originally presented at a panel on David Cronenberg retrospective, ACMI, 2006
The notion of humour is central to Cronenberg’s vision a kind of humour that is dark black, not merely unsettling, nervous laugher, which is the automatic response of the brain when one is scared, but a comic energy and perverse subversive playfulness that infuses many of Cronenberg’s creations. To talk of humour in Cronenberg’s movies is not to take away from the sense of seriousness or dread that they occupy, but a spirit of humour that functions as a bitting form of social critique and playful attack.
It is sometimes humour that is activated when our aesthetic values are challenged, when the idea of the repulsive is transformed to the attractive, the depraved to the lustful, the ugly to the erotic. Such perceptions are relative ones for Cronenberg, it’s all a matter of your point of view. The humour that registers from the unsettling weirdness on screen, is simply a reminder that your idea of aesthetics is being subverted by what you are experiencing.
There is something inherently strange and funny about David Cronenberg himself, like his films he is a mixture of two realities, appearing like a polite, articulate dentist. The funny thing is he is also the same person who is responsible for some of cinemas most profoundly visceral and glorious monstrosities. Cronenberg’s subversive humour, like himself is played deadly straight. His ideas can be so insane because he is so normal.
This duality appears all through Cronenberg’s movies, often with humorous and perverse undertones. Cronenberg’s humour extends to wordplay, the names of characters and institutions. From CIVIC TV in Videodrome, who in reality deal in soft porn, to Brain Oblivion in Videodrome, not his real name but his Television name, no longer a real person but a TV persona part of the medium itself, his real body erased to the oblivion of the video image. To the Somafree institute of The Brood, and the pun of ‘Some are free’, That some are potentially free of psychological trauma or perversely some are free once they embrace that trauma.
It is these metaphors of names and places that drives the films to even deeper levels of complexity and meaning, it is this totality of Cronenberg’s vision as an artist that makes him so arresting.
In terms of humour one of my personal favourites is the fly baby/abortion dream of The Fly, which bizarrely has Cronenberg as the gynaecologist delivering his new hybrid creation. In the world of the film, the real possibility is that if Veronica did have sex with a human fused with a fly, there is a high probability of her giving birth to some kind of mutation or large maggot. This is what Cronenberg does so well, he asks you to go with him into the world of the film and the logic and reality of that world. What would otherwise appear as just plain ridiculous in another kind of movie, Cronenberg makes such outrageous scenes work.
It is through outrageous and bizarre humour that Cronenberg opens up cracks in the world, to reveal things about ourselves, our bodies, our values that we may not necessarily want to know, It is humour that allows the director a creative licence to go places that one wouldn’t normally travel to.
Cronenberg has often spoken about his movies as speaking the unspeakable and showing the unshowable, and indeed many of Cronenberg’s movies are about the vicarious act of looking, of seeing something we are not meant to see and not use to seeing, bodies that are inside out, bodies that grow new organs and orifices for new purposes, bodies that die and are reincarnated as something else.
This notion of seeing and the disbelief of seeing, is explicitly seen in Videodrome. Where we are not sure if we are seeing the reality of the film or Max’s subjective reality, to the character Barry Convex in the same film, his surname that of a convex lens which enlarges near objects, Convex manufactures glasses with his company Spectacular Optical along with missile guidance systems and is also responsible for the Videodrome signal which we are seeing. Existenz too plays with the idea of seeing, as the film slides from reality to game reality, to reality, to game reality and in particular how we see the characters not as actors moving through a film but as actors playing game characters who are acting.
In another way this disbelief of what we are actually seeing appears at the end of The Fly, when Brundle Fly attempts to fuse with Veronica and her unborn baby, attempting to result in one happy family. When Brundle Fly accidentally fuses with the telepod, we have no reference in real life for what we are seeing. Like many Cronenberg moments, such scenes register a disbelief, that is beyond comprehension.
At the opening of The Fly, Seth Brundle talks of a new breakthrough in science that will fundamentally change life as we know it, at the end of the movie we are presented with exactly that: a life form, that has never existed before, that we have never seen before: part human, part fly, part telepod. or rather telepod transformed into gene splicer.
