David Cronenberg: Get Happy
David Cronenberg is one of those directors you either love or you don’t get at all. The Canadian filmmaker came up making low budget movies with an emphasis on body horror. In the eighties, he achieved a level of mainstream success with movies like The Dead Zone and a remake of The Fly. Although according to Cronenberg, he’s never been mainstream. He also insists that most of his movies, despite their sometimes disturbing imagery, have comedic elements. At the time of this interview from the January/February 1992 issue of Movieline magazine, Cronenberg was discussing his latest movie, an adaptation of the novel, Naked Lunch.
The first time I saw David Cronenberg was from the nose up, behind a surgical mask. Playing an obstetrician in his own smart remake of The Fly, he was assisting Geena Davis in the delivery room. His voice soothing and reassuring, he rooted her on, urging her to push. And then, with a mixture of professional pride and detachment, he displayed the newborn–a giant, squirming larva.
If the eyes are the windows to the soul, I am tempted, in the case of director David Cronenberg, to request frosted glass. Because here’s what I see: someone (not Sean Young) plunging an arm up to the elbow into James Woods’s chest in Videodrome, a head exploding like a detonated cantaloupe in Scanners, Genevieve Bujold biting through the tree-root-like flesh joining twins Jeremy Irons and Jeremy Irons at the stomach in Dead Ringers.
I have seen only Cronenberg’s eyes, the filmmaker as a bank robber, just a glimpse. Now I am visiting him in his hometown, where he has just finished his screen adaptation of William Burroughs’s brilliant, idiosyncratic 1959 novel Naked Lunch, wellspring of the late 20th century cyberpunk movement, a modern day odyssey of illusory freedom and dissipation.
Toronto is haunted by the murmur of derivative French and the scrawl of graffiti in the train yards. Hacks of Greek, Croatian and Bahamian descent slalom their cabs between the oily sparks of trolley cars that look like crimson beetles on NutraSlim. Providence, comptroller of life’s dosages, has mixed my medicines. I am alone in a city peopled by businessman, skateboarders, artists, hashish peddlers and the homeless man who writes “Like clockwork, she was always late” on the sidewalk in front of the train station. And for the first time in 11 years I am going to miss my wife’s birthday. True, somewhere in Toronto, David Cronenberg, master vendor of psychic infections, is waiting to show me the lower half of his face. But that is of no consequence to my wife, who was not amused by that delivery scene in The Fly. Perhaps there is some minor solace to be found here; I’ll ask Cronenberg to help me decide on a birthday present for her. Chances are she’ll end up with something she’s never gotten before.
Prudence Emery scolds me for climbing into her car, arguing that she could’ve been anyone–Toronto is filled with red Datsuns. Right away I see that this woman, unit publicist for Naked Lunch, is like bingo night at the skeptic’s lodge, with a bullshit detector like a radio telescope. The numerous little dents in her car, however, indicate benign recklessness. And when she talks about Cronenberg, I’m reminded of the way my sister’s eyes rolled into the back of her head when the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan. “David is a sweetheart. When you’re on the set of a Cronenberg film, it’s like a love-in. Nobody wants it to end.” Prudence, whose production notes for Naked Lunch run to novella-length at 60 pages, has the fever. Despite being a woman, she is an apostle of David Cronenberg.
The prototypical Cronenberg disciple (and there are many) marches to a different drum machine. He is a blend of extremes–synthetics and wool. He ranges from the car mechanic with a six-pack looking for a cul-de-sac to the dweeb with a stratospheric IQ. The hacker who fixes my crashed hard drive knows exactly who David Cronenberg is. The guy who comes around on Fridays to air-blow the leaves and flick slugs off the porch thinks Cronenberg is the name of a standup comic, but he damned well knows The Dead Zone and Scanners.
Prudence’s agenda has me spending my morning at a facility called Cinematheque, where she has arranged screenings of older Cronenberg films. Employee/Cronenberg disciple Michael Anderson, a mild-mannered human bookmobile in sagging black nylon socks, approves of my selections, especially Stereo. “You’ll like this one. But don’t be alarmed when you don’t hear any sound for the first 10 minutes.”
