Why David Cronenberg is Hip

I first learned about David Cronenberg when I received a nice Criterion DVD of his film from 1983, Videodrome, as a gift. My high school pals and I were in the habit of watching B-Horror films like Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive or the assorted Roger Corman productions like Piranha or Deathstalker. That was around the time I discovered the value of appreciating certain horror films for their camp value. I realized that I could experience a detached, ironic form of pleasure in watching such crap. But there was something special about Videodrome. It left us with a what the fuck just happened kind of feeling. We delighted in its special effects and its copious amounts of gore and other bodily fluids, but there was definitely something else going on. Not long after that Cronenberg released A History of Violence (2005), which was a box office success and unmistakably a fine film, even if it didn’t really seem like it was made by the same person who made Videodrome.

Then in my first year of college I was taking a class on media studies and another class on consumer culture. We were assigned Marshall MCluhan and Jean Baudrillard, among other things. It hit me why Cronenberg, with Videodrome and his other films like it, was a complete genius. When professor Brian O’Blivian says, “television is reality and reality is less than television,” it was like he was quoting from Baudrillard’s “Precession of the Simulacra” from Simulacra and Simulation (1981). I realized that it was really fun to theorize about Cronenberg, and I did my final presentation for the consumer culture course on Videodrome. When I showed the ending sequence to the class, they also had a what the fuck kind of look on their faces.

That summer, I visited my friend Mariel at the University of Chicago. Her friends were really hip and they made me feel like I wasn’t as cool as I thought I was. What was even worse about it was that we were at the Pitchfork Music Festival and there were trendy-looking people all around us. One of Mariel’s friend started talking about “videodroming” and finally I was able to relate to their esoteric conversation. It dawned on me just how hip Cronenberg was.

Why is Cronenberg so hip? Because there are so many different ways to experience his films. His early features – Shivers (’75), Rabid (’77), The Brood (’79), Scanners (’81), and Videodrome are all surface level gross-out body horror films. As such, they’re immensely enjoyable even if you don’t care about media theory or social theory. But these films also make startling comments about the evolution of humans, culture, and technology. They’re what I sometimes call “sweet” movies, because they have awesome blood and gore and explosions but at the same time are remarkably intelligent and insightful. Watching B-Horror movies from that era and appreciating them ironically is kind of played out by now – no one is going to make jokes about the Evil Dead series any more, even if they are an amusing series of horror flicks. But one can endlessly discuss the early Cronenberg films.

Shivers, Rabid, and The Brood fall more in the genre of horror, though they still offer up interesting comments about technology and the body. In Shivers, for example, a botched medical experiment releases a parasite into a luxury apartment complex. The parasite causes all of the infected residents to turn into sex-crazed maniacs bent on engaging in intercourse with the uninfected inhabitants by whatever means possible. Oddly enough, once they’re infected the inhabitants actually seem happier and far more uninhibited than they were before. In the guise of a gross-out horror flick, Cronenberg made a comment about suppressed desire and what he saw as the natural evolution of humans. Cronenberg explains it himself in Cronenberg on Cronenberg:

I don’t think natural selection, as Darwin understood it, is really at work any more as far as human evolution is concerned. I think something more along the lines of nuclear disaster is perhaps a natural part of our evolution. It may be a strange philosophy, I’m not sure. But my instincts seem to suggest that we were meant to tamper with everything – and have done – and that this will reflect back on us and change us.

The Brood is not so much about technology and it is not as culturally insightful as the films that followed it, but it undoubtedly has a special place in the realm of subcultural capital if nothing else for its ridiculous story involving the psychotherapeutic method known as “psychoplasmics,” in which patients form bodily growths that are related to their mental health problems. Cronenberg is surely a trendy name to drop in large part due to the different phrases he invented, such as this one and “the New Flesh” in Videodrome.

Scanners is Cronenberg’s first comment on the media and like other artists such as Gary Numan, it anticipates the technology we live with today in an uncanny way. In this film, there is a group of people known as “scanners,” all connected with each other because their mothers were put on an experimental drug that was ultimately dangerous. Scanners can read the minds of others and even blow up heads if they’re pissed. In one sequence, the main character literally hooks up his mind to the telephone line and infiltrates the computer system of the evil corporation. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw this scene; it was like Cronenberg was predicting not just the internet, but the direction the internet is now heading, as it becomes easier and easier to connect to it in different ways. In regards to Scanners and a later film, eXistenZ (’99), Cronenberg said, “Technology is us. There is no separation. It’s a pure expression of human creative will. It doesn’t exist anywhere else in the universe…., technology wants to be in our bodies, because it sort of came out of our bodies” (Slant Magazine – Cronenberg also said in the same interview, when asked why he became interested in the body and in the organic form, “I got bored. That was traumatic”).

