Watch: A Video Homage to David Cronenberg’s Unsettling and Rich Body of Work

Watch: A Video Homage to David Cronenberg’s Unsettling and Rich Body of Work

David Cronenberg’s work is analytical, eccentric, violent, and humane, all at once. It also has the power, when encountered at the right time, to make the viewer feel changed, transported, taken from one "place" in the mind to the other. Many years ago, I reviewed Naked Lunch and Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka back-to-back; I was startled to find, when I got home, a large cockroach in my bathtub. Had the film continued? Had I passed out? This piece by the prolific "Hello Wizard" flips us through 45-plus years of Cronenberg’s work at a fast clip. Throughout, you can feel the mixture of tones here, the blend of empathy, and horror, and panic, and mystification, and euphoria. When we see Jeff Goldblum late in his transformation stage into a fly, sure, we’re terrified–but we’re also sad. When a man’s face begins to rupture in Scanners, it’s difficult not to think of the special effects involved–but it’s also difficult not to think about what the face once looked like, and to try to read the emotions in the victim’s tortured features. Even in as sleek a film as Cosmopolis, the seeming coldness of the actors, their stylized slowness and blankness, read as mini-critiques, implied complaints, ultimately reminders of the humanity that could lie elsewhere. Cronenberg is a director to whom it is always exciting to return; he continues turning ideas over and over, always finding some new facet through which to view them.

OUR SCARY SUMMER: David Cronenberg’s THE BROOD and the Weirding of the American Family

OUR SCARY SUMMER: David Cronenberg’s THE BROOD and the Weirding of the American Family

nullI’d never thought of my family as hip, but for a brief time,
in 1979, it seemed as if we were on the cusp of a rising trend.  We were in family therapy, proudly airing our
co-dependencies and dysfunctions, along with so many other American families
caught up in the family therapy movement, reflected in the era’s
pop culture.  The prime-time soap Knots Landing debuted in 1979, setting a
new trend for dramas that favored pseudo-domestic realism and familial
dysfunction.  Oscar-winning films like Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and Ordinary People (1980) seemed to
underscore an increasing fascination with sifting through the American family’s
dirty emotional laundry.  The narrative
structures of these dramas mirrored that of therapy itself, as dysfunctional
behavior leads to crisis, followed by reflection and self-examination, and
finally healing and self-actualization. 
Seeing these films was like undergoing vicarious family therapy,
creating the illusion that we were facing, and then working through, our
collective neuroses.

Thankfully, the horror films of those years provided an
antidote to the kinds of facile, feel-good narratives that abounded in popular
realist dramas.   While we were being encouraged to work through
our problems, to process and move towards acceptance, a different kind of
advice was offered in the tag-line to the summer of 79’s big horror hit The Amityville Horror: “For God’s sake,
get out!”  While the Lutz family gets
away at the end, the conflicts and tensions that emerge through their harrowing
residence in a haunted house are never really solved.  The resentments and fears linger rather than
being “worked through.”  Growing up in
what I was soon to learn was a classically dysfunctional family, horror films
provided another mode of storytelling that served as an antidote to the vapid,
feel-good narratives of popular dramas and family counseling. 

Few films expose the limitations of therapy narratives more
ruthlessly than David Cronenberg’s The
.  After having explored the psychosexual
demons haunting the individual human psyche in Shivers and Rabid, the
Canadian director anatomized the late-seventies zeitgeist by turning his
peculiar attention to the monsters lurking within the fractured family.  The
reads like the rotting underbelly of Kramer vs. Kramer, a divorce/child custody drama in which monsters
proliferate rather than being put to rest. 
After a long and tear-jerking custody battle the Kramers resolve their conflicts
amicably, setting free what they love, while The Brood suggests that there is no such thing as emotional

Like Meryl Streep’s dissatisfied housewife, Joanna Kramer,
Nola Harveth (Samantha Eggers) is hoping to find herself.  Rather than fulfillment in a career, Nola seeks
self-actualization at the ominously named Somafree Institute, an experimental
therapy center headed by the bearish psycho-patriarch Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed).  Nola’s husband Frank is disturbed to discover
that their five-year-old daughter Candice has a number of bruises on her body
after having recently visited her mother at Somafree.  As he confronts Dr. Raglan, he is told that
Nola is undergoing a critical stage in her therapy, and can’t be disturbed by
accusations of physical abuse. 

