David Cronenberg

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Owen Gleiberman (essay date October 1988)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2812

SOURCE: “Cronenberg's Double Meanings,” in American Film, Vol. 14, No. 5, October, 1988, pp. 38–43.

[In the following essay, Gleiberman discusses the themes in Dead Ringers.]

One doesn't expect to see David Cronenberg shooting a love scene, yet that’s what he’s doing—and damned if he doesn’t recall one of those legendary directors from the silent-film days, staring raptly at the set before him and murmuring commands into the air. His two leads, Jeremy Irons and Genevieve Bujold, are kissing in bed, and, as Cronenberg gazes into his video monitor a few feet way, he shapes the action as it happens. “Kiss his neck, Genevieve,” he says. “Move down, slowly, away from his shirt button. Now you sit up. You see something! You’re terrified! Now slowly move back …”

Okay, so it isn’t just a love scene. In a few moments, other stuff is going to happen—Cronenbergian stuff. Yet it’s telling to see this master of psychobiological horror choreographing a bedroom embrace down to the last delicate swoon. The film, David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, a naturalistic thriller about the relationship of identical-twin gynecologists (both played by Irons), is one Cronenberg has wanted to make for years, and after such supernatural creep-shows as They Came from Within, The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome, The Dead Zone and his 1986 mainstream breakthrough The Fly, it’s a departure for him, perhaps a pivotal one.

“I think it’s a departure in the way it's perceived and the way I’m perceived. It’s like doing a more intricate dance on the high wire but it doesn't feel like so much of a departure to me creatively, because I feel I’m dealing with the same themes I’ve always dealt with,” Cronenberg says. “But it's conceivable that tomorrow I would get very excited about something that’s absolutely, definitely a horror film.”

Horror films have always dealt with the fear (and fascination) surrounding bodily transformation. Just think of The Wolf Man, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or the shrinking-man/colossal-woman protagonists of fifties sci-fi. These characters touch on a range of primal organic terrors, everything from sexuality to aging to the peculiarly contemporary anxiety of being mutated by the environment (i.e., radiation). In a sense, what Cronenberg has done is bring the genre of bodily horror into the post-Freudian age. His most prominent innovation (it’s linked to the gooey verisimilitude of his special effects) making the sexual and fear-of-disease subtexts of studio horror films explicit, self-conscious, stripped of the reassuring distance of fantasy. Thus, his version of The Fly isn't really about a man turning into an insect—it’s about a man degenerating before his (and our) own eyes, like a cancer patient, and growing weirdly fixated on his own metamorphosis.

Cronenberg is fixated too. His obsession with disease might be too much to take if it weren’t suffused with a perverse sense of wonder; his heroes aren’t merely hunks of dissolving flesh but tragic figures, at once gifted and cursed. And perhaps that’s really the link to Dead Ringers: the wonder Cronenberg feels for his double protagonists and the soul-searching torment the two characters share. If just about every other Cronenberg film has hinged on the proverbial split between mind and body, with the body taking on a hideous life of its own, in Dead Ringers a human personality is itself divided into warring parts. “People have a tendency to immediately label everything I do as horror,” says Cronenberg. “This is not a horror film. This is a relatively straight drama. I don’t have a lot of trickery to hide behind.” Indeed, even Cronenberg’s most trick-free film until now, The Dead Zone, hinged on a sci-fi phenomenon—the power of second sight—that allowed you to excuse his occasional lapses into genre-film klutziness. Dead Ringers, on the other hand, will test his dramatic skills as never before.

There’s an eye-of-the-storm serenity to Cronenberg. Interviewers almost always remark on how oddly “normal” he seems, and while that’s true, what also strikes one about him—at least, in contrast to his films—is how wry, good-humored, and gentle he is. Between set-ups, sauntering around the set in a black-leather work vest, he’s a compulsive, low-key joker, the polar opposite of a megalomaniac director.

“David has a terrific sense of humor and a fabulous brain,” says his friend and co-producer Marc-Ami Boyman. “His movies are in some way a reflection of what he truly spends time thinking about that most of us don’t. I mean, if you saw a beautiful woman, you wouldn’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about why her breasts are a wonderful thing but the inside of her thoracic cavity would induce revulsion. David does.”

Certainly, Cronenberg appears to be a man in control of his demons, rather than vice versa. He has the straight-arrow handsomeness of a boyish college jock, but his ebullient, wise-guy smile also gives him a sidelong resemblance to George Segal. And that fits, somehow. Who would have guessed that the man who once described his ideas for films as “tumors growing in my brain” is actually … a mensch? Despite a few wisps of gray, he looks much younger than his forty-five years, and he maintains a family atmosphere on the set that recalls the descriptions you always read of Ingmar Bergman’s sets. Cronenberg lets everyone in the cast and crew know they can count on him as a pal. His fun-loving charisma is the key to his authority. He’s shot every one of his projects in his hometown Toronto, and his approach remains indelibly Canadian—removed from the glitziness of moviemaking on either of the American coasts. (One wonders if this will change now that so many American features are being shot there.)

Even his success is a Canadian phenomenon: his first feature, They Came from Within (known in Canada as Shivers), quickly became one of the country’s top ten all-time hits. And though he could easily have parlayed that success into a Hollywood career, he preferred to stay in Toronto and work quietly, with technicians he knows—the people he calls his “film family.” Not even Scanners, his first bona fide hit, drew him away. One could argue that it would be beneficial for Cronenberg to take a break from Toronto. His films suffer from a vague sense of location. They all seem set in the same chilly-gray Every-city, and he’s never begun to take creative advantage of a locale the way that, say, Nicolas Roeg did in Don’t Look Now (Venice) or Hitchcock in Vertigo (San Franciso). Yet working in Toronto seems to stimulate Cronenberg’s creative juices in a different way; it gives him the peace of mind to get intimate with his nightmares.

It’s been quipped that Cronenberg “looks like a Beverly Hills gynecologist,” and Cronenberg may or may not have been thinking of that remark when he made his brief appearance in The Fly as the doctor who delivers Geena Davis’s nightmare fetus—a huge, writhing maggot. For anyone who recognized him behind his surgical mask, it had to rank as one of the most perverse directorial cameos in movie history. His presence lent the scene a queasy, assaultive edge, as though he’d popped up in his own movie to play voyeur, to get a closer look at how richly demented his imagination could be. Of course, Cronenberg’s films have always featured over-the-top images of organic horror. Still, in that monstrous maggot scene, he seemed to be pushing himself onto newly blasphemous terrain, violating the purity of the birth process itself. (You might say what he “delivered” was the horror the last scene of Rosemary’s Baby only promised.)

Now, in Dead Ringers, he pushes further. Certainly, the story taps into basic female fears in a way few movies have; it may end up doing for the gynecological stirrup chair what Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man did for a trip to the dentist’s office. For Cronenberg, though, Dead Ringers is also a chance to treat his malignant obsessions in a more complex and refined way. And that’s an exciting prospect, since his nightmares have at times been too literal-minded, the gross-out imagery announcing itself as “metaphor.”

Cronenberg claims he was interested in going far beyond the mythical good-twin/bad-twin models of the past. What attracted him to the story, he says, “was the sense of it being about a relationship in which personalities and identities and even experiences become confused with each other, and that little shell of identity is melted down. At the start, I didn’t really know why being twins would be anything but interesting, or even entertaining. And yet I knew intuitively that it was a very dangerous thing to be. Now I think I know why.”

This is heady stuff, and what’s more bizarre is that it actually happened. The movie (which is officially based on Bari Wood and Jack Geasland’s pulp best-seller of 1977) is a fictionalized account of the case of the Marcus twins, the highly successful New York gynecologists who, on July 17, 1975, were found dead in one brother’s garbage-strewn Upper East Side apartment. Though the cause of their deaths was never definitively determined (in all likelihood, it hinged on their mutual drug dependencies), the investigation turned up a case study sicker than fiction. The Marcuses had specialized in the treatment of infertile women, and their success rate was so remarkable that women from all over the East made sojourns to their private clinic, where the doctors were regarded as miracle-workers. That the Marcuses were tall, dark, and handsome—the epitome of glamorous, upscale physicians—only added to their aura.

As it turned out, they were also psycho. Though technically fraternal, Cyril and Stewart Marcus looked so much alike that one could actually pass for the other, and that’s what they sometimes did; one of them would walk out in the middle of an examination, and a moment later, the other—dressed identically—would come in as though nothing had happened. The two had been inseparable from childhood, sharing the sort of insular dependency that, according to some psychiatrists, prevents certain twins from achieving a full sense of selfhood. In their final years, their professional quirks blossomed into full-fledged deviance. Together, they descended into drug addiction and schizophrenic withdrawal; they’d lash out at patients in anger, they refused to sign insurance forms (often claiming in defense that, say, the mailbox had caught fire), and, in a legendary incident, one of them reportedly walked into an operating room, ripped the anaesthesia mask off the patient being operated on, and started breathing into it. Yet their clinic continued to run, in part because of the reluctance of most physicians to make ethical claims against their fellows.

The prospect of these dangerously unstable clone brothers poking around in women’s vaginas and being revered as modern-day, clinical fertility gods is queasy enough. Then, too, there’s an essential way they weren’t alike, and this is perhaps the key to their story: Of the two, Stewart was the go-getter, the ladies’ man, the extrovert, and Cyril the introverted drone. It was Cyril who began to fall apart first, and the evidence indicates that Stewart followed his brother’s downward spiral out of a compulsive, lifelong need the two had to “share” their experiences.

Cronenberg says he was drawn to the story the moment it hit the headlines. “I saw everything that everyone else did,” he says, taking a break in his office on the outskirts of Toronto. “You know, Twin Docs Found Dead in Posh Pad. When I read that stuff I though, ‘God, this is too perfect. I mean, it’s got to be made into a movie. I’m sure someone’ll do it.’ And no one ever did. But I didn’t really want to do the Marcus twins, and I didn’t want the Ross twins, who are the twins in the novel. I really wanted the freedom to invent my own guys and see where they would take me.”

The basic premise is derived from the novel: The twins here, Elliot and Beverly Mantle, encounter a famous actress (played by Bujold) and carry on an affair with her. That is, Elliot seduces her, both switch off sleeping with her (pretending that they’re the same person), and Beverly ends up falling in love. But Cronenberg has added some lurid flourishes. The Mantle Clinic gives him a chance to invent yet another of his ominous biotechnical research facilities; inside the operating theater there, the doctors and nurses wear blood-red surgical masks and gowns, a fabulously lurid touch. His greatest liberty, though, may have been the decision to cast British actor Jeremy Irons, and to forgo the tabloid-sleazy, dark-side-of-America perversity inherent in the original story. Cronenberg needed an actor who’d be technically adept at switching back and forth between two subtly different personalities. But one wonders whether Irons, with his sullen reserve and his way of rendering every line with perfect “Masterpiece Theatre” fortitude, is really the actor to bring this eerie double role to life. It could be the prize part of his career—or he could end up muzzling the picture.

The challenge of filming one actor in two roles was immense, especially since the film uses computerized camera techniques (and, in some scenes, a double) that go far beyond the usual split-screen gimmicks. “Jeremy is playing the two characters together in about thirty or forty percent of the movie,” explains Cronenberg, “and so I could never forget that. It was something that was constantly in my face. But that’s not to say I would have used real twins even if I could have found a pair of twins who could act. Real twins don’t look exactly alike, and people would have spent a lot of time looking at them, seeing if they’re really identical. Whereas if they know it’s the same actor, the audience will simply accept that they look identical, and that’s laid to rest.”

Despite their fixation on disease, Cronenberg’s films have dealt explicitly with sexuality as far back as They Came From Within. “It was very important that my twins are gynecologists. Somehow, it was the idea of two men forming a perfect unit that excluded everybody else. The twins share not only one woman in particular sexually, but they share their understanding of women and their study of women. … It was obvious to me that my friends at school who were drawn to gynecology very often had serious trouble with women. The thing about being a gynecologist is that your whole relationship to women—certainly your patients—becomes very ritualized, very definite.” Does Cronenberg identify with this? “Oh, sure. I identify with all my scientists and my doctors, because I think what they are and what they do is very similar to what I do. And then I’ve always been very fascinated with how abstract elements, whether it’s spirituality or sexuality, relate to the physical elements of our life, which is to say, genitalia and brains and things like that. We haven’t come to terms with any of that stuff, really, integrating it together.”

He’s a paradoxical figure, to be sure—a family man who seems to siphon off his subversive side into these sicko extravaganzas. On the Dead Ringers set, his wife and three-year-old daughter show up for the afternoon’s shooting and there’s something faintly absurd about seeing Cronenberg cradle his little girl in his arms during a break and then go off to shoot a scene with Jeremy Irons in the midst of psychic breakdown. More than one person on the set describes Cronenberg as being extremely “centered,” and the director himself concurs. “I don’t take any credit for it. I just think I’m lucky, whether it’s by heredity or environment. I wouldn’t have thought there was anything unusual, except that when you work with lots of twisted, neurotic people, which I try not to do, you begin to realize that it’s considered something unusual. I’ve actually always been that way. It’s metabolism or something.”

You get the feeling Cronenberg continues to make the films he does—and to keep himself balanced—by refusing to regard his work as sensationalist. “I think [Dead Ringers] really relates to all intense relationships in which things happen that have the potential to become liberating on one level but suffocating on the other level. And I think at that point you’re talking about marriage, you’re talking about parents and children. The twins become a metaphor for all those things.”

Marcie Frank (essay date May 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7811

SOURCE: “The Camara and the Speculum: David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers,” in Publications of the Modern Language Association, Vol. 106, No. 3, May, 1991, pp. 459–70.

[In the following essay, Frank discusses the portrayal of male identity and the representation of women inDead Ringers.]

I expected somebody who looked like a combination of Arthur Bremmer and Dwight Frye as Renfield in Dracula, slobbering for juicy flies. The man who showed up in my apartment in New York looked like a gynecologist from Beverly Hills.

Martin Scorcese, describing David Cronenberg

In the domain of film, the problem of looking alike is often presented as the problem of being alike, for film techniques can create resemblances where none exists. For example, crosscutting can establish parallels between different scenes or locales, and camera angles can make different compositions look similar. Likewise, the camera can depict one actor in two roles. In this sense it functions like a mirror. The classification of a subgenre of films that cast one actor in two roles—the twin movie—might prove useful for discussing the intersection of film technology with concepts, such as the mirror stage, that are central to a Lacanian account of the subject.1 Instead of delineating the boundaries of such a subgenre, however, this paper focuses on a single twin film whose subject matter and technique provide the basis for reflecting on the acquisition of male identity and on the consequent danger to women as they are represented (or elided) by the camera.

In Dead Ringers, David Cronenberg, the filmmaker whom Martin Scorcese describes as “look[ing] like a gynecologist from Beverly Hills” (46), raises questions about the relation between the camera as a gynecological instrument and the camera as a speculum in the sense of a mirror. His film, the story of twin brothers who are gynecologists, is structured to display the relation between these two specula. Their workings have implications for spectatorship, its gendering, and its relation to violence.

Feminist film theory has raised these issues by applying psychoanalytic terms to film analysis, but the interpretive force of psychoanalytic theory in this context rests on the analogy between the spectator’s insertion into the screening room and the subject’s insertion into language.2 In the feminist critique of psychoanalysis offered in the significantly titled Speculum of the Other Woman, Luce Irigaray provides a provocative way of formulating the metaphorics of the speculum as they inform “any theory of the ‘subject.’” Her discussion supplements the feminist film theorists’ approach to spectatorship, with which it otherwise shares important insights: accounting for the instrumentality of psychoanalytic theory, Irigaray notices the specularity of male theory that simultaneously penetrates, views, and constructs the female body as other, thereby negating woman’s “real” otherness. In Cronenberg’s film, however, the equation offered between gynecological and film instruments points out a need for feminist psychoanalytic film criticism to be further supplemented by attention to film technology. What is the difference between the instrumentality of theory and the instruments of film? The question needs to be decided if Irigaray’s observations are to be fully integrated into film analysis. Are film and psychoanalysis both media in which subjects are represented? Or are they both theories of the subject?3

Instead of tackling these questions head on, my paper takes the trajectory of detailing the relations between the gynecological implements and the technical instruments of film as they are represented in Dead Ringers. Examining the status given to each set of instruments puts us in a better position to reformulate the relation of psychoanalysis to film, because it allows us to ask, What in psychoanalysis corresponds to the technology of the camera?4

In Dead Ringers the camera-speculum parallel is reinforced by other types of doubleness: not only is the film about twins, both played by the same actor, Jeremy Irons, but its structure is twofold. It is split roughly in half, with the first part concentrating on the relationship of the twins to a woman, Claire Niveau, and the second focusing exclusively on the twins. Insofar as the film traces the brothers’ attempts and ultimate failure to create separate identities, it suggests that their relation is contradictory and therefore impossible: the twins are at once separate and unified, different and the same. Further, the loss entailed by their contradictory status is described in the vocabulary of gynecology, which is the Mantle twins’ profession (they run a fertility clinic) as well as the genesis of their problem (they were born double). Cronenberg construes their separation paradigmatically as the separation of mother and infant and equates cinematic and gynecological instruments because both are devices for achieving separation.

Feminist film theory also links the two sets of instruments, seeing them both as tools for examining women, but Dead Ringers relates them in a different register, completely subordinating the examination of women to the examination of the relationship between the twin gynecologists. Cronenberg’s emphasis is a reason to interpret the film, not to ignore the work or to castigate the filmmaker. While it would be easy at this point to apply Irigaray’s insight that male theory can never really discuss women but can only appear to, we must resist this temptation until the question of the relation between film and psychoanalysis is decided. Dead Ringers minimizes its attention to women in order to focus on the absent separation from the mother. As Teresa de Lauretis points out, “[T]he image and what the image hides (the elided woman), one visible and the other invisible, sound very much like a binary set” (58). The important thing to recognize is that the film is not so much suffused by the twins’ profession as it is governed by the logic of gynecological instruments. Since the twins impeccably pursue the logic of the instrument to their separation from each other in death, we are left with questions about Cronenberg’s camera.

By presenting the separation of the twins from each other as analogous to the separation of mother from child, Cronenberg gives the film an intensity different from that of either the splatter movie, for example, or the evil-twin film. The stress on instruments and instrumentality enables the viewer to share the twins’ experience of separation on two levels: the twins are themselves concerned with developing the instruments for separation, from the Mantle retractor they invent in medical school to the gynecological instruments for “mutant women” they ultimately use for the job we witness; and the film’s technical innovations, by calling attention to the camera’s complicity in the separation of the twins, forces the viewer to separate from the film. In other words, the way that Cronenberg’s camera records the brutal separation of the twins distances the viewer from the viewing experience. Elements present in psycho-analytic accounts of violent separations are reconfigured in Cronenberg’s film by the additional element of the camera.

The film presents the gynecologists Beverly and Elliot Mantle working, living, and generally functioning together in ways that are called into question when they meet Claire Niveau (Geneviève Bujold). She offers them the possibility of separating from each other, a prospect that interests Bev more than it does Elliot—Bev claims he is in love with her. The twins have thus far differentiated themselves in their duties but have worked together as one person; substituting for each other has even brought them sexual pleasure. But transforming their differentiation into a separation fails; Claire Niveau departs, leaving in her wake a drug problem. Drugs, which initially appear to provide a new set of instruments for separating the twins, in fact supply a new possibility for fusion. The twins jointly explore this potential until, in a gesture that conflates the desire for separation with the desire for identity, Bev disembowels Elliot and then dies.5 Thus the first half of the film gives life to the second half—but a life that is gruesome and doomed.

Midway in the film, the twins are recognized for their outstanding clinical and research practices as gynecologists. The scene in which they accept the award repeats an earlier scene at Harvard but with a difference. Whereas only one twin attends the Harvard ceremony—though the other, when told he “ought to have been there,” replies, “I was”—both show up on the second occasion. Elliot, the “outgoing” one, accepts the award, establishing retrospectively that it was also he who accepted at Harvard, but Beverly, the “quiet” one, interrupts him. Recalling the onstage mind-reading scene in Cronenberg’s Scanners that results in an exploding head, this scene in Dead Ringers also makes a public display of a private matter. When Elliot accepts, saying that the honor was made possible by “the women who have provided that most precious thing, the gift of life,” Beverly arrives, completely drunk, and takes the podium to invert his brother’s comments. Bev’s outburst at once raises questions about the twins’ collaboration and reveals the terrible misogyny that will only become more apparent in his behavior. “There’s been a fraud! In case you were wondering how we divide up the work,” he spews out, “Elliot makes the speeches while I slave over the hot snatches.” By flaunting the division of labor between them in this fashion, Bev makes public the social terms for their differentiation that are already in place for the viewer: Elliot, the public relations man who does the teaching and the research, sexually pursues the women they see at the clinic as patients, while Beverly, the clinician, who says of himself, “I don’t get out much,” substitutes for his brother undetected in these women’s beds.

As in the scene in Scanners where exposure involves literally turning the body inside out, Bev initiates the behavior that will culminate in his disembowelment of his brother: he exposes the fraudulence of distinguishing between the twins on the basis of this division of labor. He not only flagrantly announces his dissatisfaction with the arrangement, which could be construed as exploiting him (he complains about it elsewhere in the film), he also makes viewers recognize its inadequacy. Despite the tonal opposition between Elliot’s reverent “women who give the gift of life” and Bev’s misogynistic view of women as “bimbos,” each twin reduces women to their reproductive functions. Dismantling the social differences between the Mantle brothers even more decisively is that they share the name Beverly during their affair with Claire Niveau, the affair that precipitates their attempts to separate in an unprecedented way—Elliot is the one they do not want her to meet. The social bifurcation that can be said to distinguish between the twins even as it allows them to proceed as if they were one person has in fact been disintegrating from the beginning of the film; furthermore, it has been inscribed, from the beginning, as a structural doubleness. What Elliot describes to Bev as “uncharted territory” corresponds to the film’s division.

Dead Ringers begins with two symmetrical sequences, each introduced by a black screen with time and place spelled out in white letters. In the first—Toronto, 1954—twin nine-year-old boys walk down a street, discussing sex. With their glasses and British accents, the children are virtually indistinguishable. They try, unsuccessfully, to get the neighboring little girl to have sex with them, but despite their curiosity, they seem averse to physical contact: for them, the sexuality of human beings compares unfavorably with that of fish. In the second—Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1967—the same twins are training in gynecology, and whereas it seems as if the instrument they have invented is going to be rejected by old-boy conservatism, their triumph is recognized and rewarded. The ultranormal appearance of these two sequences functions inside the parameters of the classic horror movie, juxtaposing the mundane with the creepy, as if to say, “It could happen to you.”

But Cronenberg’s introductory sequences are more than a generic tic to set a tone: they offer a thematic overture to the film. For example, it is appropriate, if not crucial, that the Mantle twins be not just parentless, appearing, as they do, out of the blue, but motherless. Although the childhood sequence is presented as an explanatory or genetic moment, at no time are we informed where they come from, why they have different accents from everyone else in the movie, or why, as Claire asks Bev, their mother gave them girls’ names. Cronenberg is not merely refusing the verisimilar, he is establishing a relation of compensation in the two sequences: in the earlier one, the little girl rejects the twins, humiliating them by her certainty that they do not even know what “fuck” means. When she turns away from them, deliberately drawing attention to her preference for playing with her toy stroller, the twins complain, “They’re so different from us,” and go home to dissect a doll-size female anatomy model, whose diagnosis, “interovular surgery,” predicts their professional choice. The later sequence uses the same composition except that the twins now bend over not a small doll but the cadaver of an adult female. Their childhood defenses are sustained into maturity; together, they open up and operate on women, developing the instruments they will ultimately turn on themselves.

In addition to establishing the film’s thematic connections among twinship, gynecology, and misogyny, the two-part overture offers a microcosm of the film’s structure. Roughly the first half of the film centers on the twins’ relations to each other through their relations to Claire Niveau, whereas the second half focuses exclusively and directly on the relationship between the two brothers. As in the short introductory sequences, rejection by a woman prompts the twins to turn inward, toward each other. But the drugs that replace the woman as the mediation between them are not a perfect alternative: the shift changes the basis for separation and connection from an external one, outside the body, to an internal one, inside the body. It measures the regression the twins undergo after they fail to achieve separate identities through their relationship with Claire. Heterosexual intercourse offers them the possibility of metaphorically merging with each other as they each penetrate the same female body, but they seek the internal merger that drugs offer. The injection of narcotics enables them to “get synchronized,” as Elliot calls the experience, allowing them to incorporate their mother by artificially inducing an oceanic state.6 The substitution of drugs for Claire divides the film in half and makes both parts as symmetrical as the two opening sequences.

As gynecologists at work in a fertility clinic, the “Fabulous Mantle Twins” work in unison to turn women into mothers. They specialize in female fertility; they do not deliver babies and they “don’t do husbands.” The thrust of their research, as we see in the second of the two introductory sequences, is the development of increasingly sophisticated tools that open the female body in order to make it fertile. The Mantle retractor, the early invention that makes their careers, is their first step in developing the technology to work themselves out of the womb. Significantly, in what may be the most uncomfortable scene in the film, the increasingly psychotic Bev attempts to perform an internal gynecological examination with the gold retractor they are awarded in the second introductory sequence. This misuse establishes both his confusion of the inside of the body with the outside and his displacement of the vagina and uterus onto the abdominal region, foreshadowing Elliot’s gruesome death. In surgery a retractor is used to separate tissue to expose the area that will be operated on; the instrument replaces the need for assistants to hold back the tissue. For the twins, instruments facilitate the substitution of one region of the body for another, one type of body (male) for another (female); for Cronenberg, the instruments of film not only facilitate the substitution of one body for another, one Jeremy Irons for another, but, like the retractor, ultimately replace the two bodies altogether.

The film proper begins with Claire Niveau in gynecological stirrups. She is immediately fascinating to both twins, though apparently for different reasons. She appeals to Elliot because she is a movie star and he is, as he says, “into glamour”; she appeals to Bev because she is anatomically deformed. Claire’s sterility, caused by her trifurcated cervix, attracts Bev for a number of reasons: first, her quasi-maternal behavior toward him in their scenes of affection is not threatened by the possibility of actual maternity; second, Bev can imagine that she could “go them one better” in her fantasy of having triplets; and third, her deformity confirms his sense that something is wrong with women, that they are mutants. But if Claire provides Bev with the opportunity to conflate his two misogynistic convictions, that women are deformed freaks and that mothers are threatening, she is also the victim of Elliot’s antagonistic comments about her sexual availability as a “show-biz lady” and of his insinuation that she, rather than Bev, is the drug addict. She threatens the equilibrium between the brothers; significantly, her name translates as the “clear level” of separation that they ambivalently seek. She is disruptive because she points up the possibility that their separating from each other might entail separating from their mother. She undoes the twins completely when she insists on seeing them together.

Claire’s challenge is based on her expectation as a movie star—and on ours as movie viewers—that the film cannot show the twins together in a single frame and maintain the aesthetic sophistication and the aesthetic of sophistication established in the stylized set designs. But, as Elliot Mantle says, and as the film has thus far demonstrated, “we have the technology.” Jeremy Irons has been shown standing beside himself, playing two roles, without any interruption in the flow of the movie and without the screen’s being split down the middle.7 Even though we have already witnessed this technical achievement, we experience Claire’s challenge as a challenge to the film itself. We do so because Cronenberg is not content merely to use technical innovations; instead, he introduces them into the plot.

Until this point in the film, the twins have counted on their indistinguishability, each substituting for the other in Claire’s bed. But in the confrontation scene between Bujold and the two Jeremy Ironses, Claire learns to tell the twins apart; indeed, she claims it is easy. Watching this scene, we are forced to distinguish not only between Elliot and Bev but also between Jeremy Irons and Jeremy Irons. Although this is psychically possible, it is physically impossible; and in being forced to acknowledge this contradiction, we are forced to adopt a technical perspective to which we subordinate our experience of viewing the film. With the twins played by Jeremy Irons, a recognizable star, instead of by unknowns—who might actually be, or whom we might believe to be, twins—Cronenberg uses technology not to produce verisimilar effects but to extend the concerns of the film to the medium itself. He self-referentially highlights the film as technology. Like the twins, we as viewers are separated from something by instruments: they are separated from each other, and we are separated from our experience of the movie. Our alignment with them is reinforced because their doubleness is an effect of the film.

Significantly, the next time we see the twins together in a “single” frame, Cronenberg draws attention to both the new technique and its limitations. We see the twins walking down the hallway of their clinic, discussing Claire—Elliot dressed in a suit and tie and Bev, who is just coming from the operating room, dressed in “reds,” the movie’s bizarre rendering of surgical gear. Bev, the one in love with Claire, walks slightly behind Elliot. This scene has an uncanny impact for several reasons: the two Jeremy Ironses approach the camera together, even though the one slightly behind appears slightly smaller and slightly higher up; the birdlike way the twins look at each other as they speak recalls the shot of the two nine-year-olds in the film’s first sequence. As the children, who are actually twins, walk side by side, they make an exaggerated attempt to prevent their bodies from appearing to overlap. By visually referring to this scene, Cronenberg foregrounds the limitations of the soft-matte composite editing in order to establish the differences between the actual twins and the singular actor. But the seamed scene that exposes the singularity of the actor, thereby also revealing the illusory elements of the film, does not enable us to dismiss the shot as “just a trick.” In alluding to the real twins, the later scene literalizes the doubleness of the twins Irons plays. Cronenberg orchestrates our perceptions: when we can see that a film technique is responsible for making one actor appear to be separate characters, then we can also see that the film is about their not being separate (or separable) at all.

Unlike twin movies that ultimately disclose twinship because it is either associated with a criminal secret, as in Brian de Palma’s Sisters, or mythologically or structurally required for the film’s symmetry, as in Peter Greenaway’s Zed and Two Noughts, Dead Ringers takes twinship as its point of departure, its first premise, its subject. It can then explore a set of related problems: differentiating the inside from the outside of the body, regression, separation, and the fusion of identities. In a strange way, twinship itself becomes irrelevant in the movie; or rather, it becomes a way of explaining (and, by doubling, of emphasizing) a bond between two characters, a bond that could exist between siblings, friends, or lovers.

For the focus of the film to shift to the twins, Claire Niveau must be turned into a pretext. Having made the twins separate and inserted herself between them, she leaves to make her own movie. Her bequest is drug addiction, figured in the piece of flesh that attaches the twins to each other in Bev’s nightmare of separation. In the nightmare Claire bites through the tissue connecting the conjoined brothers and extracts from it between her teeth a bloody babylike object. Significantly, Bev takes Seconal, the preventive medicine Claire vouches for, in order not to “dream that dream again.” After her departure, the twins’ drug addiction makes their separation impossible. It is in their “getting synchronized” that the story of the first Siamese twins is mentioned, and after this moment, the Mantles seem to have decided to treat each other as if they shared a bloodstream.

But the shift from an external to an internal mediation has been figured from the beginning. Examining Claire Niveau and elaborating what turns out to be more than a pun on inner beauty, Elly says to her, “I’ve often thought there should be beauty contests for the inside of the body. You know, best spleen. Why don’t we have standards of beauty for the entire human body, inside and out?” Claire murmurs, “I believe you do.” The standards for inner beauty are, of course, what the rest of the movie elaborates. Elly’s insides prove irresistably attractive. In the scene in which Bev awakens to find his brother dead, the camera pans around the room, coyly avoiding a head-on look at the exposed intestines even as it moves inexorably toward them. One senses that only the directorial decision to keep Bev in the frame with Elly’s body (and Bev keeps his distance from it) restrains the camera from zooming in.

The substitution of drugs for female mediation between the twins is most clearly dramatized during the scene in which Elliot literally gets a woman to stand between him and Bev. In this visualized instance of what Eve Sedgwick calls the “homosocial,” all three dance, and the two brothers caress each other through and over the body of the woman between them. But the effectiveness of the homosocial scenario has reached the end point for the Mantle twins. A woman can no longer mediate between them, allowing them to maintain their dyad within a triadic structure, because the inside of the body has replaced the outside as the grounds for connectedness or separation. After dancing with Elliot at his request, Bev collapses, and Elliot shoves the woman out of the way to resuscitate his brother mouth to mouth.

Turning to the inside of the body follows a logic that culminates in turning the body inside out at the end of the film. Drug addiction is the transitional phase. Once the question of “inner beauty” is raised, the movie can address it through the twins’ transformation of gynecological tools into instruments “for separating Siamese twins.” The twins’ descent into drug abuse may at first seem to have more to do with Claire Niveau than with anything inherent in their relationship. But as Elliot calmly crams pills into his mouth in order to stay awake to make sure that Bev stays drug-free, they exchange the places of addict and detoxifier. The distinction that Claire’s presence has allowed us to draw between them vanishes. Drugs make them once again undifferentiable, and their attempts to share each other’s experiences by monitoring exactly what goes into the bloodstream become an extension of their desire to control the inside of the body, the mysterious (because separate) house of identity. Their escalating drug use is of a piece with their obsession with discovering the difference between the inside and the outside of the body. What goes in and what comes out and how these processes are controlled—these elements are common to gynecology and drug addiction. Indeed, drugs become the film’s realization of the brothers’ folie à deux.

In the second half of the film, with the virtual disappearance of women, the withdrawal of the twins into their private world of drug addiction, and the violence one finally inflicts on the other, two psychoanalytic narratives seem relevant: Freud’s discussion of paranoia in “The Case of Schreber” (12: 3–82) and Lacan’s analysis of the crimes of the Papin sisters (“Motifs”).8 I introduce them here not because they provide the interpretive leverage to decode Dead Ringers but because they tell parallel tales. As narratives, Freud’s account of Schreber, Lacan’s of the Papin sisters, and Cronenberg’s of the Mantle twins all share elements of narcissism, paranoia, projection, and violence against vision. These curious correspondences suggest that homosexuality and aggression against the maternal, elements that are present in the psychoanalytic stories, may be implicit in Cronenberg’s film as well.

In “The Case of Schreber,” Freud draws connections among narcissism, homosexuality, and paranoia. Tracing paranoia to a “weak spot in the development [of the ego] … somewhere between the stages of auto-eroticism, narcissism and homosexuality” (12:62), he suggests that a disturbance during the narcissistic stage leads to a fixation that results in homosexual fantasies. These in turn are projected outward and experienced as fantasies of persecution: “I love him” becomes “he hates me and wants to harm me.” For our purposes, the developmental, or causal, account is less compelling than Freud’s association of narcissism, projection, and the paranoid violence Schreber calls “soul-murder.”

Narcissism and projection also accompany paranoia in Jacques Lacan’s account of lesbian incest. The Papin sisters brutally murdered the mother and daughter of the house in which they were servants. According to Lacan, they were motivated by mutual incestuous homosexual desire, which they projected onto their victims, whom they mutilated. Lacan reports that the elder sister, who suffered delusional episodes in prison while she awaited execution, asserted, “Je crois bien que dans une autre vie, je devrais être le mari de ma sœur” ‘I really think that in another life, I ought to be my sister’s husband’ (“Motifs” 397; my trans.).9 Significantly, the desire for incest that Christine Papin articulates in her delusion is not altogether absent from Schreber’s. Freud remarks that in depicting his relationship to God, Schreber gives the Persian name “Ahriman” to part of God; Schreber himself notes that this name derives from Byron’s play about sibling incest, Manfred (12:44). If Christine Papin speaks for the real-life twins on whose story Dead Ringers is based, Stewart and Cyril Marcus, who apparently were incestuous homosexuals, her desire also reveals an aspect of the Mantle twins, who, apart from their incestuous longings, are not depicted as homosexuals in Cronenberg’s film: they desire not only to be each other’s lover but to attack the lady of the house, who can only be understood as a maternal figure. By eliminating the homosexuality of the twins, Cronenberg transposes sibling incest from an essentially nonhierarchical plane onto a vertical, parent-child axis, thereby reinforcing the mother-child relation as the paradigm of separation. Since there is no mother to suffer the aggression or violence that might accomplish separation, Cronenberg’s twins use each other. They develop gynecological instruments into tools to cut them apart, implements that Bev calls tools to separate Siamese twins. By having Bev carve open Elly’s abdomen with these instruments, Cronenberg visualizes the twins acting out their separation from each other as a separation of the child from the mother’s body.

In an article called “Paranoia and the Film System,” Jacqueline Rose develops the connections between the paranoia described in psychoanalytic accounts and the mother-child relationship that, she claims, is the paradigm for all the relationships in Hitchcock’s film The Birds. She notes that the film directs aggression against the female protagonist, Melanie Daniels, and against the viewer as a way of enacting closure. It hardly matters that Hitchcock’s movie centers on a female character while Cronenberg’s does not, for as Rose points out, female is a position in this dynamic. “The woman is centered in the clinical manifestation of paranoia as position. … In the case of Schreber, the attack actually transforms his body into that of a woman” (156). The French psychoanalyst Sami-Ali restates the connections among narcissism, homosexuality, and paranoia to emphasize the ways Schreber transforms the visual into the tactile:

Il est vrai cependant que l’expérience du corps chez Schreber reste dominée par la vision, non au sens ordinaire du terme où voir est distinct de l’object vu, mais à cet autre sens où la vision, amplifiée à l’excès, portée par le délire jusqu’aux confins du réel, ne fait plus qu’un avec l’œil et avec le visible. …L’œil est ce qu’il voit et il est vu par ce qu’il voit: telle est la structure d’inclusions réciproques qui définit la vision dans le système schrébérien.


It is true nonetheless that Schreber’s bodily experience remains dominated by vision, not in the ordinary sense of the term, in which seeing is distinct from the object seen, but rather in another sense, in which vision, amplified beyond the norm, transported by delirium to the boundaries of the real, is one with the eye and the visible. … The eye is what it sees and is seen by what it sees: this is the structure of reciprocal inclusions that defines vision in the Schreberian system.

(my trans.)

Freud is also concerned with visuality in “The Case of Schreber,” in that he connects narcissism, homosexuality, paranoia, and “projection,” a term with felicitous applications to film (12:66). And in Lacan’s account the Papin sisters gouge out the eyes of their victims, a brutal detail that Lacan dwells on in offering this concluding interpretation of their crime:

Au soir fatidique, dans l’anxiété d’une punition imminente, les sœurs mêlent à l’image de leurs maîtresses le mirage de leur mal. C’est leur détresse qu’elles détestent dans le couple qu’elles entraînent dans un atroce quadrille. Elles arrachent les yeux comme châtraient les Bacchantes.


That fateful evening, anxious about their impending punishment, the sisters mix their mistresses’ image with the mirage of their own evil. It is their own distress that they hate in the pair whom they are leading into a hideous quadrille. They gouge out eyes the way the Bacchantes castrated.

(my trans.)

Whereas the Papin sisters see themselves in their victims and therefore destroy the mother’s and daughter’s eyes, Cronenberg makes us see the Mantle twins in a mother-child relationship and registers the one’s destruction of the other by another instrument of vision, the camera. By eliding the twins’ possible homosexuality and thereby transferring incest from the horizontal, intersibling plane to the vertical, parent-child plane, Cronenberg relocates the destructive energy against the visual into the camera’s and the viewer’s passive recording of destructive violence. The impetus of the film is toward Bev’s exposing the inside of his brother’s body. The psychoanalytic elements—narcissism (incest) and projection (violence)—are all present in the film but positioned differently. And the incompleteness of the analogy between psychoanalytic discourse and the film medium opens up the possibility of relocation. The relation between psychoanalysis and film can, of course, be expressed in other ways, but nothing in psychoanalysis corresponds to the technology of the camera. From this perspective, Cronenberg’s film points to one consequence of treating the separation of mother and child as paradigmatic: recording this separation, Cronenberg’s camera both keeps the viewer (i.e., the subject) passive and acquits itself of any aggression beyond recording.

In her essay “Imaging,” Teresa de Lauretis finds fault with the notion that “alternative cinema” should aim at destroying visual pleasure oppressive to women (the concept of visual pleasure is Mulvey’s; see n2). Such a goal, she argues, would involve the destruction of all cinema. Peter Greenaway’s Zed and Two Noughts, a film that shares subject matter with Dead Ringers, is a good example of the Brechtian technique de Lauretis associates with this goal, which she uses Mulvey’s words to characterize as the attempt to “free the look of the camera into its materiality in time and space and the look of the audience into dialectics, passionate detachment” (de Lauretis 60). Greenaway has his twins set up a time-lapse camera to record their joint suicide by intravenous injection. By incorporating the camera into the film, Green-away locates the viewer at one remove, watching a camera record rather than watching the twins decay. By contrast, Cronenberg uses technology to force the issues of visuality, paranoia, and the violence of separation that are conjoined for the twins in the vision of the viewer. Foregrounding the film’s instruments by letting the viewer see their effects and also their effectiveness rather than by having them appear, Cronenberg can be said to “represent the play of contradictory precepts and meanings usually elided in representation, and so to enact the contradictions of women as social subjects, to perform the terms of the specific division of the female subject in language, in imaging, in the social” (de Lauretis 69).

If, in Dead Ringers, the quest for standards of beauty for the inside of the body is on a continuum with the artist’s pursuit (the archaic-looking gynecological instruments are exhibited by their sculptor in an art gallery), it also leads directly to the claim Bev makes that there is nothing wrong with the instruments he has crafted and to his corollary insistence that there must be something wrong with the women’s bodies on which he has used them. The scientific reliance on the precision of instruments is as desirable in a doctor as is the imagination of the grotesque in an artist. In this scene, Cronenberg reveals that the basis of reliance on instruments, whether the gynecologist’s speculum, the sculptor’s chisel, or the filmmaker’s camera, is panic about what the body actually is like. For this reason Cronenberg unflinchingly pursues the twins’ hostility toward the female body to its inexorable conclusion, the disembowelment of one male body to make visible its separability from the brother’s and to expose the difference between it and a female body.

Cronenberg’s other films seem to a large degree preoccupied with fantasies about the female body and its ability to give birth: The Brood and Scanners deal with the consequences of birth defects; in Videodrome, James Woods’s body develops a vaginal slit in the abdominal region; and in The Fly, Cronenberg himself, like the Mantles, appears as a gynecologist.10 In the credit sequences that open and close Dead Ringers, Cronenberg shows a series of Renaissance anatomical illustrations of the female body that depict the inside of the womb as if the abdomen had been opened up. At the end of the film the body of Jeremy Irons is offered as an updated version of these plates, testimonials to the filmmaker as gynecologist or to the camera as speculum.

