What’s Your Take on Cronenberg?
Fair warning: While this piece itself is safe for work, some of the links to film trailers definitely are not. You have been warned.
It’s been almost decades in the making amid a still flourishing career, but the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto has finally unleashed its large scale collaboration, exhibition, and retrospective with David Cronenberg. Starting around the time that he made Naked Lunch in 1991, Cronenberg began working extensively with the Toronto International Film Festival on preserving his legacy as a filmmaker, both in terms of the films themselves and the immense amount of work that has gone into making them.
A multi-platform, venue, and series experience, David Cronenberg: Evolution (running through January 19th) has several major components to it. The first and most obvious being a large scale exhibit in the Lightbox Gallery that chronicles the filmmaker’s work along a timeline from his earliest shorts through to his most recent work on Cosmopolis (as well as a place to view a brand new 10 minute short created by Cronenberg especially for the installation). It’s a wonderland of movie history, and we’ll have a gallery of photos from the exhibit later in the week.
Then there’s the actual retrospective of Cronenberg’s work, which kicked off last week with a screening of Dead Ringers attended by Cronenberg and star Jeremy Irons. From Within: The Films of David Cronenberg takes a competist look at the filmmaker, with all of his films and even his earliest works showing. Although a lot of the hoopla surrounding the event’s opening weekend has passed (along with it several key events and sadly the only chance to see Cronenberg’s odd-man-out racing movie Fast Company), there’s still plenty of special screenings and guests yet to come.
Production designer Carol Spier will introduce a screening of eXistenZ on November 16th. Film scholar Christine Ramsay will discuss Dead Ringers on November 17th. TIFF Director and CEO Piers Handling will discuss and showcase a brand new restoration of Videodrome on November 24th. Co-curator of The Cronenberg Project and TIFF Bell Lightbox artistic director Noah Cowan will talk about the controversial and sexually charged Crash on December 7th. Religious studies scholar Elijah Seigler will discuss The Brood alongside Cronenberg himself on December 1st. Cronenberg will return for a panel discussion alongside his wife and costume designer Denise, composer Howard Shore, and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky for a screening of A Dangerous Method on December 8th. Suschitzky will also be introducing a screening of A History of Violence on December 7th, while Shore will be on hand for a screening of Naked Lunch on December 8th. Even director Guillermo Del Toro will be returning with another of his well liked Master Classes, this time on Eastern Promises on November 21st, once again with Cronenberg in attendance.
But while there’s plenty going on with regard to Cronenberg himself, there’s also a sister series (curated by TIFF Midnight Madness programmer Colin Geddes), Psychoplasmic Panic! Cronenberg and the Rise of Body Horror, devoted to the films that have been either inspired by Cronenberg or act as kindred spirits to the filmmaker. From the goopy body horror joys of Tetsuo: The Iron Man, James Gunn’s Slither, Brian Yuzna’s little seen, but still awesome Society, and the insane Aussie import Body Melt to the more artful horrors of Brian De Palma’s Sisters, Panos Cosmatos’ Beyond the Black Rainbow, and Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession, the parallels and similarities to Cronenberg’s works are brought into sharper focus. It also includes a screening of John Carpenter’s The Thing, which is just as excellent as anything Cronenberg has produced.
And in addition to all of the on-site goings on, there’s also another two off-site exhibits at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, running until December 29th. David Cronenberg: Transformation, curated by Cowan and MOCCA Artistic Director David Liss features commissions from artists inspired by Cronenberg’s world view. The flip side of that, David Cronenberg: Through the Eye, finds the filmmaker curating his own exhibit on what influences him.
And that’s not to mention the massive online component to the whole endeavour, including a virtual exhibit, and the CFC Media Lab created, Body/Mind/Change, an immersive experience that acts almost like Videodrome or eXistenZ made flesh (as one can see if they visit the separate installation on the 4th floor of the Lightbox).
It’s without question the most thorough undertaking the Lightbox has ever attempted and the most complete look at one of Canada’s most important filmmakers. With such a great degree of attention to detail, we here at Dork Shelf asked a few friends of ours to go just as big when talking about it. We asked some of our own writers, TIFF programmers, and best friends from other sites, podcasts, festivals, and TV stations to chime in on what David Cronenberg film they think is their favourite or they find the most interesting. While some films undoubtedly got more love than others thanks to their iconography, the DNA of the answers is always different, belying just how endlessly Cronenberg’s work lends itself to in-depth analysis.
