Thursday, March 25, 2010

Modern Maestros: David Cronenberg

Robert here, continuing my series on important contemporary directors. I'm glad Nathaniel posted his list of favorite characters of the 2000's earlier today, and even gladder that Tom Stall, protagonist of A History of Violence made the cut. He's a fantastically layered character. Also it's a nice segway into my director of choice this week. Though before we start, let's get this one bit of sad business out of the way: Yes, we'll never be able to talk about Cronenberg's Crash without having to say "No, not that Crash, the other Crash. Yes there's another movie called Crash." Le sigh.

Maestro: David Cronenberg
Known For: sci-fi, thriller, or generally disturbing takes on violent people.
Influences: plenty of great cerebral or sci-fi writers. Philip Dick, Ray Bradbury, Franz Kafka. Cinematically? According to Cronenberg, he grew up liking westerns.
Masterpieces: I respect a lot of his work. For me Eastern Promises and Dead Ringers are at the top.
Disasters: Oh eXistenZ really does kinda sUcK.
Better than you remember: I can't blame anyone for reacting with abhorrence to Crash. But it's really not that bad.
Box Office: over 40 mil for The Fly
Favorite Actor: When Cronenberg's next film is released (next year) Viggo Mortensen will be the #1 man with three showings. Right now there are a few actors who've starred in two Cronenberg films, including Ian Holm and Jeremy Irons.

Not many directors can work handily for over three decades and still be considered a "modern maestro." David Cronenberg is not only still making movies, but he's at the top of his game. He's reached a point in his career where a new Cronenberg film is greeted by movie lovers as a slightly out of the mainstream event and my guess is this is exactly where he wants to be. Through the past thirty years as we've watched his career go from horror in the late 70's to science fiction in the early 80's to psychological dramas with surreal elements in the 90's to straight thrillers this century (and for the sake of modernness, we'll try to stick to those here), his top interest has always been the same: violence. We've discussed directors who explore violence before. Tarantino loves the excitement of it. For Von Trier it's a social weapon. But for David Cronenberg, violence is simple and intimate. His movies ponder how we come to violence and how it comes to us. He examines how it alters our identity. After all, our bodies are our identities and when parts of those bodies are punctured, cut open, amputated or scarred, it alters who we are and what we are, if even just a little bit.

But all this about what violence does to us is just half of the equation (usually presented for our own musing in graphic detail). Once we understand the extent of what violence can do to a body, we can ask the other half. What kind of man can do such violence? For this, Cronenberg has any number of answers. It could be someone mentally scarred, someone in the pursuit of good, or even someone a lot more like you and I than you'd expect. It is the psyche of this individual that is at the very heart of what a Cronenberg movie is. But why stop there? Cronenberg movies always seem simple when they're fantastically layered. Where there's violence, sex isn't far behind. In an industry where most sex scenes are used as either shallow titillation or trailer teasing, Cronenberg's have always been immediate and necessary. When was the last time sex scenes were used to demonstrate the evolution of a relationship as successfully as those in A History of Violence?

Life is good. What could go wrong?

Even though Cronenberg started off as a horror director (saying that sounds so reductive doesn't it? I really don't mean it pejoratively) his style has always defied the easy tricks of that genre. Cronenberg's horrors aren't about the startle, they're about the slow build. While watching one of his films, you're never worried that something will jump out at you around the next corner. In fact you're certain that nothing will. But you know that what's around the next corner will be worse than what was around the last corner. And what's around the corner after that will be worse still. And you can't escape it. Although Cronenberg has departed the genre of supernatural horror (for good?), he's kept this method of building slow terror and it continues to serve him well.

After saying all of that I feel I haven't even come close to doing David Cronenberg justice, though if I wrote ten more paragraphs I still may not get close. One probably needs to take a psychology class and a philosophy class (and possibly be stabbed a few times, and have kinky sex, maybe simultaneously) to really get all the way through the depth of Cronenberg's canon. Excitement is already building for his next film, which will deal with a theme that while not violence (not directly at least) has been prevalent in all his work. Psychoanalysis, and the relationship between Freud and Jung (starring Viggo again and Michael Fassbender, what a cast!) Talk about things being worse around the next corner.


whitney said...

My favorite Cronenberg film is The Brood. Evil children + the monstrous feminine womb + midgets. I love it!

Y Kant Goran Rite said...

I've seen most of Cronenberg's films post-1980 (apart from Crash - which I look forward to, Naked Lunch and Madame Butterfly). I haven't madly loved any of them, but I've admired and enjoyed nearly every single one. I agree that the way he uses sex (and, for that matter, violence) in terms of characterisation in A History of Violence is genius.

