Getting Nostalgic with Cronenberg
Dave "Deprave" Cronenberg: the thinking man's horror director.
While his films may not always be categorized in the genre,
there's no denying that most, if not all, leave one disturbed
in some way, shape or form. People who are not fans of his
entire body of work usually come from one of three camps,
separated by decades. If you love horror and don't mind
having to put a little thought into your film-going experience,
something of his is bound to appeal to you. Especially if
you enjoy being thoroughly grossed out.
On January 31st, 2004, The Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood
screened two early works of as part of a week long retrospective,
followed by a discussion with Cronenberg. Stereo
(1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970) are two exercises
that challenge even the most hardcore fan. That's not to
say they were bad. They were, however, a test of one's perception.
So much so that if left on my own, I don't think I could
give a proper synopsis, though it was fun to try. That said,
I present the following:
From The Egyptian program:
STEREO - David Cronenberg's
debut feature is a disorienting faux documentary chronicling
experiments at the Canadian Academy of Erotic Inquiry to
test the hypotheses of unconventional researcher Dr. Luther
And from ImdB.com:
Somewhere in the future, the Canadian
Academy for Erotic Inquiry is investigating the theories
of para-psychologist Luther Stringfellow. Seven young adults
volunteer to submit to a form of brain surgery that removes
their power of speech but increases their power for telepathic
communications. An unseen group of students observes the
results. As the experiment progresses, Stringfellow's theories
are borne out. Later, aphrodisiacs and various drugs are
introduced to the subjects to expose an inherent 'polymorphous
perversity'. In the end, they are isolated from each other,
provoking antagonism and violence between them, resulting
in two suicides.
And again, from The Egyptian:
CRIMES OF THE FUTURE -
The female sex has disappeared from a mass poisoning by
tainted cosmetics and "men have to absorb the femaleness
that is gone from the planet." - David Cronenberg
A dermatologist creates what he calls "Rouge's Malady" - a condition that makes its victims indulge in bizarre fetishes and acts of homosexuality. Another doctor regenerates organs that have been infected with venereal diseases and creates new ones.
I think you see what I mean.
After the screenings, Mr. Cronenberg addressed the audience, but not without a little praise himself.
"Well, you're a very hardy group, to
sit through these two films. I say that, not because I don't
have affection for them, because I do. I haven't seen them
for thirty years, basically. But because when I first made
them, there were many walk-outs, you might imagine. Stereo,
which was made first, I remember showing it to someone in
Toronto trying to get him to book it into the theaters that
he ran. The movie started and after about three minutes
he said, 'Where's the sound?' And I said 'It's coming.'
He got up and walked out. And that was it."
When asked about his introduction into film and how he went about it, he had this to say:
"I did go to the University of Toronto
and take a year of biochemistry, which is a very intense
and very hard, difficult science. But I found myself spending
most of my time at the Arts end of the campus; it was very
polarized (speaking of polarization, as we do in Stereo).
I was hanging out in the junior common room there and talking
to everybody about literature and movies and things like
that, and gradually I felt that I couldn't connect with
even my classmates in science, that they did seem to be
a different species, which kind of destroyed my theory.
I remember two students who were together, they were a couple,
they were dating. And I remember watching them, wondering
what the nature of their sexuality could possibly be, because
they were just so alien. I still don't know. If there are
tapes anybody has, I'd like to see them."
"Anyway, so I ended up dropping out of Honor Science,
as it was called at the time, and I ended up going into
Honor English, which was a four year English course, which
was very intensive with lot's of history and philosophy
and of course literature. And at that point I gave up my
dreams of being an actually scientist, so I became kind
of a fraudulent, vaguely art scientist. So, there it is.
And Stereo is, primarily, on one level, a parody
of academia, an attempt to engulf actual human experience
with jargon. Literary jargon and scientific jargon and so
on. And that's why I am glad to see there were a few laughs
because it's meant to be a comedy. So, that's basically
the way that I worked."
"There was a lot of experimentation
amongst a lot of psychiatrists and psychologists, all of
which gradually lead to "The Sixties", which really was
sort of into the '70's. So the idea of using drugs as a
sort of psychotropic methodology to shift psychology in
a measurable way, that was all very much in the air at the
time. So I was absorbing and playing with a lot of those
"Ian Ewing, who is in Stereo, was one of the founders
with me and Ivan Reitman and a few other filmmakers of the
filmmakers Co-op, which was based on the New York Co-op.
And the idea was that we would distribute our own films.
This had nothing to do with making money, obviously, so
to get the films out to whoever wanted to see them, whether
it was universities or just film groups, we established
a Co-op, where you could rent the films for very little
money. And even if you were just an individual and you wanted
to rent them and show them on your own projector. That was
the idea of the Co-op, and it was run by the filmmakers
who had films in the Co-op. And we were underground. Because
it was the '60's, no, you don't have to apprentice for somebody
for twenty years before you get a chance to direct, whatever.
