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, un-American 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.
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?
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.
James Spader and Holly Hunter in Crash (1996).
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.
This may be a sore spot, but it’s interesting that you were going to make Total Recall because it’s exactly the same thing.
It’s a sore spot, yes, because I think it was a missed opportunity for me. I don’t have too many of those; it’s very rare I write a script and don’t get to make the movie. In the discussions, the ultimate moment was when they said with horror, “But you’ve written a Philip Dick script!” And I said, “I thought that’s what we were doing.” “No! We want Raiders of the Lost Ark go to Mars.” Then it became Arnold Schwarzenegger goes to Mars.
Which inverts the book, which was about an accountant.
Absolutely. I wanted William Hurt to play that role. I spent a year writing variations of it. It didn’t take me very long to get a version of it that I wanted; then I spent the rest of the time trying to find some compromise that would allow me to do what I wanted but make it acceptable. I did finally see the movie. I thought it was pretty awful.
When the group in Crash watch the car wreck film at the Seagraves’, are they watching in effect a porno movie?
There’s the porn element, but it’s also like a weird study group. I was thinking there’s a competitive, obsessive aspect. “Okay, when we do our crash, how will these forces… Okay, I see, if you hit on the angle, your head goes out the side window instead of the front.” So there’s that intense study, like boxers study tapes of other boxers’ matches.
It’s also like avid fans watching your movies—another acknowledgment of audience.
There is that, and there is the ritual element as well. A ritual keeps everyone in touch with basic principles, keeps reminding people of those touchstones. So it draws them close to each other when they might be drifting apart. The Seagraves at home, I like them. I like the Seagraves at home.
Presumably the fact that these are Swedish tapes is a joke on Swedish porn.
Well, it’s Swedish porn and it’s also Volvo safety. I mean, the Swedish car industry—now you’ll get me talking about cars … Oh my God, this analogy is just pouring in here: the way American film has dominated the world, so has the American car to a certain extent. Certainly the world’s imagination. In order to distinguish itself, each national cinema had to find something unique that it could offer that American cinema was not; we’re still reeling under that. The car industry had to do the same. And unlike, let’s say, the Italians and the way they would come up with flair and brio, what the Swedes came up with was safety. That was the thing that Saab and Volvo have been selling for years. And it’s only now that Volvo is sort of edging into the turboperformance market, but they never can turn their back on what most people think of when they think of Swedish cars: that they’re safe, they’re really safe. It wasn’t a casual choice.
I find Ballard’s novel pornographic in a really pure, legitimate sense. Your film doesn’t go nearly as far—it’s tasteful in comparison.
That’s interesting. First of all, I think Ballard’s writing is actually anti-pornographic, because people are turned off by clinical, analytical language. His preface to the French edition says certain things … Again, Ballard was being put in the position of being an analyst of his own work, and I didn’t agree with everything that he said, particularly that this is a cautionary tale. A lot of journalists have said to me, “We don’t feel your movie is a cautionary tale,” and I said, “Well, I don’t feel that it is, either.” So I said to Ballard, “W hen you were writing it, did you feel you were writing a cautionary tale?” He said no. I said, “Okay, that’s all I need to know, because it’s an interpretation after the fact.” Likewise, he talked about it as being maybe the first techno-porn novel, a pornography novel about technology. And I know what he means: that kind of obsessive, narrowly focused writing where sex and technology are discussed almost to the total exclusion of anything else. The triumph of Crash is that by the end you are starting to find this erotic even though at the beginning it’s antiseptic. So I would say that it’s true that in my movie, I’ve made it… See, I think my movie is—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.
But the book is written in an overheated style, whereas your film is cool.
At our Cannes press conference a journalist said that he felt that the book was hot and the movie was cold, and that I didn’t go as far as the book. Ballard immediately said, “I completely disagree with you. I think the movie goes much farther than the book—in fact, the movie starts where the book leaves off.” I didn’t take that as an attack. It’s so subjective, it’s almost all an elaboration of that joke that goes “What I like is erotic, what you like is pornographic.” One of the cardinal underlying rules of all pornography is that everybody gets off. Everybody’s hot, everybody wants it, and they are immensely satisfied by it and still want more. If you don’t have that, you don’t have real porn. And in the movie and the book the people are not getting off on the sex in the approved porno way. The enthusiasm of the participants, however faked, is missing.
