Sunday Editor’s Pick: Spider (2002)

by on February 6, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sun Feb 12 at 3:00 at Museum of the Moving Image [Program & Tix]


And that’s all folks. The David Cronenberg retrospective comes to a close at MOMI. But we probably need a rest from our exhaustive coverage, and they sign off with what many aficionados consider to be one of the director’s greatest masterworks.
Nathan Lee in his feature for Alt Screen:

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.



Ed Gonzalez for Slant:

The minimalist Spider is a deviation of sorts for David Cronenberg, a director who has made a career for himself with squishy body horrors. This structurally rigorous exploration of schizophrenia is at once graceful and lyrically dehumanizing. Spider (Ralph Fiennes) arrives at Mrs. Wilkinson’s halfway house upon release from a local insane asylum. The rambling schizophrenic negotiates his past via a series of head-trippy visits to old haunts, scouring for and scribbling information in a small notebook written in his own special language. The film’s grayish mise-en-scène evokes the texture of a spider web, so much so that characters, not unlike the occasional colored chair, appear as if they are hanging from that web and struggling against time, working their way to the truth via a series of concentric circles. More remarkably, Cronenberg’s elegant camera approaches each and every transition between scenes as if it were climbing a web’s silky string. A tunnel, a canal and an imposing gas tank suffocate Spider with the look and scent of the past—when he sits on a bench near the canal it’s as if he’s hanging delicately from the edge of a pulsating fissure inside his own mind. The film itself feels as if it’s been woven from the silk of Spider’s memories, and as such it threatens to break at any given moment because, despite the rigorousness of its look, the raw material with which it is assembled is devastatingly fragile. Spider’s interaction with the past is an erotic ritual that reveals a Madonna/Whore complex born from the moment when the young Spider saw his doting mother (Miranda Richardson) modeling a blue nightie. The boy’s overwhelming oedipal tension informs his view of all women and the devastating effects of their sex. Despite the obvious Freudian machinations at work here, Cronenberg slightly reworks the particulars of the Oedipal Complex. For a film so rich in metaphors and allusions to webs, Spider is never suffocated by technique or its formal artifice. Like all great films, Spider demands to be seen again so that its many ambiguities can be fully sorted out. Imagine if you will what a lesser director, say Ron Howard, would have done with material like this. Ralph Fiennes’s performance is at once ugly, terrifying and heartbreaking. Certainly it must count as some kind of humanitarian effort. If Howard & Co. deserve Oscars for reducing schizophrenia’s terror with a bunch of swirling digital numbers and cutesy imaginary encounters in A Beautiful Mind, then surely Cronenberg and Fiennes are worthy of the Nobel Prize. If not the best film ever made about mental disorder, Spider is certainly the most painstaking, and it’s arguably Cronenberg’s greatest achievement.



Jonathan Rosenbaum for the Chicago Reader:

David Cronenberg isn’t credited often enough for his literacy, which anchors him as a filmmaker much as Method acting can anchor some performers: he seems to immerse himself so deeply in the warped visions of certain writers that he re-creates their work whereas most literary filmmakers would simply imitate it. This tour de force asks us to piece together what really happened in the past, and even after two viewings I haven’t entirely succeeded, but I was floored by Cronenberg’s mastery of the material. Fiennes gives one of his finest performances; Miranda Richardson, playing at least three characters in the protagonist’s twisted vision, is no less impressive; and Gabriel Byrne, Lynn Redgrave, and John Neville do excellent backup work. A lean and densely packed 98 minutes, this minimalist chamber thriller is at once hallucinatory and terrifyingly real.


Geoff Andrew for Time Out (London):

Cronenberg creates his most meticulously controlled and, perhaps, his finest film to date. Fiennes is extraordinarily persuasive as the closed-off Spider, released into the community – or at least a dismal halfway-house in London’s East End – after years in a mental hospital. Revisiting his childhood haunts, he begins to disinter and relive his experiences as a child, particularly his painfully strong feelings towards his mother (Richardson) and plumber father (Byrne). It’s primarily the precision – of performance, pacing, writing, camerawork and especially design – that make this Freudian drama so involving, though Cronenberg’s ability to establish and sustain a relentlessly grim mood while simultaneously accumulating a wealth of telling details also deserves mention. Byrne gives one of his best performances yet, while Richardson’s richly nuanced work in several ‘roles’ is hugely impressive.



