Monday, September 10, 2007

Cronenberg on Sex, Violence, and Cinema

In a perfect world, I wouldn't know very much about the movies I see before seeing them. So often, critics write about the importance of having as little exposure to a film as possible and seeing it with fresh eyes. Since I usually can't see them until well after their release, the reality is that I read quite a bit about movies long before finally watching them. Even in the case of movies I go to see on opening day, I find it utterly impossible not to read interviews and reviews, especially if it's something I'm really looking forward to. One such movie is David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises (2007), which is currently playing at the Toronto International Film Festival, where several critics have written rather enthusiastically about it already. In a recent post, I explain why it's not the worst thing in the world to read about a movie before you see it. But it's a fine line to walk, because it is a more pure experience when you know less.

When it comes to particularl filmmakers (e.g. Spielberg, Scorsese, Sofia Coppola, Guillermo Del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron, Woody Allen, etc.), once I know the littlest thing about their films I become intrigued enough to seek out more. Sometimes, it's almost uncontrollable and I have to consciously stop myself from reading too much; not so much for knowing too much about plot (as plot means very little to me) but instead about compositions, themes, ideas, etc. It's always a struggle, one that the everyday cinephile has to deal with, especially this time of year. And with Eastern Promises coming out this week, I'm on overload with enthusiasm. This morning, I came across this outstanding interview (via GreenCine Daily), in which Michael Guillen talks with Cronenberg and actor Viggo Mortensen about the film. Here is an excerpt from Cronenberg's comments that particularly struck me:

"The nudity in the scene is really about vulnerability; it's not sex. Most nudity in movies has a sexual aspect. Not that this doesn't maybe have some of that as well; but, it's much more sublimated. I've only recently been talking about it - because it just occurred to me - that it's like the shower scene in Psycho. You're naked, you're wet and there's some people with knives who don't like you. This is a very vulnerable kind of thing that people can relate to. Of course, it's all set up properly because of the tattoos that you meet there, so people can see the tattoos and see that it's all legitimate, and then it goes quite wrong.

I said to the stunt coordinator and the camera man, 'This is not Bourne-like impressionistic cutting away, where you don't see anything. Violence is physical. It's all about bodies. It's about the destruction of bodies. And I insist on that as the reality of this. And I want to see it all. This fight scene has to make physiological sense. It has to make mechanical sense. It has to make body sense.'

If an audience is seeing a movie to live another life - which I think is one of the attractions of seeing movies; you get to be out of your own life and live some other life that maybe you [wouldn't] ever really want to live but you're curious about - so, I'm saying, if you're a Nikolai in the movie, then you're going to experience this; I'm not going to throw it away, do it off camera, and do it frivolously. All the hard work and the difficulty of killing someone, if that's what this character has to do, I want you to feel it and see it."

Cronenberg can articulate sex, violence, and images like no other. And yet, despite his reflecting on the film's themes, he's somehow very ambiguous about it all, still inviting the reader/viewer to see the images for her/himself. The mere suggestion that Eastern Promises explores similar notions as A History of Violence (2005) is enough to send me through the roof. Although some yearn for the Cronenberg of old, i.e., the sci-fi Cronenberg, or the horror-Cronenberg, right now may be the most intriguing point in his career. I say this because he is now entering into a realm of reflexivity about narrative, sexuality, violence, memory, identity, and the body, further cementing my belief that he is our foremost scholar on the interconnectedness of these subjects.

Videodrome, 1983


Austintation said...

Despite vastly preferring 80s Cronenberg, I think I'll still give this one a shot.

Btw, great analysis:

Ted Pigeon said...

Thanks for the link, Jeremy. What an excellent analysis; so good, I was envious. I was hoping to write something on A History of Violence at some point, and I still might. But I want to examine these themes in an exhasutive analysis of the film. I know the film has been written about before, but I'm thinking of submitting to a online journal or something. It's been two years since I first saw A History of Violence, and I remain convinced that it may very well be the best movie of the 21st century. It's layered beyond layered, yet can be watched and enjoyed on a very simple level too. That's the beauty of it. Thematically, stylistically, structurally, the movie is an out-and-out miracle.

Austintation said...

I still have some doubts about its proliferating greatness; I've always felt that it's the product of being well-aligned within an appropriate oeuvre than an actual "great film". Then again, all I'm working on, like you, is one viewing two years, maybe I'll give it another shot. Then again, I can't fathom any film within the last 7 years being "better" than Cuaron, Lynch's, or S. Coppola's recent masterpieces ;)

Ted Pigeon said...

Well, I have seen A History of Violence several times. What I didn't make clear in my last comment is that I only marginally liked it the first time I saw it. In fact, now that I look at that comment, it really seems like I knew it was great on first viewing, which is quite the opposite. But two years with the film has only increased my love of it.

Austintation said...

Sounds exactly like my experience with Videodrome to me.

Ted Pigeon said...

That tends to be my experience with many Cronenberg films. I am at first seduced by them, then repulsed by them, then the critical-logic takes over and I'm convinced it was "a good movie, but not great". Then it lingers in my mind. Then I see it again and love every moment. Not all of his movies have followed that process, but it's a fairly common one.

Austintation said...

Videodrome was all about nailing the subtext, personally. Its layering is deceitful because it presents Woods' 'feminization' in such an obvious and quickly attributed manner -- but not so. I think Scanners (which is extremely underrated) was like that, too.

PIPER said...

I, like austination, long for the old Cronenberg. I may be the only person who did not care of History Of Violence one bit and thought it to be laughably bad in a lot of parts. But I would be lying if I said that I'm not slightly intrigued by this new path. The plots may be changing dramatically, but he is still the Cronenberg of old. He is still fascinated by the body, by the flesh and sex is still a major part of almost every film he shoots. He is just not as overt as he once was with it.