Tuesday, May 28, 2013
Mike Leigh's 1990 Life is Sweet is a film I've a felt a strong urge to see for quite a while, since 1999, to be specific, when Topsy-Turvy came out. That film, still my favorite by Leigh and one of my favorite movies period, among many other things I loved about it, did me the favor of opening my eyes to the greatness of Jim Broadbent. Prior to Topsy-Turvy, I knew Broadbent as the large, somewhat ubiquitous British character actor who often played goofy, sometimes strange, even grotesque characters in films like Time Bandits and Brazil. I liked him, I thought he was funny, but I had him pegged as purely an oddball, who might have had some other kind of career going on, but I didn't know about it, and I made no steps to learn about it, either. Then Topsy-Turvy came out, and in a film just busting at the seams with great performances, Broadbent as William S. Gilbert, of Gilbert & Sullivan, stood out for me, for the first time, as an actor possessed of true genius. All that means is that I now think he's a great actor, but certain actors can give a performance, or a series of them, that hits buttons you don't know you have, and the inexpressible nature of the impact that performance has on you can lead you to do things like call them "a genius." This is acceptable, I think, and nice for the actor, should they ever learn of it. But to give you some idea of all this, the moment in Topsy-Turvy that hits the button for me is when they're rehearsing the song from The Mikado which is sometimes referred to as "The Mikado" or "A More Humane Mikado." The song is performed in the film by, of course, the actor playing The Mikado, Richard Temple (played in Topsy-Turvy by Timothy Spall) and, anyway, the point is he's performing it, and Leigh keeps cutting from the stage to Broadbent's Gilbert watching from the arena, and he's clearly not happy. He's smoking a cigar, and eventually he goes over to a table, makes himself a drink, and with the hand holding the cigar, picks up his tumbler, takes a drink, looking over the glass and the cigar with something close to quiet contempt for the song he, himself, wrote. I love this moment beyond reason, and can't explain its power over me. But it's Broadbent. That much I know for sure.
All of this led me to looking into both Broadbent and Mike Leigh, which led me to Life is Sweet, an earlier Leigh film in which Leigh has another starring role, and this further led me to the discovery that Life is Sweet was not, at that time, easily available in America, at least not to me. It existed, but the Fates had set it up so that I couldn't rent it. In the meantime, Broadbent's career has enjoyed a very nice boost, and he's now more ubiquitous than ever, God bless 'im. Leigh, too, has since been recognized as a Major Filmmaker, and we now have as a result of those and other factors today's release, by Criterion, of Life is Sweet on DVD and Blu-ray. And so now I've seen it, and a delightful and moving film it is, with more at its center than Broadbent, which is both entirely fine by me and to be expected. Broadbent plays Andy, a working class chef who lives with his boisterously cheerful wife Wendy, played by Alison Steadman, and his twin daughters, the straight-arrow professional plummer Natalie (Claire Skinner), and the bulimic, sneering, affected radical punk Nicola (Jane Horrocks). The plot, such as it is, is driven by a few things, such as the effect Natalie's personality has on her family, and what, for instance, Wendy's boisterous cheerfulness masks in the face of her daughter's withering nonsense. Also, there's Andy's friend Patsy (Stephen Rea), who tempts Andy with the promise of self-sufficiency with the offer to sell to his friend an old lunch wagon. Then, too, is friend of the family Aubrey (Timothy Spall), a strange man who projects an air of such unearned confidence that is entirely at odds with the way he stumbles through his early scenes, that it's reasonable to assume -- incorrectly, as it will turn out -- that he suffers from some kind of mental disorder. But no, he's getting ready to open a restaurant, and is hitting a series of snags as the big day approaches. One of those snags will be unsnagged by Wendy's decision to go to work for Aubrey as a waitress.
This is a curiously foodless movie, given the above. It's not exactly Big Night, nor is it even The Van, either the Roddy Doyle novel or the Stephen Frears adaptation of same, which I remember had at least several more jokes at the expense of what Jimmy Rabbitte was serving to the soccer fans spilling out of the pubs after the game (there's a little bit of that here, too, but not as much as you might expect). When you consider Nicola's bulimia, which is not there as a source of humor, maybe there's a reason for this I'm not seeing, but what I'm seeing is that here food is part of the everyday, and the everyday is what Life is Sweet is about, and part of the whole deal with the everyday is that usually people don't make a big deal about it. None of which is to suggest that Life is Sweet is so casually slight. The film's a comedy, and not really a dark comedy, but Leigh would never say it doesn't matter.
