Brandon Cronenberg fleshes out fame in Antiviral
When Tila Tequila climbed on-stage and was pelted bloody inside a hail of broken glass at the Gathering of the Juggalos two years ago, she was only doing, as Brandon Cronenberg notes, “her job as a celebrity”. It might be an extreme example of our culture’s sickness, but not really. The ritual humiliations of TMZ, the Enquirer, Idol, and YouTube—all of it inside the mainstream—are hardly more defensible.
It’s into this hideous state of affairs that the young writer-director (and son of David) has delivered his debut feature, Antiviral (opening Friday [October 12] ). The film has the sterile look and explosive body fluids of an art-house sci-fi/horror flick set a few minutes in the future, but it works even better as a furious satire of life on Earth right now.
Caricature is the word Cronenberg uses during a hotel-room chat in Vancouver with the Georgia Straight. “It’s just a slightly exaggerated version of what’s in our culture already,” he says. Indeed, it seems that Antiviral’s antihero, Syd—who makes his living infecting clients with diseases cultivated from their favourite celebs—is a cipher for both the filmmaker and any of us who feel a certain queasy ambivalence every time we turn on the TV or visit Dlisted.
“He’s someone who feels removed from that culture and somehow superior but is actually completely defined by it,” Cronenberg states. “Maybe we’re all in that position to a certain degree, because we’re all defined by our environment and our culture is something that we’re all creating together, constantly.”
Cronenberg adds that Antiviral “becomes a bit of a monster movie” with Syd as “the creature”, and that’s where the film starts to get really clever, aided by a performance from Caleb Landry Jones that is committed, to say the least. (Self-administered nose swab, anyone?) As it happens, Syd is nursing an obsession of his own, along with a particularly nasty pathogen that he’s pirating for the black market.
As such, the target of Cronenberg’s satire widens to include elements such as corporate law, but it’s the notion of fame obsession gone mad that sits at the centre of the film’s impressively fleshed-out alternate reality. Gross-out moments aside, and there are plenty, the filmmaker has clearly given a lot of thought to his subject matter.
“I think that celebrity mania is sort of an older, broader human thing,” he says. “I think if you look at the deification of the saints and people elevated almost to the status of gods, repeated iconography, physical fetishism—you know, that desire for the finger bone of a particular saint, the relics. I don’t think the problem is that it’s new and we should all get hysterical about it, but I do think the mania that drives that industry is extremely unhealthy because it represents a loss of perspective.”
Cronenberg is big on perspective, suggesting that it’s something our species “always had and always lacked”. It helps to soften the edges of a film that could itself be read as hysterical. “I think you can have a great deal of respect for someone if you like the work that they’ve done and feel a certain reverence for them,” he says. “But when it’s just because someone’s face has been in front of you enough that suddenly you start to feel something, and when that something becomes a manic desire to consume, then that’s unhealthy.”
That “manic desire to consume” also has its literal (and nauseating) analogue in Antiviral, and once again—like the diseases—it’s in a form that is market-sanctioned. It also prompts Syd at one point to question the definition of cannibalism. We should leave it at that, while pointing out that Cronenberg, although claiming to be not particularly political, does observe a strict plant-based diet.
“Yes,” he says with a chuckle. “It’s secretly vegan propaganda.”
Watch the trailer for Antiviral.