David Cronenberg retro at MOMI (Jan 21-Feb 12)

by on January 18, 2012Posted in: Essay


IN THE FALL of 1909, William James, Harvard’s preeminent philosopher of psychology, had psychoanalysis on his mind. Libidorepressionthe interpretation of dreams: the novel concepts of Professor Sigmund Freud had gone viral, radiating out from Vienna across the European continent and on to America. In Zurich, Freud’s colleague and heir apparent Carl Jung established his own notoriety with his work on “complexes,” word-association techniques, and experimental treatments of schizophrenia. Observing these developments in the context of his own psychological researches, James was both impressed and cautious. In the absence of a clear articulation of interpretive principles – a treatise on methodology that Freud had long promised and never delivered – this seductive art of psychoanalysis threatened to become just that: an art of the psyche, innovative and subjective, rather than a science of the mind, subject to testing and confirmation.


On September 28, James dispatched a letter to his friend Théodore Flournoy, a respected Swiss psychologist: 

I hope that Freud and his pupils will push their ideas to their utmost limits, so that we may learn what they are. They can’t fail to throw light on human nature, but I confess that he made on me personally the impression of a man obsessed with fixed ideas. I can make nothing in my own case with his dream theories, and obviously “symbolism” is a most dangerous method.


This letter is cited in (and provides the title to) John Kerr’s A Most Dangerous Method, a superbly researched synthesis of biography and intellectual history that inscribes the evolution of psychoanalysis within the personal and professional triangulation of Freud, Jung and Sabina Spielrein, an extraordinary woman, long suppressed from official history, who variously played the roles of patient, lover, confidant, and colleague. Kerr’s chronicle of early psychoanalysis makes for splendid psychodrama, and thus provided the writer Christopher Hampton with fertile material for his 2002 play The Talking Cure, from which he later adapted the screenplay for director David Cronenberg’s seventeenth feature filmA Dangerous Method.


Keira Knightley thrashes before Michael Fassbender in A Dangerous Method (2011).

The return, in abbreviated form, to Kerr’s original title is exactly right. A Dangerous Method opens amidst a full blown hysterical meltdown as Sabina (Keira Knightley) is dragged thrashing and howling to the Burghölzli Psychiatric Clinic. No sooner has she crossed the threshold than the film snaps to attention as Doctor Jung (Michael Fassbender) explains with utmost calm and precision the elements of his clinical protocol.  A Dangerous Method is immediately and directly engaged with the question of methodology – its strategies and structures, authority and authentication, pitfalls and risks.


James’ caution against “symbolism” haunts the project – the method – of this essay: a reconsideration of the “Cronenbergian” in light of “late” Cronenberg. By late Cronenberg I mean the post-eXistenZ oeuvre, a quartet of films that forego certain modalities of the speculative and grotesque that have long characterized his signature. This isn’t to say that Spider, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, or A Dangerous Method lack ideas (ruptured personalities) or images (ruptured heads) that wouldn’t be out place in the other films. Yet Spider is a different kind of movie than Shivers, and the nature of that difference bears examination.


Viggo Mortensen flips a switch in A History of Violence (2005).

To do so entails pattern recognition, the tracing of continuity and ruptures, a mapping of convergences and departures. In other words, auteurism – a method at least as suspicious as Freudian “symbolism,” and one that generally lacks the productive self-reflexivity hardwired into psychoanalysis. William James doubted the ambiguous mechanics of psychoanalytic logic: according to what principles must something signify this as opposed that? My skepticism of the auterist critique follows from the satisfaction of a logic altogether too tidy. When Tom Stall’s true identity in A History of Violence is revealed during a confrontation with Philadelphia gangsters on his front lawn, we can observe Cronenberg returning to the theme of monstrous transformation explored in The Fly. Note, if you will, the point-of-view shot from the second floor window, against which a housefly buzzes angrily against the glass! Boring.


Just as psychoanalysis can be critiqued for declaring a fixed structure of the psyche and then mucking about for evidence to confirm its own foregone conclusions, auterism, for all its former historical necessity, is a dull hermeneutic when critics are content to connect the dots of conventional wisdom. An auteurist strategy is most effective when, reading backward from the object at hand, it discloses new dimensions of an imaginative project rather than itemizing ready-made “directorial signatures”— when it becomes a technique for rethinking rather than a mechanism of recognition. Proceeding in this vein, what might “late” Cronenberg unsettle and disclose?  


Top: A Rabid zombie (1977). Bottom: Keira’s Dangerous Method acting.