Of the films I've seen, his only unredeemable failure - indeed, his only failure - is Eastern Promises. The bathhouse scene was astounding, yes, and Viggo Mortensen did well under the circumstances. But the depiction of immigrants - as exotic cartoons who speak only in broken English with malevolent accents, so that you don't have to read subtitles - was revolting. I got a very strong impression that Cronenberg has never met an Eastern European in real life.

Also, Naomi Watts didn't have a character to play, she barely even served as a plot device. Were the financers just hoping that adding a vagina to the principal cast would somehow magically encourage women to buy tickets to a Cronenberg film?

And that ending... It was so vague and rushed, even Cronenberg himself seemed embarrassed about it.

RC said...

I really think David & Viggo have done great work together. I hope that Viggo continues to get interesting parts like these.


i love Cronenberg though weirdly i haven't seen a lot of the work that made him famous early on.

And CRASH (1996) is not only so 'better than you remember' it being, it's plain ol' fan-tas-tic.

Sad that he's never had a hit as big as The Fly again (which, adjusted for inflation, would have quite a good gross).

Fernando Moss said...

yeah I think Crash and A History of Violence are his masterpieces

Robert Hamer said...

One thing I think I should add to this tribute to Cronenberg (which, honestly, could be a series on this blog by itself) is how well he works with his leading men.

James Woods, Christopher Walken, Jeff Goldblum, Jeremy Irons, James Spader, Ralph Fiennes, and Viggo Mortensen have all given some of the best, boldest, and most complex performances of their respective careers when Cronenberg was behind the camera. And yet only Mortensen was graced with a Best Actor nomination for a Cronenberg 2007. Whatever.

Anonymous said...

and he works very well also with gals: Genevieve Bujod, Deborah Unger, Maria Bello, Miranda Richardson, Judy Davis, Debbie Harry gave awesome perfs when he directed them, but none of them received Oscar Nomination just like Viggo (Bello's snub still hurts...)...I hope Cronenberg will show the same knack with Keira...I wanna be surprised by her again


Scott said...

mirko's point is a good one - he's done some very interesting work with several very talented actresses.

And I suppose it might not be a popular opinion, but I rather liked eXistenZ.


robert -- i don't even wanna TALK about Goldblum (The Fly) and especially Irons (Dead Ringers) getting snubbed. Those snubs were so egregious they could only be due to genre biases.

Bing147 said...

For the record... eXistenZ is quite good.

Robert Hamer said...

@ Nat: "Thank you also, and some of you may understand why; thank you David Cronenberg."

Oh, don't worry, Jeremy. We all know EXACTLY why you thanked him.

A.R. said...

Gotta agree with the above. eXistenZ is actually quite good, hardly a disaster. I thought the general consensus was that M. Butterfly was one of his biggest mis-steps. But I imagine Fast Company is worse. Anyone reading seen it? I'm not sure I want to.

Anyway, my favorite Cronenberg films would have to be Dead Ringers, Videodrome and Spider. Haven't seen all of Eastern Promises yet, but despite generally liking History of Violence, it wasn't weird enough for me. Long live the new flesh!

Adam said...

Have to say "Crash" is my fave, but it has lots of competition. And "eXistenZ" is fantastic, I'm not sure where you get the disaster label. So far off. It fits so well into his career and fascinations.

dfwforeignbuff said...

I watched crash recently and wow it impressed me its such a fantastically weird non mainsream film. yet its easy to identify with it as we are all driving on the freeways and get road rage. I reviewed the movie and gave Cronenberg high marks. I jut revisited for 2nd viewing M Butterfly also. He has made some of the most emotionally devastating films I've ever seen, from the romantic tragedy of The Fly to the human wreckage of Crash & Spider & the heartbreaking Dead Ringers. I also loved the Brood. I did not care for a history Violence (DVD) and I saw Existenz on the Big Screen and in ways it sucked but in other ways it was one of the most wildly original things I have seen. I will order in from netflix Eastern Promises tomorrow and look forward to his new movie.
Nathan I enjoy your blog and read daily. here is a mini review I did tonite of Wallander.

Burning Reels said...

Excellent piece Robert and good taste - I agree completely with your Dead Ringers (for which I recently wrote a piece on my blog - shameless plug over) and eXistenZ sentiments.

The Talking Cure sounds like it could even be the one that finally nabs him that Best Director nomination?