The Cronenberg Project, which closed in January, was a major exhibition and film program launched by the Toronto International Film Festival to honour one of that city’s most famous sons: filmmaker, sometime actor, and soon-to-be-published novelist David Cronenberg. It featured everything from gallery displays of Cronenberg ephemera like The Fly’s telepods and Dead Ringers’ “gynaecological instruments for operating on mutant women”, to Q & As with Cronenberg and collaborators like actor Jeremy Irons, production designer Carol Spier, cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, and soundtrack artist Howard Shore. A near-exhaustive retrospective of his films, including many hard-to-see shorts, was also part of the project and will have a Vancouver run at the Cinematheque starting next Thursday (April 3), under the title From Within: The Films of David Cronenberg. Fortunately, the filmmaker was spared having to rewatch anything as part of his participation in the project.
“I wasn’t forced to,” Cronenberg says with a relieved chuckle. He’s speaking to the Straight from his Toronto home, his voice relaxed, mellifluous, measured, and articulate. “I would come in and do a Q & A after they screened some things.” The director, who turned 71 on March 15, finds viewing his old films “painful” and usually only revisits them if “someone is releasing a new DVD, like a Criterion Blu-ray or something like that. There comes a point where you say, ‘I think I’ve done enough, there’s enough stuff out there.’ But a detailed commentary is a very special thing. I know that there are some commentaries that are just joke fests between two actors, so I try to give it my most serious attention.”
Is the process useful to him? “I suppose it exercises a couple of faculties that you maybe don’t normally use,” he answers. “When I’m making a film, I’m not very analytical, really. A lot of it is intuition, and then it’s kind of interesting to have a different perspective on what you were doing, especially from the safety of the future, where it’s done. You’re not going to redo the movie, so what you’re talking about has no effect on the actual film itself. Whereas when you’re making the movie, all of those things are actually decisions that can be actions that will change your film.”
Of course, filmmakers like George Lucas have gained a certain notoriety for returning to their early films and tinkering with them, updating the special effects and so on. Cronenberg isn’t wild about the idea, even if he had access to the budgets required. “I really think of the films as being part of an archaeological dig, you know?” he says. “And you want it to be as close to what it was in its time as possible. And even that has interest and value, the things that were invisible at the time. I love this story: there was a young critic who saw Shivers”—Cronenberg’s 1975 feature about an aphrodisiac parasite that turns a swinging ’70s apartment complex into an orgy of violence, perversity, and rampant promiscuity— “who said, ‘Cronenberg really nailed the ’70s.’ And I thought, well, it was the ’70s. I wasn’t nailing it, I was in it. I was part of it. And I thought that was kind of cute, actually, as though it was a retro reconstruction or something. But I like the idea that that’s there. It’s a reference. If somebody really wanted to reconstruct the ’70s, what a ’70s film looked like, well, there they are, I haven’t changed them.”
As good as Cronenberg’s commentaries are, there are always questions left unanswered. Take the Montreal-shot 1977 film Rabid, starring Marilyn Chambers as Rose, a motorcycle-crash victim transformed by radical plastic surgery into a sort of vampire. A fascinating scene has her preying on a creep who tries to pick her up at a porno theatre. The irony of having a real-life porn star turn the tables on a porno-theatre predator is fairly rich, but Cronenberg explains—obligingly filling in a blank in his commentary—the scene “was totally written before she was cast, and those ironies, when they come, they come. The later term for that was baggage. What baggage does the actor bring? Any actor who’s got a career ultimately has either some role they’re famous for or some scandal that they might have been involved in. And you really have to ignore it, unless it’s so overwhelming that it will destroy your film. Other than that, you have to assume people are discovering this actress for the first time, and of course for Marilyn, that was the case for anyone who hadn’t seen porno films. So I didn’t change anything one way or another. There was never a discussion of, ‘Will this make people think of that other Marilyn Chambers?’ It was just, that’s the script, let’s make it work dramatically.”
Another curiosity in the film: in almost every scene where Rose takes a victim, mitigating factors are depicted. She’s under attack, as in the porno theatre, or by a drunk who attempts to rape her in a barn. Or she’s physically in a position of vulnerability, as when Dr. Keloid—a name that puns on a term for scar tissue—examines her naked. These scenes convey a sense of men receiving their comeuppance from a newly empowered woman and lend weight to Cronenberg’s argument that Rose isn’t merely a monster, but the film’s heroine, tragic though her trajectory may be. But a curiosity occurs early on in the film, when Rose seduces and attacks an innocent woman in a hot tub. If Cronenberg’s goal is to keep Rose sympathetic to viewers, the open predation in the hot-tub scene is anomalous.
“I think I can say that the characters in my films don’t really respond to a political stance or a schematic,” Cronenberg responds. “They’re not meant to be an illustration of a theory. I really would go to the character herself to see that, perhaps, reluctantly having to survive by doing something she finds repulsive pushes herself over the edge of that into something that becomes enjoyable. Y’know, a wolf pack tearing apart a caribou, they enjoy it, it gives them pleasure, and so I think I was probably trying to show the necessity of what she’s become has forced her into an emotional evolution into something else. That she could in fact feel to herself that she might now become quite a dangerous creature. And that in itself is horrifying to her, but a new reality.
“And the other thing, too,” he continues, “I never really worry about a character being sympathetic or not. That to me is a very Hollywood attitude, but it’s not an attitude you find in, let’s say, European art films of the period as well. ‘Is this character interesting?’ is much more important than ‘Is this character sympathetic?’ To me, it’s let that character be what that character is naturally and go where he or she goes, you know? The only criterion is ‘Is this boring or is this interesting?’ Not ‘Is this sympathetic?’ ”
Shivers, Rabid, and 1979’s The Brood won Cronenberg a legion of horror fans and gave birth to the adjective Cronenbergian in print as early as the 1983 essay collection The Shape of Rage: The Films of David Cronenberg, edited by Piers Han-dling, the present TIFF director and CEO, who co-curated the Cronenberg Project. These films also attracted controversy, however, which Cronenberg discusses in the second part of this interview.