On David Cronenberg: A Conversation

dead ringers

No filmmaker balances the visceral and the cerebral quite like David Cronenberg, the director of modern horror classics like The Brood, Videodrome, and The Fly, as well as acclaimed dramas like A History of Violence and A Dangerous Method. Cronenberg is best known as the maestro of gross-out body horror, but his films are driven by their ideas as much as their icky, goopy imagery. In the following conversation, Travis Kyker and Timothy Lawrence examine his body of work.

KYKER: As I expect we’ll discuss, there’s a good deal more to the films of David Cronenberg than their oft-represented stereotyping as “body horror” — a specific subgenre of horror focused on the human body and our seemingly innate repulsion toward seeing it mutilated, deconstructed, or harmed in any way. However, even if this description isn’t definitive of his work entire, it’s certainly applicable to many of his films, and an appropriate gateway through which to begin a discussion of his main ideas and concerns. What do you find significant about Cronenberg’s fascination with the human body and the various ways it can fail or fall apart, especially in his earlier films such as The Brood, Videodrome, and The Fly? Do you see this approach to the genre as distinct in any way from its contemporaries in horror? If so, what kinds of things do you see it offering or thinking about that make it unique?

LAWRENCE: Body horror has been around, in one form or another, for a while; think of the catalogs of grotesques in Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Dante’s Inferno. These were myths, poetry, but the genre got a new lease on life in the modern era with Frankenstein and the advent of the mad scientist. For the mad scientist, the body is – like all matter – something to be studied, dissected, manipulated. Body horror used to be something the gods did to us; now it is something we do to ourselves.

Mad scientists crop up in plenty of horror films, but what sets Cronenberg apart is that his films adopt the perspective of the mad scientist. His characters are his test subjects and his camera observes them with clinical dispassion. At the same time, Cronenberg is a tragedian in the classical mode. He knows we moderns have unprecedented power over our bodies, but he also knows better than to think this can possibly end well for us. His films begin from an objective standpoint, but gradually close the gap between observer and subject to arrive at some form of catharsis. Somehow, by the end, we find ourselves identifying with these people even as we watch them lose their humanity.

All this to say, I think Cronenberg presents a uniquely insightful (and awful) picture of modern man. Sophocles conceived of man as the god-beast, forever torn between his rational and animal natures, but modernity has only widened that fissure: man is both more godlike and more beastly than ever before. What vision of human nature do you see expressed in Cronenberg’s films? He seems to have a deep-seated sense of how horrific it would be if we were solely material beings, but at the same time, you’re not going to get much in the way of transcendent, immaterial realities from him, are you?

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KYKER: These are some great insights, and I think a lot of what you say here really gets to the heart of what makes Cronenberg so effective as a storyteller. Of the various thematic strains that his films fall into, I have to imagine that his “mad scientist” ventures are among his most cynical and, frankly, his most horrifying. The most obvious example of these is of course The Fly, which quite bluntly literalizes the Sophoclean idea you mentioned of the god-beast fusion at humanity’s core. The film moves and feels (and ends) like a Greek tragedy, in no small part because of this aura of fate and impending tragedy which looms over the whole thing, but it would be quite wrong to chalk the whole thing up to unavoidable destiny. Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Brundle isn’t let off the hook as a mere victim of fate but given clear agency in his own destruction, rushing to prove his unfinished, unsafe creation in a fit of jealous anger. The film ends up becoming a condemnation of man’s hubris through the lens of scientific advancement; Cronenberg seems to suggest that even if the forces we’re dealing with have morphed into a power out of our hands, it’s only because we’ve built them up to that point ourselves. As you said – “Body horror used to be something the gods did to us; now it is something we do to ourselves.” In The Fly, the overarching vision of human nature is irredeemably tragic: having created his own divinity, man finds the whole thing a cruel trick, and suddenly the best possible scenario is death. One thinks of Prometheus’ gift of fire and subsequent punishment; the only difference is that, in the absence of any true god-figures who can inflict Brundle’s punishment, he is left to create and exact it himself.

So no, transcendence is not to be expected for many Cronenberg protagonists – or if it is, it’s decidedly in the form of curse as opposed to blessing. One potential exception, though, could leave room for some kind of counterargument. I’m quite fond of The Dead Zone (I might consider it Cronenberg’s most underrated) and while it’s not explicit, I do wonder whether it forms a kind of intentional mirror to The Fly in terms of narrative and theme. While we’re on the subject of his earlier films, what’s your take on The Dead Zone? Is its thematic conclusion any more cathartic or less cynical than The Fly? Most importantly, has there ever been a line reading better than Christopher Walken’s “The ICE… is gonna BREAK!”?

LAWRENCE: That’s a great call on The Fly as Greek tragedy. I don’t think I had appreciated just how literally Sophoclean it is: man’s attempts to ascend to godhood are precisely what bring him down to the level of the beasts. The more I think about it, the more this strikes me as a central arc in several of Cronenberg’s films. In particular, I’m reminded of the Mantle twins in Dead Ringers and the Weiss siblings in Maps to the Stars. Cronenberg’s protagonists often think they are striving toward some kind of transcendence, but any apotheosis they achieve is indistinguishable from simple oblivion.

I love that you brought up The Dead Zone in connection with The Fly, because I’m also inclined to view the two films as mirror images of one another. As you noted, in The Fly, the hero is not really the victim of fate but of his own hubris. The gods don’t destroy him; he destroys himself. In The Dead Zone, on the other hand, it really does seem like a caprice of fate that the hero is cursed to lose his humanity, and at the same time, this curse is something of a disguised blessing: it’s terrible, but salvific. Unlike Seth Brundle, Walken’s Johnny Smith doesn’t exactly become a monster; in fact, he’s virtually the only Cronenberg protagonist to become something like a hero. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that the metamorphosis in The Dead Zone is not physical but psychic. While Brundle is tragically overcome by the transformation of his flesh, Smith is redeemed from his flesh by the transformation (dare I say the renewal?) of his mind. The film’s Christian motifs aren’t very insistent, but they never turn darkly ironic, the way they do in Videodrome (a Pinocchio-in-reverse fable about a real boy turning into a puppet that still gives me the willies) or A History of Violence. Both The Dead Zone and The Fly end with nearly the same shot – the heroine weeping over the hero’s dead body – but the emotional contours of the scene could hardly be more different.

From L to R: "The Dead Zone" (1983), "The Fly" (1986) From L to R: “The Dead Zone” (1983), “The Fly” (1986)

Turning to A History of Violence – might the influence of Sophocles run even deeper in that film than in The Fly? Its story of an ostensibly happy family man inexorably pursued by past crimes strikes me as a gloss on Oedipus. (Half-blind Ed Harris is the giveaway.) It also strikes me as an answer to The Dead Zone, Cronenberg’s other foray into small town Americana. The Dead Zone ends with something like martyrdom, or at least its closest equivalent in Cronenberg’s cosmos, but A History of Violence ends with a failed baptism, a man’s futile attempt to wash away his own sins. Personally, I think it might be the single most staggeringly hopeless denouement in a career that is not exactly full of feel-good movies. Speaking of Cronenberg’s collaborations with Mortensen, though, what do you think of his Christmas movie, Eastern Promises? Is it another hopeful outlier in his filmography, like The Dead Zone, or something else?

a history of violence

KYKER: I don’t think A History of Violence is Cronenberg’s best film, but it might be my favorite. There’s hardly an off moment throughout the whole thing; those last couple minutes cement the theme so vividly that I’m still thinking about them, and Mortensen is as essential a component to that film as he is to Eastern Promises. As you mentioned, Promises is certainly a Christmas movie, and my favorite kind of Christmas movie at that: subtle enough that recognizing the Yuletide angle almost recontextualizes the film and what it’s about, but still intentional enough that the clues are undeniable once you spot them and crucial to understanding the crux of the story. The film is set in December; a young endangered mother gives birth to a baby; a cruel ruler seeks to kill her in order to protect his position; the very title has a kind of covenantal ring to it; and, of course, the baby is named Christine. Superficial details aside, however, Eastern Promises winds up being a really magnificent film, portraying a fundamentally wicked, perverse world and the few people who refuse to accept it as such. The former is nothing new for Cronenberg, but I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say the latter element makes the film a thematic outlier. Consider the redemption arcs of Nikolai and Anna, the main protagonists: Nikolai undergoes a legitimate transformation, moving from what Ephesians might call a “child of wrath” living out the “passions of the flesh” (always a Cronenberg specialty); and Anna hardly even needs one, her name recalling the prophetess in Luke who announces Christ’s arrival in the temple. On the other hand we have Semyon, the aged mafia boss and crime family patriarch, who acts as a firm figure of Herod, intent on concealing his past sins and preserving his kingdom by any means necessary (see: infanticide).

This positioning sets the stage for Cronenberg’s typical thematic impulses to shine, making it all the more surprising when he declines to stay predictable. I don’t deny that the version of Eastern Promises one might expect — one in which the world is too cruel to allow goodness to persevere, the wicked are lost, Herod’s reign forever untouched — would be compelling enough in its own right. But I’m very happy with the version we got, which does indeed present what may be Cronenberg’s most grace-filled portrait of God and man and the world, along with an ending as close to spiritual transcendence from the world as you’re likely to find. To be sure, his preoccupation with violence remains front and center (that horribly grisly bathhouse knife fight has become representative of this film in the same way the Langley heist epitomizes Mission: Impossible), but it’s even more mournful than usual. Cronenberg’s violence is always shocking but never glib, which is both a difficult and admirable tension to hold. In Eastern Promises, that line is balanced as well as ever, treated with the weight of Lenten grief amid an underlying Advent hope.

eastern promises

I like the ground we’ve covered so far, but I think we’d be remiss to neglect some mention of a film both of us hold in very high regard before wrapping things up. I’m not sure any of Cronenberg’s films are as consistently foreboding and mysterious as Dead Ringers (it vividly reminded us both of P. T. Anderson’s Phantom Thread, if I’m not mistaken), and that grim aura makes the experience of watching just as creepy as any of his outright horror features. It’s a tricky one, though, and I’m not sure I have the firmest grasp on everything it has to offer. Are there any reasons beyond the haunting tone and textured drama you find that film so interesting? Alternatively, in an effort to continue our pattern of pairing off his films, is there another Cronenberg title you think shares similar DNA? Finally, the most difficult question of all: who would win between two Jeremy Irons and one Daniel Day-Lewis?

LAWRENCE: Dead Ringers is my favorite Cronenberg film, just as A History of Violence is yours, but I don’t know that I’ll ever fully understand it. What strikes me about it is its mood: rarely have I seen a film so thick with ineffable, cosmic gloom.

Dead Ringers reminds me of Phantom Thread because it is about an uncannily symbiotic bond between two people, a relationship that blurs the boundaries of personhood in such a way as to dubiously suggest (but ultimately fall short of) the paradoxical Christian doctrine of the Trinity: wholly distinct, yet wholly one. As we’ve noted, Cronenberg films often come in pairs, and I’d say that Dead Ringers is a mirror image of A Dangerous Method in much the same way that Phantom Thread is a mirror image of The Master. Both Dead Ringers and Phantom Thread are pictures of symbiosis, of union; they center on people who are bound together so tightly not even death can separate them. On the other hand, both A Dangerous Method and The Master are about fragmentation, separation; they concern people who long to connect with each other, but cannot.

dead ringers - a dangerous method From L to R: “Dead Ringers” (1988), “A Dangerous Method” (2011)

Earlier, we talked about Cronenberg’s “mad scientist” movies, and although the horror is more internal than external, Dead Ringers and A Dangerous Method, no less than The Fly, are films about mad scientists. It is a bit of an oversimplification, but we could say that Cronenberg’s films begin with the physical and slide into the psychological – and we could also say that his career, taken as a whole, follows the same trajectory, from the visceral horror of The Brood and The Fly to the internalized, cerebral horror of Dead Ringers and A Dangerous Method. For Cronenberg, the mind and the body are always locked in a violent battle at worst and an uneasy stalemate at best, but he does not subscribe to the easy, popular, Enlightened Gnosticism that sees the body as a mere fleshy prison restricting the unbounded freedom of the mind. In fact, these later films attest that the mind can be an even worse prison than the body.

Dead Ringers’ Mantle twins and A Dangerous Method’s fictionalized versions of Freud and Jung are irreparably trapped in their own minds, which imbues both films with a desperate loneliness. This loneliness is without a final solution, for in Cronenberg’s cosmos, separation and unification are equally horrifying. On the one hand, there is the horror of being lost in one’s own solipsistic world; on the other, there is the horror of having that world penetrated and possibly destroyed by the uncontrollable subjectivity of another individual. Although he doesn’t seem, at a first glance, to be a filmmaker who is particularly interested in interpersonal relationships, doomed attempts at intimacy are actually Cronenberg’s forte. All of his best films are undergirded by this profound sadness.

Timothy Lawrence

A graduate of the Torrey Honors Institute at BIOLA University, Timothy Lawrence teaches great books through Emmaus Classical Academy in Southern California. He writes essays and fiction and counts the Coen Brothers and George Lucas among his personal heroes.

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