It just seemed to be the way it was at the time. It was
just grab a camera and do your own thing and that was it.
So, these early films, and I would include Shivers and Rabid
as well, you're really watching me learn to make movies.
Basically that was my learning on the job, except it wasn't
really a job, because I didn't get paid."
There seems to be a huge leap between Crimes of the Future
and Shivers. In the years between (1970-1975) Cronenberg
did a lot of television work, but eventually needed to move
"I had to come to understand that I
wanted to make movies as a profession, which surprised me
because I never really thought that that's what I would
do. I thought I'd be an obscure novelist. And so I've been
trying to be an obscure filmmaker, and it's worked up to
a point. I had to decide that I would make a movie that
I would get paid for. That meant that people would pay to
see it and that meant it was a whole new ballgame."
"It's such a tradition that your first film is a low budget
horror film, because it means that with a lot of energy
and maybe not the greatest talent or not the greatest skill,
you can still have an effect and there's a market. It's
a genre with established channels for distribution. There
were then and there are now, although they're quite different,
in the sense that in those days, you could never get a major
studio to release it. It had to be a big budget star vehicle.
Something like The Brood, there was no way anyone
would even look at it to distribute it."
"So, it was quite a struggle to get Shivers made.
Telefilm Canada, a government corporation whose mandate
was to invest in films, had decided that Shivers
might be considered a movie, actually. Because up until
that point, Canadian films were not genre films. There was
no history of genre filmmaking. You made films that were
based on National Film Board documentaries, like The
Drylanders, which was about how tough it was to live
in the prairies. It would be a drama, but almost a docu-drama.
And that was really all that was going on in Canada at the
time. Shivers…nobody knew how to react to it, and
we needed government money, there was no other way to get
the movie made. I thought I might have to go to LA, but
then they said the money came through. The budget for Shivers
was $185,000, shot in 15 days. It had a lot of special effects,
and crashes and gunshots and all kinds of other stuff. It
made about $5 million. It also caused a huge stir, I mean,
I almost had to leave Canada afterwards. There was an article
written by a very well known, very powerful critic, who
wrote for a magazine called Saturday Night. It said
'You ought to know how bad this film is, you paid for it.'
He called it pornographic, obscene, violent…many things.
It wasn't pornographic…it was some of those other things.
Telefilm, the government, was embarrassed by this, even
though it was the first film that they invested in that
made money back. So, the taxpayers actually got their money
"This was my acceptance that I was still interested in continuing
to make movies, that I had to deal with the idea of commerce,
and I'm still dealing with that problem. Like…tonight."
When a comment was made about his staying true to his vision,
he replied that he's been trying to sell out for years,
but no one is buying. "Hollywood is
very seductive, and it's even more seductive now, because
there are so few ways to make an independent film, it's
really not easy. And then you make the film and you can't
get it released because that's very expensive too. So there
is more than a little temptation to play the Hollywood game,
at least some version of it. It seems it's becoming rarer
and rarer, but it is still possible to make good films inside
For Spider, Cronenberg had complete control over
the script, casting, cutting, etc., but received practically
no money for it. Everyone, including actors and producers
had to defer payment just to get the movie made.
Eventually, someone asked about his involvement in Basic
"Like I said, I've been trying to sell
out! It was a very good script. The sell was 'I'm going
to say something to you, David…don't hang up…Basic Instinct
2.' The next thing was 'Just forget it's Basic Instinct
2 and think of it as a really dark, perverse kind of
film noir kind of thriller thing.' And it was. It was written
by two people, Henry Bean, who directed a film called The
Believer, and his wife, Leora Barish, and I had known them
because we had worked on a project earlier that didn't work
out. But I knew they were very smart, very bright, very
intelligent, very literate and they wrote a really good
thriller. And so I thought, why don't I just try it and
see what happens. It would be a Hollywood experience, but
an interesting one. It wouldn't be an in-house studio project,
it would be the guys who did Corolco…C2 they called it,
a new company. But it did fall apart for various reasons,
Hollywood reasons, actually."
He left us with the note that, after watching the last few
minutes of Stereo, he was struck with a bout of nostalgia.
"Before there was SteadiCam, there
was my grandmother's wheelchair."
Cronenberg is currently slated to direct A History of
Violence for New Line Cinema, based on a novel by John
Wagner, adapted by Josh Olson (Infested). It's being
produced by Benderspink's JC Spink and Chris Bender (The
Butterfly Effect, and upcoming The Ring 2). It's
the story of diner-owner, Tom McKenna, who, after the self-defense
killing of some robbers, receives unwanted national attention
that dredges up previously unknown facts about his past.
This is the first studio project for Cronenberg since 1991's
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