Wednesday, May 15, 2013
The Cronenberg Series Part 1: The Mad Dermatologist
In 1969 and 1970, David Cronenberg began his career as a feature filmmaker with two movies, each coming out to about an hour-long each, called Stereo and Crimes of the Future. I use the word "career" advisedly, because while Cronenberg seems proud of both films, in editor Chris Rodley's book Cronenberg on Cronenberg, he says they're "not films to build a career on," and that they "were a dead end for me." As good or bad, depending on your take, as Stereo and Crimes of the Future are, it's not hard to understand what Cronenberg means -- you can't watch either film, let alone both, and imagine the director using them as a resume' to help finance his next project, and begin to make a living making movies, which is the distinction Cronenberg himself makes. But regardless, these are his first two films, what he himself would consider the beginning (there were short films before this, which, with a selection of his TV work, I hope to get to later in this series). And they're joined at the hip, pairing off together in a way that almost seems deliberate, though some of their peculiarities, such as, or especially, the absence of dialogue or synchornized sound, the only words spoken coming through extensive narration, were, according to Rodley, decisions made in part for practical, budget-and-equipment reasons. Still, again, they both time out at about an hour, they both use narration to the exclusion of the on-screen actors speaking to one another, they're both about science (in the way that science fiction is often about science, by which I mean, satirical, critical, cold, and nervous), and they're both balls-out crazy. This is to be expected, being the work of David Cronenberg and all, though even with all the madness that has followed over the course of his over forty years making movies, Stereo and Crimes of the Future manage to stand alone. They're experimental in a way that even Naked Lunch and Crash don't try to be. Somehow, Cronenberg has managed to build a career on films like those two, but not these two.
Speaking of Crash, but not really Crash...speaking of J. G. Ballard, rather, and I've said this many times before, it is frankly baffling to me that Cronenberg and Ballard only ever joined their creative forces once. I don't think I've ever before encountered two artists from different mediums who so directly compliment each other. In Cronenberg on Cronenberg, the filmmaker says of Ballard "We're so amazingly in sync. We completely understand what we're both doing." Yet Cronenberg has only adapted Crash. Perhaps to keep returning to that well would seem almost too on the nose, I don't know, but it almost doesn't matter because so much of Cronenberg's early films that will seem recognizable to anyone who has read at least a couple handfuls-worth of Ballard's novels. There's a lot of Ballard's High Rise in Cronenberg's Shivers, for example (which I only bring up now rather than in the next post so that I won't seem to be beating this particular dead horse too severely), but I'd like to make clear that I don't believe either man is deliberately pilfering from the work of the other. I believe and agree with Cronenberg that it's simply a matter of he and Ballard being remarkably in sync. To get to the point, Antoine Rouge, Crimes of the Future's unseen "mad dermatologist," feels like something Ballard never realized he'd invented, and therefore never go around to planting in the jungle of a world dying by crystallization in The Crystal World, or as the centerpiece for one of the stories from Vermilion Sands. In any case, the upshot of all this is, watching Crimes of the Future and, to a lesser extent, Stereo are very Ballardian experiences.
So, to double back so that I might do this chronologically, Stereo takes the shape of a report, almost, on the results of an experiment conducted by scientists from The Canadian Academy for Erotic Inquiry (that's a J. G. Ballard-type institute if I ever heard one). The subjects of the experiment are a group of young telepaths. The thesis has been provided by an unseen and mysterious parapsychologist named Luther Stringfellow. The experiment itself, and the results thereof, are laid out step by step through monotonously clinical narration by the scientists themselves, whom, it probably goes without saying, we never see. We do see the telepaths going about their tedious daily business, which involves games, staring into the distance, and sex. Sex being key, and the hoped for, and even enforced, bisexuality among the group. The idea being that these telepaths, employing their unique gifts, and aided by the insular nature of their environment, will form their own society. And so they do, of a sort. But eventually the humanity being messed with leads to I guess we'll call them setbacks.
