Beyond the Multiplex

David Cronenberg on his gritty film "Eastern Promises" and being "hot for 10 minutes" (an interview and podcast). Plus: The charming "Great World of Sound" and more.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published September 13, 2007 11:00AM (EDT)

To listen to a podcast of the interview, click here.

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At age 64, David Cronenberg has become, as he dryly puts it, "hot for 10 minutes." When I interviewed him on the release of "Spider" five years ago, we hung out for an hour in an empty production office talking about Russian novels, his Toronto childhood, experimental films of the '70s and what's wrong with contemporary horror movies. Things have changed. When I caught up with Cronenberg this week at his New York hotel, he had only a few minutes to meet in the bar, where we could barely get served amid the crowd of BlackBerry-toting media execs. Nabokov was not on the agenda.

What came in between, of course, was "A History of Violence," the erotic, twist-and-turn thriller starring Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello that became both an international hit and the best-reviewed film of 2005. In its wake, Cronenberg is no longer the aging cult-film legend of another day. Now he's a great, gray lion of genre cinema, widely acclaimed as a formal master. (He's been around this particular block before, and is well aware what goes before the fall.) Cronenberg's moody new London-set mob thriller "Eastern Promises," with Mortensen once again in the lead, premiered a few days ago at the Toronto Film Festival (to largely enthusiastic reviews) and opens this week in major North American cities. He was working the press in New York for a day or two, after hopscotching from Toronto to Montreal, and was either heading out to L.A. or back to Toronto next, he wasn't sure.

"Eastern Promises" is clearly among the most-anticipated titles of the year, but I hope it doesn't totally eclipse "Great World of Sound," a simultaneously ruthless and charming character study from North Carolina's Craig Zobel that might be my favorite American indie of the year so far. Made on a change-under-the-cushions budget, it's brilliantly acted, acutely observed and deceptively profound. And the riches continue! This week also brings us a couple of gems in limited release: "Forever," a marvelous study of Paris' legendary Père Lachaise cemetery from Dutch director Heddy Honigmann, one of the world's true documentary masters; and a long-awaited director's cut of "My Brother's Wedding," the virtually unseen 1982 feature by African-American filmmaking legend Charles Burnett.

"Eastern Promises": Blood in the borscht, or a side of London the tourists never see
I often think about David Lynch when I think about David Cronenberg, and vice versa. These two cult heroes are so dissimilar in so many ways, yet they attract similar audiences and draw their water, so to speak, from the same deep wells. Both are informed simultaneously by classic genre movies and by European art film. Both draw on the subconscious in their movies, both are attracted to the grotesque at least as much as the sublime. (You could say that both find each element in the other one.) If you ask me, Lynch could use a little more of Cronenberg's cool control, and Cronenberg could use a dose of Lynch's intuitive dream logic. But that's a topic for another time.

Put their two most recent films, Lynch's "Inland Empire" and Cronenberg's new "Eastern Promises," next to each other and they seem like polar opposites. Lynch's film is a nightmarish interior voyage that has almost no coherent narrative, while Cronenberg's is a tightly plotted, mostly conventional film noir about the workings of the Russian mob in London. (Its screenwriter, Steven Knight, also wrote "Dirty Pretty Things" for director Stephen Frears.) But appearances can be deceiving. I would argue that both films take place in a dream state or imaginary space that is pretty far from observed reality, but that Cronenberg takes pains to disguise this.

I asked Cronenberg about this with regard to "A History of Violence," which struck me as the most overtly Lynchian of all his films. He insisted that the film's Indiana small-town setting was meant to be naturalistic (although he shot all of it in Ontario), while admitting, "I'm constantly treading the line between realism and impressionism." That boundary remains pretty porous in the brooding "Eastern Promises," which is dominated by Mortensen's charismatic performance as a sinister Russian mob chauffeur with a secret tender side (and some other secrets as well).

