THE CINEMA OF DAVID CRONENBERG: FROM BARON OF BLOOD TO CULTURAL HERO
by Ernest Mathijs
(Wallflowers, 2008; The Directors' Cuts Series)
David Cronenberg rose from the gutter of the Canadian backwater exploitation cinema (his "Baron of Blood" phase) to the red carpets of the most prestigious film festivals in the world (his "cultural hero" phase). As he started moving away from the former, almost imperceptibly, towards the latter (beginning in the mid-80ies with THE DEAD ZONE and his commercially most successful, THE FLY), wider audiences started noticing him. With wider viewers came wider (potential) readers, too, so in the past 10-15 years we've seen a virtual subgenre in the cinema studies: books about David Cronenberg. It also includes the books which feature his films prominently, though not exclusively, being devoted to such fashionable topics like "body", "gender", "queer studies", "post-human" etc.
Let's stick to the ones solely about "The King of Venereal Horror" – here's a brief selection: THE SHAPE OF RAGE: THE FILMS OF DAVID CRONENBERG by Piers Handling and Academy Of Canadian Cinema, 1983; CRONENBERG ON CRONENBERG edited By Chris Rodley, 1992; ORGANISCHER HORROR: DIE FILME DES DAVID CRONENBERG by Almut Oetjen, 1993; DAVID CRONENBERG: A DELICATE BALANCE by Peter Morris, 1994; THE MODERN FANTASTIC: THE FILMS OF DAVID CRONENBERG by Michael Grant, 2000; DAVID CRONENBERG : LA BEAUTÉ DU CHAOS by Géraldine Pompon and Pierre Véronneau, 2003; DAVID CRONENBERG: INTERVIEWS WITH SERGE GRUNBERG by Serge Grunberg, 2005; THE ARTIST AS MONSTER: THE CINEMA OF DAVID CRONENBERG by William Beard, 2006; DAVID CRONENBERG: AUTHOR OR FILMMAKER? by Mark Browning, 2007. Quite a pile, n'est-ce pas?
And, of course, without Cronenberg's movies titles like THEY CAME FROM WITHIN: A HISTORY OF CANADIAN HORROR FILM by Caelum Vatnsdal would be quite pointless (and empty). Cronenberg has rightly become synonymous not only with Canadian horror film, but with Canadian cinema itself. In many ways his films are the epitome of modern horror: a thinking man's visceral studies of the human condition. As for the books on him, the best one still remains CRONENBERG ON CRONENBERG, a selection of Cronenberg's interviews where, instead of the usual wise-ass academic jargon, you get all you need to know about these films, from the horse's mouth. As it turns out, Cronenberg is not only a great filmmaker, but also a very literate, clever, witty and analytical talker, and he is not reluctant to delve into the meanings and ideas of his films (unlike some other weirdo directors like, say, David Lynch or Takashi Miike). While no artist's "explanation" of his films should be taken as the last word on the subject, the depth and consistency of Cronenberg's interviews largely undermines the necessity for so many books on him. Wanna know what THE BROOD was all about? Talk to The Man, don't take the mediator's words for it. All you need to know is in CRONENBERG ON CRONENBERG already, where it is said clearly, succinctly, with no vague bull nor tiresome references to what some other critic has written. It's the essence.
Anyway, to this viable sub-industry within the academia another item is added now: THE CINEMA OF DAVID CRONENBERG: FROM BARON OF BLOOD TO CULTURAL HERO by Ernest Mathijs. Mr. Mathijs may be known to some cinephiles as co-editor of ALTERNATIVE EUROPE; EUROPEAN EXPLOITATION AND UNDERGROUND CINEMA (New York/ London: Columbia University Press/ Wallflower Press, 2004 – with Xavier Mendik) and also of Wallflower's CULTOGRAPHIES series of books, reviewed on this site. No stranger to the cult cinema, Mathijs devotes a whole book to one of those directors who (re)defined the term "cult". The key question is, of course: what's the angle? Does it bring anything new to the table already cluttered with books on Cronenberg?
