David Cronenberg addresses the critics

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      Part one of Allan MacInnis's three-part feature on David Cronenberg can be found herePart three.

      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 “Once you’ve done that, I think you’re no longer valid as a critic, you’re something else.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.



      A. MacInnis

      Mar 27, 2014 at 1:16am

      Another outtake, trimmed for space considerations, following the bit about being told by critics one is bad with actors/ music etc: "Any director knows, there's so many aspects to filmmaking that no director is the absolute master of every aspect. It's just impossible. What you do is, you get good people who are good at those things to work with you, and that's how you do it. It's a collaborative thing." He also acknowledges that there is criticism he respects: "I've come across some wonderful critics; sometimes, for example, French critics will get you into a really great, abstract, political discussion about your filmmaking, and though you know that you never made them out of that, you can see the effect that they've had on some people IS that - that's always very interesting. But it can't really affect your next project, which is going to be something quite different, you know what I mean?"


      Mar 27, 2014 at 10:33am

      We used to have Christians auditing culture, attacking anything they saw as contrary to their belief system. Now we have the politically correct as the emerging cultural inquisitors. Good artists will continue to portray reality and reality is not politically correct because humans are animals and animals are subject to instinct (or, if suppressed, neurosis).

      A. MacInnis

      Mar 27, 2014 at 12:04pm

      I agree, Catdancer. Wood is most interesting and useful when he champions films on a political basis that were regarded as reactionary, when he's a defender, not an attacker - which is mostly the role he plays with horror films. His writings on William Friedkin's Cruising are really provocative, for instance (in Hollywood from Vietnam To Reagan). He takes a film that was REVILED by many segments of the queer community and gives a very provocative, queer defense of it that really gets you thinking about the film. So that side of his contrarian impulse is valuable; his dismissals of films like Cronenberg's are far less useful - though I personally got a LOT out of looking at his arguments closely, against Shivers, Rabid, and The Brood, and asking where he went wrong - or where he got it right...

      ...because to be honest, I agree with him about The Brood, and there was a point in the interview, above, where I had to choose to interview Cronenberg or argue with him. There's ALL SORTS of reasons for arguing that the depiction of Nola (and The Brood as a whole) is misogynist, and that what is horrific about Nola is meant to be applied to other women. For one, the images of her offer a grotesque representation of female anatomy - a monstrous womb, a monstrous birth. These certainly seem to show the director's horrified revulsion at the female body and reproduction (Cronenberg even went so far in one interview as to describe Nola licking the blood and goo off one of the brood as a "bitch licking her pups." Yikes!). These images resonate far beyond Nola as an isolated character, seem to show the director's horror at anything with a womb. Plus there's the suggestion that Nola's monstrosity is connected both to her abusive mother, who is to blame for how screwed up Nola is, and to her daughter, who bears the signs of having Nola's, um, gift (which, we're told, is not the result of Psychoplasmics, but something innate to her). Two of the four females in the film (Nola and her mother) are monsters; one of the remaining, Nola's daughter, is shown at the end to have the potential to become monsters; and the one female who is NOT monstrous (the teacher) is brutally bludgeoned to death. I guess I maybe let Cronenberg off a little easy on this count, but I have always found The Brood a politically unsympathetic film, much as I love aspects of it (like Robert Silverman!)

      A. MacInnis

      Mar 28, 2014 at 10:38am

      Well, this is a lively discussion. C'mon, folks, weigh in! (Because EVERYONE has an opinion on The Brood and misogyny, right?).

      Thought of a perspective that deserves a mention: that of Caelum Vatnsdal, author of They Came From Within: A History of Canadian Horror Cinema (named after the US title for Cronenberg's Shivers). He has this to say about The Brood:

      "Anyone wishing to tar Cronenberg as a misogynist may as well start here... [but] in my opinion, one viewing of The Brood makes it plain that, rather than hating and fearing all women, Cronenberg hates and fears one woman in particular: his ex-wife."

      Ron Y

      Mar 31, 2014 at 3:37pm

      I haven't seen the Brood, but you know it's the internet, a qualified opinion is not required...

      What if the Brood is not misogynist in that the monster is not a human woman? Perhaps Eggar's character ceases to be a human when she develops an external creche, a feature not found in our species, therefore killing her is not exactly the same as killing your ex; the true (if accidental) villain is the psychologist who develops psychoplasmics.

