8″ x 10″ Signed in 1996 at Borders, World Trade Center, New York, NY
Like Tobe Hooper and George Romero, David Cronenberg sprang into public consciousness with a series of low-budget horror films that shocked and surprised audiences for their sheer audacity and intelligence. Unlike the former two filmmakers, Cronenberg has been able to avoid being pigeonholed into a single restrictive genre category. His works, which consistently explore the same themes, have the mark of a true auteur in the strictest sense of the word. Cronenberg’s films have the unnerving ability delve into society’s collective unconscious and dredge up all of the perverse, suppressed desires of modern life. His world features grotesque deformities, hallucinatory couplings, and carnality unhinged from its corporeal moorings. The body mutates and becomes something horrific as in Rabid (1977) or The Fly (1986), psyches fuse with technology as in Crash (1996) and Videodrome (1983), and the act of sex itself is rendered bizarre and alien in Naked Lunch (1991) and Dead Ringers (1988). Underlying all of Cronenberg’s work is a queasy exploration of the edges of human physiology, psychology, and sexuality.
Born on March 15, 1943, in Toronto, Canada, Cronenberg was the son of a freelance journalist and a piano teacher. He was raised in a nurturing middle class family and wrote constantly as a child, showing a strong interest in science, particularly in botany and lepidopterology (the study of moths). In 1963, he entered the University of Toronto as an Honors Science student, though he quickly grew disenchanted and within a year switched to the Honors English Language and Literature program. That same year, he won a prestigious university award for one of his original short stories. During this time, Cronenberg was profoundly impressed by Winter Kept Us Warm (1966) by classmate David Secter. Though previously not especially interested in film, this student work piqued his interest, and soon he was hanging out at film camera rental houses where he taught himself the ins and outs of filmmaking. He made two no-budget 16mm films (Transfer and From the Drain), and — inspired by the underground film scene in New York — he founded the Toronto Film Co-op with Iain Ewing and Ivan Reitman. After a year traveling in Europe, Cronenberg returned to Canada and graduated at the top of his class in 1967.
Just as Cronenberg was starting to make his own movies, the Canadian film industry was undergoing fundamental changes. Long fertile ground for documentary films from such renowned figures as John Grierson, Canada’s fiction film industry all but collapsed in the 1930s. By the late 1960s, after much deliberating, the government founded the Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC) to actively stimulate non-documentary film production in Canada. After making the avant-garde sci-fi flick Stereo (1969), Cronenberg became one of the first recipients of CFDC funding for his follow-up, Crimes of the Future (also 1969), a dark, surreal experimental exploration of sexuality. After these two films, Cronenberg realized that working in a strictly experimental venue was ultimately a dead end — he wanted to broaden his audience.
With Reitman as the producer, Cronenberg made his feature debut with the low-budget horror flick Shivers (1975). Recalling Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Shivers gleefully presents the audience with phallus-like parasites that turn an apartment full of well-to-do professionals into a throng of sex-mad maniacs. Shivers sharply divided critics. Funded by the CFDC, Shivers’ over-the-top depiction of sex and gore drew sharp criticism from conservative politicians, while left-wing critics accused it of reactionary moralizing. Other reviewers (mostly from Europe) argued that the work was an exhilarating attack on the bourgeois. In spite of continued grousing by conservatives, Cronenberg made two more films with direct or indirect funding from the CFDC — Rabid (1977) and The Brood (1979). Both of these films, along with Shivers, form a rough trilogy of sorts about physical evolutions of the body bringing civilization to its knees. In Rabid, featuring Ivory Pure model-turned-porn star Marilyn Chambers as Typhoid Mary, a virulent strain of rabies that reduces victims to foaming murderous animals devastates the city of Montreal. In The Brood, a mother manifests her angers as bloodthirsty, hideously misshapen children.
