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The Logical Extremist

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The Logical Extremist

David Cronenberg’s movies reflect a world teeming with novel contagions, vast conspiracies, and radical therapies. Autumn 2022
Arts and Culture
The Social Order

A buzz of interest accompanied the premiere of David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future at Cannes this year. It was Cronenberg’s first film in eight years and only the second that he had written and directed in more than 20 years. Crimes of the Future also marked a return to his distinctively extreme aesthetic and thematic preoccupations—which, in turn, meant the possibility of a critical backlash, as had greeted some of his previous films. Cronenberg’s 1996 J. G. Ballard adaptation Crash was met with mass revulsion at Cannes, with Francis Ford Coppola purportedly its most prominent detractor. Going further back, his 1975 film Shivers sparked debates in the Canadian parliament over support that the film had received from what is now Telefilm Canada, a government-owned production company. In each case, however, Cronenberg emerged triumphant. Despite Coppola’s apparent disgust, the Cannes jury created a special prize for Crash. Shivers, meantime, is one of the highest-grossing films in Canadian cinematic history; Telefilm Canada still supports Cronenberg’s work today.

When it came time for Crimes of the Future to screen, the walkouts of some attendees were overshadowed by the six-minute standing ovation from most of the audience. And though the film did not win the Palme d’Or, the message was clear. It was not simply that Cronenberg, now 79, had become an elder-auteur alongside David Lynch, Paul Schrader, Jane Campion, and others; or that he had “returned triumphantly to form,” Dewey Cox–style, after many years in the wilderness. It was also that the world had itself grown more Cronenbergian—teeming with novel contagions, vast conspiracies, radical surgeries and therapies, flesh fusing with technology, technology dissolving reality itself, bodily mutations and modifications of all kinds, and the most extreme sex within range of physical possibility. David Cronenberg in 2022 is less a cinematic renegade than a prophet vindicated. He even predicted usernames.

As its title suggests, Crimes of the Future raises that prophetic quality to a more explicit level. It depicts a vaguely post-catastrophic world in which humanity has developed a series of radical physical transformations. Viggo Mortensen’s protagonist uses his body’s ability to create unique new organs as surgical performance art, assisted by his trauma surgeon partner (Léa Seydoux). He has also lost the ability to feel physical pain and requires a specialized bed and chair to help him sleep and eat. Other humans have developed a new digestive system that limits their diet to synthetic material, eating purple bars made of plastic. They seek to replicate their condition through genetics, creating someone “naturally unnatural.” Interspersed throughout are the typically transgressive Cronenberg flourishes: trauma enacted for thrills, organs getting tattoos, a man with ears all over his torso, a boy autopsied for show.

The actual temporality of this “future” is unclear. It is far out enough for these changes to have become commonplace but near enough to our own time to remain troubling. Much of what is depicted is either illegal, overseen by a “new vice” police squad (for which Mortensen’s character is an informant), or is regulated by an “organ registry,” operating out of a dingy office staffed with two unseemly clerks, one played by Kristen Stewart.

Yet for a film that speculates on the trajectory of human existence, Crimes of the Future is also rather backward-looking. Anyone familiar with Cronenberg’s central works will catch the echoes. As in The Brood (1979), bodies experience uncontrollable mutations. As in Scanners (1981), a group of those mutants form an underground vanguard to force a new stage of evolution. Like Naked Lunch (1991), Crimes of the Future is set in a geographically ambiguous location, and its characters are controlled by flesh-creeping bureaucrats. Like Dead Ringers, it presents surgery as art. And like Videodrome (1983) and Crash, it depicts sensations addictively pursued on an escalating scale of extremes. Even the film’s catchphrase, “Surgery is the new sex,” feels like something Cronenberg has been building toward for decades. Less generously, these touches could be seen as the most garish fan service, closer to a commercial for “Six Flags Presents David Cronenberg: The Ride” than to a fresh work of art. Yet this ironic mix of inventory and speculation seems fitting. It presents a kind of road map of Cronenberg’s fixations, all leading us along to a destination where “body horror” isn’t so horrifying after all.

A nightmare vision from 1991’s "Naked Lunch," an adaptation of William S. Burroughs’s novel (UNITED ARCHIVES GMBH/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)

What we call “body horror” has always been a redundancy. Horror is nothing if not embodied, even if the body in question is a house. Physical space and sensation, the suggestion of discomfort against the last defense anyone has, is the cornerstone of the genre. Dracula is body horror; so are The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Jonathan Swift’s uncommonly intense horror at the body caused him to impose that horror in many of his works. His revulsion is equaled only by H. P. Lovecraft, who took the form to its greatest severity. One might span it across human history, from as far back as classical antiquity (Cronos devouring his children) to the bombing of Hiroshima. Sufficient material is available to establish a tradition of body horror, in which extreme antagonisms lie in wait for our flesh, bones, nerves, and sanity. Within it, though, Cronenberg is less its inventor or sole possessor than its most radical, inventive refiner. The seeming victory lap of Crimes of the Future cements his innovations, yet it also obscures both the extremes of his predecessors and the traditional (or, at least, classically humane) concerns of his own earlier work.