The methodology used in this book is best described as a combination of reception studies and textual analysis. Actually, the stress is on the former. What it means is that this study is not so much about the author's interpretation of Cronenberg's output as it is his interpretation of other people's interpretations of it. This doesn't mean that Mathijs himself doesn't indulge in close readings of each and every Cronenberg project ever made (including the short ones, made for TV ones, even his cameo appearances in other people's movies), because he does. Most of his plot overviews are pretty insightful, and may draw the attention to some important details, meanings or connotations that even the most devoted fans may have missed. But just when you get a good starting point for the analysis of a film, and start expecting more, and deeper, what you get instead are pages after pages of what other critics said about the film in question. One thing cannot be denied: this book is meticulously well researched! One gets the impression that Mr. Mathijs has read every article, review, essay and book ever written about Cronenberg's films (no small task there!) as there are copious references to virtually all of them.
This impression is validated by Mathijs himself, who admits that in 1992 he turned his fascination with this director into a research project. He started researching the reception of Cronenberg's films when he wrote his MA thesis in the Film and Visual Culture degree at the Vrije Universiteit Brussels, which discussed how Cronenberg's films seemed to attract auteurist interpretations, and how many critics elevate him to the status of artist. In 1996, he started working on a PhD. research project that went further in researching the reception of Cronenberg's films. In 4 years Mathijs analyzed over 1000 pieces of writing on Cronenberg's films, from 8 countries. They included every book and academic article written on Cronenberg, and numerous interviews, reviews, editorial comments, and letters. The PhD. dissertation was validated summa cum laude in May 2000. That's all very commendable; however, the problem is that those thousands of texts are largely nonsense, or, at best, misguided and superficial.
Having filled his head with all that baloney, Mathijs occasionally has the trouble providing a meaningful interpretation of his own. He especially has trouble with Cronenberg's earliest and most unconventional films, which are often reduced to simpleminded readings. For example, is this what SHIVERS is about? "It represents a revolution not in its effects or goals – for that would still invite a moral question – but its pragmatics: what succeeds in overthrowing an order, and who benefits?" (p. 35) And this revolutionary talk goes on and on: "One cannot help think that the sheer violence and distress involved in the infection – the forceful rape-like penetration of other's bodies – acts against the effectiveness of the revolution. Even if its procedures are effective, its methods may destroy what is supposed to be rescued." (p.37) Bogged down in the quagmire of over-intellectualization, Mathijs forces SHIVERS -this relatively straightforward piece of ingeniously vivid bio-metaphysics- into a far more limited and pointless political reading. It is evidenced even further when RABID is, basically, reduced to an allegory of the "October crisis" of 1970. in Quebec, and very little else is said about the layers of meaning inherent to that film other than production details (budget, shooting, reception, etc.). Placing SHIVERS and RABID in the context of the cultural climate of the 1970-ies and the state of horror genre at the time is done rather ingeniously (pp.42-43) but, sadly, his analysis of the films themselves leaves a lot to be desired.
THE BROOD, that most controversial (and complicated) of Cronenberg's early films also remains largely under-analyzed: instead of his own stance, Mathijs mostly deals with the queer and feminist nonsense written by Robin Wood and Barbara Creed which accused this film as a misogynistic pamphlet about a man suppressing his wife's rights within the family. Mathijs points that Frank (BROOD's main character) is a questionable type himself, but does not tell us what to make of the whole story he's part of. Instead, off we go into the far safer field of regurgitated theory about "the cult of horror" which started rising in the late 1970-ies and early 1980-ies that BROOD became part of. Always readier to jump at a political reading if the film offers even half a chance for that, Mathijs does not so much interpret SCANNERS as he labels it a conspiracy thriller which "swaps intimacy for spectacle" (p.89). Instead of dealing with its themes and ideas, Mathijs is more comfortable retelling (admittedly interesting, but mostly well-known) details about that film's most famous money-shot (the exploding head), special effects and, of course, the reception of the film.
