Mind Over Matter: David Cronenberg interviewed
By Gavin Smith
David Cronenberg opens up about Thanatos, cars, flesh, and much more
I can't believe you've put me in a position of saying it, but I believe my movie is closer to being pornographic than the novel because I have attractive people, [and] the lighting, although of a particular tone, is still at moments very seductive and sensual. —David Cronenberg
David Cronenberg is cinema's patron saint of Symbiosis. At once Canada's most established and most successful filmmaker, and one of the few radical sensibilities operating in "greater Hollywood" cinema, his films depict the communion of characters with technology, disease, narcotics, telepathy and Otherness. This moment —what is called a "fertilizing accident" in his new film Crash —is irreversibly transforming, a liberation from the prison of self and the oppression of normative social codes. The boundaries between individual and Other dissolve; identity is annexed. At one extreme it's the abandon of self to a collective gestalt or urge (Stereo, Shivers, Rabid); at the other, the merging of two beings (Dead Ringers, The Fly, M. Butterfly); while the loners of Scanners, Videodrome and Naked Lunch surrender independence and are enlisted in conspiraces beyond their comprehension. Yet paradoxically, symbiosis and dispersal of self produce a more profound sense of isolation and estrangement than ever, as with The Dead Zone. So it is with Crash.
Based on J.G. Ballard's 1973 novel, Crash follows a film producer named Ballard (James Spader) who, after a nearly fatal head-on collision, drifts into a shadowy underworld of car accident survivors who seek cathartic/erotic release in the aesthetic minutiae of studying, reenacting, and staging death crashes. Ballard becomes an initiate of this cult of scarred casualties, an s & m subgroup with one foot in the car showroom and the other in the scrapyard, in the search of the perfect crash. His mentor is the enigmatic Vaughan (memorably incarnated by Elias Koteas), a repellent yet seductive figure dedicated to the refinement of the crash into something between artform and science.
Ballard's feverish book is nothing if not lurid, but for all its multiple tableaux of dispassionate, automated sex and mangled car wrecks, Cronenberg's film exemplifies cool, hieratic austerity. His setups and cutting have never been more inhumanely deliberate and exact. This exquisitely somber film's metallic designs, stark electric guitar score, insinuating camera movement, and dazed, somnambulist acting maintain a tone of dreamlike repetition and attenuation. In its subdued, subtractive minimalism and almost oppressive formal control, Crash toys with the possibilities of enervation and entropy.
Simultaneously parodic and mournful, freakish and familiar, Crash's narrative is elliptical, trancelike, interiorized. Characteristically, there is no final narrative release —only dissolution. If this is a film about cars, fucking, and death, then it's about cars, fucking, and death as a state of mind, desecrating the automotive fetishist's fantasies of freedom, enclosure, and invulnerability. Never a moralist despite such sardonic, satirical impulses, Cronenberg's films have always fused the calm rigor of scientific research with the visceral shock of transgression.
Cronenberg's is a philosophical cinema based on subversive imagination, yet one that requires the viewer to grapple with the experience of deep revulsion. His films are studies in fantastic pathology that are typically punctuated by some pivotal gross-out or unimaginable physical violation: Scanners' exploding head is relatively mild alongside the mysterious, genital-like orifices and appendages of Videodrome and Rabid, the fecal-like venereal parasites of Shivers, the gynecological instruments designed for "mutant women" in Dead Ringers, The Brood's rage-generated externalized foetus —and in Crash, a scar on Rosanna Arquette's thigh which briefly serves as a sexual organ. These are not frivolous shock value effects, although they convey authentically hysterical excess. Taken in the context of his disruptive film strategy, Cronenberg is simply devising the most extreme and graphic visual manifestation imaginable for his anarchic pathologies. These scenarios of trauma, estrangement, and disintegration articulate the shock of the New Flesh, as it's dubbed in his magnum opus Videodrome —in which, fittingly for his entire oeuvre, a character observes: "It has a philosophy...and that is what makes it dangerous."
Cronenberg is seldom discussed as a Canadian filmmaker. Certainly his work shows no overt trace of the cultural inferiority complex that supposedly afflicts English-speaking Canada. But it shares with the cinema of Atom Egoyan, Canada's other leading international export and critical success, a subtly displaced, suspended urban ambience that ironically derives from the indefinable, unAmerican Otherness of Canada. (The exception is the Quebec-set Rabid, whose scenes of urban chaos consciously allude to the declaration of martial law in Canada in 1970.)
