining are faulty. Thus, all interaction with outsiders (those who do not share is observations) are treated as idiots incapable of making him confess to what they perceive as a short coming in any particular film. From behind this voided space, a space where Christian dare not tread, is Cronenberg's play ground, Here he can present objectives that challenge.
For those who can lay aside their preconceived notions of traditions, their Christian values that resolve good and evil; only on this side of logic, where the open minded audience is still mixed, can Cronenberg be addressed. As scholars demonstrate, mainstream film critics in America, have build their own sand boxes and trapped themselves in it? Audiences who love dark cinema and subject matters like Cronenberg come to rely on the dismissive reviews of some critics to relish more in the anticipation of seeing rather than sharing in the movies dismissed. Horror of the modern era relied on the Cold War fears generated not only from outside the United States but from within. As those fears abated, Directors like Cronenberg sought new terrain. he delved into technology and the medicalization of illness. These subjects became the horror (commonly termed BODY HORROR) and often failed to appeal to mainstream audience. For those more conditioned on block busters and formulaic narratives, Cornenberg's depictions of mind bewitching, self mutilating anti heroes positioned in and with ending not likely to resolve the fears aroused, just don't satisfy. Those who tend to enjoy more creative independent cinema know that critics tend to feed on manifestation of their own skewed views.
Upon reading the reviews of MAPS TO THE STARS ( see below) one can get the impression that while reverend as a master of Horror, Cronenberg is simultaneously belittled as as a director with a mere cultist following. He is more the master worthy of making pointed social observations about the time period of the setting. His critics fail to expand from what they see as satire on Hollywood into a worldview that could be found in many locations on the map. Yet before we turn to that peep this:
After [Hitchcock's] Psycho 1960 the horror film would shift to focus on 'ourselves' as monstrous: the threat in the modern horror film might be said to come from within, rather than from outside. In Cronenberg's films the fear comes from the fact that we are, or may become, the monster. The status quo itself can be seen as the monster, not just the self, and anxieties around who has control over technology and the body are at the forefront of Cronenberg's narratives. For example, Cronenberg's 1996 film Crash does not draw a clear division between monster and hero(es), rather, it depicts a society overwhelmed by its technology, though it cannot be said that the technology itself is monstrous.
While all of the following excerpts focus on the movie MAPS TO THE STARS, do not forget that this is not a post dedicated only to that movie. MAPS...' is merely Cronenberg's most recent movie. Cronenberg has been offering audiences insight into the reexamination of our trusted views of the world. In this film his script is based on yet another writer's book. While the nihilism found in his earlier horror films remains, an exposition of our more lurid pleasures, takes center stage. Yet he remain s creative genius who enjoys tinkering around in the laboratory of grotesqueness. In this vein, Cronenberg exudes an often overlooked similarity to a scientist undertaking experiments. Be they character-psychoanalyst A DAGEROUS METHOD working within the confines of a closed system of offices or a applied scientist working in his laboratory THE FLY, Cronenberg holds magnifying glasses up to the human condition.
EXCERPTS ABOUT MAPS TO THE STARS
The Canadian horror maestro scrapes away the surface of Hollywood to discover a magnificently Cronenbergian outbreak of tortured families, reprehensible [behavior] and extreme violence.
The New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani, who has often praised Wagner's [Bruce Wagner] work, panned "Dead Stars," saying: "Aside from a few bravura scenes here and there, this self-conscious, tricked-up volume consists largely of gruesome anecdotes — which feel contrived for maximum gross-out value — desultorily strung together like ugly beads on a filthy string.... This novel feels more like a weary wallow in Hollywood scum than the sort of savage satire this gifted author is capable of writing."
FROM Rolling Stone Magazine
The great Cronenberg, with the help of gifted cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, keeps us locked to reality even as the film hurtles into the absurd.
