The best word I’ve come across to describe David Cronenberg’s filmmaking style is “disembodied.” It was voiced as a criticism, but I think he’d own up to it. Whatever squelchy or peculiar or downright disgusting thing is going on in his pictures, the camera tends to exhibit an almost serene, floating detachment, like a severed head calmly looking down at its own twitching torso.
Detachment is hardly the same thing as disinterest, and if Cronenberg has shown us one thing in his now 40 year career, it’s that cinema can both squelch and think. He has a habit of reaching for Descartes in discussing his films, which consistently operate at this interface between the visceral and the cerebral. I suppose it’s possible to be put off by both sides of the equation—the chilly rigor of his tonal strategies could very well disconcert the casual viewer as much as, say, the bugs with talking anuses. But when you’ve got the hang of Cronenberg, his filmmaking comes to seem forensically exploratory, and engaged in brave and singular ways with the potentials, as well as the pathologies, of the human animal.
“Body horror” was the term coined to contextualize Cronenberg’s work in the 1970s and 1980s, the period of his career when he worked almost exclusively in the science fiction/horror genre. Like all such phrases, it’s a shortcut: there’s more to understand than just an obsession with mutation and organs falling off. Cronenberg’s great concern has always been the body—he calls it “the first fact of human existence”—but his films differ substantially from the other horror cinema of their era in exploring our anatomies from the inside out. Limbs are rarely under threat from chainsaws in his films—they are more likely to atrophy or multiply or go the way of an arthropod.
Even when he has reached across to other genres—as in his most recent picture, the London mob drama Eastern Promises (2007)—there’s a lingering interest in the totemic importance of physique. Every wound or scar stands as an entry on these gangsters’ curricula vitae. It’s notable that the film’s most heralded set piece is a knife fight in the chambers of a Turkish bath house, in which Viggo Mortensen’s hero combats two assailants while stark naked, a statuesque male nude contorted into a dance of death. Meanwhile, the ritual of gaining star tattoos, prized status symbols within the ranks of the Vory v Zakone, draws Cronenberg’s attention as an eroticized spectacle in itself, not just a cultural pointer. All this—Naked Lunch (1991) and M. Butterfly (1993) too—and he isn’t even gay.
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