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Tuesday, March 2, 2021

The Films of David Cronenberg: A Troubling Joy.


            Is David Cronenberg a cinematic masochist? A fear of penetration, either viral, technological, or pharmaceutical runs through his films, or is it something other than fear? He creates films that obsess over bodily contamination, the penetration of our psyches, the corruption of our physical structures. Sometimes in his films, it is an unwanted violation, sometimes it is desired, sometimes it’s a bit ambivalent. Cronenberg presents these men ( I don’t think it would be out of line to say Cronenberg’s films are pretty much all internal explorations of himself ) whose very sense of self is consistently in danger of being lost or taken over by outside influences. In Videodrome by a malevolent electronic signal, in Dead Ringers by drugs and desire, and in Crash by our cold technological landscape and our need for a transcendent perversity. Their bodies and boundaries are in a state of constant cross-contamination, where they end and the outside begins is questioned. Issues of identity and individuality are deconstructed and examined. His landscapes are cold and sterile, a strong but subtle hint of science fiction to them. The future seems not to be a fertile one, but one that is born dead, one that must be somehow overcome if we are to survive, met head-on by taking our collective blinders off and realizing just how strange all this is, the body, the earth, our very existence. His cinema is one of metamorphosis, his characters never end the film the same as when they began. I think that Cronenberg shares a lot of philosophical concerns with some early Modernist writers along with the more Post-Modernist influence that has been associated with Cronenberg, like Marshall McLuhan and Jean Baudrillard. Like Sacher-Masoch, Cronenberg finds a kind of salvation in coldness, sterility, passivity. Like Kafka, Cronenberg sees the self as unknowable and unstable, always changing and never certain where the self begins and the self ends. In a certain way, Cronenberg welds a kind of Eastern European bleak and masochistic existentialism with a surreal and transgressive science-fictional obsessiveness with the body and reality.

        Cronenberg’s films seem to go back and forth between a pessimism about where humanity is headed and a kind of perverse optimism of the new possibilities that the changing face of humanity brings. Personally, I find his more optimistic transgressive horror films to be more interesting, this exploration of deep penetration and viral contamination which finds a kind of troubling joy. This optimism of his can be seen in films like Scanners, Videodrome, Crash, Shivers, and Existenz. I think his more bleak and pessimistic films like Rabid, The Brood, The Fly, and Dead Ringers, tend to revert back to more normal horror tropes, a kind of standard fear of death and the body. In Rabid the protagonist becomes host to a blood-thirsty parasite and is fated to destroy all that she loves. In The Brood strange new forms of reproduction and motherhood are explored, resulting in a young girl being trapped in a cycle of violence and abuse. In Dead Ringers, the Mantle twins, to their horror, have to come to terms that they are in fact separate people with their own inescapable destinies. This brings a profound confusion, The Mantle brothers feel that they are connected in a way beyond brotherhood, they feel that their literal nervous systems are connected. So, when one of them falls in love and their paths start separating, they are faced with the horrible truth that they are in fact, separate people. They find that they are actually both alone on this earth. So one brother falls into drugs, sex, and delusion. The Mantle twins are famed gynecologists, but in their growing paranoia and psychosis, the female body, their chosen subject of study, has become strange and seemingly mutated. The insides of women no longer make sense. What they understood with a medical exactness now has become completely unknown. And when they look at each other, there is a gulf between them farther than galaxies. In The Fly, Seth, while trying to better mankind and advance science, unwittingly becomes something other than human and dooms himself. These films end in ruin and death. But as we shall see in some of Cronenberg’s other films, sometimes out of delirium and bodily corruption comes… weird salvation.

        Cronenberg’s films typically focus on a solitary figure trying to comprehend and engage with a world that is strange to him but also a world that seems like a kind of mirror to his fractured existence. A major theme of something alien infiltrating you and changing you fundamentally seems to obsess Cronenberg. To assume you have control over your mind and body is a fatal miscalculation. To accept the unknown, entering you and mutating your very essence, seems to be a path to freedom, or maybe a path to truth. In his works it seems there is freedom in abandoning yourself and accepting the strange and the perverse into your life, to see yourself as strange and perverse. The desperate holding on to our notions of boundaries is what imprisons us. To let go, to understand how alien we are and how strange everything is, and to finally and fully let go, seems to be Cronenberg’s mission. And this change comes to his characters in many forms. Usually, the corruptor wears the face of seduction in Cronenberg’s universe, luring the protagonist to sometimes ruin, sometimes self-discovery, sometimes both at the same time. Nicki Brand lures Max Renn in with kinky sex, then to full-on penetration of his psyche and the destruction of his physical body. But is this doom, or liberation? In Crash, Vaughan brings James into an erotic world of twisted auto accidents and bodily trauma. The excitements of a future psychology, a future of coldness, perversion, and technological disaster are eagerly awaited and desired. Some innate human wish has been unlocked in our environment of unreality, technology, and the death of emotion. Both ruin and transcendence await you in the crashing of motor vehicles. A kind of troubling joy, a finding of meaning in ruin. The woman in Shivers is a carrier, her body teeming with sexual parasites, bringing a kind of apocalypse of carnal pleasure. Is this apocalypse one to be feared or desired? One of the things that I love about Cronenberg’s films is that there is no right answer, no correct viewpoint. Meaning is subjective, and the body is porous.

Cronenberg’s films disturb because they are not about some evil trying to break into our comfortable middle-class lives. They are not about good vs bad. They are not about the outsider vs the normal. Cronenberg’s films are more concerned with ambiguity and the erosion of boundaries. They posit that we are not what we want to believe we are. We are not stable solid entities. We are more like sentient living bodies of water, oceans full of things entering and leaving, things filling us and exiting out of us. We are some sort of mixture of fungus, bacteria, and mud, walking around infecting each other. There is no eternal “I'', there is only the “I” of right now, which may be a completely different thing tomorrow. What is sex, what most would consider the ultimate joy, but contamination and penetration? To be entered by outside entities, other lives, and have bodily fluids mingle with your inner body, absorbing them. In Shivers, Cronenberg talks about how humans see and engage with reality through a sexual lens. Television is sex. Video Games are sex. Parasitism is sex. Death is sex. It all contaminants and penetrates our existence. Actual, “healthy” reproductive sex as portrayed in most mainstream cinema is a fairytale, a sort of calming lie, the reality of sex far more dangerous and subversive. Cronenberg is the poet of Eros. Strange, dirty, all-consuming Eros. An Eros for the twenty-first century, cold and barren. It is a reproductive urge finding itself at a dead end. We have come to the end of human history, and it is a very strange place we find ourselves. The old ways are just not working anymore, and we don’t know the way forward. We look around at the Earth and feel like strangers here, not connected in any way to nature and what we would naively call the natural. But Cronenberg seeks the positive in all this. His films find joy in ruin and alienation, sometimes a most strange and uncomfortable pleasure. We are alien to each other and to ourselves. The future is dead. We are not what we had assumed. But, for the brave, there is pleasure and freedom to be explored here at the end of times.

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