Interview: David Cronenberg on Crimes of the Future
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David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen on the set of Crimes of the Future (David Cronenberg, 2022)
Nearly four decades after Videodrome (1983) gave us the prophetic techno-futurist rallying cry, “Long Live the New Flesh,” David Cronenberg’s new feature offers another, more declarative mantra for our times: “Body Is Reality,” a phrase that flashes on a TV screen in Crimes of the Future as dystopian performance artists Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and Caprice (Léa Seydoux) conduct a stylized autopsy for an audience. Conceived 20 years ago, the film’s premise—of a world polluted by plastic and desensitized to pain, and where “surgery is the new sex”—extends Cronenberg’s career-long exploration of the ways in which technology reshapes our corporealities and moralities. Yet the body has perhaps never felt as soberingly real—as fragile—in his work as in Crimes of the Future, whose subject, for all its futuristic stylings, is the same old aging flesh, now disintegrating rapidly as the world careens toward an eco-collapse.
Set in a haunted, ancient-yet-avant-garde Athens where people cut each other up for kicks, the film devotes much of its runtime to “world-building,” in a quite literal sense. In talky, quasi-screwball scenes (featuring superb comic turns by Kristen Stewart and Don McKellar as repressed paper pushers) attentive to the intricacies of cultural labor, Cronenberg envisions a kind of precipice for humanity, where new bureaucracies, artistic and political mores, and ethics must be constructed from scratch. In a sense, this is a “process” film, devoted to the nuts and bolts of creation, and thus one of Cronenberg’s densest and most pedantic outings. Yet it’s somehow also among his most immediate works—a kind of intellectual road map for the contemplation of existential questions of such overwhelming scale and urgency that few artists dare to confront them so directly.
Soon after the film’s premiere at Cannes—which, as expected, featured several walkouts—I sat down with Cronenberg for a conversation about the complex process of naming characters and titling films, how he gets bodies to speak for themselves, and the role of art in the face of the apocalypse.
In the press kit, you relate this anecdote about how you found the title Crimes of the Future—which you used before, in 1970, for your second feature—in a scene in the Danish movie Hunger (1966), where a poet character scribbles the phrase in a notebook. You said you saw that and then came up with a movie to fit the title. That made me think about the role of titles and names in your films, which are always very specific, very novelistic. How did you come up with the names in this film: Saul Tenser, Timlin, Wippet?
It’s strange. It’s very mysterious to me also. I think naming characters is a crucial thing. It’s the beginning of giving them a whole life and identity. It’s mysterious, but it does mean something. And I know it means something to the actors as well—what they have been named, how they have been baptized. As to how I do it, I don’t know. It’s like when you’re trying to frame a shot—at a certain point you know this is right and this is wrong. It’s intuitive, and there’s really no rule book that will guide you in something as subtle as that. I’m glad you’re mentioning it, though, because it’s not something I would normally be talking about.
Sometimes you name a character to start with because your scriptwriting program demands that, and a little while later you realize it’s the wrong name, because the character has developed away from his or her name. There’s another aspect, which is that you’re not the last arbiter of what the names are—the lawyers are.
Oh, I didn’t think of that!
Yeah, well—you send your script, and it has to be vetted by lawyers. The Oliver Reed character in The Brood was a sort of psychiatrist/therapist, and I had a name for him I really liked, and it turned out there was somebody in Toronto who was a psychotherapist with the same name, and who would definitely have sued us, because the character is a bad guy. That has happened to me several times, including on this film. I had a different name for the police detective who is now called Cope, which I will not mention. And it’s wrenching because you become attached to the name, and it starts to become part of the character, and suddenly, lawyers are telling you you can’t use it—and it’s strictly because of potential lawsuits, not because somebody has complained.
Because of “crimes of the future!”
It is a potential crime of the future, yes.
The reason I wanted to talk about this sort of pedantic thing is because naming is a theme in the movie, too—whether it has to do with bureaucratic names, or with tattooing organs, registering them.
And also the machines. I had to change something as critical as the names of the machines, because a couple of the names I chose existed already—obviously not for the same kind of machines, but they could make a case that they’d been demeaned, maybe just as a nuisance lawsuit to make some money. You never know.
So every time you think you’re a step ahead of the present, you’re not.
All your movies deal with the boundaries between the body and technology. In Crimes, you really emphasize how art mediates that boundary, which is maybe a false boundary. In your work, art often makes the things that feel transgressive or scary or unacceptable, acceptable. When you enter the space of art, you can do anything.
Yes. I think that is a legitimate observation on your part, but also on my part, in that art can normalize some things that would be criminal, let’s say, or socially unacceptable otherwise. When art is criticized and there is an attempt to repress art, that’s often the excuse. Maybe not filtered through a philosophical understanding but basically saying… for example, Ted Turner wanted to suppress Crash because he thought it would encourage teenagers to have sex in cars.
I know. I was saying, “I didn’t invent that.” [Laughs] I don’t even think he was worried about them crashing as much as having sex in cars, which I thought was odd, since teenagers have been having sex in cars since there were cars and teenagers. So that would have been the excuse: “giving permission.”
