After a wonderful evening spent in the company of the cast and composer of his recent success A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, director David Cronenberg returned alone to spend a more intimate moment with the patrons of New York City's Walter Reade Theater on the night of November 29. The graceful, imperiously intelligent filmmaker arrived in yet another gray-velvet-dominated ensemble, prepared to answer any remaining questions about HISTORY or anything else in his oeuvre with his trademark velour intonations and wintery countenance. Even old flesh is erotic flesh.
The Toronto-dwelling director's return to Manhattan so soon after his last visit was certainly called for; it seems that A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE has proven itself to be a film that requires repeat examination from multiple angles. Apparently after having viewed HISTORY with a lethally somber American audience, Village Voice critic and Midnight Movies author J. Hoberman felt that a Canadian screening was essential – and true to his intuition, his northern journey found him with an audience that frequently roared with laughter. Unsurprised by this information, Cronenberg contributed, "The movie premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May, and there was a famous incident which involved an Austrian critic (at a press screening)…I think it actually was New York Times critics who were chuckling (and) laughing it up, and this (Austrian) critic stood up and said 'Shut up you fucking piece of shit critics, don't you know that this is not funny, it's serious!'" The Times critics' blogs reflect that the Austrian was certainly an intelligent and talented critic, but "they felt that they had a better handle, and I think they were right, on what was going on in the film than he did, because (HISTORY) does ask the audience to twist and turn in terms of tone. It's funny, and (then) it's immediately shocking, and then it's immediately scary, and then it's immediately funny again, and then it's sad and emotional. It does all that, and it is a dangerous thing to do because you're walking a tight rope and it can backfire on you." The director, known for his perhaps willful urge to upset and even repel his audience, often with the use of unfamiliar and otherworldly elements, said of the relatively earthy, naturalistic HISTORY, "What I really wanted to do was replicate the kind of emotional rollercoaster that you could have over the course of a normal day. You read something tragic and you're upset, then something funny happens in your office, then someone phones you and is in a panic. All of these things happen (in life), why can't a movie have that many moods within it? But I think the template for movies today is very clunky… Hollywood movies and movies that follow that pattern tend to be 'Now it's sad and the music is sad and the lighting is said SAD and you know it's sad, and then you can move on to something that's funny.' There's never any mixing of tones and moods. And people can get confused…they think they're supposed to be somber because it's the new Cronenberg movie, and if they think that that's a serious thing then it must be approached seriously. But I've never made a movie that's not funny. They're all funny." Well…a beat passes. Facial muscles contract. A moment of doubt comes and goes. Then, "Maybe THE BROOD wasn't very funny." He smirks, referring to a film he made in direct response to the event of his then-wife joining a cult and attempting to induct their child and escape from him altogether. "I was in a really bad mood when I made that movie. But that's about the only one that doesn't have genuine laughs in it."
Despite the multifaceted emotional responses of various audiences, Cronenberg can happily say that HISTORY has yielded "one of the best critical responses I've ever had." For the so-called Dave "Deprave", positive critical reaction is an occurrence worth remarking upon. He first made a name for himself in 1975 by scandalizing the Canadian government when he exploited its tax shelter structure to finance the wantonly grotesque and erotic SHIVERS (which, despite public outcry, is the only film made with Canadian tax money to have actually made money back), and within the past decade his NC-17-ratedCRASH was verboten in parts of the UK. Critic Chris Tookey's call for the ban was taken seriously in the cultural center of Westminster, reflecting agreement with limey critic Alex Walker's assessment that the fetishy J.G. Ballard adaptation was indeed "beyond the bounds of depravity." "I thought that was pretty good territory to be in," chuckled Cronenberg, before concluding calmly, "but, um, he's dead." In response to the house's astonished laughter, the director added with a wry smile, "I do not forgive."
Certainly this director, one of the few with dual citizenship in the art house community and the mainstream, has run up against a relatively high degree of antagonism from censors and critics over the course of his career, and sees that continuing to happen even in this more enlightened era. "It's very hard to get a difficult film made now…it's very difficult to get an independent film made that's edgy," he said, allowing for difficulty on both sides of the indie/mainstream fence. "It's something that people have talked about vis-à-vis Sundance…(we) are starting to see films that are obviously rehearsals for studio films…it's just the tenor of the times," he shrugged. So at this relatively permissive point in time, what is it that makes a film "difficult"? "Violence is not edgy," Cronenberg elaborated. "In terms of movies, violence is just bread and butter…sex and violence are the basics. 'Conflict is the essence of drama,' said George Bernard Shaw, and violence is of course the most basic kind of conflict. So I don't think violence (gives) you edge; what you see in a lot of movies is not even real violence, it's attitude. Attitude is anti-art because it's a pretense, it's a façade, it's a defensive mechanism. It means that you're really not digging deep, you're not going into something real, where something makes you vulnerable. If what you express is attitude, then it's all defensive, and you can't be defensive if you're going to be an artist." So despite what might be perceived as a sadistic bent in his movies, Cronenberg's real priority is the preservation of a certain kind of vulnerability, particularly within himself. This should not surprise anyone who is aware of Cronenberg's roots in the cinema underground of which Jonas Mekas was part – but by the way, what became of his relationships with the subterranean community now that he's ascended to mainstream status? "I try to crush all other filmmakers," was Cronenberg's deadpan assertion, much to the delight of the house. "It's important to be honest about that."