We only see Nola in the context of the Somafree Institute, a
narrative choice that frames her identity exclusively in terms of the
therapeutic setting.  The architecture
and interior design resemble a modern-rustic 1970s spa or
ski resort, mingling recreational coziness with institutional chill.  This emotional ambivalence permeates Dr.
Raglan’s therapy sessions, which exhibit a disturbing combination of empathy
and disdain.  Large, A-frame windows
reveal the bleak, late-winter weather, reducing the outside world to an
emotional void, and reinforcing a need for shelter that the Institute only
partly fulfills. 

Dr. Raglan practices a peculiar method of therapy branded as
“Psychoplasmics,” in which the patient re-enacts traumatic emotional events in
order to externalize or actualize them physically as well as psychically. It is a process of self-transformation that
becomes grotesquely real, as patients manifest their mental anguish through
bizarre physical transformations. Psychoplasmics
is an apt word to describe the kinds of special effects Cronenberg would become
notorious for in future films such as Videodrome
and Scanners, which mingle the
organic and the synthetic in the director’s disturbing re-imagining of the
physical body. Cronenberg has become
known as a purveyor of “body horror,” in which the monstrous arises from within
rather than without. The Brood cunningly turns this motif
into a metaphor for psychotherapy itself, which seeks to dredge up and cast out
the monsters haunting the unconscious.  But in The Brood these
monsters don’t simply go away: they seek out our loved ones and prey upon them.

In this respect, the mind’s monsters resemble the practice of
psychotherapy itself, which in Cronenberg’s film seems to foster a parasitic relationship between therapist and subject in which one gains
strength from the other. Oliver Reed perfectly
captures the smugly knowing, seemingly empathetic but oppressively overbearing
quality of the seventies therapist guru. Chest hair spilling from his open shirt, asserting his masculinity while
implicitly inviting his patients to “let it all hang out,” Raglan leads his subjects
through emotionally-fraught role playing games in which the roles seem to
shift, but he is always the one in control. 

Drawn to the film for its sensationalistic elements, I was
disturbed to find in Oliver Reed’s character a dead ringer for William Braun,
the director of family therapy at the Minneapolis Family Center, or MFC, where
my family was undergoing ten weeks of intensive therapy.  My sister and I had renamed it KFC for what
we recognized even then as an artificial, pre-packaged brand of therapy, but
for my mother these ten weeks were going to save our family.  My father was an alcoholic, but we’d learned
that his problem was our problem, in a self-perpetuating cycle of co-dependence
that only MFC could break.  We would all
have to search ourselves and dredge up our psychic demons in order to create a
healthy family environment.

In the mornings we’d all be split up into separate group sessions
organized by age level and mode of substance abuse, which came in two brands,
dependent and co-dependent.  There’s
nothing like putting a bunch of thirteen-year-olds together in a room, overseen
by an adult mental health professional, for getting the kids to open up and
share their most intimate thoughts and feelings.  These sessions dragged on interminably, as
would the various group activities and role-playing games that would fill the
middle part of the day.  Most disturbing,
however, were the group family sessions, in which three or four families were
gathered together, each to address their issues under the shared guidance of a
professional therapist. 

My mother was ecstatic to discover that our group’s
therapist was none other than the actual director of the Center, William Braun,
who was reputed to have done great work for families of alcoholics.  While it took awhile for the parents to warm
up to the uncomfortably public nature of these sessions, after a few weeks some
of them really started to get a taste for it, and were soon vying for the burly
therapist’s attentions, especially the mothers. 
The teens in the room studiously avoided eye contact, as their parents
laid their emotions bare in sessions that routinely included crying jags,
shouting matches and tearful reconciliations. 
One session that I will never forget culminated in an impromptu exercise
in primal scream therapy, in which Braun and an emotionally distraught Mrs.
Knutson kneeled together on a large throw pillow, as he squeezed cries of
mingled anguish and ecstasy from the depths of her body.  I’m not sure what Mrs. Knutson got out of it,
but I had to sleep with the light on for several days afterward. 