Indeed, Cronenberg’s work is afflicted with what I call the “Modest Proposal dilemma,” in which the impact of the extreme outshines the logic behind it. The cannibalized babies rendered with such methodical vividness by Jonathan Swift easily eclipse, in readers’ minds, the brute economic policies that theoretically facilitated the savagery. This was true of A Modest Proposal even when it was published, as when Swift’s friend the Earl of Bathurst jokingly wrote to him that it was “reasonable that the youngest” of his nine children “should raise fortunes for the eldest.” Cronenberg’s outrageous creations follow the same logic.

In fact, many of his films have been reduced to a single iconic element, a kind of proto-meme. Before the advent of streaming, few were likely to have seen Scanners without some effort, but if you, like me, lurked on message boards in the late 1990s and early 2000s, its exploding-head scene was your first GIF. You can easily be delighted or disgusted by Jeff Goldblum storing his disused human body parts in jars in The Fly (1986) or James Woods’s abdominal Betamax in Videodrome without thinking too deeply about the conditions that led them to those points, perhaps because these conditions are not exactly novel. Horror and science fiction are not wanting in arrogant, blundering doctors or renegade gurus; and, of course, giant defense corporations will turn people into weapons should the opportunity present itself. Even Cronenberg himself described the multigenerational, abuse-driven horror of The Brood as “Kramer vs. Kramer, but more realistic.” But as with Swift, logic and extreme are not mutually repulsive.

In the 1970s and 1980s, horror developed an antisocial bent. It introduced subversive concepts into polite spaces where they did not belong. Ridiculously violent and widely distributed slasher films and “video nasties” were scrutinized alongside heavy metal—sometimes, as in the United Kingdom, quite vigorously. In response, “splatterpunk” authors like Clive Barker, David J. Schow, and Poppy Z. Brite took that violence to greater transgressive extremes but without sacrificing literary craft. At the cinematic higher end, John Carpenter and Ridley Scott were translating Lovecraftian amorality for mass audiences.

Cronenberg’s definitive work coincided with this period. And going on visuals alone, it is easy to associate Cronenberg with this mentality, being no less visceral than his contemporaries. (Cronenberg might have agreed, having appeared as an especially terrifying serial killer in Clive Barker’s Nightbreed.) Horror that was purely social, even mundane, seemed to be from a lost time, when nuclear annihilation, McCarthyism, postwar conformity, racism, and sexism required allegorical treatment. As these had not disappeared, the allegories came across as naive compared with the uncompromising shrieks of viscera and nihilism. Nihilism, moreover, created a comfortably wide gulf between content and consumer. You could lull yourself into a horror film knowing that you were just as unlikely to be torn asunder by a chainsaw as you were to be taken over by a cellular shape-shifter. And you could continue this illusion with any of Cronenberg’s fleshy tableaux—provided he was willing to rest on his laurels.

The most shocking scene in 1988’s Dead Ringers, at about the one-hour mark, is a conversation between an actress and one of her lovers. It takes place in her dressing room, as she’s getting made up for a scene; the dialogue is casual, if somewhat loaded, concerning the rather volatile condition of the third member of their love triangle. The actress is positioned in perfect profile while facing the mirror. But a slight turn of her neck reveals the other side of her face, marked up with dark purple welts around her mouth and under her eyes, to simulate a beating to the face. The reveal is repeated with a close-up and alternating cuts between the characters; but the conversation never rises above the common politeness between intimates. “Fascinating stuff,” the lover drolly comments. The realistic injuries contrasted against the measured tone of the scene may be in part a metacommentary on Cronenberg’s clinical aesthetic; but it also presents a challenge to the viewer to look beyond the visual spectacle where more devastating details await discovery.

Dead Ringers is based on a true story of Stewart and Cyril Marcus, twin gynecologists who developed drug addictions and were found dead at 45 in a trash-strewn apartment. A scenario already rich with exploitative potential is handled with exceptional care by Cronenberg as director, Jeremy Irons in the dual role of the doctor siblings, and Geneviève Bujold as the patient/love interest caught between them. The result is among Cronenberg’s best-written, best-performed, and least visually extravagant films. In terms of pure style, it is the perfect antithesis to the mind-bending excesses of its immediate predecessors Videodrome and The Fly. But the lack of visual tropes is made up for with an emotional intensity that makes Dead Ringers among his most difficult films to watch. It is as if Mary Gaitskill had written The Importance of Being Earnest.