Shot in some of the grittiest neighborhoods of immigrant-rich south London and the East End, "Eastern Promises" follows Nikolai (Mortensen) as he slowly opens up to Anna (Naomi Watts), an English woman of Russian parentage who has come into possession of a dead prostitute's diary. The journal clearly implicates Kirill (played by Vincent Cassel), the hotheaded son of Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who is both a grandfatherly restaurateur and, as Anna realizes a little too late, the biggest boss of London's underworld. If nothing about these characters or their story is acutely surprising, "Eastern Promises" is nonetheless a dark and mesmerizing immersion into a distinctive world of black leather and expensive haircuts, of vodka, cigarettes and hookers; a world of coarse luxuries that periodically erupts into paroxysms of violence.

As I've suggested, I think judging Cronenberg's recent films by standards of realism is inappropriate; the imaginative universe of his movies has changed only slightly since the days when he depicted characters growing new sexual organs ("Rabid") or giving birth to throngs of evil, murderous dwarfs ("The Brood"). There's an expensive veneer of plausibility to "Eastern Promises" that his horror films did not exactly possess, but he's still depicting a world in which everyone's heart holds dark secrets, where men and women remain unknown to each other, and where love is a dangerous, deceptive and disruptive force. (You can listen to a podcast of my interview with Cronenberg here.)

This is a pretty different movie from "A History of Violence," but still, it's a crime thriller directed by you and starring Viggo Mortensen as a sort of shadowy, mysterious central character.

I know. Who'd have thunk it? You see, I didn't decide the timing. There were various other films that floated by after "History of Violence," but they didn't come together and the deals didn't work out. I had been talking to Focus Features and BBC Films about this script a year before they finally came back to me and said, "OK, we'd like you to do this." The timing has nothing to do with what I want and don't want. It's when the money comes together, really. It wasn't calculated.

Creatively, I can see that the two movies would make a very interesting double bill, with all the thematic resonances and character connections that you could make. But that has nothing to do with the making of the movie. In this one, there are no American characters. It doesn't take place in America, and it's a real film noir in the sense that most of it happens at night in a city, whereas there's a brightly lit, rural feel to "History of Violence." And the challenge to Viggo was completely different, really.

Well, with his hair slicked back and all that black leather, you barely recognize him. People who only know him from "Lord of the Rings" and your previous film may be wondering, "So where's Viggo? And who is this Russian dude?"

That's right, and I'm sure that's one of the attractions for Viggo. This guy is a Russian. He comes from Yekaterinburg in Siberia. He's got to walk like a Russian, he's got to think like a Russian. He speaks English with a Russian accent and speaks Russian fluently. What I've heard from all the Russian journalists so far was that Viggo is perfect, totally convincing. Which is incredibly gratifying. Until we vetted it for some Russians, we didn't know whether what we had done with our Russian consultants had worked. That's been a nice validation.

When you first read Steven Knight's script, what was in it that made you think this was potentially a David Cronenberg movie?

Well, you see, there you've added something that I never add. I'm serious. I don't think about "Is this a David Cronenberg movie?" Because I have no idea what that is. I try to totally forget what I am or what I'm perceived to be, and what people's expectations might be based on my other movies. I think that's very deforming, it will distort your perception. On the contrary, I'm reading this script and I'm in the audience: "Wow, these characters are amazing. They're exotic but real. I've never known anything about this subculture. The streets of London in this movie are not going to be any streets of London you've ever seen in a movie before. The textures, the ancient hostilities brought to the new country, the betrayals, the lack of trust but the need to work together in a criminal globalization." All that was really intriguing and it felt connected to what's going on in Russia today, while still being a fiction, a drama. It really felt relevant.

Of course you have mostly shot in Canada before, and most of your films are set there. This was mostly shot on the real streets of London, right?

Well, there were some major sets: Semyon's restaurant was a set, and the bathhouse [where a major and bloody fight scene takes place]. We did spend a lot of time in the streets of London, but they were the mean streets of London. They were the streets that tourists don't go to. Our English crew loved where we were shooting. They told me, "This is the real London, this is the London that we know. It's where we live."

I was thinking of a line from an early Public Image Ltd. song, "A side of London the tourists never see."

That could have been our theme song.

Something also struck me here: It's been said that to be an English-speaking Canadian is to belong to a culture that's partway between the United States and Britain. You've been bouncing back and forth across that divide: "Spider" was set in London in the '50s. "History of Violence" was set in Middle America. Now you're back to London again. I'm sure that wasn't precisely intentional.

No, it wasn't, but it's true that Canada's relationship to England is quite different from that of the U.S. We started from the same point, but we never cut those ties. We never had a revolution. I mean, we still have the queen on our money! Our relationship to Britain is more congenial, and we feel more connected. The resonances of that relationship are much different.

I was talking with another critic last night about the question of whether this film should be considered realistic. I think I have two answers. Obviously you spent a lot of time and money making the clothes, the settings, and the accents appear authentic. On the other hand, all your films, including this one, seem to exist in a time and space and reality that is your vision, rather than in some objective real world.

Well, how could they not? If you're doing a documentary you're doing a documentary. But as Michael Moore and Ken Burns and all those other documentarians will tell you, they think they're doing fiction anyway. It's a creative thing, an illusion of reality. As a director, you make 2,000 or 3,000 decisions a day that are unique to you. They flow through your nervous system, your culture, your background, your education, your visual sense. You cannot avoid that filtration system. It filters out other people's versions of reality and you don't have to struggle to make it your own. There's no way to avoid it, frankly, because of the nature of what directing is, or certainly the way I perceive it.

But I love being in those real streets. I love owning the streets at night. My favorite thing is shooting in the streets at night when everybody else has gone to bed and there's just us doing our thing. There's no hangers-on, there's no partying, it's just us. But then the streets become your set. It's all a set; the whole city is your set.

One point of connection between this film and "History of Violence" is that Viggo plays a character whose true nature is hidden from us. He's this career criminal, an almost stereotypical Russian gangster who does terrible things. But he has other dimensions we can't see.

Part of that is because we don't know what a man in that position would really be like. Being the chauffeur to the boss' son in a crime organization means you've got to be pretty discreet and controlled, especially since the boss' son [Kirill, played by the French actor Vincent Cassel] is wild and volatile. You're there to take care of him and make sure he doesn't kill himself. You're controlled and you don't give much away, because it's not your show, it's his show. At the same time, you're ambitious, you want to move up, you're observing everything, you're calculating, you're planning your next move. Well -- would somebody like that have no sense of humor? Would somebody like that not flirt with a pretty girl on the street? Maybe he would. Would he have absolutely no kindness or gentleness? I'm not sure that he wouldn't, you know? I think that's just real; everybody is pretty complex. Even Stalin could be nice on a given day.

I understand he was highly sentimental, actually.

Well, Armin Mueller-Stahl said, when we talked about his character [the mob boss Semyon], "All monsters are sentimental." That's how they manage to express their emotions when on other occasions they have to be incredibly controlled and emotionless. So it goes into a strange and structured place; sentimentality is a very structured version of emotion. Viggo's character also -- it's not unrealistic to think that he might behave that way. Whether that indicates something more profound and deep or not is another question.

The linguistic challenge of this movie must have been immense. We have three principal actors, an American [Mortensen], a Frenchman [Cassel] and a German [Mueller-Stahl], all playing Russians living in England. So they had to have some version of an English accent, with a Russian accent ...

On top of that, yes. And we have a Pole, Jerzy Skolimowski [himself an acclaimed filmmaker]! We had two language coaches on set at all times. One was an Englishman watching the Russian accent when English was spoken, and another one was a Russian watching when Russian was spoken. It was a very specific Russian, because it's a slangy, criminal Russian, not formal or academic Russian. You take Vincent Cassel, whose English is pretty good, but he normally speaks with a French accent and he had to warp that into a Russian accent.

To add to the complexity, we had the question: What is the relationship of each of these people to the English language? At what point in their lives did they learn English, and who did they learn it from? We assumed that Viggo's character learned English in Russia, maybe just at school, so he has the thickest accent. We assumed that Kirill, Vincent's character, came to England when he was about 17, so his accent is more English-inflected. Armin's character is more mysterious: Where did he learn English and how long has he been speaking it? There are different levels of accent strength in each case.

It's almost like a metaphorical way of seeing the ambiguity or the mystery in all these characters. It's right there on the surface.

I think so. We used to say, "This movie is about language," and we meant that metaphorically as well.

In case some of your longtime fans are wondering whether there's any blood and gore in this movie, and whether you use any special effects, the answer would be yes.

Oh, a little bit. People have said that this movie is very violent, but in terms of screen time, it's very little. There are only three scenes, although one of them is longish, I suppose. [Mortensen's character does protracted bloody battle with a pair of Chechen would-be assassins, while stark naked in a bathhouse.] When you consider the body count of "The Departed" or "The Sopranos," ours is pretty darn low. The difference is that I take it seriously in terms of realism, and the camera does not look away. We've had a long discussion about why I do that, but I have very good reasons. That's why the impact of those scenes goes beyond screen time.

How has the success of "History of Violence" changed your career. Has it made projects possible that weren't possible before?

I believe it has. I'm hot for 10 minutes, you know? I take it with a grain of salt, but I appreciate it nonetheless. Suddenly people are considering me for scripts that I guarantee you they would not have considered me for before "History." If you showed them "Spider" as my last movie, they would blanch. They'd get very nervous. Because it's an art film with a capital A, and it's low budget. My most expensive film is still "History of Violence," which cost $32 million. This one was around $27 million. When people hear about movies costing $180 million, they may think that's peanuts. But in fact, everyone involved takes $26 million very seriously, and so do I. It's a lot of money.

You've worked with Hollywood-scale budgets before, making "The Dead Zone" and "The Fly," and then you found yourself on the outside again. So you must be aware that at some point you could be back down to the "Spider" level again.

Sure. You just have to make it not affect you. It only becomes a seriously bad thing when it frustrates you from doing a movie you really want to do. And that has happened to me. There were a couple of projects I really wanted to do, and I was just too scary for those studios to consider. I could tell you some very funny stories about that one.

I'm not even banking on "Eastern Promises" being successful. It's gotten some very good reviews and a couple of not-so-good reviews. We had a great gala opening at the Toronto Film Festival with the most wonderful audience that followed every twist and turn and laughed at every joke. I'd like to bottle that audience and take it with me everywhere I go. Beyond that, I've got no guarantees of anything.

Any words of wisdom for the old-time Cronenberg purists out there, the ones who wish you were still making "Videodrome"? I talked to one guy after the screening last night who was just fuming. You know, "Cronenberg's turned into a hack, he's a Hollywood sellout, he hasn't made a decent film in 15 years."

Oh, God, that's great! I've been trying to sell out for years. So maybe without realizing it I've achieved it. That's exciting. [Laughter.] Well, to me that's not a real fan. That's a horror-film fan, it's not really a Cronenberg fan. If Viggo's fans only like him as Aragorn and don't like him in anything else, then they're "Lord of the Rings" fans, they're not Viggo fans. If you look at the auteur theory, it's like, once you commit to someone's sensibility, you say, "This guy's a really interesting director, I'm going to be curious about everything he does." Even when he's made a film that's not so great, maybe not his best, you still enjoy it. If he struggles, then you watch him struggling. That's a real fan.

"Eastern Promises" opens Sept. 14 in New York, Los Angeles and other major cities, with wide national release to follow.

"Great World of Sound": Swimming with sharks (and Christian musicians) at the lowest rung of the dream economy
Martin (Pat Healy) is a skinny, balding white guy with bad posture and a collection of geeked-out short-sleeve shirts, emanating arrested-adolescent lack of self-esteem. Clarence (Kene Holliday) is a gregarious, bearlike African-American, prone to misstatements and malapropisms but possessed of a finely honed wit and multiple diplomas from the school of hard knocks. Together this odd coupling are the protagonists of "Great World of Sound," a wrenching fable of life at the ass-end of the music business that was one of the few real surprise pictures to emerge at Sundance this year.

Actually, even claiming that Martin and Clarence work in the music business is giving them too much credit. They are hucksters pure and simple, no matter how much they may want to deny it to themselves. Working out of a shabby rented office in Charlotte, N.C., for a sleazoid character named Shank (John Baker) -- who claims he produced a No. 3 hit for a one-time teen idol named Stephanie in 1987 -- Martin and Clarence separate would-be American idols from a few grand at a time, selling them recording sessions at a third-rate Nashville studio and production and promotion deals that go nowhere.

Out of this grim, sub-David Mamet setting, director Craig Zobel and co-writer George Smith have crafted a gripping, bittersweet fable that encompasses both the immense American capacity for self-delusion and the American faith in redemption. Zobel and his cast and crew actually traveled around the South from one chain motel to the next recruiting amateur musicians -- gospel trios, death-metal groups, a girl band in flight-attendant uniforms, would-be Shania Twains and John Mayers by the dozen -- to appear in their film as Clarence and Martin's prey. (No one was tricked into performing on camera under false pretenses; they all knew they were making a movie and that the visiting "record executives" were fictional characters.)

These performances are sometimes artless and awful, sometimes thoroughly charming and frequently heartbreaking. Sitting there in the audience, you want the situation to be real as much as these musicians might; maybe, just maybe, Shank's fly-by-night record company will actually give one of these people a legitimate shot. The thing is, Martin and Clarence want that too. They know they're in Birmingham, Ala., or Knoxville, Tenn., hustling to get paid, but they can convince themselves, just barely, that they're helping these no-hopers (or almost-no-hopers) fulfill a dream.

Clarence and Martin's semi-improvised sales patter ranges from the hilarious to the insane, but "Great World of Sound" reaches its pivot point when this duo, who've become close if improbable friends, can no longer pretend to each other or themselves that they're anything but con artists. When Martin has a crisis of conscience and sends an attractive Joni-esque crooner (who actually has some talent) home before they close the deal, Clarence blisters him with an expletive-laden economics lecture that might be the show-stopping moment in any American film I've seen this year. Holliday is a 58-year-old TV actor with sporadic credits (he co-starred on "Matlock" in the late '80s), but this performance is a revelation. Clarence is sometimes a lovable rogue and sometimes a disquieting scumbag, but Holliday gradually reveals him as a flawed, angry, bitter, tremendously loyal and profoundly human character who lives by his own code in the wilderness of bottom-level capitalism.

Zobel's direction is unaffected but accomplished; what's striking about "Great World of Sound" is that it never looks or feels cheap, despite being directed on a shoestring with a cast of unknowns and an almost unmanageable X factor (the amateur musicians). Rebecca Mader and Tricia Paoluccio are terrific in supporting roles, and the film's depiction of life and work in the corporatized New South is devastating without ever being dogmatic. This is independent filmmaking with genuine ambition and an unfaltering vision, depicting unglamorous lives with sympathy but without much sentiment, and thoroughly devoid of the pallid quirkiness that might make it a crossover candidate. This terrific little picture has limited marketplace potential because it's just too dark, but it should launch Zobel (along with Holliday and Healy) to greater things.

"Great World of Sound" opens Sept. 14 at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza in New York; Sept. 28 in Los Angeles; Oct. 5 in Seattle; Oct. 12 in Durham, N.C., Minneapolis, Omaha, Neb., Raleigh, N.C., San Diego and San Francisco; and Oct. 19 in Nashville, Philadelphia and Washington, with more cities to follow.

Fast forward: Cast a warm eye on life, on death, in "Forever"; Charles Burnett's long-lost "My Brother's Wedding" surfaces at last
Heddy Honigmann isn't a household name anywhere in the world, unless the members of your household frequent European film festivals. But she belongs on the short, short list of documentary filmmakers whose work has the richness and ambiguity of the best narrative films. (I'm really no expert, but I'd begin that list with Werner Herzog and the amazing Finnish director Pirjo Honkasalo, whose work may be even more obscure than Honigmann's.) In her new film "Forever," the Peruvian-born and Italian-educated Honigmann -- who now lives and works in Holland -- literally ventures onto sacred ground, the fabled Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

Yes, Jim Morrison is buried there, but Honigmann never visits his grave. (She does show us the chalk-scrawled arrows and "JIM" signs that mark the pilgrims' path.) She's haunting Père Lachaise in search of other artists' graves, both the transcendentally famous and the virtually forgotten, and to speak to the people who tend this meeting space between the living and the dead. Proust gets a lot of visitors, even if they haven't necessarily read "In Search of Lost Time." (I mean, have you?) An embalmer visits Modigliani's tomb, to find inspiration for his own work with faces. A Japanese pianist visits Chopin, and weeps for her own father. (Later we hear her play Chopin, and beautifully too.) Movie fans visit Simone Signoret; opera buffs Maria Callas.

Out of this apparently simple and even trite subject -- the evanescence of human life; the supposed permanence of art -- Honigmann develops, with deceptive casualness, a few unforgettable character studies and one of the purest, most moving motion pictures of the year. I'm not sure whether my favorite character is the cab driver cum chanteur who is visiting Iranian poet Sadegh Hedayat, or the radiantly beautiful middle-aged woman whose father was a haute-couture shoemaker, or the woman mourning her much younger husband (who died from a bee sting while on vacation). "Forever" is a poetic meditation on death, yeah, but it's also a joyful experience. It makes you feel profoundly grateful to be alive, and may convince you to finish reading Proust after all. (Now playing at Film Forum in New York; other engagements may follow.)

A few years after breaking new cinematic ground with the astonishing black-and-white drama "Killer of Sheep," shot on the streets of Los Angeles in 1976, African-American director Charles Burnett scrounged up a somewhat larger budget to make a second feature in color. That movie, "My Brother's Wedding," has been an object of controversy, and virtually MIA, ever since. (It was poorly reviewed at festivals, in a rough-cut version, and then shelved by its producers.)

Milestone Films, which rereleased a lovingly restored version of "Killer of Sheep" earlier this year, has given Burnett a chance to complete this long-lost project and provide it both a theatrical and DVD release. There's every reason to be grateful for this; I only wish I could tell you the film was a masterpiece. "Killer of Sheep" has some awkward dialogue and choppy editing too, but they're of a piece with its poor-cinema aesthetic, and anyway the heart of that picture lies in Burnett's memorable images, especially the breathtaking long takes and almost wordless scenes of ordinary life inspired by postwar Italian realism. He's to be commended for trying something different, and "My Brother's Wedding" aspires to seriocomic drama, following Pierce (Everette Silas), a hapless dry-cleaner's son who's torn between his bupscale brother and his criminal best friend.

There's plenty of intriguing imagery and observant humor in "My Brother's Wedding," and Burnett's purpose -- to depict poor African-American characters without even referring to ghetto stereotype -- comes through loud and clear. But too much of the picture is claustrophobic, talky and unconvincing. It often feels earnest without being real. Viewers interested in Burnett's work should see it, of course, but "My Brother's Wedding" is more an intriguing point of transition on the road to his later breakthrough with "To Sleep With Anger" than a fully realized work on its own terms. (Now playing at the IFC Center in New York, and will be released Nov. 13 on DVD as part of "Killer of Sheep: The Charles Burnett Collection.")

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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