To what extent were you playing with the episodic monotony of video porn aesthetics?
One of the reasons people have said the movie’s pornographic is exactly that, it’s a formal problem, it’s a structural problem. They’ve never seen three sex scenes in a row except in a porno film. Audiences don’t know how to react when you go to the second sex scene and then you go to the third sex scene—they laugh or they’re very uncomfortable. If they were watching a porno film, they would demand it—there they’re not interested in anything but the sex scenes.
This card that I got from a screening, someone wrote, “A series of sex scenes is not a plot.” And one must say, “Well, why not? Who says?” It’s a conscious decision to experiment with film form as a reflection of what the characters are doing in terms of their own experimentation within the film. Just as the film’s characters are questioning what to most people are the immutables of life—what sexuality is, what relationships are—I’m doing the same thing on a cinematic front. I’m questioning a lot of the things that are, certainly in Hollywood terms, considered the immutables of film narrative. First of all, that you must have a narrative. Secondly, that it must go in a certain way. Thirdly, that your character should be sympathetic and should evolve and you should tie everything up, all those “well-made play” kind of things that Hollywood has been so successful selling over the years—a perfectly legitimate thing to do. But when you’re not doing it and your audience’s expectations are formed by that, they don’t know what to do.
David Cronenberg on the set of Videodrome (1983).
When you experiment in film, are you in touch with the science side of your makeup, given that was your original career path?
Experimentation in science, I found, was in practice not as gratifying as I wanted it to be when I was at university. I found it to be very rigid and conventional. Like most human endeavors, when there’s an established procedure, things tend to get very conservative and in fact even boring and restrictive.
Same with filmmaking?
Definitely with filmmaking. In each case when there’s money involved, it’s even more likely to happen. And you don’t want to be too radical, you know? And yet, it’s the radical ones that we get excited about, that make a lot of the breakthroughs. But in both film and science, there’s a lot of plodding along that has to happen as well. You have to do the boring basics, you have to look at all the locations to make sure you’ve got the best one—all that stuff that isn’t on the screen. It’s the same in science. There’s a lot of really mind-numbing repetition, years and years of finite little fiddlings, and always the temptation to fudge your results because you’re so frustrated.
Is showing the film to an audience an experiment?
Oh yeah. Someone said to me, “You’re the Vaughan to the audience,” and I thought that was very apt. It’s like you’re doing an experiment, but you are not outside the experiment. It’s one of the first principles of science that you cannot observe something without changing it. That’s why I felt like the Hitchcockian posture was so false—and I think I understand psychologically why Hitchcock wanted it to be true, the idea that you are the puppetmaster, aloof, manipulating everyone’s reactions to everything, not giving away anything of yourself and you are not vulnerable. Well, of course he was, and he gave away a lot, and I don’t know how much he was aware of it. There’s no scientist worth his salt who could possibly maintain that now. You are part of the experiment even while you are conducting it. Vaughan was also experimenting on himself. I didn’t want him to be a guru with all the answers and you must conform to what he’s laying down. He’s a little ahead of them, but only a little. He needs their energy and support and involvement to continue.
As you were conceiving the film, was there a central image or moment?
It doesn’t seem to work that way for me. I’m very hands-on. It’s as I’m doing it that I start to feel it. It’s not as though I imagine it in advance. People have asked me if the film came up to my expectations, but it’s not as though I have the movie running through my head and I can now put next to it this other projector with the movie as it turns out and I can compare them. There are moments on the set when you feel, “Oh my god, this could be so great.” It’s a combination of the actor and the angle and the lighting and the way the camera’s moving, and you’re just holding your breath because you can now see clearly what you could get, but you haven’t recorded it yet on film. That’s the closest that I could come to that, this wonderful moment that is there, just ready to be grasped.
