I. The literary critic George Steiner posed the following questions in a 1965 essay entitled Night Words: "Is there any science-fiction in pornography? I mean something new, an invention by the human imagination of new sexual experience?" These came to mind as I haphazardly came across a gossip website reporting that Canadian director David Cronenberg's film The Dangerous Method is rumored to have potential for an Oscar nomination. Cronenberg "has been tragically overlooked by the Academy for the duration of his career", states the blog. Why in the past he has been "overlooked" is understandable enough given the main theme in his repertoire, that is, a fixation on the interplay between biology and technology in relation to pain and violence so as to achieve, reiterating Steiner, "new sexual experience". This, obviously, is just a fancy way of saying sadomasochism.
II. Cronenberg's films of late have been more subdued with lesser focus on bizarre storylines. An example would be Eastern Promises (2007), though it has a particularly violent knife fight scene. On balance, however, his films are notorious for their gnostical mystification of sexual perversion and violence, of an obnoxious fascination with the clash between the biological and the technological. His very early films Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future explore polymorphic sexual activity, telepathy, dermatology and pedophilia. Shivers (1975) tells the story of a doctor who implants parasites into a teenage girl, producing in her an unquenchable lust, whereupon she spreads the disease by having sex with whomever. Eventually the doctor kills her, slices her open, pours acid inside her body to kill the parasites, then commits suicide. Rabid (1977) was the break-out movie for the recently deceased porn star Marilyn Chambers. Mark Steyn gives a good summary: "she played a young Montrealer who, after a terrible motorcycle accident, discovers she has a vulval orifice in her armpit whence emerges a phallus that feasts on human blood. This was the nearest Marilyn got to going legit, if that's the word for it."
III. Cronenberg's obsession with the grossly biologic was on full display in The Brood (1979), infamously known for a scene in which a mother, immediately after giving birth to a deformed baby, licks it clean like some post-natal animal in the wilderness. There was the famous exploding head scene in Scanners (1981), which you can view here, though it's not recommend viewing unless you have the guts to watch. All I remember from Videodrome (1983) is the bliss Deborah Harry underwent after sticking a burning cigarette into her breast. Cronenberg's remake of The Fly (1986) was an OK film for science fiction aficionados, very likely because the screenplay wasn't his original idea. Dead Ringers (1988) is a story about twin gynecologists, abnormal vulvas and strangely-configured medical instruments forged by a metallurgist. Supposedly, this film was "respectable" in that it starred Jeremy Irons and Geneviève Bujold. Then there was the attempt at the rationalization of beatnik irrationalism in The Naked Lunch (1991), a surreal retelling of William's Burroughs popular book. Ya ya, I'm hip I'm hip. It's very hard to see anything meaningful in a film with a gravelly voiced bug and unfollowable dialogue. Heavy drugs and anarchy, baby! It's where it's at. There are a couple others, but let's end this excursion into the profane by reference to the paraphilic Crash (1996) since it is emblematic of the ultimate clash between metallic technology and human biology so as to produce "new sexual experience". No intricated review is required to describe this film, for it can cursorily be given as follows: it is about people who are aroused by, and commit sexual acts in, crashing and crashed cars. That's about it.
IV. The filmerati always have showered acclamations onto Cronenberg's explorations into the "darkness of the human psyche", or whatever these debonair nihilists prefer to call sadomasochism. They will contend that he is a magnificent filmmaker with some secret or superior accessibility into the innermost caverns of the human subconscious; someone in tune with that dreaded contamination that indwells all of us. They will speak of the "unpleasant" nature of his films whereas anyone with a modicum of sensibility would be precise (and hence objective), ascribing them as repugnant. The newspaper film critic will call scenes of mutilation as "provoking". The euphemisms just flow. The celery-munching aesthete bred on deconstruction will call his films "relevant", whereas I only see evidence of misanthropy. Now read this attempt to give his films intellectual respectability:
What distinguishes Cronenberg in his existentialism is his appreciation of the human body. In an effort to 'mend the Cartesian rift' between Mind and Body (as he himself repeatedly put it)..., Cronenberg's films equip the human body with a will of its own. Amoral in the most literal sense, there is no 'good' or 'bad' body. Cronenberg askes viewers to accept a tumor, a wound, a deficiency not as a fault or flaw but as a companion to the rest of the body.Such is expressive of a mindset, and of the film industry in general, mesmerized by a sadomasochistic form of gnosis. To be sure, the Marquis de Sade would be overjoyed with one of his most promising pupils, David Cronenberg. Problem is, his cinemagraphic philosophy, like many of the now aged Sixties radicals, is part of the contemporary ruling cultural establishment. He is mainstream. Look no further than to the title of the just quoted book by Ernest Mathijs: The Cinema of David Cronenberg, From Baron of Blood to Cultural Hero.