Stereo has the feel of a documentary in the way that our national anthem might be thought of as an opera aria. Institutionalized patients, later described as suffering from “telepathic dependency,” “an electro-chemical addiction,” wander about a postmodern stone building in Hamlet attire, with piercing expressions of profound mental disclosure. Halting narration is eventually provided by the saccharine voice of a clinician. In one scene, a topless woman makes passionate advances to a medical school mannequin, its chestplate removed to expose its inner organs. Another woman, fully clothed, “witnesses” the event with her eyes closed. I find more laughs in my viewing of Rabid, a hysterical indictment of cosmetic surgery set against a sunless Canadian winter (there’s no daylight savings time in a Cronenberg film–all afternoons are suicidally bleak and night comes on like liver cancer), starring seminal porn star Marilyn Chambers as the victim of third-degree burns from a motorcycle accident.
The couch in David Cronenberg’s office is too low, with a pitch that replicates an on-your-ass condition, as if the room were a bronco and I’ve been thrown. I have just apologized to the director for not being entirely familiar with his body of work and not being the kind of movie buff who knows all the dialogue to The Third Man. “That’s okay. That’s really the way I am, too,” he assures me. “You’ll never hear me say that movies are my life.”
The lower half of Cronenberg’s face fits the upper half just fine. The hollowness of overwork set in shades of purple around his eyes is offset by smooth skin and a jowl-free, Balkan jawline. He has the mannerisms of someone who’s spent his entire life wearing glasses. The look is spring practice and L.L. Bean, the flagship of his wardrobe being the knit shirt. “When you show Stereo to a sociologist or a psychologist,” he says, when I’ve told him what I thought of this short film, “they laugh all the way through, because the jargon is pretty accurate, pretty funny. And underneath, all of it means something. In a way, it’s like stereo. The whole film together takes an hour. But you should listen to the sound first, then start over and watch the picture. That way you get a two-hour movie.”
Cronenberg obviously does not go out of his way to take himself seriously. Oliver Stone plays a film school professor in The Doors, Cronenberg casts himself as a baby doctor who brings ghastly mutations into the world. Stone’s Bible is probably a dog-eared copy of the Pentagon Papers; Cronenberg’s is the latest issue of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. “Penis! Penis! Penis!” says a self-righteous Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July; “I sure as hell don’t want to become the Colonel Sanders of plastic surgery,” a specialist complains in Rabid.
“I think the only two movies I’ve done that didn’t have laughs in them were probably The Brood and maybe The Dead Zone. Otherwise, there are hefty comic elements in everything and to me that’s just part of the territory. But it’s not genre humor, or spoof stuff. Not that that’s not legitimate, but it’s not something that I want to do. My humor is more like what used to be called black humor.”
Not black. Black squared. Black as in a shade darker than a mourner’s armband. Your ear is falling off. You find yourself in a barn with a bovine addiction. You’re an ordinary person in the hell of your own prosaic habits. Procreation is generational horror. Love is deadly. Eating is impossible. “My approach to things,” says Cronenberg, “is, well, if this is what we’ve got here, if this is what we’ve got to work with, if this is what we are, then we’d better look at it and think about it and accept it. Jeff Goldblum in The Fly is not giving up. He’s saying, okay, if I’m transforming, I’m becoming something. Instead of thinking of myself as this healthy person who is now decaying and diseased, I’m going to think of myself as someone who’s undergoing a transformation and not prejudge it as something hideous and bad.”
The most a Cronenberg character can hope for is to get back to square one. With their personal and professional lives almost completely unraveled, the gynecologist-twins in Dead Ringers go on a weekend binge of pharmaceuticals. “On Monday,” Bev swears, “we go straight.”
“The Mantle twins were something, weren’t they?” marvels Cronenberg. “But you ask yourself, what’s the reality? Well, when you’re laughing, that’s the reality, and when you’re crying that’s the reality.”
Thank you, David.