Was that what was missing when you were studying science?
Yeah. But the most brilliant scientists are like artists—they create their own ambience so that they can function within it. It’s like the way that I set up a production. I set it up for me—it might not work for some other director. I set up my own ambience with the people I need and want. There are certain kinds of people I like to work with. But their essence does not precede their existence, to quote Sartre. It’s very subtle and it’s very Canadian in the sense that it’s relatively down-to-earth and pragmatic. I’m not lighting candles and making everybody hold hands before we shoot, or other things that I’ve heard about on other sets. It’s partly the force of the belief in the project—that it is worthwhile. It’s serious in the sense that, you know, it’s art. There are directors I could name who say, “Let’s not pretend we’re artists here,” or “This is a business venture,” or “Let’s have some fun.” I’m saying, “No, it’s more serious than that.” But then we do have tremendous fun. There’s a lot of joking.
I was horrified when I was asked by Michael Apted to play a small role in a film he was shooting in Toronto, Extreme Measures. It’s a Castle Rock picture. With my contract, I got a long memo about how one will behave on the set. And it was all political correctness stuff, “There will be no humor based on … ” and the list of things that the humor couldn’t be based on were all the things that humor is based on: gender differences, race differences—Vietnam-era status, it said. I thought, my god, we’d all be thrown off my set. The assumption is that it will be cruel, that it will be nasty, debilitating, humiliating, and in fact the support and the life of my set is humor. I didn’t sign that. I did the role. It was only a day, opposite Hugh Grant. My best dialogue is over a shot of the building [laughter]. But it was fun to do, and I really like Michael.
Why have you acted for other filmmakers, notably Clive Barker in Nightbreed?
First of all, most directors are terrible hams; they would love to act, just as most actors want to direct. When I was a kid we’d all be in each other’s underground films, and it was really quite nice to one day be directing and the next day be acting in someone else’s film. And my birth as a filmmaker being in the Sixties, it was definitely just go out and do your own thing.
The longest role I ever played was in Nightbreed, and I was three months in London. You don’t do that just for fun; I mean that’s a long time, especially since I was away from my family most of the time. I was writing Naked Lunch there, but it was a really intense experience, a very lonely one, a very strange one—doing “actor time,” as opposed to doing a role in Toronto for a couple of days like To Die For, when I go home at the end of the day; that’s more like for fun. There was also the challenge of wanting to see whether I could be better, to think, Oh my god I’m really awful, how can I be more real? And once you do that, you are immediately engaged in the actor’s process. And I must say, when people asked me after I did Nightbreed if I was more sympathetic to actors, I said, “Absolutely not”—but the truth is, I am. Because when you’re in front of the camera you realize your body is what you have to· work with, so of course you’re worried about your hair, your face, your makeup, your clothes—you don’t have anything else. As a director, ironically enough, you forget about the body. You’re disembodied as a director.
There are times when as a director, you are struck by how completely alone you are. There’s a moment when there’s an anguish because you cannot get what you want, and can’t make it happen. It’s nobody else’s fault, it’s all within yourself, they can’t help you. That’s a very existential moment. It’s an experience you hide. Just as in life you can’t think about death every moment and still really live, as a director on the set, you cannot think about how alone and how totally on your shoulders everything is. But it does surface.
You’ve always said your theory of horror is that it’s fundamentally based in fear of death. But for me your films are more about fear of being alone, and about breaking down the barrier that separates you from the world of other people: telepathy, shared identity, absorption into a collective mass hysteria.
Now you’ve become my psychoanalyst [laughter]. I think that that could be a very interesting line of inquiry. There’s a couple of ways to look at that. Is allowing yourself to fuse with other people a kind of death, and then do you come back to fear of death in another guise? Certainly I’m very interested in all the films in the concept of identity and individualism, again. That imbued him with such incredible terror because he realized that memory was identity and once your memory starts to go you have no identity. John Carpenter talks about the basis of horror as being a loss of c0ntrol. I see those two as being very interlinked. If you lose control, chaos, as seen as a physical event, is disintegration and death. But I don’t necessarily say that that’s my primary subject, though. Certainly my struggle, hardly unique, to understand my life has to include the reality of my death, so that is always there as a part of what I’m discussing in the films.
