Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Cronenberg Series Part 7: God's Been a Real Sport to Me

Videodrome was a very heavy experience. If you're used to comedy, The Dead Zone is a heavy picture. But if you're used to Videodrome, The Dead Zone is not.

- David Cronenberg as quoted in Cronenberg on Cronenberg by Chris Rodley

Well, maybe. But maybe not. Depends on how you define "heavy." I probably could have taken a pretty good stab at writing about The Dead Zone without watching it again since I'd guess it's the Cronenberg film I've watched most often, which is a side effect of it being the first Cronenberg film I liked. Along with A History of Violence and, despite its extremely Cronenbergian qualities and high level of disgustingness, The Fly, this 1983 adaptation of a Stephen King novel is easily his most accessible film -- its plot is of a somewhat, what I guess you'd call, populist bent, and Cronenberg doesn't pull a Dr. Moreau-esque transformative vivisection on King's novel, as he did with the George Langerlan short story that was the basis for The Fly (and all other The Fly movies). The film is reasonably faithful to King's original book, and King's imagination, like Steven Spielberg's, is, not from cynicism but by nature, a populist one. All of this is perhaps what Cronenberg is talking about in the above quote. Later in the Rodley book, he says that anyone who believes that with The Dead Zone he was not "follow[ing] [his] own instincts...are completely wrong," and that, anyway, you can't chase popularity and expect to succeed. He made the film, he says, because it did strike a personal chord: "Personally the film is just like me, but filmically I suppose not." All of which adds up to a film, in the skilled hands of Cronenberg, screenwriter Jeffrey Boam, and a terrific cast, that is very easy to like.
The structure of The Dead Zone, which as I recall comes from King, is compelling. Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is a small-town high school English teacher who, when we first meet him, is reading Poe's "The Raven" to his students, and then, as class ends, assigning them to read Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," just the film's way of tipping its hand a little bit. Johnny's in love with fellow teacher Sarah (Brooke Adams), and in the early goings of the film the two of them go on a date to a carnival, and after that Johnny takes her home. Sarah invites him to stay over for what we gather would be their first sexual encounter, but Johnny demurs, saying "Some things are worth waiting for." Which, okay, but Brooke Adams, and everything. But anyway he heads home, and on the way gets into a terrible car accident that launches him into a five-year coma. When he awakes, his life has changed in almost every conceivable way. His job, obviously, is gone, and Sarah has married someone else, with whom she has a son. On top of this, a latent psychic ability, a tiny hint of which we saw at the carnival, has come into full bloom -- in the hospital, when he touches the hand of his nurse, he sees that her house is on fire, and her daughter is inside. Johnny's warning to the nurse comes in time to save the little girl, and his fate is sealed. He is doomed now. So the structure, as I was saying, is almost that of an anthology film -- while The Dead Zone flows along as a straightforward narrative, Johnny is going from one scenario to another, a crisis that requires his psychic powers to avert danger, or solve a mystery, or even defeat evil. First he catches a serial killer that has been butchering young women in town for years, then when the notoriety of that event forces him into seclusion and a job as a private tutor, he bonds with one of his students, the son of a wealthy businessman (Anthony Zerbe). He sees that this boy is on the cusp of danger, has to deal with that whole deal, and drifts from there into the world of vile politician Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), who is running for the Senate. When Johnny shakes Stillson's hand at a rally, he sees that Stillson's political future will bring about a nuclear apocalypse.