At the outset, the film seems close to farcical, with the twins (renamed for the movie) impersonating each other out of necessity and amusement. Both are brilliant surgeons and researchers, but Beverly is introverted and awkward, while Eliot is extroverted and charming; he seduces many of their patients, and then, when tiring of them, passes them along to Beverly, without their knowing the difference. Bujold’s Claire fascinates Beverly because she has a rare deformity—a trifurcated cervix. She fascinates Eliot simply because she is a famous actress. When she discovers their ruse, Claire takes a preference for Beverly. The film then shifts into a grueling portrait of debilitating codependency and the curse of being alone in bad company. Beverly, especially, falls into a deep depression, fearing his brother’s alienation and loss of Claire. He develops delusions that all his patients contain internal deformities; he commissions an avant-garde metallurgist to make horrifying “gynecological devices for operating on mutant women,” which, when he tries actually to use them, brings predictably disastrous results.

“In art,” George Bernard Shaw said, “the highest success is to be the last of your race, not the first. Anybody, almost, can make a beginning: the difficulty is to make an end, to do what cannot be bettered.” Dead Ringers suggests a rudimentary blueprint for the transgressive realism from which Michael Haneke, Takashi Miike, Gaspar Noé, Gregg Araki, and others would mine over the next two decades. In terms of Cronenberg’s own agenda, however, Dead Ringers achieves its own perfection; or, more accurately, it sharpens. It stops short of the shocks of his successors, but it does not flinch in articulating an emotional core. The logical extremes are there, but they are decidedly closer to home, cropping up (if only in our minds) in our absurd, sometimes hopeless, pursuit for connection and understanding. It’s body horror that gets under our own skin.

Because of the exceptions it makes, Dead Ringers also clarifies the one element that links Cronenberg’s best work: pain; but it, like the logical conditions that destroy his bodies, gets swept to the side.

Cronenberg is a great artist of pain, and it comes from all directions. Characters cause pain in others, often exacerbated by a pain within themselves. The scanners in Scanners are born with incredible, and lethal, telekinetic powers, thanks to the side effect of a tranquilizer marketed to pregnant mothers. It also makes them hypersensitive to the thoughts of everyone around them, requiring constant supplies of that very tranquilizer just to function. The mother in The Brood transfers the trauma of her own abuse onto her daughter, her ex-husband, and anyone else conceivably in her way with homicidal miniature humanoids she manifests through sheer rage. Characters pursue pain because conventional pleasures fall short. The UHF programmer in Videodrome seeks a succession of risky thrills designed to destroy him and his similarly obsessed viewers. The affluent couple in Crash avert their domestic ennui through a subculture of car-wreck fetishists. And where the pain does not linger or compound, it is overcome only at the greatest cost.

Cronenberg’s new science-fiction film “Crimes of the Future” returns to the body-horror themes of his earlier work. Its debut at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival led to walkouts—and a seven-minute standing ovation. (NEON/PHOTOFEST)

In this respect, Crimes of the Future is less a return to form than a radical break from its director’s own tradition. That break is not immediately apparent. The film teems with images that distract more than provoke. Many of its ideas, such as an “inner-beauty pageant” and the various philosophical musings that Mortensen and Seydoux utter about their art and their ethics, dissolve into abstraction. It’s a film that ultimately tells more than it shows and, as a result, feels like a rough draft of something more daring. The loss of pain felt by Mortensen and shared by many others is mentioned early on. Its cause is not known, but its effects are several: infections have dropped, and surgery can be performed under the most unsanitary circumstances by anyone who cares to try it. Not that pleasure has made a resurgence; only numbness rules. Any pleasure that can be mined cannot be done without self-harm. And the evolutionary suggestion of becoming “naturally unnatural” offers only ambiguous promise in this world. Cronenberg’s message about the future is that it will be very uncomfortable, and humanity will effectively have little to do with itself.

Horror is the great survivor of human culture. Attempts to repress it or render it trivial by censors and detractors have always been outpaced by our collective need to tell horror stories and by the inexhaustible resources at our behest for telling them. A work of horror is a work of translation. Even the most shoddily assembled grindhouse fare has a clear grasp of our syntax of cruelty. David Cronenberg is simply our most accurate and fluent horror translator. For decades, he presented our own logical extremes back at us with a clarity that has yet to be improved upon. Crimes of the Future is less a summation of past personal obsessions than a postscript in his own language, the findings arrived at after years of scholarship. His finding is this: horror ends when we no longer need it, when we no longer have the means (the pain) to conceive of it. But the loss of horror is also a loss of humanity. And no anomalous growth or potential path of evolution can replace that most phantom of limbs.

Top Photo: Cronenberg’s cinematic career has spanned more than a half-century. (AGENCJA FOTOGRAFICZNA CARO/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)

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