VIDEODROME and THE DEAD ZONE are, predictably, analyzed in terms of politics and paranoia. At one point Mathijs claims that "VIDEODROME is the quintessential, comprehensive Cronenberg – the crux to cracking the code of the 'Cronenberg Project'" (p.105) This alliterative KKK sentence might be funny in a FANGORIA article, but it is a bit out of place in this academic study. What's even worse, the text which follows never really justifies this superlative claim and thus the 'Cronenberg Project' remains a code largely uncracked and uncomprehended. Oh, well, at least VIDEODROME made "an almost prophetic reference to reality television" (p.110).
Cronenberg's best two films, THE FLY and DEAD RINGERS, are practically begging the feminist nut heads to project their "theories" on them, and so of course, Mathijs quotes Barbara Creed's gonzo understanding of these two films representing "womb envy: the inability of men to come to terms with the superlative reproductive abilities. Frustration over this ability manifests itself in extreme explorations of the human body... etc. etc." (p.138). For Mathijs, THE FLY and DEAD RINGERS are about the modern system of health care and misguided ways of today's medicine and "the intricate connections between sex roles, health and commerce" (p.147). He wastes several pages on those who read the AIDS metaphor into THE FLY – only to negate them with a crystal clear quote from Cronenberg himself, who put them to rest convincingly: "AIDS is a metaphor for something else... (THE FLY) is about death as most horror films are... I'm really thinking of it as growing old" (quoted on p.150).
But even Croneberg's quoted protests against political readings of his films do not stop the author of this book. Consequently, he doesn't devote much time nor effort to the anthropology, deep psychology, philosophy and metaphysics of Cronenberg's body horror; it's always far easier to rely on the currently fashionable politics. Indeed, very little is said about the archetypal, universal appeal of Cronenberg's best films. Burroughs's reference to an Evil waiting for the settlers in America is "read" as a criticism of American foreign policy and colonialism. NAKED LUNCH and M. BUTTERFLY are viewed as "social comments". CRASH is too open for interpretation for Mathijs to even try one. Instead, he deals with scandal-mongers and shallow-brains who clamored for banning that film. The references to other artists, like Kafka, Nabokov and Beckett are merely quoted as existent (with numerous references to those who spotted the similarities) – but are not explored nor convincingly analyzed in this book.
Of course, Mathijs is on a much safer ground with Cronenberg's most obvious, simple-minded recent films like SPIDER, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE and EASTERN PROMISES. Since their author himself intended them to be ambiguity-free, linear, non-provocative exercises in obviousness, they can readily be seen as "about reassessing values embedded in family traditions and habits" (p.226). "The topicality of these forces in American society makes both films cultural markers of our time" (p.227). Just like Tom Mes reduced the complexities and ambiguities of Takashi Miike to the social aspect of Japanese society today in his AGITATOR book, in a similar manner Ernest Mathijs placed too strong a stress on the societal topicalities of Cronenberg's multilayered oeuvre thus successfully pushing back precisely those other topics which made the 'Cronenberg Project' unique and unparalleled. His analysis, although not without its limited merits, makes Cronenberg look like a mere Atom Egoyan on LSD. But he is so much more.
To conclude: well-researched and multi-referenced, solidly supported and illustrated, THE CINEMA OF DAVID CRONENBERG: FROM BARON OF BLOOD TO CULTURAL HERO by Ernest Mathijs is a study whose main value lies in exploring the reception (and misconceptions) of Cronenberg's films, but has very little to add to clarifying them and enabling a better understanding of their essence. It tells you how and where they were filmed; what the budgets were; what their plots are; what some critics wrote about them; and what societal concerns can be projected on them (AIDS, gender, homosexuality, feminism, media, politics, paranoia, family, etc.). What it doesn't tell you is: what, exactly, IS the 'Cronenberg Project', what is the tissue that connects the issues behind his films.
As such, the book is far from being the authoritative last word on David Cronenberg. As James Spader says at the end of CRASH: "Maybe the next one, darling. Maybe the next one."
-Originally published on Beyond