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Cronenberg films: what do they do to you?


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#1 of 20 OFFLINE   Bart_R

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Posted April 06 2003 - 06:34 AM

Hi everybody. I was wondering if you could help me out.

I'm currently working on an essay on Cronenberg films. I'd like to know what kind of emotions the bodily representations in his movies evoke in you. (movies like Shivers, Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers, Crash, Existenz)

I mean, in his films he lets all kind of weird and disturbing things happen to human bodies. What does this do with the viewer's mind/self-consciousness? Does it make the viewer more aware of his/her own body etc?

So, what I'd like to know of you it this:

1) Do the 'body-images' in his movies disturb you? 2) If yes, can you explain (or speculate) what about it disturbs or why it disturbs you?

Would be great if you could help me out.

Thanx,
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#2 of 20 OFFLINE   Brendan Brown

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Posted April 06 2003 - 11:36 AM

It's funny I should stumble across this today. Yesterday I just watched Scanners for the first time, and the week before I received the now OOP Criterion DVD of Dead Ringers.

Certainly the 'body-images' disturb me, they've been disturbing me ever since I was 12 (my mother deliberately taped The Fly uncut off of a specialty cable channel for me to watch because she'd seen it and though I'd like it, I think she's the coolest mom ever) and although it's been many, many years since, I'm still squirmy around that movie.

The real effectiveness in Cronenburg's work is that he keeps what happens to the human body down to a low enough level that we can picture ourselves in their place. For instance: in Scanners the exploding head scene near the beginning didn't really affect me, that lies purely in the realm of fantasy. But at the end, the bulging veins, the clawing of the face, all of this made me wince.

The Fly is another good example of this. Seth Brundle watches as his body slowly (until the end at least) falls apart on him. And in a way, some of it mimics adolescence (like the pus on the mirror) and I think we can all relate to that on some level because we've all been there. And once we've related to it, we're always imagining ourselves in his shoes while all the horrible little things happen to him.

And in eXistenz the very nature of the game port is a sort of violation. And everybody's been sick, so it's easy to fear an infection from a bio-port.

I've always thought the main theme of most Cronenberg films was "The Body is Horror" that the worst lies within yourself, and can betray you.

Check out a book called The Artist as Monster: The films of David Cronenberg by William Beard. It's a very detailed analysis of every one of his films from Stereo to Crash (excluding the very atypical Fast Company)
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#3 of 20 OFFLINE   Bart_R

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Posted April 06 2003 - 12:12 PM

Thanks a lot for your reply. You make some interesting points.

In fact, I have the book you mentioned (The Artist as Monster) at home (from the library). Indeed a very good book, discussing many movies of Cronenberg and their themes and implications (I scanned through it, no time to read it extensively yet), but I really wanted some reactions from viewers. I kinda want to delve into the philosophical aspect of seeing the human body on screen. And what happens to that viewer('s mind) if he sees 'things' (unnatural or not) happening to the body.

Anyway, your comments are very helpful. Thanx again.

Bart.

#4 of 20 OFFLINE   Joe Szott

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Posted April 07 2003 - 10:54 AM

Bart,

You draw some fine lines, don't know if this is within them or not. But, you get what you pay for and this forum is free. I like Cronenburg's movies (couple I've seen), here's what I noticed about body/mind interaction in his films:

It seems like he drives a real wedge between the body (usually flesh) and the mind in his works. He usually focuses on showing the mind's reaction to horrificly rapid changing circumstances in the body world. For example, in Videodrome the main character's mind is attaked
through his body (eyes), and most of the movie is his mind trying to 'wrap' itself around the new world and regain control. This theme of this untouchable (or immortal?) mind dealing with the constantly changing physical world is echoed in his works from the mild (Crash, Dead Ringers) to the extreme (Scanners, Videodrome, etc.)

In mild parallelism, the viewer's mind usually shares the character's state in that they have to struggle to keep pace with the strange circumstances. What they experience in the body, we experience through the screen; both our minds are left to wrangle with the situation though.