As a matter of fact, if there's a dramatic payoff in the traditional sense, to any of this, it's not for any of what we might regard as the "everyday" elements. The lunch wagon subplot is kind of hilariously unresolved (hilarious if you think of these things in relation to other movies, and what's "expected"), and Andy's big dramatic climax is when he suffers a minor ankle injury. No, it's the bent nail, Nicola, the punk bulimic (she's the one character to whom food, as food, matters, in a horribly skewed way) who spends much of the film mocking and denigrating her family. She does finally have a big showdown with her mother, and it's all hugely effective. This in spite of the fact that I largely found Horrocks' performance to be a grating, shrill cartoon. It's not that you're not supposed to get that from what Horrocks is doing here, but "shrill" and "grating" don't need to read as a bad performance. Interestingly, the film is largely a comedy, yet Horrocks, who at this point was just a couple of years away from achieving cult immortality with her role on the British sitcom Absolutely Fabulous flounders in Life is Sweet primarily on comedic grounds. Not that the lines Leigh gives her (or she gave herself; I'm still not clear how Leigh's scripts work) are superb -- she just spits disdain at everyone completely at random and for no good reason, and ends conversations by saying people are fascists -- but any of the natural, lived-in ease and humor that Broadbent and Skinner and Steadman achieve (and to be fair, I think Spall, a terrific actor, flails a bit, too) feels outside of Horrocks' grasp. It's only when the film becomes quite serious for a few minutes that Horrocks is able to make Nicola seem real.
And even then, it's Alison Steadman who steals it. Steadman is really the stealth lead of Life is Sweet, and as good as Broadbent, the main reason I wanted to see the film, is, it's Steadman's work that I found eye-opening. Wendy's anguish and frustration and pure anger, something actually close to hatred, in her showdown with Nicola is painfully cathartic. No one has really fought back against Nicola to the degree that I, at least, though she deserved, and Steadman plays it exactly right. As I said, at this point she almost hates her daughter, and that pours out. But we know, and Wendy knows, what a sick, unhappy, mess Nicola really is, and the scene as written has all of it, everything, wrapped up in an argument whose words don't rise above what people in this situation would actually say to each other. "Keenly observed" is the kind of phrase they have for this sort of thing, but I've never thought that quite covers it. "Deeply understood" is maybe closer, if still not quite there. But it's what Leigh is great at, when he's great, and what his actors are able to seemingly walk in and just do. No characters are more fully lived than those in Mike Leigh's films.
Wednesday, May 22, 2013
In his essay "On a Book Entitled Lolita," written as an afterword to his most famous and most notorious novel, Vladimir Nabokov defends his work on various grounds (among them that Lolita is pornographic) against various attackers. In the second paragraph, he gets right to the heart of something that, while probably not to the degree it did Nabokov, bothers me as well:
Teachers of Literature are apt to think up such problems as "What is the author's purpose?" or still worse "What is the guy trying to say?" Now, I happen to be the kind of author who in starting to work on a book has no other purpose than to get rid of that book and who, when asked to explain its origin and growth has to rely on such ancient terms as Interreaction of Inspiration and Combination -- which, I admit, sounds like a conjurer explaining one trick by performing another.
Well, I'm right there with Nabokov. Few things in the world of criticism, either professional or amateur, gets my back up more than complaints about a book or film lacking a "point," or seeing someone despair over the absence of any clear message. This can sometimes lead to the critic or reader rolling up their sleeves and saying "Okay fine, you don't have a message, then I'll just find one myself!", which in turn leads to Vladimir Nabokov feeling compelled to write essays like "On a Book Entitled Lolita" just so he can shake some of these "art is a teaching instrument" jackholes off his ass. The gist of it all, Nabokov writes, is that "[f]or me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss." This sounds pretty good to me, and it's how I try to go about my reading/film-watching life.
