Aug 272007

This is my first post in english – hopefully there will be more in the future.

Whether we are talking about a telekinetic splatterfest in a shopping mall food court, a vagina-like slit opening up in your stomach and swallowing your gun and your video-tapes, or just a dose of some good old car crash-sex, Canadian director David Cronenberg is responsible for some of the most brain-bending moments in cinema. Many of his movies concentrate on a fear of bodily transformation and infection, and therefore it is reasonable to talk about him as a maker of Body Horror-movies.

The theme of graphic descriptions of diseases and mutations turning human beings inside out was established in Shivers from 1975. In the BBC-documentary David Cronenberg And The Cinema Of The Extreme the director tells us that he “wanted to have a kind of claustrophobic, trapped feel, and there was something about a high-rise apartment building in which little dramas were unfolding in each apartment. I wanted to suggest that the proliferation of this strange disease was on one strange level liberating, and that gives the film I think its very disconsertive feel.”

To this zombie-maestro George Romero adds in the same documentary that “it’s really part of the job of the genre to rattle your cage and to create an environment that is not the environment that you’re in, it’s not the world, it’s meant to shake that world up, particularly if you’re using it as some form of criticism of the ways things are. The big problem I’ve always had with normal horror is that things are restored to normality in the end, whereas the whole genre is meant to bring down reality or destroy it.”

Cronenberg went on to direct many conceptually interesting and culturally significant movies throughout the seventies, eighties and nineties. The gore-remake of the classic The Fly is for all its broken eighties logic and dated dialogue and special effects an enjoyable two hours of popcorn-magic. Who better to remake this fifties classic of extreme science and bodily mutations than Cronenberg? And who could have been more fitting for the adaption of William S. Burroughs underground classic Naked Lunch to the silver screen? Here it is perhaps better to talk about mutation rather than adaptation, since the idea of sticking to the story in the book is wisely thrown away. Such a treatment would after all – according to the director – “cost 500 million dollars and be banned in every country of the world”. Instead we get a movie where episodes from Burroughs personal life as a bug-exterminator in New York City and as an expatriate in the lawless, drug-filled Interzone in northern Africa are mixed with dusted segments of typewriters turning into giant, slimy cockroaches and sadistic female nazi-officers interrogating him about who knows what.

In eXistenZ the reality matrix is distorted when players enter a deadly Virtual Reality game, without an idea of when they get out, or if they even can. The bad acting and technical glitches of certain video games are here taken to a higher level, and it is all fun stuff and weird moments. Crash, based on a novel by J.G. Ballard, tells us about a group of people with one thing in common, they all get really turned on by car accidents. The hot date between man and machine is yet again explored from an unexpected angle.

In the end, these are all more interesting to talk and write about, than to actually watch. All are fine, enjoyable movies, but none of the mentioned have the attractive low budget-qualities and the perfect narrative synthesis between sex, gore and brain that we find in three movies from 1979, 1981 and 1983 – The Brood, Scanners and Videodrome.

The Brood details the unorthodox practices of a pychotherapist who encourages his patients to let their mental problems run amok on their bodies. A man who is verbally abused by his father develops welts on his body as a manifestation of his pain, and another patient develops lymphatic cancer as an expression of his self-hatred. The main character wants to rescue his pregnant wife, who is undergoing intense treatment at this clinic, and the rest is an impressive seventies mess of mutations, gore and motherhood. This movie has a wonderful seventies grindhouse-feel, and several strong scenes you are unlikely to forget. The seventies was after all the golden, alchemical age of horror movie-making, where the amateur gore turns into an image of worship – a way out of this shallow world of our fixed senses, a bad performance is expanded into an unforgettable slice of low-life, and the drunk camera gives a point from which to view the world that is beyond both hyperrealism and surreality.

Image of worship is meant as a part of the pop culture trinity Gore-Data-Sex, which dominates our screen society as a glimpse of that other world which is beyond our fixed senses. Meditating, contemplating in front of the image of death, in front of life’s shortness and fragility is the third, final way out of the prison of self, the first being sex; the union of bodies in orgasm as we are transcending and forgetting ourselves, in the way that Bataille describes in Eroticism. The second is the union of flesh and machine, where the self is forgotten in an intense, concentrated marriage with computers, samplers, synthesizers, editing equipment, photographic machines, etc.