For Irigaray, women can never really be represented by male discourse even if they appear; for de Lauretis, women are always represented, even when they do not appear. The interpenetration of subject matter and technique in Dead Ringers enacts the contradictory position of women that de Lauretis outlines. The film reflects a powerful male fantasy and its impossibility: the ability for a man to give birth to himself without the mediation of a maternal body. The acquisition of male identity in this fantasy requires that the female body be excluded and that violence be done to its substitute. Like the fantasy, the film fails to represent women as anything other than mothers (though they may remain infertile). Even if this failure is regarded as an (Irigarayan) failure in principle, the power of Dead Ringers is that it records the cost to the male body.11


  1. Jacques Lacan, whose originative essay “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I” outlines the simultaneous acquisition of language and subjectivity (Ecrits 1–7), has particularly influenced film theorists such as Christian Metz, Jean-Louis Baudry, and Kaja Silverman. Carol Clover’s “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film” illustrates that film analysis interested in deploying psychoanalytic categories can benefit from formulating generic and subgeneric boundaries.

  2. Starting with Laura Mulvey’s now famous article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” feminist film theory has concerned itself both with representations of women and with the female spectator. Mulvey explicitly appropriates psychoanalytic theory to film analysis as a “political weapon [to] demonstrate the way the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form” (57). Her interest in classic Hollywood productions stems from her observation that the cinema, “[a]s an advanced representation system, … poses questions of the ways the unconscious (formed by the dominant order) structures ways of seeing and pleasure in looking” (58). In “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ Inspired by Duel in the Sun,” she offers some modifications to account for the pleasures of the female spectator.

    By contrast, Jacqueline Rose characterizes “female” as a position, so that the concept applies to both the spectator and the filmed object of view (“Paranoia”). Whereas this formulation is a welcome complication of the issue of the viewer’s or character’s gender, it still ignores the ways in which an instrument—the camera—structures the spectator’s relation to the film. In other essays, specifically “The Imaginary” and “The Cinematic Apparatus—Problems in Current Theory” (Sexuality), Rose discusses the applicability of Lacanian theory to film and some modifications each might have to undergo.

    Linda Williams provides a useful outline of various strands of feminist film theory (“Power”). From a perspective informed by Foucault’s understanding of the power-pleasure intersection, she interrogates the interpretive power of the language-screening room analogy in promoting both criteria of realism and certain representations of women (“Film Body,” “Power”).

  3. One might begin discussing the differences between the instrumentality of theory and the instruments of film technology by examining Irigaray’s account of male theory, particularly Platonism, as it relates to women and comparing it with Baudry’s operational analogy of the cinematic apparatus and Plato’s cave. In the section of Speculum of the Other Woman called “Any Theory of the ‘Subject’ Has Always Been Appropriated by the ‘Masculine,’” which is also called “Speculum,” Irigaray makes clear the ways in which male theory projects a female other that precludes “the specificity of [woman’s] own relationship to the imaginary” (133).

    The status of the unrepresentable that Irigaray claims for women makes clear the male stakes in representation per se, but as Judith Butler points out in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, this way of thinking about gender identity has political consequences since it preserves a pretheoretical notion of female identity.

  4. In other words, we need to accommodate the differences between a discourse (psychoanalysis) whose theory and practice use the same means of representation (technologies of language) and a medium (film) whose theory and practice use different means of representation (e.g., technologies of language, psychoanalysis, technical accounts of shot and countershot, the technology of the camera, the film reels, the lights, and the acting).

  5. This ending is entirely Cronenberg’s invention. Bari Wood and Jack Geasland’s novelized version of the story—which, like the film, is based on the real-life twins Stewart and Cyril Marcus—gives the brothers’ deaths an antihomosexual twist. In the book, Michael Ross (the character corresponding to Bev), who is married and identified as straight, is seduced by his gay brother into homosexual sex. Their last months are spent together in a degenerative debauch of sex and drugs that culminates in Michael’s agreeing to give his brother an overdose of barbiturates by injection into a hemorrhoid (340). Considering that the authors wholly imagine the site of the injection, one can hardly ignore their equation of anal penetration and murder-suicide.

  6. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud elaborates the concept of the “oceanic feeling” through the image of the infant at the breast “who does not as yet distinguish his ego from the external world as the source of the sensations flowing in upon him” (21: 66–67). The use of narcotics reproduces this perceptual state; from this point of view, we can regard the twins’ drug addiction as regressive.

  7. Computer programming allows the camera to be much more fluid than in the days of Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap; now that the camera can be guaranteed to pan and dolly the same way twice, the screen can be spliced more precisely. As Michael Peyser, the producer of Big Business, explains the technique, “After the ‘A’ and ‘B’ sides of a scene are shot, they are subtly composited using a soft-edged matte so that the splicing point is virtually invisible” (Kearney).

  8. Jean Genet took the real-life Papin sisters as the subjects for his play The Maids, but whereas Genet depicts their crimes as class-inspired, Lacan sees their actions as psychotic manifestations of incestuous lesbian desires.

  9. Janet Flanner discusses the case at length. She translates Christine Papin’s remark as “Sometimes I think in former lives that I was my sister’s husband.” She also quotes a question Christine asked in court that has some relevance in this context: “Where was I before I was in the belly of my mother?” (102).

  10. David Cronenberg’s movies supply Tania Modleski with most of her examples of how the contemporary horror film confounds the distinction between mass culture and high culture. Arguing persuasively that there is a widespread, though hidden, adoption of an adversarial attitude toward mass culture, Modleski points out the falseness of the opposition between the two forms. She shows that the downgrading of mass art often manifests itself in the punishments allotted to pleasure, which is embodied as a woman and considered debased. The example of Cronenberg should in no way be taken as the first step in an argument elevating him from mass- to high-art status; rather, his representations of the intersections among pleasure, fear, and gender should be taken as indicating male fantasy with as much accuracy as we can get.

  11. Thanks are due to Rick Trembles for alerting me to the merits of Cronenberg and to the quotation from Scorcese that serves as my epigraph. I also want to thank Balsmeyer and Everett and David Cronenberg Productions for the illustrations. Discussions with Beth Pittenger provoked me to write this paper. It gives me pleasure to acknowledge her suggestions, as well as those of Bonnie Honig, Kim Ganoudis, Tim Dean, Michael Moon, and Jonathan Goldberg. They helped give the paper its shape.

Works Cited

Baudry, Jean-Louis. “The Apparatus: Metapsychological Approaches to the Impression of Reality in Cinema.” Rosen 299–318.

———. “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematic Apparatus.” Rosen 286–98.

The Brood. Dir. David Cronenberg. With Oliver Reed and Samantha Eggar. Mutual/Elgin, 1979.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Clover, Carol J. “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film.” Representations 20 (1987): 187–228.

Dead Ringers. Dir. David Cronenberg. With Jeremy Irons and Geneviève Bujold. Cronenberg, 1988.

de Lauretis, Teresa. “Imaging.” Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984. 37–69.

Flanner, Janet. Paris Was Yesterday: 1925–1939. Ed. Irving Drutman. New York: Harcourt, 1972.

The Fly. Dir. David Cronenberg. With Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis. TCF/Brooks Films, 1986.

Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. and trans. James Strachey. 24 vols. London: Hogarth, 1953–74.

Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman. Trans. Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

Kearney, Jill. “Danger: Comedians Working.” Premiere 1 (1988): 37.

Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977.

———. “Motifs du crime paranoïaque: Le crime des sœurs Papin.” Premiers écrits sur la paranoïa. Paris: Seuil, 1975. 389–98.

Metz, Christian. “The Imaginary Signifier [Excerpts].” Rosen 244–80.

Modleski, Tania. “The Terror of Pleasure: The Contemporary Horror Film and Postmodern Theory.” Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture. Ed. Tania Modleski. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986. 155–66.

Mulvey, Laura. “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ Inspired by Duel in the Sun.” Penley 69–79.

———. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 (1975): 6–18. Rpt. in Penley 57–68.

Penley, Constance, ed. Feminism and Film Theory. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Rose, Jacqueline. “Paranoia and the Film System.” Penley 141–58.

———. Sexuality in the Field of Vision. London: Verso, 1986.

Rosen, Philip, ed. Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Reader. New York: Columbia UP, 1986.

Sami-Ali. Le visuel et le tactile: Essai sur la psychose et l’allergie. Paris: Dunod, 1984.

Scanners. Dir. David Cronenberg. With Jennifer O’Neill, Patrick McGoohan, Stephen Lack, and Michael Ironside. Filmplan International, 1980.

Scorcese, Martin. “Scorcese on Cronenberg.” Fangoria 3 (1983): 46–47.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia UP, 1985.

Silverman, Kaja. The Subject of Semiotics. New York: Oxford UP, 1983.

Videodrome. Dir. David Cronenberg. With James Woods and Deborah Harry. Filmplan International, 1983.

Williams, Linda. “Film Body: An Implantation of Perversions.” Rosen 507–34.

———. “Power, Pleasure, and Perversion: Sadomasochistic Film Pornography.” Representations 27 (1989): 37–65.

Wood, Bari, and Jack Geasland. Twins. New York: Signet-NAL, 1977.

A Zed and Two Noughts. Dir. Peter Greenaway. With Andrea Ferreol, Brian Deacon, Frances Barber, and Joss Ackland. Allarts/BFI/Channel Four, 1985.

Donald Lyons (review date January 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2235

SOURCE: “Lubricating the Muse,” in Film Comment, Vol. 28, No. 1, January, 1992, pp. 14–16.

[In the following review, Lyons examines the typewriter imagery in Naked Lunch.]

The typewriter is a lonely place. The typewriter is also a doorway into a crowded theater of beings from the Id that, if the writer is not very careful, or especially if he is, will destroy him. The typewriter is a major fetish in some recent films. Why? From a materialist view, the typewriter is obsolescent, a talisman of late-bourgeois literariness now increasingly replaced by the instant, disembodied community of the modem. So these meditations on the dying implement are elegiac, like Ford on the cavalry. From a biographical viewpoint, many filmmakers now do their own writing and thus have a feel for the cavalry of verbal composition. They at least sense the metaphoric possibilities of typewriter-as-camera. Many of today’s auteurs, also, are products of a Sixties Romanticism, either at first hand through coming of age then, or at second hand through a prolonged nostalgia for the decade. The Romanticism of the Sixties was intensely, if narrowly, literary, with a pantheon of écrivains maudits: Blake, Rimbaud, Huxley, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, Genet. It is incense to such idols that perfumes the recent air.

Case in point: a modest, harmless little film called Where Sleeping Dogs Lie, directed by Charles Finch and written by Finch and Yolande Turner, who are the son and widow of the actor Peter Finch. It tells the story of a highbrow young writer in Hollywood (Dylan McDermott in a finely judged performance) unable to sell his work and temping as a real-estate agent. He moves into an empty mansion where, years back, a family was sadistically slain by an unfound killer; he begins writing a very commercial true-crime thriller about that. A creepy lodger turns up, offering surprisingly detailed help with the MS. and soon taking over the actual writing. The setup recapitulates the Faustian bargain (and in almost the very terrain) in Sunset Boulevard, but this Joe Gillis writes not Salome but Fatal Vision. Dogs is an enjoyable, if predictable, movie that minds its Ps and Qs genrewise until the very end, when the writer must dash off to save his happily married, perfect-family sister whose address he’s let slip to his tenant. In general, though, hints of doppelgänger and perversity bubble unseen in the subtext.

Dogs seems at times (quite coincidentally, no doubt) a whole-grain, Spago take on Barton Fink (Karl Mundt, it will be remembered, has perhaps visited Fink’s Brooklyn family, whose telephone does not answer). Barton Fink (John Turturro) finds typewriter to be vortex, a swirling toilet taking him through blood to the sea. Back in New York, he had written a hit prole play, improbably called Bare Ruined Choirs from a Shakespeare sonnet; but this was a phony idealization of the common man, a commodity unknown to Fink. Systematic belittling of literature runs through the Coen brothers’ film. Since Fink has no being other than emblematic writerliness, and since his writerliness is that of Clifford Odets, it is fair to observe—not complain, just observe—that Odetsian naturalism in NY and Odetsian melodrama in LA were both far richer than the Coens’ clever reductions.

The Coens play the typewriter like a grandmaster forcing thirty rookies to resign; they annihilate one by one the possibilities of creativity. The “Barton Fink touch” turns out to be bloody; the Common Man turns out to be Hitler; the Wallace Beery wrestling picture turns out to be a Charley Meadows (Manson?) slasher. Faulkner, the century’s best American writer, is whittled to a mean, drunken fraud (John Mahoney) abusing his muse-cum-ghost Audrey (Judy Davis), who is the real author of his magnum opus, Nebuchadnezzar (the Hitlerian, megalomaniacal destroyer of Jerusalem, be it noted, replaces the tormented Absalom as biblical eponym).

The room where Fink types is a sweaty Venus fly-trap, or is it a vagina? Audrey arrives late one night to talk story, but some male—“Faulkner” or Fink or Meadows (John Goodman)—resents her sharing of Muse-ness and flushes her generosity. After the crudely symbolic fire at film’s climax, Fink sits by the ocean and chats up a pretty girl who’s come to life from a kitschy mezzotint. The Maenads cut off the head of Orpheus, inventor of poetry, and threw it into the sea; Fink carries his Muse’s head in a neat box by the sea. Will he need more boxes, say one per script? Typewriters are thirsty for blood. In its freewheeling nihilism, Barton Fink finds no target it can resist pulverizing. Its slaphappy satirical scratching results in an SCTV version of In a Lonely Place. And so, perhaps inevitably in the light of its ambitions, Fink fudges artistic tact, lurching wildly back and forth from text to subtext.

But it is the incarnation of tact compared to Kafka, directed by Steven Soderbergh from a Lem Dobbs script. The setting is a 1919 Prague, lushly filmed in black and white by Walt Lloyd. The dismal conceit is this: A man called Kafka (Jeremy Irons, phoning it in), who works in a rigidly bureaucratized insurance office by day and writes weird stories (“I’m working on a story about a man who turns into a giant insect”) and an endless letter to his father by night, gets caught up in investigating the mysterious disappearance of a coworker. He hooks up with a gang of anarchists who assure him that “a coverup of monumental proportions” exists. “Coverup” in 1919?? He is told he must penetrate the looming Castle, locus of evil. He enters various narrow chambers (files, marble slabs, elevators, tunnels underneath cemeteries) to emerge into a red-tinged Castle where a wicked Dr. Murnau (a typically sophomoric and pointless allusion) is experimenting with live people in order to create “a more efficient person,” a race of supinely obedient and identical helots. Cackles Murnau (Ian Holm): “The modern: you write it … I embrace it” Ripostes Kafka: “I write nightmares—you build them.” Taking a leaf from Indiana “Nazis … I hate ’em!” Jones, Kafka blows up the lab real good, though the scandal will all be covered up by the cops. He is last seen coughing blood onto his typewriter as he sends out his alarming intuitions of the future to his father and the world.

Lloyd’s distinguished camerawork is wasted on this embarrassingly reductivist nonsense, which tries to visualize a literal adventure at the source of Kafka’s literary vision. It is a task that might have suited the creamily purulent imaginings of a William Burroughs, but Dobbs’s imagination of evil is wholly beholden to the comic-book mentality of Fu Manchu and Ming the Merciless. Nor does Kafka seem in control of its Freudian subtext, for it has its hero crawling back into the womb and exploding it—which was not Kafka’s problem. For its subterranean delvings the filmmakers credit the influence of The Third Man, filmed in nearby Vienna. Well yeah, if you can picture The Third Man delicately remade by Oliver Stone. Soderbergh was much more coherent and charming about post-typewriter technology (sex, lies & videotape).

David Cronenberg is a generation older than Soderbergh. His Naked Lunch, a film he wrote and directed, is infectiously self-confident, very sure of its idiom, and assured about what it wants to and can do. It is, first of all, not really a film of Naked Lunch, the 1959 Burroughs work whose form involved wanton repetition and aleatory arrangement and whose content consisted of cadenzas of excretions, many at the instant of death. Plus drug pathology to the max. “Unfilmable” is much too mild a word. So instead, using Naked Lunch and other Burroughsiana like Exterminator and Junkie and biographies and gossip, Cronenberg has made a fantasy about Burroughs’s relation to writing—and, very specifically, to typewriters. As the director says, it is “a combination of Burroughsian material, but put into a structure that’s not very Burroughsian.” And all the better for that.

Things start in New York with Bill Lee (Peter Weller), the Burroughs surrogate, working as an exterminator to support his odd writing. He has two pals not unlike Kerouac and Ginsberg. He has a wife, Joan, addicted to shooting up roach powder cut with baby laxative; “It’s a Kafka high,” she says, “you feel like a bug. Try some.” Soon, the Cronenberg tics kick in: insects, paranoia, conspiracy, doubles. A big talking bug inducts Lee into secret-agentry and addiction. It is only the first of a gallery of great chattering blobs from the Id (they correspond to no known species)—all of whom, by the way, are much wittier than the roughly equivalent De Niro character in Cape Fear. Their shapes work visual riffs on vaginas and penises; they are Lee’s controls in the secret spy conspiracy; they are, pointedly, the very typewriters that type up the spy reports and that wind up typing Naked Lunch all on their own.

Lee flees NY after shooting Joan in the head while doing their “William Tell routine.” He heads for Interzone, his own private Tangiers. (Happily, Cronenberg was prevented by the Gulf War from shooting in the real Tangiers, and had to come up, à la von Sternberg, with a better one in Toronto.) The first thing he’s asked there is, “You a faggot?” “Not by nature” is the answer, but that’s soon changed—although one never loses a sense that Cronenberg is a bit squirmy with the seeping homosexuality.

The first order of business in the new place is to buy a typewriter to type a report on Joan’s death. When Lee nods off, the machine metamorphoses into a palpy but sarcastic bug drawling, “This is no time to doze off like a freckle-faced boy on a fishing raft.” No Huck, Lee listens when the typebug advises that “homosexuality is the best cover an agent ever had.” Saying this, the typebug orgasms.

Lee then meets Tom and Joan Frost (read Paul and Jane Bowles). In a hilarious scene, Tom’s Id voices hatred of Joan while his lips talk of typewriter makes—that governing obsession of the film’s many writers. Bugs and drugs multiply, all nonliteral creations of Cronenberg’s. Lee’s control typebug pressures him to seduce Joan, who, however, writes in longhand, can use an Arabic typewriter, and is sexual thrall to her Arab housekeeper, a lesbian dominatrix witch (and much else, if the truth be known …). “Kerouac” and “Ginsberg” pop up to try to take Lee back to the U.S., but he resists, saying, “America is not a young land; it is old and dirty and evil”—a characteristic Burroughsian paradox. He is tied to his typewriter, now become his supplier, too; it “dispenses two kinds of intoxicating fluids when it likes what you’ve written.”

Secret controls are everywhere. So is metamorphosis: Lee’s Arab minion is buggered and buggified by a decadent queen (Julian Sands). After some bizarre climactic metamorphoses, Lee gets hooked on “mugwump gissom,” a bug excretion (and also typewriter fluid?), and takes off with Joan Frost in a van from Interzone for Annexia ( = USSR). Forced at Annexia customs to “write something,” he shoots Joan in the head and is at once let in. What he has done, however, doesn’t count, for the machine has assured him that “you were programmed to shoot your wife—it was not an act of free will—she was a centipede.”

Peter Weller is an articulate, dry, ironic Lee, an agent as well as a Fink-like recipient of horror. The haunting Judy Davis plays both Muse-like Joans; Ian Holm gets Tom Frost well. Naked Lunch is, among other things, the real Sheltering Sky. That is, it puts the inertly oddball Bowleses in a context of (perverse, of course) wit and irony, something denied them among Bertolucci’s irritating sandscapes and sexually correct Tuaregs. Cronenberg’s dazzling iconic repertoire, as proficient an accomplishment as the invention of a new language, works; it fleshes out (or rubbers out) and dramatizes the Burroughsian Id and Ego and Superego. Cronenberg imparts a Sternbergian savagery to the dialogue, and a darkly barreling energy to the narrative, that manages to echo Kiss Me Deadly. I found it, along with My Own Private Idaho (product of another Burroughs fan), the funniest film of the year.

The measure of distance between the Apollonian control of Cronenberg and the Dionysian wallow of Burroughs is a nice question. Whatever its intent, the film is totally depoliticized by the hallucinatory solipsism of the central figure. If this guy thinks it’s all a gigantic conspiracy, then it probably isn’t. And the drugs and the sex come out looking like mere functions of some deep prior psychic disturbance. About the only thing that doesn’t dissolve into something else is the writing—the act of writing and the product of writing—and even that has the smell of infantile wilfullness, justifying anything. The misogyny of the thing is thoroughgoing and coldblooded. Once again, the male typewriter is nourished by woman’s blood. Joan Frost writes with a mere pen, like Jane Austen. Is she above or beneath the machine? Is the typewriter necessarily an iconically patriarchal, uxoricidal instrument? So it would seem—at any rate, until some Eurydice fingers the keys to unlock her own map of the journey into art.

Mark Kermode with David Cronenberg (interview date March 1992)

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SOURCE: Interview in Sight and Sound, Vol. 1, No. 11, March, 1992, pp. 11–3.

[In the following interview, Cronenberg discusses the similarities between his and William Burroughs's creative work, his use of visual imagery to reproduce metaphors onscreen, and his creative process.]

“I think that the body of a person living now is substantially different from one which was alive even ten years ago”, says David Cronenberg, master of mutation and champion of viral change. “We’ve altered the earth, the magnetic waves in the air, and we’ve altered ourselves. I think that change itself is fairly neutral, but it contains the potential to be either positive or negative. I’m not a Victorian or a Romantic who believes that we are evolving in an inevitably positive way. Nor am I a Marxist who sees the March of History leading us to something grand and glorious. I really believe that we create our own reality, and it’s only in the human mind that any kind of moral judgment exists. We are the source of all judgment and thus it really will depend on us. It’s up to us to say ‘Yes I like this better’, and if enough of us say that, then by God it is better. To me there is no outside judgment”.

Although the writer/director David Cronenberg is renowned for presenting in his films startlingly visceral portrayals of physical aberration, it is his staunch refusal to characterise this mutation as necessarily negative which has given his work its radical, shocking edge. From the cancerous rebellion of the body depicted in The Brood (1979) to the genetic transmutation of The Fly (1986), Cronenberg’s films have all gazed sympathetically at the myriad diseases which beset his lonely heroes. “I seem to have contracted a disease with a purpose”, observes scientist Seth Brundle in The Fly as his fragile flesh falls away to reveal the exoskeleton of a tough, insect. The ‘purpose’, although far from pleasant, is also far from fatal.

This unshakeable belief in the unavoidable nature of change (it is neither good nor bad, it simply is) lies at the centre of Cronenberg’s cinema. Together, his films constitute a perversely polemical body of work which has grown in strange and wondrous ways while retaining an immutable thematic heart. The rebellion of the body; the unconscious redefinition of the self; the shock of the flesh—each of these themes has been employed by Cronenberg to address his recurrent central thesis: the acceptance and celebration of mutation.

Although Cronenberg has often used the work of other writers as a starting point for his films (neither Dead Ringers nor The Fly were his own original conceptions), only The Dead Zone (1983) smacks of outside influences, alien strains which interrupt the flow of his recurrent personal preoccupations. Working as a hired gun for Dino De Laurentiis on this big-budget Stephen King adaptation, Cronenberg seemed for once uncharacteristically unable (or unwilling) to twist the material to his own designs. The end result is a Cronenberg movie for those people who don’t like Cronenberg, riddled not with cancerous charm but more with Kingly camp.

Now, with Naked Lunch, Cronenberg has once again allowed the stream of his work to be infected by an external agent. As before, that agent is a powerful writer with a mythology all his own. Unlike his earlier dalliance with King, however, Cronenberg’s mating with William Burroughs has revealed a striking similarity of artistic purpose. Both Cronenberg and Burroughs are obsessed by transition, by characters becoming other characters, and each has developed a personal motif with which to explore this theme. For the director, viruses or cancers are the agent of change; for the writer, drugs hold the key.

“It was understood by me (because I had no choice) and by Burroughs (because he’s smart) that this movie was going to be a creature on its own”, Cronenberg asserts forcefully. “It would be a kind of fusion of Burroughs and me, as if we’d gotten into the telepod from The Fly together and come out of the other telepod as some creature which would not have existed separately. The movie of Naked Lunch is not something that Burroughs would have done, and it’s also something that I would never have done—we did it together. That it should be different from my other films and from what Burroughs writes is only appropriate.

“Burroughs was one of the major influences on me when I thought I was going to become a novelist. There was an incredible recognition when I started to read Burroughs, like ‘My God, this is in me too!’ I think both Burroughs and I are very interested in metamorphosis or transformation, and that naturally leads us to attempt to have some understanding of the nature of disease and the relationship of the human condition and disease.

“I agree that you could see the drugs in Burroughs’ writing and the viruses in my films being used by us metaphorically in the same way. They are both something that is potentially dangerous but also attractive, a very powerful agent of transformation. In a way, you give up your soul to either one of them, but in return you get another soul that may or may not be the soul that you’re looking for … we’re not sure”.

Cronenberg first entered the body of mainstream cinema through the taboo orifices of the horror and soft-core porn genres. Having failed an audition as a porno director for Canadian skin-flicks company Cinepix, Cronenberg interested producer John Dunning in a script for a “serious horror film” entitled Orgy of the Blood Parasites. Seen by Dunning as a chance to break into the US mainstream market, Cronenberg's feature debut was shot using financing raised by Cinepix from the Canadian Film Development Corporation, under the new title The Parasite Murders. This less lurid moniker was subsequently changed to Shivers for worldwide release, except in the US, where the film was dubbed They Came From Within.

Decried by Canadian critic Marshall Delaney as “the most perverse disgusting film” he had ever seen, Shivers incurred the wrath of the US censors and set new cinematic standards of shocking visual imagery. Audiences reeled at scenes of bloodied, phallic parasites emerging from the gaping mouths of their aroused human hosts and worming their intimate way into the bodies of new victims. To horror fans, Cronenberg was a major new voice; a talented renegade who blended the explicit sexuality of porn with the taboo-breaking shocks of traditional horror. To others, he was an outlandish visual pervert.

A stumbling block to Cronenberg’s mainstream acceptance was surely his experimentation with ‘plastic realities’; using latex moulds and special effects technology pioneered in the horror genre, Cronenberg developed powerful visual metaphors which were misinterpreted by many as simply the trademarks of gore cinema. For those receptive to such startling stimulation, however, Cronenberg became the master of the visual metaphor, using the plasticity of special effects to lend fleshy form to his conceptual scripts. In The Brood, bloated foetus-bags hanging from the body of Samantha Eggar spew forth murderous dwarfs, representing her uncontrollable rage and desire to destroy her stifling surroundings. Similarly in Videodrome (1982), as Max Renn (James Woods) becomes the slave of televisual imagery, so his stomach develops a suppurating vaginal VCR slot-wound and his television set french-kisses him into a netherworld of sado-masochistic delirium.

“It’s appropriate that the movie of Naked Lunch, which is very much about writing and new realities that are made through the creative process, should present me again with this problem of metaphor”, Cronenberg reflects. “This is something I struggle with all the time. The use of metaphor in literature is crucial, and there is no direct screen equivalent. Eisenstein tried a direct equivalent; when the script says ‘The crowd roars like a lion’, you cut to a lion roaring. Does that work? No. It’s silly, everybody laughs, it takes you out of the movie, and I’m glad Eisenstein did it so I don’t have to! But what do you do when you want to deliver a concept that requires some kind of metaphor and you can’t do it the way it’s done on paper?

“Often I end up using special effects for just this purpose. There’s a very specific example of this in Naked Lunch where we have a creature which evolves out of a typewriter that is all-sexual, a polymorphously perverse thing which leaps on the two people who have created it and participates in sex with them. That creature is really an allegorical being that you would probably call lust if you were writing in the fourteenth century. It would be the embodiment of the lust of these two people. So I’m doing something very literary there, but in a very cinematic way.

“However, I have to say that I’m not obsessed with special effects, and I believe that if I had conceived of a film like this or like Videodrome in the 50s, there would have been another way to do it that would have worked. I think that there would have been a way to deliver the metaphorical imagery that I’ve got in Videodrome without modern technology: it’s the conceptual stuff which is hard, not the techno stuff. As far as Naked Lunch is concerned, I think the effects are pretty old fashioned—it’s really just advanced puppetry. There are no computer-generated morphs the way there are in T2, for example. It’s just foam-latex creatures operated with little springs and levers. Naked Lunch is set in 1953 and I think there’s something very 50s about the effects. They have a very physical, right-there-on-the-set feel, which is exactly what they were. There was no post-production optical work, unlike Dead Ringers, which had much more sophisticated optical post-production”.

The physicalisation of metaphor which Cronenberg describes is indeed the most powerful recurrent motif within his films. When writer Piers Handling stole the title of Dr Raglan’s fictional text book, The Shape of Rage, for his 1983 collection of essays on Cronenberg, he rightly pin-pointed the director’s greatest achievement—to give physical form to shapeless anxieties. Yet his depiction of physical aberration and change is always metaphorical, never realistic. So how does this metaphorical use of viruses marry with Burroughs’ very real and practical use of drugs to encourage psychic (and perhaps even physical) transformation?

“I don’t think that Burroughs’ drug-taking produces his creativity or indeed allows him to create”, Cronenberg states assuredly. “I know that he could do it without drugs and indeed he often does do it without drugs or alcohol or anything else. Also, Burroughs’ fascination with drug-taking precedes his writing by many years. I think really his drug-taking had to do with a dissatisfaction with the reality in which he found himself living, including what he himself was. He wanted to transform himself. He wanted to become something else. Drug-taking was one way to do that, and it also put him in touch with outsiders in society whom he found more interesting than the middle classes from which he came.

“The state that I prefer is stone cold sober. When I get drunk, or on the rare occasions that I’ve been stoned, I just sit around waiting for it to go away. It’s like a fever that I want to get over. I don’t have trouble when I’m sober or straight tapping into the dream/fantasy part of myself. I don’t need anything to liberate me. Even when dealing with hallucinatory states, as I do in Naked Lunch, I am always striving for a kind of clarity. Anything that muddies the clarity and makes it more difficult to synthesise things is something I’d rather not have.

“Burroughs is not like that; he enjoys smoking dope and he likes the connections he makes when he’s stoned, and he uses them in his work. I don’t make any connections I think are valuable. I just get very paranoid and wait for it to go away. At that point you’re really dealing with your own personal metabolism and nervous system.

“When I’m writing I do go into a trance-like state which I can be in and out of in an instant. However, one thing about this altered state is that it’s not physical. It’s a kind of out-of-body thing which everybody experiences. People think of it as mysterious, but I’ve often got to the point where I have to check the toothbrush to see if it’s wet because I can’t remember whether I’ve brushed my teeth or not. My body has been functioning on its own, while my mind is somewhere else.

“So I guess I don’t think of that creative process at the moment as needing or involving bodily change. But having said that, I think it would be interesting to attach electrodes to your head and find out what’s actually going on when you’re writing. Because you are experiencing these things as a kind of reality … albeit at a distance”.

Amy Taubin (review date March 1992)

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SOURCE: “The Wrong Body,” in Sight and Sound, Vol. 1, No. 11, March, 1992, pp. 8–10.

[In the following review, Taubin argues that Cronenberg’s adaptation of Naked Lunch does not sufficiently recreate the homoerotic elements presented in William Burroughs's novel.]

Naked Lunch is less an adaption of William Burroughs’ novel than David Cronenberg’s fantasy about how it came to be written. The young Cronenberg wanted to be a writer: Burroughs and Nabokov were his models. He claims that he turned to film-making when he realised he’d never write as well as either of them.

Affronts to the ‘I married Joan’ sit-com consciousness of the Eisenhower era, Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and Nabokov’s Lolita each presented a radically different version of subversive male sexuality, modernist reflexivity and expatriate alienation, not to mention a fascination with insect life connected in part to a certain queasiness about the female body. The obscenity trials which surrounded the publication of both novels in the US marked the beginning of the end of the repressive 50s. Today, the stuff the authorities claimed was pornographic—homosexuality in Naked Lunch, paedophilia in Lolita—is the staple of television talk shows. Nevertheless, the context in which these subjects are placed is as poisonously puritanical as it was forty years ago. “I’m afraid that 1993 is going to be like 1953”, Cronenberg commented. 1953 is the year in which the film Naked Lunch is set.

Between 1984, when Cronenberg and producer Jeremy Thomas acquired the rights to the novel, and the film’s Christmas 1991 release (just in time for it to win both a New York Film Critics and a National Film Critics award), Burroughs’ devotees questioned whether Cronenberg was the right man for the job. There were obvious similarities in the Burroughs and the Cronenberg oeuvres: the sci-fi paranoia, the fascination with control and addiction, the definition of subjectivity as unstable, biochemical and hallucinatory, the connection between sex and vampires, sex and disease, sex and mutation, sex and death.

Yet while sexuality is polymorphous and definitely perverse in the work of both Burroughs and Cronenberg, the trajectory of desire and the specifics of representation is homosexual in the former and heterosexual in the latter. Thus The Advocate, a major American gay weekly, cautioned against expecting much from “the heterosexual Cronenberg”. The irony is that the gay critics who’ve attacked the film would have great difficulty recuperating much of Burroughs—the terroristic goings-on in ‘Hassan’s Rumpus Room’, for example, which are among the pages of Naked Lunch most vividly inscribed in the collective cultural memory—within their politics of essentialism and positive imagery.

Cronenberg responds to the criticism as follows: “It wasn’t as if there were a dozen directors vying for the rights and they gave it to the heterosexual”. Indeed, when Cronenberg acquired Naked Lunch, no one else was interested. “If Naked Lunch were a gay book and that’s all, you would have an argument. I wouldn’t do The Wild Boys [the Burroughs novel that’s high on Gus Van San’t agenda]. But the sex in Naked Lunch is beyond gay. It’s sci-fi sex; it has metaphorical meaning every way”. Yet when I ask Cronenberg what he thinks of Kubrick’s Lolita (1961), an adaptation fraught with similar problems, he answers that although James Mason’s performance is perfect, he didn’t like the film very much when he first saw it. “The actress who played Lolita was too old. She’s supposed to be a child, not a teenager. To shift that shifts everything”.

The shift that Cronenberg makes in Naked Lunch is to wind it around the body of a woman. He takes as his premise Burroughs’ statement in the introduction to Queer that if he hadn’t killed his wife Joan, he would never have become a writer. Burroughs, however, goes on to say that he put up a writer’s block around her death; women barely exist in his work. Cronenberg, on the other hand, structures Naked Lunch as a bare-bones, but not unconventional, noir narrative. The film is driven by the repetition-compulsion of its protagonist William Lee—his need to save and destroy his wife Joan over and over again.

To lift a metaphor from The Fly (1986), Naked Lunch is less a case of Cronenberg adapting than absorbing Burroughs. That the experiment is not totally successful is proof of Burroughs’ stature both as a writer and counter-culture myth. Nevertheless, the first half of the film is nearly as intellectually inventive, mordantly witty and visually stunning as Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988). Pristine and putrid, the decor encompasses every shade of shit and glows as if it were radioactive. Erupting from this controlled, though repellent, visual surface is a diarrhoeic flow of language, thick with puns, threats and obscenities.

The film opens with Lee trying to live the ‘straight life’. He’s married and has a job as an exterminator. Lee and Joan get addicted to the poison he uses to kill roaches. (For heroin and hashish, Cronenberg substitutes sci-fi drugs—bug powder and the meat of the black centipede. The drugs are not merely agents of hallucination, they are hallucinatory in and of themselves.)

High on bug powder, Lee is contacted by a giant roach whose wings spread open to reveal a talking, all-too-human-looking asshole. The roach tells Lee that his wife Joan is an alien and instructs him to kill her. Lee invites Joan to play a game of William Tell. He aims for the glass she’s placed on her head, but the roach takes control and the bullet blasts her brain. Lee flees to Interzone with the bug, which now has the body of an old-fashioned Smith-Corona typewriter grafted on to its head.

The film’s central image is of Lee alone in his wretched hotel room sitting in front of this insect writing machine, which functions as a combination id and super-ego. “I’m your case worker”, it tells him, “your contact to Control”. Control wants Lee to write reports about the death of Joan Lee. The game of William Tell has made it possible for William to tell all, that is, to write Naked Lunch.

Lee gets involved with two other American expatriate writers, Tom and Joan Frost (modelled on Paul and Jane Bowles). In an extremely sinister scene, Lee reads Tom’s mind and discovers that just as he destroyed Joan Lee, Tom is destroying Joan Frost. Departing from both the Burroughs biography and the homoerotics of Naked Lunch, Lee becomes obsessed with saving Joan. She invites him to try Tom’s favourite typewriter. Messing around in the back of the machine, her hand penetrates a kind of uterine cavity—red, raw and pulsating. The scene is terrifyingly erotic, and given the anal-retentive quality of the rest of the film, flagrantly transgressive. The effect is to stop the film long before it’s over. The potentially chilling scenes that follow—Lee selling out Kiki, his boy lover, to the cannabalistic Yves Cloquet; his discovery of the factory farm where the Mugwamps are milked by human sex slaves addicted to their jissom: the revelation of the hermaphroditic identity of the controlling Dr Benway; Lee’s shooting of the second Joan in order to prove to the border guards of Annexia that he’s really a writer—happen as if by rote.

Brilliant as it is, Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch never resolves the incompatibility between the heterosexual drive of its narrative and the remnants of Burroughs’ homoerotic fantasy. The amazing insect typewriter, which collapses desire for buggery with paranoia about being bugged, could never have produced the encounter between William Lee and Joan Frost. “It’s not the instruments that are wrong; it’s the women’s bodies” cries one of Dead Ringer’s twin gynaecologists as he descends into madness. In terms of Naked Lunch, he might just have a point.

Karen Jaehne with David Cronenberg (interview date Spring 1992)

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SOURCE: “Dead Ringers Do Naked Lunch,” in Film Quarterly, Vol. 45, No. 3, Spring, 1992, pp. 2–6.

[In the following interview, Jaehne talks with Cronenberg about the making of Naked Lunch, particularly how the film tackled the difficult, then-taboo subject matter found in William Burroughs's 1959 novel.]

It is hard to imagine two people more allied by phantasmagoric visions than David Cronenberg and William Burroughs. Both men are attracted to the shiny metallic but mercurial intellectual vein in their subject matter, even though at first blush their imagery is often grotesque, visceral, and unnerving. Plot is always secondary. In Naked Lunch, Cronenberg uses Burroughs’ life and art as a reason to explore the writer as addict. The film is a nightmare set in Interzone (the International Zone of Tangier, a sort of Berlin of North Africa), where typewriters talk when they’re not turning into giant insects, and life, like writing, is boring or repulsive.


[Jaehne:] Let’s start with the critical crux: Is this a David Cronenberg film, the subject of which happens to be William Burroughs, or is this the film about Burroughs and his novel Naked Lunch that was inevitable and only happened to be made by Cronenberg?

[Cronenberg:] It probably has more of me in it than of William Burroughs, because he had very little to do with the process. I never set out to make an historical or quasi-historical account, or to be faithful to the source. I think of it as the product of a dream I would have about Burroughs and his book, a dream to which I bring all my particular obsessions and idiosyncrasies.

What impact did William Burroughs have on the film-making?

Bill had nothing to do with the writing or the directing or the film. He told me that he had once tried to write a script—the memoirs of Dutch Schultz, I believe—and he said this is an entirely different art form, you can save it for the professionals.

And perhaps because the film is about writing and, very specifically, about Burroughs as a writer and an intellect, he had the good grace to stay out of the process. He was very liberal, very intelligent about it and basically told me to go make my movie. As it happens, he likes the result, which pleases me, but that was not my aim either. I wanted to be as honest and interesting as I could about the intellectual makeup of “Bill Lee,” the alter ego of William Burroughs during the time he wrote Naked Lunch.

Were you ever worried about going too far out on a limb about his experiences or experiments?

Would they come to me if they wanted the kind of discretion you’re suggesting? Many of the issues raised by Naked Lunch—homosexuality, misogyny, drug use, obscenity and censorship—are still controversial in America today. You have no choice but to face them head on, as bluntly and as crudely as you find in his writing, if you want this film to have any credibility whatsoever. And I’m not sure an American director could approach it in the same way. American culture is not introspective. It’s at a white heat and boiling, and I like it, but as a Canadian I’m also in exile from American culture. I can’t help but consume it, but I have choices that Americans might not have.

I think in some way it took a Canadian director and an English producer to deal with Burroughs and his world. Not because we are superior, but only because we share an arm’s length perspective on the really controversial elements that needs to be preserved. The misogyny alone …

What about Burroughs’, or Bill Lee’s, relationship with the representational woman in this picture—who is played by Judy Davis first as Joan, Burroughs’ wife whom he murdered in Mexico, then as Jane Bowles, whom he knew when he was living in Tangier?

Murder is not an appropriate term here. I don’t think it was a murder, legally speaking, although he did kill her and felt pain and guilt about it. There were undoubtedly a lot of things at work—jealousy, which I try to allude to in the scene in which he walks in on her with another man. …

But that is a famous incident usually portrayed as a paradigm of “Beat” hipness—the lack of jealousy, the idea of tolerance of people acting out their desires despite bourgeois norms.

Maybe, but jealousy is a very important emotion, even when it is repressed. Burroughs loved Joan, admired her, and thought of her as an equal. There is nothing misogynistic about Burroughs’ work, and I realize that it’s a twisted element of his psychological makeup, but you have to get beyond the surface. His work represents the essence of struggling with misogyny without fear of the dark side. The incident represented in the film as the occasion of Joan’s death is the central experience of his life, you see.

“Let’s do our William Tell routine.” They were out of their minds, and he says he doesn’t know why he did it. He also worries about something in her that was self-destructive. …

He has said he suspected her brain pulled the bullet to it.

Which is another way of expressing his awareness of her self-destructive state. You see, Burroughs believes in things like possession in a medieval sense and in things that I don’t endorse.

Yes, he thought at one time that women were from another planet.