And yet, here I am faced with David Cronenberg's 1975 film Shivers. More particularly, I'm faced with some quotes from Cronenberg, culled from Rodley's Cronenberg on Cronenberg and David Cronenberg: Interviews with Serge Grunberg which might, if I let them, cast Shivers in an almost bewildering light. In my efforts to maintain some level of coherence, it's difficult to know in what order I should take all of this, but I think perhaps I'll finish up with all this quoting business. So. From the Grunberg book, after being asked if he ever viewed Shivers as a "sexual liberation manifesto":
Yeah, because remember the seventies really were the sixties, especially in Canada. They took a little later to get here. [Shivers] was very misunderstood. It was also the famous Robin Wood article, you know, a serious critic, very political, very Marxist, very gay liberation. He condemned this movie as being a reactionary movie. Of course, the mass of people who saw it who were in government, who were the real reactionaries, understood that this was not a reactionary, conservative film, but there is a sense of complete liberation by the crazy people at the end. Certainly the crew. We all lived in that building: Nun's Island. We identified with the crazy building. We actually lived in the same building we were shooting in. And the repressive atmosphere was so...by the time it was finished we wanted to rip off our clothes and run screaming through the halls, kicking doors down, and some of the crew did that. So we certainly understood the politics of it, even if Robin Wood seemed to be blind to it.
Meanwhile, from Rodley:
Each of my films has a little demon in the corner that you don't see, but it's there. The demon in Shivers is that people vicariously enjoy the scenes where guys kick down doors and do whatever they want to the people inside. They love the scenes where people are running, screaming, naked through the halls. But they might just hate themselves for liking them. This is no new process; it's obvious that there is a vicarious thrill involved in seeing the forbidden.
Now all of this must be set against what Shivers actually is, and what goes on in it. And Rabid, too, by the way, which topic should follow naturally, but first Shivers. So. The film begins with a commercial, played under the credits, for Starliner Towers, and apartment complex located on an island. It's a gated community of sorts, with all the amenities. All is sunny. From there we see a man we will come to know as Dr. Emil Hobbes (Fred Doederlein) violently assaulting a young woman named Annabelle (Cathy Graham) in her apartment, located, of course, in Starliner Towers. He kills her, strips her, lays her on a table, slices her open, and pours acid into her body. Then he slits his own throat. A murder investigation begins, and it turns out that living and working in Starliner Towers is a former student of Hobbes named Dr. Roger St. Luc (Paul Hampton). He'd had no contact with Hobbes for years, but is still in contact with Dr. Linsky (Joe Silver), another former colleague of both his and Hobbes'. Linsky clues St. Luc in on what Hobbes had been up to lately, which they first believed had to do with a new approach to organ transplants, having to do with creating a parasite that affects the body positively and can take the place of diseased organs. In fact, however, Hobbes was thoroughly mad, and his true goal with these parasites was to introduce into the human body "a combination of aphrodisiac and venereal disease that will hopefully turn the world into one mindless orgy." Well, okay. Mission accomplished, as it turns out, because what is discovered is that the young woman Hobbes is shown murdering not only had that parasite in her, thanks to Hobbes, but was what you would call very well liked among her fellow tenants, and this parasite has spread an multiplied among her partners.
Included in that group is Nicholas Tudor (Allan Migicovsky), who had been cheating on his wife (Susan Petrie) with Annabelle. And here's where the whole "sexual liberation manifesto" idea begins to seem to be exactly not what Cronenberg implies it is. Never mind that Shivers is unambiguously a horror film, but Nicholas is betraying his wife, is cold towards her, and in the end is possessed by this hideous blood parasite that slowly destroys him and uses him as a cog in the wheel that will grind all of Starliner Towers into dust. Nicholas is the vehicle for most of the film's most grotesque special effects, and his bloody, quivering dissolution is genuinely unsettling. And he got that way through what I think most people would have to regard as both sexually liberated and morally wrong. When the parasites have truly taken over, and mayhem sweeps through the apartment complex, the viewer is treated to fleeting images implying incest, rape, pedophilia, murder. And maybe sometimes consensual sex among adults? I'm not sure I saw any. So a metaphor for sexual liberation, sure, but a metaphor for the excess, and a metaphor for the human wreckage such liberation can leave behind when indulged in heedlessly. And look, I fully understand that statements such as the preceding necessitate a follow up along the lines of "Now, I'm no prude." Which I'm not, and Cronenberg certainly is not. Further, I'm well aware of the basically nonsensical theory which states that slasher films are fundamentally conservative along the same lines upon which Robin Wood set Shivers, because typically in those films young people have rampant sex, consume narcotics, and are then beheaded. Ergo, Sean S. Cunningham is stating -- perhaps unconsciously! -- in Friday the 13th that such behavior must be forsworn by the youth of our country, because of conservatism. The problem with this theory is that there is not a single person, young or old, who has walked out of a slasher film thinking "Well, if I have sex with anyone other than my legal spouse, I might be decapitated in a forest." Slasher films are not metaphors; they're blunt instruments that specifically feed the audience's desire for the kind of base things that it's showing. Though in terms of craft the quality can certainly vary, in terms of the motivations driving a person to watch, say, The Burning, the whole package is no different from a person who wants a pizza eating a pizza.