Sam Sacks in the Wall Street Journal
“... [Bruce Wagner's ] If the book were just this — virtuoso screed and unsparing parodies of frauds and fame-whores — it would be enjoyable as a piece of provocation and nothing else. But Mr. Wagner's showstopping trick is to introduce his repellent cast of characters warts and all (often warts and nothing else) and then, subtly and convincingly, make you care about them."
from THE OBSERVER
Cronenberg: I consider myself a junior existentialist. When I started to read Sartre and by association Heidegger I thought, “Oh wow, this is what I’ve been thinking.” There’s a great lecture Sartre gave called “Existentialism is a Humanism”. He basically said, “Look, we humans are really all we’ve got, forget about the afterlife, it doesn’t exist. Forget about God, there is no God. We should accept that and if we did and realized that compassion and humanistic empathy were valuable – more than valuable but crucial – then the world would be a better place.” So that’s really my approach to life.”
In closing this section first look at what Croneberg had to say about MAPS TO THE STAR
“...The movie is obviously a work of fiction, it’s not a documentary on how Hollywood works; it uses compression, exaggeration, all those techniques,” says Cronenberg. “But both Bruce [Bruce Wagner] and I would resist calling it a satire. Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal is a satire, but this movie is too realistic to be a satire. In fact, Bruce has said that every line of dialogue in the movie he has heard spoken by someone. He could probably tell you who.
CRONENBERG: TO BE UNIVERSAL YOU HAVE TO BE SPECIFIC. YOU HAVE TO SET YOUR STORY SOMEWHERE THIS IS AN AMERICAN SETTING BUT...”
OPPORTUNISM OR NOT
What does an artist do when his audience expands? Does he become a producer of works that continue to sell or does he ignore is own popularity? Indeed while Cronenberg has amassed a massive following, he seems to be a needle in the side of some old guardians of film-making. Perhaps some of his queries threaten as some refuse to concede to his mastery. Cronenberg is skilled at more than making movies. As one well read in philosophy, the history of psycho-analysis, literature and applied science, he knows how to use visual technique to entertain audiences while simultaneously building a dialogue that comments on the calamitous times and events they are released around. Yet there always seems to be an undercurrent to discredit him. Because of his intellect, he manages to elucidate and expose weaknesses in our shared beliefs. It is best to allow him to define himself. In doing so, critics allow audiences to reexamine their viewing experience. In photography an aperture on camera regulates the amount of light that comes in. Cronenberg working in the tradition of an autuer, expand the language of cinema.
Its frightening as he is an atheist and one wonders what what motivates him, now that is he interested in delving (deviling) away from Horror and toward irony?
“Irony is useful...since it represents a layering of useful strategy...since it represents a layering of meaning, one almost transparently superimposed over another so that gaps and fissures in the apparently seamless web of an accepted ideological construct are revealed” Robert Hobbs
In a interview Croeneberg answers a question about the movie SPIDER. The question was on schizophrenia. His answer is more telling about his thoughts on Identity.
Croenberg: All art is dangerous. We are seeking to recreate reality. What we want is DANGEROUS for us. But schizophrenia is a disease of identity. Who is the you that wants to do or does not want to do something and where is the you that controls it.
Can a man so keen NOT be the Nostradamus of movie making. Perhaps! One wonders if he is the equal to the Salvador Dali in Dali's later years? His insights in horrors of technology have proven to be the sign of our times. Yet all the while he remains adamant that he does not follow the trails of our cultural fears in hopes of creating a winner of a film.
The Timing of his 1980 films such as THE FLY and DEAD RINGERS (based on two real life suicide pac- gynecologist) suggest he was not above mining the fields of popular culture for subject matter. And while we are in this terrain of popular text being made into popular cinematic experiences, perhaps COSMOPILOS 2012 (based on the novel by Dillo) which was seen as a comment on the recent Wall Street 2008 debacle was just that. Yet he refuted such reading of his films. David Cronenberg was surprised when The Fly was seen by some critics as a cultural metaphor for AIDS, since he originally intended the film to be a more general analogy for disease itself, terminal conditions like cancer and, more specifically, the aging process. In his own words...
"If you, or your lover, has AIDS, you watch that film and of course you'll see AIDS in it, but you don't have to have that experience to respond emotionally to the movie and I think that's really its power; This is not to say that AIDS didn't have an incredible impact on everyone and of course after a certain point people were seeing AIDS stories everywhere so I don't take any offense that people see that in my movie. For me, though, there was something about The Fly story that was much more universal to me: aging and death—something all of us have to deal with". Cronenberg.
