A Bluffer's Guide to David Cronenberg

This week sees the release of David Cronenberg's new film A Dangerous Method, about the relationship between psychiatrists Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and his protégé Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). It seems a natural topic to tackle for a man whose films feature recurring themes of science, sex and psychology. In the unlikely event that Cronenberg pops up in conversation down the pub or at a dinner party, here's a quick bluffer's guide to his work, with which to impress your rapt listeners. Before they run you out of town for being such a boring arse.

Cronenberg is really into his TV programmes
With a college background in science and literature, it is not surprising that many of David Cronenberg's films tell stories related to science, or more accurately, science gone wrong. His early films, such as Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979) and Videodrome (1983) tapped into an inherent human fear of infection and mutation, leading to his reputation for 'body horror'. Often, he related these human transformations to sexual activity, which is actually quite fitting, since procreation is Nature's way of creating 'natural' mutation. However, Cronenberg astutely recognised sex was something many people have issues with and it is the combination of sexual, erotic and venereal imagery that contributes to the unsettling effect of many of his films. In other early films, such as The Dead Zone (1983) and Scanners (1981), he added the element of psychological transformation that lends a distinct emotional level to the horror. Together, these provide plenty of fun here for horror fans, including blood, gore, killer children, killer slugs, exploding heads, armpit phalluses, Christopher Walken looking unhinged and James Woods with a vagina in his belly. Best not to watch them all at once.

"Oh no! I watched them all at once! Aagghhhhh!"

Unlike most traditional horror movies, Cronenberg doesn't seem bothered with the 'normal' human characters in his films, preferring instead to take the point of view of the mutated or infected character. By changing our perspective of what constitutes the 'hero' of the film, he successfully avoids creating bogeyman characters in the traditional horror mould. In fact, given that he seems to side with the mutant in most of his films, it suggests that he believes human transformation is not wrong or horrific, but is actually inevitable and perhaps even improves humans. However, he also recognises that such outsiders are likely to be crushed by a fearful 'normal' society. Cronenberg's own fascination with science seems to be represented in his films by the ever-present scientist/doctor character. Teleportation, bioengineering, plastic surgery, technology, computers and, naturally, the facts of life all have provided the scientific basis for his films. In fact, his two best films are interesting variations on classic horror literature about the dangers of too much scientific curiosity.

The Fly (1986) is his most rounded and accessible film and can be viewed as an updated version of Frankenstein, in which meddling with science produces a monstrous, but ultimately sympathetic creation. In The Fly, Cronenberg adds the twist of having both Creator and Monster the same person, which means we get an intriguing situation where the scientist Brundle(fly) is fascinated by investigating the flaws in his experiment, even as his body falls apart. The special effects have stood the test of time, the gore is less than you might expect, restricted mostly to some good shock moments, and it benefits from excellent performances form Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, who were a real-life couple at the time. And of course it had that killer tagline 'Be afraid. Be very afraid.'

Likewise, the deeply unsettling Dead Ringers (1988) is a spin on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, only in this scenario the two inter-dependent halves of a single psyche inhabit two bodies instead of one, in the form of identical twins. One is aggressive, the other passive, but the strain of their psychological dependency on one another eventually causes some problems. To put it mildly. Those squeamish about gynaecological issues might be well advised to give this a miss. Incidentally, this is the film Jeremy Irons should have won his Oscar for, playing both twins in a marvellous performance. Or two performances, actually. Indeed, this is something he alluded to when he thanked Cronenberg after winning for Reversal of Fortune a few years later, despite Cronenberg having nothing to do with that film.


"Just one more save point and then I'll come to bed with you"

Cronenberg's fascination with psychology is evident in a number of his subsequent films, in which he explored the subjective nature of reality. Naked Lunch (1991), M. Butterfly (1993) and Spider (2002) all feature protagonists with a somewhat loose grasp on reality, making for some striking imagery as they move between dreams, hallucination and reality, although all three films lack any real impact. (Probably not fair to compare the other two to Naked Lunch,  though, which is really weird, by the way.) eXistenZ (1999), however, is a very smart cyber-thriller about virtual reality, in which he suggests that games in the future will be played by 'docking' your body through an organic 'umbilical cord' to create an immersive virtual reality. If you've ever seen a gamer connected to their games console by a long wire, or watched avatars mimic people's movements on the Wii systems, or seen people disappear into Second Life for days on end, it's not actually that big a leap to consider that he might well have predicted the future of gaming. Although, there'll probably be less guns made out of human parts. It's a really interesting little movie - check it out.


Then, of course, there's Crash (1995), his film about sex, cars and sex with cars. Makes dogging look quite tame, really. Incensed by the mixture of violence, fetishism, graphic sex acts and voyeurism, the Daily Mail, that guardian of the high moral ground, started a campaign to ban this sick filth, lest the minds of the cinema-going masses be corrupted and make them all want to have explicit sex with cripples during car crashes. As if we need a film to do that. Naturally, this was the best publicity the film ever had and made the film an enormous cult hit as people flocked to see it. (There were even people coming from Gdansk to see it.) And all these people left somewhat disappointed because, as many of the less apoplectic reviews at the time noted, it's really all a bit dull. Even the hairy handed, dirty mac crowd weren't impressed, because despite all the sex featured you don't really get to see anything. I know, I've paused the DVD over and over. Did The Daily Mail learn not to inadvertently publicise films they felt were dangerous? What do you think?


In recent years, his collaborations with Viggo Mortensen on the very good crime-thrillers A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007) have proven more accessible for audiences than his previous films. However, even in these relatively mainstream films, he refuses to go down an entirely formulaic path, managing to deliver a unexpected 69 scene in the former (although I suppose this is a go down formula of sorts) and a naked, balls-swinging-in-the-wind knifefight in the latter. A Dangerous Method marks their third collaboration together and this time Cronenberg seems to have convinced Keira Knightley's character to indulge in a bit of therapeutic spanking. Which is nice. After that, it's an adaptation of Dom DeLillo's novella Cosmopolis, which stars Robert Pattinson and is apparently set entirely within a limosine. I'm guessing Twilight fans might be in for a bit of a shock at R-Patz' antics in that. Ultimately, despite a strong body of work, Cronenberg has never really been a huge box-office draw, although he was courted to direct blockbuster material like Return of the Jedi and Total Recall. However, it's better that this intelligent, original director is not stifled by the Hollywood system and continues to make thought-provoking cinema in his own way. Preferably with violence, sex and mutants.

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