Enough ranting, hope that helps. I'm not a psych major or anything, never really thought about this before...

#5 of 20 OFFLINE   Aaron Reynolds

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Posted April 08 2003 - 08:48 AM

Cronenberg has been one of the few filmmakers whose films can make me laugh and be horribly, horribly uncomfortable at the same time, often in the same scene. There are so many hysterically funny moments in Crash, as well as moments so outrageous that no other response seems appropriate. Sticking in my mind are Elias Koteas gushing over the dog at the crash site, and the reaction of Holly Hunter when the VCR playing the crash-test tape jams. And, of course, the infamous, uh, leg scene. I was uncertain for a long time that Cronenberg really did intend to be funny at times, but his commentary on the Criterion Crash LD put that question to rest for me. Strangely, knowing that it was okay to laugh at things in Crash really allowed me to appreciate the film, and other Cronenberg films as well. I didn't have to feel like a doofus when I laughed aloud at something and had people glare angrily at me in the theatre; rather, I could also laugh at their inability or unwillingness to get the joke. And let me tell you, between a friend and I, we got a lot of angry glares when we saw Crash, even when we laughed at the dog scene or the tape jamming scene. I had one lady confront me afterwards and tell me that it was supposed to be a serious film and my laughter was disrespectful (both statements being equally untrue).

My two favourites are Crash and Naked Lunch, though I have high hopes for Spider, which I haven't seen yet. Both have strong transformation/deformation themes, and both have very cold, detatched protagonists who just seem to take it all in and accept it without question.

#6 of 20 OFFLINE   Ren Cola

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Posted April 08 2003 - 05:35 PM

I just saw Existenz for the first time. Certainly the most unique video game movie I have seen to date. The only thing that disturbed me were how the controllers gushed and moved by themselves; and that bone-gun -- very original! The fact that the bullets were teeth wigged me out. Jude Law held his ground, actually liked Jennifer Jason Lee's character a lot better. The ending of this film could have been better.

Cronenberg has his own style, definetly, his own signature which is a good thing. I really need to see more of his movies, VideoDrome for one.

#7 of 20 OFFLINE   Brendan Brown

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Posted April 08 2003 - 06:14 PM

I heard Cronenberg was set to direct Total Recall at one point, even wrote a draft of the script...man what I wouldn't give to read it!
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#8 of 20 OFFLINE   Lew Crippen

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Posted April 09 2003 - 02:27 AM

I find most of Cronenberg’s films to be too stylized to make me more self-aware (at least of my body). I do however find them quite disturbing. Because, I think that he takes us down paths that we would rather not travel and makes us believe that people are capable of things that we would rather not comtemplate.

For example of both of the above points, I’d turn to Dead Ringers. Everything about this is so stylized (just look at the surgical instruments) that we know immediately that we are in an artificial world.

On the other hand, by the end of the film, the tradedy of the twins complete disintegration is completely believable and disturbing. This even though almost any plot element (and the way they are depicted) are not at all realistic.
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#9 of 20 OFFLINE   Seth Paxton

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Posted April 09 2003 - 06:03 AM

I agree strongly with the idea that Cronenberg is dealing with a mind/body separation theme.

I don't know that he intends that as a metaphysical exploration, meaning that the mind-body problem is an issue that arises in metaphysical studies (metaphysical dualism specifically). Descartes is one of the more noted philosophers who dealt with the issue.

BTW, metaphysics is the study of "what is real", and dualist sit in between the idea of some ultimate reality being interfaced with physically by the body - materialists - or this reality being realized totally within the mind - idealists. Dualists see it as a bit of both and then try to resolve how this thinking mind interacts with the existing body.

Such a theme is more obviously explored in Baron Munchausen (Gilliam's film - the King of the Moon is literally able separate the two), and might not quite apply to what Cronenberg is going for.