Shivers is different, though, and the question "What is the guy trying to say?" would seem to be clear. Complete sexual liberation leads to, possibly, the downfall of mankind. Like Rabid, Shivers presents itself as a mixture of a zombie film and a plague film. Neither of them ever pull a bait-and-switch, either -- boiled down, in terms of genre these are the two most blatant capital "h" Horror films Cronenberg has ever made. So where's the positive thrill of the liberation? Shivers' equivalent of the guy in the dog costume in The Shining is a deeply unsettling shot of two children, as seen by St. Luc as he races down a stairwell, naked and on leashes crawling through a doorway. The leashes lead back into darkness, and we never see who's on the other end, but no answer to that question can possibly ease our minds. So, do I believe, based on Cronenberg claiming, or at least agreed to the premise that, Shivers is at least a somewhat positive manifesto on sexual liberation, that he would regard this image, plus many others almost as horrifying, is part of that particular counterculture semi-victory? I don't. Cronenberg himself has acknowledged the horror and disgust inherent in the film. But at the very least, he's being cagey about the complexity of this material, and his view of that one facet of the various topics Shivers explores, a facet that he and I have both perhaps focused on too narrowly. Perhaps the key is Lynn Lowry as Nurse Forsythe, St. Luc's nurse and girlfriend. Eventually, St. Luc's end is found with her. And if you gotta go, well... Hobbes' plan, which got out of his control, was anti-rational, and so is the film. Horror films are, or in my view should be, anti-rational. That boneheaded theory that slasher films are reactionary is trying to rescue reason from a genre that strives to crush it. And in Shivers, is Lynn Lowry the way to go? In the grip of her parasite-induced mania, she tells St. Luc that she has learned that "even old flesh is erotic flesh, that disease is the love of two alien kinds of creatures for each other, that even dying is an act of eroticism." And she makes damn sure of that. So what kind of manifesto is this, anyway? It's the manifesto of a lunatic.
Plus, also, a problem here is maybe clumsiness. Shivers is a clumsy film, in many ways. For one thing, how, or why, or which, do these parasites work? They burn like acid except when they don't. They turn their hosts into gibbering, inarticulate semi-cannibals, except when it turns them into ravening sex fiends. Meanwhile, some of the performances are quite solid, I think, including Paul Hampton and especially Joe Silver, who's saddled with a lot of exposition and handles it with a rough but genuine elegance. And he also eats pickles and drinks coffee, together, as a snack, which is frankly insane. But technically the film often seems purely functional, and there's a bit that in the time between my first viewing of the film many, many years ago and my second, just a few months back, I'd come to believe was maybe just my imagination, but no, in the middle of a bunch of more vital business, Cronenberg cuts to Joe Silver's Linsky standing in his office, eating his pickle, drinking his coffee, and then just like that he cuts back to the vital action. It occurred to me, watching the film for a third time last night, that the idea behind that shot is that same as the one behind Marge Gunderson sitting in her car and eating a burger in Fargo. In that shot, Marge's brow furrows, and ultimately serves as the connecting information between what she's experienced just prior to this, and the actions she takes after it. We realize, from that shot, that Marge has figured something out. Well, Dr. Linsky, for all the good it does him, is the guy who figures everything out in Shivers, and it's true that the pickle and the coffee does seem to have got the old gears turning, or so Joe Silver's body language might possibly indicate. But we don't see the guy for quite a while after that, and so the shot plays as a thoroughly absurd non sequitor.
But look how far I've gone on and I haven't even gotten into what I think is so interesting, what I truly like, so much about this film. This film, and 1976's Rabid, too, which will right about now start to work its way into the conversation. In terms of plot, Rabid has much less to summarize, and this is getting to my point. Briefly, Marilyn Chambers plays Rose, a young woman who is badly injured in a motorcycle accident. The accident happened just outside the Keloid Clinic, which specializes in plastic surgery -- specializes to such a degree that it is developing a new method that would speed up and make easier the whole process. This would appear to be a lucky break for Rose, who needs to go through a series of intense skin graft operations. This is done, though for a while she remains in a coma. When she awakes, she still looks like Marilyn Chambers, but has developed a powerful urge that might be sexual, but might only appear to be, but which in any case inevitably leads to her embracing whatever person happens to be closest, and stabbing them with a penis-like growth that has formed, for one reason or another, under her arm. This in turns leads to the other person becoming infected, that infection leads to a violent madness akin to rabies, and all of Montreal almost falls as a result.
