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The body in the body of work

Ben Convey on David Cronenberg's defiance of genre

Ben Convey is an undergraduate in Media and Communications at Swinburne University of Technology.

Lisa Pieroni, curator of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image’s Focus on David Cronenberg retrospective, describes the Canadian director’s films as “a very cohesive body of work.” Despite the reflex to describe simply any filmmaker or artist’s work in such terms, the body metaphor is more appropriate than usual when discussing Cronenberg.
Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) & Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), Scanners Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) & Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), Scanners
‘Body horror’ is a popular, generic label for Cronenberg’s films, suggesting they are comfortably situated within the conventions of the horror genre. The ACMI retrospective traversed Cronenberg’s works from early avant-garde shorts such as Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970), to his latest, A History of Violence (2005). Such a broad coverage ultimately confirmed that generic labels are, as always, oversimplifications.

While Cronenberg’s films are strikingly preoccupied with the body, particularly processes of abjection (even his forgotten B-racing film, Fast Company [1979] finds its narrative denouement in death by inferno), the idiosyncratic narrative tendencies and mise en scène defy generic classification. Videodrome (1983) was initially marketed as a horror film. Rather than for terror or manipulative suspense, the film is memorable for hallucinatory plot machinations, surreal set pieces and tantalising (though somewhat under-realised) proclamations of a ‘new flesh’ emerging in our media saturated world.

When researching the program, Pieroni learned that the majority of Cronenberg’s films are largely unavailable on DVD. She commented, “I think that says something about the position of his work, I think quite often people don’t know where to put it.” The Cronenberg opus confirms the truism that the question of genre reveals more about the need for distributors to find audiences rather than anything in the films themselves. Even ACMI struggles to overcome this. Their promotional brochure described Crimes of the Future as a thriller and the inaugurator of the body horror fascination. Yet it resists reductionist labels with its alien aesthetic. The Cronenberg lens (he was cinematographer on his early shorts) fixates on abstract architectural framing. The central premise of the film, concerning a future where men become the locus of all gender possibilities after most women die of a bizarre disease, is explored through a non-narrative, under-the-microscope approach.

The early low-budget films, Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979), Scanners (1981) and even Cronenberg’s first 2 ‘mainstream’ films The Dead Zone (1983) and The Fly (1986), all variously contain the stuff of horror (gore, violence, the overthrow of normal social order). Yet Cronenberg’s claim in early interviews, that he was doing something different from contemporaries like John Carpenter, Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper is (without generalising Carpenter et al) hard to disagree with.

In Shivers, artificial parasites infest a sterile apartment complex rendering the inhabitants sexual zombies. An orgy of sexual intercourse replaces a lacking social intercourse. The film’s conclusion of sexed-up apartment dwellers emanating from the underground car park (a visual metaphor for ejaculation) to spread the sexual epidemic across Montreal, provokes debate as to whether disgust or joy is appropriate.

Pieroni “shrieked with laughter” watching Samantha Eggar’s hyper-manic performance in The Brood, and wonders whether a woman whose rage manifests in murderous, deformed clones of her daughter could come from anywhere but the mind of a man. The scatological climax, revealing a womb external to her body, certainly armours critics who label Cronenberg misogynist, especially since he admitted the film stemmed from his frustration with the divorce from his first wife. Yet, as Pieroni suggests, “You’re in a judgement vacuum when you’re watching his films.” The film’s striking image of Eggar licking a newborn seems not misogynist, but rather a visceral confrontation of the humanist assertion that we are not animals.

A public forum complemented the film program, with Age critic Philipa Hawker and artists Philip Brophy and Ian Haig. Discussion centred on Cronenberg’s obsessional challenges to culturally constructed dualities, from the Cartesian body/mind split to gender binaries, and discourses of high and low culture. This seems to run through all Cronenberg films, from the sexualisation of technology in Crash (1996), the metafictional fusion of his own artistic sensibility with William Burroughs’ in Naked Lunch (1991), and the paradoxes of embodied identity in the exceptional Dead Ringers (1988).

According to Pieroni the Cronenberg program was a success, with “consistent audiences across all of his films.” Presumably this was a relief after the difficulty of locating prints thanks to the not uncommon tendency of distributors to thoughtlessly trash them. Such a reality tempers the myth of a networked society of instantaneously obtainable information and demonstrates the continuing relevance and importance of retrospectives. The exposure to David Cronenberg’s oeuvre certainly enhances our appreciation of A History of Violence, prompting a more lyrical understanding of its exploration of darkness within the American family. Like the bodies we all inhabit, hopefully Cronenberg’s body of work will continue to mutate and evolve over time.

Focus on David Cronenberg, curator Lisa Pieroni, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, April 13 - 23

Ben Convey is an undergraduate in Media and Communications at Swinburne University of Technology.

RealTime issue #73 June-July 2006 pg. 22

© Ben Convey; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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