Well, is there a sense in which you distrust the notion of individual autonomy?
In terms of free will?
It’s a real conundrum because it feels absolutely real most of the time. The idea that we have free will. It’s like Nietzsche’s philosophy with the hammer, he sort of breaks that down. I like Nietzsche a lot. Feeling that the whole idea of predetermination versus free will is a false contrarian structure that comes out of language, I can see beyond that. I also connect it with the concept of Bergsonian evolution, which now science has sort of replicated in its own discoveries—the idea that the mechanistic, clockwork orange concept of the universe will lead you to have to discuss free will versus predestination. But it only works with the model that if you knew everything, every fact in the universe, and had a computer that could integrate it, you would still not predict what would happen because there would be completely haphazard, unanticipatable events that would change everything. My intuition is that is correct.
In English politics they call it the Cock-Up Theory, where a historical event is the result of error, not conspiracy.
Exactly. I do find it rather touching, the conspiracy theories that one hears. It’s almost irrelevant whether JFK really was only killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, but I do feel the desire for it to be a conspiracy is a rather hopeful thing. Because it would mean that it wasn’t just some maniac who altered the course of history, in fact it was a concerted effort of human will that made this happen. You want it to be a conspiracy because it gives meaning and shape to it. It’s unbearable to think that it was something completely stupid or tragic or irrelevant.
All your films up to Videodrome employ conspiracy theory plots. Videodrome is almost a parody of a conspiracy film.
But it is. Because the conspirators are really out of control also, they’re only sort of in control. Yes, it is in a way a parody of that because they are constantly talking about what they’re doing and what they will do and the future and so on. I think you’ve got to see that they’re kind of inept and they’re really deluding themselves.
It was fascinating the way the guy you cast as the conspiracy’s mastermind, Barry Convex, acts almost like a corporate spokesman in a commercial.
Well, I was thinking really of Jim Bakker at the time, the PTL Club. I used to watch Jim and Tammy all the time before they got really famous, because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. He actually looks a little like Jim Bakker, not as female as Jim Bakker. I wanted that revolutionary idealism, that sort of Boy Scout element, too. I remember the fellow who plays Harlan did a first rehearsal and then asked me, “How do you want me to play this?” And I said, “I think your first instinct is completely accurate. You’re playing it like a Boy Scout, one of the Hitler Youth who feels he’s cutting to the basics and the purest form, and doing it with great intensity and love and certainty.” So to be a conspirator is to have faith. You have to have faith to be a good conspirator.
The flipside of all this questioning of free will is that your films imply that personal growth or transformation in the individual literally threatens the social order.
Well, I think it does. I think it’s an analog to art. The tension between society and art is kind of what makes both of them possible. Art is constantly trying to be assimilated by society and tamed and at the same time is subversive of society. I think it’s absolutely true that art must be subversive of society to a certain extent. And yet somehow society doesn’t just tolerate it, but needs it. It’s a very interesting symbiotic relationship. Whether you take that Freudian formula, that civilization is repression, therefore art, which appeals to the unconscious, must be subversive of civilization. Or whether you think of art as constantly trying to find new insights, new angles, create new things, while society has an inertia and a momentum and a conservative weight, and therefore they’re again opposed. So when you talk about the individual versus society, it’s the same. You will not find anybody who says we should all be like ants, lose our individuality, know our place, be totally willing to sacrifice ourselves for the good of the hive. And at the same time you do find people who are very threatened by anything that does shake up the hive. That there are very strict limits to what you should be allowed to say and think and do.
While your first films depicted social breakdown and revolution, now you’re more interested in personal, interior worlds.
