The Baron of Blood does Bergman

David Cronenberg on Nabokov, his creepy, minimalist new "Spider" and why memory can never tell us who we really are.


Andrew O'Hehir
March 1, 2003 2:00AM (UTC)

I think my friend Theresa stayed, even after the tray full of gynecological instruments designed for "mutant women" came out. She could always stand anything I could. But as the camera crawled across a tabletop littered with twisted pincers and forceps, like leftovers from a museum show on medieval torture or pieces of the "Alien" Queen's spinal cord, the rest of our moviegoing group had seen enough. It was 1988 in San Francisco, but David Cronenberg's "Dead Ringers," starring Jeremy Irons as a pair of demented twin doctors, could still drive a gaggle of overcaffeinated, post-whatever hipsters right out of the theater.

For the guy across the aisle from me at a Times Square theater for "Crash," in 1997, the sadomasochism was OK, the open-wound sex and disability fetishism was not a problem, the "autoeroticism," ha ha, was fine and dandy. But when James Spader and Elias Koteas embarked on some same-sex probing in the back seat of a 1963 Lincoln Continental (the precise model in which John F. Kennedy was assassinated, naturally), he was out of there. He was a large man, and he unfolded himself to his full height and girth to address the audience as he stood up. "No, no!" he said. "Nuh-uh! I ain't sitting here for that."

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It's possible that no other filmmaker in the history of the medium has provoked as much discomfort, and so many of these walk-out moments, as Cronenberg has. At some point in almost every one of his movies, you're likely to share that guy's feeling: I ain't sitting here for that. And I'm not claiming immunity here, by the way. I made it through "The Brood" (1979), a misogynistic nightmare in which Oliver Reed's wife, under the influence of a cultish psychologist, gives birth to hordes of evil dwarves, but only just. No way in hell would I watch it again.

But like the other maestros of cinematic weirdness with whom he is most often compared, David Lynch and Peter Greenaway (as well as fellow Canadian Atom Egoyan, to some extent his protégé), Cronenberg draws his grotesque visions of transmutation, of human life rendered almost unrecognizable, from a well of genuine obsession. I'm not telling you that you have to like Cronenberg's movies. They certainly aren't for everybody, and while he has flirted with Hollywood from time to time -- he came close to directing "Total Recall," and recently to making a "Basic Instinct" sequel -- he understands that mainstream populist cinema is not really his field. But he isn't out to shock or torment audiences, or at least not to do so simply for its own sake. He's an explorer, driven equally by ideas and emotions.

Cronenberg's recurring images of people who grow extra sexual organs ("Rabid") or merge with machines ("Videodrome") or become monsters ("The Fly") or all of the above ("eXistenZ") are unashamedly metaphorical, even symbolic. All his work, no matter how squirm-inducing, seems shot through with a prevailing sadness at the fragility of human life and the ephemerality of love. He has described his themes as: "Disintegration, aging, death, separation, the meaning of life. All that stuff."

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Cronenberg's new film, "Spider" (the screenplay is by Patrick McGrath, based on his own 1991 neo-Gothic novel), is more clearly concerned with those themes than most of his work. It isn't likely to drive anybody out of the theater -- although getting people out of the house to see a meticulous, minimalist study of madness and memory may be another story. "Spider" is a spare, stringent film, with only a few troubling flashes of nudity and violence. It has exactly one Cronenbergian special effect (maybe one and a half), which I'll try not to give away. That's not to say it won't make you highly uncomfortable in its own way. Like the other literary adaptations of the filmmaker's later career (besides "Crash," these include "M. Butterfly" and his controversial take on William S. Burroughs' "Naked Lunch"), "Spider" finds the inner Cronenberg within another writer's work.

Since his Hollywood breakthroughs with "The Dead Zone" in 1983 and, even more so, "The Fly" in 1986, Cronenberg has had the cachet to work with movie stars when he wants to. Some critics perceive him as a chilly intellectual who plugs actors into his moviemaking machine, but that's not what the actors themselves seem to think. In "Spider," Ralph Fiennes plays the title character, an adult man released from a mental institution into an East London halfway house who becomes increasingly haunted by memories of his troubled childhood in the same neighborhood.

In a brief conversation at Sony Pictures headquarters in New York, where I met Cronenberg for an interview, Fiennes spoke of the director with remarkable warmth. "He's very open, very easy to work with," Fiennes said. "I was very open with David, and he invites that. People say to me, 'What's he like? Is he weird and freaky like his movies?' Not at all. He's very focused and relaxed on set, very concentrated. I never knew him once to get mad, freak out, be anxious or seem troubled."