Special thanks to our friends at the newly redesigned Movie Mezzanine for the immense amount of help they have provided in making this happen, and to their founder/Editor-in-Chief Sam Fragoso for bringing in some of the responses.
Keep checking this space throughout the week, as more responses will be added daily! Our coverage will be, as they say, evolving.
WHAT’S YOUR TAKE ON CRONENBERG?
Piers Handling, CEO and Director, TIFF (Co-curator The Cronenberg Project)
Cronenberg reaches a new level of control and maturity in this daring, unsettling and sexually audacious film which contains a deeply moving love story of a different kind.
Corey Atad (Dork Shelf, Movie Mezzanine)
Not the tour de force of something like The Fly, but The Brood‘s rough edges only add to its startling effect. Possibly problematic gender politics aside, the film’s cheap horror aesthetic builds toward an unnerving paranoia, culminating in images of body horror that as disturbing conceptually as they are visually.
Jason Gorber (Twitch, CTV, Moviefone)
There’s lots to love about Cronenberg’s foray into the Automotively erotic, but this take on J.G. Ballard’s “unfilmable” novel is full of the “daring and audacity” that the ’96 Cannes jury patted the work on its leather-clad ass for. It’s a story where sex is the thing, coitus being the core of character development, where the rest of the moments of dialogue are mere interstitials, as mundance and calculating as the fucking in most pornography.
Broken down, it’s maybe the most Cronenberg-y of his films – cold, yet humourous, equal parts insightful and banal. It’s part litmus test, part revelry into those themes of alienation and lust that characterize basically all of DC’s oeuvres.
The Fly may be the most accessible, Dead Ringers the most celebrated, and the Viggo films the most underappreciated (especially the fine Dangerous Method), but if there’s one film sure to split audiences in a way that only Cronenberg can, it’s likely to be Crash.
Noah Cowan, Artistic Director, TIFF Bell Lightbox (Co-curator The Cronenberg Project)
The ultimate expression of the individual seizing control over their own body and sexual identity.
Dave Voigt (Dork Shelf, Criticize This, t.o. night)
In the Cronenberg canon I ultimately always come back to Crash. A genuine formative moment for me at the ripe old of age of 19 when I first saw it. It was the first time that I had ever seen anyone walk out of a movie. It was such a foreign concept to me at the time, and it inspired me to study film and look at it as a way not only to entertain, but to challenge and provoke people.
Andrew Parker (Film and Performing Arts Editor, Dork Shelf)
Although Cronenberg often gets cited for taking a look at the dark side of human desires and psychology, he’s also at heart (I believe) a humanist. His love for his characters and the humanity behind them has never been more evident than in the positively heart wrenching Spider. Featuring some of Cronenberg’s tightest direction, his most emotionally complex narrative (based on Patrick McGrath’s novel), and a career best performance from Ralph Fiennes, it’s almost surprising this film isn’t talked about in the same breath as many of his more widely remembered efforts.
Matthew Price (Mamo)
My favourite. The blackness of tone, the way that this gets right at what makes The Beats such an important voice, the wit and intelligence of the screenplay, the distillation of so many of Cronenberg’s themes (body horror, loss of authenticity of the world around us, parallel narratives, sexual obsession/perversion). And oh god those typewriters.
Jesse Wente (Head of Film Programmes, TIFF Bell Lightbox)
Cronenberg’s body-horror masterpiece remains one of the most potent and influential horror movies of its time, which physical effects and make-up that have retained all of their gooey potency over the years. Also, one of the greatest tag lines in horror history – “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”
Tom Clift (Movie Mezzanine)
A romantic drama wrapped in a horrifying account of science gone wrong, The Fly sees Cronenberg utilize his love of all things visceral, slimy and grotesque in order to relate a profoundly human tragedy. Horror at its most heartrending and operatic, the film boasts career best efforts from leading man Jeff Goldblum and Cronenberg’s regular composer Howard Shore.
Kurt Halfyard (Row Three)
There is something undeniably tragic about Seth Brundle chronicling the complete disintegration of his body, with complete self-awareness, and not a little bit of regret. That The Fly is one of David Cronenberg’s most accessible films, yet sacrifices none of his fascination with the body and technology and consequences when the two are merged together. The film feels as if it was made free of the usual compromises made to kowtow to a mass market and thus is a perfect arthouse horror film as well. It is also a rare example (along with The Thing and The Invasion of the Body Snatchers) of horror ‘remake’ that manage to one up the original in vision and timeliness.