Shot in black and white by Cronenberg himself, Stereo, like Crimes of the Future, is a dense and complex hour. It's ambitious and even confident -- how many young filmmakers would assume they could make something like this play? It does play, too, though my experience was that it worked best as a tumble of images -- the silent opening shot of a helicopter landing on the grounds of the institute is especially captivating -- depicting the slow destruction of the psyches of the subjects by their unfeeling, or anyway indifferent, hosts. The narration works best when it's joining the images and keeping the tone cold and removed even as things fall apart. About Stereo, Cronenberg tells Chris Rodley:
"It was partly my own strange feelings about the academic life and the life of psychology. I never studied it, but I had friends who did; that attempt to somehow control, by understanding, very subtle and complex things. Maybe impossible, and also funny, but worthwhile trying. And sociology: the way it tries to trap phenomenon with words."
If this, to Cronenberg, is funny, he's got a strange way of showing it. But his larger point, about controlling complex things through the act of understanding, comes through, yet what he leaves unsaid, and what came through most clearly to me while watching the film was the inability of the narrating scientists to understand in some key areas what their experiments are doing to the subjects. Their voices express no bafflement or even concern when things go tits up -- probably because a strict adherence to the scientific method can result in anything but results, whatever they may be -- and they clearly do understand on some levels what's going on with the female telepath who turns her consciousness inside out in an attempt to keep her true self private, ultimately at the cost of her own mind, but they don't understand life outside of a lab environment. They can't understand true communities and be so intrusive and manipulative. And while I said before that at a certain point things fall apart, the truth is everything does not fall apart within this group of telepaths. For some, yes, but one of the interesting things about Stereo is that it doesn't end in some grand conflagration. It ends with some private and individual conflagrations, but from a scientific point of view perhaps what remains is the answer.
Though the Cronenberg quote excerpted above doesn't appear to be seething with anger, Stereo does nevertheless strike me as enormously critical not of science, exactly, but of scientific remove, and of scientific myopia. Historically, labs are pretty cold and unforgiving places, after all. Similarly, the narration is appropriately dry, even satirically so, although, really, "dry" doesn't cut it. Which is a problem, for me at least. If part of what Cronenberg had in mind was to sock academia a good one in the jaw, and I believe it was a consideration, he perhaps succeeded too well. Academia, as I think we all know, has a habit of taking what interests it and presenting those interests in the most hideously turgid way possible, and Cronenberg's narration nails that. Okay, but in my long ago and not-at-all-lamented days of reading academic prose, my eyes had a tendency to slide right off the page so they could stare at a naked light bulb or something. Watching Stereo reproduced a similar result, but with my brain this time. The narration became a hum, in other words, and I could imagine the scientists turning off their recorders and the end of a day of narration and going to sleep standing up in the corner of an empty room, only to wake up, eat a breakfast of white bread and water, and starting up all over again.
To the extent that there is one, Ronald Mlodzik is the star of Stereo. He takes the same role, but much less ambiguously, in Crimes of the Future. Cronenberg says that Mlodzik was a major influence on both Stereo and Crimes of the Future. In the Rodley book, he describes Mlodzik as "a very elegant gay scholar, an intellectual who was studying at Massey College" whose "medieval gay sensibility" -- and "medieval" is also how Cronenberg describes both Mlodzik's Catholicism and his sense of style -- "very directly connects to [Cronenberg's] aesthetic sense of [Mlodzik's] space..." So there's that. It is true, though, that Mlodzik cuts a very alarming figure in Crimes of the Future, not explicitly medieval but I think I know what Cronenberg means by that. In Crimes of the Future Mlodzik plays Adrian Tripod (which, okay), the protege of the deceased mad dermatologist, Adrian Rouge. Rouge was the founder of The House of Skin, a kind of hospital that caters to patients suffering from vague, but apparently severe, skin ailments brought about by modern cosmetics (I'm telling you, Ballard is everywhere). Rouge's real legacy, however, is Rouge's Malady, a terrible disease, the victims of which Rouge was Patient Zero. The most notable symptom is the discharge of a white foam. The second most notable symptom, or maybe this is the first most notable symptom, is death. About halfway through the film, we learn that Rouge's Malady has taken the lives of "hundreds of thousands of women."