Cronenberg’s breakthrough film was his 1981 box office hit Scanners. Featuring an overtly sci-fi story line, a sinister performance by Michael Ironside, and an infamous exploding head scene, the film established Cronenberg’s name beyond the exploitation house and drive-in audiences. Two years later, Cronenberg followed this up with his masterful Videodrome, a gory, thoroughly bizarre postmodern exploration of the media that recalls the writings of Marshall McLuhan with the visual bravura of early Luis Bunuel. Told in a Burroughs-esque fractured stream of consciousness, the film concerns Renn, a sleazy cable TV operator, who discovers that the mysterious snuff cable he happened upon gives the viewers brain tumors. Humans and media hardware merge in unexpected, strangely sexual ways: video tapes throb like organs, and a tape is slotted into a vagina like gash in a human abdomen. Though Videodrome’s awe of video may seem dated, the film’s basic questioning of technology seems perhaps more relevant today than it did when it first premiered. After mining his own personal nightmare, Cronenberg opted for comparatively lighter fare and directed The Dead Zone (1983), adapted from a Stephan King novel. Though this was the first and thus far only script that he did not have a hand in writing, the film’s emphasis on off-kilter psychologies and disease bears Cronenberg’s unmistakable stamp. After Dead Zone, Cronenberg was seen by Hollywood insiders as an up-and-coming director. He was offered a number scripts, many of which seemed laughably out of place with his creative interests, including Flashdance (1983) and Top Gun (1986).
Eventually, Cronenberg agreed to remake the 1958 horror classic The Fly (1986). Both a wild gore-fest and a brilliant metaphor for aging, Cronenberg’s Fly is a more harrowing and emotionally powerful work than the original. The film also recalled the intensity and intimacy of his early horror works such as The Brood. Consisting of only three main characters and basically one setting, the film obsessively depicts the lead character’s slow and gruesome mutation, complete with dropped-off body parts, into a human-fly hybrid. The film proved to a terrific critical and financial success. With his directing reputation cemented, Cronenberg edged away from horror/sci-fi genres and made the chilling character study Dead Ringers (1988). Based on a National Enquirer headline about the real-life case of the Marcus brothers, a pair of fratricidal identical twin gynecologists, the film clinically portrays the duo as their identities slowly disintegrate and merge.
Cronenberg followed up Dead Ringers with the decidedly less commercial Naked Lunch (1991). Less an adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ classic underground novel than a dizzying meditation on the act of writing, the film features some of Cronenberg’s most striking images articulating some of his most familiar themes. Talking cockroaches morph into typewriter-like organisms, women suddenly split open and become men, and typewriters possess flesh-like qualities and evolve into undefined sexual organs. His next work, M. Butterfly (1993), is a restrained account of the bizarre true life case of Rene Gallimard, a French embassy worker who never realized that his long-time Chinese lover was in fact a man.
Cronenberg followed M. Butterfly with Crash (1996), his most controversial work to date, based on the profoundly disturbing underground classic by J. D. Ballard. Banned for a time in Britain and rated NC-17 in the U.S., the film is a hypnotic, harrowing journey through a landscape of aberrant sexuality, sterile modernist architecture, emotional blankness, and smashed automobiles. Just as in Ballard’s work, Cronenberg takes the familiar cliches of romance and seduction and supplants them with something alien and surreal. James Ballard, the protagonist, engages in an adulterous affair not after a chance meeting, but after a car wreck. The same character penetrates the wound in a severely injured woman’s leg instead of using more traditional orifices. Daring and frightening, Crash won a Special Jury Prize at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival.
For his 1999 film eXistenZ, he wrote his first original script since Videodrome. Inspired by the fugitive life of author Salman Rushdie, whom Cronenberg interviewed for a magazine, the film concerns a game’s designer on the run from a band of Luddite terrorists. Cronenberg brilliantly reverses all Blade Runner-like cliches of the coming cyberpunk future by setting the film in a rustic mountain forest where old fish canneries serve as biotech factories. That same year, Cronenberg caused another controversy as the chairman of the Cannes Film Festival jury that chose such dark horses as Rosetta and L’Humanite for the festival’s top prizes over such popular favorites as Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother (1999) and Takeshi Kitano’s Kikujiro (1999).