Matt Brown (Mamo, Twitch)
It has the strength of its position: it was the first Cronenberg I ever saw and remains, formally, my favourite of his scripts. To this day, it still unsettles me like no other movie – a profound, perverse, waking dread of the body going inescapably wrong, and all the things you can’t do to do anything about.
Richard Crouse (CTV, Metro, author of Raising Hell: Ken Russel and the Unmaking of The Devils)
I had only lived in Toronto for a few years when Videodrome was released in 1983. Compared to my tiny home town the city was a wonderland; wide open and full of possibilities. CITY-TV was the coolest station in the world, with Baby Blue movies on late at night, music videos in prime time and Mark Daly’s booming voice as the glue that held it all together. I wanted to work there, be part of the something new and different. Something that was steering Toronto the Good into uncharted waters. Then I saw David Cronenberg’s film and read about how it was VERY loosely based on CITY-TV head honcho Moses Znaimer. Somehow this bit of information enhanced the movie for me, as though every time I turned on the television I was engaging in an act of rebellion. For sure the Late Great movies were never going to feature a snuff film, and nor did I want them to, but as a pop culture sponge there was something intoxicating to me about the connection between what I was seeing on the big screen and its relationship, no matter how tenuous, to my real life. Videodrome spoke to me in a way that other films that more closely echoed my experience didn’t. Goin’ Down the Road should have appealed to my Maritime roots, but I didn’t come to Toronto looking for lawyerin’ and doctorin’ jobs, I came for adventure and to be adventourous and that was exactly what Videodrome provided for me.
Steve Gravestock, Associate Director of Canadian Programming, TIFF
Both because it’s a prescient look at technology and how we interact with and are controlled by it, told with amazing courage, and because it’s a great record of the intellectual and social environment in Toronto in the late 70s and early 80s. It almost makes me nostalgic for the period. The new DCP looks incredible too. That said, I also really love Crimes of the Future, Dead Ringers and Eastern Promises. At the retrospective, though, I would have to say I’m most looking forward to seeing Naked Lunch, mostly because I don’t think I gave it a fair shake when I first saw it. In the sidebar body horror programme, I also strongly recommend Sisters, one of De Palma’s most bizarre forays into horror. (You should preface or follow the viewing by reading Robin Wood’s exceptional piece on it.)
Adriana Floridia (Movie Mezzanine, Fresh From the Theatre)
David Cronenberg is a strange, visionary man, and his films reflect this to the utmost degree. As a fan of horror, I appreciate the way that Cronenberg infuses relevant issues and creates such polarizing, disturbing and topical films. He makes a commentary on our society and the disturbed human mind and body; and with each film his statement is powerful. My favourite film by David Cronenberg is Videodrome, as it captures the television business in such a dark light. It is shocking, yet still humorous and very aware of the world it recreates, using satire and strong imagery to entice the audience and leave an impact.
Justin McConnell (Director – Skull World, Programmer for Toronto After Dark Film Festival, Little Terrors)
This is the reason I get sexually aroused by VHS tapes and pain. Kidding! The truth is I first saw this one way too young, before I really understood it, and it’s become a staple watch. It’s one of those films that grows in meaning and importance as time goes on. There’s always something new to find in this twisted film that keeps on giving, and it solidified James Woods as one of my favourite actors from an early age. I come to expect it’s not the film that changes over time, but the viewer, and as I’ve grown up, so too has my respect for Cronenberg. I used to see him as a director of strange films unlike any other, but films that merely entertained in their oddness. I now see him as a calculated master, and Videodrome is one of his early attempts at a cinematic Masters Thesis. He’s had other great films since, and remains a favourite director, but for me, none have quite matched the visceral impact of this one.
Anne Brodie (Mrs. Robinson)
A Dangerous Method
A Dangerous Method is my favourite. Its audacious, beautifully made and contains not a single evil insect or gory wound being f***ed.
Phil Brown (Rue Morgue, Fangoria, Now Magazine, Dork Shelf, C&G Magazine)
I don’t necessarily consider Shivers to be the best David Cronenberg movie, but it is certainly my favorite. What I love about early Cronenberg movies is that they are essentially grindhouse trash by an intellectual. Shivers is as hilarious, disgusting, over the top, and cheesey as any slice of 70s horror trash, but barely concealed beneath the surface is a rather clever STD parable that hasn’t been exploited in the zombie genre before or since. It’s a hilarious and nasty little horror movie that holds up shockingly well and I kind of miss this side of Cronenberg now that he’s considered an artist and major filmmaker. There was a certain charm to seeing him smuggle his ambitions into drive-in fare that I sadly get the feeling he’ll never do again. That’s a real shame because no one has ever really stepped up to fill Cronenberg’s place as a smarty pants schlockmaster since he moved on and evolved with Dead Ringers.