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Fiennes had actually signed on for the screen adaptation "Spider," under the aegis of producer Catherine Bailey, long before there was a director attached. When Cronenberg emerged, the star felt immediately that the fit was right. "I didn't know all of David's work," Fiennes says. "I knew 'Dead Ringers,' 'Crash' and 'The Fly.' But I thought his response to the austerity of 'Spider,' the psychology of it, seemed right. We both responded to this existential figure in the middle of this bleak urban landscape trying to work out who he is and what's haunted him.

"I think he's such a superb filmmaker," Fiennes goes on. "He's not, like, a commercially grotesque horror stylist. He's an incredibly disciplined, controlled artist. I love the way he frames shots, he creates extraordinary sequences."

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"Spider" certainly demands a close relationship between director and star, since Fiennes' shambling, mumbling character, Dennis "Spider" Cleg, is on-screen in almost every scene, generally wearing at least four shirts and scratching indecipherable hieroglyphics in a private diary. Spider cannot quite settle into the routine of life at the boardinghouse presided over by stern Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave) because he keeps rehearsing childhood scenes of turmoil between his working-class parents, played in extended memory sequences by Gabriel Byrne and Miranda Richardson.

Cronenberg shows us these increasingly ominous flashbacks as Spider sees them; sometimes he's present as a little boy (Bradley Hall) and sometimes the adult Spider is skulking outside the kitchen window like a spy or lurking in the corner of the room like an overlooked dog. Boy Spider is sent to the pub to retrieve his drunken dad and taunted by a trio of chain-smoking "tarts"; later man Spider must watch as Dad ventures under the bridge along the gasworks canal with one of these overripe nubiles for a nastily hilarious bit of recreation. But as the tale of his father's infidelity moves toward a startling climax, it becomes increasingly hard to say where the boundary between memory and delusion lies. Like many of Cronenberg's movies, "Spider" is to some extent a puzzle concerned with subjectivity and reality, with the way we create our own identities.

Spider's memories make him who he is today, and neither he nor we know how much to trust them. While Spider is a deeply troubled character who may sometimes seem alien and repellent, there is no cruelty in Fiennes' portrayal or in Cronenberg's view of him. They want us finally to identify and empathize with Spider; like all of us, he is fumbling in the dark places of his own personality, trying to achieve as much self-knowledge as he can.

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In "Spider," Cronenberg convincingly captures the jellied-eel, smoky-pub decrepitude of 1950s London and creates a compelling portrait of schizophrenia. (One woman came up to him after a screening in his native Toronto, he says, and asked him how he knew about the huddled position her schizophrenic son assumes in the bathtub.) But as he puts it, it's less a naturalistic movie than an expressionist one. Its true terrain is that of ideas and psychology, which has been Cronenberg's turf since he emerged from the nascent experimental-film scene of mid-'60s Toronto with early features like "Stereo" and "Crimes of the Future." (Good luck finding those in any video format.)

With "Shivers" in 1975 (released in the U.S. as "They Came From Within"), a fable about sluglike, sexually transmitted parasites who cause the residents of a high-rise apartment complex to revert to anarchy and barbarism, Cronenberg pioneered the blend of art film and low-budget horror that became his trademark. Pilloried by the mainstream Canadian press and celebrated by horror fanzines as "Dave Deprave" and "the Baron of Blood," Cronenberg drew his core audience from the intersection of the suburban-bedroom horror freaks and the weedy grad-student set.

He made horror intellectually respectable for the first time, inspiring hundreds of dissertations and dozens of cultural-studies courses. It's a mixed legacy, to be sure. The combination of disreputable genre movies and postmodern theory has resulted in much unbearable claptrap, and I'd be happy not to listen to another director talk blithely about Mesoamerican human-sacrifice rituals or Foucault's notion of the polymorphous perverse.

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Since backing away from Hollywood after "The Fly" (as he once put it, a love story about someone with a horrible wasting disease), Cronenberg has defied any genre categorization. His recent films have been a mix of "respectable" literary adaptations and low-budget Canadian-made indies, and he's become less devoted to grotesque special effects (although 1999's "eXistenZ" was rife with gruesome Cronenbergiana).

Unlike many of the pseudo-intellectuals in movieland, moreover, Cronenberg has always been able to walk the walk and talk the talk. Sitting in a room with him and talking about Vladimir Nabokov's conception of memory, or Samuel Beckett as the iconic existential hero, as I recently did, might sound, in the abstract, unbelievably precious and pretentious. In fact, it was a totally relaxed and good-humored conversation with an elegantly dressed, gray-maned artist -- he'll turn 60 on March 15) who's always looking for the primal, pragmatic human emotions behind complicated ideas.

You've always been perceived as a director who came halfway out of horror movies and halfway out of the avant-garde. Is that fair?

I think it's fair. I've often said that Toronto is halfway between Europe and Hollywood and I was influenced both ways. Also, when I started filmmaking it was the New York underground that was the main inspiration. It was the '60s: Grab the camera and do your own thing.

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Do you mean, like, John Cassavetes?

No! I mean the Kuchar brothers and Ed Emshwiller and Kenneth Anger. The real underground. Meaning you wouldn't be making features, pretty much. You'd be making shorts. They made Cassavetes look commercial by comparison. Not that I didn't like Cassavetes. I did, and I saw his films. He came to Toronto with "Faces," I remember. They had a couple of screenings and it was sold out. We were all waiting in line and he came out and walked along the line and told us that we couldn't get in but there would be another screening in two hours. He apologized and was very gracious, and we all came back two hours later, which meant, like, 2 o'clock in the morning. Those were good times.

But I've always taken myself seriously as an artist. I remember being on a panel with [fellow directors] John Landis and John Carpenter, and I kept talking about art and saying, you know, artist this and artist that. After the interview was over, they both looked at me. I said, "What?" They said, "You called yourself an artist." I said, "Yeah." They said, "We would never do that." They were embarrassed by it, and shocked. It just wasn't a California, genre-filmmaker thing to do. Whereas for me it was absolutely natural to talk that way and think that way.

Still, you must have been influenced by ordinary movies, Hollywood movies, at some point in your life.

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Oh, sure. When I was a kid we would go to the movies. We called it "the show." The show was every Saturday. There would be a lemming-like stream of kids going down College Street in Toronto to one of the theaters there. It would be things like "Hopalong Cassidy" or "The Durango Kid," both of which I loved. Then sometimes my parents would take me to movies I wouldn't normally go to, in the evening rather than the afternoon.

I do tell this story about going to the show as a kid at a place called the Pylon. I was brought up in a section of Toronto that was the immigrant section, even though my parents were not immigrants. It was very Italian at the time I was growing up, Italian enough that they could open a cinema that only showed films in Italian. I remember coming out of one of my "Durango Kid" movies and seeing, across the road at the Italian cinema, adults coming out of a movie weeping. They were in tears, they were sobbing. Men too. I was shocked. It had never occurred to me that a movie could do that. I crossed the road and I looked at the movie, and it was called "La Strada" [by Fellini]. That was my first inkling that movies could be art, I guess, that they had the power to devastate you emotionally, even if you were a grownup.

You've talked about how your reading of philosophy and science has influenced your filmmaking. Did that play a role in "Spider"?

Well, I didn't write this script, so it's a different process. There was a lot of philosophy in "Spider" already, in terms of Patrick's understanding of how memory works, how it's a created thing and we're constantly rewriting it and redirecting it. One journalist said to me, "When we see Spider in his own memories, peeking in the windows or hiding in the corner, isn't that like a director being on the set?" I hadn't thought of it that way, but he is redirecting and rechoreographing his memories. So there are a lot of philosophical underpinnings there, the question of identity and memory, and how memory is identity, so therefore if you're constantly re-creating your memories you're re-creating your identity as well. Philosophically, that's very provocative. I suppose my readings had prepared me to understand this story and analyze it. It's rather existentialist, really, in the sense of where meaning comes from.

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It's hard to see this movie and not consider that all our memories are creations.

But they are, they totally are.

How much can we ever rely on them?

We can't. And it's frustrating, because so much of what you are is that. The other thing is that your perspective changes. You were a child then, in the case of deep memories. So your understanding and perception was from a child's vantage point and was therefore very specific. Now, let's say you're 60 and you're remembering that. Well, you can't do it from a kid's point of view even if you want to. So you're adding your adult perception. Can you recapture the feelings you had as a child? Or is it embedded in your perception? And now that your perception has changed you can't really recapture it?

I was also reminded of Vladimir Nabokov's definition of art, as an attempt to recapture what can never be recaptured.

In his case very specifically, yeah. A past that he was severed from before he wanted to be. He's one of my favorite writers. He was an important figure for me. One of the reasons I'm not a novelist, probably, is because I kept writing pastiches of Nabokov. Whereas when I came to filmmaking I felt quite free. There was no mentor figure for me, as there was for Brian De Palma with Hitchcock, famously, or for John Carpenter with John Ford. There was no filmmaker who had that hold over me. I mean, I love Bergman. I love Fellini. But they were from such different cultures that I couldn't even begin to imitate them, so I just didn't. Although maybe "Spider" is my most Bergmanesque film, let's say. I've probably never made a Fellini-esque film. Maybe "Naked Lunch," I don't know.

"Spider" certainly has some of the qualities of Samuel Beckett's work. But even more than that, in playing the role Ralph Fiennes looks an awful lot like Beckett.