Mutilated bodies – representing death – is a sacred image, watching gore-flicks is the ritual. What is the disintegration of our bodies, if not a union with the body that is beyond our finite senses, the Mind At Large, “that Other World which lies at the back of every mind” that Huxley talks about in his The Doors Of Perception and Heaven And Hell?

Scanners are people with extraordinary telpathic and telekinetic abilities, sought after by ConSec, a company specializing in weaponry and security systems. Being a futuristic thriller with lots of action, beautiful gore, and all the evil corporations, dangerous technology and doomed bodily transformations demanded by the genre, this was Cronenbergs biggest commercial success until The Fly, six years later.

Both The Brood and Scanners have their eye-popping moments that will impress even the most jaded genre-fan – but it is not all about the visual. Just like Akira and A Clockwork Orange these movies have something to say about institutionalized society and its “Guinea Kids” and machine martyrs, young people whose bodily fluids are subjected to experiments with fatal results, all in the name of science, morality and society. This is part of that critical nerve that adds to Cronenberg’s rare quality of being both nice and nasty at the same time. Even as your body is falling apart, you think it would be fitting with some sweet, sweet Boards Of Canada on the soundtrack. These movies breathe with the love of the cinematic craft and its possibilities, and when I watch the extra material for The Fly I get the impression that David Cronenberg is a really nice, quiet guy, someone who seems calm and easy to work with. He often uses the same crew for his movies, and the greater part is shot in Canada. Regarding this he has said that “every country needs a system of government grants in order to have a national cinema in the face of Hollywood”.

“The battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena: the Videodrome. The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye. Therefore, the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore, whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, television is reality, and reality is less than television”
(Videodrome, 1983)

In the year after Scanners, The Message and Planet Rock were recorded, leading out one long-lived global wave of protest, and another of resistance and community. It was also the year when Philip K. Dick died, and I was born. In the year after Videodrome was released.

Videodrome began really with the idea of a man watching a program that came to him on television, that was a very strange, extreme program which he became obsessed with and which he could not discover the source of (…) It is, I suppose, a comment about media, the human body and the concept of reality being something that is a concept of will rather than some absolute that’s given to us.”
(Cronenberg in The Cinema Of The Extreme)

It is the ultimate movie about the television screen, a mythological tale of media and its psychedelic powers. In its own way a postmodern movie, you feed Videodrome by watching it on your television, and you begin to think to yourself: “What is it I am watching? What is the true nature of the screen?” In this way Videodrome is an open masterpiece, Cronenberg at his best hallucinating-discussing the marriage between media, flesh and technology.

“The most accessible version of the ‘New Flesh’ in Videodrome would be that you can actually change what it means to be a human being in a physical way. (…) We’re free to develop different kinds of organs that would give pleasure, and that have nothing to do with sex. The distinction between male and female would diminish, and perhaps we would become less polarized and more integrated creatures. I’m not talking about transsexual operations. I’m talking about the possibility that human beings would be able to physically mutate at will, even if it took five years to complete that mutation.”

If it was clever to cast Arnold as the terminator, it is pure genius on Cronenberg’s part throwing new wave-singer, sex-icon Debbie Harry in here as self-help personality and closet sado-masochist Nicki Brand. Videodrome has the same classic feel to it as sci-fi masterpieces Terminator, Aliens and Robocop from the same era, and just like in those movies the settings, the special effects and visual concepts are just beautiful. But Videodrome feels like it is growing more and more contemporary with time. Its exploration of an eghties video-underground projected into the future is also a powerful cinematic statement about our present screen existence; that social sphere created by media-addicts, otaku-maniacs, fan-fiction, blog-criticism, youtube, bedroom-bores, porno-scum, file sharing networks, reality games and affordable, easily copied CDs and DVDs.

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