So. Now. With all that in mind. I don't mean to shaft Rabid by kind of tucking it here amongst all this talk about Shivers, but in a lot of ways they're the same movie -- Cronenberg himself acknowledges the ease with which they fill out a double bill -- and the casting of former headline-making porn star Marilyn Chambers as a sexual Typhoid Mary builds off of the anti-permissiveness, or whatever the fuck it is, in Shivers. The films are also very effective in many of the same ways. Both Shivers and Rabid are completely anathema to how movies are supposed to work, at least according to those who claim -- and let's specify horror films here, for the sake of simplicity -- that horror films must include characters we care about, and to get to that point the "characters" must be "developed." With these films, Cronenberg spits in the eye of character development. Not on purpose, I don't think, but the horror in each film begins almost immediately. We know nothing about Rose, outside of the fact that she has a boyfriend who rides a motorcycle, before she's in a coma. When she comes out of her coma, she immediately infects her first victim, a man we also know nothing about. In Shivers, we know more about the inner life of Dr. Hobbes, who dies within minutes of the film's beginning, than any other character. The heroes of both films are men with names, sometimes with education and training that allows them to understand certain aspects of the crisis, sometimes, as with Rose's boyfriend, without any of that. His name is Hart Read.
And yet the terror of both films is palpable. The imagery achieves that -- some of the shit in Shivers, even though most of that imagery cuts off at the point of simple implication, is bone-chilling -- as does the never-ending sense of hopelessness. No one in either film is racing towards a possible victory. In both films, the scope of the horror has gone far beyond what our heroes are ever able to understand until it's too late, or, in the case of Rabid, close enough to being too late as to make no difference to anybody we've met along the way. Everything that is terrible is almost instantaneous. Cronenberg has been accused, and this is a fair enough point except that I don't see where the problem is, of being too clinical, and he sure enough is with these movies. Shivers and Rabid are purely clinical. These films are entirely an unfolding, or a tumbling out, of events, and the process escalates and intensifies as a plague outbreak would.
But somehow, through some strange alchemy, Cronenberg does this without sacrificing terror on a human level, or sadness, or despair. Or, actually, I shouldn't say "somehow," because Cronenberg understands that in life we don't need "character development," or I hope to God we don't, to be gutted by some particularly awful news story that involves other human beings we know nothing about. We know they're human beings and that should be, is, enough. Rabid achieves a kind of bone-deep disgust by the end of it all, with the last few images of Rose combining to turn her into a piece of garbage. Even worse is the fact that in the context of this story, a piece of garbage is what she must be. In Shivers, Cronenberg manages something even more powerful with Susan Petrie's character. She's the wife of the philandering Nicholas, and while we know nothing about her, we barely know that her name is Janine. But we do know that she does not know that her husband has been cheating on her. All she sees is her husband growing distant, something we can deduce began before his infection, and then terribly, disgustingly ill. To her, his coldness as a husband is connected to, a symptom of, his final illness. Which it is, of course, though not in the way she thinks. But it is, and she never knows how badly she's been fucked over. All we know is, she cares about her husband, and is terrified of what's happening to him, and is deeply, hopelessly confused by it all. Confusion can be the saddest human emotion, and it is in this case. Anyway, it's a strange distinction to draw, that Janine is less a movie character than she is a person, and stranger still to be able to draw that distinction because of how little Cronenberg tells us about her.
Shivers and Rabid laid the groundwork for the first half of Cronenberg's career. That's the half that's easily defined as Cronenbergian, something the second half hasn't been, exactly, or entirely, but anyway what we still understand to be the product of Cronenberg's mind is contained in those first twenty years or so, and the architecture was built here. And so then with his next movie he'd dismiss it all. About which more later.
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
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.
Friday, May 10, 2013
In the February 1987 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, in his film column "Harlan Ellison's Watching," Ellison dropped a little announcement of sorts, stating that in his next column he would begin an in-depth study of the film's of David Cronenberg. Cronenberg, he said, alone among the "wise guy directors currently assaulting us, had "the intellectual virility and talent to become sui generis" and had "become a writer/director with a voice and a view of the world that could be as important, in its own bizarre way, as that of Hitchcock, Ford, Wilder, or Woody Allen." Ellison's next column was published that April, and it wasn't about Cronenberg. The problem, Ellison said, was that he was trying to track down Cronenberg's early films -- specifically, Stereo, Crimes of the Future, and Shivers -- not to mention the uncut version of The Brood, all of which, at that time, were rare items. Ellison next mentioned the project in his July '87 column, but all he said in that case was that he was still working on it. If you know anything about Harlan Ellison, you'll know that the fact that his following sentence included a status update on The Last Dangerous Visions sort of metaphorically tells the tale of where you might hope to find his completed in-depth study of the films of David Cronenberg.