LET’S NOT PRETEND things haven’t changed. Our philosopher of the exploding head, our poet of avant-garde gynecology, our beloved guide to bumper-humping subculture has now devoted his considerably weird intelligence to the production of a full-blown bodice-ripping period piece. Let this be noted while conceding that the period in question is gripped by uncontrollable impulses, sexual pathology, and radical experiments on the self that place it squarely on the map of established Cronenbergian thematics. What, if anything, distinguishes the mania of Rabid from the hysteria of Method? Is Keira Knightley’s jaw any less freaky a symptom than the sex slugs of Shivers? What has been gained, or lost, in this (apparent) apotheosis of a (possible) turn to more (ostensibly) conventional material?


Narrative classicism isn’t the issue. M Butterfly and Dead Ringers, however deeply twisted, are more or less straightforward dramas, and even at his most startlingly sui generis, Cronenberg’s direction is measured, functional, precise. For all the flamboyance of his ideas, he’s the least expressionistic of filmmakers. Genre? To say that Cronenberg no longer makes horror movies is at once true and too obvious, predicated on an unimaginative reduction of the early films to their most conventional aspects. Let the Fangoria dorks confine the “Cronenbergian” to hypothetical orifices and inscrutable frenzies; A History of Violence burrows as deep into weirdness as any armpit parasite.


The mind/body problem, crises of identity, the contestation of normality – all of this is secondary. Cronenberg’s crucial theme is the mechanics of signal processing: how information gets received, synthesized or rejected, and then output back into an external milieu. Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly and eXistenZ take this up in a literal, almost electromagnetic sense. Naked Lunch diagrams a matrix of narcotic stimulation reacting on, and with, the creative flow. Calamitous erotic and reproductive signals structure his initial avant-garde experimentsStereo and Crimes of the Future, and the venereal-horror cycle of his early exploitation films; variations and transformations of the theme underly The Fly, M Butterfly, Dead Ringers, and Crash.


What’s unique about Cronenberg’s deployment of the idea is his almost total lack of interest in the origin of these impulses. Where they come from is irrelevant. What they consist of is unknowable. All that matters is how they enter and transform systems, their valences and effects, the things they inhibit or make possible. Experimental skin grafts don’t explain the events of Rabid, only trigger them. Videodrome is a sustained enigma. Crash, with its radical emphasis on behavior over psychology, takes this ontological refusal to its extreme. That Cronenberg should take on psychoanalysis, the interpretive methodology par excellence, is less paradoxical than it seems given that the Freud/Jung relationship was tightly bound up in arguments over symptomatic teleology.


Ralph Fiennes weaves a tangled web in Spider (2002).


A SYSTEMS-THEORY approach to Cronenberg explains why so many of the movies concern the experiments people conduct on themselves. Something is happening to them, through them, inside them, and they need to figure out how to handle or channel these forces. When they fail, the mode is tragic (The Brood, The Fly, Dead Ringers). When they succeed – when they are able to output the signals in some relatively productive manner – it’s tragicomic (Naked Lunch, Crash, eXistenZ). Mostly, they fail.


This clarifies the achievement of Spider, one of Cronenberg’s purest, most controlled films. Adapted by Patrick McGrath from his own novel, this immaculately conceived character study maps the contours of subjectivity as it is drawn and redrawn in response to the discovery (and recovery) of psychic terrain. The opening shot conflates the arrival of our protagonist with a departure from reality: Spider (Ralph Fiennes) disembarks from a commuter train and into his own private eXistenZ. Released from nowhere to confront his now here, Spider checks into a shabby residence for the mentally ill and shuffles about a landscape of gasworks, dank canals, and forgotten garden plots. Stopping here and there to collect bits of miscellaneous debris in his pockets, he confides his experience to a journal in an illegible script.


Just as McGrath’s novel is the transcript of this journal, Cronenberg’s film plays as the adaptation of the text. Spider operates on a narrative double register: we are watching the movie that Spider projects for himself, assembled from a patchwork of memory, fantasy, and shards of the Real. The negotiation of this simultaneity is a formal tour de force, even more impressive than the doubling of Dead Ringers or the dual procedures of A Dangerous Method, a movie devoted to analyzing people in the process of analyzing themselves. Reading Spider as a sub-Oedipal psychodrama (a mental mystery about the origin of psychosis in Mommy issues) is to overlook this deep fusion of representation and concept, as well as the universal nature of its tragedy: the struggle to make consciousness cohere. It is, like so many Cronenberg films, a feedback allegory. The spider: a creature who externalizes part of itself (the web) to relay signals (the twitching of trapped insects) back to central processing.


Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello tend to the brood in A History of Violence (2005).