Though I would go on to seek therapy in subsequent years, occasionally
with some benefit, I can’t imagine what treatment could have been more
effective at the time than seeing The
, which allowed me watch the same kinds of bizarre rituals I saw
enacted in family therapy, but performed in a way that acknowledged their disturbing
strangeness.  Though my motives in seeing
films like Cronenberg’s might not have been so different from those of other
filmgoers working through their issues vicariously, horror films, at least for
me, have always offered a more honest, less processed form of narrative than
realist family dramas, or, for that matter, institutions like KFC.

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

Beyond the Veil of the Flesh: David Cronenberg’s THE FLY (1986)

Beyond the Veil of the Flesh: David Cronenberg’s THE FLY (1986) on Blu-ray


I’m glad I re-watched David Cronenberg’s 1986 version of The Fly on Blu-ray. I haven't watched it in decent resolution since I saw it in a theater on first release. It's still brilliant and perfect, and profoundly moving—maybe Cronenberg's greatest and most perfect film; a horror tragedy that doesn't cop out, ever. Deftly combining aspects of romantic comedy, science fiction, gross-out midnight movie, and parable of the consequences of hubris, The Fly also works as a metaphor for what happens to couples and individuals when the body breaks down, decays, or merely ages. (When the hero’s “disease” starts to snowball, he totters into the lab on two canes like an old man; something about the makeup reminded me of the “old” Joseph Cotten in Citizen Kane.)

Charles Edward Pogue's original script was heavily rewritten by Cronenberg, who fleshed out the main characters and the central love triangle and infused the whole story with his distinctive brand of pulp poetry, which is fundamentally rational yet prone to flights of romantic obsession and grandiose theatrical monologues. Since the film's original release, Pogue has been very open about Cronenberg’s contributions, and why wouldn't he be? They give the film much of its flavor. The Fly is filled with quotable lines and phrases, including "the poetry of steak" and "insect politics" and "Not to wax, uh, messianic" and "Drink deep, or taste not, the plasma spring! Y'see what I'm saying? And I'm not just talking about sex and penetration. I'm talking about penetration beyond the veil of the flesh! A deep penetrating dive into the plasma pool!"

nullIt's also a genuinely sexy film, at least at the start, before the body parts start falling off. (That closeup of the "Brundlefly Museum" of "redundant" body parts in the hero's fridge still makes me gasp; his cock is in there!) Jeff Goldblum’s Seth Brundle and Geena Davis’s Veronica “Ronnie” Quaife are one of the most real-seeming screen couples of the ‘80s. You can tell the actors were lovers during this period: they know each other's bodies as well as they know each other's senses of humor. They even share physical and vocal tics, as couples who've been together a while always do. Neither has ever looked more beautiful, but they’re attractive in a real way, not an airbrushed Hollywood way. Cronenberg treats them as real people whose wit and intelligence are as attractive as their bodies. The way Veronica plucks that bit of circuit board from Seth’s back post-coitus, and helps him clip those “weird hairs” as he's eating ice cream from a carton later; all the scenes of them eating in restaurants and walking through city marketplaces, doting on each other, exchanging the sorts of glances that only real lovers trade: these details and others make it feel as though we are observing a relationship, not a screenwriter's construct. Ditto the wonderful little character-building touches, as when Seth, who suffers from motion sickness, gets out of a taxi before it has even come to a full stop, and Ronnie gripes about a substandard cheeseburger, then eats one of the pickles first before biting into the sandwich.