As far as social commentary is concerned, Cronenberg’s next film, Videodrome, might be the most significant. James Woods plays Max Renn, a television producer who scouts out new programming that appeals to an appetite for sleaze and smut. When he stumbles across a program called “Videodrome,” which features violent sex and brutal murder, he’s intrigued. Unfortunately, watching the program causes brain tumors, hallucinations that may or may not be real, and bodily transformation. In a very literal sense, television becomes reality, and Max embarks on a horrific, erotic journey, and ends up transformed into an assassin working for different media forces. After watching Videodrome over and over again, I found that the only way to really understand it was to apply Baudrillard’s theory of the simulacra, as if Cronenberg had based his script on that text – this was almost ten years before The Matrix quoted Baudrillard in a bastardizing kind of way, I might add. This is to say that the program “Videodrome” actually creates a reality for its viewers that alters their realities and even their bodies, to the point where they have no control over themselves. Clearly a comment on culture, society, and television, Videodrome is like a prophetic vision of a future in which media and technology are completely inseparable from reality.

Cronenberg’s other films are equally compelling, if not more, than these early works, but with the exception of eXistenZ, which seems like it was written by someone who played a lot of Playstation RPGs, the media theory component is less pronounced. But again, this speaks to the diversity and range of his films. The Dead Zone (’83) is far more conservative than anything that he made before, but it’s still a compelling film and easily the best adaptation of Stephen King put to celluloid. The Fly (’86) is often considered Cronenberg’s best horror film, perhaps because it’s not at all campy in the way the earlier films are. It uses similar special gore effects, but the results are images that provoke a serious response from the viewer. Dead Ringers (’88) is yet another classic which might make the viewer a little queasy, but more than that it’s a tragically depressing tale of twin gynecologists, played by Jeremy Irons, who fall in love with the same woman, become addicted to drugs, and in general embark on a downward spiral – one result of which is the invention of gynecological surgical tools for mutant women. Other notable titles include Naked Lunch (’91), an adaptation of the Burroughs novel, and Crash (’96) – which featured the always-creepy James Spader as a man initiated into a odd group of people interested in combining sex with car crashes.

With A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007), Cronenberg became far more commercially successful, but hardly a sell-out. Both of these fine thrillers show that Hollywood is capable of making great films when its projects are given to talented filmmakers.

Cronenberg continues to come up in conversation because his early films remain salient and his new films are consistently critical and commercial successes. A remake of Videodrome is being made, apparently. He’s just one of those directors who continues to put out compelling work – he’s what my roommate would call a “cool older bro” – in the music world, Brian Eno, David Byrne, and David Bowie fall into this category, and in the film world Steven Soderberg and David Lynch are also cool older bros. Next time you’re at a party where the music is low enough that you can hear people talk, drop the term “videodroming,” “psychoplasmics,” or the “New Flesh” – or better yet, if Pittsburgh is mentioned, make sure to note that that city is home of the Videodrome – and see what happens. TC mark

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  • Guest

    tldr

  • PERFECTCIRCLES

    Who's going to direct the Videodrone remake?

  • blah

    It's a Universal project, I don't think they have a director yet, but it's written Ehren Kruger (The Ring)
    see http://www.aintitcool.com/node
    it might now happen

  • http://twitter.com/t_baugh Travis Baugh

    Felt like the article failed to concretely articulate why David Cronenberg is “hip” and instead seemed focused on describing major themes in various works.

    Also, Marshall McLuhan was on one of Cronenberg's professors when he attended University of Toronto and Simulacra and Simulation was pretty much a direct response to McLuhan's work, so this doesn't really seem like an especially groundbreaking discovery or necessarily thought provoking lens through which to look at Videodrome (as Cronenberg is pretty much just rephrasing/regurgitating McLuhanisms).

    • http://twitter.com/Dan_Hoffmann Dan Hoffman

      Well, those are some pieces of information I did not turn up in my research, but I am not surprised. I guess I was trying to say that he's hip because his films are endlessly entertaining, but there's this very interesting context. I wouldn't say that he's “regurgitating” McLuhanisms because that seems a little too pejorative…I think I actually understood media theory more after I saw Videodrome and Scanners, and that is to Cronenberg's credit.

