By Jeff VanderMeer.
Like many readers, I’m extremely curious to read iconic film director David Cronenberg’s first novel, Consumed. How will that imagination be expressed solely through the written word? How might his expertise in movies create unique approaches to literary technique? Especially considering how broad and deep that film oeuvre has become.
Sometimes Cronenberg is accused of a certain coldness that comes with the clarity, even though I find the distance he creates from his characters is often actually an act of compassion: a way of trying to see a kind of truth. The accompanying visceral quality—the ability to make a medium that should just allow you to hear and see give the illusion of doing much more—is difficult to pull off. It requires a certain kind of imagination, and then the knowledge to apply that “squishy” quality through cinematic technique.
Cronenberg’s talent and worldview manifests clearly in his early films as well. Despite being low-budget, they are in no way dissimilar from the (at times more complex) approaches he would take later on in his career. Here are three of my favorites.
This examination of the darker elements of mass media and subliminal suggestion is absolutely brilliant and still seems relevant today. Part of this universality is due to a sharp, smart script and the fact that the “snuff cult” on display resonates with contemporary images of torture as well as the excesses of media today. Not to mention that the idea of “mind viruses” also found in Burroughs, plays out across social media in the here-and-now. But the core of Videodrome exists in Cronenberg’s visual metaphors—they have a tactile messiness that continues to convince the viewer. This is the stuff of primal nightmare transferred to the context of modern society. The movie remains one of my favorites for all of these reasons.
2—The Brood (1979)
Creepy set-pieces define this tale of experimentation and the uncanny. Someone is murdering people, and a prime suspect is a psychoanalyst with some really odd ideas, played brilliantly by Oliver Reed. Frank, the husband of one of Reed’s patients, begins to investigate the cult of personality that’s formed around the good doctor. Much of the unease in the film comes from the essential opposition between Reed’s character and Frank. It’s tense stuff, and a subtle bit of misdirection given the ending. I don’t know why Cronenberg’s use of bright, bold primary colors sticks out for me in this movie, but it does. Somehow the textures of Reed’s offices and the other places Cronenberg shoots are beautifully distinct and arresting as well.
Dealing with telepathy and corporate/government skullduggery, Scanners has a different feel from either Videodrome or The Brood. I think this stems in part from the need for scenes inside of what amounts to an office building, which creates a somewhat generic texture to the landscape. There are also some moments where the stage business seems a little imprecise and there’s a more standard climax—for Cronenberg, that is! However, the now-infamous exploding head scene and other visual imagery and the sheer urgency of the pacing make for an exciting, thought-provoking experience.
So if you want a real treat this Halloween and you haven’t yet experienced these early Cronenberg films—or his later ones—it’s probably time for some binge watching. Me, I’m anxiously waiting for the arrival of his novel in my mail box. Enjoy!
Consumed, by David Cronenberg, is out now.
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