When Goldblum sheds his geeky facade and embraces what he thinks is his Super Fly destiny, he becomes even more attractive because he's so dangerously confident; he walks with a swagger, tossing his long hair like a Persian prince in a fairy tale. (This film is my favorite take on Frankenstein ever, because the hero is both Dr. Frankenstein and the Creature—it's one-stop shopping!) Seth and Ronnie seem perfect for each other, which of course makes the ensuing tragedy so much harder to take. The third point in the triangle – Ronnie’s ex-lover and boss, John Getz's Stathis Borin, at first seems a caricature of an 80s Yuppie swine, but he deepens as the film goes along; we see that he's still hopelessly in love with his ex-girlfriend and wants to protect her, and we get that his more asshole-ish remarks are the product of self-loathing, a way of trying to distance her from him, perhaps for what he believes is her own good. (Weird that the character's name has the same first letters as the hero's. Surely it was intentional, but it’s one of the few touches Cronenberg doesn’t elaborate on.)

nullRonnie goes from cynical opportunism to deep and true love, but without ever losing her rationality. She looks out for herself, and not once does she seriously consider giving into Seth's, um, messianic waxing. But she never stops loving Seth. In the film’s final third, she’s wracked with guilt over finding her dream man suddenly repulsive and sad. The script is wise about how people in relationships keep feeling love and lust even when one or both are changing. When Ronnie realizes she’s pregnant with Seth’s probably-mutant baby, she decides to abort it, and it’s the correct decision; and yet when Seth crashes through the glass-bricked window of the hospital operating room to “rescue” her and their unborn larvae, she lets herself be swept into his arms anyway. It’s as if she’s in thrall to vestigial, or perhaps primordial, feminine desires to be protected and to bear a lover’s offspring. Her relapse into love is extinguished by horror once she returns to the lab and realizes what Seth has in store for her: a genetic sifting operation designed to minimize the physical presence of Brundlefly by merging him, Ronnie and the “baby.” But there’s never a sense that The Fly is copping out by trying to have things both ways—that it can’t make up its mind what it thinks of the situation. It’s fiercely true to life even though its physiological details are fiendishly unreal. Every stage of Ronnie’s emotional journey rings true. Extricating yourself from a failing relationship while pregnant is a predicament that countless women have experienced; ditto the pain of being in love with a man who’s dying and/or losing his mind, and becoming ever more frightening and repulsive, instilling his survivor with feelings of guilt and shame that she’ll never shake, only learn to manage. Mainstream movies rarely dare to depict such fraught situations in all their messy realness. The Fly does so in a science-fiction setting, with telepods and freaky prostheses and an operatic Howard Shore score that could be the music Franz Waxman heard in his head as he lay dying. It’s all quite astonishing.

Cronenberg is one of the most sophisticated chroniclers of romance in modern cinema, and I’m surprised critics haven’t made more of this over the decades. Why? Perhaps it’s because Cronenberg deals in symbols and metaphors as well as witty dialogue and plausible behavior. It can be hard to sense the human heart beating beneath the blood and goo that engulf some of his finest adult dramas. The Fly is a rare horror film—and a rare big-budget Hollywood movie, period—that is adult in all the ways that count. I would never show it to a child, or even a young adult, not because of the sex and gore, but because they would have no way of processing the feelings it evokes. You have to have lived a bit to truly appreciate this movie, and it only becomes more powerful as you grow older.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the co-founder of Press Play.

In David Cronenberg’s COSMOPOLIS, the language can’t keep up.

COSMOPOLIS: A Masterwork of Compression


David Cronenberg’s movie version of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, a black comedy about a financier whose life is falling apart, is a snapshot of Western civilization in existential panic. It’s the early 21st century. Labels and categories are blurring or dissolving. Economies and governments are disintegrating too, melting like Cronenbergian flesh. We humans don’t know who we are anymore as individuals, as a nation, as a race, as a species. Everything—philosophy, politics, religion, economics—has become data. So it's no wonder DeLillo’s characters compulsively narrate their lives, stating, in hilariously hyper-specific words, what they think, feel, and believe, defining and re-defining themselves as they speak: “What happens to all these stretch limos that prowl the throbbing city all day long?” “One learns about the countries where war is occurring by riding the taxis here.” “You have your mother’s breasts.” “Talent is more erotic when it’s wasted.”  “A person rises on a word and falls on a syllable.” The words sound desperate even when delivered in a DeLillo/Cronenberg fervent/mesmerized monotone. “This is good,” says one member of a conversation. “We sound like people talk. This is how they talk.” But language is not enough. “Life is evolving so fast,” a character muses, “that language can’t keep up.”