Cronenberg's 20-year trajectory from morbid yet cerebral no-frills exploitation like Shivers to triumphantly commercial Hollywood horror/sci-fi like The Dead Zone to literary yet visceral art movie psychodrama like M. Butterfly is a unique and intriguing one, particularly since throughout its evolution his cinema has maintained its thematic and conceptual unity. Aside from his Hawks-out-of-Corman 1979 hot-rod racing flick Fast Company, all of Cronenberg's films up to The Fly are essentially Pandora's Box narratives in which scientific research and new technology unleash threats to both the wider social order and the physio- and psychological integrity of his characters. From Dead Ringers on though, they are all hermetic Through-the-Looking-Glass narratives in which characters descend into their own psyches, triggering ruptures and deviations that are purely projections of the mind. The wider social realm recedes and the focus narrows to the kind of dysfunctional domesticity first explored in The Brood —with a consequent increase in claustrophobia and suspension. Dead Ringers' vicariously symbiotic twin gynecologists are the first of a succession of transgressive, codependent marriages: junkie Bill Lee (read William Burroughs) and his accidentally slain wife in Naked Lunch, the self-deluded diplomat and transvestite Chinese opera singer in M. Butterfly —and now Crash's blankly promiscuous couple. Curious, then, that Crash's prevailing spiritual malaise and its overthrow by death-wish hedonism returns us to Cronenberg's first feature, Shivers, likewise set in a world of numbing urbanism and positing its condo inhabitants' infection with aphrodisiac parasites as a collective liberation from their repressed existences. —G.S.
GS: You once talked about the people who become parasite hosts in Shivers as representing a new evolutionary advance, and the idea of evolution is present in most of your films. Do you view the characters in Crash as in some sense taking an evolutionary leap forward in relation to the technological environment of the modern world?
DC: You mean are the people in Crash the people who left Skyliner Towers? I guess it's definitely related. When I started to read Crash I was thinking of Ballard as a sci-fi writer, and the book does have a kind of a sci-fi tone. These people in the book, and certainly in the movie, are different from us. Maybe we are their ancestors. The sci-fi element in the book that is so hard to define is exactly that: the psychology and perhaps the physiology as well, in some subtle way, is not what we consider normal, and it could be seen as where we're going. And that's the sort of prophetic part that is very strong in all of Ballard's writing —he's interested in technological prophecy.
In your films, evolution is associated with an urge to transcend limited definitions of selfhood, and also with death or dissolution of self.
Well, not that I think of myself as a religious person, but preparation for death is a part of almost every religion. I've been pondering what Bernardo Bertolucci said, that Crash is a "religious masterpiece." As I think about it, part of what he was saying was these people are almost Christ-like, doing this so that we don't have to do it —we can see it, we can have it done for us. But there is also an attempt to transcend, which is also a religious project. I think that we are always transcending our origins because we are constantly transforming and mutating. So in a way evolution becomes almost a religious process.
There's a strongly ritualistic element in a lot of your films in relation to such phenomena.
It's interesting, because I feel that I reject ritual in my life, but I do see the function of it. It is, after all, what any artist does —an attempt to give meaning to what one might think is meaningless, to create order by force of will over what is perhaps, in human terms, chaotic. So I think those things interlock.
It's only in Crash and Naked Lunch that the main character's transformations don't result in death in some form or another.
In Crash it's an anticipation of death, certainly. At the end when Ballard says, "Maybe the next one," he's talking about where they'll go from there. And when Catherine (Deborah Unger) says, "I think I'm all right," she's crying. It's a very ambivalent thing —the natural instinct to survive, and then the feeling that the process failed and she should have been dead.
That's an interesting flip on the idea of evolution —usually it implies survival, but here it creates a death wish.
When you say evolution is about survival, that's the Darwinian version. But what I think has happened is that we have seized control of evolution without being aware of it. Survival of the fittest as a principle —one now has to say, what does "fittest" mean? It's no longer the physically strongest or most aggressive, necessarily. It might be the guy who makes money the best in a capitalist society. There are cultures that embody the notion of suicide within them. One may also say there's a certain point past which survival is a liability for those who remain, even in animal tribes. The characters in Crash are exploring all of these things. That's why I call it an "existentialist romance": it's basically accepting that you have control of your definition of reality. Instead of just letting it happen to you, you're actively trying to shape it.
They're the first Cronenberg characters who are conscious that they are doing that.
I think that's true. This is for them The Project, the one that Vaughan (Elias Koteas) keeps trying to grasp and redefine. He's got this project, but you can never quite put your finger on it.
Why is Naked Lunch an exception to the death principle?