But he definitely does explore realities in which the mind supersedes not only the body, but existence itself. The mind defines its reality in eXistenZ and the mind is able to physically control it's environment in Scanners.

And as Brandon pointed out, in many Cronenberg films the body is in a constant state of change, it is the thing out of control. In that way the body is far less in touch with reality than the mind is, or is not an accurate method for understanding reality because it is not stable enough to be reliable.


I was never as disturbed as much by the gore of a Cronenberg film as I was by the ACCEPTANCE of this gore by the characters, even when it happens to themselves. Much of the disturbing violence and mutilation is accepted by at least the protagonist. Brundle accepts his mutation even as he realizes that it can be gross. And eXistenZ is loaded with such acceptance.

There is just something about their view of reality, their basis of reality, that is disturbing. Perhaps it is that idea of the body and the physical world being deemphasized, leading to a more unstable feeling for an audience which bases much of what reality is on what can be seen and touched.

#10 of 20 OFFLINE   Aaron Reynolds

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Posted April 09 2003 - 06:35 AM

Quote:
I was never as disturbed as much by the gore of a Cronenberg film as I was by the ACCEPTANCE of this gore by the characters, even when it happens to themselves. Much of the disturbing violence and mutilation is accepted by at least the protagonist.

Exactly, exactly. Look at Ballard in Crash, how absolutely nothing that happens to him in that film inspires anything aside from curiosity and somewhat cold analysis.

Listening to Cronenberg speak, he sounds the way his protagonists often do: a deadpan kind of monotone that seems devoid of any kind of emotion, even when expressing emotion. I have to wonder just how much like his protagonists David Cronenberg is, as a person. Maybe part of the fun of being a filmmaker is the ability to explore things that you would otherwise be unable or unwilling to do in your life.

#11 of 20 OFFLINE   Aaron Reynolds

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Posted April 09 2003 - 06:38 AM

Quote:
I heard Cronenberg was set to direct Total Recall at one point, even wrote a draft of the script...man what I wouldn't give to read it!

Me, too. I read somewhere (or maybe he touched on it in his Crash commentary) that the producer's reaction to his script was that it was too much like the Philip K. Dick short story and not enough Indiana Jones Goes To Mars. Posted Image

#12 of 20 OFFLINE   Brendan Brown

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Posted April 09 2003 - 08:27 AM

Listening to Cronenberg speak, he sounds the way his protagonists often do: a deadpan kind of monotone that seems devoid of any kind of emotion, even when expressing emotion. I have to wonder just how much like his protagonists David Cronenberg is, as a person. Maybe part of the fun of being a filmmaker is the ability to explore things that you would otherwise be unable or unwilling to do in your life.

The Dead Ringers commentary mentions that the Mantle twins as boys were closely modeled on Cronenberg when he was a child. I know that he was fascinated by medical facts as a boy.

I think this quote from him sums up things quite nicely:

"It's my conceit that perhaps some diseases perceived as diseases which destroy a well-functioning machine, actually turn it into a new but still well-functioning machine with a different purpose. The AIDS virus: look at it from its point of view. Very vital, very excited, really having a good time. It's really a triumph if you're a virus. See the movies from the disease's point of view. You can see why they would resist all attempts to destroy them. These are all cerebral games but they have emotional correlatives as well."

Another fact about Cronenberg I find interesting is that nearly all of his films are unapologetically Canadian in their setting (which is interesting, because I'm currently writing an essay on 'Canadianism') Scanners is set in Quebec, and there is no attempt whatsoever to hide that fact. Even his big hollywood movies like The Dead Zone and The Fly are filmed up north. (I think only Spider and M. Butterfly break this pattern.)
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#13 of 20 OFFLINE   Bart_R

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Posted April 09 2003 - 09:20 AM

Hey, thanx everyone. A lot of you really go indepth about your experiences and what underlying structures are at work here. That's more than I could have bargained for.