Rob Pattinson stars as Eric Packer, the aforementioned billionaire—a 28-year asset manager inching through Manhattan in his stretch limo, headed for a haircut appointment. When the story begins, he’s cool and collected, if a bit frayed around the edges. He thinks he’s insulated from harm by his wealth, his tank-like limousine, his deadpan driver (Abdul Ayoola), and his unflappable chief of security (Kevin Durand). But he doesn’t control anything. His limo can’t get anywhere because a presidential visit and a beloved rapper’s public funeral have gridlocked the city. Eric’s brittle young wife Elise Schifrin (Sarah Gadon) won’t have sex with him because, she says, she wants to conserve her energy for her career; she’s also hip to his alpha-male infidelities, and she keeps insisting he smells sex on him. (“It’s hunger you smell,” he says, lamely.) He can’t really control his fortune, either. He thinks he’s made smart investments, but soon enough his net worth trends downward.

All these frustrations and misfortunes feel less like moralistic punishment than something more chillingly mysterious: a disaster/miracle creeping over everything, like the Airborne Toxic Event in DeLillo’s 1986 novel White Noise.  “I think you acquire information and turn it into something awful,” Elise tells him at one point, unwittingly describing what society itself has been doing for decades. As Arthur Jensen bellowed in Network, “There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immense, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars.” Or to quote Johnny in Mike Leigh’s Naked, “Well, basically, there was this little dot, right? And the dot went bang and the bang expanded. Energy formed into matter, matter cooled, matter lived, the amoeba to fish, to fish to fowl, to fowl to frog, to frog to mammal, the mammal to monkey, to monkey to man, amo amas amat, quid pro quo, memento mori, ad infinitum, sprinkle on a little bit of grated cheese and leave under the grill till Doomsday.”

This is the smallest movie Cronenberg has directed in a long time, and yet its containment seems more like a proof of his ability than a constraint. Even though Cronenberg wrote the script for the screen, I will always think of Cosmopolis as a filmed play, one of the best I’ve seen. It compresses DeLillo’s novel (which itself feels play-like in spots) without trying to “open it out,” as hack movie producers are always begging playwrights to do.  Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, James Foley’s Glengarry Glen Ross, Tom Noonan’s What Happened Was…, and Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street and My Dinner With Andre pursued a strategy similar to Cronenberg's. Roughly 60% of the movie occurs inside Eric’s limo, its ribbed dark interior evoking the telepod in Cronenberg’s The Fly; the other 40% takes place on streets and sidewalks and in garages and claustrophobic nightclubs packed with writhing bodies. Its climax is a ten-minute conversation between Eric and a shadowy tormentor (Paul Giamatti) in a depopulated, run-down warehouse. By that point, we’re so starved for open air that its narrow hallways and cluttered offices feel as big as palace throne rooms.

Even though its tone is resigned and mordantly funny and its pace is slow, Cosmopolis is a thrillingly spare, controlled work. But you have to be willing to adapt to its sleepwalking mood and to its performances, which occur within such a narrow emotional bandwidth that at one point I pictured an orchestra conductor handing a violinist a Stradivarius with one string and saying, “You can make beautiful music with this, trust me.” Every actor rises to the challenge. The movie features one bizarre knockout supporting turn after another: Juliette Binoche as a lover who interrogates Eric after fucking him; Gadon’s Elise, whose beyond-her-years cynicism is a bulwark against emotional collapse; Durand’s security guy Torval, who’s got more didja-know tidbits than Johnny the Shoeshine Guy on Police Squad! but ultimately comes to seem like just another lost soul blustering through chaos. Giamatti’s all-out anguish in the finale almost steals the picture from Pattinson.

But the star never loses his grip. I never would have guessed from the Twilight movies that he was capable of a performance this intelligent, despairing, and honest; at his best he reminded me of James Spader’s character in sex, lies and videotape, a smug bastard who intellectualizes his selfishness into faux-philosophy. If Pattinson gets nominated for awards for Cosmopolis, the clip should be the scene where Eric carries on a high-flown conversation while enduring the longest prostate exam in history, an invasion of an asshole’s asshole. But there’s a real person beneath Eric’s shellacked surface, and when it finally cracks—in a surprisingly tender exchange with a rapper (Gouchy Boy) grieving for his dead hero and his own mortality—the character’s pain feels real, and true.

