David Cronenberg’s new film, Crimes of the Future, saw its release at the Cannes Film Festival recently, receiving both a six-minute standing ovation and multiple walk-outs. It represents the first feature film from Cronenberg since 2014, and given its reception, perhaps this is a good moment to look at the career and work of arguably the most influential Canadian director of contemporary cinema.
Cronenberg has always been hugely respected by cinephiles, but his work has remained relatively marginal in terms of success at major awards and leftist approaches to film culture. There are, on paper, several reasons why this might be so, including that Cronenberg’s work has always been too niche, and his aesthetic style and sensibility too specific. From a political perspective, Cronenberg has never been straightforward, either. His work generally avoids direct political polemic or symbolism, and even at its most accessible, it’s often not easy to impose a neat position on a specific film.
However, looking at his work as a whole, it’s easier to pick out themes and ideas to which Cronenberg has often returned, and the political questions with which he has engaged.
Cronenberg’s film career started as a student in English and literature at the University of Toronto in the late ’60s during the political and countercultural shifts of the time. His films from this period, shot on 16mm film stock and made with friends instead of professional actors, are still available on YouTube, and whilst undoubtedly juvenilia, provide a useful guide to later work.
One such example, entitled From the Drain (1967), is a 13-minute piece about two men trapped in a bathroom. Through their conversations, you learn that they’re both veterans of some unspoken war. One has been left traumatized and terrified of a creature that might come from the drain. The other responds with what could well be the main thesis of Cronenberg’s work: nothing comes from the drain; it all comes from the mind.
This is a central point for Cronenberg’s films: the psyche has an enormous potential to impact the physical world in strange and powerful ways. One need only think of early Cronenberg films such as Rabid (1977) and The Brood (1979), which showed how trauma and pain in the mind express themselves in psychological changes. The Brood, with its interest in “psychoplasmics,” wherein painful emotions are sublimated into changes in the body, shows how what we take to be “normal life” rests upon a layer of deeply powerful repression. Cronenberg claimed that with The Brood he was making a version of Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), literalizing the emotional strains of separation that can change a person into someone they may not even recognize anymore.
This theme of the power of the mind reaches a high point with perhaps Cronenberg’s most successful early film, 1981’s Scanners. (Even if you haven’t watched it, you’ve probably seen the famous head-exploding GIF taken from it.) The titular scanners are psychics, people with minds that can impact the physical world, an impact of which the security system and weapon manufacturer ConSec is all too aware.
It would be easy to see the film with its psychic warfare and conspiracy as simply a silly ’80’s action flick, but it contains an important point about information warfare, individual agency, and even a reflection on the failures and limitations of ’60s’ counterculture. Control and influence over the psyche can, after all, be more effective than physical coercion, as evidenced by giant social media sites engaging in emotional contagion, using their technology to try and influence the minds of their users.
If we alone as individuals are prone to underestimating the powers of the mind, it seems that corporations and weapon manufacturers know it all too well, a point made crystal clear by Cronenberg’s landmark film, Videodrome (1983). The film follows media broadcaster Max Renn — wonderfully played by the twitchy James Woods — who stumbles across Videodrome, a combination of violence and pornography that’s actually revealed to be a new front in a socio-political war for the mind. The film sees a future where reality is entirely mediated through technological spectacle. The wonderfully named Brian O’Blivion (modelled on the Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan) explains that the hallucinations caused through the spectacle are a higher form of reality itself.
This is an eerie bit of prophecy in the age of internet radicalism, ideological manipulation and the digital creation of our perception of the world on a mass scale. Culture war panics can often be created out of whole cloth through the mass distribution of images of out of context media that’s designed to go viral. For example, look at the anti-vaccine paranoia of the political right that discounted the real dangers of COVID-19 for fantasies of bodily control through vaccinations and microchips. Even Woods has morphed into a reactionary conspiracist who spends vast swathes of his time posting angrily on Twitter to ‘own the libs,’ effectively carrying on the endless struggle of Videodrome’s war against the flesh.
Technology has allowed us to become something new. eXistenZ (1999), which might have been unfairly overshadowed by The Matrix, is an exploration of this intersection. Following a game designer targeted by assassins who wish to preserve the purity of reality, the film explores the deeply organic nature of technology. We’ve become intertwined with it; we’re literally plugged into the virtual, and even our attempts to escape back to a pure version of reality have already been factored in. Think of the ways in which contemporary discourse around wellness and authenticity that all too often goes viral consists, in part, of telling people of the importance of logging off.
Cronenberg’s films are refreshingly free of moralizing or judgement, but they’re honest, and if we want to think beyond kneejerk condemnation or utopian idealization of how technology can be used and even use us, then there’s much in here that’s valuable for understanding the reality of the world we inhabit.
Cronenberg has always been aware of the ways in which we’re technological beings, our bodies and sense of self being unstable and mutable, and, for better or ill, our own drives toward change potentially having both heartbreaking and horrifying consequences. It’s something that comes through in perhaps his saddest film, The Fly (1986). What could well have been an easy cash-in, a remake of a 1958 creature feature, is both deeply romantic (the chemistry between Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum is so sweetly convincing) and heartbreaking.
The film follows the brilliant scientist Seth Brundle who invents matter transportation. One night, when trying to test his experiment, he transports himself along with a fly, which is spliced into his DNA. His physical changes are rapid, often disgusting and deeply frightening, but as Brundle puts it: “Most people would give anything to be turned into something else […] I’m becoming something that never existed before. I’m becoming … Brundlefly. Don’t you think that’s worth a Nobel Prize or two?”