V. Given this acceptability of perversion into mainstream cinema, what happens when someone fires criticisms against Cronenberg and his ilk? Easy. A transposition. The opponent is effectively labelled as the avant garde deviant, the anomaly outside the norm. Today, if films such as those by Cronenberg are branded as, let us say, stupid, boring, base expositions of frenetic whackjobery, the rejoinder is that the critic is dictating a "value system" onto others, infringing on artistic liberty. In actuality, however, the opponent's freedom to criticize has been annulled, since any perspective that counters sadomasochistic cinema, or whatever waste of celluloid is currently being exhibited at Hollywood and Cannes (yes, there are exceptions), is scored off as nonsense extolled by some puritan on a witch hunt. Those appalled by Cronenberg's cinemagraphic banalities are themselves likened to a band of unenlightened rednecks from the hinterlands who have nothing really important to offer on the subject.
VI. Still, within this celluloidal morass there is hope. There is a self-defeating aspect in the kind of filmmaking that admixes brutality, coition and death for their own sakes, and only their own sakes. That is, the negation of the self. The historian Christopher Dawson observed:
It is the fundamental error of the modern hedonist to believe that man can abandon moral effort and throw off every repression and spiritual discipline and yet preserve all the achievements of culture. It is the lesson of history that the higher the achievement of a culture the greater is the moral effort and stricter is the social discipline that it demands.Perhaps this is self-evident, yet when the dignity of personhood is contorted into a self-hating serfdom then nothing is evident. The very fact that such extremes in film production are given approbation attests to not only an all-pervasive apathy, but also to a never-admitted sense of despair by those filmmakers themselves. It reveals a devolution in ideas, a hatred of truth, goodness and beauty. It is an inadvertent confession of the intellectual vacuity involved, a hidden despair in the subsurface yet to be fully unleashed. Why? Because these films "are of no transcendent importance". The director "shuts his eyes to the outer world and concentrates upon the subjective images in his own mind... He is brazenly set on deforming reality, shattering its human aspect, dehumanizing it".
VII. Hopefully, films such as Crash and eXistenZ will in time fade to black within the public memory. Not because of repulsiveness, nor from an eventual lack in funding, private or governmental. The reason is repetition. To view repeated scenes of masochism is monotonous. Overall, watching Cronenberg's films is to travel through an erroneously reverse-engineered Disneyland fashioned by a mind that has taken the movie Barbarella too seriously. Cronenberg's effort at being "deep" in social commentary is, of course, comical. His films are a testament to, and a triumph of, self-contempt and antinomianism. They also signify the sordid level to which the film industry has plunged, as most of his works are visual enactments of the unrestrained nihilism of the cultural Left. The body and sex are meaningless and mechanical and hence so are human beings. The human body is delegitimized, effectively made evil as the Manicheans of old said, and therefore severe pain must be inflicted upon it, rigorously and systematically. Disturbingly, Cronenberg's films are also covert justifications for the fantasies of torturers and other perverts of whatever fetish. A trail of depravity is what Cronenberg has left. Next step: snuff films. What else is left?
NOTES / REFERENCES
1. G. Steiner, "Night Words" in Language and Silence (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1990). Book compilation first published in 1967.
2. M. Steyn, "Goodbye to the suburban porn star", MacLean's, April 30, 2009. LINK
3. E. Mathijs, The Cinema of David Cronenberg: From Baron of Blood to Cultural Hero (London: Wallflower Press, 2008), p. 6.
4. C.H. Dawson, "The Patriarchal Family in History" in The Dynamics of World History (London: Sheed and Ward, 1957), p. 159. Essay originally written in 1933.
5. J. Ortega Y Gasset, "The Dehumanization of Art" in The Dehumanization of Art and Other Essays on Art, Culture, and Literature (Princeton University Press, 1972), pp. 51, 39, 21. Essay originally written in 1925.