Cronenberg doesn’t just ask his actors to be ascetics. He keeps the camera far back whenever possible, cuts to closeups as punctuation, and sometimes lets amazingly intense moments run from one angle for a minute or longer, the better to allow us to scrutinize speakers and listeners. This stripped-down approach makes Cosmopolis feel a bit like live TV drama from the ‘50s, devoted mainly to performance and dialogue but constantly thinking in pictures. An opening scene featuring Love Boat-level rear-screen projection would sink lesser films, but here it seems to fit because the action is (for all its perversity, violence and sudden bursts of emotion) more figurative than literal.

More so than any other Cronenberg film—including the manifesto-like Play of Ideas eXistenZ—this one feels like a summing up of everything he’s been telling and showing us since the 1970s. Flesh, identity, consciousness are all prone to disintegrate or morph. By adapting a book by DeLillo, a fellow chronicler of slow-motion apocalypse, the filmmaker expands his vision to encompass a species grappling with cataclysmic change.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the co-founder of Press Play.

CANNES 2012: David Cronenberg’s COSMOPOLIS

CANNES 2012: David Cronenberg’s COSMOPOLIS


Billionaire business mogul Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) treats his body like a temple, receiving a health assessment from a physician every day like clockwork. One such appraisal takes place midway through Cosmopolis, David Cronenberg’s talky and occasionally scathing post-modern nightmare about the downfall of capitalism in the modern age. This gnarly doctor’s visit includes a brutally frank rectal exam that becomes highly erotic for both Eric and a female colleague standing inches away.

The physical body and all its beautiful horrors have long been essential to Cronenberg, but in Cosmopolis they become a way station for penetrating absurdities and diseased ideas. Lengthy dialogue-driven sequences, most taking place between Eric and various lovers, employees, and business advisors inside his brilliantly white high-tech stretch limousine, explore the way we construct fantasy and gather data to justify our hollowed-out existences. If Eric’s descent into the heart of darkness is any indication, we’ve failed.

Adapted from Don DeLillo’s famous novel, Cosmopolis faithfully follows Eric on a long and slow jaunt across Manhattan to get a haircut. Multiple complications threaten to compromise his trip, including a visit from the U.S. President and the funeral for a famous rap star. During his Ulysses-like journey, Eric’s professional and physical worlds quickly collapse, revealing the ideological rot and deformation of his soul that has been repressed underneath a mountain of wealth. Constantly questioning and forever yearning, Eric is the ultimate empty vessel trying to reclaim something, anything in the way of an identity.

But it’s not just Eric’s existence that seems on the verge of self-immolation: the entire city is tipping into the void. Angry protesters spray-paint Eric’s limo during a heated battled with riot police, screaming “A specter is haunting” while flinging dead rats in every direction. Burning bodies litter the sidewalks, protesters who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of anarchy. Eric displays a shocking indifference to it all, more concerned with discussing his own self-involved questions about the minutiae of societal contradictions.

If “time is a corporate asset,” as Eric’s advisor Vija Kinsky (Samantha Morton) suggests, then Cosmopolis strips away the 24/7 urgency of capitalist intent and allows one of its titans to ponder the possibilities of his own failure. The entire film is measured in detailed prose and combustible mise-en-scene. In one of the few times Eric leaves the safe haven of his limo, he watches a pick-up basketball game from afar, asking his bodyguard Torval (Kevin Durand) if he likes to play the sport. The sudden consequences of this conversation send Cosmopolis even deeper into a psychological abyss, one in which Eric embraces his own disintegrating persona, seemingly leaving the regular world (if there ever was one) behind.