Michael Jordan pushes Nikes and Gatorade; David Cronenberg could be a spokesperson for Bactine. And yet, the artist’s philosophy of metaphysical infection, of biological insurrection, is not easily traced to its roots. The man who has now joined me on the couch is not a hooded Quasimodo with Poe’s addictions or a stepchild’s nightmares. He wears sweatpants, has three children, and keeps back issues of Car and Driver on his desk. “I had a very lovely childhood,” David shrugs. “There’s no classic Freudian neurotic thing in my past. But the fact is that childhood’s over. Your parents die. Both my parents are dead. They were wonderful–I wish they were both alive. Generally, I’m optimistic. I like being alive.” To underline his point, Cronenberg quotes a line from Dead Ringers that wound up on the cutting room floor: “‘Happiness might very well be a glandular condition.’ So to worry about whether you can find happiness or not is irrelevant. If the glandular secretions are right, you’ll feel happy no matter what.”
Cronenberg’s idyllic upbringing notwithstanding, this is a man capable of blithely conjuring up a fly-man who kills his victims by throwing up on them. What is it that scares Cronenberg? “I’ll tell you what’s terrifying,” he offers. “It’s a terrifying thing when you’re writing and you’re staring at a blank page. And what is terrifying about that–is that everything is possible. Everything is possible.”
Conversation with David Cronenberg is like a tram ride at the speed of light through The World Book. One minute we’re talking about Porpoises, the next minute Circumcision, then Movie Magazines (“I read them and it makes me never want to make or see another picture again”), and after that, Guilt. “Well, I’m not good at guilt,” David confesses. “I believe that guilt is a neurotic, perverse thing, a cultural thing. It’s not a natural thing, like anger or happiness. It’s not really an emotion, it’s another level of something. I don’t think animals have guilt.” I insist that there’s gotta be at least one animal that experiences guilt. He considers that for a moment, then comes up with a Cronenberg creature, if any naturally occurring on the face of the earth could be considered as such: “A platypus. Platypuses have guilt.”
I’m still trying to figure out where David Cronenberg’s movies come from. Cronenberg smiles quietly at my suggestion that artists-especially artists who make movies about defective gynecological instruments-draw from a backlog of traumatic experiences. He tells the story of a friend who went to hear Isaac Bashevis Singer speak. This friend, concerned that, as an aspiring writer, he had not suffered enough in his life, asked Singer about it. “Singer says, in that very Yiddish accent, ‘It’s like when I go to my tailor and I say to him, I don’t want the pockets to be straight. I want them to be trendy, you know, I want them to be crooked. And the tailor says, don’t worry. The way I make pockets, they’re gonna be crooked.’ And he’s absolutely right. You’ll suffer enough. Just to be alive under the best circumstances, you will still suffer–you will still crash and burn.
“Maybe the reason I write the films I do is the balancing act that we all do. Whatever you are, you have to balance with whatever you’re not. Either by living with a person who’s the other thing, or, if you have an art that you do, you do it in your art. In my case, it’s almost like a spell that I do to keep it away from me. It’s like the Romans with their curses when someone marries–acknowledge the nasty other. If you don’t give the devil his due, then he’ll take it in spades. So you say, well, I’m gonna give the devil his due.”
And, if you’re going to give the devil his due, you don’t trifle with the cauldron of imagery in Naked Lunch, a hallucinatory pot that melts reality down like suet. “In terms of one’s life, I suppose the idea of hell is exhilarating,” says Cronenberg. “People are more interested in hell–it’s a better story–heaven is just too boring. Heaven and hell is not really a structure that I…” he trails off.
“What did your parents tell you about it?”
“My mother was quite anti-religious. My parents were totally cool about it. My Dad asked if I wanted to go to Jewish school–we were Latvian Jews. I said, you mean another school after this one is finished? He said, yeah. I said forget it. But hell has gotta be here. There’s no other place for it to be. What’s bad is the human condition, which is also what’s good. And that’s the conundrum, that’s the paradox, that’s where the anguish is, that it does make sense that we’re born, it makes sense that we die. But it also makes no sense. That we are born, and it really makes no sense that we die. I still have difficulty with this very basic fact.”