Along with being an appealing way to tell the story of Johnny Smith -- which is really what The Dead Zone is, and less a plot-heavy thriller, though it puts on a pretty good show of being the latter as well -- this helps bring some of Cronenberg's particular interests into play. One constant in Johnny's life (Sarah drops in and out through the course of the film, and Johnny's father, played by Sean Sullivan, disappears from the action once Johnny flees town after the serial killer incident) is his doctor, Sam Weizak (Herbert Lom). One of the saner men of science to appear in a David Cronenberg film, Weizak has seen Johnny's powers work first-hand, and he takes both a professional interest as well as, because he likes Johnny, a personal interest in the man's life. Through their various conversations, we eventually learn that Johnny's psychic abilities are actually taking a physical toll on him, and it appears that the more he uses them, the faster he is killing himself. So again, in a Cronenberg film (this, by the way, is a slight change from the novel, though it all adds up to the same thing in the end) the body finds new ways to collapse in on itself. This is presented in terms...well, actually, it's not presented at all, in visual terms -- we're straight up told this by Johnny and Weizak. So the kind of grotesque imagery that Cronenberg put to such great effect in his previous two films, and would ramp up again in his next one, is completely absent from this film. Oh, there's blood, but it's of the more typical squib-and-blood-pack variety; everything else, the breakdown that is so in keeping with Cronenberg's films up to now, is completely internal. He does not, in other words, make the internal horrifyingly external, as is normally his wont, except to the extent that Johnny is told that he doesn't look well as the film goes on (this was less apparent to me, and I don't know if any makeup was used to illustrate this or not), so that his illness would seem, in the world of the film, to manifest itself the way illnesses do in our world.
If there's one person involved in the making of The Dead Zone who can really bring home what Cronenberg is trying to get at here, it's Christopher Walken. And thank God he's Christopher Walken. First off, what Cronenberg is interested in is not merely the physical aspect of Johnny's condition, which is a more or less arbitrary invention anyway, but the psychological blowback that a person with Johnny's powers would experience. The Dead Zone is a tragedy about a man who is destroyed by an ability that most people, if they didn't think about it too long, would consider an endless good. But Johnny seems to sense the potential for ruin right out of the gate, and Walken's performance is a relentless highlighting of the character's depression (which stems also from still living in a moment five years ago when he and Sarah were in love but now no longer can be), loneliness, and inability to be as selfish as he would so desperately like to be. Or anyway, to be devoted to his own preservation over all else. Walken's performance here is, I'd say, his best -- it's my favorite, anyway. In the early stages of the film, things skew a little awkward, and I believe this is because in an attempt to make Christopher Walken, who is after all playing a character named Johnny Smith, appear as a small-town everyman, Cronenberg accidentally made him seem even stranger. Walken is a strange person, his appearance is unusual, his voice and speaking rhythms are unlike anyone else, so giving him a goofball haircut and making him whoop it up on a roller coaster doesn't fly -- except in Catch Me If You Can, and even in that there are some qualifiers, Walken does not project normalcy. So it's not until Johnny is a shell of his former self that Walken comes alive, the same way some strange-looking young person might some day grow into their looks. Johnny has always been strange and haunted, but it wasn't until he awoke from his coma that he had the opportunity to live that life to the hilt.
The film as a whole has the same issues. As I've pointed out in other posts in this series, and will point out again, Cronenberg has a refreshing habit of cutting right to the chase in his films. There is a minimum of backstory, or set-up, or the establishing of much of anything in his films that precede The Dead Zone, other than setting and premise. He likes to dive right in because when you get right down to it, there's no reason not to. The Dead Zone doesn't allow for that, and the early scenes of Johnny and Sarah together are weird and cold, and not much of a shit seems to have been given. This is not because Cronenberg is adverse to, or unable to depict, human warmth and emotion; what he's adverse to is narrative formality, the doing of something in a story not because it is interesting but because it's the kind of thing that story's have in them. He likes to cut out what he doesn't need, which are those formalities. What's worse for him, I'd wager, is when those formalities are actually necessary, as they are in The Dead Zone -- obviously this is worse because that means he has no choice but to do them. And he races right through it all with his typical efficiency, but that doesn't serve to establish the kind of romance you might want down the line in a film like this.