For a Cronenberg film, Cosmopolis is light on violence and body horror, but the director’s obsession with evolving ideas and tainted perspectives remains on full display. Pattinson brings a ghostly intensity to the demanding role (Eric is in every scene), a trait that becomes even more dynamic in the film’s great final sequence. But does it all add up to something more than a series of striking vignettes about the downfall of personal will? Even if Cosmopolis feels stunted by its limitations of setting and movement, it manages to make small urban spaces feel combustible, ready to explode on a moment’s notice. For that, this is quite the dangerous method.

Glenn Heath Jr. is a film critic for Slant Magazine, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, The L Magazine,andThe House Next Door. Glenn is also a full-time Lecturer of Film Studies at Platt College and National University in San Diego, CA.

CANNES 2012: Brandon Cronenberg’s ANTIVIRAL

CANNES 2012: Brandon Cronenberg’s ANTIVIRAL


Antiviral, Brandon Cronenberg’s directorial debut, proves the apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree. Like his father David Cronenberg’s early features, Antiviral is more of a collection of inspired, perverse ideas than a cogent piece de provocation. To be fair, Antiviral’s vision of the soon-to-be corrupt future is derivative, which would be a moot point if it didn’t evoke David Cronenberg films like Crash and Videodrome. But at the same time, Antiviral is more than sufficiently novel to be entertaining, even if Brandon Cronenberg’s script and direction are not as sufficiently assured.

Brandon Cronenberg imagines a world where people’s celebumania has mutated into an obsession with contracting famous people’s exotic diseases, which will literally consume their flesh. His debut has promise, though it lacks the conviction that we’ve come to associate with his father’s movies, over time.

Syd (Caleb Landry Jones) is a salesman at a clinic dedicated to infecting plebs who want to contract various diseases, including herpes, from their favorite celebrities. Syd is also a viral mule, inoculating himself and smuggling bugs out of the clinic to sell on the black market. Unfortunately for Syd, the latest bug he’s contracted, this time directly from “perfect” celeb Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), is of unknown origin and probably lethal.

While Syd looks for a cure, both for himself and for Hannah, he navigates between two predictably similar different worlds. The clean world of radical new cosmetic technology and antiseptic clinics is necessarily similar to the black market world of stem cell muscle steaks grown from human tissue samples. The representatives of both sides are equally morally bankrupt and practically cutthroat, from Arvid (Joe Pingue), the butcher who buys viruses and sells human meat, to Syd’s boss, Edward Porris (Douglas Smith), the CEO who publicly denies the ethical dubiousness of his practice to a reporter. 

Syd’s character arc is thus defined by his struggle to neither identify with nor distance himself from either side. The result of this class-based tug-of-war is not hard to guess. (Spoilers ahead, though not really!) Since he’s caught between two stations and has an unidentified sickness gnawing at his guts, Syd inevitably grows to accept that he wants to buy what Arvid and Edward are both selling. In one scene, Syd looks on with awe at an interactive TV console in a seedy club that allows customers to dominate a helpless celebrity, virtually. After the celebrity mewls and begs him, still an anonymous, un-committed voyeur, to tell her how she should hurt herself, Syd starts to become convinced.

In the end, Syd doesn’t wind up anywhere unexpected. He’s not a obsessed cipher like Videodrome’s Max Renn, or a free-wheeling pervert like Crash’s James Ballard, but rather an embroiled collaborator. His fate is too neat to be really transgressive, an effect which is, ironically enough, one of the most salient ways Brandon Cronenberg’s first work differs from most of his father’s work. On some level, David always knew how to push buttons, even if he did get better at it as he went along. Brandon’s a better scenarist and idea man than he is as a button-pusher though. One can only hope his follow-up is a little more distinct, or, barring that, a lot more confident.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

VIDEO: PHYSICAL INSTINCTS Traces Phantom Limbs Inside David Cronenberg

VIDEO: PHYSICAL INSTINCTS Traces Phantom Limbs Inside David Cronenberg

This mesmerising video by filmmaker Gina Telaroli takes David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers as a cinematic slab upon which she splays a corpus oozing with audiovisual reference points. In the video's accompanying essay Telaroli's explains, "Genre could be a body transplant of sorts, a series of reconstructed appendages to approximate an ultimate, mass-manufactured body, story, romance." With appearances by Hitchcock, Caligari, Caravaggio, and dozens other sources for you to tease out. Originally published at the Moving Image Source.

