A Fistful of Cronenberg
When Dead Ringers (1988) was brand new & I saw it in the theater, it made me sink down in my seat with eyes round. I felt like I was watching a classical Greek Tragedy, not a horror film. I went back within the week & it held up on immediate re-viewing. There are not many films I've ever wanted to see again that quickly.
But about a year ago while going through the majority of the Cronenberg canon with my sweety, Dead Ringers didn't seem to hold up to the intervening years. It is still a great horror film, but not quite the great tragedy I'd remembered. The fact that there was only one actor (Jeremy Irons) & not actual twins seemed painfully obvious in some scenes.
By comparison, on the umpteenth re-viewing of Videodrome (1983) it has lost nothing of its power & intensity & surreal strangeness. So even though for some while Dead Ringers had knocked Videodrome to number two position in my personal list of Cronenberg's films, currently Videodrome is back on top.
Dead Ringers is the tail of good twin/evil twin & how their personalities begin to meld into uniformly awful twins. They are gynophobic gynocologists with delusions that women are not really human. Their array of specially devised gynocological equipment promise a truly sick torture sequence, but likely nothing could outdo the imagination when the implements are revealed, so there was no need for an actual scene of torture & grue, & there is none. It remains a very, very twisted psychological tale of love & madness between the twins, & this subject matter was too strong to clutter up with mere exploitation effects.
Cronenberg has in the vast majority of his films had a great knack for selecting actors who are not merely pretty darned good but some of the greatest that exist: Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringer, James Woods in Videodrome, Jeff Goldblum in The Fly (1986), Christopher Walken in Dead Zone (1983), Peter Weller in Naked Lunch (1991), Ralph Fiennes in Spider (2002), Viggo Mortenson in A History of Violence (2005), all provide world-class central performances.
All too many horror films fail to attract actors of such merit. I presume the difference that makes fine actors want to be on board with Cronenberg is he can be trusted to present a good script that doesn't make it look like the actors are merely slumming in horror films, or couldn't get employed for any serious pictures. But sometimes I think it's more because other directors don't know good actors from bad & so never had a chance of selecting great ones.
But what on earth was Cronenberg thinking when he worked again with Jeremy Irons on M. Butterfly (1993). Like Dead Ringers which was ostensively based on a true story, M. Butterfly is based on the true tale of a French diplomat so naive that he was unaware that the Chinese "woman" he fell in love with was a Chinese opera actor of female roles (John Lone). He never even questioned how he got her pregnant so they could raise a child.
When he does find out his sweety's not biologically female, he seems to stay quite in love with her, which is rather charming. And when Chinese agents blackmail him over it, it's only a matter of time before his situation gets him arrested as an awfully foolish spy.
It could've made a right strange & touching romance except John Lone in drag couldn't fool a half-blind grandpa & he's apparently supposed to be quite convincing. The effect is strictly of a couple middle-aged faggots, one in drag, & the historical dilemma of the character Irons is recreating is never rendered credible on the screen.
The ending sequence where Jeremy Irons begins to transform himself into his own love-object was probably supposed to be as sicko creepy as it came off, though I was uncertain if even that was intended to be tragic, or something other than merely nutso.
Sexier casting might've made it an earlier Crying Game but who'll ever know. All I am certain is that Cronenberg is a genius of horror, but not so hot with a pervy romantic tale sans horror. It may be intentional that there's nothing sexy in either central performance, but without that element this "true" story is neither captivating nor particularly believable.
M. Butterfly is hands-down Cronenberg's worst film. The project was not his idea to begin with & he was not the first director sought for the task, so I rather prefer to think of it as not genuinely a Cronenberg film.
My favorite of Cronenberg's film is Videodrome aka Zonekiller. It always holds up to revisits because of that extraordinary performance by James Woods, & remains one of the best technophobic horror films even with such later films as Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo: The Ironman (1988) taking the hybridization of human & machine so much further.
In later films as Cronenberg became more or less a mainstream success, I think he does a wonderful job of keeping hold of his personal vision. But the Hollywood system restrains art in favor of commerce. I really believe Cronenberg mastered his art with Videodrome but when he ceased to be a small-time Canadian filmmaker, his responsibilities to producers & the film industry renders him a little less in charge.
The basic premise of Videodrome is there's a sadomasochistic cable television snuff program, pirated on tape, having an underlying signal that changes the mesmerized viewer into something neither human nor machine, but something closer to an organic videotape player. It would seem in part to have been a key influence on Ringu.
As the James Wood character Max Renn goes through his metamorphosis blending with the machine world, a real edginess erupts as the horror of it blends with the bliss of it until Max ceases to be conflicted about what he cannot stop. The slot in the stomach to place reality-changing videotapes is a bit like a vagina, so that the gynophobia central to Dead Ringers recurs.
