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The Body Horrific: Cronenberg Classics at the IFC Center

Sex and car crashes, sex and typewriters, sex and televisions: David Sharko plunders the singular body horror and the midnight madness of the Canadian director.
Director David Cronenberg

The films of David Cronenberg punch you in the gut. You don't just observe his films passively, but feel them viscerally, whether watching a character's head explode or seeing the true physical aftermath—the blood, the wounds, the gashes—of a high school fight. The Canadian auteur is even credited with the invention of body horror: a type of horror film where the root of the terror comes from the degeneration of the characters' bodies, not from some outside force.

The lineup for the IFC Center's Cronenberg Classic series (running at midnight on weekends in February, March, and April) reveals some of the deeper sinew that binds his work together. Considering films from Videodrome to Spider, perhaps a more appropriate and all-encompassing label for his films would be metaphysical horrors: films where the audience's anxiety comes from the clash between what the mind perceives and what the body experiences. But unlike many philosophical discourses, the first point of reference for Cronenberg is the body itself. The work of René Descartes starts with the "I", but Cronenberg starts with the eye.

In some ways, it's easier to look at the world through Cronenberg's eyes. I have always found a certain direct connection with his films. I can relate to their worlds. I am a diabetic who uses an insulin pump, which is basically a small computer that is attached to a catheter in my skin. Implanting the device requires me to take a 3/4 inch long needle and insert it under my flesh. I have a long, gray, cylindrical device that clamps the needle in between two white teeth, and after loading it up, the needle is released by a tightly coiled spring which shoots it forth with enough force to make it slide easily in. Images of red welts, blood-filled tubings, and sores scabbed over wounds need to be pushed out of my head before I can press the button. 

This process and fear is startlingly similar to that experienced by Ted Pikul (Jude Law) in eXistenZ, one of the few people in his world who has not been implanted with a bioport, an umbillical device that creates an anus-like port in his spine which can be used to attach a umbilical cord-like device to a fleshy blob of a machine. The fear shared by Ted and me is an anxiety familiar in Cronenberg's films. It's the uneasiness of looking at my body objectively to determine where to insert a needle, and at the same time confronting the reality that I'm about to be stabbed with a sharp object. How must I at once view my body as a doctor would, while never being able to escape the fact that I am a patient?
This anxiety naturally extends to sexuality, another central theme in Cronenberg's work. In eXistenZ, Ted's distrust of the virtual game world is tightly linked with a masculine penetration anxiety: the desire not to have something foreign inserted into him. This seems an extension of an idea explored earlier in Videodrome, where TV producer Maxx Renn (James Woods) begins developing a new orifice in his stomach, within which a fleshy video tape is inserted. A television comes alive, with the image of Maxx's possibly dead lover Nikki Brand (Debbie Harry) on the screen, as the television itself begins pulsing with a sexual energy.

Peter Weller in Naked Lunch

Like the Burroughs novel on which it is based, Naked Lunch involves a great deal of sexuality—and the sense of homosexuality as an outlaw choice in the mid-twentieth century America. For much of the film, Bill Lee (Peter Weller)'s typewriter is an insect with an sphincter-like orifice, and this "typewriter" consumes drugs when Lee rubs it on its "mouth." Another typewriter transforms into a naked human torso, which joins in a rendezvous Lee is having with a woman.  
Cronenberg's most controversial film, the NC-17 Crash (1996), is about a group of sexual fetishists (including James Spader and Holly Hunter) who get off on car crashes and the physical aftermath. The book, which J. G. Ballard wrote to (in his words) "rub the human face in its own vomit, and force it to look in the mirror," confronts the acceptance of the integration of such a destructive force (the car) into everyday life. However, Cronenberg focuses more on the integration of people and machines, and specifically the extension of men, in particular, through vehicles.
The dual nature of reality as a space that we both observe and create forms the crux of many of Cronenberg's works, and in a way seems to be the key struggle faced by all his protagonists, body horrific or not. The Dead Zone and Spider—both literary adaptations—move away from the body horror but are still infused with metaphysical dread. Zone has Christopher Walken as a clairvoyant whose life is rooted in uncertainty: the dead zone exists between the future that he sees and his own potential to change it. In Spider, a character's perception of the world collides with the reality of his world. Spider's (Ralph Fiennes) slipping grasp on reality arises during his adolescence and is closely tied to his burgeoning sexuality (and witnessing that of his parents). Based on a similarly titled book by Patrick McGrath, the film follows him after his release from a mental institution to a halfway house. The character lives simultaneously in his past and his present, never fully able to sort out reality from his perception of it.   
The myriad worlds of Cronenberg collapse in the flesh. Some characters attain redemption, like James Ballard and his wife in Crash. Others are incapable of reconciling the world of the mind and the body, and end up mutants like The Fly's Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) or madmen forever trapped in their own realities like Spider. Who falls into what category is as much a matter of chance as it is of character, but all must face the metaphysical challenges presented to all of us sacks of meat and blood walking the earth. 

I feel a sense of relief every time I pull the needle out of my flesh. The catheter stays in, and the machine is attached, but I am once again unified. No longer a split—actor and acted upon, doctor and patient, observer and observed. Sometime there is pain, occasionally sharp, but this too is a centering, albeit around a negative sensation. The body is the first object, and through it all good and evil derives, all truth is found, all beauty resides.  

Cronenberg Classics runs on weekends (Fridays and Saturdays at midnight) at the IFC Center from February 20 to April 4.

Films in this series include Crash, Spider, The Fly, eXistenZ, The Dead Zone, Videodrome, and Naked Lunch.


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