Part of that is a knowledge of William Burroughs, because the ordinary view of that is, this is a guy who's trying to destroy himself with drugs. He's hallucinating, he's dangerous, he kills his wife accidentally and is hardly aware of it; this man is trying to commit suicide. But we know that Burroughs is still alive, and that his experiments with drugs have not killed him. So it's your knowledge outside the film that can allow you to say that.
But Naked Lunch was really a meditation on the artistic process. The characters in Crash —their project is a creative one, but it's less formally an artistic process, it's almost performance art. In that sense it's the same as what Bill Lee is doing: to use one's art to explore the purpose of one's existence, while at the same time giving one a purpose. Suddenly seeing your life as an artistic process automatically invests it with some shape. Of course, that's one of the main human projects, to invest life with meaning, shape, and purpose by force of human will. For me, anyway, there is no other way to do it.
Although it's tempting to read Crash as a film about sexual initiation and sex as a dangerous force, that falls short. The car accident triggers the emergence of a new sexuality, but also a new form of creativity and imagination.
I would never interpret the movie that first way. There is an element of initiation, but not necessarily sexual. It's sort of initiation into an awareness and a slant on life. At the beginning of the film the sex is rather anodyne, it's lost its power. It only regains some of its power when it's connected to other forces that give it meaning and life and dynamism. It's sex against death; it's eros and thanatos very definitely intermixing.
Do you see some parallel between their sexuality and their creativity?
Definitely. At some point all that's left of their creativity is this vestige of sex; that's the last thing to go, and gradually the sex is invested with more power and more meaning as their understanding of their experimentation goes on.
In the novel Ballard works in commercials, but his work is kept abstract. Whereas you show him on the film set and start with a shot of a breakaway car interior, with very self-referential results.
In the book he's a director; I shifted it to being a producer to keep it a little far away. The book just sort of mentions, "I left the film studio...," and there's a scene in the hospital where he's brought storyboards —which I actually shot, but cut because of pacing. I did the movie visual thing to translate the impressions you get from the book into a more visual cognate. It is a foreshadowing of the car as mobile theater, something that is not just a functional tool. That scene inside of the car at the beginning prods the audience into awareness of the car, the metaphorical use of it that will come later.
Sometimes critics confuse their process with the filmmaker's process. When I'm talking to you now, I'm being a co-critic and I'm being forced —and I don't mind it because I find it interesting —to be analytical about things that were intuitive. I just wanted to set up several different things in a very compressed way. To show you that he did have a life in the real world, and to show you that he and his wife were both being promiscuous.
In your notion of the car as a mobile theater, you equate the view through the windshield with the movie screen?
Yeah, that too. But even within the audience of the cinema there is theater going on as well, the dynamic of the audience. So you have a theater and a cinema at the same time. It's a dual performance, I think, that's going on.
One striking aspect of M. Butterfly is its interest in performances staged and presented to an onscreen audience. Crash builds on these ideas of spectatorship.
I have to be aware of the voyeuristic element in all film. I was very conscious of that doing Shivers, seeing into people's apartments. We put ads in the elevators to find people who would rent us their apartments. There is a voyeuristic element to the feeling of having access, which is there whenever you do a location scout. You suddenly have magical access to strangers' places, their bathrooms and their bedrooms, and it's quite odd. So, all of those apartments as little cinemas, like a multiplex....
The movie Sliver, even though it failed for all kinds of reasons, had that idea, and that reminded me of some of the feeling that there is in Shivers, running amok through the halls and bursting into people's apartments and interrupting their lives. So the idea that one's life is a potential theatrical performance for someone else, and that we're all doing it for each other, that we are all each others' entertainment and enlightenment, is sort of implicit in a lot of what I've been doing. Certainly in M. Butterfly everything becomes a performance, finally. Even in the most unlikely places. You're right, there is a connection between M. Butterfly and Crash, that now you have people whose entire life becomes a performance for each other.
A mutually agreed delusion or denial.
Right, that's sort of the Nietzschean, existentialist element that was very conscious in Crash: a sort of consensually willed reality, and that if you can get enough people to will it along with you, it is the reality. Life is made up of conflicting versions of consensual realities —the Muslims versus the Christians or whatever it is. With that comes that Sartrean exhilaration and fear when you realize that you have the power and in fact are forced to invent your own reality. Even when you think that you are plugging into an accepted reality, by doing that you are adding your mode of consensus to everyone else's.
Read the rest of Gavin Smith's interview—how Cronenberg didn't get to direct Total Recall, what Jim Bakker and the PTL Club had to do with Videodrome, and why James Spader drives "a very boring car" in Crash —in the March-April '97 Film Comment.