      Also, is the choke out scene played for laffs and easy catharsis, or is it gruelling, horrible, meant to evoke pity and horror?

      Maybe this is too much mental gymnastics - if it seems like misogyny, it probably is misogyny. But almost anything is fair game for art. A character can be admirable yet flawed, even severely, grossly flawed.

      Yet another consideration is that the 1970s featured proper villains. It seems to me (someone largely disinterested in horror) that Silence of the Lambs begat the loveable serial murderer, leading to the moralistic Seven, the paradoxically life-embracing Saw, and the downright cuddly Dexter. Were someone to shoot The Brood today, I could easily envision a take where the generation of ravening id monsters (a trope seen in Forbidden Planet) to take revenge on wrongdoers is seen as understandable or even amusing.

      On the other hand, Cronenberg does not seem especially motivated to present women in a good light, or really anyone in a good light. Like an inquisitor, he likes to show us suffering, and instruments of suffering, in a cold and deliberate fashion. We're not supposed to find a great deal of comfort in his images, I believe.

      A. MacInnis

      Mar 31, 2014 at 4:23pm

      Thanks for comin' to the party, Ron... the choke *seems* to be meant to be satisfying and amply deserved (tho' there are no laughs, to be sure). It's perhaps the least morally ambiguous killing in all of Cronenberg, where someone in more of less clear hero mode has to kill the clear baddie to save the day. (No fusions between Revok and Vale here!). Though your instincts are right: the end of the film, post-choke, deprives us of any comfort we might feel at the climax... Hope you'll see the film and weigh in again...!

      Ron Y

      Apr 1, 2014 at 4:35pm

      Sure, Allan, I will force myself to watch a horror movie because talking about films is fun. (And possibly even useful, if you believe as I do that pretty much any subject of writing is a potential lens through which to examine broader concerns.)

      What I want to ask you now is this: since you have raised the topic of unpleasant, unsavoury, even reprehensible authorial statements in a film that you might otherwise admire and endorse, can you think of other examples?

      And on a tangent, do you as a viewer find it easier to watch a movie which happens to have an objectionable image or notion here and there, or a movie which in itself has unobjectionable content but is made by someone who is or is believed to be a heinous character?

      A. MacInnis

      Apr 1, 2014 at 5:52pm

      Other films that I find politically repugnant that I still find interesting? Off the top of my head, I'm fascinated by a really nasty Japanese film called Kichiku Dai Enkai ("Banquet of the Beasts"). It shows the degeneration of a group of radicals, loosely modeled on the real-life United Red Army, who end up murdering each other in very ugly ways in a mountain resort. The true story - subject of a great, great movie by the late Koji Wakamatsu, called United Red Army - is fascinating enough, but the filmmakers introduce a generous heaping of play-in-the-brains body horror and unsubtle antifeminism (the degeneration begins because the male leader is absent and replaced by his girlfriend, who uses sex to control the other members; she ends up getting a shotgun in her prives). It's an uncomfortable, ugly film, but there's something that really appeals to me about it, in ways I can't quite articulate: its sheer misanthropy, its morbidity...?

      Gaspar Noe's Irreversible is pretty fascinating, too, though I think it's deeply, problematically homophobic. Truth is, I'll watch and enjoy all manner of reactionary, right-wing movies - Clint Eastwood, Arnold, Bruce Willis, what have you. I tend to make the decoding of the problematic aspects of the text part of the pleasure: Die Hard's subtext sure seems to be that women shouldn't have careers, for example, and that's probably the most interesting way to approach the film! Still, I salivate in a Pavlovian way at all the right bell-ringings. I mean, I wept during Rambo III, when I saw it theatrically...

      As for the rest, I'm not sure what you mean about movies with unobjectionable content made by heinous characters. I watched Powder not too long ago; the director, Victor Salva, was outed as some sort of pedophile - Wikipedia lists him sexually molesting the 12 year old lead of his earlier film Clownhouse, and filming the encounters; this was the subject of some outrage, since Powder was produced by Disney(!). The film was reasonably interesting, but knowing about the director's past definitely lingered in my awareness while watching it...

      A. MacInnis

      Apr 2, 2014 at 12:35am

      So, uh, Ron: why do you ask?