David Cronenberg's second commercial feature, 1977's Rabid, is one of the films from the director's early “Baron of Blood” years. These movies were controversial at the time of release, leading some critics, such as (out gay, left-leaning, highly politicized film writer) Robin Wood, to condemn Cronenberg’s cinema as misogynist and reactionary (see his essay “Cronenberg: A Dissenting View” in The Shape of Rage: The Films of David Cronenberg, edited by current TIFF CEO Piers Handling).
One might speculate that the increased introspectiveness of mid-period Cronenberg (Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers) was influenced by such accusations. Certainly after The Brood—made in 1979, and climaxing in one of the more striking examples of male-on-female violence in all of Cronenberg’s cinema—there are no further “monstrous women,” and even a fair number of female protagonists (in, for instance, eXistenZ, Eastern Promises, and A Dangerous Method). Could it be that Wood’s criticisms were useful to Cronenberg? That they pushed him into intensified self-examination?
“No, never,” he says matter-of-factly. “I mean, I liked him very much; we were on stage together a couple of times, debating and talking, and we were always very civil. He was obviously a very bright guy. But he totally misunderstood my moviemaking and where I was coming from. And there was a tipping point in his career where his criticism ceased to become interesting. The reason for that is that it would lead him to praise films that would fit into his political agenda, but were obviously rotten films!” (Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive gets mentioned in this regard in The Shape of Rage). “Once you’ve done that, I think you’re no longer valid as a critic, you’re something else. You’re a political commentator or something.”
Still, surely The Brood is an example of a film where some of Wood’s criticisms stick? The film, informed by an acrimonious divorce and custody battle that Cronenberg was experiencing, ends with the protagonist, Frank Carveth (Art Hindle), strangling his wife Nola (Samantha Eggar) to death, after he discovers that (spoiler alert!) she has been giving birth to monstrous, killer children from an extruding womb-sac—a truly grotesque representation of the womb and motherhood. Cronenberg publicly confessed in interviews that the scene was inspired by his desire to strangle his ex-wife. Wood was not the only critic to call the depiction of Nola misogynist. In hindsight, doesn’t Cronenberg feel Wood scores some points?
“Frankly, I don’t think he scored any points against me,” Cronenberg responds. “I think points were scored against his credibility as a critic!" The problem, Cronenberg says, is one of “assigning universal values” to the film, of “saying that this character represents all womanhood. Imagine that you’re trying to create a drama, and you’re creating characters. How paralyzed you would be if each character was meant to represent a universal; if every man was meant to represent your attitude towards men; and every woman your attitude towards women; and every child your attitude towards children? How could you possibly function?” Cronenberg has no doubt such films exist—pointing to totalitarian propaganda as a possible example—but doubts any are much good as movies.
Nor do the autobiographical elements in The Brood leave him feeling particularly exposed. “It’s still very, very fictionalized,” he says. “It’s not like writing an autobiography, where the premise is that ‘this is as accurate a depiction of actual events in my life as possible.’ That was never the structure of The Brood. And of course, if I really wanted to keep quiet about it, I wouldn’t have said anything.”
Has he ever felt, in hindsight, that he’s crossed a line, and left himself vulnerable to criticism? Again, he answers: “No. Never. That a film might fail internally because it’s not well-conceived or well-crafted, that’s possible. Obviously my early films, as I’ve said many times, were my film school. You’re seeing me learn to make films right before your very eyes, and obviously the early films are, y’know, they’re pretty rough… but vulnerable? This is the thing that young filmmakers and young artists out there of any kind are shocked to discover. It’s all vulnerability. You are putting yourself out there for anyone to comment on, and to react to, in ways that might surprise you. I’m totally vulnerable, with every film. But not necessarily because I’ve made a bad film or I’ve done something I didn’t know I was doing, but because you are offering yourself up for evaluation.”
In point of fact, Cronenberg seldom finds professional film criticism of any sort useful. “Criticism is always after the fact, you know? You’ve made the movie. I’m not saying that a critic can’t point out interesting things about your work that you haven’t at least rationally understood. Maybe you’ve intuited it, and they might be articulate enough to make it accessible to you in a rational way. But if you’re bad with actors, then you are,” he says with a laugh. “A critic pointing it out is not going to make you better. It’s usually so abstract or theoretical that even if you thought, ‘Yeah, yeah, he’s right, I’m not really good with music,’ how do you make yourself better with music?”
His preferred method of getting feedback on a film is to “screen for friends and family,” before it gets released. “It’s not on the big screen, but Blu-ray looks pretty good on a plasma screen, with 5.1 surround sound. And of course with family members and friends, you have an idea what their tastes are, so you can adjust their reactions to that.” It helps, too, that his son Brandon has followed in his father’s footsteps as a filmmaker, with his 2012 feature Antiviral. “We have a very close and congenial relationship, and we definitely show each other stuff, things we’ve written. It’s lovely to have somebody that you’re that close to who can be analytical in a technical way, if you need it.”
The third part of Allan MacInnis's interview with David Cronenberg, in which the filmmaker dissusses "the Cronenbergian", will be published on Thursday (March 27).
The retrospective David Cronenberg: From Within opens at the Cinematheque next Thursday (April 3) with a screening of the Vancouver theatrical debut of the director’s cut of Videodrome, presented by UBC Cronenberg scholar Ernest Mathijs.