In a weird way, Crimes of the Future is a plot-heavy film, but it's the kind of plot that piles up the strange incidents and information on the way to a cumulative psychological result, rather than an A-to-B-to-C cause and effect story. Though at first Crimes of the Future seems like it will be about the goings on at The House of Skin, Tripod will soon travel away from there and on to The Institute for Neo-Venereal Disease, where he discovers a former colleague is quietly growing a series of strange and functionless new organs, which are removed and jarred. From there, Tripod hooks up with the Oceanic Podiatry Group and takes part in their homoerotic, foot-based therapy, and through all that finds himself a member of a cult of "heterosexual pedophiles." Based on what we've seen up to this point, neither "heterosexual" nor "pedophile" would seem to describe Adrian Tripod, but as we proceed there the audience is given some reason to believe that he is in fact turned on by whatever. Which would further link this film to the "polymorphous perversity" of Stereo. In any case, the goal of this cult of heterosexual pedophiles is both described by how they identify themselves, and specifically centered around one particular little girl. Hence, I believe, the "crimes" part of our title here, except is it? The world of Crimes of the Future is either a version of a post-apocalypse where some societal function remains but everyone has gone insane, or it's pre-apocalypse: almost all the women are dead, and perhaps continue to die at a rapid clip as we watch Adrian Tripod stumble through this queasy nonsense. But what order? What crime?
Crimes of the Future is narrated by Adrian Tripod, and what's interesting to me, when paired off with Stereo, is how his voice attempts to achieve the detachment of the scientist narrators of that earlier film, but can't actually manage it. Alarming figure though Mlodzik may cut as Tripod, he is nevertheless quite human; it is however possible that he doesn't fully understand that. Much as he'd like to study what's going on, and as much as he seems convinced that's all he's doing, he becomes absorbed in the proceedings. Some of those proceedings add up to not much. The Oceanic Podiatry Group therapy, for example, seems to me to be nothing but a joke, one whose punchline is "This is weird, right?" It strikes me as the kind of thing Tom Robbins would think was funny. Regardless of that, that cumulative psychological result I mentioned earlier is quite something, and the final moments of the film are among the most disturbing of Cronenberg's quite disturbing career. Except! Reading through Cronenberg on Cronenberg, Cronenberg does say something about the ending that I can't say I picked up on. The evidence for it -- and obviously Cronenberg knows how his film ends, but the evidence for it that he provides to the audience as described in Rodley's book doesn't communicate this vital element all that clearly, as far as I'm concerned. Which I suppose is not in itself the problem, but it does render the hideousness of what we can infer happens after the film ends far more abstract and fantastical, and therefore somewhat...I can't find it within myself to say less hideous. But inexplicable, certainly, which cuts into the hideousness. So...what crime? Perhaps this is the idea. I don't know. I do know that as much as Cronenberg has happily categorized many of his more famous early work as horror films, it's become more and more apparent to me that he is probably the foremost science fiction filmmaker of the past forty years. And when the horror is there, as it often is, Cronenberg is merging the genres in a way that bears a much more striking resemblance to how science fiction works than to how we've come to think horror works, on film anyway. That is to say, the subgenre science-fiction horror commonly presents itself as monsters in space, and instead of the monster killing, one by one, people who live in an apartment building, they pick off, one by one, people who are astronauts. Cronenberg's unique hybrid of the genres finds the horror part elaborating on something that is known in the world, something either meant to be benign or known to be malignant -- in Stereo, perhaps it's the scientific method; in Crimes of the Future, maybe pedophilia -- and imagining how such a thing would exist under extreme circumstances. A simplified definition of science fiction, perhaps, but with telepaths in Stereo and an absence of adult women in Crimes of the Future, everything begins to tip over.
Maybe the most curious thing about these two films, when set against all the films Cronenberg would subsequently make, is their visual style. Yes, they're very static, by design, but in terms of composition they feel actually rather more advanced than, say, Shivers and Rabid. Those movies can be fairly clumsy at times, and while Cronenberg has grown into one of the most elegant directors working today, you can see him clawing his way there, from Shivers on. But in Stereo and Crimes of the Future, the elegance is already there. It's a curious thing I can't quite figure out. Cronenberg has never been known as a blatant stylist, but his work 1969 and 1970 would seem to indicate a course set in that direction. But as he said, he had to reset after that, in order to build a career. Maybe that has something to do with it. Whatever happened, Shivers, a film I like more than either Stereo or Crimes of the Future, finds him starting from scratch. It's fascinating to watch him start again.