No, he thought they were a different species—a very different thing from being alien. This is not scientific thinking; this is mythological or a kind of primitive poetry. That women and men are “other” is a commonplace, but Bill extended that to an extreme I may find interesting but cannot take literally.

How are we to take Bill’s killing Joan in the film—twice?

It was the central event of his life, and everything began from that point, again and again. There was no way to erase it or forget it or pay for it. He has to relive that trauma repeatedly, and it’s meant to be about his suffering, not about him getting rid of the woman in his life so he could be creative. It was only after he came to terms with her loss that he began to write seriously again.

Burroughs was very much obsessed with Allen Ginsberg during the time he was in Tangier—long, passionate letters and confessions of depending upon him as a writer are part of the record. You don’t seem to want to make much of their relationship, and in your film Kerouac and Ginsberg seem to be more like Tweedledum and Tweedledee than like the two comrades with whom Burroughs had launched the Beat era.

Admittedly, I didn’t want to get into the history of Ginsberg or Kerouac, and I didn’t want to have to take them on as well, because this is only secondarily a film about the Beats. For me, they worked well in that way, because that’s how Bill Lee saw them. You see, Burroughs had been their mentor. He was older and they looked up to him, but he was also this guru who required care, and in looking after him they fulfilled their bond. They saw it as their duty to pull together what spewed out of Bill’s creative genius.

Why do you shy away from Burroughs’ homosexuality—a Hollywood taboo or just too kinky?

His friend Kiki is portrayed as his lover, but it was something that I just didn’t feel that I could delve into. I was sort of damned if I did and damned if I didn’t. I myself am not homosexual and do not feel prepared to create a character as extreme in his homosexuality as in Naked Lunch. Believe me, I struggled with it aesthetically and morally, because it seemed a kind of transgression, but I finally decided to let go of it.

I approached Bill about it to inform him of my decision because it felt like the fair thing to do. He just said, don’t worry, it’s your movie, do whatever you want. He likes to invoke the famous line of Raymond Chandler, when people asked him if he liked what Hollywood had done to all his books: “They haven’t done a thing to my books. They’re all right up there on the shelf.”

What does Burroughs think of the film?

He’s told countless people it’s a great film. He’s also said that he doesn’t recognize any of the people up there. And why should he? There is this act that occurs between the life of the person creating and the work of art that transforms and separates the two of them. That’s what this movie is about.

Did Ginsberg have anything to say?

Through a friend, he let me know that he liked it very much and found it funny and true to the spirit of Burroughs—because, I believe, the film is an inquiry into the particular kind of intelligence they had which does not depend upon homosexuality.

A lot of the gay press would disagree.

Well, I did have this contretemps with The Advocate, because they refused to believe or to print my statement that Burroughs had actually renounced his homosexuality at one stage. …

Yes, it seems that after finishing Naked Lunch, Burroughs claimed that writing it had exorcized some of his devils and that it had provided a resolution to the sexual conflicts he suffered.1 Of course, he also regularly gave up drugs!

I did so much research for this that I cannot remember all the sources, and when somebody challenges you in that way, you think, why bother? My film is about creativity—its anxieties, its lifestyle, its dangers.

What do you mean by that?

It’s interesting that Jane Bowles once spoke to Burroughs about her fear of the danger of writing—of exposing yourself and your ideas to things entirely beyond your control.

Is that the point of the Mugwump ordering Bill to the Interzone to file reports on enemy agents—or of typewriters turning into threatening bugs and heads? They’re not so much threatening as funny.

I haven’t thought about it in exactly that way, but we did want that surreal aspect of the film to carry an absurd humor. Think about it! The talking asshole is a very literal image of the serious social taboo against expressing anything with, through, or about human orifices. That was one of Burroughs’ more infamous contributions to literature, which somehow strikes a chord, you know? It breaks through the organization of our bodies and our lives into proper, acceptable forms of presentation.

Likewise, the bugs have escaped from the conscious mind, through the architecture of ideas, through the cracks that release creative ideas. To have mechanical devices transformed into bugs is a way of showing how they are really subservient to the organic flow of the imagination.

The second typewriter he borrows turns into a head; he has to stick his hands in its mouth to type.

That’s surreal, isn’t it? I don’t have an explanation for choosing a head in that case, but I do believe it must go back to the dangerous aspect of writing. To stick your hands into the maw of the beast is dangerous, and it’s also like trying to perform brain surgery through the mouth.

What about the hand that also thrusts into a surprisingly vaginal orifice?

The fear’s the same: the implications of a vagina dentata have been built up through previous imagery. I want to emphasize my reasons for such sexual imagery, because it is so commonly misunderstood. It is not sexist. It’s the visual life of this particular story, and it’s not a pronouncement on women. This is the story of one Bill Lee, who is not even William Burroughs, but rather a man who must write himself out of a nightmare.

Is that the nightmare of drug addiction? I recall that Burroughs was supposedly not addicted during the time he was writing Naked Lunch.

Well, the trouble is Burroughs was an addict, and he wrote out of addiction. There’s no getting around it, even if he was not an addict during the act of creating his novel. There is something about the addictive personality that is more compelling than the fact that he satisfies it with narcotics. For example, Burroughs’ wife Joan had a really vile habit and took drugs throughout the time she carried their child; people saw her wasting away right in front of them. She couldn’t survive her own addiction, but Bill could. I’m not sure why, but his addiction rose out of exploration rather than escape. He figured out a way to go back and forth from the straight world to the world of the addict. Literati view him as a translator from that world.

Theories Burroughs has proposed or notions threaded through his work make him sound like a crackpot, but in his public appearances he always seems coherent and very controlled. He has a kind of glacial monumentality.

He does, but personally he is a very sweet and surprisingly gentle person. When I first met him—the day before his 70th birthday and arranged by our producer, Jeremy Thomas—what struck me was his shyness and gentle nature. We established a kind of trust, and I felt almost protective of him, which provided even stronger incentives to develop the character away from the man Burroughs and make of him a fictional hero caught between Tangier and the completion of Naked Lunch.

Were you ever tempted to put Burroughs in the film, even in a cameo?

Never. It would have been a total betrayal of what the film is about. I might put him in another film, because I like his presence and self-possession in something like Drugstore Cowboy. Here, it would point in a self-conscious way to the source. The use of a writer in that way can become exploitative and confuse an audience as to your purpose.

The acting styles of Weller as Bill Lee and the guys riffing on the personalities of other characters drawn from the days in Tangier as well as from Burroughs’ book form a very rich jumble. Dr. Benway is from sci-fi, Bill Lee from Pilgrim’s Progress …

What you’re getting at is interesting, because the characters have the quality of apparitions and a symbolic force which rises from an extreme presentation by that particular actor that is, in addition, appropriate to the character’s position in the overall odyssey. It’s a gallery, not a society.

You spent some time in North Africa yourself in preproduction before the Gulf War broke out …

God, yes. We had done our homework and toured Tangier “in the footsteps of the master” with Jeremy and Bill, trying to trace the atmosphere, influences. The landscape has such a strong pull that it’s hard to resist attempting to put it on screen. It’s remarkably stark and has a magical or maybe mystical sensibility that is completely at one with Burroughs’ sensibility.

But then the war broke out and there was no way we could insure the film or actors, and we had no choice but to pack up and go back to Toronto and rewrite it as an interior tale of a man’s mind rather than of his environment being peopled by monsters. I think it was a blessing in disguise and forced the film into a claustrophobic feeling that is perfectly appropriate.

How much control did you have over the music for Naked Lunch?

Actually, that was very exciting. Howard Shore came up with the idea of using jazz, and of course everybody agreed that it was the right idea, the right tone, the right mood. But then that simply opens up a wide choice. Then someone came up with Ornette Coleman and he liked the idea. You see, he’d known Burroughs in Tangier back in 1973, when Coleman went to a village called Joujouka to take part in certain rituals and play with the musicians who had been studying ancient techniques. Burroughs had been there to see Coleman participate in the annual ritual, so the reunion of Coleman doing a sound track for the experiences that Burroughs had formulated out of Tangier was … kismet. Coleman worked out a score that is so sensitive, it provides a kind of pulse for Bill Lee’s emotions. It’s a perfect sound track—subtle, a little spooky, full of mystical implications—like the film.


  1. See Ted Morgan, Literary Outlaw (New York: Henry Holt, 1988).

Anne Billson (review date 24 April 1992)

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SOURCE: “A Meal in the Best of Taste,” in New Statesman and Society, Vol. 5, No. 199, April 24, 1992, pp. 34–5.

[In the following review, Billson writes that despite the good acting in Naked Lunch, the film contains “an excess of refinement.”]

David Cronenberg loves gloop. Some critics have interpreted this as evidence that he finds the human body disgusting, but the opposite is true. Cronenberg loves the human body in all its permutations: surgically altered or diseased, insideout, mutated into radical new forms. His films explore the effect physical changes have on the mind, and vice versa. The psychosomatic killer midgets of The Brood, the exploding head in Scanners, Jeff Goldblum’s detached observation of his own genetic mutation in The Fly are all instances of Mind and Body meeting in a welter of goo.

When Martin Scorsese tackled The Last Temptation of Christ, the result was a formality. He had told the story so often that such a literal-minded version seemed unnecessary. Now Cronenberg has finally realised his long-cherished project of making a movie out of The Naked Lunch (London cinemas from 24 April)—but he has already been filming William Burroughs for years. Videodrome, in which sleazy TV programmer James Woods developed a VCR slot in his stomach, was about as Burroughsian as you can get.

But Naked Lunch bid fair to be the ultimate amalgamation of mind and body, the gloopfest of the century. Cronenberg maintains that a literal visualisation would have cost US$400 million and been banned in every country in the world. But the most problematic aspect of the novel, from an adaptor’s viewpoint, seems to have been the absence of a coherent story.

Cronenberg’s way of filming the unfilmable has been to arrange his material in a pulp noir formal, laced with hallucinations, corrupt characters, and local colour (local being studio-recreated Tangier). There are also biographical details from the author’s life, especially the accidental shooting of his own wife in 1951, for which he spent 13 days in a Mexican jail. Burroughs fans discuss this incident as though it enhances the writer’s mythical status. I bet you they wouldn’t find it quite so glamorous if, instead of getting drunk and shooting her, he’d got drunk and accidentally beaten her to death.

There are some scary production photos showing Burroughs, Cronenberg and leading actor Peter Weller staring, bespectacled and unblinking, into the camera, as though they were three different generations of the same person. Weller plays the Burroughs character, a roach-exterminator whose wife, played by Judy Davis, turns him on to his own insecticide. “It’s a Kafka high,” she says, “You feel like a bug.” Then their William Tell game goes wrong, he flees to Interzone, and reality gets very virtual indeed.

He gets hooked on giant centipede meat and encounters rubber monsters called “mugwumps”. His typewriter unfurls metallic insectoid wings and talks to him through a sphincter-like aperture. He is in the instrument’s thrall, instructed to compile “reports” that turn into a novel called The Naked Lunch. These act-of-creation in-jokes make the film a worthy addition to the writers-at-work sub-genre, to be placed alongside The Shining, Misery and Barton Fink.

Julian Sands plays a dissipated Swiss; Ian Holm an American writer; and Judy Davis pops up in the second leg of her dual role as Holm’s wife, with whom Weller has incredibly kinky rubber-monster sex. Davis is deliberately made up to resemble Debra Winger/Jane Bowles/Kit Moresby in The Sheltering Sky—a reminder that one of the guiding lights behind this literary adaptation was that film’s producer, Jeremy Thomas.

Thomas has taken the outré directors Oshima and Bertolucci in hand, and presented them in a more “respectable” form. Now, one gets the feeling that some of Cronenberg’s gloopy vigour has been wiped away to provide acceptable international art-house fodder. It may seem odd to complain of an excess of refinement in a film that features talking anuses and rubber monsters shaped like bottoms, but it does all seem to have been done in the best possible taste.

Naked Lunch is the first Cronenberg film I have sat through without being reduced to a state of rigid terror. I almost dozed off once or twice, lulled by the sounds of the souk. It’s a film that appeals more to the intellect than to the gut—definitely a Kafka high.

But there is enough to suggest one could be hailing it as a masterpiece in future. The performances are all good, but Weller’s is one to take home and treasure forever. I will race out to buy the video, because I think it may be more digestible chopped into bite-size pieces and perused in terminally sleazy surroundings when one is tanked up on Sol and takeaway Chinese. Yes, already I can hear the sound of Naked Lunch parties taking place in my head. And I wouldn’t mind getting my hands on one of those typewriters that does all the work for you.

William Beard (essay date Winter 1992–93)

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SOURCE: “An Anatomy of Melancholy: Cronenberg’s Dead Zone,” in Journal of Canadian Studies, Vol. 27, No. 4, Winter, 1992–93, pp. 169–79.

[In the following essay, Beard provides an in-depth analysis of The Dead Zone, placing it within the context of Cronenberg's other works.]

With the exception of some discomfort experienced by those speaking for high culture, scarcely anyone disputes any longer that David Cronenberg is an artistic presence in this country. Still, between the continuing reluctance of traditionalists to make a place in the pantheon for anyone whose principal identifying feature is the habit of depicting gooey inner body parts, and the emphasis of truly Canadian cinema partisans on a more culturally pure, less commercial genre, Cronenberg does not actually fit anywhere very comfortably. The truth of the matter is that he is at this moment arguably the best and most important filmmaker working in English Canada, and that he is a real presence internationally as well.1 Cronenberg’s work has its flaws and limitations, but what is far more striking is its passion, its uniqueness and consistency of vision, and the force and dexterity of its expression. In particular, Cronenberg’s recent films are so rich in detail and dense in texture that each one deserves as close a reading as can be managed. The present essay is an attempt to apply this type of treatment to the 1983 feature The Dead Zone. But the highly personal and constantly evolving nature of Cronenberg’s themes and style means that no film can be wholly understood in isolation from the body of work surrounding it. For his concerns, like his “language” and the growth and development of his sensibility, are as private and unique as Hitchcock’s or Godard’s (or Michael Snow’s or Jack Chambers’), and really need to be seen in a setting of continuous discourse.2

Indeed, viewed on its own, The Dead Zone scarcely registers as a David Cronenberg film at all. Released under the “Dino de Laurentiis Presents” banner, it is a reasonably faithful adaptation of Stephen King’s novel—a bestseller. It features star performers (Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Martin Sheen) in the principal roles and its scenario is, despite the presence of some paranormal elements, very low key. The script is not by Cronenberg, but by Jeffrey Boam. In short, it passes very well for a conventional Hollywood mainstream movie. And yet on closer examination The Dead Zone is very much a part of the Cronenberg “set,” and emerges as a subtle and complex variation on his essential thematic concerns.

The protagonist, Johnny Smith, is definitely a Cronenberg hero. Essentially he is a victim who has to fight against both the hostile blows of fate and his own passivity. But if the forces oppressing the hero seem at first purely external, in the end they appear to originate from within himself as much as from outside, and the characteristic plight of the Cronenberg protagonist is thus replicated: a malign conjunction of inner predisposition and outward circumstance ends by destroying the subject. This thematic has come to replace the often discussed “mind/body” split in the Cronenbergian world—perhaps it was always its underlying cause.

Johnny Smith’s life is a tragedy, marked by almost unbroken quiet suffering. All he wants out of life, it would seem, is a normal existence: a wife and family, a job as a useful member of the community, a sense of security and belonging. These simple desires appear to be just on the point of becoming reality when they are cruelly snatched away from him by a road accident, followed by five years in a coma, and an awakening which leaves him not only partially crippled and deprived of his girl and his job, but also experiencing disturbing moments of “second sight” which threaten to make him into a media freak. On the surface, then, he seems clearly to be the victim of calamitous bad luck. And when he is killed at the end trying to assassinate a politician whom he has foreseen will start a nuclear war, he looks very much like a martyr: he is a poor blameless man who dies—almost a sacrifice—to save us from destruction.

But this configuration of events is misleading. The “normal” life of domestic happiness and security the hero wishes for is not really normal at all—it represents a considerable idealization of reality. In fact, even Johnny sees this, at least subconsciously: he cannot believe that he will ever really feel safe and loved. Instead (as we can read between the lines), in his heart he believes himself destined for isolation and loss. He is very nice and very passive, and when disaster comes for him he seems particularly fitted to receive it. From a certain vantage point he seems even to have created it. His congenital melancholy expands to become a terrible, numb sense of deprivation and exclusion. His frame of mind, turning in circles of deepening depression, becomes suicidal. But here again we find that curious ambivalence in Cronenberg. Just as the protagonist’s plight is both outwardly motivated and of his own making so the solution is both blunt self-destruction and a curious sort of salvation.3 The dominant mood, however, is bleak, and in The Dead Zone the overwhelming tone is one of inner hopelessness and loss.

The objective correlative of this inner desolation is a corresponding outer desolation marked onto the cinematic landscape. The fateful accident occurs in a chilly, nocturnal rainstorm which obscures the vision. When Johnny wakes up, apparently soon afterwards but really five years later, it is winter—and it remains winter for most of the rest of the film. Snow and freezing mud, dense grey skies, barren leafless trees, a killing, all-penetrating cold: these are the regular conditions whenever the characters move out-of-doors or even glance through windows. Only towards the end of the film, when Johnny has begun to come to terms with his plight, does spring begin to arrive in a tentative and partial way. For most of the time the lifeless and hostile climate is simply the environment, an expression of both the objective bad luck which dogs the protagonist and his subjective sense that everything will work out for the worst. It is both an external and an internal landscape mirroring the thematic dilemma already mentioned.

While Johnny’s fragile and complex psychology is well-documented in the film, a fuller understanding of its nuances is necessary for a proper exposition of the film (although it is scarcely possible to talk about the hero without also talking about the events and the mise-en-scène of the film, so closely are they intertwined). Christopher Walken presents the right sallow, sensitive physical type, characterized by a darting yet tentative manner. He looks and acts like a highly intelligent and highly repressed person; his psychic disability is physically echoed in a painful, lurching limp. The first time we see him, Johnny is teaching Poe’s The Raven to his (junior high-school?) pupils, not so much describing its operation as entering into a kind of vicarious early-adolescent discovery of this purple romantic idealism-and-despair (“Pretty good, huh?,” he shyly asks after reading a particularly gloomy passage).4 This describes his disposition quite well: soft, romantic, sensitive and idealistic; but he is also pessimistic, almost melodramatically aware that life does not answer to his needs. It’s as if he didn’t believe that he could ever do anything to change his fate. Certainly, spontaneous action is the last thing he wants to get into. A key moment occurs just before the accident. Johnny has romantically (Poe-etically) swept Sarah, his girlfriend, off for an afternoon at the amusement park, only to become disconcertingly and prophetically ill on the rollercoaster. Standing on her porch in the cold rain, he rejects her invitation to stay the night. “No, better not … some things are worth waiting for,” he says, looking sad and defeated, and moments later, “I’m going to marry you, you know.” He wants Sarah, but in the context of a safe, permanent, institutionalized relationship, not on the basis of an impetuous instinct or indeed any kind of physical act. He can never have what he personally and poignantly wants; if he’s lucky he can perhaps get what every other “Joe” aspires to.

Johnny’s desires for normality are those provided by the dominant ideology around him: he believes, or thinks he believes, in family, home, and relationships as a bulwark and a haven. Shelter is what he wants—shelter from a terrifying emotional insecurity. Some of this becomes clearer when we look at Johnny’s parents and the house in which he was brought up. His father is a gentle, self-effacing type, his mother an intense, slightly deranged, religious enthusiast. Their home is poor and small, crammed with, one might say, homely things. It seeks to be warm and secure but seems so fragile and impoverished—it feels (to invoke again the realm of climate) like a very precarious barrier against the deadly winter outside. It resembles Johnny’s own mental state. There is a wish to partake in an ideal world where parents love and nurture children, where home is a stout fortress against the dangers of the outside, where children grow up to be fine upstanding people and marry the girl more or less next door, living happily ever after while recapitulating the ideal for another generation. But the wisher is not strong enough, or lucky enough, or magical enough, to make the wish come true; what remains is a kind of faded outline, a sad pantomime of former hopes. This outline and pantomime are discernible in Johnny’s gentle, melancholic disposition, and in the house as well, which expresses both the desire and the failure to make everything right.

The house, in general, is one of the protean recurring images through which the film communicates Johnny’s psychological condition and his emotional understanding of the world. His parents’ house is the most important example here, but versions of the Ur-house are omnipresent in the film from the credit sequence onwards. It is two-storied, wood-faced, usually with a picket fence and gate, often with a porch; it may be bigger or smaller, richer or poorer, in better or worse repair, but it is not particularly new. Virtually every house in the film is a repetition of it. What the buildings essentially signify is the sense of an old, heavy past, associated especially with family. This aura is at its least insistent in the clean and solid Weizack Clinic, where the guiding spirit is the sane, kindly Dr. Sam Weizack; and it is at its most overpowering in the chaotic and quasi-derelict home of Frank Dodd, where decaying emblems of childhood and too-close family embrace proliferate like rank vegetation, and the dwellers are a sex killer and his crazed, protective mother. The house is a thing which Johnny cannot escape wherever he goes—it is his past, his childhood, his sense of the fragility of things and the inadequacy of love and good intentions. Through such images a deterministic sense of entrapment or impotence is inscribed on the physical environment of the film.5

The scenes representing Johnny’s visions are in strong contrast to the rest of the film. Where the surrounding text is drab and depressed, the visions are dramatic and violent. Moreover, they have a thematically inverse relationship to their surroundings: that is, if the action as a whole represents Johnny’s acceptance of his fate and his repression of desire, the visions represent a bursting-out of feeling. Certainly, their literal diegetic function is essential to the film’s surface (The Dead Zone’s capsule description: a movie about a psychic), but their status as a metaphor for the protagonist’s neurosis is just as essential to its substructure. In the first place the visions are triggered by a strong touch—a hand-clasp, a grip around the wrist, or on the shoulder. Johnny’s malady may be said to be isolation, exclusion, an inability to feel connected; also, in a pathological sense, a fear of contact, a reluctance whose basis is a belief that attempts to connect and belong must always fail. Touch, then, is an apt detonator of repressed fears and wishes—which is how the visions may be described in this context. Their content, too, is metaphorically relevant. They deal almost invariably with family, especially parent-child relations, and they emphasize pain, loss and death. Each vision is preceded by anguished flinching by Johnny, as though he were being pierced by knives; and each instance leaves Johnny harrowed and drained (“it feels like I’m dying, inside,” he says of their effect).

The first vision, occurring as Johnny grasps the arm of a ministering nurse at the clinic, catapults him—and us—into a child’s bedroom engulfed in fire. It is the nurse’s house. The images are extraordinarily colourful and violent, especially compared to the surrounding “real-life” scenes. The nurse’s daughter cowers and screams as gaily printed wallpaper and cute stuffed animals are consumed by flames, the fish tank boils and explodes, and Johnny himself is seen lying in the child’s burning bed with a look of horror upon his face. “Your daughter is screaming!” shouts Johnny to the bewildered nurse, “The house is on fire!”

The next two visions are not so spectacular, but they continue the pattern. Johnny sees Weizack’s young mother hurrying him to safety amidst a fiery Nazi attack, then knows—as Weizack himself does not—that the mother survived. Then, at a news conference prompted by the burning-house vision, an aggressively skeptical reporter volunteers himself as a guinea pig. Sitting next to Johnny, in front of microphones and TV cameras, he asks nastily “Is my house on fire, John?” Johnny grasps his hand and talks about the suicide of the reporter’s sister; the reporter becomes very upset. Given the prevailing significance of houses in the film, it would seem that the reporter’s house is on fire, metaphorically at least.

In some respects the most compelling vision occurs midway through the film, when Johnny agrees to help the local sheriff find a serial sex killer.6 A new homicide finds them at a park bandstand in the middle of the night; Johnny takes the corpse’s hand and finds himself witnessing the crime as it occurred. The mise-en-scène places Johnny in the shot with the murderer and the victim, and when the killing is over, Johnny babbles to the sheriff, “I stood there and watched him kill that girl … I did nothing … I stood there.” The murderer is the sheriff’s young deputy, Frank Dodd, and Johnny goes along to his house for the arrest. The aspect of the house and its significance has already been mentioned. Dodd’s wild-eyed mother is an important feature too. When she grabs him, Johnny discovers psychically that she knew about her son’s killings but did nothing. She is uncomfortably reminiscent of Johnny’s own mother, whose Old Testament language and feverish gaze coexist disturbingly with her obvious love for him.7 But Mrs. Dodd calls Johnny a “devil”; after her son’s gruesome suicide, she shoots Johnny with a pistol.

All of these events have the effect of drawing a striking parallel between Johnny and Dodd—people who on the surface appear to be opposites. Johnny is a sensitive, polite schoolteacher who would never hurt a fly and never even “take advantage” of a woman, let alone assault her. Dodd is a psychotic police officer who kills young women with a pair of scissors. And yet Johnny feels an element of complicity with Dodd. All the covert resemblances—the hinted-at deeply-felt relationships with their mothers, their solitude, their similar family houses, the strange private glance exchanged through the window as Johnny arrives with the sheriff—are clues to Dodd’s status as a nightmarish double of Johnny. It is as though Dodd represents what Johnny fears he might be if he ever stopped repressing. In particular, the murderous, predatory relationship with women is starkly contrasted with Johnny’s “honourable” reluctance and then his official exclusion from Sarah’s life (via her marriage to another man).

It is especially noteworthy that the whole Dodd episode follows quickly from, and is even diegetically motivated by, Sarah’s visit to Johnny’s house and her wonderful/horrible re-creation (for one day only) of the marriage and family life they never had. In detail, the sequence is as follows: Johnny’s mother dies; the sheriff approaches Johnny for help and is emphatically refused; Sarah visits and he temporarily lives out his fantasy of home and marriage (he dandles the child on his lap, Sarah cooks dinner, Johnny’s dad sighs contentedly and remarks that “it feels good to have a family eating around the table again”); Sarah announces this can never happen again; and Johnny helps the sheriff and “experiences” Frank Dodd. The death of Johnny’s mother—the result of a stroke suffered while watching Johnny scuffle with the reporter on TV—makes him feel still more bitter and excluded; Sarah’s visit makes his wishes seem more organic and real and allows him to feel less cut-off; he then acts (helping the sheriff) and finds himself virtually living out his worst nightmare of himself, thus reinforcing his will to passivity.

Until now, Johnny’s visions have had an increasingly worsening effect on him, even though they may have been socially helpful in an objective sense. The Dodd episode leaves him in a state of despair and gives rise to his most concerted effort simply to avoid life. He moves to another town and refuses to leave his house to work (he tutors at home). As ever, his psychological problems assume a clear physical aspect—he looks consumed by an inner malady. His closet is overflowing with letters from strangers who want him to use his powers to fix their lives (once more the film combines an outer cause—the world will not let poor Johnny alone—with an inner one—the bulging closet is a frightening image of a mind simply refusing to deal with business and letting it pile up monstrously). But his human feelings draw him back into life. He cannot resist an appeal from a distraught father, Roger Stuart, to help his “troubled” son. The next vision is of the boy, Chris, and some friends, in full hockey gear, crashing through the thin spring ice at a practice organized by Chris’ rich father (who turns out to be pretty clearly the source of his son’s problems).8 And this time it is not of the present or the past, but the future—it is an event which has not yet occurred, and which Johnny in fact partially prevents (he persuades the boy not to go, but the father is arrogantly skeptical and goes ahead). This is understandably interpreted by Johnny as a positive development.

The ice is melting because it is spring and winter is beginning to relax its grip at last. Renewed activity breaks into Johnny’s hibernation in the form of workmen across the street putting up a campaign sign for senatorial candidate Greg Stillson. Sarah shows up once more: she and her husband are going door-to-door for Stillson. And Stillson is the subject of Johnny’s most portentous vision yet—as President some time in the future, he is pushing the button to launch Armageddon. In every way, Stillson’s connection with Johnny is one of reawakening life, action, and a positive feeling for other people. He is associated not only with energy and constructiveness in the spring (the workmen and the face of the giant billboard which, like his fate, gradually takes shape in front of Johnny’s window), but also with Johnny’s compassionate young “project,” Chris (Johnny first meets Stillson at the Stuart house, where Stillson remarks “My God, what a glorious day!”), and with Sarah (who is working on Stillson’s campaign). These strange positive associations with someone who is essentially an evil force are, however, not indications of Stillson’s nature; rather, they suggest his role in Johnny’s internal drama. Once again the film shows its practice of making the protagonist’s inner dilemma the mainspring of everything and of marking an internal thematic element onto the outer, visible world of events.

For Stillson is essentially Johnny’s salvation, as well as the occasion of his death (almost the same thing). One way of describing Johnny’s disease is as an inability to get out of the self. In Johnny’s case, this is particularly debilitating because his own psyche is dominated by a belief that he will always fail. His prevention of Chris’s death shows him a way to act effectively. If he cannot ameliorate his own situation, cannot affect his own life, at least he can do something for others. Stillson is the next Hitler (a comparison drawn explicitly in the film) and, in killing him, Johnny will be doing incalculable service to humanity. Nothing could be more outside than Stillson or the threat he represents, and he therefore offers Johnny a perfect escape from the paralysis he is experiencing. Since killing Stillson will probably result in his own death (in fact, he is counting on it), Johnny is also extricated forever from his impossible position. He can be good and act at the same time, and he will be out of the situation and not have to deal with those contradictions any more.9 In the end he dies in Sarah’s arms (she whispers “I love you” into his ear). He has ruined Stillson’s career and in the event has not even had to commit homicide, sure of posthumous glory in the eyes of those, who like Weizack and Sarah, know his motives. It is a sort of happy ending, even if its premise is one of a prior, absolute defeat.

The visions as a whole are a byproduct of repression—repression of sexuality, repression of ambiguous family feelings, repression of the knowledge of contradiction between is and ought, repression of anger and fear. Their colour and drama, their latent or manifest violence, their alien and quasi-supernatural qualities, are all in striking contrast to the grey niceness of Johnny’s “regular” personality. They engage him in areas which he would avoid if he could. From a certain standpoint they might be viewed as therapeutic in that they force him to confront realities from which he is fleeing. But in truth they never really rise beyond the condition of neurotic symptoms; nor does Johnny ever achieve a self-knowledge which could help him—unless self-martyrdom in the service of an unfelt social good can be seen as an effective solution. Johnny’s disease is, in fact, incurable (or at least the film portrays it as such), and The Dead Zone is, like so much of Cronenberg’s work, rooted in despair.

Other facets of the mise-en-scène support the film’s thematic as well; indeed, its visual realization is all of a piece with its significance. We have already seen how the work uses climate and setting in this fashion; but there are numerous other aspects of the visual staging which support the central ideas in still more subtle ways. The repetition or partial repetition on a minute scale of camera angles, compositions, camera movements, and aspects of décor and setting all create echoes and crosscurrents—once more the embodiment of the protagonist’s experience (and the filmmaker’s intensity of vision) in the imagistic fabric of the film. One facet of costume—one among many—may furnish an example. Johnny dresses predominantly in greys, pale blues or earth colours. His favourite indoor style is a wool cardigan and indeterminate slacks, his constant props are spectacles and cane: an image of premature age or mature resignation reflects Johnny’s fear of and sense of exclusion from the active processes of life. Once more repression, and the desire for a controllable life, is a key note in this choice of dress. But at those moments when Johnny’s internal tensions are growing most painful, the instinctive begins to push its way out; and it is actually embodied in a particular item of clothing—a rust-red, brown, and white-striped terrycloth dressing-gown, the pattern of which almost resembles bacon strips. It is a rather ugly garment, but its principal characteristic is its aggressive use of “visceral” colours, in startling contrast to the quiet and controlled colours Johnny usually wears. Although the film contains comparatively little actual viscera (remembering that they are Cronenberg’s best-known characteristic), the dressing-gown signals their presence, as it were, off-screen. After particularly harrowing experiences Johnny is seen looking exhausted and racked with pain—and wearing the robe. It not only makes him look like an invalid (which he is in the psychological sense even more than the physical), but it conveys that sense of visceral revolt with all its overtones of instinctive and uncontrollable inner convulsion that features so prominently in Cronenberg’s earlier work.10

But the film is couched predominantly in a mode that is muted and depressed. What is not widely enough appreciated, I feel, is the extent to which this mode is characteristic and indeed quintessential in Cronenberg’s oeuvre as a whole. It is understandable that the more violent and spectacular elements of the films should have received the greatest notice; but the works’ pessimism and general air of bleak frustration and impotence are hardly less striking. Even in the earliest features, where Cronenberg is at his most detached and “playful,” there is an undertone of grief—seen very clearly at the end of Rabid—which can scarcely be called anything but tragic. As Cronenberg has moved forward, the undertone has emerged more and more fully. The Brood and Videodrome are both not so much tragic as defeated in feeling; and the thematic dilemma seems to become more chaotic and insoluble the closer the author approaches to it (so that the almost deliriously subjective Videodrome is the most entangled and contradictory of all). The ultimate feeling is of a sensibility circumscribed, throttled, and incapable of moving in any direction, because in every direction there lies one or another form of damnation. A rage of frustration arising from circumscription is indeed one of the causes underlying the explosions of violence and blood in Cronenberg; even when the almost impotent hero does succeed in becoming active, the act is usually a destructive one. It may also be said that The Dead Zone, one of the least violent and horrific of Cronenberg’s films, displays more than any of his other films the quality of resignation.

From the beginning, then, Cronenberg’s work has displayed an affinity for emptiness and desolation in both the human and inanimate worlds, and, if there was a single feeling apart from horror that could be said to characterize his films, it was sadness. In this tristesse, arising from a bleak sense of personal isolation, an impotence that one cannot actually affect anything (beneficially, that is), and an oppressive feeling of being unable to touch others without unleashing destructive horrors of aggression and other visceral instincts, his films have seemed (psychologically) far more passive than predatory. The Dead Zone in particular is dedicated to isolation and impotence. The landscapes are wintry, the climate inhospitable, the environment a veritable Waste Land. Images of feebleness and incapacity abound. The hero is condemned to spectatorship (the visions) rather than action, and his separation from people and the world is agonizing. The film does not even offer a clear understanding of the cause of the predicament: is it external (circumstantial) or internal (psychological)?11 In any event the outward and the inward forces unite in a monolithic alliance to immobilize and defeat the hero. To the same all-encompassing degree as in Videodrome, these forces are impossible to disentangle or even distinguish from each other; thus the film’s failure to understand is, metatextually, just one more reason for hopelessness.

Cronenberg’s stature and the stature of this film are of course not to be estimated merely on the basis of their index of despair. What is so striking here is the concentration and sense of uninhibited creative speech. Especially in the context of Canadian cinema it is unusual, to say the least, to find an anglophone filmmaker with so “natural” a command of his subject and vocabulary. In his idiosyncratic but highly responsive adoption of the framework of the horror genre, he has completely sidestepped the historic problem of English-Canadian cinema—namely, the need to make films which are either (bogusly) like Hollywood movies or (uncommercially) not like Hollywood movies. Indeed, Cronenberg has succeeded in doing what few American filmmakers have managed: he has brought a forceful, personal, basically unpalatable vision of life to a large audience. Traditionally, this has been one of the secret strengths of the Hollywood cinema; and in this respect Cronenberg can be added to the auteurist lists of subversive filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, Douglas Sirk, Nicholas Ray and Anthony Mann, if anybody is still keeping those lists. And yet Cronenberg, while working within the confines of genre-cinema, has made no particular accommodation to Hollywood shibboleths to find such a place.

As a stage in Cronenberg’s artistic journey, The Dead Zone can be seen as contributing to its maker’s deeply-rooted and obsessively reinvestigated concerns. Ever since Shivers, Cronenberg has been trying to discover how to break out of isolation and self-concern without drowning in an ocean of Otherness, how to maintain a rational control of life without becoming frigid and cut off, and how to follow healthy instinct without being devoured by raging appetite. But however the films twist and the characters writhe in the struggle to do this, they never quite can succeed. Taking its place in the procession, The Dead Zone, with its renewed failure to solve the dilemma, fits right in—and at the same time strikes its own tone of despairing passivity. How surprising it is to find this trait in a successful commercial movie, and how surprising as well to find it today in what is apparently a period of cinematic optimism in an English-Canadian film. But in an era of postmodernist pastiche, where pastiche-optimism is a dominant, agreeable, untroubling fashion, Cronenberg’s pre-post-modern pessimism seems more genuine than practically anything else. Like many of his films The Dead Zone has confusions and avoidances in its fabric, but it is also, at a basic level, the authentic voice of feeling.


  1. Cronenberg’s stature is signalled by the existence of two books devoted to exegesis of his work: The Shape of Rage, ed. Piers Handling (Toronto: Academy of Canadian Cinema, 1983), and David Cronenberg, ed. Wayne Drew (London: British Film Institute, 1984). As well, a compilation of Cronenberg’s interviews has been published (Cronenberg on Cronenberg, ed. Chris Rodley [Toronto: Alfred Knopf, 1992]).

  2. In fact this essay may be seen as a continuation of the film-by-film survey of Cronenberg’s work up to Videodrome which forms the first part of The Shape of Rage (William Beard, “The Visceral Mind: The Major Films of David Cronenberg,” 1–79).

  3. This conjunction of damnation and salvation is most noticeable in Scanners, where the good hero is magically melded together with, and assumes the appearance of, the bad hero after a to-the-death fight, and (especially) in Videodrome where the central character, having experienced horrendous hallucinations and having really murdered a handful of people, blows his brains out under the impression that he is moving forward into a higher plane of existence.

  4. After this he dismisses the class with an assignment to read “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”: “You’re gonna like it—it’s about a schoolteacher who gets chased by a headless demon.” Obviously the literary content here, and in Poe (“Nevermore!”), is prophetic of what lies in store for Johnny, and his enthusiasm for the literature is something more than mere dramatic irony. The point is extended much later in the film, where Johnny is tutoring Chris Stuart, once more in The Raven, and the passage—about the eternal loss of the beloved—has its relevance emphasized by the reappearance of his former girl-friend, Sarah, while the lesson is going on.

  5. Another such image is that of the empty road. It, together with the house, virtually constitute the long series of stills underlying the opening credits, and it reappears in various unassertive ways throughout the film like a refrain (again, “Nevermore!”). It is, as we can discern later, the road of the accident—an expressive metaphor for the crushing, inevitable blow that deprives one of happiness, inclusion, a sense of belonging.

  6. Perhaps the strongest single shot in the film occurs as Johnny revisits the scene of an earlier crime—a dank, black, stone sewer tunnel illuminated by car headlights. Johnny fails to get a vision from the old clues. It is the dead of winter and the dead of night, and the strongly geometrical composition suggests that the tunnel is a metaphorical road, a dead end. Death and cold and desolation speak so strongly from this image that it might be said to be the film’s most nihilistic point in the area of expressing inner feelings in terms of landscape.

  7. In King’s novel, Dodd’s psychosis is traced to the horrific sexual punishments his mother exacted on him for having “dirty” thoughts. This is not mentioned in the film, though it seems to me that it would not be out of place.

  8. The Dead Zone is set in some indeterminate Eastern American locale (King’s novel specifies Maine); but it seems a particularly Canadian brand of surrealism to view an entire peewee hockey team under water. This is of course only the most trivial instance of the film’s Canadianism. The Dead Zone’s Canadianism, and that of its director in all his work, is a fascinating topic for another occasion. See, however, the editor’s essay, “A Canadian Cronenberg,” in The Shape of Rage for a preliminary assessment.

  9. This solution is reminiscent of the Pyrrhic victories achieved by the heroines of so many women’s pictures over the decades—protagonists who, like Johnny, have to overcome unresolvable (and unacknowledged) contradictions through the “transcendence” of self-sacrifice. Moral stature, service to others, and a sense of honourable martyrdom, are their rewards for having to give up ordinary human satisfactions—and they are Johnny’s, too.

  10. In particular this stroke recalls Videodrome, with its intricate patterns of visceral imagery running through every level of the mise-en-scene. The Dead Zone features a number of similar effects, such as the viscerally patterned or coloured couches which are seen in Johnny’s second house and in Roger Stuart’s house, or the dull red-and-something-striped ties worn by some of the characters at certain moments—touches which also signify the hovering presence of the visceral in a world which appears to be largely free of it. It is notable, too, that Frank Dodd owns a remarkably similar dressing gown which can be seen hanging on the back of the door in the bathroom in which he commits suicide. Even Stillson sports a version of the pattern in the red-and-black-striped pyjamas he is wearing when he presses the nuclear button in Johnny’s vision.

  11. An example: The instrument of Johnny’s condition is the enormous overturned tank of an 18-wheeler truck which slides monstrously along the road causing the accident. This would seem to be an external force—bad luck, fate. But Johnny is on the road in the first place (at night, in the cold rain and mist) because he has rejected Sarah’s invitation of sexual intimacy. And the truck’s tank contains milk (symbolizing nurture and especially mother—by extension family, childhood, upbringing). So: does the film signify that the cause of the accident is external or internal?

Andrew Parker (essay date Winter 1993)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8289

SOURCE: “Grafting David Cronenberg: Monstrosity, AIDS Media, National/Sexual Difference,” in Stanford Humanities Review, Vol. 3, No. 1, Winter, 1993, pp. 7–21.

[In the following essay, Parker explores sexuality, AIDS, and national identity in Rabid. He theorizes that the horror genre and other “narrative systems” contributed to a popular conception about the nature of AIDS and about how it is transmitted. In addition he compares the struggle for male identity to Canada’s struggle for national identity.]

Q: What is the symbolism of the lesbian agents with penises grafted onto their faces, drinking spinal fluid?

A: Oh, just a bit of science fiction, really.

William S. Burroughs, The Job

1965 was the year that, travelling on vacation with my family from profoundly suburban New York to Montréal, I first crossed a border into a foreign country, a border I came to associate with sexual transgression. What remains impressed in my memory from this trip (a memory whose very force and clarity owes greatly, I suspect, to the Freudian logic of deferred action) was a spectacle I had never “witnessed” as an event before, the sight of two men amorously caressing each other on a city street. “Monstrous!” I recall my father storming in disgust: “This would never be permitted at home!” He meant, of course, the United States, though I also understood his use of “home” to have a narrower, more local application. Later that same day—hardly a coincidence—I discovered at an Anglophone bookstore a used copy of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. I purchased the book and smuggled it back across the border without declaring it to my parents or les douaniers. Home again in the New York suburbs, I decided to let my hair grow long.