      • http://twitter.com/Dan_Hoffmann Dan Hoffman

        Also, I think there's something to be said for a director that popularizes these complicated theories. In popular criticism of Cronenberg, the media theory context is not always acknowledged, perhaps because many critics aren't familiar with it. Nonetheless, it seems like critics are attuned to his thematic interest in technology that mediates, and when critics who are probably more widely read than either MCluhan or Baudrillard discuss these ideas, that means that in effect they're (the ideas) being exposed to audiences that might not otherwise be aware of the concerns of media theory.

      • http://twitter.com/t_baugh Travis Baugh

        Yeah, I just felt really snarky when I wrote that response/am a huge Cronenberg/Videodrome nerd and have read and written way too much about them.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/josh-mosh/28601084 josh mosh

        hey dude, i think we all get snarky sometimes, especially when its about a subject we care about and stuff. sorry for lashing out, too. this afternoon, instead of snarky i “feel” open-hearted and friendly.

      • http://twitter.com/Dan_Hoffmann Dan Hoffman

        It's all good.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/josh-mosh/28601084 josh mosh

      why do you “feel” like shit? don't you know what you think? talk about layers of simulation.

      • http://twitter.com/t_baugh Travis Baugh

        “why do you 'feel' like shit?”

        whoa….

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/josh-mosh/28601084 josh mosh

    Hey Dan,

    Love that you wrote this. Why do we treat comments on t.c. like workshops? I agree that this piece doesn't really highlight why cronenberg is hip, and that hurts the article, but like, maybe you should have just focused on why cronenberg is awesome. It's difficult, and i've actually been prepping a piece for this site about why i love hal hartley, and I think it's just very difficult to talk about great directors who constantly address and re-address similar themes with a consistant yet maturing style. it's a honey trap to just rehash plot lines, because ultimately only the movies can really speak for themselves. If a critic or a theoretician can in fact write about these kinds of directors, then you have to be really fucking good and the “blog post” is a poor format for that.

    Anyway I know how rad videodrome is (i think the first time i watched it was on acid on hamp' halloween) and i've loved every other cronenberg i've seen so you've inspired me to watch the full filmography. I'll send you the hartley piece i'm working on if you want to see it, or maybe i can get it up on t.c.

    anyway, thanks dude, this article is overdue. i think the real issue is just that you didn't address why cronenberg is “hip” and i dont' think he's “hip” because he's so smart, i think he's hip because his movies aren't just excellently made, but also evoke cool things like debbie harry and sex+violence. which are somewhat trivial in regards to the actually intelligent dialogues cronenberg invokes and evokes. still, a good article.

    thanks man,
    josh

    • http://twitter.com/Dan_Hoffmann Dan Hoffman

      Feel free to send me that piece. I appreciated very much the one Hal Hartley film I've seen and I'd like to learn more.

  • blah

    check out amusing ourselves to death by niel postman if you liked videodrome.

  • shane

    dead ringers is my favorite.

    i didn't like a history of violence. i think i read somewhere that it was the first time cronenberg made a movie 'for the money' and i don't know -that- shows, but it wasn't compelling or entertaining for me in the way his movies usually are.

  • Josh Bailey

    Hey Cronenberg Fans,

    I'm currently carrying out research into the cult following of David Cronenberg as part of a project in the final year of my degree, and I was wondering if anyone would like to answer a quick couple of questions as part of my research?

    I to am a Cronenberg fan, but I know nothing of his following and I'm intrigued to learn more, so if you're interested, feel free to answer honestly to a couple of questions.

    Question 1. What in particular in Cronenberg's films appeals to you?

    Question 2. What is your favourite Cronenberg film and why?

    Question 3. What is your least favourite Cronenberg film and why?

    Question 4. Question 5. In Cronenberg’s next feature, Cosmopolis, Twilight star Robert Pattinson has been cast for the lead role. I have found that some Cronenberg fans not have taken well to this news, given that Pattinson is generally affiliated with a mainstream market and a specific target audience, far from anything you would associate with David Cronenberg. What are your opinions on this matter?

    Question 6. Why do you think Cronenberg is classed as a “cult” director?

    Question 7. Is there anything further you would like to say about Cronenberg?

    Thanks for taking the time to read this post, if you can answer any of the questions, not even all of them if you don't have the time, then you would still be helping me out massively.

    Long Live the New Flesh!

    Josh Bailey
    Level 6 BA Film Studies Student at Kingston University London

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