DECEMBER 4, 2013
SINCE 1969, David Cronenberg has been making feature films that penetrate the darkest recesses of your mind, and stay there. Notable Cronenberg heroes have transformed into human-insect hybrids, masturbated stomach vaginas with handguns, birthed children conceived entirely out of pure rage, and used car crashes as foreplay. Cronenberg doesn’t break taboos until after he’s invented them.
On November 1, 2013, the Toronto International Film Festival opened its first original traveling exhibition entitled Cronenberg: Evolution. The exhibition, in Toronto until January 19, 2014, is the main attraction in the all-encompassing experience Long Live The New Flesh: The Cronenberg Project. The Cronenberg Project includes an art exhibit at the Museum of Canadian Contemporary Art, two film series, lectures, and guest presentations, all kicked off by a launch party whose flier advertised its “Cronenberg-inspired hors d’oeuvres,” as though that wouldn’t strike terror into the heart of anyone who has seen Cronenberg’s movies.
It’s the Body/Mind/Change part of the exhibition that caught my interest: you take an elevator up to the fourth floor of TIFF’s new Bell Lightbox building and the doors open onto a Cronenberg film set. A collaboration between David Cronenberg, TIFF, and the Canadian Film Centre’s Media Lab, Body/Mind/Change is billed as “the first interactive story experience to generate a physical object.” The premise of the story is that a fake company known as “The BMC Lab” is releasing their inaugural product, the Personal On Demand or POD — a small 3D printed object, a result of user-generated information gathered from surveys given to participants at the lab or online. We, the visitors to the exhibition, are their customers and test subjects. Ana Serrano, the producer of The BMC Lab, explains that the collaborators “really want people to have a good feeling for what it means to live inside a Cronenberg film.” According to the press release, Body/Mind/Change is “for adventurers who want to explore the plausible science fiction found in Cronenberg’s film as fact.”
Ostensibly, The Cronenberg Project is trying to get you inside the mind of David Cronenberg. In reality, The Cronenberg Project achieves the exact opposite. The exhibit gets inside of you.
After visiting Cronenberg: Evolution, I watched as many Cronenberg films as I could in five days. Somewhere in between Naked Lunch (1991) and Crash (1996), I fell asleep and dreamt that a reptilian child was walking towards me, and she or it was holding out her hand, drawing me to her. I couldn’t tell if she was innocent or evil and I woke up in a cold sweat. Cronenberg was getting to me.
Cronenberg: Evolution takes its visitors through the three loosely defined stages of Cronenberg’s career, beginning on the first floor of the Bell Lightbox building. Here the walls are lined with rare editions of Cronenberg’s movie posters and the artwork for his credit sequences, while fragile costume design sketches and original test screening comment cards are sealed in glass dresser drawers lining the walls. Each corner of the room is devoted to a different stage of Cronenberg’s career. “Who Is My Creator?” covers his early films that dealt with science and scientists, evil or absent patriarchs, and nature as a kind of religion. The heroes and heroines were often the subjects of other people’s experiments. This includes films like Stereo (1969), The Brood (1979), Scanners (1981), and Videodrome (1983), films in which the hero’s journey takes him or her to the limits of scientific exploration.
“Who Am I?” includes films like The Fly (1986), Dead Ringers (1988), and eXistenZ (1999), in which Cronenberg’s heroes are usually scientists or self-creators — still test subjects, but at least they’re the ones holding the Bunsen burners. The results are always deadly. A small room devoted to a replica of the bar from Naked Lunch is connected to the main room by glass doors. Visitors can sit and take a picture with a plastic Mugwump perched on a bar stool while the bar scene in which William Burroughs’s character gets his “assignment” as a Mugwump sips its cocktail plays on a loop.
Finally, there’s “Who Are We?” which is Cronenberg’s current stage of filmmaking. These are the films that want to explore the social and physical violence that inheres in our most intimate relationships, like A History of Violence (2005), Eastern Promises (2007), and A Dangerous Method (2011). Artifacts include the television set from Videodrome, the doomed transporter from The Fly, and the Helmut Newton-esque crutches donned by James Spader in Crash.