1965 was also the year that the Anglo-Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg interrupted his university studies to travel in Europe. We now know, through a series of remarkable interviews I’ll be drawing on often, that Cronenberg was deeply absorbed at this time—hardly a coincidence—in the fiction of William Burroughs. He also was letting his hair grow long:

I came back [to Canada] with shoulder-length hair and a paisley shirt, which were very shocking at the University of Toronto. When you see my 1967 graduation photo, I look like an ugly girl! I grew my hair in Copenhagen because the girls all thought that if you spoke English you were a Rolling Stone. So it was very necessary to have long hair.1

Mutating his gendered appearance to meet what he imagined were the heterosexual expectations of Danish “girls” (for whom all versions of English supposedly sounded the same), Cronenberg returned home to Canada already clearly preoccupied with the volatile set of issues that would suffuse his extraordinarily focused career. Perhaps the preeminent director working today in the genres of horror and science fiction—his films include Scanners (1980), Videodrome (1982), The Dead Zone (1983), The Fly (1986), Dead Ringers (1988), and most recently Naked Lunch (1991)—Cronenberg has consistently been drawn to the monstrous terrain where sexuality grafts itself onto nation, the same terrain the mass media have exploited since the advent of the AIDS crisis. I will be discussing below one of his earliest commercial films, Rabid (1976), in some extended detail.

Before doing so, however, I want to return one last time to 1965, the year Leslie A. Fiedler published an essay called “The New Mutants” in The Partisan Review.2 Warning his readers of a monstrous threat to the tradition of Western reason, Fiedler likened the nascent student protests in the United States to the “emergence—to use the language of Science Fiction—of ‘mutants’ among us.” Motivated by “the myth of the end of man,” a new generation of college students had begun to reject “the tradition of the human, as the West (understanding the West to extend from the United States to Russia) has defined it, Humanism itself, both in its bourgeois and Marxist forms; and more especially, the cult of reason.” If Fiedler was hardly the first to have linked the West, the human, and the rational, neither will he be the last to suggest that this linkage is in peril. Indeed, the question of what for Fiedler counted as the West resonates strikingly with contemporary attacks in the United States on the aims of multiculturalism. For despite his momentary and atypical broadening of its horizon to include Russia (an expansion calculated solely, it would seem, to accommodate his anti-Communism), Fiedler restricted himself in a “more parochial” way to “the Anglo-Saxon world”—the telos of a Western tradition that, in harboring the universal in its singularity, remakes the world in its own self-image.3 “We Are the World” is a song Fiedler might later have hummed to himself, a “world” all but coterminous with one imagination of the United States.

But Fiedler was not interested then in pursuing this seeming paradox of the singular and the universal. He was concerned instead with a growing monstrosity that, blurring the accepted limits between the same and the other, threatened to undermine his West from within:

I am thinking of the effort of young men in England and the United States to assimilate into themselves (or even to assimilate themselves into) that otherness, that sum total of rejected psychic elements which the middle-class heirs of the Renaissance have identified with ‘woman.’ To become new men, these children of the future seem to feel, they must not only become more Black than White but more female than male.

“Turning from polis to thiasos, from forms of social organization traditionally thought of as male to the sort of passionate community attributed by the ancients to females out of control,” these mutant men (Fiedler irrepressibly continued) “have embraced certain kinds of gesture and garb, certain accents and tones traditionally associated with females or female impersonators.” The very length of “the Beatle hairdo”—this alone, I think, explains why Fiedler persisted in defining the West as Anglo-America—belongs to:

a syndrome, of which high heels, jeans tight over the buttocks, etc., are other aspects, symptomatic of a larger retreat from masculine aggressiveness to feminine allure—in literature and the arts to the style called ‘camp.’ And fewer still have realized how that, through the invention of homosexuals, is now the possession of basically heterosexual males as well.

With gender binarism thus collapsing in the West, what followed for Fielder was the parallel collapse of any distinction between homo- and heterosexuality. Unable to tell not just men from women but straight from gay (or even, more to the point, straight from basically straight), he proceeded to “explain” the growing popularity of heroin (!) as yet another “attempt to arrogate to the male certain traditional privileges of the female. What could be more womanly … than permitting the penetration of the body by a foreign object which not only stirs delight but even (possibly) creates new life?” It was not, of course, by chance that an imagined quality of foreignness underwrote this implied equation between drug use and gay sex. But neither was it coincidental that William Burroughs could thereby emerge as “the chief prophet of the post-male post-heroic world … [Naked Lunch is] no mere essay in heroin-hallucinated homosexual pornography—but a nightmare anticipation (in Science Fiction form) of post-Humanist sexuality.”

For Fiedler, then, the crisis in Western reason presented itself as a crisis of the human as a crisis of masculinity as a crisis of heterosexuality as a crisis of drugs, all of which were figured through the monstrous example of William Burroughs. What makes this logic especially staggering is the way that it gathers nearly all the tangled threads passing through the German word Geschlecht: sex, nation race, species, genus, gender, stock, generation, genealogy, community, blood.4 To find nation and sexuality under common siege in Fiedler’s account is to be reminded that they share, for “the West,” elements of a common history—elements we will soon see redeployed in Cronenberg’s work. For if modern philosophies of the nation have had to negotiate between the contradictory requirements of sameness and difference, of universalism and singularity,5 these are also the (equally unstable) terms that have shaped modern conceptions of sexual orientation. Those of us from the North Atlantic especially inherit from the nineteenth century “a theory of sexuality which carves up humanity into two vast and immutable camps” distinguished by the gender—cross-sex or same-sex—of sexual object-choice.6 This theory, however, does not simply replace but inscribes itself upon an earlier, still prevalent and competing conception in which same-sex desire refers not to restricted categories of people (identities) but to acts in which all persons may engage. Where the one approach emphasizes the singularity of object-choices, “the diversity and mobility of sexual behaviour and identities between different social groups,” the other, universalizing viewpoint stresses “the diversity and mobility of sexual behaviour within individuals.”7

What this has meant, over the past century in a certain West, is the simultaneous insistence of mutually exclusive conceptions of “homosexuality,” of two epistemologies whose conflicting claims to truth no dialectic can hope to adjudicate. If gayness—at once identity and act, different and same, internal and external, singular and universal—thus divides itself conceptually from itself, then so must a heterosexuality that defines itself in simple opposition to a term intrinsically unstable. Indeed, as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has argued, the resultant precariousness of the homo/hetero dichotomy has had, as one of its consequences, a pervasive and devastating impact on the homosocial continuum that structures all forms of male-male relations, especially those that are not specifically gay:

The historically shifting, and precisely the arbitrary and self-contradictory, nature of the way homosexuality (along with its predecessor terms) has been defined in relation to the rest of the male homosocial continuum has been an exceedingly potent and embattled locus of power over the entire range of male bonds, and perhaps especially over those that define themselves, not as homosexual, but as against the homosexual. Because the paths of male entitlement … required certain intense male bonds that were not readily distinguishable from the most reprobated bonds, an endemic and ineradicable state of what I am calling male homosexual panic became the normal condition of male heterosexual entitlement.

Since, in this structural panic, the line separating prescribed and proscribed male behaviors begins to look exceedingly tenuous, the “basically heterosexual” male remains faced with the task of mastering an unmasterable double bind, of proving what is by definition impossible to prove—“that he is not (that his bonds are not) homosexual.”8

This double bind, Cronenberg will show and tell us, has had a specially pointed force for a country like Canada whose very boundaries, like those of “homosexuality,” are similarly unstably both external and internal. For Canada, of course, not only shares an outer border with the United States but also divides itself internally along national lines. As the Canadian cultural critic Robert Schwartzwald has remarked:

During the years leading up to Québec’s 1980 referendum on ‘sovereignty-association,’ a form of political independence from Canada, an oftrepeated argument for ‘national unity’ was that without Québec, Canada would be indistinguishable from the United States! This double bind of calling on Québec’s ‘distinctness’ but being unwilling to acknowledge it within a new constitutional arrangement explains why many Québécois feel they are held hostage by English Canada which, unsure of its identity, ‘needs’ Québec to prove its difference.9

Two double binds, then, structured by the identical necessity of proving what is impossible to prove. Though Cronenberg’s Rabid may seem an unlikely vehicle to explore these panicked crises of national and sexual identity, the film may be read as an oblique meditation—“in Science Fiction form”—on the grafts through which they fuse.

Rabid opens with a motorcycle accident involving Hart and his girlfriend Rose, played respectively by Frank Moore and the porn superstar Marilyn Chambers.10 While Hart has sustained only minor injuries in the crash, Rose is comatose, bleeding internally, and near death. As the accident occurred near the gates of the Keloid Clinic (the projected first in a series of “franchised plastic surgery resorts”), Dr. Keloid—whose name puns on a surgical scar—saves Rose’s life by experimentally grafting to her damaged intestines thigh tissue that has been rendered “morphogenically neutral.” His method succeeds but with an unintended side effect: the new tissue inexplicably migrates from her intestines to her armpit, forming there a (vaginal or anal) opening from which emerges a phallic spike—a penis dentatus (or is it dentatum? or dentata? all of the above? the gender indeterminacy is precisely to the point). Using this new organ to drain life-sustaining blood from a variety of sources (who, in the first half of the film, include male and female patients at the clinic, a would-be rapist, … and a cow), Rose attacks the suitably-anxious Dr. Keloid, who becomes infected as a result with a virulent strain of rabies. Delirious and oozing saliva, he bites several people, who in turn attack others, all of whom shortly die after passing on the disease.

Meanwhile, realizing she has become a vampire, Rose escapes from the clinic in search of fresh blood. Though the Keloid Clinic had been to this point wholly unmarked in its geographic location (it was situated in a completely nondescript rural area that could be anywhere in temperate North America), the movie suddenly and without any further explanation shifts to Montréal where Rose, now ensconced in her girlfriend’s apartment, easily finds new victims in the local porno cinema. With the rabies epidemic raging out of control, Claude La Pointe (an official from the Québec Bureau of Health) explains to his television audience that the virus is transmitted through saliva dribbling into open wounds: “So don’t let anyone bite you.” As all efforts to stem the contagion prove useless, martial law is declared in Montréal and the director of the World Health Organization is called in to take charge. Hart finally tracks Rose down only to catch her in the act of siphoning blood from her girlfriend: “It’s you! It’s been you all along! You carry the plague! You’ve killed hundreds of people!” Unwilling to accept his account, Rose undertakes an experiment, locking herself into a room with one last victim in order to discover, after taking his blood, whether he indeed will turn rabid. He does, he bites her, and she dies. The film ends with health workers tossing her body into the back of a garbage truck.

Those previously unacquainted with Rabid may be most horrified that this film from 1976 includes nearly all the murderous details that would dominate the U.S. media’s portrayal of AIDS. Not only will Marilyn Chambers’s role soon be recast, “in real life,” with a gay man—another promiscuous predator who wantonly infects his partners—but this gay man will also turn out to make his home in Québec: Gaëtan Dugas, the Patient Zero of AIDS, the Great Vampire whose exploits and death are sensationalized in Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On.11 That Chambers’ new sexual organ is also a syringe neatly condenses in one image several of the demographic categories (as opposed to behaviors) that the mainstream media have insisted on associating with AIDS. Indeed, among the so-called “high-risk groups” said to be most susceptible to HIV infection are intravenous drug users, hemophiliacs, recipients of blood transfusions, and sex workers. Trading on her cachet as a porn star, featuring a scene in a theater that could be screening one of her other, more popular films, Rabid grafts all of these categories onto the figure of Marilyn Chambers. As Leo Bersani has noted, the media’s iconography of HIV infection draws its life blood from the imagery of female prostitutes conveying disease to their “innocent” clients: this is “a fantasy of female sexuality as intrinsically diseased; and promiscuity, in this fantasy, far from merely increasing the risk of the infection, is the sign of infection. Women and gay men spread their legs with an unquenchable appetite for destruction.”12 (Chambers would go on to star in the films Insatiable and Insatiable II.) With the film’s introduction of mandatory screening and identity cards—the Québec government’s prophylactic measures exceeding in brutality William F. Buckley’s own “modest proposals”13—the remaining pieces of the media’s classic narrative have fallen into place: “The victims of the disease are beyond medical help,” avers the head of the WHO; “Shooting down the victims is as good a way of handling them as we have got.” Even the final sequence of the film is chillingly proleptic: “The ‘homosexual body,’ which is also that of the ‘AIDS victim,’ must be publicly seen to be humiliated, thrown around in zip-up plastic bags, fumigated, denied burial. … The ‘homosexual body’ is ‘disposed of,’ like so much rubbish, like the trash it was in life.”14

What are we to make, then, of these extended resemblances linking Rabid with the discourse surrounding a medical condition that, in 1976, had not yet been “discovered”? Should we infer that Cronenberg was unconsciously prophetic, that he “knew” in advance how AIDS will have been constructed? I am, of course, hardly claiming that. The point, rather, runs in the opposite direction, for the mainstream media response to AIDS has taken its representational bearings from pre-existing, culturally pervasive “narrative systems along whose tracks events seem to glide quite naturally, whether in news reports, movie plots or everyday conversations.”15 As Simon Watney and others have argued, the most prominent by far of these narrative systems is the horror genre: “The ‘AIDS carrier’ story belongs to a cluster of similar stories, well known from popular fiction and film, about vampires, mysterious killer-diseases, dangerous strangers, illicit sex.”16 To portray AIDS consistently in media reports as “a killer disease” is to draw actively on these generic conventions; to imagine Science (as did Randy Shilts) “closing in on the viral culprit that bred international death” is similarly to recall “the typical denouement of a B-movie horror narrative.”17 The mass media and horror films have truly shared one script, mobilizing the same lethal fantasies in their common efforts to deny the incoherence of a series of binary contrasts: the human and the monstrous, the natural and the artificial, mind and body, masculine and feminine, straight and gay, health and sickness, innocence and depravity, victim and perpetrator, purity and pollution, redemption and retribution, public and private, self and other, same and different, inside and outside, singular and universal, national and alien. In horror film as in network AIDS reporting, the plot revolves around an identical danger, the inability to tell (“until too late”) who is Not One of Us. And in both instances, this danger will be surmounted with the identification, isolation, and extermination of the monster as the founding binary order, at great though “necessary” cost to human life, is restored once more to its original integrity.18

I dwelled earlier on Fiedler’s evocation of monstrosity in part because his essay—even with its sustained and elusive coyness, a tonality (say) quite unlike my father’s—clearly feeds off these same misogynist and homophobic impulses. Rabid does so, too—as must any work in a genre constitutively preoccupied, from at least as early as Frankenstein, with the origins of gendered and sexual differences.19 But Rabid also shares with the most interesting of such works a tendency to acknowledge, analyze, or partially suspend these motivating energies; many aspects of its diegesis intersect at odd angles with the genre’s most characteristic features.20 For example, even though Chambers appears in the film often clad—with little narrative “motivation”—only in her underpants, her body is not thereby highly eroticized. In fact no one’s body is, whether female or male, whether before or after the outbreak of disease. The film has surprisingly little affective investment in any of its characters (it has neither true villains nor heroes); nor does it seem to care greatly about the institutions it depicts. Where the media’s typical AIDS narrative is “a moralizing etiology of disease” designed to ward off threats to religious, familial, and civic values, there’s nothing remotely like moralization in this film—indeed, there’s no church at all, and neither of the two families it briefly portrays is even minimally idealized. It is also unclear what Rose means when, after Hart interrupts her with her girlfriend, she charges him with being the origin of the epidemic (“It’s your fault! It’s all your fault!”)—as if, perhaps, the disease itself were the monogamous heterosexuality he comes to represent, what in other horror films would be offered as the final cure. The public health officials hardly fill the moral vacuum: Claude La Pointe is attacked by rabid crazies, and the director of the WHO, intoxicated with his own powers, is clearly a monster himself. The film insists, moreover, that our access to these medical authorities is always strictly mediated; their televised reports are framed within the frame as if the viewer is being asked to contemplate their status as news. Rabid remains throughout peculiarly distanced, dispassionate, disinterested, estranged from what it portrays: less ironic than aloof, perhaps too coolly detached to be properly phobic, it seems fascinated only with the unfolding of its narrative logic. Looked at retrospectively, this may be the most monstrous aspect of the film—that its relationship to the epidemic it depicts remains neutral, apolitical, “academic.”

If this coolness is proverbially Canadian, what seems much less characteristic (if the AIDS crisis serves as a model) is the public hysteria and state repression depicted in the film, the Québec government’s actions resembling instead American patterns of quarantine and persecution.21 But Rabid has little overt interest in such questions of national difference. Infection passes through blood and saliva, but these fail to represent what such fluids typically embody: the medium of racial, ethnic, or national differences.22 While the carriers of the virus are portrayed as dangers to civil society, the disease itself is never allegorized specifically as a threat to national values. We might, indeed, expect that a film situated for half of its length in mid-1970s Montréal would reflect in some way the Québécois nationalism then reaching a high point, but Montréal appears to function only as a Typical North American City where not one word of French is overheard (Claude La Pointe speaks to us in his televised reports in heavily-accented English). If Rabid’s Canadian provenance thus remains at best implicit, this illustrates what one critic has defined as a characteristic of Cronenberg’s work: “His films suffer from a vague sense of location. They all seem set in the same chilly-gray Everycity.”23 Everycity is populated with Everymen rather than distinctive national subjects, which helps to explain why Cronenberg characteristically resists thinking of his later remake of The Fly as “an AIDS movie”: “It’s an examination of what is universal about human existence. … AIDS is tragic. But, beyond it all, I’m digging deeper. We’ve all got the disease—the disease of being finite” (128). AIDS, for Cronenberg, thus only affects particular populations; finitude, by contrast, is Global Truth: “If AIDS hadn’t been around, I still would have made The Fly, and I did make Shivers and Rabid. In retrospect, people say ‘My God, this is prophecy,’ but I just think it’s being aware of what we are” (127).24

But this universalizing idiom is itself the reflection of Canada’s position in the capitalist world-system: a Canadian filmmaker whose primary market is the United States may think himself compelled to efface in his work all signs of national difference.25 This conflict between the universal and the singular cuts deeply throughout Cronenberg’s career. Thinking of his early days as a filmmaker, he describes how “it was different in Canada, as always. We wanted to by-pass the Hollywood system because it wasn’t ours. We didn’t have access to it. It wasn’t because we hated it, but because we didn’t have an equivalent, and we didn’t have the thing itself” (15). To promote this Ding an sich, Cronenberg on the one hand “still lives in the city of his birth, and to date has not made a movie outside Canada” (1).26 On the other hand—the hand that gestures towards “what is universal about human existence” (and towards the market to the south)—he refuses to restrict himself to narrowly “Canadian” themes, which continually provokes the criticism of his more nationalist colleagues who take his films to be “living proof of the Americanization of our industry.”27 This contradiction between the claims of (Canadian) singularity and (American) universality is sharply crystallized early in Rabid as Dr. Keloid and his partner Murray plan their series of franchised resorts: “I just sure as hell don’t want to be known as the Colonel Sanders of plastic surgery,” objects the doctor. “Sounds great to me!” is Murray’s exuberant reply.

Inhabiting both of these positions at once, Cronenberg almost blithely describes being caught in a double bind:

Thus the attraction of Canadians to things American, but also the repulsion?

That’s right. It’s definitely a love-hate relationship.

And where do you find yourself in that nexus as a Canadian filmmaker whose largest audience is American?

Right in the middle. It’s a very interesting place to be.

It’s a Canadian place to be.28

Though this place is described as distinctively Canadian, it is also and by the very same token less than fully distinctive—as if being “right in the middle” means to be on the edge:

My sensibility is Canadian, whatever that is. But it’s there, and I think Americans feel it. There was a man who called me up from Santiago, and he said: ‘the fact that you make your films in Canada makes them even more eerie and dreamlike, because it’s like America, but it’s not. The streets look American, but they’re not, and the accents are American, but not quite. Everything’s a little off-kilter; it’s sort of like a dream image of America.’29

If Canada differs here at all from the United States, it does so solely in terms of its diminished, derivative, dream-like ontology.

In another respect, however, Canada is wholly different, for Québec can always be adduced as “proof” of national distinctness. Rabid and the earlier Shivers are unique in Cronenberg’s corpus in their explicitly Québécois settings. The decision to film in Montréal was dictated in part by the location of Cinepix, the Québécois production company that backed Cronenberg in the hope of finding “something that would break them into the American market” (37).30 Cronenberg describes his initial experience of the city in tellingly sexual terms:

By the time I contacted Cinepix, they had made a couple of other films too: very sweet, gentle, lush softcore films with a lot of tits—great tits actually. … This was unheard of in English Canada. This was really my first introduction to the fierce nationalism of Québec, and how well it worked in terms of a culture that could excite itself. It was very hard for English-Canadian culture to excite English Canadians. They were excited by Americana.


Where English Canada needs the United States for its stimulation, Québec gets it on by itself—which English Canada also likes to watch. Montréal surrenders here its putative Everycity quality in fulfilling its singular, sexualized role in the Anglo-Canadian imaginary. Indeed, far from being Cronenberg’s invention, Québec has long assumed the part of English Canada’s Mediterranean. As Robert K. Martin argues: “The exotic, the Southern, the Latin—all existed next door in Québec. And so English Canadian writers who have wished to attack their own culture for its Victorianism, its Puritanism, its moral rigidity have turned to Québec.” If, in this traditional scenario, “Canada is the man,” Montréal finds itself cast (no surprise) as “the mysterious woman.” But Montréal is also, and just as venerably, the mysterious man on whom is projected “the homosexual fantasies of the proper English Canadian”:

Located next door, Québec has remained the metaphor for that which is at the same time within and without. Québec is a metaphor for homosexuality, since homosexuality is the forbidden land of lustful desires; and homosexuality is a metaphor for Québec, since it is a state within, an inner subversion.31

If Québec is what makes Canada different, it thus may also be, for Cronenberg, too different, not “universal” enough. For to set Rabid in Montréal is to imply both dimensions of this national/sexual fantasy, grafting them together on a porn star’s body whose represented predatoriness and indeterminate gender stand in, as well, for a different sexuality. Cronenberg surely recognizes this implication given the heat with which he attempts to deflect it:

You have a kind of—I don’t know if we want to say—‘repressed homosexuality’ in a lot of your work. The first two films you did—Stereo and Crimes of the Future—your lead actor certainly had a gay presence; then you gave Marilyn Chambers an underarm phallus in Rabid

But I gave her a vagina; I gave her a cunt, too! First there’s the cunt, and then the phallus—it’s both, you got everything! I gave her everything!32

To give Chambers “everything” is not, Cronenberg insists, to link her metonymically with a singular gayness but to endow her with aspects of both genders, thereby making her … universal: “There is a femaleness and a maleness. We partake of both in different proportions. … If you think of a female will, a universal will, and a male will and purpose in life, that’s beyond the bisexual question. A man can be a bisexual, but he’s still a man. The same for a woman” (31). Where bisexuality thus delimits itself as irreducibly singular, the two genders are ubiquitous even or especially when they are lodged, “in different proportions,” within an individual. This latter, for Cronenberg, is the universal condition—with which he unflinchingly aligns himself: “I’m male, and my fantasies and my unconscious are male. I think I give reasonable expression to the female part of me, but I still think I’m basically a heterosexual male” (98).

Gayness, of course, has often been thought in the West on this model of internalized gender inversion (e.g., Ulrichs’ anima muliebris virili corpore inclusa), a model that preserves what is basic to heterosexuality: gender difference itself.33 But Cronenberg never thinks of his inner femininity in continuity with gayness; he conceives of it, in fact, as different enough in kind to replace the “less universal” term. I certainly don’t want to say that this substitutive preference is the reactive sign of a “repressed homosexuality,” only that Cronenberg’s singularization of the non-heterosexual has been so consistent over the course of his commercial career as to constitute something like a signature. His masterpiece Dead Ringers, for example, recounts the lives and deaths of Beverly and Elliot Mantle, identical-twin gynecologists who, jointly addicted to drugs, fatally “separate” themselves from each other using tools designed to operate on “mutant women.”34 The film is a fictionalized account of the “real life” Marcus twins, though changed in a major respect: where one of the original twins was gay, Elliot and Beverly are both portrayed as straight: “To me that just felt wrong. If one of them is gay and one of them is not, then already they are different in a very essential way, when the point of the whole story is how similar they are” (163). Gayness would have been a perverse singularity in a film that “has to do with that element of being human … with this ineffable sadness that is an element of human existence” (149). And to be human is not to be singular but to be multiply and conflictually gendered: “In Dead Ringers the truth, anticipated by Beverly’s parents—or whoever named him—was that he was the female part of the yin/yang whole. Elliot and Beverly are a couple, not complete in themselves. Both the characters have a femaleness in them” (147).

Predictably, Cronenberg discloses that he made Dead Ringers “out of the female part of myself” (147), a self that—though partially feminine—is basically straight overall.

But these sexual distinctions are finally no more coherent than Cronenberg’s version of Canadian identity. For a universally-conceived same-sex couple resembles nothing so much as its singular opposite—which is why Cronenberg takes such deliberate pains to portray his twins as basically straight. This “proof” of their heterosexuality will be less than definitive, however, since the plot entails that Beverly and Elliot share the same woman whose presence as an intermediary enables them to touch one another vicariously.35 “Just do me,” Elliot coaches his brother: “You haven’t had an experience unless I’ve had it, too. You haven’t fucked Claire Niveau till you tell me about it.” As in the sequence in which Beverly dreams that he and Elliot are grafted together by a monstrous piece of flesh, what remains basic to their heterosexuality is this unstable fusion of cross-sex with same-sex desire, the difference between prescription and proscription having here been rendered all but moot. With the boundary between the universal and the singular now passing through the universal, Cronenberg acknowledges a crisis of national proportions: asked once more to “comment on the differences” between the United States and Canada, he confesses that “it’s obviously not so clear cut and that’s always been a problem in Canada, in terms of our own identity. In fact, maybe we’ve stumbled onto the reason that the real subject of most of my films is identity. Because I’m a Canadian, you see, and we are much more like Beverly and Elliot here.”36

This collapse of the singular/universal dichotomy repeats itself spectacularly in Cronenberg’s recent adaptation of Naked Lunch. As with Dead Ringers, Cronenberg sought to distance his script from the gay thematics of the original.37 “One of the barriers to my being totally 100 per cent with William Burroughs,” he notes, “is that Burroughs’ general sexuality is homosexual. It’s very obvious in what he writes that his dark fantasies happen to be sodomizing young boys as they’re hanging” (99). Though Cronenberg “can actually relate to that to quite an extent,” he still felt compelled to explain to Burroughs that “what I do is very different” (162):

I did go to him, and we talked several times. One of the things I said to him was ‘You know, I’m not gay and so my sensibility, when it comes to the sexuality of the film, is going to be something else. I’m not afraid of the homosexuality, but it’s not innate in me and I probably want women in the film.’


Yet “in order to bring something of Naked Lunch to the screen,” Cronenberg discovered that he needed “to fuse myself with Burroughs” (161), thereby creating a monstrous graft between them:

I started to write Burroughsian stuff, and almost felt for a moment, ‘Well, if Burroughs dies, I’ll write his next book.’ Really not possible or true. But for that heady moment, when I transcribed word for word a sentence of description of the giant centipede, and then continued on with the next sentence to describe the scene in what I felt was a sentence Burroughs himself could have written, that was a fusion


I’m not gay, but when it comes to imagining monsters I’m inside him, or rather I am him: now that was a fusion! Really not possible or true—though Cronenberg also describes having been from his adolescence “possessed” by Burroughs. Interfering with the development of “my own voice” (23), Burroughs had been in his mouth already from the start.

“Without Burroughs,” the film critic Mitch Tuchman has suggested. “Cronenberg may be without imagery.” Tuchman points out that Rabid’s “morphogenically neutral skin graft” has itself been grafted from Burroughs’ “undifferentiated tissue that can grow into any kind of flesh … sex organs sprout everywhere.”38 That Cronenberg transplants Burroughs’ tissue to a wholly new context seems an appropriate act of homage given Burroughs’ life-long obsession with the effects of iterability. Indeed, in transferring the very principle of Burroughs’ writing—the cut-up—to his own film medium, Cronenberg deploys in nearly all of his works a sustained Burroughsian analogy between textual production and surgical technique.39 In Rabid this analogy is routed through the figure of Dr. Keloid, since he and Cronenberg operate with similarly plastic materials and share a language of cuts and sutures. In light of this resemblance, the film’s central plot device—the graft fusing Marilyn Chambers’ thigh tissue to her intestines, her outside to her inside—comes to be invested with tremendous textual weight. As the putative “origin” of the epidemic, the graft is all that would splice together the two halves of the film, the unmarked rural setting with the particularity of Montréal. Once more, however, any stable fusion of the universal with the singular stubbornly refuses to take:

Cronenberg’s tendency to cut to the bone during editing … did produce some confusion for the audience in Rabid. How exactly did Marilyn Chambers develop that blood-sucking penis in her armpit? A short dialogue scene between radical plastic surgeon Dan Keloid and his patient had been removed because Cronenberg felt it broke the tension of the scene: ‘That was a mistake. It would have provided a simple rationale for people to understand. Even those who like the movie have asked, ‘But what was that thing?’


Dr. Keloid’s experiment and Cronenberg’s film thus commonly go astray, for “that thing”—Chambers’ monstrous Geschlechtsteile—obeys the logic of a different graft, (up)rooting itself in the way that it chooses. Rather than reconciling the singular with the universal—indeed, rather than explaining itself—the graft cuts another way, even cutting itself out from its own diegesis.

To find Rabid once more piercing its own borders is to identify, as well, the particular kind of interest I take in Cronenberg’s work—and that he seems, at times, to take in it too: “When you begin to mix your blood with the characters in the film … you’re mixing your own anxieties with the anxieties that are being played out in the film.” Cronenberg characterizes this fusion as other than classically “cathartic,”41 as the boundary between insides and outsides drenches itself in an exchange of bodily fluids. A risky practice, certainly, but one that both enables and delimits my own grafts with David Cronenberg. Growing up on different sides of a common border, he and I jointly came of age in Fiedler’s generation of mutant men. Though neither of us were born that way, we both became mutants in the face of an impossible double double bind—the necessity of proving, in national and sexual terms, what exceeds the order of proof. But there are ways and there are ways of being that way, of acknowledging that impossibility, of inhabiting that monstrous borderland. Am I able to imagine a Cronenberg less homophobically inclined, less ready to portray himself as the universal case, less willing to deny that his work profits from its contiguity with the media’s construction of AIDS? Really not possible or true.


  1. Chris Rodley, ed., Cronenberg on Cronenberg (London and Boston: Faber & Faber, 1992), 16. All further references will be cited parenthetically.

  2. Leslie A. Fiedler, “The New Mutants,” The Partisan Review 32 (1965), 505–25.

  3. Cf. Jacques Derrida, The Other Heading, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael B. Naas (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), 73: “No cultural identity presents itself as the opaque body of an untranslatable idiom, but always, on the contrary, as the irreplaceable inscription of the universal in the singular, the unique testimony to the human essence and what is proper to man.”

  4. See Jacques Derrida, “Geschlecht: Différence sexuelle, différence ontologique” and “La main de Heidegger (Geschlecht II),” in Psyché: Inventions de l’autre (Paris: Galilée, 1987), 395–414 and 415–51 respectively.

  5. See, among others, Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (London: Verso, 1991); Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities (London: Verso, 1991); Homi Bhabha, ed., Nation and Narration (New York: Routledge, 1990); Partha Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse? (London: Zed Books, 1986); and Andrew Parker, Mary Russo, Doris Sommer, and Patricia Yaeger, eds., Nationalisms and Sexualities (New York: Routledge, 1992). As Gayatri Spivak has argued, this conflict between the singular and the universal defines as well the possibility conditions of international feminism; see “French Feminism Revisited” in Judith Butler and Joan W. Scott, eds., Feminists Theorize the Political (New York: Routledge, 1992), 54–85.

  6. Simon Watney, Policing Desire: Pornography, AIDS and the Media, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 24.

  7. Watney, xi.

  8. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 184–85.

  9. Robert Schwartzwald, “an/other Canada, another Canada? other Canadas,” Massachusetts Review 31:1 & 2 (Spring-Summer 1990), 18.

  10. This was Chambers’ first attempt to cross over from porn into mainstream cinema; Cronenberg imagined Sissy Spacek in the role, but one of his producers insisted that Chambers would make the better draw (54).

  11. See especially Douglas Crimp, “How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic,” October 43 (Winter 1987), 237–71, and Ellis Hanson, “Undead,” in Diana Fuss, ed., Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories (New York: Routledge, 1991), 324–40.

  12. Leo Bersani, “Is the Rectum a Grave?” October 43 (Winter 1987), 211.

  13. “Everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed in the upper fore-arm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals” (William F. Buckley, “Identify All the Carriers,” The New York Times, 18 March 1986, A27).

  14. Simon Watney, “The Spectacle of AIDS,” October 43 (Winter 1987), 80.

  15. Judith Williamson, “Every Virus Tells a Story,” in Erica Carter and Simon Watney, eds., Taking Liberties: AIDS and Cultural Politics (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1989), 69–70.

  16. Simon Watney, “Short-Term Companions: AIDS as Popular Entertainment,” in Allan Klusacek and Ken Morrison, eds., A Leap in the Dark: AIDS, Art and Contemporary Cultures (Montréal: Véhicule Press, 1992), 153.

  17. Williamson, “Every Virus Tells a Story,” 73.

  18. The confluence of these discourses has since acquired a ubiquitousness reflected in Pierre Chablier’s running account in Libération, “Moi et mon sida”: “J’ai parfois le sentiment que nous sommes ici, à Paris, quelques dizaines de milliers de mutants parmi la foule” (my emphasis; cited in Alexander García Duttmann, “Ce qu’on aura pu dire du sida,” Poesie 58 [Decembre 1991], 89).

  19. See, for example, Noël Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart (New York: Routledge, 1990), and Carol J. Clover, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).

  20. It would be risky, of course, to ascribe these oddities to Cronenberg’s “intention” when they may simply reflect the limits of his technical competence at that time (Rabid was his second feature film). I would argue, however, that—beyond any question of conscious design—such tensions are readable in his subsequent (and often dazzlingly realized) films, thereby remaining consistent over the course of his career. Carroll, for example, points out that Cronenberg’s The Fly “has all the trappings of a horror film, including a monster. But classifying it as a horror film as such, without qualification, seems not quite right. It fails to capture an essential difference between this film and the rest of the genre” (The Philosophy of Horror, 39). Or between Cronenberg’s entire œuvre and itself.

  21. Cf. Watney, “Short-Term Companions,” 165: “However bad the [AIDS] epidemic is in Canada or Britain or Australia, we in these countries at least have advantages that remain all but unthinkable in the U.S.A., whether in terms of socialized medicine, good government-funded AIDS service organizations or regular access to network TV audiences on our own terms.” This does not suggest, of course, that the Canadian government’s policies have been at all adequate; on this topic see James Miller, ed., Fluid Exchanges: Artists and Critics in the AIDS Crisis (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992).

  22. See Cindy Patton, Inventing AIDS (New York: Routledge, 1991).

  23. Owen Gleiberman, “Cronenberg’s Double Meanings,” American Film 14:1 (October 1988), 40.

  24. Cronenberg’s interviews are filled to overflowing with these globalizing philosophemes: “Catharsis is the basis of all art. This is particularly true of horror films, because horror is so close to what’s primal” (73); “Many of the peaks of philosophical thought revolve around the impossible duality of mind and body. Whether the mind is expressed as soul or spirit, it’s still the old Cartesian absolute split between the two” (79). Descartes, of course, is not invoked here as a French philosopher.

  25. See Fredric R. Jameson, “Totality as Conspiracy,” in The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992).

  26. Naked Lunch was to have been an exception to this practice: “Planned as Cronenberg’s first foreign-location movie (most exteriors were originally to be shot in Tangiers), the production became yet another of the director’s interior journeys when the Gulf War prevented filming in North Africa” (xxiv).

  27. Pierre Véronneau, “Canadian Film: An Unexpected Emergence,” trans. Jane Critchlow, Massachusetts Review, 31:1 & 2 (Spring-Summer 1990), 217–18.

  28. David Breskin, “David Cronenberg,” Rolling Stone, no. 623 (6 February 1992), 68.

  29. Anne Billson, “Cronenberg on Cronenberg: A Career in Stereo,” Monthly Film Bulletin, no. 660 (January 1989), 5.

  30. “Cinepix was just André Link, a European Jew who spoke French, and John Dunning, who was totally WASP. For me to say that they represented French-Canadian filmmaking is very ironic, but they did” (36). To be content with describing one’s ignorance as “ironic” is, to be sure, a highly symptomatic response. On the history of Québécois filmmaking, see, for example, Joseph I. Donohoe, Jr., ed., Essays on Québec Cinema (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1992).

  31. Robert K. Martin, “Two Days in Sodom, or How Anglo-Canadian Writers Invent Their Own Québec,” Body Politic, no. 35 (July-August 1977), 28–30. For a contrasting account of the ways Québécois nationalists have projected “homosexuality” onto English Canada, see Robert Schwartzwald, “Fear of Federasty: Québec’s Inverted Fictions,” in Hortense J. Spillers, ed., Comparative American Identities (New York: Routledge, 1991), 175–95.

  32. Breskin, “David Cronenberg,” 70.

  33. Cf. David M. Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality (New York: Routledge, 1990), 16: “That sexual object-choice might be wholly independent of such ‘secondary’ characteristics as masculinity or femininity never seems to have entered anyone’s head until Havelock Ellis waged a campaign to isolate object-choice from role-playing, and Freud … clearly distinguished in the case of the libido between the sexual ‘object’ and the sexual ‘aim.’”

  34. On Dead Ringers, see especially Barbara Creed, “Phallic Panic: Male Hysteria and Dead Ringers,” Screen 31:2 (Summer 1990), 125–46; Marcie Frank, “The Camera and the Speculum: David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers,” PMLA 106 (May 1991), 459–70; and Mary Russo, The Female Grotesque (New York: Routledge, forthcoming).

  35. See Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).

  36. George Hickenlooper, “The Primal Energies of the Horror Film,” Cinéaste 17:2 (1989), 7.

  37. And what a distance this turned out to cover: “Scrapping most of the novel and its frank depictions of gay sex, Cronenberg has made a pseudo-biography of Burroughs which, while retaining Burroughs’ tone and wit, almost completely obscures his sexuality. Burroughs’ ironic comment on the double lives many gay people lead, that ‘homosexuality is the best all-around cover story an agent ever had,’ is here transformed into an excuse to render his hero’s homosexuality nearly invisible, and Cronenberg inexplicably invents a love affair between Burroughs’ alter-ego and a character based on Jane Bowles, despite the fact that the real Jane Bowles was a lesbian. The most disturbing aspect of the film, however, is the invention of a character who does not appear in the novel, an effete, predatory homosexual (played by Julian Sands) who (recreating every straight man’s worst nightmare about gay sex) murders a young man while fucking him” (Al Weisel, “Bugging Out: David Cronenberg Exterminates Homosexuality,” QW, 9 August 1992, 36).

  38. Mitch Tuchman, “Fish Gotta Swim …” Monthly Film Bulletin 51:605 (June 1984), 192.

  39. “I am being this clinician, this surgeon, and trying to examine the nature of sexuality. I’m doing it by creating characters I then dissect with my cinematic scalpels” (151). For more on this congruence between film production and medical pathology, see Diana Fuss’ essay in Dissident Spectators, Disruptive Spectacles (New York: Routledge, 1993) and Pete Boss, “Vile Bodies and Bad Medicine,” Screen 27:1 (January-February 1986), 14–24. Critics have been quick to grasp the implications of Cronenberg’s casting himself, in The Fly, as a gynecologist.

  40. Cf. Lee Rolfe, “David Cronenberg on Rabid,” Cinéfantastique 6/3 (1977), 26: “I think, though, we cut a bit too much out of the explanation of why the disease develops the way it does. It was in the original script, we shot it but it was taken out because the scene where that information was given was poorly paced.” The precise nature of this “information” remains, to my knowledge, a mystery.

  41. Breskin, “David Cronenberg,” 68.

An earlier draft of this essay was presented in May 1992 at the Harvard conference “Dissident Spectators, Disruptive Spectacles.” This version was delivered the following July in France at the Cerisy-la-Salle colloquium “Le passage des frontières (autour de Jacques Derrida),” and is reprinted here from Marjorie Garber, Jann Matlock, and Rebecca Walkowitz, eds., Media Spectacles (New York: Routledge, 1993). I thank the editors of the Stanford Humanities Review for their interest and their criticisms, and many other friends for suggestions and technical assistance: Michèle Barale, Jack Cameron, Judy Frank, John Gunther, Sean Holland, Peggy Kamuf, David S. Kastan, Tom Keenan, Richard Klein, Sura Levine, Robert K. Martin, Michèle Melchionda, Catherine Portuges, Bruce Robbins, Karen Sánchez-Eppler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Sasha Torres. Robert Schwartzwald supplied the usual inspiration, and Mary Russo once more saved me from myself.

William Beard (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: “The Canadianness of David Cronenberg,” in Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, Vol. 27, No. 2, 1994, pp. 113–33.

[In the following essay, Beard discusses Cronenberg’s work in the context of the debate on what English-Canadian culture is and means. He asserts that Cronenberg’s male protagonists mostly resemble “the long line of Canadian cinematic and literary unheroes and their pattern of failure, powerlessness and hopeless waste.”]

It is becoming more difficult, in a postmodern environment, to speak with any confidence of “national character” or to define nationality in broad cultural (as opposed to sociopolitical) terms. In English Canada, where “national character” is famously weak and ill-defined, especially in contrast to the clearer and more confident cultural nationalisms of the United States and Québec, what was always uncertain has now become theoretically impossible or at least undesirable. The “what is Canada?” debate is a relatively recent one, but its vague and tentative wafflings—themselves very “Canadian”—have already been historically subsumed by the project of multiculturalism. The consequent attempt to define Canada actually as a place which has no “identity” other than the collective identities of its individual components, the project to strip Anglo-Canada of any claims to dominant cultural legitimacy (while affirming the cultural legitimacy of other ethnicities), is not only politically irreproachable but may even have been greeted with relief by those same theoretically disenthroned Anglo-Canadians who had become exhausted in the effort to find a stable Canadian cultural identity. In any event the older attempt at a relatively monolithic account of Canadian character, the attempt perhaps most effectively begun by Northrop Frye and seconded by Margaret Atwood to analyze Canadian literature and visual arts for a coherent set of social and psychological characteristics, has been so eclipsed as to be practically extinct.