I sensed a grappling in Crimes of the Future with the function of art in the face of human and environmental destruction. Saul and Caprice are performance artists who turn bodily waste—Saul’s tumors—into art, something severed from function. Lang [the leader of an underground, pro-human-evolution movement, played by Scott Speedman] and his crew are more utilitarian, turning waste—plastic, in this case—into nourishment. I wonder what these two approaches represent to you. Are you grappling with these questions, too, about what it means to make art right now?
I’m not really grappling so much as just living it, you know [laughs]. It’s also showing that there’s this constant desire to live in hope. We must live in hope in the most dire of circumstances in order to keep surviving. And these people are doing exactly that in radically opposed ways. If you want to translate it into current events, it’s like saying: OK, look, it’s obvious we’re polluting the earth, and part of our destruction is plastic, so solution number one is we stop the production of plastic in every country in the world, we clean the entire ocean system of microplastics, we clean everybody on the earth of microplastics, which we’ve now found in the bodies of 80-90% of people. And you say, is that realistic? Can we really do all that? And the answer is, probably not. For two countries to agree on anything is unlikely, especially something that affects the economy.
Solution number two is we turn plastic into an advantage. We find a way to use it to live, as nourishment, as food, as protein. Biologists have found there are bacteria that can eat plastic, use it as a life force. If a single-celled animal can use it, then we, who are composed of single cells, should be able also to do the same thing. Maybe that’s an outrageous solution, but it’s more doable. Two solutions to the same problem, each of them sci-fi fantastic.
Do you see the artists in the movie as the techno-pessimistic or cynical figures because they seem to be focused on artistic sustenance, while Lang and his crew are focused on self-perpetuation?
No, I think Lang is the closest to being a prophet, because he’s saying this could be the solution for mankind. That’s more than just being self-absorbed and navel-gazing. With Saul and Caprice, they’re a little more, at first, involved with artistic expression as a way to understand what is happening in the world and a way of feeling that they have some control. That’s part of what we do with religions, with philosophy. It gives us a sense of control even if it’s delusional. So it’s two different approaches, but I don’t think either one is cynicism. The cynicism might be in me, but not in them. If they were cynical they wouldn’t have the energy to do what they do.
To find beauty.
Yes… Saul is offering up his body, and ultimately Caprice is, also. And I’m saying maybe that’s the analogue of what an artist is. An artist is in some way offering up their essential self, inside out, to the world for some kind of nourishment that is between themselves and their audience.
I was also fascinated by the film’s interest in bureaucracy—in procedures, in details, and also in how bureaucracy grapples with its own function, and with the function of art, in the face of collapse. Can you talk about that?
You can just put quotes around what you said [laughs]. That’s exactly it. First of all, bureaucracy is a fact of life. Secondly, if you’re an artist, you’re always running into bureaucratic obstruction and misunderstanding. Also, I’m creating a world in which I’m not really giving you much in terms of how it works: is there a president, is there a government, is there an army? So the only structural thing I’m dealing with directly is the bureaucracy. That’s what’s delivering to you an idea about what kind of universe we’re living in.
There’s a great line in the movie about how the tattooing of new organs—as required by the government—takes “the process of meaning for itself.” The way we talk about the body, or make art about it, often takes meaning away from it. How do you avoid that in your films? How do you let bodies speak for themselves, and say something ineffable?
Once again, it seems like a natural thing to me. Coming up with an interesting, comprehensible way of doing it narratively is of course a bit of a struggle at times. But “body is reality” is a mantra of the movie, and it’s a mantra for me as an artist as well. The subject of all movies, to me, is the human condition. And for me, the human condition means body. I’ve said this a million times: I’m an atheist, I’m an existentialist, I understand that our reality is modulated by our physiology. A spider would not have the same reality as we have. So for me it happens naturally.
Are there any rules you have for how you work with the bodies?
No, I have no rules at all. I just work from intuition. The page starts to speak for itself, and once you create characters, they start to argue with you. Because you want them to take on life, but as soon as they do, they start to go off in the wrong direction. You have to wrangle with them, negotiate with them.
The final shot of the movie has stayed in my mind since I watched it. You zoom into Viggo Mortensen’s face as he finally accepts the mutation of his body, and it’s this pure moment of ecstasy, of pleasure.
It was something we discovered in the editing room, not in shooting. When we first shot it, I was ending on the shot where the camera is behind Léa and looking at Viggo, but he’s still quite far in the background. And I had the feeling that we weren’t close enough to him, but I didn’t move the camera into him. Then I thought: [Léa’s character] is shooting him with this ring cam, and we’ve established that, but what the ring cam shows is grainy, almost black and white. It’s a very old-fashioned, degraded image. So I thought we could use another take Viggo did, where he had this perfect tear. I took that other take, I zoomed in on his face and allowed it to pixelate, and we drained it of color.
What a moment of grace that is.
Well, thank you. That’s what it’s supposed to do, and it’s great to hear that it did.