Despite his art world roots, on the director's previous visit to the Walter Reade he made several in-no-uncertain-terms statements regarding his constitutional rejection of a postmodern approach to his subject matter, espousing instead a kind of single-minded, in-the-moment earnestness about the depiction of his characters and their generally science-fictitious predicaments. On this his second visit, the audience again confronted the director with what some believed was a po-mo meditation on (for instance) the mass media that stretched between VIDEODROME and eXistenZ – and this time, some even suggested that Cronenberg's sci-fi speculations could be prophetic. The director explained away the Blake-ian notion of the artist-cum-prophet, and his apparent precognitive powers regarding the metastasis of mass media, as such: "As an artist you allow your antennae to go right out as far as they can and to be as sensitive as possible. It makes you very vulnerable to pain and to all kinds of other things, but you have to lower your own defenses and to allow all these things to pour in and to allow yourself to see things and to be in touch with things within yourself and in society in general that other people are hedged against…because they're afraid of it or because they need to repress certain things in order to function. If you do that, if you allow those antennae to pick up stuff that around, then I think that you would inevitably end up predicting things just by accident." Taking as an example his early sci-fi/horror hybrid about a woman who becomes a kind of vampire after the implantation of undifferentiated tissue, he further explained, "For example, in RABID I actually invented stem cell research. I should get the Nobel Prize, but somehow I don't think I will. I went to Stockholm recently to get a lifetime achievement award from the Stockholm Film Festival, and that was ONLY because it was as close to the Nobel Prize as I was going to get."
Additionally, it came out that Cronenberg had refused to do any research on dementia when directing SPIDER in order to avoid the perils of properly presenting schizophrenia in a clinically and politically correct light. So with the implication that scientific accuracy is almost an accident of intuition, he was asked, did he research any of his other films? Did he research flies before making THE FLY? "Well, I knew all about flies before I made THE FLY," he shrugged, almost perplexed by the question. Then, seemingly to himself, "Everybody knows about flies."
That mention of Cronenberg's most visceral work brought forth a question that has bothered devout gore hounds and strict genre buffs since his recent turn to drier, more literary, less literal horror films. Will the director ever make another true horror film? Cronenberg's broad brow furrowed and his eyes narrowed in thought as a long thin stream of Poland Spring water escaped his lips and dribbled onto his chest. Silence in the house. "Well, I just drooled on myself, so I guess that would be your answer," the filmmaker laughed. Responding directly to a specific question regarding Cronenbergian horror, he made a surprising claim: "I was never obsessed with 'the horror within'…but for me, philosophically, the first fact of human existence is the human body, and I think that that is the beginning and end of us…and therefore it requires serious discussion in films, and examination, and I suppose that's why my movies are in one way or another very body-oriented, and I would include for example SPIDER." He defended that relatively quiet English melodrama about one man's insanity as quite at home within his viscerally horrific oeuvre, "You can smell Spider in that movie. And HISTORY OF VIOLENCE is (viscerally horrific) in its own way as well. So although these are not sci-fi movies, they are still, I feel, thematically, viscerally and tactilely connected with (my) earlier films, which are a little more fantastic about it. But I wouldn't hesitate to do another horror film. I've been through this before when I did THE DEAD ZONE. A lot of people were saying, 'He's moving into the mainstream, that movie's not very gory, it's more psychological,' and this and that, and then the next movie I made was THE FLY, which was very gory and very definitely a horror film…I wouldn't turn my back on genre filmmaking. I don't think I ever have, actually."
So considering that, can the world expect to see another literal horror film from Cronenberg in the near future? According to the director, the scripts he is offered are more often than not unrelated to his interests. "They often make a mistake, a very critical one, because they send me stuff that has to do with the devil and supernatural stuff and things with demons and ghosts and stuff, and I don't do those…that's because of my own aetheistic, existentialist, humanist leanings. I don't really think about afterlife, and I don't particularly want to promote that idea either…I just don't have that empathy for it. I certainly understand ghosts in the psychological sense, certainly my parents are both dead, they've been dead for a long time, and I can hear their voices, I can feel them, touch them, so I'm haunted in that sense, but I don't for one second think that they're floating around somewhere watching me. So I could do a sort of a psychological discussion of ghostness, let's say, but I wouldn't ever want to propose it as a literal fact…so I often get scripts like that. People seem to just think 'If it's a horror film, it's a horror film'…(but) I couldn't have done THE EXORCIST. I mean, I can watch it and enjoy it, and I could actually plug into it for (a) moment for its sort of medieval catholic frisson…but I could never have done that, because I couldn't have taken it seriously."