Still one can come away from a Cronenberg film not sure if he had been complicit in such opportunism. His intellectual pursuits and dept skill in plowing up fears while burying meaning has positioned him where the doors of research are open from Vienna (A DANGEROUS METHOD) to Hollywood (MAPS TO THE STARS). His adeptness at tingling meanings from Victoria literature on up to the time period of writers whose works have become the bases for many of his films, renders him a forced to be reckoned with in both the socio-political and entertainment worlds.
Croeneberg: “I’m a Canadian, what can I say? Of course! Yes, I’m actually in general a very happy-go-lucky guy and that’s the thing that surprises people because of the movies. You worry about the environment, you worry about the future of the planet, you think as an existentialist, when you die that’s the end, it’s oblivion. People might think, “My God, that’s a horrible way to live.” But no, I’m actually quite optimistic and happy...”
Excerpts from the interview with Keith Phillips for the AV Club
O: Do you think developments in technology have justified the visions of your earlier films?
DC: Well, see, I was never looking for that kind of justification, so I haven't noticed. When people say, "Videodrome is obviously very prophetic," I say, "Being a prophet is not my job. Being an artist is." In sci-fi, there are people like Arthur C. Clarke who love to be able to say, "I predicted satellite systems 40 years before they were invented." And, if you're a hardcore sci-fi techno writer, that would be a triumph. But for me, it's nothing. It's just a little sidebar. In Rabid, I invented something that's coming true now. The whole stem-cell stuff is exactly what I talked about in Rabid, this sort of neutral human tissue that would read the context of where it was placed and become that kind of tissue. That was 26 years ago. But I don't feel like I need recognition from that to... I don't feel that I have to justify myself at all.
This writer does not favor equating ticket sales with evidence of a must see movie. Seriously good cinema is not always well marketed nor is it necessarily received with popularity. Yet in the pages of many reviews, the emphasis is placed on monitory gain. If Cronenberg, using his name, news and fears of the day wanted to fast track a production and cash in on a popular film, I wonder if such behavior placed on his creative vision might not contradicts his analytical-arch with Moloch. Cronenberg most recent films examines the production of if not the outgrowth of fears and anxieties in post the post modern era. Would his interest in propaganda and bombastic telemarketing reduce his standing as social observant/critic?
As stated by Douglas Kroner, “While Cronenberg's films are negative and pessimistic, they deal with real anxieties and phobias. His horror films combine projections of the universal fears of death, and the bodily mutations, invasions, and disintegration which nourish the classical horror film, with fears of contemporary viral, carcinogenic, and telematic body invaders. The horrors often mutate into phantasmagoric nightmares of catastrophe and apocalypse...” He provides the needed packaging of our common fears into nearly indigestible entertainment. In Cronenberg's films both mind and body, in mysterious interaction, disintegrate or mutate out of control and wreak havoc in a hyperfunctionalized and hygenic social order unable to deal with frenzied metamorphosis and proliferating disease.
THE SOUND OF THE ELETROLUX
What do we know for sure about David Cronenberg? We know that he enjoys collaborating with writers. The track record is clear. We know that he loves to speak of the sounds his fathers typewriters had on his artistic pursuits. Not only the sounds generated from the typewriters but how those same sounds introduced him to the marvels of machination. We also know that he enjoys being an autuer. On numerous occasions, he has made these pronouncements.
Oftentimes magicians, illusionist and even charlatans grant us entry behind the curtain that provide them shields. They occasionally step aside, lay their cards on the table and give us the facts behind their schemes. Indeed charlatans must be exposed. Yet even the most esteemed crime stoppers often themselves are imbued with the same characteristics of the criminal they pursue. Like crime detectives, Film critics (whose job it is the dissect films and define the tactics of filmmakers sometimes serve Moloch. They can not always be trusted to remain objective. When outsiders like Canadian film maker David Cronenberg stands at the gates howling cinematic diatribes, its best to ignore the critics and let Cronenberg speak.
With his penchant for the grotesque, Croeneberg is sure to disgust many. Yet for those astute enough to separate his Canadian wheat from his chauvinistic chaff, the new school of critics can then be called in to explain what shared definitions apply.