The categorization is helpful. It allows the visitors to identify patterns in the artifacts present. Mostly, though, the categories lay the groundwork for understanding the fake “pop-up laboratory” working four floors above them. By the time you’ve walked through, you’re ready to get your POD.
“The whole premise of the [BMC Lab] experience,” Serrano explained to me, “is that David Cronenberg has licensed all the intellectual property of his films to a biotech company, and together they are releasing a first product — Personal On Demand (POD), a half technological, half biological product that gets implanted into people’s necks.” Four floors above the exhibition proper, we stood in the small room where a “lab” enclosed by glass walls housed people in white lab coats, fussing over the machines — in reality, 3-D printers. One wall was fitted to hold the customized PODs in small glass bottles, each one a little different, but most of them resembling some sort of white plastic rodent.
Visitors are meant to believe that the PODs can be inserted directly into their bodies. In eXistenZ, characters playing a video game had a “port” installed in between their vertebrae with some sort of gun. I would imagine that the process of installing these PODs is intended to replicate that experience, but I don’t ask Serrano for specifics. This is, after all, a performance art piece funded by Canadian government grants, not a Cronenberg film, and the PODs seem like toys. Participants are invited to pick up their PODs in January, once the exhibition is finished. As a visitor, your participation drives the creation of the POD, but in terms of actual participation, it begins and ends with an online survey and signing up for an email list.
The experience was a little creepy, a little silly. I had a hard time keeping a straight face when Serrano switched from explaining the concept of the lab as an art project to explaining it as though I were a real customer looking for a POD, especially after I saw that one of the “scientists” was someone who had gone to film school with my boyfriend. “Am I allowed to talk to you, or is this like a Buckingham Palace guard kind of thing?” I whispered, afraid of getting him or myself in trouble.
When I’m uncomfortable, I have a tendency to laugh — it’s a way to dissociate myself from getting too involved with the discomfort. The Cronenberg Project felt overwhelmingly uncomfortable as a whole. The objects from the film were designed to invoke ideas of pain and disgust, and even without seeing them in the context of the film, they’re often so obviously instruments of torture or the results of torture. The scene from The Fly in which Jeff Goldblum’s handsome jaw collapses like a piece of rancid meat in Geena Davis’s hand plays on a loop; Jude Law’s “bioport” from eXistenZ sits preserved in a small glass fridge — it looks like a skin graft but made of latex. It’s all pain. The BMC Lab, by contrast, is uncomfortable because of how clean and sterile everything seems. The lab is quiet and the fake scientists are very composed. If we really were in a Cronenberg film, the audience would be yelling at us to stop being so trusting and get the hell out of there. If we really were in a Cronenberg film, this would be the last scene before disaster strikes. I couldn’t stay there.
Before I saw The Cronenberg Project, I had seen exactly two Cronenberg movies: A History of Violence, which I saw because it didn’t seem especially horrifying, and Videodrome (1983), because it seemed like the right movie to start my research. Based on what little I knew, Videodrome seemed like the film most emblematic of Cronenberg’s entire career, the best example of some of his recurring themes: autonomy and free will, conspiracy theories and shadowy businessmen, technology and sex, a fair amount of body horror. I was afraid to watch any more. I was afraid of what I would see.
In 1975, the Canadian journalist Robert Fulford wrote about Cronenberg in Saturday Night magazine. In an article entitled “You Should Know How Bad This Film Is. After All, You Paid For It,” Fulford pointed to Cronenberg’s film Shivers (1975) as an example of what was wrong with government-funded art. Partially funded by Telefilm Canada, Shivers told the story of a parasite that created insatiable sexual desire. Fulford was appalled by its depravity.
Fulford’s article is now regularly trotted out to prove how wrong people can be about which works of art should or will endure. But I realize now it had the author’s intended effect on me. Before I knew what a Cronenberg film was like, I knew what “Cronenberg” meant. “Cronenberg” was shorthand for violence, death, blood, and gore — the kinds of things that made me stay up at night, checking the locks on doors and windows, contemplating the different ways that human beings can experience and inflict pain. I avoided Cronenberg’s films because I was, quite literally, afraid they would infect my mind. In Videodrome, Max Renn discovers that the television waves cause brain tumors. Would I watch Videodrome only to find that it created a permanent and corrupting influence on my mental health?