I might have to change my central question for my essay, based on your comments, but that doesn't matter. (or just draw a different conclusion).

The way I looked at it, Cronenberg seems to tap into some primal fear. The fear of something happening to the body. Something unnatural, or disfiguration, or decay etc. When you see something weird happening, like a gun getting swallowed by a vagina-like opening in the abdomen, you (or I, at least) feel uneasy. (I involuntarily started to touch my own abdomen when I saw this scene in Videodrome). But then it is at the same time compelling to watch, not seldomly because there's at the same time something sexual or erotic about it. In this case, also think about the organic gamepod in Existenz that has to be inserted in a 'bioport' in your lower back.

But yeah, I was thinking about it from a philosophical viewpoint. Like when we are watching movies our mind takes a trip for a while, pretending to be independent of the body, but then when we see something happening to a body on screen, we suddenly become (painfully) aware of our own bodies again, and get uncomfortable because of it. It shows that the mind is bound to the body (something supported by Cronenberg himself, who says on the commentary track of Dead Ringers that he doesn't believe in a mind-body split, or an eternal soul/mind. That our identity is grounded in our body). That was kinda like my own theory and starting point for my paper (which I still have to write). But in order for it to be not totally based on my own speculations I decided to ask some fellow-viewers: you!

Basically, any comments on the the things you experience when watching these body-images are useful to me. Anyway, I'm already very happy with the results I got. So thanx again Posted Image

Any more ideas out there?

#14 of 20 OFFLINE   Damin J Toell

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Posted April 09 2003 - 09:30 AM

Quote:
Another fact about Cronenberg I find interesting is that nearly all of his films are unapologetically Canadian in their setting (which is interesting, because I'm currently writing an essay on 'Canadianism') Scanners is set in Quebec, and there is no attempt whatsoever to hide that fact. Even his big hollywood movies like The Dead Zone and The Fly are filmed up north. (I think only Spider and M. Butterfly break this pattern.)


Naked Lunch was supposed to be his first film to shoot outside of Canada, but the Gulf War prevented location shooting in Tangiers. Cronenberg finally shot outside of Canada for M. Butterfly. When necessary, he has usually modified a story to be set in Canada (e.g., Dead Ringers and Crash), or pretended Canada was elsewhere (as with Dead Zone and what was forced upon the production of Naked Lunch). The latter is an all-too common trick of American productions, and I think Cronenberg has purposely minimized that occurence, since only one of the two was by choice. It would seem that Cronenberg considered M. Butterfly and Spider unmovable, as it were; neither storyline could be changed to involve Canada, and location shooting became the only authentic way to go.

FWIW, Cronenberg claims he has yet to actually make a major studio film. All of the films that were distributed by majors were actually produced for smaller companies. For the two examples you give, Dead Zone was a DeLaurentis production, and The Fly was a Brooksfilms (Mel Brooks' production company) production.

DJ

#15 of 20 OFFLINE   Brendan Brown

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Posted April 09 2003 - 09:54 AM

Excellent points Damin. It IS interesting that Cronenberg seems to dislike pretending to be in other geographic locations then the ones he's actually shooting in. I hope some interviewer asks his opinion on this.

And when I meant by 'major films' was that those were the ones most likely to have been seen by the widest audiences.

Has anybody seen Crimes of the Future or Stereo? What are your opinions on them? I have no idea how to find them on DVD. I know the LD version of Dead Ringers had Crimes... but, of course, it's not on the Criterion DVD.
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#16 of 20 OFFLINE   Jefferson Morris

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Posted April 09 2003 - 10:05 AM

My most visceral reaction to a Cronenberg film was my first theatrical viewing of Crash, a film I found rather unpleasant to watch at the time but which I later came to consider a masterpiece.

Crash is just about the only film I can think of that appears to have been rated NC-17 more because of its atmosphere than any single explicit image (of which there really aren't many in the film). The claustrophobic sexuality and the sheer relentlessness with which the film pursues its thematic interests (sex and death) mirrors the fetishistic obsessiveness of the characters, making it an elegant marriage of form and content.