But it doesn't matter, because of Walken. Cronenberg himself says he, Walken, is what the film is about:

The loneliness and the melancholy and the impossibility of dealing with things. And yet the necessity to do it. That's what it was. It's Chris Walken's face. That's the subject of the movie; that's what the movie was about. All the things that are in his face.
Walken plays Johnny, post-coma, as a man who is very nearly habitually rude. People will speak to him in a normal, polite kind of way, and he won't respond. He'll shake a hand but remain silent. His unhappiness over being outside his home, when he's visiting Zerbe's businessman, is apparent; he accepts a beer just to keep him from offering something else. When the deep-down truth of his situation as a man five years out of time really comes home to him, the shutting down begins. He quotes a line from "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," about Ichabod Crane, that story's hero, to Sarah: "As he was a bachelor, and in nobody's debt, nobody troubled his head any more about him." Sarah asks "Is that what you're afraid of?" and Johnny replies "That's what I want." And this is precisely what Walken plays. He earns a living because he has to, but otherwise you get the feeling that the shot about midway through the film of Johnny lying silently on his couch depicts how he'd choose to spend all his time. He doesn't like to speak, and he's no longer good at it. Every so often, his situation will lead him into an outburst (most famously one that includes the line "The ice is gonna break!"), but he backs off from these as if ashamed. After one, he immediately apologies; after another, he changes his mind completely on the topic that led to his anger in the first place. But this power, and the lust by others to have this power work for them, is putting him in a spotlight he'd rather blow out with a rifle.
It's never said that Smith is suicidal, and since he's dying anyway you'd think the point would be moot. But who knows how long that will take? Among other things, I'd say The Dead Zone is a film about a man who develops a death wish. I suppose this is not quite the same thing as being suicidal, and plus being cripplingly introverted is going to cut down on the opportunities to try and fulfill that wish, but then he meets Stillson and Johnny's destiny is set on its course. Noted Pulitzer Prize-winning chowderhead Stephen Hunter once said that he thought The Dead Zone was a morally repugnant film as it seemed to him to justify or excuse political assassins. On numerous levels, this is rank nonsense. Also somewhat nonsensical is Rodley's (and Cronenberg's, actually) casual insistence that The Dead Zone contains actual politics in its makeup -- Rodley and Cronenberg bother to say this at all because politics are typically never a part of his films, but The Dead Zone is no different. Greg Stillson, we are told, is a third-party candidate, and his political beliefs are never laid out, other than that he believes that, as Johnny believes his own destiny is to die soon, Stillson's is to start a nuclear war. These are twinned destinies, you might say. In any case, nuclear war crosses the political aisles, and is an all-encompassing shadow. It's kind of a MacGuffin, or can be used that way. Anyway, it's the easiest way, plot-wise, for Stillson to fulfill his destiny, and the easiest thing for Johnny to understand so that he can decide to stop him. So again, Stephen Hunter, there's no excusing of political assassins here. Just because Stillson is an American doesn't change the fundamental idea, one expressed in a conversation between Weizak and Johnny, which is that this element of The Dead Zone's plot is a basic "if you could, would you kill Hitler?" scenario. And Stephen Hunter, if you're telling me that even if you could you would NOT kill Hitler, then fuck you, buddy, I guess you love genocide.

What I'm getting at, but not really, but what I mean to get at, is that Johnny is driven to his climactic actions only partly by his belief that it's the right thing to do. The rest of his motivation, which has been communicated over the last 90 minutes by Walken's face, is made up of what might even to him be a vague understanding that because he clearly won't get out of this mess alive, this mess is, therefore, his big chance. His death wish will be fulfilled. If you need to die, as Johnny does, but you're not suicidal, the moral imperative and martyrdom that Stillson has forced upon him is kind of a Godsend. "God's been a real sport to me," Johnny spits, sarcastically, at Tom Skerritt's sheriff when the man has the nerve to call Johnny's psychic abilities a gift from God. So maybe He hasn't been, but when that bullet passes through Johnny's chest, it could be His way of making it up to him.


Noumenon said...

And, following up what I said last time, I nominate "fuck you, buddy, I guess you love genocide" for addition to the "Quotable Bill" roll call.

Lencho of the Apes said...

Some excellent writing here; I stumbled across your site while I was swotting up on Shivers. Reading your essay on Dead Zone here has made me recognize that Smith/Stillson = Vale/Revok. Thanks for that.