While recognizing the inevitability and even the desirability of present cultural-theory revisionism, I believe that the Frye-Atwood model has not lost its relevance, even though it is now necessary to restrict sweeping generalizations about “Canadian character” to a more narrow cultural/historical base. If it is not adequate as a complete theory of English-Canadian culture, it retains, as it were, a local truth to the broad patterns of a particular once-dominant Anglo culture, and to particular members of that culture.

It is in this context that I wish to examine the work of filmmaker David Cronenberg, whose peculiar history as a cultural icon has always left him outside the dominant models of “Canadianism.” Although his particular subjects and artistic practice have encouraged his recent inclusion in a non- or supra-national paradigm of postmodern art dominated by a thematics of gender, the body and technology, I believe that such an analysis neglects an important aspect of Cronenberg’s artistic character, and that this “missing” aspect may be partly accounted for by a consideration of his work against the template of the older Frye-Atwood model of Canadianism in the arts. I would assert, then, that David Cronenberg is a profoundly and typically “Canadian” artist according to this paradigm, and that although he conforms rather idiosyncratically to the model, he finally does so in a clear and unmistakable fashion. Moreover, he conforms in ways which appear not to have been noticed and which, I believe, may help to “place” this troubling filmmaker.

For there has been a difficulty in thinking about Cronenberg within a Canadian-cultural context. He has somehow, without a lot of people in the Canadian “culture industry” quite understanding how, progressed from being an embarrassing figure who used Canadian Film Development Corporation (taxpayers’) money to make disgusting exploitation movies like Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1976) to being an internationally-celebrated film artist who has, in the past few years, adapted a modernist literary classic (Naked Lunch) with the blessings of the author, and been the subject of serious books in French and German. It is now widely accepted that Cronenberg is the most, or one of a handful of the most, interesting and valuable filmmakers in English Canada. Yet he has never really been integrated into our “cultural history” (Piers Handling’s 1983 essay stood for a long time as a lonely exception, and has only recently been joined by Gaile McGregor’s distantly related essay of 1993). Whatever place Cronenberg may come to occupy in a new, decentered Canadian culture model, it would be a shame to overlook how fully he conforms to the old monolith of national character.

Even in the context of an ongoing desperate search for a national filmmaking hero, Cronenberg is not usually the first name that arises in discussions of English-Canadian film, and particularly its role in the national culture. Sometimes his name does not arise at all: Bruce Elder’s Image and Identity, in 440-odd pages of “reflections on Canadian film and Canadian culture,” relegates Cronenberg to one dismissive mention in a footnote—referring to “schlock commercial vehicles like Parasite Murders [i.e., Shivers]” (420n6). There are a number of explanations for this fact, several of them obvious. From a traditional high-culture perspective, the mere fact that Cronenberg’s work is genre cinema, and in a particularly disreputable genre (horror), is enough to disqualify it. Although academic film studies and cultural studies have increasingly turned their attention to Cronenberg—as signalled for example in recent essays by Barbara Creed, Marcie Frank, Adam Knee and Helen Robbins, and an entire Cronenberg number of the journal Post Script (forthcoming)—interest in these (non-Canadian) quarters has centered on his astonishing co-incidence with the heavily theorized “hot topics” of gender, the body and technology.

At the same time, Cronenberg is certainly not valued for the characteristics which have attracted this attention. Current academic film studies assigns only political, not esthetic value: notions of “quality” have been rendered nonsensical. So arguments as to the quality of Cronenberg’s work fall on deaf ears. His subject matter and his treatment are anything but “progressive.” Moreover at a time when the whole concept of authorship is problematic, his obsessively personal themes and distinctive style have the status of valueless currency dating back to an antiquated auteurist misperception of cinematic significance. From a nationalist perspective, Cronenberg’s films look too much like American movies. Again, their genre status with its strong commercial associations have been perceived as originating in a Hollywood model of the crassest American cultural-imperialist variety—although in point of fact, Cronenberg has remained in Canada, refused to disguise Canadian locations as American, and generally succeeded in carving out a niche from which to make Canadian films with American money and with good “market penetration” in the U.S. (thus actually attaining the historic economic Grail of feature film production in Canada).

In traditional assessments of the history and status of culture in English Canada, fiction cinema is represented by that line of essentially art-filmmakers from Don Owen to Atom Egoyan, whose mostly tortured history inscribes the struggle to offer a worthy and clearly indigenous alternative to what was inevitably perceived as the predatory Hollywood colonizer. Cronenberg’s films (again, with the recent exception of Naked Lunch) are nothing like this anti-commercial model and make no effort to proclaim their difference from commercial cinema; hence there is some difficulty in thinking of them as really “Canadian.” Moreover, the famous documentary or “realist” impulse in Canadian film is inimical to the whole notion of genre and its conventions, and especially to an expressionist fantasy-based genre like horror.

In today’s postmodern environment of cultural production, where high-culture and mass-culture characteristics are so intermixed that the older modernist dichotomy between those two spheres is becoming harder and harder to enforce or even discern, it is easier for the cultural establishment to embrace Cronenberg’s films, with their “popular” elements, than it used to be. In an equally postmodern moment of celebration of cultural diversity and the destruction of normative attitudes, it is also more possible to find a place in the Canadian cultural mosaic for even a politically questionable (or indecipherable) presenter of quasi-pathological sex and violence like Cronenberg. This, indeed, appears to be the uneasy place which Cronenberg now occupies in the “national cultural consciousness.”

Cronenberg, however, is not a postmodernist—if by postmodernism is meant any kind of essential “playfulness” or emotional detachment, any radical heterogeneity of form or content, any effacement of high/low boundaries or other “fundamental” definitions, any embracing of difference. Rather, his work hovers in an idiosyncratic space between classicism (Hollywood) and modernism (film “art”), committed to the totalizing assumptions of traditional narrative practice and traditional “meaning.” Chris Rodley’s book-length interview-compilation, or virtually any of Cronenberg’s other interviews, demonstrate Cronenberg’s conscious identification with the role of the modernist artist, and his self-modelling in this capacity after the example of such heroes of literary modernism as Burroughs, Nabokov and Beckett. The films themselves reveal general affinities of this kind underneath a surface layer of “popular” genre characteristics. They display, for example, a fear of the destruction of defining boundaries, a longing for wholeness and an agonized sense of its irreparable loss which is, in narrative-thematic terms, entirely rooted in traditional practice, both classicist and modernist. In short, Cronenberg’s films, however momentarily ironic or selfconscious, are at base as traditionally serious as any art can be.

Worth noting, in turn, is that Cronenberg’s formative years were spent in Toronto in the 1950s and 60s, the same environment in which such monolithic cultural critics as Frye and McLuhan were working. In making this observation, I am not suggesting anything as absurd as a direct influence on Cronenberg, a conscious desire on his part to produce works of specifically Frygian “Canadianism”—though anyone as manifestly well-read as Cronenberg might well have been familiar with Frye, and Videodrome contains what is clearly a kind of twisted version of Marshall McLuhan in the “media prophet” Brian O’Blivion. My point is simply that Cronenberg’s “Canadianism” probably sprang from the same general cultural and intellectual environment as that which produced Frye’s, and, later, that of those who followed him along a similar path. I am saying, I suppose, that Cronenberg’s own idea of “Canadianism” is fully compatible with the Frye model. Once again, supporting evidence for this assertion may be found widely scattered through Cronenberg’s interviews (see for example Rodley 22, 25, 97, 118). Yet while it is common sense to say that a self-consciously “typical Canadian” will produce works which manifest “typical Canadian” qualities, it is quite unnecessary—and even counter-productive—to try to prove that these “Canadian” characteristics were deliberately put into the films by the actual author. What needs to be done is to interrogate the works themselves for any such qualities: to compare the films to the Frye-Atwood model and see what the comparison yields. Such a comparison reveals startling similarities. What Northrop Frye found in E. J. Pratt, or Margaret Atwood in Susanna Moodie, can also be found, more or less, in the films of David Cronenberg.

It is my contention, therefore, that Cronenberg, despite his anomalies, is a Canadian artist in this sense, and that his work reflects and embodies the national culture by existing firmly within the boundaries of that culture’s most central traditions and attitudes—again, according to the Frye-Atwood paradigm. The relation of his films to Hollywood models is not imitative but dialectical, and the result of this dialectic is amongst other things a simulacrum of the Canadian-American cultural configuration. Cronenberg’s cinema is most “Canadian” in its bleakness of Affekt, its overriding sense of defeat and powerlessness, its alienated dualism of nature against consciousness, its fearful cautiousness in the face of a hostile universe, and its powerful feelings of isolation and exclusion. The fact that these characteristics exist within a narrative context also populated by excremental sex-parasites, exploding heads, horrific cancerous transformations of the body and obsessive representations of sexual pathology should not distract one from a recognition of their determining importance.

Tony Wilden, in his Marxist/psychoanalytic exposition The Imaginary Canadian, finds a concise distillation of the national attitude in an entry quoted from Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English:

you can’t win. A Canadian catch-phrase, dating since ca. 1950 and “expressing the impossibility of coming out on top and the futility of kicking against the pricks.”


The idea that Canadian art reflects a fixation on defeat and failure is a feature of the first “identity” models of English-Canadian culture, and has been explicitly articulated in commentaries ranging from Northrop Frye’s analyses of Canadian literature and painting to Robert Fothergill’s well known essay on Canadian cinema. George Grant similarly depicts Canada as a nation founded on principles of greater order and self-restraint than the United States, but isolated from the crumbling European roots of the virtuous society and finally succumbing to the soulless and manic Calvinist techno-liberalism of the Americans. As recently as 1985, one finds Gaile McGregor consolidating the model in exhaustive detail: Canada as the place of anti-heroism, and encapsulation and defeat as a condition of existence. This Canadian emotional paradigm is one of solitude and isolation; of an ever-present looming sense of immense surrounding wilderness which can never be physically or even mentally encompassed; of a Nature which is treacherous, violent and unknowable; of self-repressive passivity and caution; of feelings of impotence and hopelessness and marginalization.

The great problem of Canadian culture, especially Canadian popular culture, is of course the terrible contrast between these waif-like self-imaginings and the trumpeting self-confident mythology of mastery emanating from the United States, a contrast which is bodied forth in the economic domination of American popular culture in the Canadian marketplace. Certain that nothing real can happen in their own frozen, atomized psychic landscape, English-Canadians have a positive thirst for the imaginary and are virtually designed to be spectators. Canada’s national per capita consumption of movies is greater than that of the United States, and far exceeds that of Western Europe. Canadians have become expert appreciators of American culture, though because of their actual exclusion from it the very act of imaginative identification has come to be associated for them with vicariousness and un-actuality. George Woodcock, in a sour essay entitled “McLuhan’s Utopia,” insists that McLuhan’s theories of a media-united global village are prompted by a desire to cancel acute feelings of isolation and alienation in a new tribal community created by the electronic media’s ability to give everybody the same vicarious experience. One of McLuhan’s own comments is that Canada is “a country without an identity” and “a perfect place for observation” (qtd. in Powe 31). McLuhan is another exemplary Canadian: his essay “Canada: The Borderline Case” is full of generalizations about Canadian cultural identity, conceived mainly as a lack.

Canadian cinema was at one time distinguished for the truly impressive defeatism of its narrative content. It is not necessary once more to recount in detail the didactic depressiveness of such canonic pillars of English Canada’s national film culture as Nobody Waved Goodbye, Goin’ Down the Road and Wedding in White, nor to note again the absence of anything remotely reflecting self-esteem or a belief in the possibility of accomplishment in the whole of English-Canadian fiction film during that Golden Age of the 1970s. Since that time there have followed the co-production horrors of the Capital Cost Allowance (which unleashed a host of “commercial” movies nobody wanted to see), followed by a wasteland of non-production during the early 1980s. During the past decade there have been a number of signs of new life and direction: the work of Atom Agoyan, William McGillivray, Patricia Rozema, Sandy Wilson, Anne Wheeler, Guy Maddin and Bruce MacDonald seems both relatively vigorous and quite distinct in its diversity from the almost entirely depressive model of its predecessors. It would be wise, however, to recall that the history of Canadian feature film is largely one of repeated “rebirths,” but no actual subsequent life. In other words, the relatively optimistic nature of current English-Canadian feature film culture may yet turn out to be a temporary phenomenon. Certainly it is a little disconcerting for champions of a Canadian national cinema to realize that just as the era of maximum bleakness in Canadian film coincided almost exactly with Hollywood/America’s astonishing nihilist-modernist period inaugurated by Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider and The Wild Bunch, so the petering out of this bleakness more or less coincided with the arrival of Hollywood’s feel-good postmodernist period inaugurated by Rocky, Star Wars, and Close Encounters; equally disconcerting might be the way that the relative cheerfulness of much late-80s Canadian cinema parallels the plastic happiness of much post-Reagan American cinema.

Cronenberg is one Canadian filmmaker who has emphatically not followed any such trend toward a more positive view of things. In fact the reverse is the case. His films have described a line of increasing desperation: from the cool alienated humor of Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970) through the relative ironic detachment of Shivers and Rabid to the arrival of straightforward despair in The Brood (1979) and an ever-growing sense of nightmarish anxiety and hopeless entrapment in Videodrome (1982), The Dead Zone (1983), The Fly (1986) and Dead Ringers (1988). The one meaningful exception to this trend is Scanners (1980), certainly Cronenberg’s most optimistic feature. Yet it achieves its equanimity by omitting the most virulent source of trouble in Cronenberg’s world—namely sexuality—and it is not all that optimistic. At the same time, even the early films contain at least an undercurrent of sadness and powerlessness, and it is only by comparison with the oppressively tortured later works that one would think of calling them unperturbed. Only the camouflage of genre and commerciality in Cronenberg’s films can disguise, for example, the way that the Cronenberg male protagonist resembles the long line of Canadian cinematic and literary un-heroes and their pattern of failure, powerlessness and hopeless waste. Piers Handling drew attention to this likeness (105), but the point can be made even more strongly now that the pallid, confrontation-avoiding passivity of Cronenberg’s early heroes has given way to a series of centralized narratively-dominant male protagonists, and within the context of these characters to an intense and self-critical examination of male agency in the world of the films. In fact Cronenberg’s correspondence to the “Canadian model” extends to many aspects of his basic narrative stance and his evolving thematic concerns.

In the earlier films the clearly unbalanced and dangerous state of things, the condition which gives rise to violence and suffering, is attributed to the disequilibrium of human nature, posited as innate and universal. The “Cartesian” separation of rationality from nature (to use the description Cronenberg has frequently formulated in interviews), and the tyranny of rationality over the body and the instincts, produces a tension which causes nature to rebel. The films present this rebellion in the form of destructive sexually-based plagues unleashed by the hubristic projects of patriarchal-rationalist scientists. Since the scientists are usually motivated by prosocial aims, however, and since in any event the problems arise from a tendency felt to be innate in human nature and hence inescapable, nobody can really be blamed, and the films can be described as manifestations of philosophical pessimism (for a more extended discussion see my “The Visceral Mind” 3–39). In Shivers, a modernist high-rise apartment block is turned into a bedlam of orgiastic sexual feeding when its inhabitants are “occupied” by foot-long wormlike parasites living in their viscera (the parasites were developed by a messianic scientist who wanted to put people in touch with their sexuality). In Rabid, a sweet young woman (played by porno-star Marilyn Chambers) develops a penis-like armpit spike and a need to consume human blood through it after undergoing radical experimental surgery following a road accident; her victims develop terminal rabies, and soon all Montreal is overwhelmed by an epidemic of people biting each other. In The Brood an emotionally troubled wife and mother is enabled by radical new psychoanalytic methods actually to embody her destructive feelings in the form of dwarf-like living creatures, to whom she gives birth from an external abdominal sac and who roam through the world killing people she resents (e.g., her parents) without her knowledge. The male protagonists in all these films (though not their patriarchal “mad” scientists) are powerless and ineffectual, especially in contrast with the liberated sexual-destructive energies attached to the female characters.

Beginning with Videodrome, the films begin to look more closely at the psychic origins of the schism between rationality and instinct, and particularly at the mechanisms of desire, fear and repression which are seen as the matrix of imbalance. At first there is a tentative effort to assign responsibility to extra-personal, socially-based sources, especially predatory corporations exploiting the appetites of individuals (e.g., Consec in Scanners and Spectacular Optical in Videodrome). However, the films eventually abandon this explanation in favor of the competing one: namely, that the catastrophic disfunction in the world (of the films) stems from the particular psychology of the narratively privileged male self, a self not easily severed from the narrative voice itself. That self is discovered to be a psychological failure, a sick animal, a subject whose structuring elements render him incapable of physical or emotional intimacy and by extension of a real and workable relation with the human world around him. So in Videodrome (Cronenberg’s first film with a dominant male protagonist), Max Renn, a Toronto TV-station owner looking for provocative quasi-pornographic programs to broadcast, runs into a satellite-pirated program called “Videodrome,” featuring real Sadean torture and murder, and simultaneously enters into a sadomasochistic sexual relationship with a young woman; he begins to hallucinate astounding things, notably transformations of his own body such as the appearance of a vagina-like abdominal orifice (through which videocassettes may be inserted) and of a penile flesh-gun hand (with which he murders people at the command of various individuals, real or hallucinated); in the end he kills himself. Videodrome is so complex and delirious that it is almost impossible to “read”—or rather it seems to want to be read in a number of conflicting ways—but in the end it exemplifies very well the change in emphasis in Cronenberg’s work that I have just described. More and more the hero’s destructive acts, and self-destruction, are rooted in his own psychological structure: his emotional isolation, his hubristic belief that he can control his feelings and actions, his dangerous and unacknowledged appetites for “sick” sex. As the film progresses he emerges from his “Cartesian” controlling ego-shell and encounters forces, both without and within but mostly within, with which he is utterly unable to cope; he becomes their puppet and dies as a result. His successors in The Dead Zone, The Fly and Dead Ringers trace a broadly similar path: emergence from an isolated ego-shell; contact with nature/woman/sexuality/the body; destruction.

That this central psychology conforms to the first dominant Canadian archetype seems very plain. Frye, Atwood and McGregor have all described at some length the recurrent appearances of a fearful, hopeless and self-oppressive psychology in the English-Canadian imagination, and speculated about its genealogy. The first thesis is that the Canadian sensibility has been dominated from the beginning by the dreadful consciousness of a vast, unknowable, threatening Nature empty of human life and human values. In The Bush Garden, Frye describes Canada as “above all a country in which nature makes a direct impression of its primeval lawlessness and moral nihilism, its indifference to the supreme value placed on life within human society, its faceless, mindless unconsciousness, which fosters life without benevolence and destroys it without malice” (146).

In Canada, moreover, the enormous tracts of unpopulated nature have not been seen as a challenge to be overcome, a linear progressing frontier to be settled, as in the case of the United States; instead, in Atwood’s phrase, Canada is “a circumference with no centre” (Second Words 379). According to McGregor, whereas the American “western frontier” is perceived as a challenge to be overcome, the Canadian “northern frontier” is perceived as a “line between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, between what is and is not humanly possible,” as a boundary of which there is no question of overcoming, only staying clear; “[t]he frontier did not play a positive role in the Canadian experience” (Wacousta 59). The terror of nature and the sense of fragility and vulnerability of human life in its midst leads to an overconsciousness of the contrast and indeed enmity between nature and culture, between nature and the mind. This is Frye’s famous “garrison mentality.” Atwood describes it in terms of the human struggle to impose order on the chaos of nature, where order is “straight lines” and nature is “curves”; the attempt is inevitably frustrated and the human agent often destroyed or driven mad by the impossibility of the task (Survival 120–24). Nature, though unconscious, is seen in the end as striking back against the violations and unnatural orderings of human endeavor. Moreover, the internalized struggle against the perceived chaos and unknowableness of nature uncovers a parallel demon of irrationality and disorder inside the human mind itself. Describing stories of exploration in Canadian literature, Atwood says:

Pushed a little further, the “exploration” story takes on overtones of another kind of journey into the unknown: the journey into the unknown regions of the self, the unconscious, and the confrontation with whatever dangers and splendours lurk there.

(Survival 113)

Frye crystallizes the idea: “Whatever sinister lurks in nature lurks also in us … the unconscious horror of nature and the subconscious horror of the mind thus coincide” (Bush Garden 141). And McGregor is still more explicit: “The unknown landscape within … is exactly equivalent to the wilderness without” (Wacousta 301).

In the process of living within and trying to master this monstrous-seeming nature, the early inhabitants of North America fostered in themselves an alienation not only from nature in general but from their own bodies. George Grant depicts the Europeans and their descendants confronting the immensities of nature on this continent with the tools of Cartesian dualism, Lockean rationalism and Calvinist notions of the supremacy of the individual conscience, and mastering it through a psychological abstraction from it and a successful manipulation of it:

When one contemplates the conquest of nature by technology [in North America] one must remember that the conquest had to include our own bodies. Calvinism provided the determined and organized men and women who could rule the mastered world. The punishment they inflicted on non-human nature, they had first inflicted on themselves.


Atwood contributes this gloss:

What is natural is not always external. As George Grant points out … attitudes towards Nature inevitably involve man’s attitude towards his own body and towards sexuality, insofar as these too are seen as part of Nature. It doesn’t take much thought to deduce what “Nature is dead” and “Nature is hostile” are going to do to a man’s attitude towards his own body and towards women....

(Survival 63)

To this general North American neurosis may be added a particularly Canadian characteristic: the mental and emotional conservatism of a people whose natural surroundings enforced isolation and discouraged confidence, and whose history was the direct consequence of an opposition to the social and political daring of the American Revolution. The result is a psychological regime of self-repression whereby the desire for order, restraint and control is paramount as a response to a condition of solitude in a dangerous and unfathomable environment; and it necessitates an acute alienation from both nature and the body.

In Cronenberg’s films, it is true, nature as an external presence plays almost no part; yet this very absence may reflect a kind of alienation and isolation. In any case, the dualistic and unstable relationship of mind and body, of conscious order and natural chaos, of ego-self and id-other—these configurations of the Canadian psyche are overpoweringly present. Mistrust of the world outside consciousness and the self, mistrust of the body, terror at the inevitable subjection of consciousness to the forces of organic life and death, are as central to Cronenberg’s world as to any described by the paradigm. Nature, routinely represented as female or associated with female qualities, is so depicted once more in Cronenberg, where natural forces are connected with female characters and with the idea of sexuality as an irruption into the (male) rational self. Terror of nature becomes terror of woman in Cronenberg, or more accurately terror of what the male self’s aroused sexuality will do to the emotionally repressed and isolated but still more or less functional ego-habitation of reason and control. Sexuality not only threatens to overwhelm the rational ego in a flood of chaotic desire but also brings forcibly into consciousness the subordination of the ego-self to the body and by extension to the threatening bodily developments of disease and death. In this construction, nature is synonymous with the annihilation of the self. In one traditional kind of science-fiction narrative, attempts to separate the brain from the body always meet with failure; in Cronenberg, it is the process of joining the cognitive self to the body that results in horror and death.

The best examples of this pattern are found in Cronenberg’s relatively recent films, especially The Fly and Dead Ringers. In The Fly, a nice, repressed scientist trying to develop a teleportation device meets a woman and begins a serious relationship with her; the physical and psychological liberation he experiences as a result allows him to realize his invention successfully; but in a moment of carelessness caused by celebratory alcohol and a spasm of sexual jealousy he teleports himself together with a fly, causing a genetic fusion of the two and a subsequent horrific physical transformation into a monstrous fly-human. The solitary rational self, cut off from the body and from human contact, cannot be saved: even an “ideal” relationship will result in destruction of the self. In Dead Ringers the twin Mantle brothers become successful gynecologists, maintaining a privately-shared and manipulative relationship with the outside world and especially practicing a quasi-predatory deception of women; when one of the brothers, craving a deeper relationship, begins to love and need one woman in particular the process of “separation” from the other (less emotional, more rational and controlling) brother drives him to drug addiction and madness; in the end the brothers both die in a kind of double suicide. The complementary halves of the ego-self, representing the respective principles of yearning and detachment, cannot endure a breaching of the hermetic shell of ego-isolation. In both films a relationship with a woman (i.e., aroused sexuality and emotional intimacy) opens the door for nature’s entrance into the domain of bodiless consciousness, and what this entrance signifies is the arrival of sickness, decay and death.

Cronenberg’s films, however, cannot be described as totally privileging consciousness over nature, either. “Cartesian” dualism is what he is stuck with, but it is not very attractive or healthy. The separation of consciousness and nature leads consciousness to an arrogance of supposed mastery. Frye speaks of this tradition as “the Baroque sense, most articulate in Descartes, that the consciousness of man created an immense gap between him and all other living creatures, who belonged primarily in a world of mechanism.” This belief, according to Frye, leads to an “attitude of arrogant ascendancy over nature. For the white conquerors of the continent, creation does not begin with an earth-mother who is the womb and the tomb of all created things, but with a sky-father who planned and ordered and made the world, in a tour de force of technology” (Divisions 19–20). The patriarch in the sky has his homuncular embodiment in the hubristic scientists who play a crucial part in virtually every Cronenberg film. These scientists are forever tinkering with nature in an effort to make it serve more fully the convenience of the rational consciousness. It is their machinations which are the first catalyst of the plagues and terrors which invade the Cronenbergian world.

This is very clear in the earlier films, but it is equally true of several of the later ones, where the protagonist also assumes the function of the scientist: in The Fly the hero is an actual scientist, while in Dead Ringers the gynecologists are not only clinicians but inventors. Much more than the female “carriers” of destruction, these male originators may be seen as causing the explosive rebellion of nature in response to the effort to force its “curves” into the “straight lines” of rationality, to put its chaos into some kind of order. Of course they are merely reflecting their social environment, and are acting “in good faith.” Disaster in Cronenberg’s world devolves from the mistaken belief that nature is knowable, that nature is not the enemy, that rationality can be naturalized or nature rationalized. In this respect, Cronenberg is true to the Canadian model: nature is the enemy of consciousness; it is unknowable, unconquerable. Nature is death.

In the early films the dialectical clash of rationality and instinct was universalized, and the authorial attitude to the spectacle was one of alternately ironic and sorrowing detachment. Obviously rationality was not right to behave in this way—it was too repressive and confining—but after all this was the (“Cartesian”) human condition, was it not? More recently the films have come to situate the clash in a perspective carefully designated as subjective. The alienation from nature is situated in a single personality, the male protagonist, and is presented as incomplete or crippled. The solitary heroes of Videodrome, The Dead Zone, The Fly and Dead Ringers (if the twins are seen as parts of a single personality) are cut off from social warmth and, especially, constructive relations with women, not as a result of the iron laws of human existence but because of psychological disfunctions in themselves. Moreover in these later works, woman as the bearer of natural forces is seen more clearly in a positive (one might even say idealized) light, even if her ultimate effect is still to open the door to destruction. The central female characters especially of The Fly and Dead Ringers are clearly depicted as possessing a psychological wholeness which the male characters do not have and cannot attain. The heroes of all the later films feel immensely liberated and renewed by their relationships with women, and receive what few (brief) glimpses of wholeness and contentment they will ever have as a direct result of them. So nature/sexuality/woman is death, but also wholeness from which the male protagonist, and by extension the authorial sensibility, is exiled. It is a dismal, intolerable situation. Action brings disaster; inaction is withering and ultimately destructive too. No movement is possible: hopeless passivity and impotence are the enforced conditions. This is the “Canadian” paradigm of isolation, alienation, powerlessness and stasis.

It is, of course, the element of genre that separates Cronenberg’s films from the depressive English-Canadian cinema they might otherwise clearly resemble. With its horror/science-fiction/fantasy heritage whose most visible avatars lie in comic books, pulp fiction and Hollywood B-features, the genre he works in not only infringes on high-culture taboos but also shows a genetic similarity to a strictly American popular culture of the most invasive sort. Violence is no stranger to Canadian narrative, of course (John Moss devoted a whole book to Sex and Violence in the Canadian Novel), but the sensationalist foregrounding of spectacle-violence with elaborate special effects is a particularly American formula associated with the “limitations” of popular genre (indeed it is often labelled as one of the principal limitations). The American commercial film—driven by the engine of classical narrative with its causal relations, goal-orientation and narrative closure, and privileging the dynamics of successful problem-solving and action as spectacle—stands in strong contrast to the relatively drab “realist” (more properly, “documentarist”) world of Canadian features: where progress toward goals is illusory or non-existent, where narrative tends to meander and stop, where characters and events are structured in an absence of heroic or dynamic models, and where things are, to paraphrase Atwood, all circumference and no center. And although the formation and evolution of Canadian cinema has occurred to some extent actually on the basis of non-similarity to the Hollywood cinema, it is also true to say that the differences between the two cinemas conform to the broader cultural differences between the two nations as they have traditionally been theorized. In its loud dramatic gestures and poster-paint hues, as well as in the systematization of its thematics, American cinema often approaches the expressionist model. Canadian cinema approaches instead the documentary model.

How then can we define the “American” component of Cronenberg’s films? The thematic dualism of his works is accompanied by a dualism of articulation, found in both narrative and mise en scène, wherein the elements associated with consciousness are quiet, controlled and receding, while the elements associated with nature are violent, chaotic and brash. These may be said to correspond respectively to the “Canadian” and “American” aspects of Cronenberg’s cinema. Narratively, the world of a nice repressed (“Canadian”) protagonist is invaded by loud unrepressed (“American”) convulsions of feeling and explosions of violence and horror. Concomitantly, the “American” narrative of mastery, wherein the subject is able to exert control over nature and existence, is controverted by a “Canadian” disaster which follows any such attempt (all of those scientists whose projects blow up in people’s faces; Max Renn in Videodrome who thinks he is an “American” but who is revealed to be “Canadian” after all). In the visual realm, the (“Canadian”) detached wide angles, static controlled compositions, and sense of cold foreboding which constitute the basic cinematic stance of the films is inflected by danger-signifying “hot spots” and by despairing motifs of dereliction and decay; eventually this gives way to the far more noticeable (“American”) explosive expressionist outbursts of spectacle-violence, garishly colored and often accompanied by frenzied montage or camera movement. In short, the Canadian drama of restraint, internalized violence and stasis, and the American drama of freedom, externalized violence and progress, have their equivalents in the frozen despairing inner identity and explosive visceral outer genre-qualities of the films.

Moreover, there is a sense in which the relationship between the two facets—one overpowering and horrifically transforming the other—may be said to replicate the relationship of Canadian and American cultures in the marketplace. The fact that in the later films, particularly, the violent “natural” elements are seen as coming from inside the protagonist’s self rather than having some outward origin merely reproduces that scenario in which Hollywood values become internalized by Canadian audiences, as in Wim Wenders’s famous comment (via a character in Kings of the Road [1976]): “The Americans have colonized our unconscious.” I would not wish to emphasize this correspondence too much, but the similarity is there.

The Canadian cinematic model I am applying to Cronenberg here is not so much the messy handheld vérité of, for example, Goin' Down the Road; it is perhaps rather the alternate National Film Board (especially the B Unit of the 1950s and 60s) or CBC prototype of distant, balanced, slightly melancholy omniscience and control. The drab cardigans worn by Johnny Smith in The Dead Zone, the interchangeable grey sports jackets which constitute Seth Brundle’s wardrobe in The Fly, the cold blues and slate greys of the Mantles’ living environments in Dead Ringers—that is to say, the style and surroundings of all of Cronenberg’s recent protagonists before the invasion of nature—all evince a neatness, repressiveness and self-effacement that defines this “Canadian” mode. The blood and guts and disease, in contrast, are those of low-budget American horror movies from Night of the Living Dead onwards, and closely related to the gaudy plebeian traditions of Hollywood in general. The Cronenberg film which most clearly articulates the pattern of restraint is The Dead Zone, probably because of its special emphasis on the passivity and repression of its protagonist (for a more extended discussion see my “Anatomy”). Thematically, this is the work which most fully explores the (non-) option of meeting the consciousness/nature crisis by doing nothing. Johnny Smith is drying up of loneliness and sadness caused by his largely self-imposed isolation from sexuality and emotional intimacy until nature comes along and hammers him over the head (a milk truck runs over him); thereafter his consciousness is periodically invaded by violent and terrifying telepathic visions of catastrophes befalling others; these waste him even further until he decides to commit suicide by attempting to assassinate a dangerous politician. Johnny’s actions are not an attempt to bridge the consciousness/nature split (as the protagonists of The Fly and Dead Ringers try to do), but simply to avoid it and stay enclosed in consciousness.

This attempt at stasis is characteristically “Canadian,” and characteristically it does not work. Moreover in The Dead Zone nature itself actually plays a part. Outdoors it is winter, and the lethal, numbing cold becomes a tangible correlative of the emotional desolation slowly killing the protagonist. Here, very plainly, external nature is not beneficent or generative; it is frozen and deadly. Although ironically The Dead Zone is the only Cronenberg feature explicitly set in the United States (New England), it is probably his most Canadian film. The same pattern, however, may be traced in almost every one of his features: a repressed protagonist forced to confront the “natural” powers of the unconscious, and being destroyed in the process.

I have attempted to show how the violent dualism of Cronenberg’s films reflect a “Canadian” pattern. Although his films might appear to differ from the examples used by Frye, Atwood and others, I would assert that the difference is superficial. The glaring contrast between the “substantially colorless, odorless, noninfectious and nonoffensive” Canadian exterior of archetype (Friedenberg 152) and the potentially riotous and even monstrous disorder occurring within is perhaps simply more obvious in Cronenberg’s films than in most other cases. Consider, for example, Margaret Atwood’s comment on the reputation of a former Canadian Prime Minister:

Mackenzie King, formerly a symbol of Canada because of his supposed dullness and greyness … is enjoying new symbolic popularity as a secret madman who communed every night with the picture of his dead mother and believed that his dog was inhabited by her soul. “Mackenzie King rules Canada because he is himself the embodiment of Canada—cold and cautious on the outside … but inside a mass of intuition and dark intimations,” says one of Robertson Davies’ characters in The Manticore, speaking for many.

(Second Words 231–32)

In Cronenberg’s films the inside and the outside are both manifest: the work of repression is visibly countered and reversed in the most spectacular way. Yet at narrative’s end it is very clear why the dominant attitude in the Cronenberg world is one of stasis and repression, and the moral (for the protagonists and the authorial sensibility, if not for the viewer) is that no constructive action is possible. The idea may not be as didactically presented as in the “definitive” Canadian features of the 1970s, but the resemblance is strong. That Cronenberg’s work has persisted with the themes of isolation, failure and despair when the national cinema (such as it is) seems perhaps to have abandoned this stance serves once more to distinguish his films from their Canadian contemporaries. Yet in maintaining a perspective of alienated dualism and in suffering an emotional burden of pessimism and anguish, Cronenberg seems very much an Ur-Canadian.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Toronto: Anansi, 1972.

———. Second Words. Toronto: Anansi, 1982.

Beard, William. “The Visceral Mind: The Major Films of David Cronenberg.” Handling, The Shape of Rage 1–79.

———. “An Anatomy of Melancholy: Cronenberg’s Dead Zone.” Journal of Canadian Studies 27.4 (1993): 169–79.

Creed, Barbara. “Phallic Panic: Male Hysteria and Dead Ringers.” Screen 31.2 (1992): 125–46.

Elder, Bruce. Image and Identity: Reflections on Canadian Film and Culture. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 1989.

Fothergill, Robert. “Coward, Bully or Clown: The Dream-Life of a Younger Brother.” Canadian Film Reader. Ed. Seth Felman and Joyce Nelson. Toronto: Martin Associates, 1977. 234–49.

Frank, Marcie. “The Camera and the Speculum: David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers.” PMLA 106.3 (1991): 459–70.

Friedenberg, Edgar. Deference to Authority: The Case of Canada. White Plains NY: Sharpe, 1980.

Frye, Northrop. The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination. Toronto: Anansi, 1971.

———. Divisions on a Ground: Essays on Canadian Culture. Ed. James Polk. Toronto: Anansi, 1982.

Grant, George. Technology and Empire. Toronto: Anansi, 1969.

Handling, Piers. “A Canadian Cronenberg.” Handling, The Shape of Rage 98–114.

———, ed. The Shape of Rage. Toronto: Academy of Canadian Cinema, 1983.

Knee, Adam. “The Metamorphosis of the Fly.” Wide Angle 14.1 (1992): 20–34.

McGregor, Gaile. The Wacousta Syndrome: Explorations in the Canadian Langscape. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1985.

———. “Grounding the Countertext: David Cronenberg and the Ethnospecificity of Horror.” Canadian Journal of Film Studies 2.1 (1993): 43–62.

McLuhan, Marshall. “Canada: The Borderline Case.” The Canadian Imagination. Ed. David Staines. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1977. 226–48.

Moss, John. Sex and Violence in the Canadian Novel, Toronto: McLelland, 1977.

Powe, B. W. A Climate Changed. Oakville ON: Mosaic P, 1984.

Robbins, Helen. “More Human Than I Am Alone’: Womb Envy in David Cronenberg’s The Fly and Dead Ringers.” Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema. Ed. Stevan Cohan and Ina Mae Clark. New York: Routledge, 1993. 134–47.

Rodley, Chris, ed. Cronenberg on Cronenberg, New York: Knopf, 1992.

Wilden, Tony. The Imaginary Canadian. Vancouver: Pulp, 1980.

Woodcock, George. “McLuhan’s Utopia.” The World of Canadian Writing. Vancouver: Douglas, 1980. 235–40.

William Beard (essay date Winter/Spring 1996)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10664

SOURCE: “Lost and Gone Forever: Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers,” in Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities, Vol. 15, No. 2, Winter/Spring, 1996, pp. 11–28.

[In the following essay Beard examines several themes found in Dead Ringers, such as sexual otherness, the struggle for a male identity, emotional paralysis, rationality versus nature, and science and sexuality.]

I’ve had a response to the movie that I’ve never gotten from any of the other films. I went to one of the first public screenings in Toronto and one guy, a doctor, said, “Can you tell me why I feel so fucking sad having seen this film?” I said, “It’s a sad movie.” Then I head from someone else that a friend of his saw it and cried for three hours afterwards. So I thought, “That’s what it is. That’s what I wanted to get at.” I can’t articulate it. It’s not really connected with gynaecology or twinness. It has to do with that element of being human. It has to do with this ineffable sadness that is an element of being human.

—David Cronenberg1

I felt, when I was working on the movie, that I made it primarily out of the female part of myself.

—David Cronenberg2

Dead Ringers continues the evolution of David Cronenberg’s work as a filmmaker. It is different from earlier films in a number of ways—above all it contains no “science-fiction” or even unambiguously “horror” elements. But it is more upon its similarity than its difference that I wish to concentrate; or rather upon its particular features as a point of continuation and development in a line of work stretching back through nine earlier films.3 In its central themes and concerns, its iconography, its unmistakable repetitions of peculiarly Cronenbergian markings, most important perhaps in its overall affect—and even in its forms of substitution for now-absent genre characteristics—Dead Ringers is very much a culmination of its predecessors. Its outstanding narrative feature, the presence of identical-twin protagonists (Beverly and Elliot Mantle) played by the same actor (Jeremy Irons) allows it to consider problems of conflicting psychological imperatives and desires and to dramatize these conflicts in a manner which both extends and complements Cronenberg’s earlier expressions of them. As this remark implies, the twins will be seen here as differing components of a single personality, and that personality as another manifestation of the developing Cronenberg protagonist.4 This particular manifestation—twin gynaecologists—constitutes for Cronenberg a very subtle instrument for re-examining the anguished dilemmas of inner balance he has always been concerned with, and in particular the most powerful agent for the expression of that sense of sadness and loss which is to be found at the base of virtually every one of his films.

Cronenberg’s work may be seen from one angle as a progression towards an evermore-complexly-understood sense of subjectivity in the world, and in particular of the problems of the isolated individual male subject. In his earlier films (up to and including The Brood) he developed his celebrated “take” on the mind/body problem, which involved polarizing the world into on the one hand the overweening attempts of rationality to order human life (this symbolized by the actions of visionary but overconfident scientists) and on the other the violent rebellion against this attempt to control on the part of the instincts, the unconscious, the body (this symbolized by parasites, plagues, cancers, mutations—most of them sexualized). But emerging notably in Videodrome was an emphasis on the subjectivity of this battleground, a transposition of the dialectic of mind and body into an individual male protagonist. The mind and body of Max Renn, the protagonist of Videodrome, are the landscape upon which are enacted the conflicts of appetite and guilt, sexuality and control, the pathologies of the flesh and the yearnings of the spirit. Mind and body are in fact difficult to distinguish from each other, and indeed all boundaries of difference become blurred, when this film moves so easily between an objective “actuality” which includes sadomasochistic sex and murder and a series of subjective hallucinations in which the subject’s body develops alarming new organs—among them a vagina-like opening which appears in his abdomen. Beneath the lurid drama of these bombshells one may discern in Videodrome a kind of “literal” emotional condition, a dilemma of which these are the hysterical symptoms. This psychological state is one of self-enclosure, of the difficulties of the subject in relating meaningfully or healthily to the outside world and in particular to women.5 Sexuality is a channel of connection with others and a principal means to human intimacy, but the sexual drive invokes the nexus sex/body/disease/death, and the proximity of woman produces simultaneously desire for physical and spiritual union and panic at the same prospect.