VIDEO ESSAY: Outstanding Collaborative Performance: The Fly (1986)

VIDEO ESSAY: Outstanding Collaborative Performance: The Fly (1986)

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one of four video essays arguing for the creation of a new Academy Awards category Outstanding Collaborative Performance. This category would honor teams of artists who create a vivid and memorable movie character whose existence is built upon performance but heavily assisted by CGI, immersive makeup, puppetry or other behind-the-scenes filmmaking craft. To read Matt Zoller Seitz's piece explaining why the film industry needs this category, and to view a video essay about the career of motion capture performance wizard Andy Serkis, click here. We make a case for Jeff Goldblum's The Fly here. A case can also be made for Yoda and E.T. Important notice: Press Play is aware that our videos can not be played on Apple mobile devices. We are, therefore, making this and every video in this series available on Vimeo for these Press Play readers. If you own an Apple mobile device, click here.]


nullDavid Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly would have been a shoo-in for a theoretical best collaborative performance Oscar. What makes it truly special is its empathy for its arrogant scientist hero, Seth Brundle, who tests his revolutionary new matter transporter on himself and becomes genetically fused with a fly that was not supposed to be in the telepod with him. Jeff Goldblum’s performance as Seth Brundle is a nexus point for all the film’s creative elements: direction, writing, acting, makeup, optical effects, miniatures and puppetry. Goldblum’s work here brings everything together. It’s kind of a thespian telepod.

The original The Fly is a triumph of visual effects and special makeup. But these aspects of filmmaking are, for the most part, separate from the acting.  
This is the other one.

Where the subtext of the original was deformity, the remake is about mortality and decay. It’s a tragic love story about the fragility of flesh. And that requires a more ambitious, and subtler, merger of special effects, makeup and acting.

Seth Brundle impulsively enters his invention, the telepod, because he’s despondent over a misunderstanding. He mistakenly believes that his lover, reporter Veronica Quaife, played by Geena Davis, is still in love her previous boyfriend. For a while after, Seth thinks he’s superhuman — an outwardly normal-looking person with extraordinary physical powers, which the movie sells through old-school filmmaking tricks. These include a gymnastic stunt double … and a rotating set.
Unfortunately for Seth, the merger of human DNA and fly DNA isn’t quite done yet. With each passing hour, Seth becomes less of a man and more of an insect. And Jeff Goldblum’s performance becomes incrementally submerged beneath ever-more-unsettling layers of gruesome makeup.

nullThe effects are layered on incrementally, scene by scene, and they are showcased almost entirely through a single character, Seth Brundle, and a single performance, Jeff Goldblum’s.  

But it’s the very last scene in the film that makes The Fly qualify, beyond any doubt, for our theoretical best collaborative performance Oscar. When Seth tries to disentangle his DNA from the fly’s by bringing a third teleporter into the mix, Goldblum is nowhere to be seen, and the resulting, even more repulsive creature is played by a puppet. This is one of the saddest endings in all of horror, and it’s not just because of the writing, the direction, Howard Shore’s music, or that magnificent puppet. It’s because when we look at this pitiful creature, we’re remembering Seth as played by Jeff Goldblum.  

Makeup masters Chris Walas and Stephen Doo Pwah deservedly won an academy award for their makeup effects on The Fly, and they graciously remembered to thank the film’s star.

But that moment also underlined a persistent problem in genre films that showcase nonhuman, or partly-human, characters. Whether it’s the acting, the makeup, the sets or the special visual effects that are being honored, the acclaim always has an implied asterisk next to it.  Would the makeup and visual effects in The Fly have been as effective without Goldblum’s brilliant performance? No. And would Goldblum have been as magnificent and terrifying without the effects and makeup? Of course not. This was a collective effort that resulted in a singular achievement.

A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for New York Magazine and the founder of Press Play. Steven Santos is a freelance TV editor/filmmaker based in New York. His work can be found at He writes about films at his blog The Fine Cut. You can also follow him on Twitter.