J. Hoberman for the Village Voice:

Spider, the brilliant, disturbing new movie by David Cronenberg, opens as though it were a Lumière flick, an objective documentary, full of life and possibility. […] Spider immediately conjures a sense of self-contained delusion and sustains that mood for 98 astonishing minutes. More poetic than clinical in its approach to schizophrenia, suffused with existential dread, this evocation of psychological torment is both sensationally grim and exquisitely realized. This case history is rigorously hallucinated—a vision of ecstatic, lysergic shabbiness that can find a terrible, formal beauty in its protagonist’s haggard posture or the wretched stains on a flophouse wall.
Cronenberg is clearly a master. Since kissing off the venereal-horror genre that he more or less invented, the filmmaker has executed a nearly unrivaled series of aesthetic successes, almost all of them “impossible” adaptations. Despite its source, Spider may be the most purely filmic movie of his career. Its restraint is impeccable; editing and acting provide the special effects. The material has been filtered but not overtly Cronenbergized. Spider eschews many of the director’s familiar thematic concerns to deal most explicitly with the creation of its fiction. Spider‘s technical greatness derives from its carefully constructed but nonetheless uncanny ability to operate both inside and outside its protagonist’s knotted consciousness.
Cronenberg contrives a closed world at once richly detailed and stringently economical. The tone is also darkly comic, but it’s hard to imagine anyone laughing. Such chilly perfection will not be to every taste. But neither is Cronenberg’s acknowledged model, Samuel Beckett. Spider lasts in the mind and it’s built to last—this is a movie that invites and repays repeated viewings.


Fiennes and Cronenberg appear on Charlie Rose to discuss the film. View here.
Kevin Thomas for the Los Angeles Times:

Cronenberg’s compelling and provocative film of Patrick McGrath’s adaptation of his 1988 novel. In an instance of director, stars and material melding flawlessly, “Spider” is a brilliantly realized depiction of a mentally ill individual unexpectedly confronted with his past in a manner that suggests the seemingly infinite capacity of the mind for distortion in the name of self-protection.

Cronenberg has pulled off a richly visual feat of the imagination that ranks among his finest achievements and draws full measure of the talent and skill of Miranda Richardson (in a breathtaking dual portrayal), Gabriel Byrne, Lynn Redgrave and John Neville as well as Fiennes. He has made equal demands of his crew, which includes most prominently cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, production designer Andrew Sanders, costume designer Denise Cronenberg and composer Howard Shore, all of whose contributions in creating the gray, somber universe in which this complex and contradictory psychological odyssey takes place cannot be overpraised.


Academic’s Corner!Reni Celeste places analyzes the film as evidence of a “New Auteurism,” for Cineaction.
And Patricia MacCormack does a reading of the film’s depiction of mental illness and concludes for Senses of Cinema:

It is a film about the creative possibilities – both positive and negative – film offers us in thinking our relationship with our own deterritorialisation of fact through memory. Despite its lack of gore or visceral mutation Spider shares more in common with Videodrome (1983) and The Fly (1986) than films about mental illness. It is, like all of Cronenberg’s films, a phantasy designed to evoke a rethinking of flesh, thought and action as exceeding any ontological institutions we may use to navigate or control them.



Cronenberg discusses adapting McGrath’s novel with David Schwartz at MOMI:

The thing is I didn’t read the book [Spider] until later. Then I read a lot of Patrick [McGrath]’s stuff and I thought that he is a wonderful writer. But I was surprised to find how different the book really was to the screenplay. And to me, that was a good sign. I’ve said many times, in order to be faithful to a novel, you have to betray the novel. Because there is no dictionary that allows you to translate in any way. There’s no such thing as a translation to the screen. You have to reinvent the thing completely, the two media are so completely different. And if you feel that you have achieved that, it’s really an illusion. To make you think, “Well, it’s almost like reading the novel.” If you can do that, it’s a kind of a miracle. But I don’t even worry about that. And obviously, Patrick didn’t worry about that, either, because he was very brutal in his invention of the character of Spider, and the basic structure of it. This is how it went. In the book, Spider writes the novel. That is his journal. The novel is his journal. And that means that he’s very literary and he writes beautifully. And he’s very adept with words and very manipulative and so on. The screenplay that I read had Spider writing in his journal—in English; you could read it—and then it had voice-over. And I had, basically, Spider reading from the novel. And I said to Patrick—and that was even before I read the novel—I said, “These are two different people. There’s no way that the Spider that you’ve invented for the cinema could be the one who speaks this way, who has these perceptions, and, in particular, can be that articulate about what he’s feeling and what’s going on in his head.” So my solution was the usual one, which is just subtraction. I just got rid of a lot of stuff that was in that first draft—in particular, the voice-over. And I still wanted Spider to be writing, because I needed something physical for him to do that was obsessive and that let you know that he was basically taking evidence for a crime that he felt had been committed. So he was very obsessive, and I needed him to have something physical to do, but I didn’t want to read what he was writing. So I asked Ralph [Fiennes] to develop his own hieroglyphics, kind of a cuneiform, that he could write very fluently—and I’m sure he still can. So he developed that because I wanted to be able to see him do it. And he has very distinctive hands; I didn’t want to have some graphic artist’s hands in there doing something. So that was all—that’s Ralph’s design.