Most critical writing on David Cronenberg’s films invoke Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection. “It is not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection,” Kristeva writes in the beginning of Powers of Horror, “but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules.” We believe that our flesh is an impenetrable boundary, and Cronenberg believes the opposite.
In The Fly (1985), Jeff Goldblum’s smirking face gives way to reveal the insect hybrid he’s become. Before his final transformation, he tells his (human) ex-girlfriend that he thinks he was always an insect who just dreamed he was once a human man. Dead Ringers (1988) blurred the line between what makes an individual an individual. If identical twins are an embryo divided in two, then can twins ever really be two distinct people? “You haven’t fucked Claire Niveau until I’ve fucked her,” one Jeremy Irons snaps at the other Jeremy Irons, as twin gynecologists who share sexual partners. He’s furious at the appearance of an emotional boundary. And then there is Videodrome, where James Woods fucks his television screen with the same intensity he exhibits when fucking Debbie Harry. There are no boundaries between humans, nature, and machines, and that’s when we become afraid to watch a Cronenberg film.
It’s precisely this lack of boundaries that makes the sexual encounters in Cronenberg’s films so unsettling. In an essay entitled “Cronenberg as Scientist: Anti-essentialism, Sex as Remixing, and the View from Nowhere,” philosopher Peter Ludlow talks about Cronenberg’s time studying science at the University of Toronto and states that sex in a Cronenberg film is shown to be both humanist and scientific, “a process by which we become something else. Humans are not fixed creatures. […] The recombination need not even be limited to biological change.” If a Cronenberg film exists in a universe with no boundaries, then his characters aren’t limited to traditional forms of sexual intimacy. The possibilities of pleasure are endless. So in Crash (1996), even though the sexual pairings are predominantly heterosexual and limited to couples, there are no boundaries between acceptable forms of penetration (up to and including a collision between vehicles). In A History of Violence, A Dangerous Method, and Dead Ringers, the boundaries between sexual pain and pleasure are blurred without judgment; Cronenberg, with his endless supply of sexual or scientific combinations, seems to always be saying “Why not?” Why not this kind of sex as well as the soft-lit romantic kinds we usually see in other period films? Why not this kind of mutant if all humanity is a kind of mutant?
The other theorist whose influence overwhelms Cronenberg’s films is Dr. Sigmund Freud, everyone’s favorite armchair patriarch. It was no surprise when Cronenberg directed A Dangerous Method, a pretty period piece detailing a love triangle between Carl Jung, his notable patient-turned-psychiatrist Sabina Spielrein, and Freud. Cronenberg has been working with Freudian theories since the very beginning of his career (a female character is seen reading The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud by Ernest Jones in Rabid ) but Freud’s guiding hand is most obvious in films like The Brood (1979). In this gruesome takedown of modern psychiatry, a newly divorced woman named Nola uses the sheer force of her rage to produce a new, external womb, birthing mindless killing machines that act out her unconscious hatred towards other humans.
In Barbara Creed’s incredible text on women and horror films The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis she posits that The Brood is an extension of Freud’s misogynistic views on the “monstrous womb,” in which a child immaculately conceived by a mother’s rage is a metaphor for the destruction a divorced mother can wreak on a child. While I see her point, I disagree with Creed’s analysis that “women [giving] physical expression to her anger is represented as an inherently destructive process.” In contrast to other films featuring monstrous wombs, like Rosemary’s Baby, Nola is depicted as an incredibly powerful and regal force of nurture becoming nature. She doesn’t love her rage babies in spite of their monstrosity; she loves them because they are monstrous versions of her. They’re an integral part of her identity, and her identity is not solely monstrous. Compared to Rosemary’s anemic, frail, and victimized turn as a glorified egg donor for Satan, incapable of turning off her maternal instinct even in the face of true evil, Nola is positively queenly. She, and other Cronenberg villains or tragic heroes, are often very, very confident in their righteousness. Nola, Seth Brundle, the Mantle twins, for example, are all completely confident that they are the future of the human race, and they just need the other humans in their lives to accept it or get out of the way. Sign up for a POD and become a part of the future or risk getting left behind.
