Wednesday, May 22, 2013
The Cronenberg Series Part 2: Exercise the Fun Way
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.