This post is part of the Andrew Sarris and The American Cinema blogathon.
I can think of no more worthy entrant into the category of Expressive Esoterica then Canadian auteur David Cronenberg. Most narrative mainstream film is marked by it's characters transformations over the course of the film; the workaholic father learns the value of hearth and home, the slacker youth straightens up under the weight of newfound responsibility, the whore with the heart of gold marries Richard Gere and so on. Heroes journeys are inherently transformative, but the films of director David Cronenberg embody transformation on a cellular level. Cronenberg has utilized graphic, fantastic transformations to underline the changes of his characters and it is one of his many marks as a director that elevates what in the hands of a less talented director be the stuff of late-night cable TV. Throughout his career Cronenberg's work has been marked by its fascination with alterations that are intimate and extraordinary and explore characters identity.
Cronenberg himself says on the topic of identity "The bigger question is that of identity. What does an identity consist of and is there a continuity of some kind in personality? Is there an absolute form of self from the beginning to the end of a person's life? Is it mental, is it physical? If you change yourself extremely in a physical way and consequently change yourself mentally, then are you the same person? You have the sense that you are, but is that just an illusion? On a romantic, personal level is this transformation different from the way you or I change? How would it affect us if we're involved in this person's life?"-Reel Conversations by George Hicknelooper
In utilizing the conventions of the horror genre, a medium that Cronenberg is exceedingly pleased to be working in, he has found a niche that has allowed him to create an extraordinary body of work for nearly three decades. On horror Cronenberg says "It seems natural to me to go where the primal energies and concerns are. With horror you are plugged directly into those things, there's no pussy-footing around." Through the prism of horror Cronenberg has tackled topics as diverse as abortion (The Brood), sexually transmitted diseases (Shivers, Rabid, the Fly), fetishes (Crash), our increasing fascinations with both televsion (Scanners, Videodrome) and virtual reality (eXinstenZ), violence (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises) and our deep unbridled fear of the unknown in the past (Spider) and future (The Dead Zone).
While Cronenberg's films can be labeled as violent and gory both these elements are precisely what the films require, they are never in excess and are never there solely to titilate. A fine example can be seen in A History of Violence, the film has two beautifully shot sex scenes, both are graphic but it MUST be noted that both underline how Tom and Edie Stall's (Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello respectively) relationship has been changed by the events of the film. The first sex scene is cute, innocent, aping the conventions of a juvenile courtship complete with Edie dressed in a cheerleader's uniform. Cronenberg's shooting of the scene is unobtrusive, revealing Edie in her outfit, the score is playful. The next time the viewer sees the two being intimate the scene is infinitely more intense. The act is shot from a skewed angle and the scene is staged more like a violent sexual assault. Eventually Edie capitulates and the act becomes more sensual but no less violent. Both scenes do a great deal to inform us of how the Stall's world has changed.
Cronenberg's success lies not just in revealing his themes and telling stories but as an accomplished director of actors. Many directors of genre pictures may put their emphasis on their fx or if we're lucky on their stories, but Cronenberg from the beginning has a penchant for making decent actors effective and making good actors outside the norm appear great. Men like Christopher Walken, James Woods, Jeff Goldblum, Jeremy Irons and Viggo Mortensen have all done career best work under Cronenberg and it has all been to their advantage. None of these men would be considered matinee idols (with the possible exception of Mortensen who couldn't care less about being a movie star) they're all a bit rough hewn, off the beaten path type acors who Cronenberg has revealed to have enormous depths of feeling in the midst of fantastic chaos. The fact that he has dorected several of the men to Oscar nominations is well worth noting. Cronenberg has done wonders with his actresses as well a distingusihed group that includes Geena Davis, Genvieve Beujold, Maria Bello, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Holly Hunter. His female protagonists have been more then just scream queens, they are genuinely damaged by the horrors they see or impressively overcome them.
Cronenberg's acceptance by critics and audiences has grown by leaps and bounds over the years but while he's ventured further out into the mainstream he has lost none of the edge that fist helped him make his mark in 1975's Shivers (the image of a women being attacked by mutant parasites in the tub is still so potent as to have inspired the marketing and a key sequence of James Gunn's Slither nearly three decades later). Consider the fervor that was stirred up by Nikolai's nude bathhouse knife-fight in Eastern Promises and one is reminded of the outcry from viewers when Max Renn perused a channel where people were whipped and beaten in Videodrome. Both scenes have huge resonance and speak volumes about their characters, themes and the remarkable man who helped bring both scenes to life.