But as an equal-opportunity sexuality-terrorizes director, David also reflects weinerphobia in Shivers aka They Came from Within (1975) with highly contageous hotdog parasites as the monsters, or Naked Lunch with its pecker-headed aliens, while the organic gameboys of eXistenze have a distinctly scary-sex-organ aspect without being quite vagina or tits or ass but something approximating all three.
In Cronenberg's doomful & mythically philosophic universe, the only things scarier than death are sex & transmogrification -- human becomes machine, man becomes fly, man becomes woman -- cuz you have to be a live through it when those things happen. Videodrome remains for me the quintessential Cronenberg, the measuring rod by which his other works can be measured for content & quality.
To great extent eXistenZ (1999) is a failed attempt to recapture the greatness of Videodrome & update that story of our too-close-a-relationship with television to be about our too-close-a-relationship with video games.
Players grab this organic creepy living machine-animal & diddle its private parts to operate wargames not on a video screen but in the mind. They link with other players for a shared masturbatory experience that cannot be distinguished from reality & which becomes increasingly violent & dangerous.
The story cannot equal that of Videodrome & Jude Law even propped up by co-star Jennifer Jason Leigh is a poor substitute for James Wood. To me it really never ceased to be only "it's all a dream" & so I never really got a feeling of suspense from any of it.
The idea that virtual realities can completely supplant real reality, whether it's eXistenZ or The Matrix, is not for me the world's most interesting theme, as it would take a great deal more than this to convince me that one's own Imagination is to be feared.
Imagination as a thing to fear works better in Naked Lunch, wherein an author's old-fashioned typewriter is a living chitenous little monster that opens doorways into alternate realities.
One of Cronenberg's finest achievements is Crash (1996). It's about couples with a fetish for car crashes who have sex at high speeds climaxing in a car crash, based on a story by modernist science fiction writer J. G. Ballard.
The members of this club of sexy pervs leads off with James Spader as James Ballard, who together with his wife (Deborah Kara Unger) enter the world of erotic thrill-sex during car crashes with an eager mixture of trepidation & delight. Rosanna Arquette is Gabrielle, the badly crippled long-surviving player with gothy Victoria Secret medical gear attached all over her slim body.
In so many of Cronenberg's film he has crazy people undergoing strange transformations that include encounters with horrific versions of sex organs that can destroy, & there's very little sexy about any of it since it's so damned creepy. Maybe it's just me, but I found Crash to be authentically sexy stuff. I was allowed to gain some insight & understanding of these characters' specific deviance, & regarded them as ultra-sexy & romantic in the way they pursued their dangerous fantasies. Crash is a marvelously original & truly great film.
Another literary adaptation from Cronenberg is William Burroughs' Naked Lunch. Well, it relates to the novel in spirit only, as the film is really more a spiritual journey at the end of which the surrealist science fiction novel Naked Lunch might have been written.
This film gets so excessively baroque that I found it a little on the silly side, but it is nevertheless a startling work. Peter Weller as "Bill Lee" is obviously William Burroughs & plays him well. Judy Davis is splendid as Joan Frost Lee & captures the essence of Joan Vollmer Burroughs exactly as I had always imagined her.
Bill's relationship with his creepy insect-like typewriter is convincing as a metaphore for Burroughs' drug addiction & his creativity. As Bill nachallantly enters physically into a metaphorical & hallucinatory world, it never quite ceased to be artificial, so I was never convinced by Bill's Paradise Lost journey. Like Burroughs' novel, this never adds up to anything the least bit rational. Great acting is largely lost in a tour de force of whimsiclaly demented set designs.
The best parts are the least fantastical elements of the film while Bill explores his homosexuality, or the scene where he & Joan do their ill-fated William Tell stunt; but each time, just as the actors bring you into the text, the film derails itself & plumets into Alice's wonderland where acting no longer matters.
I can't help but think it would've been a better film if the only fantastic element had been Bill Lee's bizarre relationship with the talking insect typewriter; that's so strangely off the wall in & of itself that had this relationship been surrounded by more real stuff from the Beats' already strange-enough lives, this could've been a classic given the level of acting.
I liked watching Peter Weller walk through this film wearing Burroughs' hat, but there was never a moment's suspense or horror as every wild thing thrown up on the screen never escaped its own jokiness & excess. It has to be appreciated more as surrealism, as it fails as horror, suspense, or comedy.
Despite my criticisisms of the film & the fact that it's certainly not one of my favorites, it's nevertheless worth viewing a second & third time whether or not its a favorite. There's way too much going on to take it all in with a single viewing. On second look, no longer expecting it to add up to anything, the visual strangeness & beauty can be taken in for its own sake.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl