Beyond the Multiplex

David Cronenberg on whether his new movie is an allegory for George W. Bush's America. Plus: Controversial Lars von Trier's latest, and if you don't see "Forty Shades of Blue," shame on you!

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published September 22, 2005 7:00AM (EDT)

This may not come as a news flash to readers of Salon, but the rest of the world has concluded that we here in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave are a package of nutbars. Speaking as someone whose father-in-law has a "Boycott France!" sticker on his SUV, I would suggest that anti-Americanism, along with the responses it provokes, is always an ambiguous business. Yes, the prejudice of many educated Europeans, Canadians and others is sometimes unthinking and reactionary. Yes, they're partly upset that their own youth culture, their politics, their language and their diet have been hopelessly contaminated by the viral force of American hopes, dreams and myths.

On the other hand, that's not much of a defense, is it? The America many of us hold dear, the America of Whitman, Kerouac, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, the America of apple pie à la mode and Mojave Desert outsider art, of endlessly rejuvenating immigrant neighborhoods, California roadside architecture and neon "EAT" signs -- does it really still exist? Sure, you can still find those things (I think), but they've been driven to the margins by Wal-Mart, by Halliburton, by the Hummer patrolling the endless expanses of sprawl that look exactly the same everywhere, by a hyperaggressive military empire that wants to conquer the world but can't shoot straight or protect its own cities from drowning.

Whatever cosmic force has brought us two strange and important films about America's addiction to violence in the same week also demands, I think, that we consider them without guilt or defensiveness. Canadian director David Cronenberg is well aware that many viewers will see his riveting new film "A History of Violence" as an action thriller that embraces the idea of seeking violent retribution against criminals and bullies. The fact that he and star Viggo Mortensen conceived the film, in part, as an allegory about the Bush administration's foreign policy will be lost on anyone not already disposed to see such things.

On the other hand, despite his reputation as a gore-monger, Cronenberg is too meticulous and thoughtful an artist to be boxed into some narrow political critique. Like most of his movies, "A History of Violence" is a story of transfiguration and loss, a story of love threatened and perhaps redeemed, a violent and erotic fable about a family who could be American or Canadian or anything else.

Thomas Vinterberg's "Dear Wendy" (written by Lars von Trier) is something else entirely. It is literally a love letter written by an American boy to his gun, although the town he lives in is pure fantasy and his charming Huck Finn fairy tale collapses, toward the end, into a black hole of absurd and obscene carnage. American critics will protest long and loud about this movie, which only makes me wonder whether, in its own deranged and sinister fashion, it hasn't gotten something right.

Beyond that, more riches: Ira Sachs' "Forty Shades of Blue" was the grand-prize winner at this year's Sundance Film Festival, and it's easy to see why. If it doesn't preach the gospel of anti-Americanism, this powerful drama of family, love and adultery set against the Memphis music scene will make you wonder what the hell is wrong with the American film industry, which can hardly ever make movies this good for grown-ups.

"A History of Violence": Darkness at the edge of town
As David Cronenberg tells the story, a Los Angeles producer phoned him years ago, just to chat. (They never wound up working together.) "It's spooky for Americans to watch your films," said the producer. Cronenberg wondered why. "Well, the streets look like America -- but they're not!" the L.A. guy went on. "The people look like Americans -- but they're not!"

You could say that Hollywood discovered this phenomenon for itself in later years, given the number of movies and TV shows in which Toronto doubles for New York, or Alberta for South Dakota. But Cronenberg has never before capitalized on the "extra dislocating effect" of his Canadian settings quite the way he does in his ominous new thriller, "A History of Violence." The film's small Midwestern town, Millbrook, Ind., looks pretty convincing. But as Cronenberg puts it, it's a mythological American town, where high school football dominates the cultural life, kids cruise the main drag on Saturday night, and the local sheriff is looking out for you.

Maybe there's something off about Millbrook, and about the family of diner proprietor Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), even before the evil pair of drifters ride into town. It's normal stuff: Tom's 6-year-old daughter (Heidi Hayes) is scared of monsters under the bed; his bright teenage son (Ashton Holmes) is harassed by bullies at school and sees Millbrook as a depressing dead end. But when the two bad guys try to stick up the diner, and Tom responds with surprising ferocity, something is unloosed in Millbrook. (Let me say right here that if you don't want to know anything more about the plot of this film, now's the time to check out.)

Tom's son beats his oppressor to a pulp. Strange men from Philadelphia (one of them Ed Harris) in dark suits and black limousines show up in town, seeming convinced that they know Tom. As it becomes clear that Tom isn't entirely who he says he is, his wife Edie (Maria Bello) experiences an unexpected sexual awakening: She is repulsed by the idea of her husband as a killer, but also aroused. Tom's journey back to his Philadelphia past, and an identity he thought he had left behind, plays as a sort of medieval dream-quest; the only thing he really wants is to get back to Edie in Millbrook. If this is a story of a family and a town transformed by a viral epidemic of violence, it's also a story of a passionate marriage, one that can perhaps be redeemed amid the bloodshed.

Although Josh Olson's script was originally based on a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, it has now unmistakably become a Cronenberg movie, and one of his finest. Mortensen and Bello make a compelling central couple; there's nothing arch or ironic in their portrayal of ordinary Americans facing a terrifying life change. Cronenberg's trademark special effects are used to show that all violence, justifiable or not, has hideous physical consequences. Whether you choose to see this film as dark political allegory or just a rousing action flick, it rides a current of powerful emotion and a sharp moral knife-edge.

I met David Cronenberg in his New York hotel room at the end of a long day of interviews. He had a cold and was clearly tired, but he spoke about this film and his 40-year career with vigor and confidence.

You've never made a thriller for a Hollywood studio before, although I guess "The Dead Zone" in 1983 came pretty close. But I was thinking about the thing you said once about your themes -- "disintegration, aging, death, separation, the meaning of life. All that stuff." Well, that's all here.

For me, it's just business as usual. I was aware that this budget was higher than on my other movies. This was with a studio, and the expectations are different. But all of that wouldn't have mattered if I hadn't been hooked into this story and hadn't felt there were things that were relevant and interesting to me.

I don't really have a checklist of things, though, like decay and loss of love and body portals. [Laughs.] It's all intuition. I just let the script wash over me and imagine the movie and feel that, yes, there's a lot here and it's going to keep me awake for the two years that it takes to make and release it. I ask: In the middle of the winter when I'm editing it, will I be suicidal or will I be excited? If the answer is I'll be excited, then I think seriously about doing it. I only get analytical about it when I talk to you. That's the truth.

You've also made very few films that are ostensibly set in the United States.

That's true. "The Dead Zone" was the last one. Besides that only "Fast Company" (1979), my drag racing movie, was set in the States. That's it.

You described "Spider" (2003), your last film, as expressionist, in that you weren't aiming for a totally naturalistic reproduction of 1950s London. This portrayal of an American small town feels like that to me. It's like the people are real, but the backdrop is a little odd.

I would say that the backdrop is pretty naturalistic. I talked to somebody recently, an American, who was shocked to learn that I hadn't shot this in the States. He bought it -- so I got one guy! Even Carrie Rickey of the Philadelphia Inquirer thought that those shots on the roads leading into Philly were second-unit shots of Philly, and they weren't. They're all in Toronto and we changed the signs.

But it does please me, in a theoretical way, that not a foot of this film was shot in the U.S. Because it really is about America's mythology of itself rather than attempting to be a slice of life as it's lived in America now, which is quite a different thing.

I almost felt like there wasn't quite enough sunshine in Millbrook. It's an ominous place from the get-go.

It's a moody little town. I didn't want to go overboard with the sunniness of it all. The scene in the kitchen, in the beginning, is not flooded with yellow light and so on. It's warmish, but not warm. I'm constantly treading the line between realism and impressionism. And of course the opening scene of the movie [in which the two roaming killers commit several gruesome murders] contaminates, in a sense, all the scenes that follow. That tells you in no uncertain terms to be a little nervous, however nice and stable things seem to be. There are things that are not so nice and not so stable, lurking under the surface.

How did you come to this? Were you familiar with the graphic novel?

I was not, and I'm still not. I didn't know this script was based on a graphic novel for a long time, because nobody told me. When I found out, Josh and I had already done a couple of rewrites. I said, "What do you mean, graphic novel?" and he said, "Oh, didn't anybody tell you?" They found me a copy and I looked at it, and I thought, well, we've gone so far in a different direction that this is actually irrelevant. In fact, if someone had brought me the graphic novel and said, "Are you interested in adapting this?" I'm not sure I would have said yes. I was interested in Josh's take on it, and he had already changed a lot. The novel is very much involved with the mob dynamics and very little with the family. Josh was much more interested in the relationship between the wife and husband, and I was too.

Did his screenplay include the two intensely physical erotic scenes we see in the film?

It did not. I added those scenes.

I thought so. There's a lot of sexuality in your movies, but in this case it's especially crucial. Those sex scenes are really memorable, and they're also the pivot points of that relationship, between Tom and Edie.

I don't ever feel that I need to put sex in, or violence in, because I've done it before. That would be the wrong reason. I really listen to what the movie wants; I give it what it needs. If you're going to examine a couple who've been married for 20 years and have two kids, and not explore their sexuality at all -- I can't understand why you would do that. I would feel like I was not fulfilling my obligation to this couple. You could call this movie "Scenes From a Marriage," and we were very aware of that. I needed to know what their sexuality was, so I would know how it changed.

Inevitably people will look at this movie and see it as David Cronenberg's political statement about America. Is that fair?

Certainly when I talked to Viggo, trying to seduce him into doing the movie, he wanted to know who he was working with. I flew to L.A. and talked to him, and we talked a lot about politics. We talked about America and the current administration.

I know where he stands on that stuff.

Yeah, well, we stand pretty much in the same place, even though I'm a Canadian. Not that we were making an overtly political film, but I think the political undertones are very obvious for those of a certain sensibility. They're invisible for others who are just looking for a good action movie. You could say, here we have the iconography of a western movie, in which an individual with a gun takes the law into his own hands. When violence is visited upon him, any retribution becomes justified.

OK, so is this the Bush administration's foreign policy, based on a western? Well, it's hard to avoid the obvious. When Bush talks about Osama bin Laden "wanted dead or alive," he's referring to an old TV series and countless other westerns. You take this language, this rhetoric, from old Hollywood westerns, and they're applied in a situation which you would think, you would hope, would require sophisticated diplomacy and cultural sensitivity, among other things. We're alluding to that, and not necessarily in a positive way. But it's a bit of a stretch, to go that far. As you can see, I have to work fairly hard to get that argument in shape. But in examining the reality of America and its ambivalence towards violence -- and you get that in the audience reaction to the film -- it's certainly discussing those things. Whether it's coming up with an answer or an agenda -- I don't know that that's really the purpose of art.

The idea that violence has a sort of viral or epidemiological existence, and that once it's in a population it tends to spread -- that's a David Cronenberg theme if I've ever heard one.

This comes out in specific ways. You have the story of the son who avenges himself against a bully. I tend not to do high school scenes; the sooner I forget high school the better! When we first meet him, the boy seems to be a pretty good politician. He can talk his way out of a violent confrontation. He uses his wits, he uses his humor, and he uses his lack of macho bravado to pull the rug out from under the bully. Therefore he avoids violence -- ever having it inflicted on him or committing it himself. Then he sees the celebrity his father attains after his acts of violence, and he's intrigued by that.

So you have to say: Are we talking about a genetic propensity to violence, or is it a cultural one? He feels that he wouldn't mind having some of that celebrity on his own level. Therefore, the next opportunity he has, he ends up committing violence. He's unrepentant afterwards and does connect it to his father. Genetically, I have to say yes, it's obvious that people have a propensity for violence. It comes from our animal past, our need to survive. But we also have that other thing, that imagination, that ability to abstract and say, "Well, we can imagine a world in which we don't do these things that we find abhorrent -- by negotiation, by diplomacy, by compassion, by empathy."

Then the only violence in the world would be the kind we have recently seen, natural disasters and other things we can't control. But we never seem to be able to attain that, and the devil part of it is, it's because we don't really want to. Is it because somewhere we feel that violence is a good thing, that we need it, that it's necessary, even given the evolved species that we are?

You've said that Viggo Mortensen was essentially a collaborator in making this film. How did that work?

He did some set decorating, and I've never met an actor who did that before. He went to the Midwest to hang out and hear the accent, see the body language of people and feel the rhythm of speech. But he also bought things: the little thing in front of the cash register that's for tips. It says "Fishin' money" and it's in the shape of a fish. He put that stuff around the house and around the diner, feeling that these were things this character would have around him and that they could be touchstones for him. Wherever he looked, there was Tom reflected back at him through these artifacts. He could find the tone of his character that way.

I really bought the body language of his performance. It'd be easy to play the rural Midwestern guy as shtick. A lot of actors probably would, especially since Tom is already a guy playing a part. But just standing in front of his pickup truck, cleaning the spark plugs, he feels real. There aren't any quotation marks.

Not at all. When we talked about it, we said, "No irony." This movie is not postmodernist. There's no irony involved, because that would have sucked it of all its power. I don't tend to do that anyway, but I thought that any quotations about the genre or about the Midwest would be a big mistake. Play it as real as you can, because the structure itself gives you enough unreality.

I can't help thinking about Lars von Trier, who is making films about America without ever even coming here. That's quite different, isn't it? The effect you're talking about is a lot subtler.

I would say so. I've only seen a little of "Dogville," and I haven't seen "Manderlay." But you don't have to see much of "Dogville" to get the picture, literally and figuratively. He's never been to America and I have. I've been to America a lot. I have relatives in Baltimore -- my father was born there. It's not a theoretical approach; it's visceral and physical. That's not to say his stuff is invalid, but it's miles and miles away from what I'm trying to do in this movie.

Your career divides pretty evenly between the films you made as a writer-director, up to the early '80s, and the films you've made since then, by adapting someone else's material. With the exception of "eXistenZ" (1999), every film you've made since 1983 has been adapted from some other source.

First of all, it's laziness. Writing an original script is very, very difficult. Second of all, it's momentum. Brian De Palma used to write a lot of his own scripts, and now he doesn't. It's very difficult to say, I'm going to take two years off and sit down and write an original script -- which I might not like myself, or I might like but nobody else likes, and then it doesn't get made. In the meantime, people approach you with scripts and novels that are already written, that have producers who are excited and will pay you to do the adaptation.

I used to see the same pattern in other directors, and now I can see it in myself. There was a time when I was very arrogant about that -- you're not really an auteur if you don't do your own stuff. Then I realized with "The Dead Zone" that fusing your sensibility with someone else's -- in that case, Stephen King's -- can be quite interesting. You wind up making something that neither one of you would have come up with separately. It's like a marriage. It's like mating.

The other thing is that you can bore yourself. Working alone, you can keep going back to the same routine, your own set of rails that might have been liberating initially and have now become a rut. All it takes is someone else to come at you sideways and you find yourself exhilarated and energized. If it feels that good, it can't be bad.

I felt an influence in this movie that I've never felt before in your work, and that's David Lynch. Those two guys in the beginning, the killers on a road trip, these forces of destruction with their aimless, pissed-off dialogue -- those guys come right out of a Lynch movie.

I knew you were going to say that. Well, I don't think David can be an influence on me, because as Nabokov said about Joyce, I was already who I was before I encountered him. But I can see where that comes from. Those guys, plus when you're talking about exploring the violent underside of an American small town, well, that's "Blue Velvet" territory. It's a legitimate comparison.

When I look at your writer-director films of the '70s and then at your more recent films -- "Naked Lunch" or "Crash" or "Spider" -- it's hard to avoid feeling that you've changed. The later films are sadder, subtler, maybe not as grotesque, not quite as angry.

Well, I've gotten older. I was just discussing that with Brian De Palma, who I saw the other day. We were wondering if it was possible to make your best films when you're older, and we both agreed that we certainly hope so.

We seem to have all these young filmmakers who made one or two exciting films and are now in danger of burning out or becoming hacks: P.T. Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Christopher Nolan, David O. Russell. As a critic and fan, this concerns me; artists aren't being given time to become who they really are.

Hollywood can be seductive, and it's like what James Joyce said about Ireland: Hollywood eats its young. I had that happen. That happened to me: People would see that I had something interesting and different, and they came calling. But they want you to divest yourself of the things that made you unique and different and interesting. They want you to be Cronenberg without any Cronenberg-ness.

"The History of Violence" opens Sept. 23 in New York, Los Angeles and other major cities, and Sept. 30 nationwide.

"Dear Wendy": Real gunplay in a fake America
When I interviewed Cronenberg, I hadn't yet realized that a new chapter, sort of, in Lars von Trier's ongoing evisceration of America -- or at least of his fantastical notion of America -- would soon be available. "Dear Wendy" is a script von Trier decided not to direct, handing it off to his Danish colleague and friend Thomas Vinterberg. The result is a bizarre admixture of realistic wounded-teen drama and inflated tragic allegory, not as stagy as von Trier's "Dogville" but not as low-key naturalistic as Vinterberg's "The Celebration," one of the best films to emerge from the not-entirely-serious Dogme movement.

At its most literal level, "Dear Wendy" is the story of a group of teenage losers in a Southern mining town who begin packing antique firearms and style themselves as the Dandies, a group halfway between a secret boys' club out of a Stephen King story and a violent gang. Led by a charismatic orphaned teen named Dick (played by insta-star Jamie Bell, he of "Billy Elliott" and Peter Jackson's forthcoming "King Kong"), the Dandies are pacifists, sworn never to draw their guns in anger. When they're joined by a suave African-American kid (Danso Gordon) who really knows about guns, their social compact comes unglued, and a violent catastrophe results.

But nothing in the movie is never anywhere near that straightforward. While Vinterberg plays the early scenes as downbeat pseudo-Depression realism, the town of Estherslope (whose central square is called "Electric Park") is so thoroughly unconvincing it has to be deliberately so. It's not merely that "Dear Wendy" was shot on Danish and German locations that don't look quite right; it's that almost every decision made by the production designers is wrong, or at least discordant.

The cars are from the '80s and '90s, but the unpainted storefronts and dreary signage belong to the '30s. This is a town with no chain stores, no TVs, no car radios blaring rap or country music. The clothing is modern without being specific. Beyond a single reference to Vietnam, some classic hits by the Zombies and a San Diego Padres cap, there's no evidence that politics, history or pop culture has touched Estherslope. In this context, I'm suspicious of the mistakes that look at first like European cluelessness: The car belonging to the crusty sheriff (Bill Pullman) says "Police" on the side; the area codes have only two digits.

Furthermore, if you spend any time on film-geek bulletin boards, you begin to understand that von Trier and Vinterberg have packed the film with references and quotations drawn from Stanley Kubrick's movies. I missed most of these on first viewing, although the similarity between the Dandies and the violent band of "droogs" in "A Clockwork Orange" is evident, and there's a glaring "Doctor Strangelove" gag amid the mayhem of the concluding scenes. Given that Kubrick became infamous for his refusal to leave England -- even shooting a film there that was set in Vietnam -- you could say that the universe of "Dear Wendy" is contiguous with his.

Vinterberg has said that he tried, within the confines of von Trier's stylized script, to tell a realistic human story about the love of weapons as a defining force in the Western world. Indeed, Dick and his fellow Dandies Stevie (Mark Webber), Susan (Alison Pill) and Huey (Chris Owen) are an appealing group of characters who rise out of the movie's artificial murkiness. They're real, likable kids, stuck in a world that resembles an endless "Twilight Zone" episode. If the only way to end the episode is to drag a senile black lady through the streets of Estherslope while they shoot it out with a phalanx of heavily armed cops, they're prepared to get it on.

Those who yowl about the perceived anti-Americanism of "Dear Wendy," or its troubling racial politics, are pretty much falling into Vinterberg and von Trier's trap. It's not that "Dear Wendy" is a hoax, exactly, but that it's just trying to do the impossible: to be tragic and comic and fake and real and heartbreaking and as grossly ultraviolent as Sam Peckinpah's worst nightmare all at the same time. I'd characterize it as a fascinating failure, a minor-key "Fight Club" that may develop a cult following. Its landscape is the landscape of movies, not of reality; but its insight is that we're in the movies and the movies are in us, and none of us is too sure where the dividing line lies.

"Dear Wendy" opens nationwide Sept. 23.

"Forty Shades of Blue": What American film once was, and could be again
In any other week of the year, pretty much, I'd have significantly more love available to lavish on Ira Sachs' "Forty Shades of Blue," a compelling family melodrama somewhat in the manner of late John Cassavetes or early Robert Altman. The story of a legendary Memphis soul-music producer (played by the great Rip Torn) who's gradually losing his ice-blonde Russian girlfriend (a knockout performance by Dina Korzun), the film combines high production values, terrific acting and a distinctively American lyricism in a combination you hardly ever see these days.

Now a craggy, blocky man in late middle age, Torn is predictably terrific as Alan, a blustery tycoon who has built an empire but barely notices the emotions of those around him. But "Forty Shades of Blue" really belongs to Korzun, an extraordinary beauty who can also look, when conditions demand, like an angry, vulnerable child. At first, her Laura seems like the archetypal Moscow trophy wife: alcoholic, shopaholic, vain and perennially distracted, with her emotions never quite under control. When she brings home a random guy and then kicks him out (while Alan is boffing one of his singers), the house isn't empty: Alan's adult son Michael (Darren Burrows) has just gotten to town and is watching from the next room.

So Laura and Michael don't exactly start off on the right foot, but that soon changes. Michael's stuck in an unhappy marriage with a pregnant wife, and he and Laura of course have the larger-than-life Alan in common, as the source of both material well-being and numerous emotional wounds. There's nothing terribly daring or unconventional about the way Michael and Laura move from emotional intimacy into something more, but the film's combination of lustrous surface and surprising depth belongs to another time -- the past, yes, but maybe also the future.

If Michael is revealed as more his father's son than he wants to admit, Laura blossoms into a tragic heroine worthy of Tolstoy. She has cashed in on her beauty but now dares to want more; despite all the evidence around her, in the country she came from and the one where she wound up, she believes in love. As she and Michael sit in a parked car in a rainy diner lot, with her toddler son asleep in the back seat, she tells him that she has more than anyone she has ever known. The real discovery is that it still isn't enough. "Forty Shades of Blue" is a breakthrough work by a major new talent in American film. If audiences beyond the big coastal cities don't get to see this, shame on all of us.

"Forty Shades of Blue" opens Sept. 28 at Film Forum in New York, and Oct. 7 in Los Angeles.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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