Few filmmakers in commercial cinema have been able to maintain a path as singular, eccentric and even off-putting (to some) as David Cronenberg — let alone with such prolific long-term success. What’s more, he’s done so without ever abandoning his native Canada for Hollywood. (It’s probably helped, of course, that in recent decades many US-financed features are shot in Canada anyway, because it’s cheaper.) He started out making disreputable low-budget horror movies and now makes movies that star Oscar winners, can be adapted from lofty literary sources, and sometimes compete at Cannes—yet with few exceptions, his underlying themes have remained remarkably consistent. He’s treated with due respect these days, yet awards bodies remain skittish, no doubt because there’s inevitably still something a little edgy and extreme about his best work.
Those factors will be plentifully on display at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts as it hosts the two-month series Hardcore Cronenberg, which spans from the director’s first theatrical feature (1975’s Shivers) to his most recent (last year’s Map to the Stars). The name is apt, as these are the films that most pushed particularly Cronenbergian buttons, with the few more mainstream-y titles weeded out. The latter are, in any case, usually among his weaker efforts: Certainly the Broadway-derived M. Butterfly (1993) and costume drama A Dangerous Method (2011) could have been directed by someone else, and don’t seem to fully engage a director typically drawn toward more visceral material.
It was the viscera that first made Cronenberg notorious. After two short experimental features made at the University of Toronto (1969’s Stereo and the following year’s Crimes of the Future) in which his obsessive themes were already fully present if more abstractly presented than later on, he got to make a first commercial project. Shivers (released in the US as They Came From Within ) was shot in fifteen days, and is one of the great genre films of its era. The era itself is particularly important, because Cronenberg’s screenplay amplifies the sexual/sci-fi/conspiracy elements of his student films into a uniquely horror-slanted commentary on “swinging” 1970s hedonism at the peak surge of the Sexual Revolution.
Here, denizens of an ultra-modern apartment complex on an island just outside Montreal find themselves subject to a plague—a resident scientist’s experiment gone awry has rendered them prey to a parasite that, once infected, drives them to infect others via compulsive sexual contact. As the entire complex becomes a rape-y orgiastic nightmare, this metaphor for venereal disease gets queasier and and queasier. Yet Shivers has a characteristically cool, ambivalent tenor that elevates it from the standard, reactionary horror morality in which people (especially women) who enjoy sexual pleasure merit bloody retribution.
This break from moralistic norm, combined with conceptual originality, struck some as appalling. While a great commercial success, Shivers was actually debated in Parliament as a shameful reflection on Canada itself, and damned for its partial funding by a taxpayer-supported film fund. Cronenberg was kicked out of his Toronto apartment complex on a “morality clause” once the scandal broke. Yet now he was bankable—and 1977’s Rabid (not in the YBCA series) was an even bigger international hit, with Behind the Green Door porn star Marilyn Chambers in her only major “straight” role as a woman who unwittingly becomes carrier for another infectious, even more violently spread disease.
After a non-horror, car-chase anomaly (Fast Company ), Cronenberg graduated to a whole new of ick with 1979’s The Brood , which is practically indescribable. Celebrated English actors Oliver Reed and Samantha Eggar play two sides of a very sick triangle in which custody of a five-year-old girl is contested between an experimental psychotherapist, a concerned father, and the unbalanced ex-wife who is birthing murderous mutant children at an alarming rate to settle her irrational grudges. (Cronenberg has admitted the film was a cathartic expression of the fallout from his own turbulent first marriage.) As twisted as they come, the film induced repulsed responses from such prominent critics as Leonard Maltin and Roger Ebert (who called it “disgusting in ways that are not entertaining”). But it’s actually a striking, unforgettable psychodrama that, alongside Shivers , highlights Cronenberg’s first decade.
At that point, despite the dissent of prudes, he was the most popular Canadian director (perhaps briefly rivaled by Bob Clark), climbing up the commercial ladder. Bursting across screens in 1981, the telekinesis thriller Scanners was a smash that spawned numerous sequels; 1983’s The Dead Zone is one of the better Stephen King adaptations.
Between them, Cronenberg made the singular Videodrome , in which his obsession with the body as mutating pawn of reckless technology reached new surrealist heights—or depths, depending on your view. In it, James Woods is the driven president of a sleazy cable TV network that has eked out a pandering niche programming little but “softcore sex and hardcore violence.” When he (and Blondie’s Debbie Harry as a radio advice columnist) discovers foreign transmissions of presumably staged torture/snuff tableaux, he decides they’re “what’s next” for his envelope-pushing channel. What he doesn’t realize is that he’s stumbled onto (or been lured into) a conspiratorial quasi-religion promoting a “New Flesh” in which hallucination, assassination and mutation are no longer distinguishable.
Next came The Fly (1986), a graphically gross remake of the quaint 1958 Vincent Price vehicle about an accidental cross-species experiment, with Jeff Goldblum grotesquely mutating into an insectivorous form. Equal-parts disgusting and touching, it was hard to ignore. Even more so: Dead Ringers (1988), a riveting psychodrama with Jeremy Irons in one (well, two) of his greatest roles as identical twin gynecologists who unravel over their unauthorized experiments and the love of a not-so-good woman (Genevieve Bujold). Few denied the movie was riveting, but once again, discomfort limited the degree of acclaim.
Several mid-period Cronenberg cult favorites that seemed sketchy at the time, more shock value than anything else, now look more impressive. Among them are 1996’s Crash, a brash translation of an “untranslatable” novel by J.G. Ballard involving people obsessed with achieving sexual thrills via deliberate car accidents; and eXistenZ (1999), a prescient near-future imaginating in which the devisor of a virtual-reality game (Jennifer Jason Leigh) beguiles a newbie (Jude Law) into “playing” the game with higher stakes than he can imagine. (Missing from YBCA’s schedule, presumably for logistical reasons, is the striking, loose 1991 version of another “unfilmable” novel, William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.)
There is probably no Cronenberg movie more melancholically tender than the unappreciated Spider (2002). A drastically altered yet essentially faithful translation of the novel by “unreliable narrator” specialist Patrick McGrath, it successfully shifts his protagonist’s verbose interior monologue into an almost entirely visual perspective: Here, the protagonist (Ralph Fiennes, perhaps never better) is a severely withdrawn mental patient who can barely communicate beyond an incoherent mutter. Transferred after decades from a rural institution to a “transitional” urban one, he finds revisiting London locations familiar from his childhood reawaken memories of what set him on this path in the first place. “Spider” (his youthful nickname) spirals back to a youth in which one traumatic incident startled his already-fragile psyche into a disintegrating perception of reality that reaped disastrous consequences for his hapless parents (Gabriel Byrne and Miranda Richardson).
Spider’s delusions gradually become our own, overriding logic until suddenly—devastatingly—the veil is peeled back, revealing the full catastrophe that a diseased psychology has wrought. Poorly distributed despite some festival and other acclaim (Richardson was particularly noted for her portrayal of what is eventually several different changeling roles), Spider was simply too depressing for some, but it’s a masterpiece of empathy and subtle narrative intrigue.
After that, Cronenberg made two vivid crime melodramas with his superbly able new acting muse, Viggo Mortensen. The graphic novel-drawn A History of Violence (2005) was a startling if unsubtle story of a seemingly ordinary family man forced to face his highly transgressive background. Equally successful commercially and even better artistically (though not included in the YBCA series), 2007’s Eastern Promises had Mortensen as a Russian mafia enforcer whose professional amorality is tested by challenges, not least the humanitarianism of London medico (Naomi Watts) whose path he crosses.
Since then, he’s misstepped (the prestigious stage-derived Freud vs. Jung standoff A Dangerous Method , which provided little beyond a chance for Keira Knightley to exercise “hysteria” acting chops); won cautious respect for a very limited, literary project (adapting Don DeLillo’s novella Cosmopolis , which at least paid off in newfound respect for post-Twilight Robert Pattinson), and gotten perhaps as close to a mainstream Hollywood film as he ever has with last year’s Map to the Stars. The latter is a monster movie of sorts, except the ghouls are all “Beautiful People”: Such classic Tinsel Town gorgons as the titanically insecure, grasping movie star (Julianne Moore) aged past her career prime; a horrifically bratty child star (Evan Bird) who’s already done rehab at age 13; a motivational/New Age guru (John Cusack) of the type wealthy neurotics attract; and the mysterious, seemingly guileless young woman (Mia Wasikowska) who gets off a bus from Florida to swiftly, fatally immerse herself in all their “glamorous” but hapless lives. The over-the-top last reel is a full-on Beverly Hills Gotterdammerung.
Cronenberg’s customary cool distance undercuts the more crude biliousness and lurid twists in the script by Bruce Wagner—a writer whose books and films betray a contempt for Hollywood life that isn’t as clever as it thinks, and can feel like sour grapes. Nonetheless, Map to the Stars was a major flop that grossed about less than one thirtieth of its $15 million budget in the US, despite considerable praise for the performers (especially Moore’s alarmingly unsympathetic turn). While not among his best works, it offered a certain reassurance in confirming that Cronenberg remains too bitter a pill for many to swallow. And we love him that way.
Thursdays and Sundays, July 9-September 6, 2015.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission St, SF. (415) 978-2787.
Dennis Harvey has been publishing film reviews since the era of the typewriter. He’s a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and currently writes for Variety and Fandor’s Keyframe.