Colin Biggs (Movie Mezzanine)
Few directors revel in all of the kink and body horror that Cronenberg does and even fewer out-do him in emotionally investing audiences in violent scenes. If you don’t believe me, check out the infamous bath house scene in Eastern Promises. Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) fights like a scared animal, tiring after evading each stab of the blade, but managing to succeed in killing both of his aggressors despite being in the most vulnerable state a man could be. I have never been invested so emotionally into a fight before Eastern Promises and I wonder if I ever will again.
Russell Hainline (Movie Mezzanine)
Imagine paint being splattered onto a canvas. Can the artist predict precisely what his piece will look like? He could control the movement of his arm, the position of the brush in his hand, the colors of paint he wields… but will he see every drop’s placement, every splatter’s shape and formation before it becomes reality? Perhaps he could devise a formula, but think of the variables: air movement, temperature, surface tension, the various speeds and angles of the arm, the brush handle, the hairs holding the paint, the paint as it separates from the brush, and the endless other variables one could imagine if you dove head first into it. Cosmopolis, appropriately, begins with opening credits laced with such Pollockesque splashes. It’s a film about the variables, our desire to control life with the perfection of a machine without losing the emotion and feeling of humanity. Such a desire is a lost cause. You can no better predict a human life or the economy of a major superpower than you can the patterns of paint hitting the canvas. Cronenberg’s icy and stylish approach compliments his adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel, and his ensemble of brilliant actors, led by Robert Pattinson in the role of a lifetime, expertly navigates the novelistic, philosophical dialogue without missing a beat. It’s tense, ambitious, and soulful. I hope Cronenberg, DeLillo, and Pattinson join forces again; in Cosmopolis, every splash of paint, every moment, a mini-masterpiece.
Adam Nayman (Cinema Scope, The Globe and Mail)
The Fly/A History of Violence
With apologies to VIDEODROME — which is Cronenberg’s most visionary movie but not his best — it’s a toss up between THE FLY and A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE. Two brilliantly acted thrillers, two movies about men submitting (reluctantly? gratefully?) to their insect impulses. Because The Fly is an old-fashioned monster movie, the catalyst for Seth’s horrible transformation is that old cinematic bugaboo of “scientific progress;” A History of Violence is a biological horror movie where the deformity is inborn, and invisible to the naked eye — Tom Stall looks exactly like Joey Cusack. The line that breaks Veronica’s heart in The Fly — Seth telling her “I’ll hurt you if you stay” — is also the unspoken subtext of A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE’s amazing final dinner-table scene; the punchline is that the rest of the Stall family has nowhere else to go.
Thom Ernst (Former host/producer of Saturday Night at the Movies, Reel Thom Ernst)
A History of Violence/Scanners
Too many film critics and not enough Cronenberg films, and so I put aside my affection for Scanners (which probably holds the record for having the most rewound scene in any video-cassette release when actor Louis del Grande’s head explodes) and join the ranks who list A History of Violence as their favourite Cronenberg. The opening motel sequence made unremarkable by the “another-day-another-dollar” routineness of the two men as they leave their crime scene says ’psychopath’ clearer then a box-set of Eli Roth Hostel films. And then there’s the irony of high-school reunion role-play sex-scene between Mortensen and Bello – are they engaging in a playful romp or can Bello only get-it on by bringing back memories of the man she thought she married? This is a movie balanced with significant subtleties as well as extremes. And it has some really satisfying fight scenes.
But then again – Scanners. Shot by (the then) Cronenberg regular cinematographer Mark Irwin is a masterpiece. Everyone was talking about Louis del Grande’s exploding head!
Okay – Scanners is my favourite.
Kelly Michael Stewart (Founder/Programmer, Blood in the Snow Canadian Film Festival)
Worth watching even just for the infamous head exploding sequence alone. David Cronenberg mixes his art house sensibilities with his trashy genre side, in this strange hybrid of science fiction, thriller and horror. The film is certainly flawed, (especially with its corny dialogue) but that also gives it its charm. Only second to The Fly in box office success for Cronenberg, Scanners proved that you could make a very profitable film Canadian film before anyone thought it was possible. There are certainly better Cronenberg films, but you won’t find one that is more fun.