So is there anything on the menu that is more in line with the director's personal inclinations? One question from the audience referred to rumors of a new car movie to follow CRASH (and FAST COMPANY and THE ITALIAN MACHINE, for the aficionado). "That script was called RED CARS, and it was about Formula One racing, which is something I am very passionate about, and I have raced cars and motorcycles in the past…It's about American Phil Hill winning the world championship in 1961…I have not been able to get that made. However, some crazy Italians who were beautiful book publishers at a company called Volumina approached me and said, 'Do you have anything?' and I said, 'Well, I have a script'…They got very excited…and they have published this book that's absolutely gorgeous, and it comes with a model of the Ferrari that Phil Hill drove," the director enthused, his auto-fetish showing. "They went to the Ferrari archives and got photos from them, but they have also treated them in the most artfully beautiful way, and the book is the script plus photos…almost stills from the movie that didn't get made. And you can go to www.redcars.it
, and you can order one of these books. It's very cathartic (for me) because I think that's as far as (RED CARS) is ever going to go; it just seems to be a movie that must be too expensive for the audience that can be expected…but that is a fantastic book. 130 euros, you can't go wrong!"
Also circulating in the rumor mill, alongside entirely erroneous ideas about the director acting in an Italian production called I KILL and his directing a version of Frankenstein, is talk of a miniseries based on DEAD RINGERS. "Worse than a miniseries," Cronenberg corrected his interlocutor wryly, "it's supposed to be a series – it could run for years! It's something that has been suggested to me by Carol Baum (an original DEAD RINGERS producer)…I think it was the success of Nip/Tuck that generated this idea, and they came to me with it and said that HBO would be interested in it, and so it turned out to be. The pilot is being written at this moment by a young writer named Wesley Strick, who pitched a very interesting version of it to me, which was very faithful to the tone of the movie. I wouldn't have done it if I thought it was going to be really tacky and exploitive." After a pause he admitted, laughing, "Exploitive is obviously a relative term when you talk about television…but it was very touching and very emotional and very true, and his understanding of where it could go after that was also pretty interesting, so based on that I became an executive producer, (and) I will have the option to direct the pilot if I want." One can only hope the director will take that option to set the tone himself; it is worth mentioning that perennial stuffed turtleneck Leonard Maltin called the original film "fascinating, but unpleasant". "(As) most unpleasant things are," rejoined Cronenberg.
Last question about future projects: what about LONDON FIELDS, which good old IMDb.com lists as having a 2006 release date? "LONDON FIELDS is a possibility," Cronenberg allowed. "That's a Martin Amos ISN'T THIS AMIS? novel, and I'm a big Martin Amos fan. There is a script that he co-wrote that's very good, (but) it's an independent film, and that means that there's a lot of people attached to it that I don't know, and that's tricky. So I actually at the moment don't know what my next film will be, I have no idea."
So with all his promises that he will not abandon the genre community, is there anything that he won't do? The question boils down to, What freaks out David Cronenberg? The answer is that "freaked out" and "wouldn't do" are virtually mutually exclusive ideas. "If something freaked me out it wouldn't mean that I'd be less likely to do it, but (that) I'd be more likely to do it, because I think that's really what the artistic compulsion is…that you don't accept reality as it is presented to you, neither socially (nor) even physically. You're always wanting to know what's really going on, you're going into the ceilings, you're going into the walls, you're digging under the floor, because you want to know what's really going on and you (feel) that you missed the real version of life on earth and the human condition as it's officially presented, let's say by society or high art, so you're constantly looking for that stuff." And he adds that, as a filmmaker, "you're a dramatist as well…so you are looking for those moments where things go wrong. Usually where things go wrong, you see how they're put together. I mean, you don't bother about the engine in your car until it starts to go wrong and then you want to know 'what is a cam shaft and why is mine not working properly'; so, not to be too mechanistic about it, but that's the (artistic) impulse…and if you're talking about censorship, I have said and I meant it, that as an artist you have no social responsibility whatsoever. On the contrary, you have to have sort of a willing amnesia, you have to forget for the moment (in which) you're being an artist what the effect of what you're doing might be or what the revelations that you come up with might suggest, or what the implications of that are…it's so easy to destroy yourself by being responsible as an artist, (by worrying) about being politically correct is dead as an artist, immediately." Although it seems as if the filmmaker is advocating an entirely solipsistic approach to the creative process, it turns out that his suggestions have quite far-reaching political implications. "In terms of censorship, the ultimate triumph of the totalitarian state has always been to create the internalization of censorship so that the state doesn't even have to worry about it, citizens are so self-censored that they automatically reduce themselves to impotence. And it's very easy to do that even in a place (with) gentle, even right-minded political movements. You could make a case for political correctness as having (a) certain validity, but if you incorporate that into your nervous system and that is there when you're trying to create art, then you're finished. You're absolutely finished."