Walter Chaw and Cronenberg chat for Film Freak Central:

Tell me about this work’s connection with Samuel Beckett–I was reminded of one of his poems, a fragment called “Cascando,” while watching Spider.
Beckett was one of our touchstones. I really thought that Spider was more of a Beckett character–the Beckett as you say, of the prose or the novels more than the plays–I saw a vagrant or a tramp. Someone who has divested himself of almost everything except for the clothes that he wears and maybe one or two things like tobacco for his cigarettes. Then he focuses all his incredible energy and inventiveness on that–he’s as obsessed and possessive of his little suitcase as we would be of our house and our car. He becomes so distilled that he becomes a microcosm of any human and at that point he becomes an existential study rather than let’s say a psychological study. At that point I think–and it’s totally arrogant of me to say this–but I think that we go beyond Freud to an even more basic examination of the human condition. We even did Ralph’s hair so that it was a little bit like Samuel Beckett’s.
Tell me about the new flesh and how the idea of that separation/evolution went from Videodrome to Crash to Spider.
Spider is a very tactile role. It’s not very cerebral in a weird way–of course he’s not speaking very much and speech is an abstracting thing–so Spider is a very visceral, immediate role. It’s physical things that trigger all the mental things. I suppose part of what I want to do is to play within our film with my belief that the mind and the body are the same–that they are inextricably intertwined, but more than that, that they are actually one and the same in that one cannot exist without the other.
At the same time, though, it seems so obvious to us that they are different and that we can be, we think, kind of disembodied even just walking down the street lost in thought and not knowing where we’re walking and not feeling our body. But is that really what’s happening? I’m not sure. So I’m constantly trying to play with that. See, the theory–and obviously I don’t believe in an afterlife, I couldn’t if I believe this–is that there is no mind without body and no body without mind. You have to decide how limiting a term “mind”–you have to question what it is I mean. If I only mean the nervous system functioning and the brain firing, or you mean some sort of higher thought process and function, or if you mean that they are the same process–it’s a marvellously complicated series of events and signifiers, a philosophical issue current since Descartes and really before, that I try to play with and the evolution of the “new flesh” that you describe is a literal manifestation of that process.

There are no obvious special effects that manifest this process in Spider, in contrast to most of your other films.
For me, Ralph’s performance was a special effect. His character believed that he was emitting noxious gases that poisoned everyone around him so that he wears layers and layers of clothing, in essence, to shield others from himself–he believed that he was undergoing some kind of metamorphosis and Ralph’s performance, almost like a silent film performance, is meant to be a reflection of his illusion become reality.



Rob Blackwelder interviews Cronenberg for Spliced, as does Keith Phipps for The Onion AV Club.

Michael Wilmington for the Chicago Tribune:

Horror comes from demons of the mind as well as of the body. Few filmmakers understand that as well as David Cronenberg, the Canadian master of cinematic fright and unease. His latest film, “Spider,” is a shocker for devotees of stylish angst and psychological torment. You’ll have to watch it with patience and great attention, but it richly rewards that patience.
What we see here are the ashes of a ruined life, though how it was destroyed becomes clear only gradually. The film courts audience estrangement by immersing us so thoroughly in the barren world of a disturbed mind, but there’s also eerie poetry in Cronenberg’s vision and also the vision of Patrick McGrath, the British author who wrote the novel “Spider” and adapted the screenplay for Cronenberg and who, as the son of the medical inspector of Broadmoor Hospital for the criminally insane, knows these nightmares well.
Cronenberg violates most of the modern commercial movie canons. Yet, cold as the film may seem, Cronenberg’s nightmare talent has rarely been at such a high, terrifying boil. “Spider” pulls us into a world of darkness and pain, a sticky web of fears.