That was totally in our minds. When I first talked to Ralph, what I brought to the table was Samuel Beckett: the hair and the look. It's kind of ironic, because without my intending it consciously, Spider becomes a template for the failed artist. He writes but no one can understand what he writes. And he destroys what he writes out of fear. But I was thinking of those famous shots of Beckett walking around Paris with his notebook and his bag. And then the character in "Krapp's Last Tape," or in the novels "Molloy" and "Malone Dies." Spider could be a character from a Beckett novel. We were looking to that as a touchstone. The austerity of Spider's character, because he has nothing, was what led me to Beckett.

We also had other touchstones, and they were mostly literary. Kafka and Dostoevski and Harold Pinter. For me, just cinematically, I was thinking of British films of the '40s and '50s, like Carol Reed's "Odd Man Out." Ralph to me is a James Mason kind of actor, someone who has the charisma and the looks of a leading man, but because of his darkness and his eccentricity he's more like a character actor. Which makes him more interesting to me, not less.

Ralph was talking a few minutes ago about what a warm relationship he had with you.

We were very close. We talked about everything. I'm very open with my actors, I don't hide anything, I don't yell, I don't scream. It's all very congenial and warm. What I need to do on the set is create a protected environment where people feel that they can do and want to do their best work, and that they'll be listened to and they'll have lots of input. It's all very sucky and Canadian, you know? It's not hostile and it's not confrontational.

There are some directors who like the mystique of being sadistic or torturing their actors into giving great things. You know, when you're working with professional actors, they know how to torture themselves! I don't have to do it. My job is not to teach the actor how to act. It's other stuff, a lot of feedback, a lot of support and collaboration. Everything you see in the movie that Ralph does is a collaboration. How much nicotine stain there is on Spider's fingers. How Spider walks and what his body language is. Because of course he mainly speaks body language in this movie, so it's very important.

Early in your career, you only directed movies you yourself had written. What is it that has drawn you lately to taking on other people's work?

It's the other people! That's exactly why you do that. When I started making films I was very intolerant of directors who didn't write their own scripts. But then I realized there were good directors who couldn't write. Stanley Kubrick was one. You couldn't put him down in front of a typewriter and have him write a script. He couldn't do it. You could still be a wonderful director and not write. The two things only come together by accident, that you can actually write and direct. They're not necessarily connected.

When I did "The Dead Zone," I was very happy with the film. I was very happy with the experience of mixing my blood with somebody else's, in this case Stephen King. When you use someone else's work as the basis, it's something you would never do on your own, but something you really feel an incredible empathy for and connection with. The two of you mix together -- why, it's just like sex, I suddenly realized! -- and you make something that didn't exist before.

What about the weird chicken-scratch writing that Spider does in his journal? That's your invention too, isn't it?

I took away the voice-over, and then I still wanted Spider writing. I wanted something physical for him to do that would show that he was obsessive and paying attention to detail and recording things. He thinks he's taking evidence of a crime, and he's gathering this evidence from his memory. But I didn't want us to be able to read what he was writing, so I asked Ralph to invent his own hieroglyphics, which he could write fluently. That's all his stuff.

Here's the point: It's a subjective movie. You are seeing it from Spider's point of view. So he doesn't explain stuff that's obvious to him. When he's confused, we the audience are also confused. When he's hallucinating, we are hallucinating. And the nature of hallucination is that it feels real. The main hallucination in the film is the only one that I thought was necessary.

Your portrait of London in the late '50s feels strikingly accurate, but it's also weirdly empty.

The physical aspect of filmmaking is important to me. It's very sculptural, very tactile. So to get those details right was something I wanted to do. But when I had Spider on the streets of London, and I had extras ready to be in the shot, dressed for the period, and cars and stuff, it never looked right. I kept taking them away until there was only Spider. Now, that isn't accurate. We looked at lots of street photos of London in the '50s, and you'd never see the streets that empty.

It was then that I realized that I wasn't going to resist the expressionist aspect of the movie, that it was Spider's isolation and his disconnection we were seeing, not the streets of London per se. I wanted people to become Spider by the end of the movie and inhabit him, not hold him at a distance. Which is one of the reasons I deemphasized the clinical aspects of his affliction. We don't mention schizophrenia, although the accuracy of that is obvious as well from the reactions of people who have seen the movie. And I've begun to feel the same way about the London street elements. I mean, we changed the lampposts so that they're correct for the time, but nonetheless it's an expressionistic London rather than a documentary London.

How do you feel about having become such an influential figure?

[laughing] Am I?

Well, you know, in the universe of film critics and film geeks. Anytime somebody makes a movie involving any kind of grotesque physical transformation, it gets called ...

"Cronenbergian"? Yeah. Well, I always hoped for "Cronenbergundian." What can I say? If it's there, I'm honored to accept it and acknowledge it.


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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