Although you do see, in M. Butterfly and Naked Lunch, there are definitely—Burroughs as a literary outlaw, outside society, played maybe in a smaller arena. I guess everybody in Crash is an outlaw; I think that’s what disturbs a lot of people, what happens when an entire society becomes an outlaw society. It inverts everything. Now everybody is a Scanner, and if everybody is a Scanner, just look at that society.
I can see this process happening anyway in my filmmaking, but one of the experiments I was doing in Crash was to completely distill everything down to its purest essence. It’s like Godard’s jump-cut: if I’m not interested in it, we’ll just take it out. I will not deal with anything I’m not interested in. If that destroys the illusion of reality that people love so much, then so be it. I’m still interested in and I still think it’s a strong part of the films, the desire and the fear, at the same time, of tearing down society. The exhilaration that you could then rebuild it and also the fear that you could rebuild it. And just as I say that, I see that now as being the existentialist dilemma. Man is condemned to be free, that’s what that’s all about -the terror at realizing you can tear down not just society, but reality. And I suppose that’s where this shift has happened in the films. I’ve realized what my real project is, and it’s not about changing the politics and breaking through the bourgeois this and that. That happened in the Sixties; we felt that there were real dents made. There was a real feeling, you would wake up every morning and say “I can do anything.” It’s very easy to be cynical about it now and look at it just as style or take this Bork/Gingrich view that the Sixties destroyed America.
Shivers captures that spirit, but in a darker tone.
In a way that’s the proof of it, that they would allow you to make a movie like Shivers.
You could argue that Shivers parodies the social anxieties of the Nixon Silent Majority view.
Yeah, that’s right. That’s why I said it had a happy ending. I felt that my audience was cheering for the parasiteinfested people, ultimately. I knew the audience was gonna be partly on the side of the crazies. Some of those early analyses of the movie were really unsettling, like the Robin Wood version in which he just broke it down into Marxist/Freudian categories and obviously I was on the side of repression. And I thought it was not a very subtle reading, and it’s not the visceral street reading of the movie either, it’s a very academic one. Because viscerally, the reason the fans loved it was because there was a thrill of recognition with what these people were doing, the sexual freedom.
Another connection between Crash and Shivers is the apartment complex where Ballard and Catherine live: you’re back where you started. What was your conception of the couple’s condition at the start? ls it in the tradition of Antonioni and Egoyan, of existential estrangement in an era of materialism?
Something that’s a little different from that is the sci-fi element. I fell that there was a disconnected psychopathology in the book, which I posited as the normal psychology of the movie. And which I thought he was anticipating as being the universal psychology not too far into the future, maybe twenty or thirty years. It goes beyond materialism and politics. In other words, it’s not the few who sense the alienation—everybody in that apartment is like this. You don’t see any other people in the movie who aren’t like that. Someone said to me that the only normal person in the movie is the Mercedes salesman—but we haven’t seen him at home yet so we’re not so sure! When J.G. Ballard talks about the movie going further than the book, he didn’t mean in terms of pornography, he was talking about this. He felt that the psychology which he is developing through the inner monologue of Ballard in the book is the accepted norm at the beginning of the movie.
What do the panoramic shots from the apartment balcony evoke for you?
Well, to go out and stand on that balcony is itself amazing. It was so incredibly overpowering; you couldn’t hear a thing, it was so loud I couldn’t deliver the actual experience of standing there. Looking at those cars was like looking at gigantic pinball machine, just mesmerizing, almost like a mandala, a hypnotic pattern that repeats and repeats. It stops being about living things. It was not easy logistically to shoot there. But it had all of those things, they were high, they were above it, but they were also trapped by it and it was mesmerizing.
You seem to be moving toward a more disjunctive, minimalist style.