I bring all this up not to ding Harlan Ellison, really, though he's a writer I've been at war with in my own head for about twenty years now (he is likely unaware of this). But way back when I was reading Harlan Ellison's Watching, a collection of Ellison's film writing published in 1989, and I came across that original announcement, I thought something along the lines of "Oh good." So my subsequent trip to that book's index, only to discover that the number of pages in which Cronenberg was referenced tapered off drastically, with no range of pages -- say, 372 - 381, or something -- anywhere to be found under his entry, was quite a disappointment. But the seed, at least of desire, for such project was planted. Which is somewhat counterintuitive when you consider that back then I wouldn't have called myself a fan of David Cronenberg. I would have liked The Dead Zone, and would remember how the ending of The Fly had left me weeping, but other than that I'd found Cronenberg off-putting, weird to no end I could see, plus some other stupid things I can no longer remember. Yet I thought about him a lot, and was curious enough to be excited to read a long essay about him by a writer I admired. It would still take a long time for me to get to where I am now. In case you don't know where that is, my last post should give you some idea.
Undoubtedly, a near-endless number of long essays and career-overviews about David Cronenberg have been written since Ellison bailed on his, but I haven't read them. There's no use trying to figure out why, mostly because it would just reveal me to be some kind of sourpuss or something, but I can say that it has something to do with not much liking the way most people write about David Cronenberg. That doesn't mean there's not something terrific out there, but if there is I don't know about it. And I haven't spent any time at all looking, which sounds smug and dismissive, but in truth it's just, well, the truth. I might rescue myself from charges of smug dismissiveness by pointing out that I have wanted to write a career overview of David Cronenberg for a very long time, certainly longer than the five months Ellison spent teasing his own, and the specific seed for that, at least the idea to do a career overview of somebody, was planted in 2006, when Dennis Cozzalio began his Robert Altman project. I really enjoyed that series, and it was exactly the kind of thing I wanted film bloggers, among whose number I could not then count myself, to be writing. Then later I started this blog, and would sporadically remember that I was free to write this sort of thing myself. And so, a mere five years later, here we are.
This announcement -- which is what this is, I'm going to write a career-overview series on the films of David Cronenberg, by the way -- functions primarily as insurance that I will follow through. When I hit "publish" in a few minutes, I'll be locked in. I have available to me all the films Ellison had to dig for, and while this announcement has been postponed due to certain research materials not arriving when they should have, everything is now squared away. Which, yes, I'll be using research material. Sort of. I'm going to be pulling information and quotes from two reference sources: Cronenberg on Cronenberg, edited by Chris Rodley and originally published by Faber & Faber in 1992, and then in a revised and updated form in 1997 (I'll be using the 1997 edition); and David Cronenberg: Interviews with Serge Grünberg, published by Plexus in 2006. I chose these books, and these books only, because I want only Cronenberg to influence my thinking about his strange films, if anyone's going to. It's also my plan to read the three novels Cronenberg has adapted into films that I haven't already read, the possibility of squeezing that kind of thing into the course of the series being increased by the fact that I'll be writing and posting these pieces whenever I damn well please. Not that I expect this to take all that long, but I'm not going to rush it, either. Each piece will take things as I think they should best be taken, which will mean some films will be written about in pairs -- certain phases of Cronenberg's career allow for this quite smoothly -- while others will stand alone. There won't be any unifying structure here, unless there is. I don't know. Planning is not my strong suit.
But if I don't post this now, I could very well find an excuse not to post it tomorrow, and the day after that, and so on. So here it goes. The first post could go up as soon as next week. I might have another post, which will have nothing to do with David Cronenberg, go up before that, which is the other thing about this -- this series will be on-going, but I won't be neglecting anything else I might want to write about until it's done. I'll write about Cronenberg when I want to write about Cronenberg, and I'll write about whatever else when I want to write about whatever else. Not that you care, but I just want to be clear about how this is going to work.
So that's how it's going to work. Stay tuned. Ha ha ha to Videodrome or whatever!