Our fragility and mutability is core to what makes us who we are — we find one another and connect, but do so in the knowledge that we’re impermanent. To love — in fact, to exist at all — is to be changeable, and thus to be at risk of the pain and suffering of loss. The Fly is a wonderful exploration of our inevitable decay, but also captures that change and the falling apart of the body is also the ground of solidarity and commonality. All of us are fragile in ways that we struggle to admit or even to imagine, and our projected normality and stability is all an attempt to hide this away.
Take Cronenberg’s neo-noir A History of Violence (2005), wherein ordinary family man Tom Stall (played by frequent Cronenberg collaborator Viggo Mortensen), who lives in idyllic small-town America, is revealed to have formerly been a hitman for the mob. The revelation of Tom’s profession causes huge stress in his family. In an argument with his son, he tells him that, “In this family, we do not solve our problems by hitting people!” To which his son responds, “No, in this family, we shoot them,” just before he is slapped in the face by his father.
Human beings are capable of great harm and colossal violence, but never does Cronenberg lapse into a lazy reactionary Darwinism. Instead, he argues that even with our potential for violence, human agency is still capable of overcoming it — we might be violent, but we can still choose. At its core, A History of Violence is a challenge to be more honest about aspects of ourselves that we deliberately repress, and to strip away the lies we construct about ourselves. After all, suburbia itself is often marketed as a place without violence, yet it only exists at all thanks to repressed violence in the form of redlining, segregation, and economic exploitation.
That challenge to an honest examination of the self — of what the body might want and become — is also the aim of Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method (2011), an adaptation of John Kerr’s 1993 book. It is, in a sense, a less fleshy film, concerned with the philosophical and emotional relationship between Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud and the Russian physician and psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein.
The film revolves around that early central statement in From The Drain: it all comes from the mind. Yet what comes from the mind here is sex — the eroticism of the body is the source of the rift between Jung and Freud, and it’s clear that while sympathetic to Jung’s mysticism, Cronenberg sees it as essentially taking us away from the honesty of admitting our desires. After all, it’s Jung who falls for Spielrein even as he criticizes Freud for arguing that so much of human psychology essentially boils down to sexual desire. The film points out that Jung is uncomfortably caught between his rather abstract theorizing and his physical erotic desires and connections.
Again, the main theme is clear: what is normal is the wrong question to ask. Rather, more pressingly, Cronenberg’s film work forces us to confront the issue of who we are, and what it is that we want. Freud points out that Jung needs to reconnect with Spielrein in order to advance psychoanalysis, and by the end of the film the two men agree to end their collaboration, unable to overcome their fundamental differences, limiting their ability to map the human psyche at all.
The risk that Cronenberg sees in an artistic or cultural turn away from the body toward a more abstract and less embodied view of human nature is a fall into anhedonia and self-annihilation, which is something that Cosmopolis (2012), an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel, explores. The film follows the billionaire speculator and finance bro Eric Packer (played by Robert Pattinson) around in his hermetically sealed and sterile limousine. The vehicle glides through city streets as anti-capitalists protest, waving placards, one of which reads, “A spectre is haunting the world: the spectre of capitalism.”
His wife leaves him and an assassin is after him, and yet even as Packer’s fortune starts to evaporate, he seems fundamentally unconcerned with all of it. Life, in all of its physicality and fleshly detail, is something that Packer is disconnected from — everything happens out there somewhere, subordinated to the remorseless perfection of the market.
At the very end of the film, Packer seems unconcerned about living or dying at all, as the randomness and contingency of life (the “a-symmetry” of things, as the film puts it) just can’t compare to the perfect coldness of the market. Even death is something to be seen with at most cold indifference, because life is simply just another asset class. This is a point made brutally clear in the real world by the ways in which working class people have been treated as essentially disposable under COVID-19, whilst the richest of the rich saw their fortunes grow.
With the final film before Crimes of the Future, Maps to the Stars (2014), Cronenberg turns his attention to the fantasies we tell ourselves and their source in Hollywood. Following a child star and a washed-up actor, the film is viciously scornful of the dream factory as a deceptive place that seeks only a kind of inauthentic distraction. Underneath the glamour and the projected fantasy lies nothing but violence, incest, drugs, and despair. It’s a film that sees those in Hollywood as existentially panicked, recoiling from their own emptiness even as they have no other way of being. These two films then form an interesting political double-bill, as Cronenberg turns his coldly fascinated gaze onto the horrifying emptiness of the rich and famous.
What’s so politically useful about Cronenberg is not anything as straightforward as polemic or propaganda. He isn’t a filmmaker who has much interest in agitprop. Rather, his concern is with acknowledging that politics is fundamentally lived and embodied. The personal is political, but often what we take to be the personal is something far stranger and more fluid than we’re comfortable acknowledging. If we don’t really know what we want or what we might become, then we have to start with being able to look at ourselves and our true nature closely and without revulsion. The body can be a sight of horror, but why should it just be that? As one of the characters in Cronenberg’s film Dead Ringers puts it, “I’ve often thought that there should be beauty contests for the insides of bodies.”
From a political point of view, Cronenberg’s films underscore a vital leftist point: before art or philosophy or high-minded and abstract political ideals come our material needs and nature. Through much of his work he’s circled around the idea that our bodies are in some way still strange to us, and that while the body can become something horrifying, its potential is also part of what makes human beings so extraordinary. Our embodied nature is what makes us who we are, in all of its blood and viscera, and understanding that honesty is vital for any kind of political project that wants to deal with people as they actually are.
In an age when political reactionaries seek to impose their own violent repressions upon the body, through attacks on abortion rights and LGBTQ rights or the freedom and common humanity of migrants, these films, which assert the inescapable potential of humanity to become something new if we’d only be honest about what we want, offer both horror and hope in equal measure.