There is a kind of perverse thrill involved in seeing the unshowable, to see Max Renn’s vaginal slit in Videodrome, or to see a scanner literally blowing the mind of another in Scanners, or to see a new body orifice and to see a micro pod disappearing into the back of Allegra Geller in Existinz. Max Renn placing his head into the TV tube of Nikki Brands lips in Videodrome is an iconic Cronenberg image, for its the very idea of seeing metaphor become flesh, video as flesh. Cinema as flesh
The act of looking is implicated in the notion of special effects in a Cronenberg movie, The tactile, visceral and bodily eruptions that we see on screen have a sense of mass, volume and texture that is entirely bodily. His use of animatronics, stop motion animation, and prosthetic growths, create a powerful illusionary space, a dreamlike, fantastic nightmarish space. Cronenberg quite consciously avoids CG and digital effects, for the simple perceptual reason that CG effects are not of the body, they lack the tactility and weirdness of real flesh and the notion that what we are seeing is actually happening to a real physical body. CG is a rendering, an interpretation of realism, for Cronenberg effects need to be more then simply hyper real, they need to be beyond real, they are more then reality.
The notion of the transformation and the metamorphosis is a common occurrence in a Cronenberg movie, often the protagonist undergoes some kind of intense transformation so that they are a different person at the other end of the film.Transformation becomes the machine to drive the narrative from one point to the next.
Many of the films function as a kind of subversive scientific experiment as we study the character go through to the other side, it is this notion of the pure scientific experiment no matter what territory it goes into which is at the heart of Cronenberg’s movies. The idea of the experiment is most explicitly seen in the title sequence to The Fly, globules of abstract material, slower fuse together and turn into a crowd gathering at a science convention. Humans under the microscope. The body as matter, that can be combined and re-combined into all manner of forms
For Cronenberg the ultimate bodily transformation is death, the very idea of the disease in so many Cronenberg movies is not just about bodily transformation but also death, or a new kind of death, death as a transformative state and the extreme of human experience, indeed a number of his films indicate a state beyond death and the birth of new kind of human. From the reincarnation of Antonie Rouge as a little girl in Crimes of the Future to the new flesh of Videodrome.
However it is not just bodies that transform, everything in Cronenberg’s movies are often malleable, in a constant state of flux, perceptions of reality change, personalities change, technology transforms, objects and locations suddenly have other uses attached to them. Or as Yevgeny Nourish says in Existinz ‘ “it seems that most everything use to be something else”
Many of Cronenebrg’s movies feature locations of research institutions, outsiders, derelicts and the lunatic fringe. They are occupied by characters sometimes outside of mainstream society, from Brundle Fly’s lab, Cameron Vale as a derelict in Scanners, to the Psychoplasmics institute of The Brood, The car crash subculture in Crash. The Cathode Ray mission of Videdrome, The Half way house of Spider, The product testing goup of Existenz. This is why a film like Cronenberg’s latest The History of Violence is so interesting, because what is occurring is no longer outside of mainstream society. Cronenberg’s focus here is the Archetypal whitebread family seen in so many mainstream American movies. In Cronenberg’s hands, there has to be something wrong with all that normality.
A feature of so many Cronenbrg movies is sex, and a subversive rethinking of our understanding of what is erotic, like aesthetics, erotic for Cronenberg all depends on your point of view. History of Violence is no exception, the sex scenes are highly charged ones and are key moments in the film. From the adolescent sex of the first sex scene, which sees a fantasy of a past, as high school students, a past they never lived together, to the second sex scene were the reality of the past turns into fantasy, where disgust transforms into lust, both sex scenes function as vehicles of transformation within the film, of fantasy into reality and reality into fantasy
Crash explicitly deals with a new form of human sexuality. Crash carries a profound resonance and emotional intensity long after you see the movie, possibly more so than any other Cronenberg movie. Crash signals a fusion with the body and technology which in a very real way is already taking place everyday in the experience of driving. It’s not that much of a leap to see the pleasure of driving, and the idea of fusing with the car, of being one with the car to the idea of literally merging your body and sexuality with the car, if you follow this logic, it’s then not that much of a leap further to actually contemplate the idea of a car crash, like death and sex as the ultimate form of human experience. Unlike many other Cronenberg movies which take place in the realm of the fantastic Crash’s power and also it’s most unsettling aspect is that such a psycho pathology we see in Crash is entirely possible.
No other film maker sums up what JG Ballard has said of Sci fI, that true Sci fi has nothing to do with space ships or outer space, but the strangeness of everyday reality.