Keith Uhlich for Culture Cartel:

In taking on the subject of schizophrenia, Cronenberg has come up with his most restrained film. There is little of the gore, the deconstruction of the human body in extremis that characterizes much of his work. No exploding heads, talking anuses, or vaginal scars intrude on the proceedings here. They don’t need to. Those images, memorable though they may be, often emit the twin stenches of obviousness and affectation, for better and for worse. Spider‘s domestic melodrama trappings, constrictive on the surface, free Cronenberg up for a more mature exploration of the human psyche in all its contradictions. As eXistenZ was a companion piece to his earlier Videodrome, Spider feels like the natural extension of Dead Ringers with Fiennes’ character a singular parallel to the twinned Jeremy Irons’.
There were audible groans of disappointment at the screening I attended, flashes of conversation about wanting more rather than less (interpret as you will). But, please, let us dispense with the either/or categories! Have we come to a place where the limitless bounds of cinematic imagination are relegated to so arbitrary and so boring a position as dichotomous choice? Spider reminds us, through its lead character, that human imagination is many things all at once: mechanistic, wondrous, stunted, unique, distressing, erotic, tragic. The price of Spider‘s own transgressions into his limitless mindset encompasses all these things and more. The transcendent highs and imprisoning lows of his schizophrenia (imagination) are finally cohabitants in the haunting climactic image, which collapses past, present, and future as only movies—and Cronenberg—can do.



Richard Combs for Film Comment (Jan/Feb 2003):

“Are we still in the game?” The last line of dialogue in David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ sums up its perplexity about the flip-flopping between virtual world and real world-or between varieties of fantastic simulacra. But it also expresses a wish, a drive: to arrive at a point of resolution, of harmony, of stasis beyond both reality and game. Spider, an adaptation of Patrick McGrath’s psychological murder mystery, arrives at a point of stasis, if not a moment of resolution then one of exteriority, of contemplation, in its very first shot. The camera tracks alongside a train that has just arrived at a London station, as disembarking passengers stream past (ordinary citizens who will thereafter disappear from the film’s scene). The shot reaches the last person to emerge from the train: stooped, hesitant, shabby Dennis Cleg (Ralph Fiennes), known as-or known to himself as-Spider, from his mother’s tales of a country girlhood and his own habits of thought and spinning proclivities.
McGrath does Cronenberg while Cronenberg does something like Richard Fleischer. It’s also curious that this Canadian-British coproduction, by Canada’s foremost filmmaker, leaves out the novel’s “going to Canada” concept, euphemism for several states of oblivion or limbo– death, and Dennis’s 20 years in an asylum. It’s in the occasional flashbacks to those years, though, that Cronenberg seems happiest, and they provide the film’s most chilling moment. When an inmate breaks a wall mirror, Dennis smuggles away a piece of the glass, thinking of suicide before returning the shard to the asylum director. With satisfaction, the latter then shows him where it fits in a huge jigsaw of the broken mirror-jigsaws, like webs, being part of the film’s imagery-he has assembled on a table. Is this a metaphor for Dennis’s world, or for the larger one occupied by disturbed minds like the director’s? “Are we still in the game?”



Chaw, again for Film Freak Central, sees the film as a culmination of Cronenberg’s career:

The tightest film of Cronenberg’s career, and easily his most restrained, Spider unfolds like the predator of its title in its careful exploration of the effects of schizophrenia on the natural process of Freud’s model for the Oedipal Split. Feeling accomplished but unsurprising after an initial viewing, subsequent looks reveal a film meticulous in its composition and beautifully crafted in every aspect of the craft, from Suschitzky’s gorgeous camera work to Shore’s fragile piano-heavy score. Cronenberg and screenwriter Patrick McGrath abandon all pretensions and tackle the primacy of sexual desire from an alien’s outsider perspective–a quest in which the auteur has arguably been involved since the beginning of his career. With an actor (Richardson) playing multiple roles, a quintessentially Freudian love story, and the belief in the technology-aided (the looming Gas Works in Spider) evolution of the flesh (Dennis believes that his body emits deadly fumes), the climax in which Fiennes looms over his house-mistress with hammer and chisel, intent on finding the monster in his mother’s flesh, resolves itself as a succinct, literal statement about discovering the truth of sexuality buried beneath the façade of civilization. Dreamlike and deceptively complex, Spider is a culmination and a commencement–a statement (the director’s strongest)–that Cronenberg is not only a genre director of remarkable vision, but also a filmmaker of note unbound by genre and invested, over the course of the last thirty-some years, in the pernicious id and the possible offspring of a literal embrace with the shadow of our id.


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