From Videodrome onwards, Cronenberg’s protagonists find themselves repeatedly experiencing this dilemma, and both they and the films are continually balancing and rebalancing the sterility of self-enclosure against the holocaust of bodily and emotional liberation. Neither of these antinomies is satisfactory or even endurable, and there is no workable way to combine them. In capsule description: The Dead Zone tries out the option of passivity and retreat, the protagonist forswearing the woman he loves and focusing his repressed and powerful “bodily” energies—his terrifying abilities as a psychic—on the sacrificial-suicidal gesture of saving the world from the next Hitler. Here the subject preserves his identity, denies sexuality and body, and buries the consequent wasted life of loneliness and unhealthy repression under a mausoleum of noble martyrdom. In The Fly the protagonist, who is by now not merely the victim of scientific experimentation but its actual author as well, begins as another isolated and repressing individual but then discovers sweet sexuality in the arms of a loving woman and the conceptual breakthrough he needs for the success of his teleportation machine more or less simultaneously. However, the liberation of his flesh and the breaching of his emotional solitude lead directly to a series of escalating catastrophes: jealousy, errors of judgement, megalomania, the discovery that he has fused his genetic makeup with that of an insect, and finally horrifying transformation and death.6

Dead Ringers returns then to the same stalemated situation, peering into it more deeply yet and emerging with a new, powerful narrative metaphor and instrument of expression for the sense of psychic enclosure and longing for release, the fascinating and terrifying imperatives of the body and sexuality, and the final recognition of hopelessness, which have strongly characterized the films preceding it. Those films connect the protagonist’s sense of a stable identity with the controlling presence of a rational ego-self, whose every existence is based on a repression of or refusal to recognize the dual bodily facts of sexuality and mortality, and whose natural (though unhappy) condition is physical and emotional solitude. The ego-boundaries of all these characters, when penetrated, collapse into a chaotic hell of undifferentiation: Videodrome’s confusions of subject/object and of sexual difference, The Dead Zone’s invasion of everyday life by rampant “visions,” The Fly’s final inability even to identify the subject’s species. In Dead Ringers the protagonist is twinned, and thus has in a sense achieved “monstrosity” already.7 But the film replicates the pattern of the others: this “exotic creature” lives in a state of enclosed symbiotic balance which in itself recalls the initial state of his predecessors, and moves, via an attempt at liberation from this enclosure through a relationship with a woman, to a disastrous imbalance ending in death. Instead of marking the conflict inside the protagonist’s psyche onto his mind and/or body as hysterical “sensational” symptoms (hallucinations, visions, transformation), that conflict is institutionalized in the narrative by means of assigning a separate character or persona to each block of psychic characteristics. Elliot and Beverly do not represent mind and body; rather, the dialectic is between rationality and emotion, detachment and engagement, control and “letting go”—these antinomies also repeating the “literal emotional condition” of the heroes of the earlier films. The pathology of this condition (which all the films stress) is seen not in the wild monstrosity of the symptoms (the horror or science-fiction element which is absent here) but in the twins’ fascination from childhood with gynaecology, “radical” means of treatment, and female “mutation,” and of course in their final psychological collapse and self-destruction.

The symbiosis of the couple is complex but quite strongly marked and legible. So: Elliot is the external ambassador, the public relations person, the speechmaker and grant-getter and report-writer, the sybarite who watches Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and appreciates good wine and Italian furniture, the unflappable social smoothie and Don-Juanish sexual manipulator, the leader and organizer. Beverly is the shy domestic recluse, the researcher, clinician and surgeon, who is forever slouching around the house in old pullovers, who detests having to put on any kind of performance, is nervous, moody and unhappy and eventually falls in love, and who feels oppressed in the relationship (with Elliot, that is) and makes an attempt to get out. Claire tells Elliot the two are easy to tell apart: “Beverly is the sweet one and you’re the shit.” Elliot is the “male” and Beverly the “female”: their names indicate this fact, as does their division of duties in the professional ménage and the almost caricatured assignment of psychological gender characteristics (calculation/ feeling, order/mess, materialism/ idealism, abstraction/involvement, power/work, sadism/masochism, “shit”/“sweet one”).8 Another configuration sees Elliot in the role of the adult or even the parent, Beverly in the role of the child, “baby” brother. Here Elliot’s sang-froid is contrasted with the range of Beverly’s mannerisms which are childlike (tentative, secretive, transparent, unprotected) or even foetus-like (he is always hugging himself, pulling his knees up, trying to shrink into a foetal curl).

The first impression is that it is Elliot who is in control of the partnership, Elliot who is the dominant one, the stronger. When Beverly moves into Claire’s apartment, both he and Claire assume that Elliot will try to break up the affair, Beverly in tears telling Elliot “I was afraid you wouldn’t let me have her.” But in fact the film ultimately presents another picture. Although Elliot casually demeans Claire to Beverly and attempts to downgrade her to the harmless status of another passing amusement, he does not press the point or become obsessive or panicked. Indeed, his weightiest statement on the topic of how Beverly’s involvement with Claire will affect their partnership is a mild and thoughtful one: “This is unknown territory we’re moving into.” It is Beverly and not Elliot who feels threatened, who worries and panics, who feels driven to drugs by the impossibilities of having Claire and Elly both, who at last collapses under the pressure into addiction and derangement. But this is simply because only Beverly can truly contemplate a separation from his twin. Elliot cannot even imagine such a thing—or at any rate not until he sees Beverly close to death, whereupon he changes abruptly from “leader” to “follower.” In truth Beverly is the stronger of the two—or perhaps one should say the more “authentic,” the more “essential” or “real.”

This perspective is revealed through a series of moments which show Elliot’s dependence upon Beverly visible through a surface of facility and control. In their habit of impersonating each other during affairs with women, it is Elliot who does the seducing, pushes his brother towards “repeating” the sexual encounters (“if we didn’t share women, you’d still be a virgin”), and then presses Beverly for full reports. When Beverly refuses to talk about his time with Claire (“I want to keep this one for myself”), Elliot grows almost angry and asserts, “you haven’t had any experience until you’ve told me about it!” But it is Elliot who has not had any experience until Beverly has repeated it and documented the repetition, for Elliot has (or feels he has) no “truth” or “reality” in himself—only Beverly has those things. What Elliot does is to pretend, to impersonate, to perform. Hence his mastery of playing various roles in the world (the gracious doctor-genius, the irresistible lover, the man of taste, etc.), and hence also his fascination with acting, stardom, the star actress Claire Niveau. Elliot is not particularly interested in Claire’s three cervixes (that is Beverly’s obsession) but her star-celebrity captures his attention immediately, and even later on he remains fascinated by her status as a really famous actress (“lucky Bev, he gets to rub up against the magic,” he says while gazing at Claire’s painted-on facial bruises). Similarly, his slighting description of her to Beverly actually applies to himself: “She’s an actress, Bev, she’s a flake, she plays games all the time—you never know who she really is.” Elliot, then, has no identity under all the layers of pretence. Beverly does, even if that identity is suppressed and crippled. He has no interest in Claire as an actress, is a poor actor himself (always signalling a lie, grotesque in his script-reading scene with Claire), and indeed seems to have no mechanism for mediation with the outside world at all: his face registers every emotion, every thought, with undiluted painful directness. But his agonized emotionality and vulnerability, his “female” and “childlike” intuitive connection with life, have a status of authenticity or genuineness that Elliot’s suave manoeuvres cannot pretend to. This at least is how Elliot feels about it at base, and it is what allows Beverly to reach out for another human relationship (Claire) and to seek a release from the “rule” of Elliot’s mediation of the outside world through detachment and manipulation.

Beverly’s “independent” personality is certainly now a strong one. As we have seen, the spectre of separation from Elliot creates intense anxiety in him, indeed he cannot endure either the prospect of the old life with Elliot (no Claire) or the new life with Claire (no Elliot). (This is the “Cronenberg state” in a nutshell.) Neither does he have any means of “solving” the problem. He does not even attempt to solve it, but falls immediately into the non-solution of drug abuse (unlike Claire or Elliot, he cannot control his use of drugs, he cannot control anything), which is in effect merely a form of avoidance and finally surrender and defeat. It is Beverly who becomes the drug addict, becomes unstable and “mad,” who loses control of both himself and the Mantle brothers enterprise. Beverly is the one who becomes obsessed with “mutant women” and has the bizarre instruments made up (moreover insisting they are not art works for show, but “real”), who starts mainlining drugs during office hours and assaulting patients with the Mantle Retractor, and who almost kills a patient on the operating table. In the end, this “genuine,” “baby” half of the Mantle personality is not capable of leaving its controlling, detached “older” brother: the attempt produces overwhelming fear, drug addiction, personality collapse.

At the same time these events reveal a new Elliot, one might say “the real Elliot”—the Elliot who knows at some level that there is no Elliot without Beverly. (There is a miserable, addicted, deranged Beverly without Elliot, but there is no Elliot without Beverly.) Even now this new Elliot does not resemble the pitiable, suffering creature of feeling that Beverly has always been—his fear and pain are differently expressed. His decision to “get in synch” with Beverly (i.e. to become an addict too), his assertion that both brothers share the same bloodstream—and also his overconfidence that once they are in synch he will be able to sort things out—all emerge from an aura of calm and rationality. He follows Beverly into oblivion and finally goes to his death at Beverly’s hands without a word of complaint or remonstration. And in doing all this he confirms that he is the subordinate one, Beverly the dominant. This is most clearly evident in the comparison of the two brothers with Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins. The comparison is first implied in Beverly’s nightmare, in which the brothers are Siamese twins and Claire is physically separating them with her teeth. But it is Elliot who points specifically to the Chang and Eng parallel, as he watches Beverly, at his most infantile, destroying himself with drugs:

Elliot: Don’t do this to me, Bev!

Beverly: But I’m only doing it to me, Elly. Don’t you have a will of your own? Why don’t you just go on with your very own life?

Elliot: Do you remember the original Siamese twins? … Remember how they died?

Beverly: Chang died of a stroke in the middle of the night. He was always the sickly one, he was always the one who drank too much. [quoting]

When Eng woke up beside him

And found that his brother was dead,

He died of fright

Right there in the bed.

Elliot: Does that answer your question?

This is Elliot’s confession that he cannot exist without Beverly. It also identifies Beverly with Chang, “the sickly one,” “the one who drank too much,” and this seems an appropriate comparison, when the sickly Beverly is at death’s door because he has taken too many drugs. Yet in the final scenes, where the twins are virtually (but not quite) indistinguishable, when Beverly “separates” the two of them by disembowelling Elliot, Elliot is specifically named as playing the role of Chang (the weaker one who dies first), and Beverly is now Eng (the stronger one who survives but then dies of fright—or in this case grief).

All of this is confirmation that of the twins it is Beverly who is the primary subject. He is of course already primary in a narrative context by virtue of his greater centrality in the story and, in a narrative sense, his greater agency. The emotional turmoil written on his face and body makes him the dramatic centre just as Elliot’s calm demeanour and controlled behaviour push him towards the dramatic periphery. It is true (in a multiple sense) that Elliot “acts” while Beverly “suffers.” But in the end Beverly’s feelings control the viewer’s affects, Beverly’s decisions and actions determine the course of the story. In this respect Dead Ringers might be described as a melodrama, soap opera or “women’s picture”—but with Beverly in the role of the suffering female protagonist. Here Cronenberg’s remark, quoted in the headnote, that he felt the film was coming from the “female side of him,” seems apt. (One remembers also that another work the filmmaker describes as “female,” The Dead Zone, features a protagonist driven to martyrdom as a substitute for workable real-life relationships—i.e., ultimate self-sacrifice in place of an impossible marriage—and that this film too bears a resemblance to “feminine melodrama.”)9 But the idea of femaleness, its significance in itself and in relationship to the condition of the protagonist(s) and the film as a whole, has a far more pervasive importance to which we will turn later. Here it is sufficient to emphasize that Beverly is the primary protagonist of the film, and that structurally his role has “female” associations. It is also at least interesting to note that Cronenberg characterizes the “female” and “childlike” aspects of the symbiotic dual-personality as the essential ones and the “male” and “controlling” aspects as the superficial ones.

We must return now to this perspective of the brothers as different aspects of a single personality, and that single personality as another version of the Cronenberg protagonist. The symbiotic character Beverly/Elliot has the vulnerable, emotional Beverly—the “essential” (but buried) egoself, imprisoned and yearning for release from encapsulation but unable to deal easily with the outside world, longing for completion in a relationship with a woman and also fascinated and tormented by the difference of female bodies and the mysteries thereof—overseen and managed by the detached, calculating, performer-fabrication Elliot, who ensures the viability of the twin-unit in the outside world, negotiating its professional and social success, and channelling deeper emotional and sexual desires into superficial instrumental/predatory relationships. The cold rationalism and alienated sensuality of the Elliot-self represent an unsatisfactory management for the weeping, suffering, sensitive Beverly-self: Beverly-under-the-direction-of-Elliot is unhappy and wants to be “itself.” And indeed, as we have seen, the ego-self Beverly (unlike the mediating-tool, protective-shell Elliot) may have at least a notional independent existence.

But—and here is where Dead Ringers reveals a really basic similarity to preceding Cronenberg films—such an independence, such an escape of the feelings from the control of reason (now the terms perhaps begin to seem inadequate), is simply not possible. However emphatically desirable, from every point of view, a close, loving sexual relationship might be for Johnny Smith in The Dead Zone, for Seth Brundle in The Fly, for Beverly Mantle in Dead Ringers, some catastrophe always interposes itself between each protagonist and this goal.10 In The Dead Zone the source of the catastrophe is occluded through its disguise as a road accident which puts the protagonist into a coma for five years (though he is on the dark and rainy road only because he rejected his girlfriend’s invitation to stay the night in her bed). In The Fly the “accident” (a fly gets into the telepod along with Seth Brundle) is now much more explicitly connected with the protagonist’s agency—his feelings, in particular his inability to cope with released sexuality. In Dead Ringers there is no accident at all. (Or perhaps one must say it was the “accident of birth,” a phrase which takes on a new resonance in this film.) Rather the barrier to emotional communication is inscribed in the nature(s) of the protagonist(s): the (primary) affective self is simply unable to maintain an existence independent of its protective coating, the (secondary) instrumental self. The dialectic of forces within the personality is emphasized by giving each “side” its own persona; at the same time the inextricability of those forces from each other is asserted by making the personae twin, and by the narrative demonstration of their inability to exist separately. The lineage of this dialectic in Cronenberg is clearly traceable right back to the original “mind/body” split and the concerns of the earliest films, with the outcome of the struggle almost always dire. In Dead Ringers the conflict is more clearly than ever contained and played out within the personality of the individual subject. And the resulting psychic landscape is one on which are enacted great struggle and suffering, a powerful drama of vulnerability and pain and destruction. Indeed within a psychological context it is hard to imagine a greater or more catastrophic upheaval than this one which results in the ritual disembowelment/suicide of the self.

There is no accident in Dead Ringers, but there is an intervention or a stimulus. Once again it is the arrival of a woman which begins this catalytic development. But the existence of sexual otherness and the problem of how to deal with it have always been of central importance in the way this (dual) personality has been constructed; and here we may approach the important topic of their profession, gynaecology. The film’s first two scenes, depicting the Mantle brothers in 1954 as newly-adolescent boys, show the formation of the strange and unique psychological mechanism whereby they will keep this disturbing problem at arm’s length. As the first scene opens they are already revealed as intellectually precocious children (prim and bespectacled) who seek to encompass potentially troublesome facts by placing them within the purely rational constructs of science. Sex is Topic Number One in this regard, and the film opens with Elliot offering an explanation for its existence: “It’s because humans don’t live in the water,” where they could propagate without touching each other—an idea Beverly likes. But their own sexuality, however intellectualized, is still the engine of desires and compulsions, so they proposition a neighbourhood girl in the following fashion:

Elliot: Rafaella, will you have sex with us in our bathtub? It’s an experiment.

Rafaella: Are you kidding? Fuck off, you freaks. I’m telling my father you talk dirty. Besides, I know for a fact that you don’t even know what fuck is. [she leaves]

Elliot or Beverly: [puzzled and disappointed] They’re different from us. And all because we don’t live under the water.

The next scene shows them having taken the final decisive step: they are “dissecting” the viscera of a plastic model Visible Woman with instruments of their own invention, and prescribing “interovular surgery”: already fully-formed Boy Gynaecologists.

Gynaecology is the form taken in Dead Ringers of Cronenberg’s persistence in attaching sexuality to science—this combination itself simply a crystallization of the larger problem of mind and body. Cronenberg comments on this very succinctly:

Gynaecology is such a beautiful metaphor for the mind/body split. Here it is: the mind of men—and women—trying to understand sexual organs.

(Rodley 145)

The displacement specifically of sexual desire into a scientific terrain, the attempt to circumscribe or contain it within a project of science or rationality, is a narrative motif which has been extremely consistent throughout Cronenberg’s films, from Stereo onwards. This displacement has had the (predictable) effect of distorting both terms of the convergence. Sex has become bizarrely rationalized, transplanted into various forms of scientific endeavor and subjected to quantification, experimentation, technologization. Meanwhile science has become saturated with desire: scientists invent sex-crazing-parasites (Shivers), stimulate the growth of new quasi-sexual organs (Rabid, Videodrome), or find ways for machines to “be made crazy by the flesh” (The Fly). Medical science in particular, concerned with the human body, is a magnet for Cronenberg, and his films are not only full of mad doctors but there are recurring nightmares of operating-room horrors and especially of surgeons going haywire at the operating table (there is one in Dead Ringers). And here it is evident how close is the relationship between sexuality and disease/decay/death, very much the province of doctors: in a context of sexualized medical science the contiguity of sexuality and physical pathology is more or less inevitable. In Dead Ringers this configuration has achieved a new density of concentration. Gynaecology is indeed a “beautiful metaphor” and hence an extremely useful tool to focus one of Cronenberg’s central concerns. But in addition the tremendous symbolic (not to mention actual) importance of the medical impulse and the medical spectacle, the issues of life and death it raises in a social and cultural sphere and also the intense meaning it holds for the obsessively displacing Mantles and for the filmmaker too, are expressed in the awesome, sacral ritualism with which the operating-room scenes are staged. Here the red blood of the human body, the red blood of fertility and birth, the enormous daring and risk and superbia of the human mind in thus intervening in the natural process, are all abstracted into scenic elements of costume, decor and lighting, and elevated into a grandiose ceremonial wherein surgeons are Princes of the Church of the Science of the Body, and it is very much an open question whether their ritual is a holy or a blasphemous one.

The Mantle brothers’ gynaecological clinic is a direct outgrowth of their fascinated perception of women’s bodily otherness. Their sexualized scientific examination of women takes the particular form of their own techniques for exploring the female body, personalized “radical” techniques symbolized by the Mantle Retractor, an instrument for ensuring the continued exposure of the female viscera during surgery. To the male perspective the sexual difference of the female body is that the sexual organs are “inside,” anyway: penetration of the “secret places” of the female is precisely sexual intercourse. The idea of penetrating and exposing women’s bodily difference (but far more fully and more “safely” with instruments rather than penises), of exposing what is hidden and may not be seen, of actually physically looking at the mystery (and we may again recall the ceremonial aspects of the medical “celebration” of this mystery) is at the centre of the Mantles-as-gynaecologists.11 The eroticization of science and scientific procedures has never been so marked in any Cronenberg film. And the last fillip of excitement is produced by the realization of society’s validation of this process of displacement of desire into science. Gynaecology is not only the means of distancing the psyche from disturbance, postponing or cancelling a reckoning with sexual feelings; it is also, inversely, a means of permitting and authorizing the fascination with sex/body/otherness/death. The gold-plated Mantle Retractor trophy presented to the young medical students is like an Oscar recognizing the success of their personal, radical form of displacement.12

One notes then that the Mantle Clinic deals not just with women but with “abnormal” (i.e. infertile) women—its aim is to restore “unnatural” female sexual organs to a condition of “naturalness,” and to return to them their role as the home of life. But this quality of defect or unnaturalness is clearly also a source of erotic fascination, especially for Beverly, whose profound excitement at discovering Claire’s trifurcated uterus is highly symptomatic. If women’s difference is exciting, then really different women are really exciting. The presence of this particular fascination at a crucial “seam” (and weak point) of Beverly’s neurotic understanding of the world is most evident when, threatened with the loss of Claire, he begins talking about “mutant” women. In a convulsion of hurt and jealousy he accuses Claire’s (male) secretary of “fucking a mutant”; later it is the most powerful symptom of his demented state that he designs and has made a set of “gynaecological instruments for operating on mutant women,” and fetishizes them as he has previously done with the Mantle Retractor trophy. Moreover these frightening instruments are not the bizarre and intriguing art-objects which the sculptor Anders Wolleck at first takes them to be, but instead real tools “necessary” for Beverly’s work; what is “deranged” about them is that they are for actual use, not imaginative contemplation, that they are tools, not art (and here Cronenberg is doubtless also pointing to the difference between his films and what his films would be if they were really happening). These instruments become the last intense focal point of the film’s exposition of sexuality-as-science, sexuality-as-science-as-sickness, and (in a metacommentary) sexuality-as-science-as-sickness-as-art. They exist also against the larger ground of the film’s own awed and anguished stance towards sexuality, the human (or perhaps male) mind, the body and death. Intended for “mutant women,” they are used instead, and appropriately, on the self. They are the “final versions” of the antique medical instruments so strikingly featured in the opening credit-sequence—one might say that the first set of instruments opens the parentheses of the film and the second closes it. If they are not art-works for Beverly, they are for Dead Ringers. And in the film’s own fetishization of these (and the other) instruments and in its recognition also of their dimension of ugliness and pathology (their dimension as weapons and as reflections of sickness and aggression in the wielder), we may discern the sad, awful state of pain and contradiction, the awareness of the impossibility of this desire, which underlies the narrative and the film itself.

The principal “mutant woman” of the film is of course Claire. The film’s own distance from any sense that this character is freakish or repugnant is (or ought to be) clear. She is strong, intelligent, sympathetic, attractive. True, she is female and Other, and thus fascinating to the film’s own (acknowledged) neurosis. Also she is infertile, her uterus is abnormal, she takes drugs, she is promiscuous, she has a taste for masochistic sex, and she does not hesitate to obey the imperatives of her career instead of sacrificing it to Beverly’s enormous emotional needs. What needs to be stressed here is that despite all these things she is without doubt the healthiest, the “wholest,” and the most admirable character in the film. Every scene she appears in offers some new evidence of her perceptiveness, her wit, her self-knowledge, her courage. She represents Beverly’s only chance for a life outside encapsulation, as Beverly recognizes; it is emphatically not her fault that in the end Beverly really has (and had) no chance for such a life. (Accusations that the film is misogynistic pure and simple13 seem to me quite misplaced; Dead Ringers, like every Cronenberg film since Videodrome, if anything idealizes women as wholer and healthier beings than men, creatures to be admired for their ability to confront life squarely and live it sanely.) The quality of Claire’s “mutancy” is a complex one. Her trifurcation is the cause of her infertility; her infertility is a cause of her own unhappiness; and the quality in her which Beverly responds to most of all is her unhappiness and human vulnerability. In the development of their love, the most intimate and moving scene between them centres first upon an act of intense sexual union involving bondage with surgical tubing (a form of “operation” in which her body is penetrated),14 and then upon Claire’s confession of how much she wants a child “of her own body”:

Claire: I’ll never get pregnant. I’ll never have children. When I’m dead, I’ll just be dead. I will never really have been a woman at all—just a girl. … Don’t tell, please don’t tell anybody about me. I’m so vulnerable. I’m slashed open.

Beverly: [tenderly] Who would I tell? Who would I tell?

(The answer to the last question, of course, is Elliot; and in refusing to tell Elliot when he asks, Beverly inaugurates the process of division of himself from his brother.) The “slashed open” woman is a particularly resonant and powerful concept in the film. Claire is “slashed open” like every woman, in her physical-sexual characteristics, as a crude description of her female body. Moreover she is the universal female patient, slashed open upon the operating table. In this she also resembles the old engravings seen in the credits, repeatedly of women slashed open, anatomy-book style, to reveal inner sexual organs and children in wombs. Here the connection is made between the women’s revealed body and the baby’s beginning and refuge, and here lies the beginning also of Beverly’s desire to be Claire’s child (and perhaps Claire’s to be his mother, or at least his desire that she should so desire). The word “slash” suggests a violent act of aggression, and it is the oxymoronic sense in which Claire’s slashed-openness implies both a sadistic penetration of the body of the other and a masochistic emotional vulnerability that answers exactly to Beverly’s neurotic contradictions as male gynaecologist and “female” sufferer. Claire, a woman at his mercy as male and doctor (she keeps calling him “Doctor”), is asking for his mercy; this he grants her and in return he asks to be her child (the child she cannot have and desires for her completion), at her mercy. Her impossible longing for motherhood (impossible because she is “mutant”) is the exact parallel of Beverly’s impossible longing for separation or “oneness” rather than “twoness” (impossible because he is twin). Her “incompleteness” is the mirror of his “incompleteness,” her “mutancy” is reflected in his, i.e. his twinness. (Thus is reached one point of equivalency between “mutant women” and “Siamese twins”—a point emphasized by the transformation of the instruments’ purpose from that of operating on mutant women to separating Siamese twins.) Claire is also a woman whose sexual masochism equals Beverly’s emotional masochism, and who will allow him to be not just a child but a “female”: suffering, inarticulate, interior (like a woman, Beverly too has everything “inside,” just as Elliot is all surface). And it seems scarcely necessary to say that Claire represents for Beverly not just sexuality but also love, contact, union with otherness, a forsaking of the castle of the self.

Here I must pause to acknowledge Barbara Creed’s powerful commentary on Dead Ringers, and to try to incorporate some of its insight into this study. Her 1990 essay “Phallic Panic, Male Hysteria and Dead Ringers” sets the film within a feminist psychoanalytic perspective, and its primary purpose is to see in it an example of male hysteria (“phallic panic”) when the male subject is confronted with the fears attending symbolic castration and sexual difference. Anxieties and feelings of loss arising from the infant’s separation from the mother produce the subsequent neurotic symptomatology wherein the female body is recast as monstrous, uncanny, terrifying:

… [Kaja] Silverman stresses the notion of lack as that which holds the most terror for the male subject. I would also include the mother’s body as an object of terror from which the male subject wishes to separate himself. It is her body which serves as a constant reminder of the anguish associated with separation; consequently, it is in her body that he displaces his fear of castration. … It is the body of the mother, the maternal figure, that most clearly represents the body of separations, the body which reawakens in the male subject his unconscious anxieties about separation. But the mother’s body also represents simultaneously a desire for reunification, a reassurance that total symbiosis and unity are possible.


The Mantle brothers’ “radical” gynaecology represents an hysterical attempt to mask or compensate for this psychological state: the Mantle Retractor “functions as a fetish object, offering the twins the solid reassurance of their own phallic power which, as gynaecologists, they clearly need when confronted with the threatening sight of female genitalia” (142). Fueling everything, both hysteria and the sense of defeat and elegy found at the end of the film, is the overwhelming feeling of loss and incompleteness dating back to birth, to separation from the mother. This loss may be seen in Dead Ringers as creating both the ambivalent attitude towards women (reminders of separation and threateners of further separation on the one hand, on the other the sole hope for regaining the loss in “reunification,” “total symbiosis and unity”), and also the protagonist’s condition of twinness as a response to and defence against loss of the mother and loss of wholeness. In the latter instance a number of notions present themselves. The Mantles are twin because a primary defence against feelings of loss and anxieties about difference is narcissism, “the reassuring display of their own self-image in the ever-present identical image of the other [brother]” (133). The narcissistic pairing Beverly/Elliot also attempts to compensate for the loss of the mother, of “completeness,” by taking up different sexual roles (the “female” Beverly and the “male” Elliot) which may produce a complementarity standing in for the lost oneness. Creed draws attention to Ambroise Pare’s engraving of the twin hermaphrodites in the credits:

Pare’s twins each have both sets of genitals. Cronenberg’s represent each sex separately, their “difference” symbolically marked. Elliot/Elly and Beverly/Bev become one. In disavowing sexual differences, both sexes are reunited with the other half: the androgyne is a totally self-sufficient figure, its narcissistic desire for complete sexual autonomy fulfilled. Thus the androgyne represents a fantasy about the abolition of sexual difference—a fantasy at the heart of the Mantle twins’ ill-fated existence.


At the same time it is exactly separation from the mother—and in the Mantle twins’ case the consequent act of doubling—which has produced subjectivity. For the Mantles, separation from the mother has produced the (narcissistic) subjectivity Beverly/Elliot. But in the desire (Beverly’s) to unite with the other (Claire)—which is also a form of reunion with the mother—this narcissistic subjectivity becomes threatened. Hence Beverly’s nightmare about being separated from a Siamese-twinned Elliot by Claire:

Here castration is represented not as a fantasy about the origins of sexual difference, but rather as a fantasy about the origin of subjectivity. Separation and difference are the price one pays for subjectivity.


The attempt to reverse the separation from the mother requires also the reversal of the formation of the twin-subjectivity, a separation from the twin (i.e. from subjectivity). Beverly must kill Elliot in order to join Claire. But in the end this is not possible; and another fantasy of reparation takes its place:

The twins’ symbolic attempt to cut the cord which binds them is also, paradoxically, an attempt to seek reunification—but in their own bodies, not in the maternal body. They thus seek to make up for a double loss—the loss which arises with awareness of sexual difference and the earlier loss of imaginary wholeness. The desire for complete union with the ideal other, in this case one’s twin, implies a desire to return to an earlier time in one’s history: a time beyond that of the symbiotic union with the mother, a time beyond even that of the beginnings of consciousness and the awareness of objects, a time which reaches back to pre-birth when the embryo existed in total harmony with the body of the mother, suspended in the waters of the womb—an intrauterine haven. It is this desire, the narcissistic desire to find oneself in the other, which leads ultimately to death.


It is also, of course, a return to that idealization of an unsexualized existence which the boy Mantles had fantasized as existing among creatures of the water: an early evidence of that “other world” of pre-birth as a home from which they have been exiled. I would disagree with Creed on some points of emphasis, and I would especially stress the degree to which the film’s neurotic condition is a self-recognizing one rather than merely an unconscious symptom (as she often appears to believe). But it seems to me that she has uncovered a crucial underlying area of the film, one whose mapping accounts for the ways in which its apparently heterogeneous or even contradictory elements collaborate in an emotionally coherent work.

Twinness then in Dead Ringers becomes a very idiosyncratic way of demonstrating isolation and loss. The final acceptance of isolation and loss is the realization that there is no path to independent adult subjectivity, that what for a moment presented itself as a liberation through the union with a “complementary” other (i.e. female) creature was merely a disguise for the truly impossible desire for reunion with the mother, the return to the imagined source of life when everything was one. Beverly’s recognition that union with Claire is real and not imaginary, that it can never fulfil the “oceanic”15 yearnings motivating it, and that under these circumstances self-encapsulation is all there is (i.e. a final acceptance that what he has is Elliot, who he is is Elliot) is half of the great sadness that lies at the base of the film—the other half is exactly the recognition that the “oceanic” longing is that and not something more finite and appeasable. And from this deepest dual sadness comes the death-impulse. Suicide in Dead Ringers comes as a logical answer to an existence whose very constituent terms do not allow for any resolution of their insistent contradictory yearnings. In a word, it is the inevitable telos of the story, long prepared-for and recognized as the only possible end when its shape at last emerges in the final scenes. Here we may recall those similar moments of recognition of Videodrome and in The Dead Zone and note that in both cases death—suicide—is seen as having an aspect of deliverance or fulfillment (the New Flesh, salvation for the innocents of the world). In the two earlier films, this is an aspect which mitigates or even obscures the piercing wound of defeat in life. In Dead Ringers the consoling or elegiac overtone directs the viewer towards what the film feels as a universal human lack, hence a universal tragic predicament.16

One must account too for the extraordinarily touching development which might be termed “Elliot’s surrender.” For the most devastating and poignant moments of the film arise not from Beverly’s acceptance of his inseparableness with Elliot (that is a last and logically-concluding state) but from Elliot’s surrender of himself in the face of Beverly’s life-threatening crisis. Initially this may be traced simply to the transference of a degree of affect to Elliot’s character: for the first time he is seen to care, to love, to shed the slick armourplating of his hitherto materialist and calculating role. Beverly has tried, in effect, to separate himself from Elliot—not succeeded, however, since his own anxieties have prevented him from any effective movement away from his brother. Elliot simply reiterates their oneness, and when it is clear that the old arrangement is not working, and is resulting in Beverly’s oblivion-seeking drug-addiction and pathological public behaviour, he recognizes that instead of trying to restore Beverly he must become Beverly. This he calls “getting in synch.” He becomes a drug addict, he “lets go” of everything (the gross dereliction of the apartment/clinic follows), finally he becomes childlike and even “female.” At the end, although the two brothers are almost impossible to tell apart, Elliot is “Chang,” he delights at the prospect of birthday cake, calls for orange pop and cries because there is no ice cream. And of course he is “enfemaled” by occupying the patient’s chair and being subject to the instruments and the operation: he (or he-plus-Beverly) is now the “mutant woman,” he has a womb carved out of his abdomen and exposed to view. This womb is to be the home to which Beverly wishes to return (as in a way he does in suicide, curling himself foetally upon Elliot’s stomach).

Beverly’s return to oneness involves killing the other half of his twoness. If the twins are seen as a single personality, the emotional and instinctive part kills the rationalizing, world-mediating and distancing part. (Rather fancifully, perhaps, one might see this as the Imaginary killing the Symbolic in a doomed attempt to return to the Real.) In any event this process, which begins with the recognition by the rationalizing-aspect that it must conform to the emotional imperatives of its underlying lifeforce or watch this vulnerable and infinitely precious personality-source die, reveals that the symbiosis of the two parts, which had appeared as an unsatisfactory and even false strategy for coping with conflicting desires, is in fact the only thing there is. The attempt for a “realer” connection with the saviour-other outside the personality is illusory. It isn’t just that such a development is only wished for by Beverly and not by Elliot, and that part of his motivation is a desire to get away from Elliot. It’s also that Claire, very understandably, only likes Beverly, she doesn’t like Elliot, and she unhesitatingly rejects the “arrangement” suggested by Elliot whereby she might “like” both of them—which he recognizes as the only “possible” relationship of Beverly/Elliot with Claire. But she can only love part of the protagonist: the other part simply isn’t loveable in the strictest sense of the term. This experience, this saddening education in what is not possible, leads to psychological instability and a reversion to the underlying ur-wish: “oceanic” prenatal oneness. Such a wish is of course even more impossible, but its likeness to death becomes too great for resistance. The wish for lost oneness is exactly a wish for the death of subjectivity, the effacement of the recognition of loss, the death of the conscious mediating self. That self wills its own death in Dead Ringers, and what follows is the understanding that no self can survive the death of this self and that the search for lost oneness is a death-wish. The sadness of Elliot’s surrender and meek acceptance of disembowelment and death, the extraordinary tenderness of the brothers’ farewells, are the film’s mourning for the inescapable death of subjectivity and the self.

“The narcissistic desire to find oneness in the other,” as Creed calls it, is an apt description of the sort of hyper-Romantic love-death that may be found in such an exemplary text as Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. What prevents Dead Ringers from being an impassioned proto-Wagnerian embrace of oblivion is just its sense of the failure of life that such an embrace implies. And yet the film lingers with agonizing precision over the gap between the bitterness of emotional failure and the elegy of self-forgiveness. This balance, it seems, is something Cronenberg has been searching for in the preceding films. In Dead Ringers, the strange expedients of twin gynaecologists, “mutant women,” drug addiction and “medical” murder-suicide have created a clear channel for this intricate but powerful impulse. The tone of the film is struck with astonishing affective force already in the credit sequence in which the old engravings shine forth somberly against a sea of red, accompanied by Howard Shore’s music. The engravings alternate instruments (male, sadistic) with dissected women and foetuses or babies (female, masochistic). Their “pastness” simultaneously signals both qualities—primitive (pre-or proto-scientific) cruelty and savagery on the one hand17 and on the other the mother-and-unborn-self whose life lies in the (pre-historic, pre-subjective) past. These are of course the conflicts within the film’s central character(s). The image of a pair of twins in the womb—which returns to conclude the film after the end-credits—has a particular tenderness, even (or especially) when set next to the “cruelty” of their visibility through dissection. As for the music: just as Bernard Herrmann understood Psycho better than anybody—understood it as fundamentally a foreclosed and deeply sad work and not nearly so much a sensational thriller—so Howard Shore understands Dead Ringers better than anyone, and in something like the same way. The main-title music is, as Royal S. Brown has pointed out, profoundly sad while remaining in the major mode; thus it replicates or rather prefigures that balance of defeat and tenderness which is the film’s affective centre. Reportedly, Cronenberg’s response on first hearing this music was: “That’s suicide music. That’s the suicide. You’ve got it.”18 Actually this music, although hinted at in various places through the film, only returns during the end-credits after the suicide; and yet its role in indicating to the viewer exactly what emotion to feel, and in foreshadowing the film’s end so powerfully, can scarcely be exaggerated.

The film supports its schema with a complex mise en scène which illuminates the story expressively in a fashion parallel with the music, though of course much more intricately. The decor of the operating-room scenes has already been mentioned, but an equal importance resides in the decor of the Mantle clinic and its adjacent living apartments. Pierre Véronneau has commented on the role of this décor:

Qu ce soit dans l’appartement des jumeaux ou dans leur salle de consultation, les tons de gris et de bleu qui dominent l’image et l’ordonnance carté-sienne du mobilier à l’italienne et des accessoires, créent une imagerie rigoureuse, clinique même, étouffante certes, qui rend encore plus percutante et perceptible l’émergence rougeoyante de l’anormalité.


The overpowering coldness and control of this environment, with its decorative markings of black venetian blinds over enormous windows looking out across vistas of huge blank modernist office blocks, clearly signals the hand of Elliot. Elliot sits here in his navy-blue blazers or black silk dressing gowns, an elegant wineglass in his hand, beadily viewing the television screens which always seem to be showing Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.20 Beverly perches unhappily in this unhomey environment wearing pepper-and-salt pullovers and usually surrounded by a small modicum of disorder, and soon shows his preference for Claire’s apartment, whose decor is the absolute antithesis: cream-coloured upper walls and ceilings, extensive dark wood panelling and furnishings, fronds, chinoise art-objects and paintings, an “older” provenance altogether. This is an organic environment, with a degree of “natural” mess or at least absence of the severely regimented frigid modernism of hard surfaces, sharp edges and cold hues of the Mantle premises. Claire herself is usually in white, as opposed to the darker formality of Elliot’s dress or the rumpled earth-tones of Beverly’s. There is an aesthetic war between opposing moral and emotional forces going on here whose terms stretch back to the Cartesian modernist architecture of Stereo and Crimes of the Future on the one hand and the dark woody textures of the “brood shack” in The Brood on the other; and it again demonstrates that the consistency of Cronenberg’s work is not merely thematic. Its climax and aftermath are visible in the wreckage of dereliction which overwhelms the Mantle Clinic when the drug-addicted twins take up permanent residence in the consulting rooms at the end of the film. Here is a horrifying image of the destruction wrought upon the “controlled” world through the process of “letting go.” Drug addiction too is a form of “letting go,” and both it and dereliction have a powerful history of Cronenberg’s recent work (i.e. The Fly, Naked Lunch) as evidences of the process of self-destruction, self-abandonment, loss of self: in Dead Ringers they clearly signal what we have called the loss of subjectivity. The film concretely visualizes both states: the world of encapsulation and control is unlivable; the abandonment of it is worse. One might also note the film’s use of patterns of light and dark. The Mantles’ environment is dark in its domestic settings, evenly lit but cool and controlled in their offices, starkly chiaroscuro in the operating room. Claire’s world is characterized instead by an open luminosity, and at first this seems the opposite of oppressive. But when she leaves Beverly to go on a job he is flooded and withered by a harsh sunlight coming through the door she opens to depart; and afterwards in his condition of misery and helplessness he is repeatedly placed near a sunlight-admitting window. These and innumerable other markings of psychological states onto the visible world of the film simply continue and extend the pattern of Cronenberg’s work; they are a principal feature of what makes his films “cinematic” and draws attention to his work from viewers as interested in the visual as in the conceptual.

The purpose of Dead Ringers is to explore an “impossible” state, and in this it continues the project of Cronenberg’s work since its inception, and in a more particular and detailed fashion since Videodrome. The Mantle brothers’ strategy for dealing with the world—especially a world involving sexuality and death—is to seal off the vulnerable, “essential” part of the personality and protect it with a shell of rational detachment. The tensions which continue to exist following this retreat are instrumentalized through the sexualized science of “radical” gynaecology. The ensuing encapsulated existence leads to loneliness and sterility, and thence to the heartfelt desire to form an intimate relationship with a woman and thus to “regularize” sexual and “mortal” feeling rather than internally neuroticizing it. But, as in earlier works, the attempt to leave the shell merely precipitates a drastic imbalance and a process of horrifying destruction ending in death. The special force of Dead Ringers lies in its clear indication that the fundamental source of unhappiness, the first cause of unease in the world and its symptomatic responses of encapsulation, instrumentalization and hence the desire for escape, is that profound and unstillable feeling of incompleteness, of loss, which may be seen at last as a desire to reunite with the mother, to repair a primal separation, to be unborn. Barbara Creed is right to point to the “male hysteria” arising in the Mantle brothers and even in the film as evidences of this condition—the “panic” following the recognition of sexual difference, the projection of grotesqueness on to the female body as a defensive response. But it seems to me that far from participating uncritically in this state, Dead Ringers could hardly be clearer in its recognition and acknowledgment of its pathology. The film fully realizes the impossibility of its condition. That is indeed its essence, and the source of that deepest sadness which so strongly characterizes the film and with which we began this discussion. Dead Ringers in the end is not a film of hysteria or panic, but of the most profound melancholia. And this, as we look back on its predecessors and even ahead to its successor Naked Lunch, is at the very centre of the Cronenberg sensibility.


  1. Rodley 149.

  2. Rodley 147.

  3. To reach this figure I am including Cronenberg’s two earliest available films Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970), but not his even earlier experiments (e.g. Transfer, From the Drain [1966–7]), his egregious 1979 racing-car feature Fast Company, or his scattered work for television. The remainder are Shivers (a.k.a. They Came From Within, The Parasite Murders 1975), Rabid (1976), The Brood (1979), Scanners (1980), Videodrome (1982), The Dead Zone (1983) and The Fly (1986).

