Friday, October 10, 2008

Cronenberg Explained

I really didn't have the heart to tell RFC's other half about the lecture on David Cronenberg Wednesday night. Not just because Sean is a much bigger Cronenberg fan than I, but because it was one of the rare offerings at the Cinemateque Royal here in Brussels that was in English.

I'll start by saying I am in no position to argue the conclusions of Professor Ernest Mathijs, who is director of the Center for Cinema Studies at the University of British Columbia, and has been close to obsessed with Cronenberg films since he was 13. Apparently, his love affair began with seeing a poster for Scanners - exploding head and all - at his local video store and hasn't stopped since. In fact, not only have I not seen that movie, but I've never seen (or heard of?) a Cronenberg film until A History of Violence. So I'll cede to the authority on all points here and just offer a quick summary of what he said.

The lecture shared the title of his new book, The Cinema of David Cronenberg: From Baron of Blood to Cultural Hero. Mathijs's main point is that while it may appear that Cronenberg has developed from a schlock and gore director into a serious filmmaker, the change is really in our culture and not in the man himself. The argument is that Cronenberg from his early days of experimental horror flicks up until his recent work has consistently repeated the same themes - a terrifying and fluid 'reality,' the prison of the body, and the struggle and failure to overcome one's own demons; it just so happens that the world has come to look more like a Cronenberg film over the last twenty years. What seemed absurd and fantastic in the early 80's seems very real now. Mathijs even cites one of Cronenberg's cinematographers as saying that the man doesn't make different films, "he just makes the same film over and over again" in a different package.

The second argument is that Cronenberg is a revolutionary filmmaker because his involvement in the film doesn't stop at the final print; even after a film's release, Mathjis argues, Cronenberg insists on making sure that audiences get what he is trying to do. Indeed, unlike many other directors of similar stature, Cronenberg almost never turns down interviews or opportunities to tell people what he is doing, whether it's to an audience at Cannes or Fangoria magazine. In fact, Mathijs began his study after Cronenberg replied to a hand written letter asking the director where he could read more about him. This insistence on controlling not only the product, but the reception as well, leads Mathijs to call Cronenberg the "Active Auteur." In our postmodern times, this should not be surprising, I guess, since the wall between production and reception of culture was torn down a long time ago in literary theory. What's interesting however, is that Barthes's mort de l'auteur also entailed the 'author' losing control of his product. Basically, the theory goes, the worth and meaning of a movie is whatever the audience says it is; an interesting paradox for someone as insistent on his vision as Cronenberg, but one Mathijs doesn't take up.

While these were both interesting ideas, and add a lot to the experience of seeing a Cronenberg film (we watched The Brood afterwards, which I'll review soon), I wish there had been a little more depth to the presentation itself. I won't go into all the details here - lord knows academics can struggle with the presentation side - but the talk itself was rambling, consisting mostly of PowerPoint slides and a few stills of the movies. For reasons I'm still not sure of, Mathijs showed virtually every appearance of a Cronenberg acting cameo as well as every instance of a car that appeared in his movies. He seemed particularly excited that in one movie, there were only two exteriors...and one had a car! I think he may have been rushed, and I'm sure the book itself has more coherence, but given how interesting the ideas were, I really would have liked to see more examples of the films themselves.*

*Possible copywrite issues I guess, but at least do something other than PowerPoint.

There were some cool moments and anecdotes, however, and I should pass them along (links to some of this stuff at the bottom):

- Mathijs did show two clips, the first Cronenberg's 2007 short film for a Cannes retrospective called At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World at the Last Cinema in the World, which featured 3 minutes of the director agonizing over whether or not to put a bullet in his brain while two inane announcers described the event. The second, which added literally nothing to the argument, but was still pretty cool, was a deleted scene from the little-known Fast Company, a PG effort meant for the mainstresm, where the protagonist pours motor oil over two naked girls. Pretty cool not just because of the girls, but because it came from a director's commentary version where Cronenberg apparently had thought the shot was lost forever. In the lead-up, he is bemoaning the fact that there is this great scene with motor oil and nude women, but that it was cut and he could never find it. Just as he is complaining about losing the rights, we get a quick cut to two gorgeous girls, and the oil begins to flow.

- Mathjis revealed his top 3 Cronenberg films: 1) Videodrome ("the best movie ever, by anyone"), 2) Eastern Promises, and 3) The Fly.

- Cronenberg's first two experimental shorts from the late 60s, Transfer and From the Drain - of which only a few prints in the world remain - are now available on Youtube (Note: I couldn't find Transfer but he said it's out there).

- Belgians were one of the first audiences to take Cronenberg seriously. The story goes that Cronenberg had come to screen another film at the 1984 Belgian Fantastic Film Festival, and while there, showed a copy of Videodrome to a few of the organizers. The movie had a terrible distribution in the states (see below), but after the side screening, all the critics and Festival members demanded it be released in Belgium. At the time, other than his home Canada, Belgium was the most successful market for Cronenberg releases.

- One (of many) things that caused problems for Videodrome was that the audience test screening took place in Boston during a traffic strike. Cronenberg usually liked to test his films in Toronto, where he knew the audience, but he figured Boston would be fine, given that he could pack the house with college kids from Harvard, MIT, and Emerson. Unfortunately, the screening happened during the strike, so the students couldn't attend. As Mathijs tells it, desperate organizers literally had to pull people of the streets, including women with children and other good folks from the city. Suffice it to say, neither the Boston Brahmins nor the Universal studio executives who saw the report were impressed.

Most of this cool stuff happened after the talk proper, and I wish it had been off-the-cuff the entire time. Mathijs showed his love and knowledge of Cronenberg better in an informal setting, and the combination of passion and intelligence for the director makes you want to be a fan too. Just leave the PowerPoint at home.

(From the Drain Part 1)
(From the Drain Part 2)
(Mathijs's Book, not yet released)

1 comment:

Sean said...

funny thing is I haven't seen The Brood but I have it at the top of my queue for Halloween viewing when I get back from the European vacation by coincidence