Enveloped in an aura of synthetic, ersatz-Americana, A History of Violence likewise constructs itself as a projection of subjectivity. This has nothing to do with an application of neo-Sirkian irony, but rather takes shape as the willed hallucination of Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), a preposterous normal confronting a return of the repressed. The rigorous modulation of this conceptual texture is what distinguishes the movie as pure Cronenebrg – and not, for example, something the Coen brothers could have made. One of his shrewdest decisions is to restrict the reality principle to the play of doubt, shock, fury, and lust that flash across Edie Stall (Maria Bello) as she’s displaced from her official narrative into a zone of cognitive disconnect. The plot is driven by Tom, but the stakes belong to Edie. The movie isn’t very compelling as a “meditation on violence” unless the violence we’re talking about is the dismantling of a simulation and the horror of establishing one’s place in a newly disclosed void.


Despite its pungent, almost cartoonish evocation of a Russian émigré underground, Eastern Promises is less persuasively keyed to any controlling consciousness. It does, however, heighten a new ethnographic impulse in late Cronenberg that overlays, and fuses with, the texture of projected subjectivities. On the one hand, Spider inhabits a milieu no less phantasmagoric than the “Tangier” depicted in Naked Lunch; on the other hand, the working-class England evoked in Spider is anchored in cultural and class specificities entirely beside the point in Cronenberg’s wildly inventive adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ unfilmable novel. eXistenZ was the last screenplay Cronenberg wrote, or adapted, himself, and each movie since has evinced the increasingly palpable touch of an outside writer, matched to a far greater sense of cultural and historical particulars. The high-rise dwellers in Shivers, the telepathic cult of Scanners, the band of outsiders in Crash are all nowhere people – thus everywhere applicable.


Viggo Mortensen dances with a knife-wielding Russian emigre in Eastern Promises (2007).


The action of Eastern Promises, by contrast, is inked on London streets like a tattoo. And it’s stamped, for better and for worse, by the voice of Steven Knight, who might have entitled his screenplay More Dirty Pretty Things. Voice is a problem here; the beyond-the-grave narration by tragic Tatiana is an entirely superfluous signal. But genre felicity on the order of Eastern Promises is nothing to scoff at – hello, bathhouse melee – even if it lacks the conceptual kick of A History of Violence. Of all the late films, Eastern Promises feels the least urgent because least in need of Cronenberg’s particular excellences. In light of A Dangerous Method, it does, however, confirm another recent tendency, one that evolves from Cronenberg’s idiosyncratic treatment of institutions, subcultures, tribes, and kinship networks. Families, specifically parents, are a steadfast theme in late Cronenberg. No wonder he turned to psychoanalysis.


The Oedipus complex is never mentioned in A Dangerous Method; Freud’s quest for a core developmental paradigm largely postdates the period covered in the film. Daddy issues nevertheless abound as Jung spanks Sabina and debates the origin of neurosis with Freud. Jung doubted the notion of sexual trauma at the root of all symptoms – an intellectual rebellion, Freud might have noted, of a distinctly Oedipal tenor. And he never shared his elder’s adamant disavowal of spiritual matters. Jung, who was given to hosting séances in his youth, was enthralled by Freudian psychoanalysis even as he drove it to places that drove Freud crazy.


If Freud was a prodigious inventor of concepts, he also vigorously – at times arbitrarily – policed their boundaries. There can be no question of the intellectual risks he took, nor of his authoritarian cast of mind. If the sympathies of A Dangerous Method appear to side with Jung over Freud, this is not primarily a matter of theoretical bias or dramatic expediency, but rather because his is the less certain position – the most dangerous – of the two. Of course the stakes are even higher for Sabina, whose body and mind are the literal testing ground for these conflicts. No less than Jung, she functions as a prototypical Cronenbergian antihero in search of an effective output channel for stimuli. A study of impulses unleashed, institutionalized, experimented with and agonized over, A Dangerous Method could serve as the title of every Cronenberg film.


Sometimes a cigar… Jung vs. Freud, Fassbender vs. Mortensen in A Dangerous Method.


BODY HORROR versus systems theory, virtual reality versus projected consciousness, generic conventions versus ethnographic milieus: Have I merely replaced one set of fixed ideas with another? My ambition isn’t to unlock some heretofore-unplumbed depth of the Cronenbergian project, or to provide a more authentic interpretive matrix. Rather, I’ve tried to adjust the contours of the Cronenbergian in response to the discovery (and recovery) of new terrain. For surely there is, as Jung proclaimed, “more than one hinge into the universe.”


Nathan Lee is a Contributing Editor to Alt Screen.


A comprehensive retrospective of the films of David Cronenberg is playing at the Museum of the Moving Image, January 21st to February 12th.

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