  4. Cronenberg appears to disagree, at least to some extent, and avers an interest in the phenomenon of actual identical twins, partly in terms of what it intimates about genetic or “innate” vs. social origins of human characteristics (“the implication of this is that a huge amount of what we are is biologically determined” [Rodley 144]). This “scientific” interest in twins, moreover, stands in for the absence of the science-fiction/horror elements: “In one way, Dead Ringers is conceptual science-fiction, the concept being ‘What if there could be identical twins?’ Some might say, ‘But there are.’ But I’m suggesting that it’s impossible, and let’s look at them really closely. I can imagine a world in which identical twins are only a concept, like mermaids. Elliot and Beverly … are creatures, as exotic as The Fly.” (Rodley 144)

  5. See Beard 1983: 50–78.

  6. For more extended analyses of these films along these lines, see my “An Anatomy of Melancholy: Cronenberg’s Dead Zone,” and “Cronenberg, Flyness and the Otherself.”

  7. See note 4.

  8. Cronenberg has talked about this himself: “In Dead Ringers the truth, anticipated by Beverly’s parents—or whoever named him—was that he was the female part of the yin/yang whole. … The idea that Beverly is the wife of the couple is unacceptable to him.” (Rodley 148). During his drunken outburst at the banquet, Beverly’s complaint takes the form of the housewife’s lament over the division of labour (“I slave over the hot snatches and Elliot makes the speeches”). But Cronenberg also says that “both the characters have a femaleness in them” (Rodley), and one notes that Beverly’s nickname for his brother, “Elly,” is also “female.”

  9. See Rodley 147; also Beard 1992–93: 179 n9.

  10. The beginnings of this ongoing drama are to be found in Cronenberg’s “epistemological break” film Videodrome, but the impact of enclosing the dialectic of forces in a single personality is so great, the unconscious connections and boundary-destructions its probings reveal so literally unthinkable, that the film has an aura of delirium and chaos. However, one might suggest very roughly that Max Renn begins under the illusion that he is only Elliot Mantle, but discovers through a very unpleasant process which is partly inside and partly outside him that he is actually Beverly, or perhaps rather that his condition is the impossible one Beverly/Elliot.

  11. Cronenberg says that men are jealous of their women’s gynaecologists: “It’s his knowing stuff that you can never know.” (Rodley 145).

  12. Now that Cronenberg himself has begun to get his own gold-plated awards (he has already received many “Genies” from the Academy of Canadian Cinema and there is the not-impossible prospect of an actual Oscar), it is at least conceivable that the gold Mantle Retractor is a characteristic Cronenbergian reflexive and self-satirical joke, like Max Renn’s TV interview in Videodrome, wherein the character is asked exactly the same questions Cronenberg had to deal with from the media in the early 80s. In this interpretation, Genies or Oscars would be to Cronenberg as the gold Mantle Retractor is to the Mantles: an official recognition and validation of “radical” and morally/psychologically dangerous practices as an artist.

  13. E.g. Jacobowitz and Lippe: “The most offensive misogynist product to emerge in some while,” “[one of those] films which exploit and denigrate women” (965).

  14. Note that in the second childhood-prologue scene, the Visible Woman model also has extremities tied with surgical tubing and pinned to the table. Also, presumably the idea for engaging in bondage-sex comes from Elliot (the previous scene has Elliot threatening to visit Claire as Beverly and “do terrible things to her”; “what terrible things”? Bev asks with unwilling curiosity).

  15. It is Marcie Frank who draws attention to the appropriateness of this term to Dead Ringers, recalling that Freud described the feeling of the infant at the breast as “oceanic.” She remarks that such “oceanic feelings” may be approached through the use of narcotics: a useful connection between the twins’ drug addiction and their suicide (Frank 469 n6).

  16. Perhaps, especially in the light of the perspective presented by Creed, Frank, and others, one should say “universal male lack,” though I am not sure this is in fact advisable. Cronenberg might well respond that, being a male, he must speak in male terms and that this does not cease to be the case if he attempts a “universal” statement. Also, Claire’s “lack”—although one of physical accident rather than psychological construction—is presented as giving rise to equivalent longings and sadness. (As ever in recent Cronenberg, though, the heroine is stronger and better adapted to life than the hero.)

  17. Véronneau says that the old engravings depicting “instruments de chirurgie primitifs … témoignent d’une époque barbare” (151).

  18. See Brown.

  19. “Italian furniture,” indeed, seems to a code-word for this decor: Beverly tells Claire that he and his brother “share a taste for Italian furniture,” and that later (in a scene where he gratefully rediscovers Claire) he complains that an exhibition of extremely severe modernist furniture—objects presided over by an Italian—is “cold and empty.” Véronneau also says, in a striking comparison, that “ce mélange de contrôle et de passion” recalls the work of Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (152–3).

  20. Later, when the situation has become more fraught and Elliot has begun to devote himself to the rehabilitation of Beverly and their relationship, the television is tuned to a daytime soap opera where a daughter is telling her mother she cannot bear to stick with her marriage another day (the mother replies. “Every relationship has its ups and downs, dear”).

Works Cited

Beard, William. “An Anatomy of Melancholy: Cronenberg’s Dead Zone.” Journal of Canadian Studies. 27.4 (Winter, 1992–93): 169–179.

———. “Cronenberg, Flyness and the Otherself.” Cinémas 4.2 (Winter 1994): 153–173.

———. “The Visceral Mind: The Major Films of David Cronenberg.” Handling 1983: 1–79.

Brown, Royal S. Liner notes for the soundtrack recording “Dead Ringers: Suites from the Films of David Cronenberg.” Music by Howard Shore. Silva Screen FILMCD115, 1992.

Creed, Barbara. “Phallic Panic: Male Hysteria and Dead Ringers.” Screen 31.2 (Summer, 1990): 125–146.

Frank, Marcie. “The Camera and the Speculum: David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers.” PMLA. 106.3 (May, 1991): 459–470.

Handling, Piers, Ed. The Shape of Rage: The Films of David Cronenberg. Toronto: Academy of Canadian Cinema, 1983.

Handling, Piers and Pierre Véronneau, Eds. “L’Horreur Intérieure: Les Films de David Cronenberg.” Montreal: Cinémathèque Québecoise, 1990. Translation, with additions, of Handling 1983.

Jacobowitz, Florence and Richard Lippe. “Dead Ringers: The Joke’s on Us.” CineAction! (Spring, 1989): 64–68.

Rodley, Chris, Ed. Cronenberg on Cronenberg. London: Faber & Faber, 1992.

Véronneau. “Monstration et démonstration.” Handling and Věronneau 1990: 137–158.

Michael J. Collins (essay date Winter/Spring 1996)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4067

SOURCE: “Medicine, Surrealism, Lust, Anger, and Death: Three Early Films by David Cronenberg,” in Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities, Vol. 15, No. 2, Winter/Spring, 1996, pp. 62–9.

[In the following essay, Collins examines the films They Came from Within, Rabid, and The Brood, comparing each with the work of surrealist artists, and also treats Cronenberg's use of medical procedures as a way of addressing the fear of the body.]

All Right, nurse, bring the next patient in.
Get up on this table, pull off that gown
Raise up that right leg, let that left one down
Pull off them stockings, that silk underwear
Doctor’s got to cut you, mama, lord knows where

—Big Bill Broonzy, “Terrible Operation Blues” 1930

If the common man has a high enough view of things which properly speaking belong to the realm of the laboratory, it is because such research has resulted in the manufacture of a machine or the discovery of some serum which the man in the street views as affecting him directly. He is quite certain that they have been trying to improve his lot.

—André Breton, “Manifesto of Surrealism” 1924

Although these may seem disparate citations with which to begin an essay concerning three of David Cronenberg’s early films (They Came from Within, 1975; Rabid, 1977; The Brood, 1979), in the collision of these quotations lies much of the basis of Cronenberg’s peculiarly arresting imagery and ideation. Where landmark early blues hero Big Bill Broonzy uses a vernacular series of medical images to construct a droll series of double-entendres (with distressingly incisive overtones), Breton uses the notion of laboratory research as a springboard from the rationalist world into the surreal. Here Cronenberg’s medicine lies between these quotes, pulled at once in the direction of the violently sexual and the disruptively intellectual. He demonstrates little concern here for the ostensible goal of the curative, for the reassuring aims of “wellness.” As Mary B. Campbell says of Cronenberg, “… mutation, telepathy, epidemic, and sexual metaliberation become, in [Cronenberg’s] trembling hands, the precise pathology of the human spirit” (Campbell, 307).

Medicine, the study of the body’s reaction to disease and trauma with the eventual aim of healing or curing, is perhaps the most noble and practical application of rational consciousness. It is a science which ideally aspires to improve human life, to eliminate illness and suffering, to advance both mens sano and corpore sano. It is a science in which creative thought directs itself toward the most concrete and empirical of rewards, that of a well life extended.

Surrealism, as conceived by Breton, Valery, Dali, Bunuel, and De Chirico, demanded the release of the imagination from the shackles of the rational: Breton early in his first Manifesto bemoans that “[t]his imagination which knows no bounds is … allowed to be exercised only in strict accordance with the laws of an arbitrary utility” (Breton 4). The surrealists conceived in text and image—symbolic and imaginary—a world in which the dream and the real flowed in an unchannelled perfusion. The medical imagination of Cronenberg flows similarly unfettered through the intimately tangible, rationalized body of the western patient.

Like Broonzy and Breton, Cronenberg sees in medicine not the autoclaved sterility of the lab, but a rich, fecund landscape of septic possibility. His film work has, from the beginning, manifested symptoms of the physiologically surreal, and of the outrageously, uncontrollably sexual (itself polymorphously elemental to surrealism). Like a Magritte canvas pairing the strictly-rendered representational with the physically-impossible figurative, these films use the possibilities of the body subjected to medical intervention to explore worlds forbidden the physician, and they find in those worlds a poisoned ripeness, a diseased engorgement of promise.

Bring on that ether; bring on that gas
Doctor’s got to cut you, mama, yes, yes, yes
The doctor knows to fix it; the doctor knows just what to do

—“Terrible Operation Blues”

I am not quite sure to what extent [medical] scholars are
motivated by humanitarian aims, but it does not seem to me
that this factor constitutes a very marked degree of
goodness. I am, of course, referring to true scholars and
not to the vulgarizers and popularizers of all
sorts who take out patents.

—“Manifesto of Surrealism”

They Came from Within (1975) is set in the austere, Bauhaus microcosm of the Starliner Apartments. The credit sequence offers a descriptive syntagma of this setting, as a salesman’s voice guides the viewer through a slide-show tour of the glamorous, swinging complex, isolated like Ballard’s eponymous High Rise into a self-contained social vacuum. The rental units are pre-furnished, the complex has its own shopping arcade, and, in lovingly-composed, lingering final credit-sequence images, we see that there’s even an onsite dental and medical clinic. Immediately, Cronenberg has screened for us the ideal controlled lab environment for his first major experiment.

As the film opens, a fresh-faced young couple have arrived for a pitch tour. The goofball security guard boasts that his gun is a useless appendage at Starliner, and moments later the oily rental agent talks up the numerous advantages of the complex. But almost immediately, interrupting these blissful exchanges, Cronenberg’s icy camera intrudes into Room 1511, where a messy murder is taking place. At first starkly ironic, the counterpoint in this crosscutting grows increasingly menacing as the young woman victim, once strangled, is placed by her killer onto a dining-room table—the killer, a doctor (who bears an unintended but nonetheless startling resemblance to former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop) begins a terrible operation of his own. Grabbing a scalpel from his bag, he opens the woman’s abdomen and pours in a caustic chemical, then takes the scalpel to his own throat.

Eventually, we learn that the young woman, Annabelle Brown, was the incubation subject for an experimental parasite being bred by her killer, Dr. Emil Hobbes.1 We learn, further, that this parasite is a combination aphrodisiac and venereal disease, which a stimulated Brown has already communicated to numerous men in the apartment complex. Hobbes, it seems, has been doing research on organ transplants, experimenting with the notion that parasites can be bred to take over the function of diseased organs—this research has led him, in his dirty-old-man way, to create these venereal parasites with the aim of creating a groovy, worldwide orgy of free sex.

A telling moment early in the film comes as Hobbes’ slovenly partner describes the organ-transplant project to the film’s hero, the complex’s chief medical man, Dr. St. Luke. After explaining the parasite research they’ve been doing, the man tells St. Luke: “It’s crazy. But who cares?”

This simple statement condenses much of Breton’s argument into a blunt insistence upon the worthiness of apparently purposeless research—in Breton’s second “Manifesto,” he comments to similar end: … the idea of surrealism aims quite simply at the total recovery of our psychic force by a means which is nothing other than the dizzying descent into ourselves … the perpetual excursion into the midst of forbidden territory … (Breton, 136).

It’s crazy, but who cares? These are shocking words to hear emerging from the mouth of a medical researcher, but in Cronenberg’s surrealist world they fit perfectly. Not much later in the film, Hobbes’ partner speaks again to Dr. St. Luke, telling him that the ill-fated murderer Hobbes has written in his notes that “man is an animal that thinks too much. An over-rational animal that’s lost touch with its body and its instincts.” And one of these instincts, the primal instinct, is the sex drive. As decades of love songs and advertising have taught us, it’s crazy, but who cares?

Sexuality is the point around which much of They Came From Within’s surrealism coalesces. It is sexuality that fosters the spread of the parasite, and sexuality which the parasite encourages. With Annabelle murdered, her numerous sex partners carry the parasite around the building—Nick Tudor, a singularly unpleasant insurance man, seems to have the most thriving selection of parasites churning around his midsection. It is Nick who makes the initial discovery of the murder, entering room 1511 presumably in search of another in his apparent series of illicit assignations with Annabelle. As he enters, Cronenberg allows himself a rare parry with pastiche: the shot of Nick discovering Annabelle’s mutilated corpse features her lower leg in the foreground, dangling off the table, with Nick in the background struck violently ill at the sight. The image is practically an element-for-element reversal of the celebrated leg shot from Mike Nichols’ 1967 The Graduate, a shot which prefigured a sexual awakening of a no less debased but ultimately healthier nature. That Cronenberg should choose to allude to Nichols’ film, so much a favorite of the early sexual revolution, places They Came From Within at the opposite end of that particular revolution. Where Nichols’ farce dealt with a mannered corruption and its impassioned redemption, Cronenberg’s film considers the eroticized collapse of all systems of order, and concludes with a shot implying the promised spread of the love bug’s determined decadence, as the new-made sex maniacs drive out of the parking garage, presumably to take over the world.

They Came From Within uses the erotic in the same morbidly liberatory manner as did the surrealists. Throughout the story, people discover and seize opportunities for arousal under circumstances ranging from the grotesque to the violent. Dr. St. Luke is the hero of this film, the one person who successfully resists the clamoring sexuality. Thus, while the film’s medicine is surreal, its politics are not.

Dr. St. Luke finally succumbs to the horny hordes at the film’s conclusion, being dragged into the swimming pool by a gaggle of orgiasts and given the parasitic kiss by his nurse, now a complete love zombie. The choice of a swimming pool here recalls the familiar use of water as a representation of the unconscious—Dr. St. Luke has finally capitulated to his suppressed desires and allowed, against his will, the surrealists’ desire to commingle the conscious and unconscious, with St. Luke the representative of the rational, and the poolful of lust rompers embodying a polymorphous, post-conscious id. This scene too recalls The Graduate, visually quoted earlier in the film. But if the swimming pool in The Graduate came to represent peace, escape, contemplation, the pool in They Came From Within is a tawdry, despoiled font, a place where degradation and sin go to spawn, to reproduce in its unwholesome depths.

They Came From Within acts out the surreal death of the love generation, a death writ in blood, pus, and parasites. Where flower children once in that dooryard bloomed now blossom only flowers of evil—Cronenberg has taken medicine into the early stages of a corrupt freedom, a space in which mutation repeats itself so often it comes to seem healthy. The sex-death conflation which was soon to become the distinguishing cliche of the slasher genre here remains true to its surreal-psychoanalytic roots. Cronenberg’s medicine, and his surrealism, are all too conscious of mortality, and bespeak a rage for life without consideration for the banalities of convention insisted upon in medicine’s traditional code of ethics.

Oh, Doctor, what you going to do with that long knife?
Oh, don’t worry about that, that’s just a doctor’s tool.
Oh, What you going to do with that saw?
Oh, we just take off legs with that.

“Terrible Operation Blues”

In this realm as in any other, I believe in the pure
surrealist joy of the man who, forewarned that all others
before him have failed, refuses to admit defeat sets off,
from whatever point he chooses, along any other path save a
reasonable one, and arrives where ever he can.

“Manifesto of Surrealism”

In 1977, Cronenberg left the Starliner Apartments behind, and turned his attention to another experimental medical procedure, this time a skin graft. Rabid opens with a wry critique of organized medicine, as the founders of the Keloid Clinic discuss franchising their operation. The ethics of a chain of cosmetic-surgery resorts are quickly sidelined, however, when a motorcycle accident brings Dr. Keloid a perfect subject on whom to try out a prototypical grafting procedure, using “neutral field tissue,” which will adopt the cellular structure of the tissue surrounding it.

That the name of the clinic, and of the doctor, should be Keloid is a sly poke at the plastic surgery industry. Keloid tissue is lumpy, bulbous scar tissue, resulting from an excess of collagen, and it’s one of plastic surgery’s pet peeves, since it’s extremely unattractive and extremely difficult to remove in any lasting way. Naming a plastic surgeon Keloid is like naming an anesthesiologist “Agony.” The disruption of language, whether through the hemorrhaging flights of metaphor enjoyed by Breton in his novella Soluble Fish (1924) or the anarchic collages of Max Ernst’s The Hundred Headless Women (1929), or through the linguistic vexations of puns a la Keloid, is a standard surrealist technique. And the Keloid image is particularly apt in this film, as the surgeon’s effort to replace damaged organ tissue with experimental grafts comes back bigger and meaner than he could possibly have imagined.

Rose, the recipient of the skin graft (played by former pornstress Marilyn Chambers) develops a bloodthirsty flesh probe in her armpit as a result of the procedure. She can no longer accept food and needs human blood to sustain herself (she makes a token stab at a cow with little success). Her attentions leave her victims appearing rabid—foam-flecked mouths and bloodthirsty hostility spreads to the proportions of plague, and the film becomes a series of vignettes prefiguring the body-count slasher films of the eighties.

Cronenberg manages the escalating mayhem with his customary skill, but what’s most interesting about the film is the idea of a medical procedure demanding blood and overtaking a person’s life-sustaining systems. Transplants and grafts generally cause peril through tissue rejection—in Rabid, the obverse is the case: the transplanted tissue achieves its own metastatic abnormality, overtaking the body and its systems. Rose’s body becomes the canvas for Keloid’s Tuna Fishing—a locus upon and within which takes place the war between the normally-predictable processes of the healthy body (the pre-medical rational) and the alternate, mutagenic process of the graft’s rapid takeover of these healthy processes (the post-op irrational). Rose’s rational, real body melds with Keloid’s irrational dream graft … as Breton put it: “I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak.”

In Rabid, medical experimentation inadvertently triggers a raging epidemic. Yet this film does not serve as an indictment of the medical industry, any more than Un Chien Andalou is an indictment of lust. Rabid, like most of Cronenberg’s films, uses medicine as its foundation and builds upon it; or, perhaps more appropriately, it uses medicine as its wound and, keloidally, blooms upward in an extrusive denial of the rational’s primacy over the organic.

The film concludes with a dead heroine tossed into a garbage truck, the crowning moment in a work which, like all of Cronenberg’s, steadfastly refuses to adhere to convention. Random, encroaching disorder—the antithesis of traditional narrative and western medicine—surrenders finally to mortality, a resolution which claims the rational and the irrational indiscriminately.

Oh, doctor, what did you take out of me?
All right, I’ll tell you now.
Four monkey wrenches and a two-hoss shay
A pair of old britches and a bale of hay
Your ribs were kind of loose: they moved about
If I hadn’t sewn you up everything would fel lout

“Terrible Operation Blues”

Such and such an image, by which he deems it opportune to
indicate his progress is, to me, I must confess, a matter
of complete indifference. Nor is the material with which he
must perforce encumber himself; his glass tubes or my
metallic feathers … as for his method, I am willing to
give it as much credit as I do mine.

“Manifesto of Surrealism”

Cronenberg further honed his technique and concerns in The Brood. A perfect follow-up to his earlier two, The Brood uses elements from both of these earlier films to create a work of uncompromising vision. Briefly, the film concerns a radical psychotherapeutic technique, psychoplasmics, which encourages its patients to physically manifest their psychological problems.

This premise perhaps best sums up the concerns of Cronenberg’s early work—that the body, and medicine, should be no less landscapes for psychic development than should be the canvas or stone (or metallic feathers, for that matter). The film’s intensely nasty “children of rage” are creatures which gestate in wombs outside Nola’s body: living expressions of her psychological problems, they seek bloody revenge upon those Nola imagines have wronged her.

The unconscious suddenly freed of repression, embodied to act out its most violent impulses—seldom had narrative film seen such surreal desires played out upon so superficially conventional a screen as horror film. The film’s climax arrives when Nola’s husband encounters her as she gives birth to one of her children of rage: biting open the membranous sac containing the evil infant, she licks it clean of its amniotic fluid—a shocking commingling of the surreal with the naturalistic. Cronenberg comments revealingly upon this moment: “[t]he visual image for the cinematic scene crystallized for me in a sort of waking dream. It didn’t come from sleep. It came from whatever unconscious place these images arise” (Rodley, 85).

With this in mind, it’s noteworthy that Dr. Hal Raglan is not a practicing physician, but a psychotherapist. The Brood, unlike the earlier two films, finds the roots of its horror in the mind before the body. Here more than anywhere else are articulated the tenets of surrealism, the commingling of the real with the imagined. Cronenberg’s unconscious produced Nola’s unconscious producing children of rage, his text rooted in the imaginary, the psychic world of pictures. Philip Brophy notes that contemporary horror concerns itself with “… this mode of showing as opposed to telling … David Cronenberg has consolidated himself as a director who almost exclusively works within this field …” (Brophy, 8) It is precisely the difference between showing and telling that comprises the basis for Dr. Raglan’s therapy: where Freudian analysis is based upon the process of translating dream language into spoken language, psychoplasmics bypasses the ordering system of words, diving headlong into the purely physiological.

That Dr. Raglan’s therapy emerges through the bodies of his patients, rather than through their speech, indicates Cronenberg’s surrealist interest in the commingling of acting out with working through. The illnesses of the mind and body combine, just as do the rational and the irrational in the surrealist aesthetic. As Brophy remarks earlier in his essay, “… contemporary horror film tends to play not so much on the broad fear of Death, but more precisely on the fear of one’s own body, of how one controls and relates to it.” (Brophy, 8). Or in the words of Jacques Lacan, “… the fear of death, the ‘absolute Master,’ presupposed in consciousness by a whole philosophical tradition from Hegel onwards, is psychologically subordinate to the narcissistic fear of damage to one’s own body” (28).

The Brood, like countless other violence-unleashed films, has its roots in the explosive proto-psychoanalytic fantasy of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It’s interesting to regard the shifting roles of science through the history of horror film—it has never been the Friend of Mankind it has always claimed to be, and Cronenberg’s sterile fevers update the surroundings but maintain the attitudes that have powered mad-scientist films and stories dating back to Marlowe’s Faust: a fear of knowledge that motivates even the book of Genesis. As Bruce Kawin observes, “[h]orror emphasizes the dread of knowing, the danger of curiosity.” (Grant, 8) Despite this traditional, even reactionary, stance, Cronenberg’s works maintain the illusion of a forward-thinking rationalism.

In none of these films does the scientist spend time cackling over gas-bubbling beakers. The image of the scientific researcher remains stolid, rational, cool, even as his work spirals further and further out of control. Similar concerns are played out in the entropic post-surrealist (or, more accurately, post-futurist) machine performances of artists such as Jean Tinguely and Mark Pauline.

But the pieces in Cronenberg’s gallery remain biological—objects constantly rebuilding themselves from within at the behest of science. As Surrealism rose from the blood-sodden battlefields of post-WWI Europe, so rises Cronenberg from the gauze-and-needle-littered morgue of modern medicine: each brooding upon its own cultural apocalypse, each relishing its own dread.

That Surrealism of this order should so easily have achieved the metaphraxis from the stretched canvas to the reflective screen speaks strongly of the endurance of its concerns. Cronenberg’s audience, as bound by its enforced rationality as was Breton’s, De Chirico’s, or Dali’s, both desires and dreads the spectacle of the unshackled flight of productive intellect. But where the original surrealists wove dark tapestries of war, of passion, death, lust, and liberation, Cronenberg broods on the far more intimate mysteries of the body.

The body’s appetites, its seemingly infinite capacity to reinvent its form through illness, through mutation, and through scientific intervention, find expression in Cronenberg’s work. They Came From Within and Rabid explore diseased corollaries of the biological urges toward reproduction and feeding, and The Brood ventures into teratomacious territories of emancipated psychosis. That the principal practitioner of contemporary surrealism should choose as his locus the human form, and as his agent, science, speaks of the universal intimacy of illness, and of the psychological free-fall which accompanies illness.

Breton envisioned a system of thought unencumbered by the distinction between the conscious and the unconscious: a system wherein two plus two, or a doctor plus a patient, could equal anything at all. Broonzy, at the conclusion of the terrible operation, boasts, “That’s the way that patients do who come to this hospital” as his patient exclaims, “Say, doctor, I feel like doing a little mess-around!” Adrift between the unrestrained oneiricism of Breton, and the lusty curatives of Broonzy, Cronenberg floats—suspended in a fertile soup of vital fluids. The caress of a parasite, the phallic kiss of a bloodthirsty skin graft, and the breeding stock of nightmare squirt periodically forth from Cronenberg’s primordial pond, and if we lean closer we hear him mumble: “It’s crazy, but who cares”?


One wonders if Cronenberg, always careful in his choice of characters’ names, was ironically referring with Dr. Hobbes to early political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, whose 1607 text The Leviathan was the first to introduce the notion of a “State of Nature.” Hobbes, a “cynical realist,” built his philosophy from his observations of the worst types of human behavior—he regarded humanity as a chaotic mass of greed and war, needing an absolute power of government answerable to no one. Cronenberg’s Dr. Hobbes sought a return to a sexual state of nature in which base desire saw neither boundary nor obstacle to its satisfaction.

Works Cited

Artaud, Antonin. The Theatre and its Double, trans. Mary Caroline Richards. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1958.

Bataille, George. The Tears of Eros. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1989.

Boss, Pete. “Vile Bodies and Bad Medicine.” Screen 27:1 (1986): 14–25.

Breton, André. Manifestoes of Surrealism. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1986.

Brophy, Philip. “Horrality: The Textuality of Contemporary Horror Film.” Screen 27:1 (1986): 2–13.

Broonzy, Big Bill. “Terrible Operation Blues.” 1930.

Campbell, Mary B. “Biological Alchemy and the Films of David Cronenberg.” Planks of Reason, ed. Barry Keith Grant. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1984. 307–320.

Gerard, Max. Dali, Dali, Dali. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1974.

Gordon, Mel, ed. Dada Performance. New York: PAJ Publications, 1987.

Kirby, Michael and Victoria Nes. Futurist Performance. New York: PAJ Publications, 1986.

Lacan, Jacques. “Aggressivity in Psychoanalysis.” Ecrits. trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: W.W. Norton, 1977. 8–29.

Mellencamp, Patricia. Indiscretions—Avant-Garde Film, Video, and Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990.

Modleski, Tania. “The Terror of Pleasure: The Contemporary Horror Film and Postmodern Theory.” Studies in Entertainment. Ed. Tania Modleski. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986. 155–167.

Rodley, Chris, ed. Cronenberg on Cronenberg. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1992.

Sitney, P. Adams. Visionary Film. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1979.

Skal, David J. The Monster Show. New York: W.W. Norton, 1993.

Robert Haas (essay date Winter/Spring 1996)

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SOURCE: “Introduction: The Cronenberg Monster: Literature, Science, and Psychology in the Cinema of Horror,” in Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities, Vol. 15, No. 2, Winter/Spring, 1996, pp. 3–10.

[In the following essay, Haas places Cronenberg within the tradition of the gothic narrative, and compares his “monsters” with those found in films of the 1930s.]

Over the past twenty years, the films of David Cronenberg have remained remarkably consistent in subject matter and theme. Exploring his own conception of the nature of horror (often with bloody excess), his initial films were at first dismissed as grade “z” horror films, relegated to second feature drive-in status. However, over the past twenty years, Cronenberg’s films have matured, evolved, perhaps even mutated into complex examinations of the human condition. And, while the visceral nature of his early films may have been largely stripped away in his later work, his original vision and perspective regarding the nature of horror have been maintained, mostly through a creative decision to remain independent of the Hollywood system. Whether one likes his work or not, ultimately it demands attention. Contemporary film and cultural scholars are approaching Cronenberg’s films from remarkably diverse critical perspectives, observing that his work is often free of the conventions and limitations that plague directors ensconced in Hollywood franchises and studio politics. Everyone, it seems, has something to say about Cronenberg and his films, even Cronenberg himself. In an interview from the book Dark Visions, David Cronenberg is asked what led him to remake The Fly, a film first released in the 1950s through the Hollywood system. He replies:

Immediate thoughts of remaking the original Fly would lead you to think that maybe I’d do some type of campy film and maybe get Vincent Price to do a cameo, which I believe another production was going to do. That would make it something else, not bad, but not something that I would be interested in. It was really reading the script I was given that had some elements in it that really struck me as being very powerful and very much me.

(Wiater 37)

The idea that a David Cronenberg film must be, according to the director himself, “very much me,” is a key to understanding the unique and independent body of work that Cronenberg has amassed. Because Cronenberg’s professional career spans almost twenty-five years, special emphasis must be placed on multiple perspectives addressing issues concerning who Cronenberg is and how that relates to his work. Is there a conscious renewal in each film of Cronenberg’s original theme of the visceral nature of human beings? Does this theme evolve with each new film or does it stagnantly repeat itself? Does a diminution of blood diminish this theme in his later work? Is Cronenberg a misogynist? Given that Cronenberg was originally a literature major at the University of Ontario, do literary allusions permeate his work? Indeed, what is the influence of classical literature on this distinctly modern (and often postmodern) director? How has his use of language evolved throughout his career? What about Cronenberg’s reliance on psychology? Is he able to translate abstract psychological concepts into screen images? Can visceral and surrealistic images coexist on screen? While there are many approaches to answering these questions, one consistent element occurs within all of Cronenberg’s work. In the films of David Cronenberg, these themes revolve around the role of the monster: a being so conventionalized in past films that it becomes problematic and an area of discovery for both the director and the audience.


With respect to the narratives of Cronenberg and specifically the role of the monster(ous) in those narratives, many of Cronenberg’s films rely largely on the conventions of classical gothic fiction, but with a difference: none of his films maintain the romantic ideology concerning man and his relationship to nature and God so often found in other films dealing with gothic monsters. Also, although many Cronenberg monsters maintain a strong connection to the great gothic monsters of early thirties film (especially Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), and employ various conventions of gothic cinema throughout the narrative, Cronenberg still manages to create a purely postmodern creature—a combination of that easily recognized cinematically gothic monster and an infinitely more complex monster: a cyborg in the Harawayian sense, by which I mean one who is able to move beyond the boundaries of classically structured gothic narratives, psychological analysis, mythology, science, medicine and sexual identity, one who can operate within the blurred boundaries of all of these disparate elements.

Any notion of Cronenberg’s films being throwbacks to the classic gothic horror films of the thirties is in fact not necessarily an inaccurate description of his work. After the glut of post-World War II nuclear monster films, the Hammer series of Dracula and Frankenstein films from England, and the low-budget gothic visions of Roger Corman and William Castle, Cronenberg, like the earlier gothic film makers, emphasizes grotesque elements, the mysterious, the desolate environment, the horrible, the ghostly, and ultimately, the abject fear that is aroused in the viewer. Additional gothic conventions within Cronenberg’s film include the sense of enclosure as events occur within the confines of a warehouse laboratory (The Fly), a self-contained apartment complex (They Came From Within), or the inner recesses of one’s own mind (Naked Lunch), causing the viewer to be removed from everyday environments (a tactic Poe would have been all in favor of). One of the primary aims of the gothic narrative is to create the single effect of an eerie and ghostly atmosphere, and to do so the narrative emphasizes the physical aspects of various structures: the vastness of the warehouse-factory filled with machinery and experimental equipment in The Fly, the sterile environment of the Mantle Twins’ apartment in Dead Ringers, or the “interiorized” set-like quality of Interzone in Naked Lunch. Finally, like most gothic monsters, Cronenberg’s characters are often at first super-sensitive heroes who cannot function in conventional society. Johnny Smith (The Dead Zone), Seth Brundle (The Fly), Beverly Mantle (Dead Ringers), and Bill Lee (Naked Lunch) all attempt to share their super-sensitivity to the point of maladjustment, but due to physical appearance, supernatural mental abilities or instabilities often induced by experimental drugs, these attempts always ultimately fail.

However, more than just recreating the gothic, Cronenberg rethinks what it means to be a monster in an age of postmodernism. The Fly is the only Cronenberg “monster” film in any traditional sense (unless you count the cheesy looking slug of They Came From Within as a monster). But, even then the approach to creating any monster for Cronenberg could never be simplistic or conventional. In fact, Brundlefly, the monster in The Fly, is a heterogeneous combination of many conventions, including gothic, classic fifties science fiction, contemporary science fiction, and cyberpunk, combined with Cronenberg’s own visceral conception of the body turned against itself and inside out (graphically foreshadowed by the bloody baboon found in the telepod after one of Brundle’s early experiments).

Now there is a tendency by many to retain a firm belief in Brundlefly as a pure extension of gothic symbolic imagery. Another perspective regards the monster of The Fly as a creature solely from the domain of science fiction. Some critics see simplistic combinations of both of these elements. Thomas Dougherty in his Film Quarterly review of The Fly states that “patched though the director’s own transmission devices, The Fly fuses old time science fiction with new age sexual friction” (39). Ultimately, Brundlefly works best, I think, as a fusion of many disparate elements. A combination of insect, human, and machine; sexless; driven by instinct but possessing some semblance of intellect up to the end; suffused with a mimetic sense of humanity and pathos, Cronenberg’s monster transcends conventional and contemporary representations of monsters. It is not undead, not an alien, not a mad demonic slasher. It is a gothic cyborg, existing only as a fiction but imbued with science fact, medical relevance, and psychological musings concerning what it means to be a man or a bug in contemporary society.

Now, to say that all of Cronenberg’s monsters are cyborgs is not entirely accurate either. Implicit in any definition of a cyborg is the idea that it is a “successful” integration between machine and flesh. Brundlefly is not. Max Renn in Videodrome is not. The integration between human and animal and machine, between science and nature, between the mind and the body is, in fact, disastrous in every Cronenberg film.


Horror and science fiction films have never been too particular concerning definitions of monsters (or cyborgs); they include a wide range of types and can be found in a vast number of films spanning the eighty-five years since Thomas Edison’s “one reeler” Frankenstein (1911) and Karel Capek’s play, R.U.R (1920). From Metropolis (1925), and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), to Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982), The Terminator (1984), and even The X Files, many films (and television shows) have effectively developed the public’s multi-dimensional conception concerning the intersection between science and horror. However, this intersection, especially in relationship to humans, has never been especially complex, whether they appear malicious, beneficent, or something in-between flesh and machine.

By “successful,” I mean that the cyborg as represented on film is, regardless of motivation, somehow superior to the human(s) who created it. James Whale’s Frankenstein Monster is physically a haphazard collection of carrion and metal bolts. Yet it displays superhuman physical abilities, resiliency, and (through Karloff’s performance) a sympathetic connection with the audience that qualify it as a successful creation. Likewise, Ridley Scott’s Roy Batty, the genetically replicated, programmed, and manufactured off-world slave leader from Blade Runner, displays superiority not only through his physical accomplishments, but also though his emotional and ethical development. Harrison Ford’s Decker becomes a mere cipher through which the audience watches the development and the destruction of a better human than the humans.

Cronenberg’s cyborgs are unusual, for rarely do they advance morally or even physically beyond human limitations; here the cyborg more often regresses and, through accident and chance, can meld both animal and machine to create a genetic monster (the “new flesh” of Rabid, Videodrome and The Fly), or the mind and the body to create neither man nor animal nor machine, but something “other” (The Brood, Scanners, The Dead Zone, Dead Ringers, and Naked Lunch).

Therefore Cronenberg’s genetically or psychically altered scientists, doctors, writers and teachers can only be considered as an alternative to conventional images of the cyborg. However, these images not only allow for unsuccessful meldings of flesh and machine, but also allow for disaster. Only here do they become closely allied with other cinematic representations of cyborgs.

Historically, the cyborg has stood for the radical anxiety of human consciousness about its own embodiment, at the moment embodiment appears almost fully contingent. Cyborg anxiety has stood for a oscillation between the “human” element associated with affections, eros, error, innovation, (projects begun in the face of mortality) and the “machine” element (the desire for long life, health, physical impermeability, self-contained control processes, dependability, and hence the ability to fulfill promises over the long term) (Csisery-Ronay 399).

Throughout the history of cinema, the cyborg has fit into two distinct roles, largely stemming from this anxiety, anxiety that is in no small way bound up with romantic and gothic assertions concerning humans and their relationship with God: the first is the physically superior but morally inferior superman and the second is the tragic technological monster (albeit still functionally superior to humans). In Frankenstein, the monster is destroyed for the sake of humanity, demonstrating, “through sentimental nostalgia, the superior value of God’s favorite creature just the way He made him” (Csisery-Ronay 398). This romantic/religious sentiment is easily identifiable. An idealistic scientist reflects on God and nature early on in the narrative and by the end, before he places his head under the drill press, or is thrown off a windmill, declares through tried and true cliche that “there are some things mankind shouldn’t tamper with.”

Another typical definition of a cyborg insists that there is an exaggeration of the body/intellect dualism plugged into a form of cinematic prosthesis. In Blade Runner, the replicants (cyborgs) generate and absorb dread, possibly because human beings, without knowledge of the original conditions of their construction, have no way of knowing the degree to which the body and mind can be considered distinct (if they can at all). Additionally, humans have no other way to approach the “renegade replicant” problem than through retirement (termination). This solution is ultimately ironic and inevitably parodic, since cyborgs already represent difference even as they are despised for their similarities to humans.

A possible way to accept the gothic cyborg in Cronenberg as a monster is to recognize the conflict between traditional examples of cyborgs so often found in science fiction cinema from Frankenstein to Blade Runner and the cyborg as defined by Donna Haraway in her essay “The Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Haraway’s cyborg is not classically superhuman or necessarily monstrous, although it can assume monstrous proportions. Her cyborg is a theoretical object for which the schizo-physical body is not necessary, in the same way that Alan Turing, in Mechanical Intelligence, considered a machine to be “a set of operations, relations, algorithms, not necessarily a physical object” (254). Her cyborg is simultaneously object and subject, free of the conventional dialectics or narratives of power, yet constantly concerned with the machinations of power. Once the distinction between Cronenberg’s character and the conventional cyborg in other science fiction films is recognized, then “Brundlefly” can be placed more specifically on the boundary between Haraway’s theoretical cyborg, a creature that also lies on the boundaries of societal community, and the cinema’s gothic monster creation.

Cronenberg’s development of a creature both traditionally monstrous and possessing qualities of a Harawayian cyborg is explored in The Fly through the techno-nightmare of the protagonist, Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum). A unique way of accomplishing this is created through an approach that rejects the phallocentric perspective normally associated with high-tech science fiction cyborg narratives. Cronenberg consistently dehumanizes the male protagonist, deemphasises the male perspective, and deobjectifies the female persona. So, in an attempt to move beyond the boundaries of monolithic perspective and narrative, the images chosen in The Fly often reject the empathetic relationship between audience and male hero/protagonist or audience and cyborg, (although both relationships exist in the film). Instead, they maintain an (inconsistent) reliance on alternatives proposed by Haraway, especially in her theories concerning cyborgs:

The cyborg is a hybrid creature, composed of organism and machine. But, cyborgs are compounded of special kinds of machines and special kinds of organisms appropriate to the late twentieth century. Cyborgs are post Second World War hybrid entities made of, first, ourselves and other organic creatures in our unchosen “high-technological” guise as information systems, texts, and ergonomically controlled, labouring, desiring, and reproducing systems. The second essential ingredient in cyborgs is machines in their guise, also, as communications system, texts, and self acting, ergonomically designed apparatuses.



To best illustrate the idea of the monstrous cyborg as employed by David Cronenberg, let’s look at one film: The Fly. In the world of Cronenberg’s film, the fly becomes a pedagogical translation (or simulation) of Haraway’s hypothetical definition of the cyborg as a “promising [gothic] monster”: human, animal, and machine are literally spliced together on screen using the forms of Seth Brundle and the fly and the telepod that transports them. This new creation is methodically and painfully dehumanized over the course of the film—appendages fall off, food must be vomited on in order to be consumed, and superior intelligence is replaced by raw emotion.

Presence and self-presence have been called into doubt by technology and subversion of gothic and science fiction conventions. According to the old school of scientific thought, or as Haraway calls it “the old boys of science,” fusion, especially between narrative and boundary creature, is a bad strategy of positioning when attempting to envision the future. Yet, the character of Seth Brundle, in the narrative The Fly, places himself in the exact position: a boundary creature who transports himself through the telepods, a machine aptly described as a “designer phone booth,” and, like the baboon who is turned inside out, is fused, but at the same time split into distinct (though not immediately obvious) selves: the scientist (the cyborg/man) and Brundlefly (the cyborg/monster).

Central to the divergent concept of Brundlefly as cyborg/man and cyborg/monster in society is the split between Brundlefly and society. According to Haraway, “monsters have always defined the limits of community in western imaginations.” (180) While this split is not nearly so clearly defined in The Fly, splitting in the context of The Fly should be about heterogeneous multiplicities that are simultaneously necessary and incapable of being squashed into isomorphic slots or cumulative lists. Brundle, the intellectual scientist, has noble passions for his work, for the betterment of society, as well as romantic passions for Ronnie. Brundlefly desperately attempts to retain some elements of reason in an effort to transform itself back into Brundle or a combination of Brundle, Ronnie, and their unborn child.