During the film, I started to become physically uncomfortable about halfway through, and really started squirming any time any of the characters had a sexual encounter (which was pretty much all the time). The physical sensation, as best I remember it, was an unpleasant buzzing in the back of my neck akin to vertigo. Cronenberg's scrupulous insistence on banishing anything from the film that didn't relate to its theme (along with any scene that might have humanized his characters in a more conventional, Hollywood-ish way - walking the dog, making small talk, eating breakfast) actually made me feel physically dizzy, disoriented. As a moviegoer, I'd lost my moorings, more disturbed by what I wasn't seeing than what I was seeing.

When the lights went up, I was glad the film was over. As a reasonably jaded moviegoer, I really hadn't thought any film could have that kind of effect on me. But an hour later I knew I had to see it again.

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#17 of 20 OFFLINE   ChrisJefferys

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Posted April 09 2003 - 10:38 AM

Crash definitely left me feeling vaguely strange and uncomfortable afterwards. Plus the fact that I actually had to get in a car and drive home from the theatre afterwards surely didn't help. (an overall experience that watching the film at home could never duplicate obviously).

It affected other people in the audience too. I've never seen so many walkouts during a film than I did with Crash. I personally saw at least 20 people just get up and leave well before the end (not sure if this was because of the films oppressive atmosphere or because they didn't "get" the film and got bored and left).

#18 of 20 OFFLINE   Damin J Toell

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Posted April 09 2003 - 11:02 AM

Quote:
Has anybody seen Crimes of the Future or Stereo? What are your opinions on them? I have no idea how to find them on DVD. I know the LD version of Dead Ringers had Crimes... but, of course, it's not on the Criterion DVD.


I have. I saw Crimes on the Dead Ringers LD and I saw Stereo in a theatre (on film!). I've heard them described as "death by minimalism," and it's quite true. They have very little in the way of plot movement or dialogue, although there is a lot of sex. The background stories of the films, however, are pure Cronenberg: scientific experiments by absentee mad scientists that have gone awry and have detrimentally effected us physically (especially sexually) and mentally (especially sexually). They are enjoyable in theory, and are worth at least one viewing for anyone serious about researching Cronenberg's body of work. For the casual viewer, however, they're likely too minimal and boring. Indeed, I passed up the chance to see Crimes exhibited on film since I had already seen it on LD a few months beforehand; one was enough for a while. Anyway, they're both unavailable on any legitimate DVD that I've ever seen, but they do tend to be available on "grey market" VHS copies.

DJ

#19 of 20 OFFLINE   Seth Paxton

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Posted April 09 2003 - 12:06 PM

I like that Jefferson mentioned fetish.

A lot of the sexual encounters or sexual tension in his films seem to include some aspect of a fetish. Certainly Dead Ringers, Crash, eXistenZ, Videodrome...


BTW, I haven't listened to any of his commentaries or really read any interviews with him that I can remember, so anything I say that agrees or contradicts with his comments is just sheer luck. Posted Image

#20 of 20 OFFLINE   Jefferson Morris

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Posted April 10 2003 - 02:53 AM

To add, I would also definitely agree with those who point to the mind/body schism as one of the major themes (if not the major theme) of Cronenberg's work. He says as much in interviews and during his commentaries.

Of course, the ultimate point of conflict between the mind and body is mortality, and his films certainly are consumed with that idea. Cronenberg has described The Fly as a simple story of bereavement, clothed in the garb of a sci-fi/horror story. Two lovers get together, then one develops an incurable disease and dies. If the disease is cancer, the project becomes difficult to sell to Hollywood. If the disease is a progressive metamorphosis into a housefly, you're off and running. This almost underhanded, genre-based approach to tackling the more troubling aspects of the human condition typifies much of Cronenberg's work.

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