I was very aware of it in The Fly. I thought the entire movie is basically three people in a room. You could do it as a play. I like that, getting that rigorous and austere. It’s not just the question of leaving out obvious narrative beats, as they would say in Hollywood. It’s saying, let’s accept that this audience understands the grammar of film as it’s presented and let’s play with that. Really, that’s what Godard was doing. Saying why see the guy go up the stairs and turn the key in the lock, why not just cut to he’s in the room? Of course, Godard wasn’t the first to do that, but he did it so blatantly, deliberately jarringly, it made you aware of it. And then as has been said, now those jump cuts are invisible. So to continue that process means that it will be more and more subtle. And the more complex the subject matter, as in Naked Lunch, the harder it is to point out where some other filmmaker might have made a film that was a half an hour longer because of putting in all those other things. The more unique the films are, the harder it is to say what the normal version of that film might be. You can see the Fatal Attraction version of Crash, where there’s this young couple who are very much in love and happy and then they have this crash and this horrible man Vaughan comes into their life and starts to ruin it and then maybe they kill him at the end.
How do you go about devising a visual style?
It’s very visceral. If I look through the lens and it feels wrong, there’s no concept in the world that could make me use that lens. Early on in my career, when I came from writing, I thought, “Y’know, there’s no reason for me to assume that I have any visual sense whatsoever. It’s conceivable that I won’t have.” When I was looking through the lens, ce1tain things felt right and certain things felt really, really wrong. It was a very physical feeling. And that’s really the basis of my lens choice and camera angles and so on. I would be working hard to put an analytical structure around it, but it’s still very intuitive.
My DP Peter Suschitzky and production designer Carol Spier and I are all edging towards the feel for what this movie should look like, how contrasty is it. This film, like Videodrome and Scanners, was shot at night in the street, and I had not done that for a long time. So the feeling that you get of it connecting more to the early films is even pragmatically accurate. So we have to use the sodium vapor lights which are on the street because we couldn’t afford to light five miles of road. Some of those scenes are shot with available light, and then the characters in the foreground are lit to integrate with what was available. With the costumes, the palate concept was bruise colors—purples and violets and dark browns and yellows and blues and blacks. Now, analytically you could say, “Well, that’s because these people are all bruised,” or, “They all bruise each other.” But that’s irrelevant. All of that pales in significance compared with the feeling we had when we looked at these colors and it just felt so right.
As soon as you get into that, Peter is starting to think about how his lights will show these colors, and how the rooms are then constructed in terms of where the light comes from. And when it comes to camera angles, once again it’s sex and cars, two of the most photographed things ever. How do you suggest a new angle on both of those things without getting arch, without doing lots of very wide angles or low angles arcing over the car? There’s a lot of cute stuff you could do. So I would split the screen, the driver on the left half and the road, far down the road, on the right. Every shot I had in a car was agonizing in terms of wanting it to not necessarily be a shot where everyone would go “Wow, look at that shot!” but that there was a cumulative feeling that you hadn’t seen this relationship of driver to car, or car to road, or car to car before.
You could see the easy angle everybody uses because it’s quick and it’s simple and it’s easy to light. But we never went for the easy angle even though the payoff was relatively subtle. It was like the use of action in the car crashes – you’re not gonna get the payoff of an action movie. So I had to suffer the logistics of an action movie knowing full well I wasn’t gonna get the goodies. But that was part of the austerity of it. My stunt guys are saying, “Yeah, then we can have it roll three times and explode.” And I said, “No, no, I don’t want that. I want it to be brutal and quick and it’s the aftermath that I’m interested in.” But of course you still have to do the crash, you still have to set it up, you still have 35 stunt drivers on the road in the middle of the night.
The result is that the crashes are dematerialized and abstracted.
Yeah. What you’re saying is another way of approaching it. The crashes are almost metaphorical events, rather than physical, literal events. They’re both, of course. One of the English critics said, “Cronenberg’s defense was extraordinary. He said you were supposed to take these events metaphorically.” This is a critic. I’m thinking, You find that extraordinary? You take all the movies you see as literal truth? One of the foundations of art is the process of metaphor. I did have someone say, “Your crashes aren’t very realistic in this movie.” And I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “Well, you don’t show the explosions and you don’t show it in slow motion” [laughs]. I said, “Have you ever been in a car crash?” and he said “No.” I said, “I think that’s obvious.” They do tend to happen real fast.