I would imagine most people who walk through the entire Cronenberg exhibition on the first floor of the Bell Lightbox building would reach the same conclusion: that the event in January will quickly turn tragic. They’ll gather everyone together to pick up their POD and announce that they were all wrong — that the POD is a threat to the very fabric of our humanity, and that we’ve all made a terrible mistake by dismantling the boundaries between man, machine, and nature. Maybe my boyfriend’s friend will be found when people show up for their POD implementation, red corn syrup congealing on his white lab coat. Just like a Cronenberg film.
In the alternate reality that TIFF and the CFC have created, the POD will “anticipate your desires, act as a recommendation engine for media, and a host of other things,” Serrano says as she gestures to a pod. “You have to train it to anticipate your desires, your psychological makeup, your psychic makeup, your spiritual makeup. You’re required to train your POD so it can become something that can be transplanted in you.” The Freudian in me understands precisely what sort of metaphor this is. It’s hard to not ask whether the POD has the ability to vibrate as well.
On the date I attended, I was told that over 800 people had signed up to receive a POD. I’m still unsure if this is a real number or a number that is part of their performance. The website features a sign-up function that asks whether you are familiar with the potential side effects and risks of implanting a POD before it accepts your email address.
Where does this exhibit start and where do you end? The deliberate blurring between real life and “real” “life” is the entire point of The Cronenberg Project. Like Cronenberg’s best films (Videodrome and Dead Ringers), the answer is ambiguous. Our boundaries aren’t really defined by the fake pop-up laboratories created by artists to prove a philosophical point. Like the worst Cronenberg films (eXistenZ), the answer is a whispered “You’ll never know,” designed to terrify. It succeeds only in boring me. A filmmaker is responsible for determining the boundaries of their fictional worlds. If even the artist can’t stick with their self-imposed boundaries, how can they expect their viewers to?
During the tour, I found that I was most disturbed by the room inspired by Naked Lunch. The original mugwump — a horrible human-sized bug — was encased in a glass coffin that took up nearly the entire room, and its latex flesh looked like the skin of a human corpse. I snuck out and went back to the Dead Ringers portion of the exhibition, where the “Tools for Operating on Mutant Woman” were on display. In the film, Beverly and Elliot Mantle are twin gynecologists whose tragic fate is, maybe most tragically of all, totally mundane — just a normal drug addiction. It’s their behavior on drugs that becomes bizarre, with Beverley insisting he needs new tools to treat all these mutant women he’s seeing, referring to women like Claire, maybe the first woman he’s ever loved who also happens to have three cervixes. The tools are completely grotesque; worse, when Beverley tries to use them on a woman, he insists the tool is right and her body is wrong. It’s the history of medicine as a patriarchal tool in one sentence.
I should have been appalled looking at the tools precisely because I know exactly what would happen to my body if a doctor used them on me. But like a Cronenberg film, they drew me in with their duplicity; I understood them, so I feared and craved them all at once. I have no such understanding for bugs. Likewise, without having a personal aversion to or fear of penetration, I don’t know if I can fully appreciate the psychic leap it might take to sign up for an insertion of a man-made product I’ve taught to pleasure my body.
The central conceit of The Cronenberg Project is that there are no boundaries between the artifacts displayed under spotlight and the viewers. The entire exhibition wants to replicate what exactly we experience when we watch a film that disturbs us on an unconscious level: a combination that wasn’t previously found in nature. Each person that walks through will see or feel or fear something different. The combination of a Cronenberg film, coupled with my peculiar conscious and unconscious mind, will produce a completely unique understanding. Cronenberg hasn’t “gotten” inside me; I, and other viewers, let him in, to see what sort of weirdness our two minds can produce combined together as opposed to in parallel, and to see who we’ll be after the viewing. Long live the new flesh.