Oh yeah. Mostly on the racetrack, where it’s quite different. I have not had a serious road accident in a car. I have had a couple of motorcycle incidents. Most people who have an accident on the road are quite traumatized by it. They are oblivious to how much energy they are unleashing by driving a car. Momentum is mass times velocity, and cars are pretty heavy these days. You don’t have to be going very fast to unleash a lot of energy. In a way, dare I say it, it’s like the existentialist view of life—you look into the abyss, you have to acknowledge it, but then you cannot live constantly looking into it.
You have to create a state of denial.
That’s right. And the thing about people and cars is that they’re usually totally in a state of denial and they’ve never looked into the abyss until the moment of their crash. And then it does transform them.
Whereas you race cars, so you deal with it on a more pragmatic level.
For me, to have a fender-bender on the street is almost a laugh, it’s a joke. I’ve spun cars off at 100mph plus, and you learn how to control the car. I put a Ferrari into a concrete wall at Mosport, Canada’s premier racetrack.
Have you done a lot of racing?
In the past. I’ve really sort of stopped. I was doing vintage racing, from maybe 1980 to ’94, I guess. I have a 1961 Formula One car. I’m a big racing enthusiast but Crash certainly doesn’t come out of the auto enthusiast part of me. I had to quite suppress that, deliberately give Ballard a very boring car. If you had Ballard driving the latest Ferrari, it would completely derange the film. Wired magazine had the Canadian racer Jacques Villeneuve on the cover and it said underneath, “The Ultimate Man-Machine interface.” My response is, no, absolutely not. The ultimate man-machine interface is the guy who jumps in his car every morning and drives to work and doesn’t think twice about it. It’s when technology is at its most invisible that it’s at its most potent.
Is it true that you have a car collection?
I had four; now I’m down to three. Old race cars. But I’m not really a collector. I bought these cars to race them and now that I’m not racing anymore, just because I’m not willing to spend the time that it requires, I’m probably gonna sell them. And it breaks my heart because I love them, but the whole idea of vintage racing is that you don’t see them in a museum, you want to see them on a track and smell them and hear them. I have five or six motorcycles as well.
There’s a very deliberate tone to Crash, a feeling of suspension and attenuation.
Sort of languorous, yeah. One of the things you are seeking as well as the look to the film and the tone, is a pace and a rhythm. It’s a very complex interplay of how you perceive space and perspective and how you feel movement inte1Telates with emotion. You feel for the rhythm with your actors and with the way the camera movement works with the dialogue, there are all those rhythms that you’re playing with. Once again, all intuitive, not just yours but your actors’ as well. The way they speak, which someone described as narcotized, felt right—that it should be very low-key and very deliberate speaking and not quick, not witty.
Do you think there’s been an evolution in the look of your films from the photography of Mark Irwin to that of Peter Suschitzky?
I think Peter is shooting a more complex, textured look and it’s a more interpretive look maybe, a more dealt-with look. It’s meant to have more meaning and more depth and more texture, rather than just being what’s there, lit the way the thing would be lit. And I don’t mean to demean Mark’s work, because he obviously did more than that, but Peter goes quite far beyond. It’s a more European approach to lighting. And I’ve pushed Peter to be not realistic in the lighting. I’m not interested in so-called realistic light because nothing in the film is realistic really. It’s supposed to deliver you some feeling of reality but, especially when the subject of the film is the nature of reality, it would be silly to do a documentary version visually. I would say its many layers of texture pleases me because it represents to me what I’m trying to do with the film thematically and on every other level.
Though your work has moved away from genre, there are still traces of it in all of them, even M. Butterfly. ls that just because we associate you with genre?
I’ve written a script called eXistenZ that could be my next film, and technically you would definitely call it a sci-fi movie. That movement in and out of the genre is not critical to me, artistically. I have great affection for the complexity and the depth that can be achieved within the genre, any genre, but for me it’s obviously the horror or sci-fi genre. I don’t feel that I need to redeem myself or anything like that. Of course it’s annoying when someone dismisses you as a horror film director, but it’s only because they’re using it dismissively.