To emphasize the loss of his humanity, Brundlefly even has moments of poetic sadness as it recognizes its relationship to Kafka’s dung beetle from “The Metamorphosis”: “I was an insect who dreamed of being human, but now the dream is over.” In the film’s most moving scene, Brundlefly longs to be the first insect politician, the compassionate fly, but realizes that it is declining into raw instinct. It is an attempt to become a Haraway cyborg that fails. Faced with the impossibility of its desire, Brundlefly begs Ronnie to run away before she is hurt.

Even when man, fly, and telepod are all successfully “spliced,” the self and other still exist. The creature that falls from the telepod at the film’s climax is a tripartite creation of intelligence, passion, and technology—connected yet obviously separate. Brundle’s quest for unity has failed and he remains forever apart from and outside of humanity. However, Cronenberg isn’t entirely ready to do away with monolithic perception. With his body and mind completely transformed, Brundle painfully communicates his desire to die; this is a unique human decision and allows the audience a certain pathetic acknowledgment of Brundle’s position. For a brief cathartic moment, the audience sees themselves mirrored in Brundle’s suffering and then he is killed. Yet Brundle/Brundlefly maintains a unique place in cinema. He/it is a polymorphous, postmodern creation that exists neither in the gothic tradition nor in the boundaries wherein traditional boundary creatures lie. This monster exists outside the boundaries of both monster and cyborg. Cronenberg’s Brundlefly is a creature never filmed before: a monster as failed cyborg.


Literature, science, and psychology are all bound together in the films of David Cronenberg. And the single unifying element that holds them together is the monster(ous), the physical manifestation of our deepest social, sexual, psychological fears. Without the signifying monster or the Cronenberg cyborg, as we have come to call it, the pieces unravel and the film falls apart. In fact, David Cronenberg’s last film, M. Butterfly, was a failure for this precise reason. When it was released in October of 1993, critics saw the film as slow, lifeless, and on the heels of such films as The Crying Game and Farewell My Concubine, a retread of already familiar ideas. Commercially, audiences were uninspired. The film fared poorly at the box office and quickly closed in the few theaters that chose to show it. Yet, the film contains the fundamental elements found in every other Cronenberg film.1M. Butterfly is the second collaboration between the director and actor Jeremy Irons, star of Dead Ringers, widely acknowledged to be Cronenberg’s best film. The only possible reason behind the failure of M. Butterfly is, I believe, its lack of any monstrous element. Unlike Cronenberg’s other films, this story of a French diplomat and his 20 year affair with a Chinese opera star/spy who successfully deceives him into thinking he is a woman is indeed a tragic one. Yet, because it lacks the dynamic relationship between tragedy and horror that Dead Ringers, The Fly, The Dead Zone and all of Cronenberg’s other films had, the film remains simply an interesting, if uninspired, retelling of the familiar themes of love, loss, deception, and tragedy. However, it is easier to recognize, through the failure of M. Butterfly, the remarkable power of David Cronenberg and his work over the past twenty years.2 He has created a series of films all remarkably bound together by similar subjects, themes, motifs, and technical elements. It is, by all accounts (including his own) an ongoing project, the creation of a new genre of film where these elements combine with traditional conventions of horror, science, and psychology to create the Cronenberg project. Each of the following articles in some way reflects an acknowledgement of Cronenberg’s creation. They reflect the diversity of critical approaches currently being employed in Cronenberg criticism, which move beyond an exploration of “bloody excess,” disease and human decay.

No other film of David Cronenberg has received as much critical attention as Dead Ringers. Lauded by some as one of the best films of the 1980s, this film has been examined from widely diverse perspectives including genre analysis and feminism. In his article, “Lost and Gone Forever: Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers,” William Beard, one of the first critics to write about David Cronenberg,3 applies psychoanalysis to Cronenberg’s most celebrated film.

Lynda Haas and Mary Pharr approach a variety of Cronenberg’s films from alternating feminist perspectives. Discussed in dialogue, this article allows each author to examine several important women’s issues that are raised when viewing Cronenberg’s films. The format for this piece is both liberating and invigorating.

Throughout the films of David Cronenberg, there are constant allusions, both obvious and obscure, to literature: Kafka in The Fly, Lewis Carroll in Videodrome, etc. Not surprisingly, Cronenberg’s college years were spent as a literature major. Therefore, to find “literary” imagery in his films is not entirely unexpected. In fact, references to literature occur quite frequently in Cronenberg’s films. Tony Magistrale, in one of the first major essays on The Dead Zone, examines its protagonist, Johnny Smith, as a tragic figure who both complements and extends Stephen King’s original character. He also examines Cronenberg’s least typical movie to observe what types of literary imagery emerge. Christ imagery prevails, Romantic conventions imbue the script, and allusions to Gothic tales permeate the atmosphere of the film.

The idea that many of the myths and legends of the ancient Greeks are both appropriated and retold in contemporary narratives is not especially groundbreaking news. However, one does not usually associate David Cronenberg with conventions of the ancient Greeks. Leonard Heldreth reviews Cronenberg’s films, starting with Scanners and discovers in them many surprising parallels from classic Greek drama and mythology.

Though often ignored as nothing but “interesting” early films and far more often as drive-in movie fare, the early films of David Cronenberg are important. It is through these early films that Michael Collins explores the connection between medicine and surrealism that ultimately provides the energy behind many of Cronenberg’s later films.

Finally, over the past few years, several books and interviews have appeared dealing with David Cronenberg. Two of the best, Inner Views: Filmmakers in Conversation and Cronenberg on Cronenberg are reviewed by Mark Charney in this special edition of Post Script.

It is my hope that these differing perspectives, which range from the traditional to the avant-garde, will provide even more discussion and additional scholarship concerning a director whose films continually challenge our notions of horror, sexuality, and beauty. Certainly one thing we can never do with David Cronenberg is ignore him.


  1. The only exception to this is Fast Company (1979), a film made more for Cronenberg’s love of drag racing than for artistic purposes.

  2. In 1993, even as M. Butterfly failed with both audiences and critics, three books were published that either were dedicated to Cronenberg or had substantial sections devoted to the director. In 1990, as Jeremy Irons accepted the Academy Award for his performance in Reversal of Fortune, he made special thanks to the director of his previous film—Dead Ringers—David Cronenberg.

  3. See “The Visceral Mind: The Major Films of David Cronenberg” in The Shape of Rage: The Films of David Cronenberg, Ed. Piers Handling, Toronto, Academy of Canadian Cinema, 1983. 1–79.

Works Cited

Csisery-Ronay, Istvan, Jr. “The Science Fiction of Theory: Baudrillard and Haraway.” Science Fiction Studies 18.3 (1991): 387–405.

Dougherty, Thomas. “The Fly.” Film Quarterly 40.1 (1987): 38–40.

Haraway, Donna J. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. New York: Routledge, 1991. 149–182.

———. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. New York: Routledge, 1991. 183–202.

Mulvey, Laura. “Film and Visual Pleasure.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, Third Ed. Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen, Eds. New York: Oxford UP, 1985. 803–817.

Wiater, Stan. Dark Visions: Conversations with the Masters of the Horror Film. New York: Avon, 1992.

Jennifer Wicke (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: “Fin de Siècle and the Technological Sublime,” in Centuries’ Ends, Narrative Means, Stanford University Press, 1996, pp. 302–15.

[In the following essay, Wicke analyzes The Fly as a “fin de siecle narrative” that addresses technology, specifically genetic science, and its relationship to the body, or the human subject.]

As a bridge to the longer analysis of David Cronenberg’s film The Fly (1986) that I will make in this essay on fin de siècle narrative and the technological sublime, I interpolate a short piece of text that meditates on the technologization of narrative’s body. A Mr. James Stephenson, writing in 1907 for Star Story magazine, and thus dated somewhat after the nineteenth-century fin de siècle, but not too late I hope to qualify as an exemplar of the technological sublimity I am tracing, makes these astonishing remarks in his article, “Electrical Desire”:

And is it not the case that in our new electrifying age desire is everywhere and always to be discerned? Is it not clear that the new avenues of communication and their byways always operate on our human core of desire? Why, think to the great moment when Alexander Graham Bell made his discovery. He said into his telephone—“Watson, come here. I want you.” Over the wire went the human cry of desire, and the chance to bring it into fulfillment.

Writ very small, this parable of transformative technology represents the fin de siècle technological sublime. Both 1900 and 2000 have been summoned up or narratively represented via the conjuring of an unrepresentable technology, an incorporation of a bodily yearning for apocalyptic sublimation. In the immediate post-1900 “electrifying age” the phone call is rendered as the quintessential expression of desire mediated technologically. I’m not sure if Stephenson was deliberately positing an exquisite homoerotic scenario, a glimpse that certainly casts a salutary glow over a founding moment of American capitalism. Regardless, the narrative still embodies, suggests the retention of the bodiedness of narrative even as it is extruded through the electronic mediations that figure it mass-culturally. The trajectory “I want you” is indeed the ghost voice, the volatilized voice, within narrative formation. “Reach out and touch someone” is hardly a happy narrative translation of this phenomenon within narrative I refer to, but the latter exists side by side with the ideological inscriptions of advertising, as a possibility of narrative, although not, of course, its essence. In what follows, I will sketch a more current example of the technological sublime, but viewed through this same lens, namely, that the narrative of a century’s end and consequent rebirth is now epitomized by a technologized apotheosis, a bodied narrative I refer to as the technological sublime.

The Fly may seem to burst all boundaries of decency and present something more akin to a body bag than a corporeally distinct dead body, but in its disjecta membra—its dismembered parts so nicely collected by the protagonist, Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), into the “Brundle museum of natural history,” housed in his medicine cabinet—it gives us a foretaste of narrative’s body in the age of technological reproduction. As a mass-cultural narrative, the film belongs to several social genres, among them the horror film and the science fiction film, and it works as it does by playing off the recognizable codes of those movie types. The Fly is obviously in an intertext already, since it is a remake of the Vincent Price classic, and harkens one to many narrative connections, from Frankenstein (the book and the movies that are its spawn) to Paradise Lost, with a stop at Charles Laughton playing Quasimodo in between. What has seldom been suggested is that The Fly is a genuinely fin de siècle text, and it is under that apocalyptic rubric I shall engage it.

The technological sublime of The Fly focuses primarily on genetic science, whose ubiquity in the public eye extends from the Genome project and its struggles for funding to the recent first step in the cloning of human embryos as a technique in reproductive technology. Mapping the human genetic code involves not only the isolation of the individual bits of genetic material but also the construction of a sort of narrative about those bits—a story about a projected future, which in an immediately capitalized way has import on all aspects of social life. In tandem with the more rarefied genetic scientists who want to map the code either because it is there, or for specific medical purposes, has arisen a genetic code mapping industry, already able to sell genetic tests to prospective employers or prospective insurers. This is narrativity with a vengeance, and The Fly makes a narrative reply to it in relation to the closure of the century.

Seth Brundle hates vehicles—he has been subject to motion sickness since he was a small boy, when he used to “puke on his tricycle.” The teleportation system he has devised is a way around that dislike of movement—it seems to be a transport method that strips away motion itself, in favor of the instantaneity of travel. When Brundle is describing the miraculous effect on the world of his invention, and the way he will be described by the grateful world citizens, he says he will be “the one who ended all concepts of transport, of borders.” The problem is contained in the incredible ironies of that self-description, because the transport that is ended is the transport of metaphor, and the borders closed down are the very borders that give us the bodily outline we like, with some illusion, to call “ourselves.” By film’s end, Seth Brundle has indeed transported himself, made a metaphor of himself, until the borders of even the molecular genetic level have proven permeable, have been transported.

People eat meat in The Fly—Seth and Veronica (Geena Davis) go out for a cheeseburger to consolidate their project of collaboration—the journalist Veronica to record Seth’s experiment “from the inside out,” as she puts it to her employer on Particle, a science magazine, the ambiguously named Stathis Borans (John Getz). Seth doesn’t want to tell Veronica what has gone wrong with the teleportations of animate objects thus far—“not while we’re eating,” he says, while Veronica retorts, with reference to the cheeseburgers they are clutching—“it can’t be worse than this!” The whole teleportation project takes place in our familiar contemporary world, whose anxieties assault us even, or especially, while we are eating—the flesh of mass-produced hamburger is not going to bear much contemplation. The worries about contamination, infection, and poison are all too environmentally and medically omnipresent, and the degeneration of the body in The Fly speaks to these. The flesh is being invaded, but from where? A self-evident subtext of the film is the social shock effect of the HIV virus, and Seth Brundle’s decomposition mimics all too harrowingly the depredations of the disease. Fear of AIDS is only one strand in the narrative body of the film, however, since it seems to be subsumed, terrible as it is, under a more general terror of genetic reproducibility.

Seth Brundle is innocent of the flesh, in more than one way. The scene of his first sex with Veronica is a crystallization of this problematic of knowledge and a harbinger of its difficulties. We see them in a languorous post-coital moment, Seth rolling over onto his back and embedding a piece of circuity below his shoulder, which Ronnie gently removes. So far, it’s an amusing anecdote of the absentminded genius, so sublimely unconcerned with ordinary human relations that he has bits of stray technology amid his sheets, the way other people might have cracker crumbs. But that moment of what might be called inscription, or branding, allies Seth’s body with a machine part, suggesting in miniature the process that will ultimately leave us the unbearable final picture of Brundle-Fly’s infusion with the third telepod, in the final scene. Of course we know that it is through just this sore and punctured grid of skin that the telltale fly hairs make their first appearance, after Brundle has unwittingly fused with a housefly at the molecular genetic level—they “transported” together, and transportation is also fusion. The wound is fresh and thus less resistant to the new fly genes, but the patch of skin marked by the piece of circuitry is the site of a mating that echoes the more straightforwardly sexual one Ronnie and Seth have just completed.

This uncanny imprinting of the computer on Seth’s body also signals the uneasy alliance of knowledge between the computer and the human subject—although the computer, as Seth rightly describes it, is “confused,” and only knows what it has been told by the human who programs it, the computer is also inscrutable, prepared to make judgments and to initiate active sequences that are horrific in their human consequences, although merely successful to the computer—“fusion of brundle-fly with telepod successfully completed,” the glowing screen reads drily, while we have been shocked almost primordially by the resulting, tragic hybrid. Throughout the film the computer screen comes to fill the frame to show the change in scene, or to effect the cut—generally, these super-closeups of the screen occupy all of it, so that we, as the audience, are reading the movie screen as if it were translated into a gigantic computer monitor, a laptop with a giant monitor. There are no such closeups of the human face, except when Seth Brundle-Fly stares mordantly into the mirror, and then he is framed by the rim of the medicine cabinet. Although one shock cut moves from this super-intimacy with the computer screen down to Brundle-Fly’s grotesque webbed hands, so that we know he has been staring into the screen just as we have, more often the screen is telling the tale, on its own. The most common readout across the big, impersonal green face is the phrase “initiate active sequence,” another way of saying that the computer is also narrating to us, while it narrates Seth into Brundle-Fly. The sequences are frightfully absorbing for all but the teller—the computer is, a bit like Hal, imperturbable. There is more than a suggestion of Seth’s face, and by extension our faces, staring into the face of God—a God without the slightest personal interest in the active sequences as they relate to human beings, but a God created by those same human beings as a form of systems manager. The uncertainty about the narrative’s “body” persists throughout the film, as the issue of “who” is in the position to tell or be told the story emerges obsessively. When the screen is nothing but a pulsing cyberspace, the horror-show bodies on display are just epiphenomena of the truer narrative—the unfolding narrative of the genetic code.

The paradoxes of the flesh in a postmodern technological age begin to be explored when Veronica passionately declares that she could “eat Seth up—the flesh makes people crazy.” What Seth realizes is missing from the computer sequence in his first unsuccessful tries to teleport is some understanding of this fleshly craziness. The reason inanimate objects can go through without a hitch is that their recreation is purely combinatorial, an information sequence process, a repetition of their codes. Flesh, however, is accorded a kind of “poetic” status in the film, in that it is the “poetry of steak” Seth resolves to teach the computer. To send a silk stocking from point A to point B is to translate it so perfectly that the simulacrum is the copy is the original. What the computer has been doing with Seth’s data about animate objects, like the baboon it pulps against the telepod porthole, is “interpreting, translating, rethinking,” rather than reproducing. At least in our social ideologies, there is a salient difference. The poetry of steak requires not the mere interpretation of a synthetic something, but a reproduction, a destruction, and a recreation.

The Fly takes us into three kinds of reproduction and shows us how they are all intertwined. The first is sexual reproduction, in the film’s case, technologically unassisted; the second is representational reproduction, represented here by the movie’s self-reflexivity as a copying medium, and in which the camera is analogous to the computer; and the third, which might be called social reproduction, the continual self-reproduction of the socius, as Bourdieu terms it. What begins in The Fly as a supremely ingenious way of getting things from place to place soon outstrips those limits entirely—the telepods are not only designer phone booths, as Ronnie refers to them before she knows what they do, they are reproduction chambers, telewombs of sexual, social, and simulacral reproduction. While the computer, it was thought, was reading the information sequences of the objects in the pod and then reconfiguring that information in a sequence at the other pod, in order to do this a reproduction is required, a reproduction that mimics childbirth, that mimics re-presenting, that mimics that copying of social relations.

The Fly cannot help but take up the vestigial mythologies of the body provided by Christianity, and these are weirdly blended in the confusions over reproduction levels (and narrative levels). As played by Jeff Goldblum, and courtesy of a certain haircut, Seth Brundle resembles the chromolithographs of Jesus sold at Walmart and K-Mart—this is before Brundle-Fly comes to fore. Seth is analogous to Jesus in a variety of ways, or at least the film narrative has metaphysical fun with the crossover of theology into cyberspace; in his programming of the computer and then sending himself through, he is God as the Nutty Professor, deciding to take on human form, thus bifurcating himself and yet retaining the attributes of one entity. The transport process that goes so awry involves Seth in that mystery of bodily incarnation evoked by Jesus, as if, with his discovery, Seth were an avatar of the Second Coming. Post-teleportation the film continually hints at these links, as when Seth ends his monomaniacal diatribe at the cafe with an exasperated “Waiter!—Jesus Christ,” or when Ronnie calls out to Seth in his super-prolonged sexual state, “Wait, oh god, wait!” The trinitarian mystery that is so baffling—how it can be that Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are distinct and separate, and yet one, fused and inseparable, is given ghoulish palpability in Brundle-Fly’s intense desire to teleport with Ronnie and her unborn fetus, so that the three of them would become fused and indissoluble. But fused in what sense? Would the resultant triad of Brundle-Fly, Ronnie, and baby Brundle-Fly/Ronnie become cognizant of its one-in-threeness, as, presumably, the triune godhead of the trinity is presumed to be? Or does one just imagine a nightmare blend-in at a Dairy Queen in techno-hell, where no individual narrative flavor retains consciousness of its narrative supremacy? To paraphrase Carson McCullers’s Member of the Wedding, who would be the I of their we? The metaphysics of this fusion state may seem a relic of postmodern “encyclicals” that never were, but the improbable juxtaposition of these narrative questions with the socioeconomic vocabulary of technological capitalism, happening at a faster and faster rate now, turns the court cases and the medical ethics decisions into referenda on this movie.

Veronica plays a protean role in this set of religious resonances. Her name alludes to that mystical relic of the middle ages, Veronica’s veil, a cloth that was used to wipe Jesus’ face during the procession to the Crucifixion and that later displayed on its surface a perfect image of Jesus’ face, a Shroud of Turin done in proto-photographic blood. This Veronica also wields various veils—one might say that her photojournalistic reporting on videotape of Seth’s experiments held the modern representational veil of video up to him; there’s also quite the bloody veil of her dream. By the last scene of the movie Veronica has gone from being Fay Wray in the grip of a giant Brundle-Fly to the Madonna, radiant in blue, calling out to the Fly to intercede with him before he deposits his corrosive enzymes on the head of Stathis Borans, already crippled from his exposures to fly juice.

The metaphor of the body invaded and rearranged on the genetic level is so powerful that it works as a template for a range of issues—the social text of the film is a dense field. Each further metamorphosis Seth Brundle-Fly undergoes as he becomes more Gregor than Seth is correlated to an episode from our common social text. A case in point is the scene that has Seth and Veronica out for a happy outing to celebrate what they think is the benign result of his teleportation. Suddenly, in this rather underpopulated film, the streets are thronged, and Seth and Veronica are joining the millions for a cup of espresso. The intimations of Fly-dom begin with the enormous amounts of sugar Seth heaps into his cup, a crystalline powder akin to the yuppie drug of choice in the 1980s. Convinced that teleportation itself is responsible for his feelings of manic energy and superiority, Seth’s language becomes a verbal catalog of every promise held out by the “Me Decade.” “It’s given me a chance to be me,” he natters on, sounding like a particularly fervent guest on Sally Jesse, or like Werner Erhard, back when he had good days. “Not to wax messianic,” he waxes, “it makes a man a king—I feel like a million bucks.” Every desperate social cliché of overweening egotism and the culture of narcissism spills out—evidence, perhaps, as well, that David Cronenberg is Canadian. The erstwhile mild-mannered Seth becomes Superman-Fly, who is at this moment much less than the piteous spectacle of self-knowledge he will later become. Seth unwittingly becomes a spokesman for a corporate ethos he otherwise knows nothing about, translating the surcharge of insect energy he is beginning to feel into the monetary discourse of the monstrous “me.”

Things darken in the social mirror almost immediately. After a lovemaking bout he insists that Ronnie go through teleportation to be able to keep up with him; sexual prowess is now the linchpin of his bodily superiority, and he now translates the transport experience into a drug revel. “It’s like a drug,” he assures Ronnie, “we’ll be the perfect couple, the dynamic duo.” His frenzy can only be called Dionysian manqué: enraged that Ronnie has dared to question the nature of his sexual energy, he threatens her with a fear of being “destroyed and recreated.” But Seth, becoming Brundle-Fly despite himself, shouts with Nietzschean hyperbole that Ronnie must be afraid “to penetrate beyond the veil of the flesh and enter the plasma pool!” His offer to move beyond the body into a swirling collective at the cellular level where individuality is dissolved has overtones of prophecy, but is also inevitably limited by the social discourse surrounding it, so that his invitation has none of the visionary power he might feel, but sounds like a cross between Walt Whitman’s body electric and a genetic health club membership ad. Nonetheless, the veil of the flesh has proven to be just that, a veil cast up by the narrative of the plasma pool, a mere side effect of its codes, a readout or printout of its hieroglyphs. We are just an inexpensive bodily envelope bearing a solid-gold address.

What Seth has taken on, unwittingly, I have been trying to show, is a foray into reproduction and, as it happens, self-reproduction malgré lui. In response to this, the lines of sexual difference begin to be drawn ever more starkly, accounting for his descent into blue-collar machismo in the next circle of Brundle-Fly hell. Throwing on a leather jacket and dismissing Ronnie as a “drag,” Seth heads out into the night in search of a “real” woman, one who will enter the vertiginous universe of sexual empowerment (and male dominance) with him. Not understanding his newfound strength, but not caring to mute it either, Seth is flush with macho glory as he wins Tammy for the night in an arm-wrestling contest. To the sounds of a horrendous scream uttered by the man whose arm he has snapped, Seth declares nonchalantly, “Yes, I build bodies—I take them apart and I put ’em back together.” At this junction we realize Seth is inhabiting familiar textual terrain—he is Victor Frankenstein and his monster, cohabiting. While that text left its two as a haunted pair in a chase to the icy ends of the earth, Seth Brundle is the scientist who has devised re-creation as the very basic alphabet of life, become the monster of his own begetting. That this monstrosity should wear such everyday garb of masculine self-assertion is part of the social reproductive text of the film. Seth chooses relatively gullible and compliant Tammy for his own teleportation sex mate, but she is reluctant to go through just on the strength of his urging. Ronnie comes to warn her, and Seth angrily replies to Tammy’s question about who Ronnie is with the retort “Oh, I live with my mother, too.” His anger at Ronnie’s intrusion on his masculine grandiosity takes the form of a fury at women as mothers, but the grotesquerie of this staple of male dependency rage is far more grotesque in this new terrain of narrative technological reproduction. He does live with his mother, because he is his own mother, his own father, and his own child, too, for that matter. Additionally, although he doesn’t know it yet, Ronnie is his mother, because she is pregnant with a Ronnie/Brundle-Fly composite, whose Brundle-Fly genetic part is the “being” Seth is rapidly becoming.

The sticking point of the narrative logic as it cascades forth with these implausible genealogical riddles is the nature of the fetus as the narrative terminus. While that fetus is only half Seth’s genetically, the logic drives us to an understanding of the reproduction as entailing a copy, or a simulacrum, of Brundle-Fly, while Ronnie’s genetic contribution drops out of narrative sight. This is hardly an oversight on the part of the film, in my view, but yet another replication of the social text. Note that in anti-abortion rhetoric the fetus is narrated as male almost exclusively, and the passion of many male adherents of right-to-life positions rests on the presumption that the fetus in jeopardy is, or could be, them. An examination of the language of Operation Rescue shows how powerful this gendering of the fetal imaginary is, so that the injury done to the fetus in aborting it is construed as a masculine narcissistic wounding. This psychic narrative loops back in time with all the vertiginous qualities of Cronenberg’s film, making fetuses homuncular copies of already adult men, who then grieve for their own putative aborting.

The terror of reproduction and reproductive technologies in toto is let loose in the film in its concentration on the abortion issue. To my knowledge it remains the only film—or at least the only mainstream Hollywood film—that has ever narrated abortion from the subject position of the woman contemplating it. This goes beyond the television movie narratives that have represented the decision on the part of sympathetically portrayed female characters, to interior subjective narrative that forces the audience inside the woman’s mind, in the case of The Fly into Ronnie’s very dream. We are deliberately “tricked” by the film into reading the sequence as “real,” at first, so that her trip to the hospital for the abortion appears to be diegetic. As she lies, terrified, in her hospital bed we cower in our seats as well, even the anti-abortionists among us having been horrified by the thought of the Brundle-Fly fetus. Ronnie’s dream is a charged arena of the social fears about women’s control, or lack thereof, of reproduction, intersecting with the male-inflected world of science, medical technology, and social authority. Like a sleepwalker she is wheeled down a bright pink hospital corridor, until we see her in the procedural room attended by a gynecologist played by the director, who is thus facetiously placed at the literal site of horror, the vaginal Medusa.

Fetuses are frightening creatures in their own right, because they are so different; on another level, they can seem to be something other than fetuses where fear about loss of male control is strongest. The truly monstrous image we are presented with in Ronnie’s shocker dream is theoretically not a whit less monstrous than the fetus we are asked to suspend disbelief she is actually carrying, but as a phallic monster or a penis-baby, it is hideously scary. The assumption is that one aspect of abortion in the social imaginary is the extrusion of male authority, abortion as castration of the symbolic male presence presiding at reproduction. This is extremely important to the logical economy of the film, because the antiseptic and innocent-seeming transport experiment has turned into a gene-splicing, reproductive mechanism that can, through an act of reading, shuffle the deck of the genetic code and come up with a new hand. Reproduction is stolen away, while at the same time a gender coding myth is enforced—the computer becomes male, and the telepods female. The Fly permits us to see that what is lost at one point in the system will have to crop up again in monstrous metamorphosis at another place. The throbbing phallus baby is, and forgive the antiquated theoretical language, a floating signifier spliced out by the disturbance created in the realms of sexual and social reproduction. If the bathwater is thrown out, the baby will be found somewhere. Thus the film is littered with references to the phallus, as when Ronnie is buying clothes for her then-new lover Seth, and the jealous Stathis Borans confronts her in the men’s department. When she says that Seth is doing remarkable work and that, as his chronicler, she is “on to something huge,” Borans shouts, “What’s huge—his cock?” Borans flaunts cigars as suggestively as Clarence Thomas might have, where the cigar is not just a cigar, but an image of the tactics and strategies of power that have the phallus to back them up. The towers of Monolith Publishing are hilariously phallic, and Stathis is also (almost) hilariously emasculated in the final scene, losing arms, legs, and other members with abandon. Seth’s gradual metamorphosis as Brundle-Fly is marked by the shedding of his human members, as he loses teeth, ears, fingers, and ultimately his penis, small as a mushroom and less formidable, relegated to a jar in the medicine cabinet of bodily curios.

It does not take long for Seth to realize that he is suffering from a disease, a “disease called life.” Explaining to Ronnie on one of her terrifying house calls that he now knows why he is subject to such grandiloquent decay, he refers to his metamorphosis as a disease with a purpose, to turn him into something else, Brundle-Fly. Here is a rebirth that must take place through total destruction, giving a new twist to Seth’s earlier boast that he wasn’t afraid to be destroyed and re-created. Moreover, this literally means that Seth has died to the flesh and come back to life, because where did he go when he was teleported into himself? The valences of these sequences in relation to AIDS are of course overwhelmingly poignant, and pertinent.

When Seth has discovered the nature of his disease—a disease for him, but for the computer’s active sequence, just another successful fusion in paradise—and before the subjectivity of Brundle-Fly begins to take command, he passes through an antic, almost surrealistically humorous period as a kind of underground man. Holed up in his apartment, he uses his scientific persona to watch himself and document the changes of this rare discovery, himself as an unprecedented genetic experiment. All his impulses to catalog and taxonomize are devoted to Seth’s extraordinary efforts to produce himself as an object of study, a narrating narrative body. In one scene Seth is ebullient, almost dizzy with the grotesqueness of his own being, and he stages a mock children’s science show for Ronnie’s videocam, demonstrating to the boys and girls out there how he eats his food now—by emitting a substance over his doughnuts he says is colloquially referred to, by the single species member of Brundle-Fly, as “vomit drops.” His hideous face still manages a toothy grin, and his transforming torso is still donned in a T-shirt, a sign of his link to human mass culture. He is like, and he knows he is like, and he spoofs being like, a crazed breakfast cereal commercial come to video life. Seth’s insertion into a simulacrum of TV as an Incredible Hulk/Mr. Wizard celebrity indicates the narrative level of representation or aesthetic reproduction the film also explores. No one is exempt from the image circuit, not even a housebound housefly extraordinaire. This narrative level accords Seth a new, mass-cultural identity that is reproduced along the circuits of the media. We watch in rather agonized nausea through the lens of Ronnie’s camera, as the scene slowly changes to Stathis Borans watching this same video tape on Ronnie’s VCR. She has played it for him as a proof of the transformation, and as Stathis watches in disgust he little realizes he is being tutored in the mode of his own mutilation.

Let me advert here to one of the most remarkable scenes of the film, the height of its convergence of personal and political narrativity. Ronnie has come to tell Seth that she is pregnant but will be having an abortion; however, he is so much a Fly at this stage that she cannot really tell him, there being no Seth left to tell. Instead, Brundle-Fly delivers his own eulogy:

“Have you ever heard of insect politics? Insects don’t have politics. They’re very brutal—no compassion, no compromise. We can’t trust the insect. I’d like to become the first insect politician.”

Ronnie asks, “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying I’m an insect who dreamed you as a man, but now the dream is over, and the insect is awake. … I’ll hurt you if you stay.”

Ronnie exits, while we are left to witness Brundle-Fly’s choking insect sobs. While there may be bathos in this (and a little bathos in my opinion never hurt anybody), there is also politics. Seth has been innocent of more than sex, and it is important for bringing the narrative ontologies of reproduction together that the locus of Brundle-Fly transformation is the border of Canada and the United States, a little pre-NAFTA, but still symbolic of the fusing borders of late or global technological capitalism. Seth had considered himself a scientist without portfolio, unbeholden to the corporations who would presumably have manufactured his teleportation invention. Bartok Systems controls his research, but he has never really been part of their corporate structure. Seth has an almost childlike conviction that the system he has developed will be used for transport only, that it will help to annul cultural borders and boundaries. Just as he discounts his own contribution, by saying that he is a systems management man who farms out the really hard pieces of work to scientists even more reclusive than he (the romantic genius notion of science), so he ignores the presence of the real systems management, that in effect predetermines the catastrophic outcome of his experiment in space and time. James Watson, the famed geneticist and co-cracker of the genetic code, has been working for the Genome project, the attempt to map out completely every single human gene particle. This project is being fought over by scientists who want more government funding devoted to it, and by a technology corporation called Genome that wants to undertake the mapping as a private project with patent protection. Both groups refer to the process of identifying all the human genes as reading the language of the human being, with the molecular-genetic code as a kind of script. The goals of the groups diverge, though; Watson argues for the efficacy of the project as offering hope for genetically transmitted diseases, while Genome wants to be able to sell information on genetic codes to those who want to buy, on that new information superhighway. Both groups use millennial language to sell this technological sublime. The film is investigating precisely this: how control of the Particle level, as in Particle magazine, becomes part of the Monolith, the mega-control of life as corporate, intellectual, property. The uses of technology do not (usually) belong to those who conceive them at the particle level; they belong, ultimately and permanently, to the monolith, for whom the loss of Seth Brundle and the ghastly spit-out at the finish have no more meaning than these do for the computer’s implacable screen. Brundle has been involved in a Faustian trade-off, without his knowledge—the corporation owns his intellectual labor and will determine what to do with it, until Brundle’s dreams of effortless travel will be unrecognizable in their remoteness. What Brundle has stumbled on, because he works in a corner of the corporate empire, is a way to decode the entire living world, a device that operates as a super reading machine, as a super reproductive machine. Brundle may become the fly that fell to earth, but that is a mere wrinkle in the corporatization of the technology of life.

Something that cannot be accounted for in the systems of narrative reproduction I have been discussing is the phantom excess or commensurability, the volatility, of this narrative body. I am forced to give that volatility a name in the context of this film, where it is love (allow me to provisionally call it that) that offers the volatilization. Sexual reproduction may sometimes coincidentally occur as the result of what sometimes is “an act of love,” but that has nothing to do with the process or its outcome; simulacral reproduction seems immune to the realms of love and the reproduction of social relations to rely on ideologies of love for its own purposes. The bombastic pathos of the end of the movie, however, highlights love as an uncomfortable extra circulating through these systems. What else can account for Ronnie’s inability to kill off the despairing new mutant, Brundle-Fly-Telepod, or for that unnameable being’s sacrificial placing of the rifle to its own head?

Ronnie’s narrative is the most difficult one to suppress or repress. At one point she says to Stathis Borans, in arguing why her research with Seth is so important: “I’m the only recorder of this event from the inside out.” Those words come literally true, as her recording is also reproductive. For much of the first part of the film Ronnie is the recorder, and frames and sets up scenes through her camera superimposed on the film’s point of view. When she finds out she is pregnant, her place behind the camera comes to a halt. The narrative has been extended inside her—she is recording it from the inside out, a telepod or transporter of Seth’s genetic narrative. At the film’s end, with the death of Brundle-Fly-telepod, Ronnie’s story is still left over. We almost forget that the fetus is still inside her, that the narrative of reproduction has not been officially halted. The death of Brundle-Fly-Telepod is as much a self-sacrifice as Gregor Samsa’s quiet death was: the human machine puts itself abjectly to death, it practices insect politics. For Seth Brundle the monstrous task of self-knowledge has ended on a trebly Oedipal note. What is clear in the sexual politics of the narrative is that Cronenberg never intended to make a sequel featuring the impossible baby, as if that route could finesse the mother Ronnie and continue on with male self-reproduction in the form of Seth II. Instead, what is left is Ronnie’s narrative, from the inside out, discontinuous, with no way left to report it.

The Fly shows us that every act of narration leaves its mark, leaves its trace, if not as openly and monstrously as the transformations of Seth Brundle. Seth Brundle is read by the computer and fused with a housefly—“We weren’t even properly introduced,” he points out. The technologies of narrative have moved even to the submolecular level, where strangely enough, metaphor can also be seen to inhere. Love entered in for Seth Brundle as he hoped to become the first insect politician, an emissary from the reading machine, and it kept him fixated on preserving the last bit of “himself” introjected into Ronnie’s body. This was an illusion, of course, the illusion that Seth Brundle could still exist, unread and uncoded, and led to his attempt to form the most nuclear family ever conceived, by transporting himself and Ronnie in the telepod to fuse their three into one. This is another of love’s lost illusions. Where should the love that I am talking about come in, then? And what rough beast comes stalking to the telepod to be born? The imponderability and the impossibility of the millennial new man, the fly-Christ-woman-telepod that hovers at the threshold of the new century, is a narrative abyss and a technological one. The terror is that our technology, which cinema has best represented since its invention in 1894, is no longer a representable one, or a narratizable one. The Fly as film acknowledges its own superfluity in the face of that sublime terror and fades out on a human, female, face.

Asuman Suner (essay date Winter 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8445

SOURCE: “Postmodern Double Cross: Reading David Cronenberg’s M. Butterfly as a Horror Story,” in Cinema Journal, Vol. 37, No. 2, Winter, 1998, pp. 49–64.

[In the following essay, Suner writes that the foundation of Cronenberg's film M. Butterfly is based upon the conflict between the colonizer and the colonized, between West and East, between male and female. Suner also argues that the film addresses the male search for identity through the use of an inwardly fragile male protagonist.]

David Cronenberg’s cinema has received considerable critical attention in recent years not only from film scholars but also from scholars working on contemporary cultural theory, particularly theories of postmodernism. For that latter group of scholars, Cronenberg’s films testify to the emergence of a “postmodern,” “postgender,” and “posthuman” subjectivity. In Terminal Identity, for example, Scott Bukatman reads Cronenberg’s cinema in relation to the coming out of a new “information/space age”1 According to Bukatman, Cronenberg’s films stage a “terminal identity,” which refers to a double articulation: “both the end of the subject and a new subjectivity constructed at the computer station or television screen.”2 All the protagonists in Cronenberg’s films, according to Bukatman, signify a “slippage” in human definition: “the loss of power over the form of the human, the visible sign of our being, combines with the absence of the moral certainties that once guided that power.”3

What is not sufficiently addressed in Bukatman’s analysis is the fact that the “double articulation of subjectivity” in Cronenberg’s films, which refers to both the end of the subject and the construction of a new postmodern mode of subjectivity, is not a postgender or posthuman phenomenon but is deeply grounded in gender. In Cronenberg’s cinema, it is specifically the male subject whose unified, coherent, and central status is disturbed and disarticulated. The new, decentered, and fluid mode of subjectivity which signifies a “slippage in human definition” is also unmistakably male. As Michael O’Pray puts it, “The Cronenberg mise-en-scène of techno-phantasy upon which his reputation rests—the parasites the growths, the visceral invasions of the body—is male through and through.”4

Cronenberg’s 1993 film M. Butterfly occupies a particularly interesting place in the director’s cinema, because for the first time he articulates the crisis of the male subject not only in terms of the questions of gender and the crisis of modernity but also in terms of the questions of race, ethnicity, and imperialism. Unlike some well-known Cronenberg films such as Videodrome (1985), The Fly (1986), Dead Ringers (1988), or Naked Lunch (1991), M. Butterfly cannot be categorized within the confines of horror and/or science fiction genres. Instead, M. Butterfly is a “political melodrama” set in postrevolutionary China.5 There is a double sense of politics in the term “political melodrama,” since melodrama, as a genre exploring the politics of desire and subjectivity in the private realm, is always already political. Revolving around personal dramas that the characters undergo in the periods of social upheaval and transformation, political melodrama reads a particular historical situation through the lens of the politics of desire and subjectivity. Since the mid-1980s, political melodrama has been most effectively incorporated by the Fifth Generation Chinese directors whose films have gained considerable international attention. In the films like Army Nurse (Hu Mei, 1984), The Blue Kite (Tian Zhuang Zhuang, 1993), and Farewell My Concubine (Chen Kaige, 1994), personal dramas at the foreground are grounded in the social and political context of the Cultural Revolution taking place in the background.6 Exploring the issues of subjectivity, desire, and sexuality against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution, M. Butterfly has an interesting affinity with contemporary Chinese cinema.

Because of the drastic shift of genre conventions from science fiction and/or horror story to political melodrama, one can argue that M. Butterfly is at odds with Cronenberg’s earlier films. In this paper, I will try to show that M. Butterfly does not represent a rupture from Cronenberg’s conventional style. M. Butterfly is indeed also a horror story, like the director’s earlier films, but of a different sort.

In Cronenberg’s cinema, horror arises from the violation of the boundaries of the male body and male subjectivity. Abjection of the male body, in other words, is the primary source of terror. Usually, it is the excessive desire for transcendence and omnipotence on the part of the male protagonist that causes the ultimate destruction of the male body. The impulsive male desire for omnipotence and transcendence is connected with the modernist ideals of asserting full control over nature through the means of scientific and geographical discovery which would supposedly lead to the progress and emancipation of humanity. In films like Videodrome, The Fly and Dead Ringers, male protagonists aggressively push the boundaries of the human body to transcend its limits. In each case, however, the desire to assert full control over nature results in total loss of control, the desire to transcend the limits of the body results in getting stuck even deeper in the flesh, the desire for omnipotence ends up in ruination. In these films, the male protagonists over and over again experience metamorphosis, abjection, and monstrosity. M. Butterfly, in this context, is also a horror story, since it is about the violation of the boundaries defining and securing male subjectivity. Like the other Cronenberg films, in M. Butterfly, the impossible male fantasy for omnipotence eventually leads to the psychic and physical destruction of the male subject.

Reading M. Butterfly as an extension of the earlier Cronenberg films, however, is not to suggest that M. Butterfly is first and foremost a Cronenberg film, carries the signature of its “auteur,” and reflects solely Cronenberg’s voice. M. Butterfly obviously echoes multiple voices other than Cronenberg’s, including the voices of the Chinese American playwright Henry Hwang (whose play had been originally staged on Broadway and then adapted to cinema) and the actors (particularly Jeremy Irons and John Lone). Moreover, the film, as a complex cultural text, reflects the issues and sensibilities of its own time. It is not a coincidence, for example, that M. Butterfly came out at a period when the issues of transvestism, homoeroticism, and homosexuality have become more and more explored even in the mainstream cinema.7 In this paper, my reading of M. Butterfly in the context of Cronenberg’s cinema obviously does not aim to preclude alternative readings of the film emphasizing other voices involved in the film text.


The story of M. Butterfly is inspired by a notorious “real-life” scandal: a French junior diplomat was driven to spying during the course of an eighteen-year-long love affair with a Chinese transvestite who he never realized was actually a man. Henry Hwang turned the political scandal into a play and then a film scenario. Hwang organized the entire story around Puccini’s famous opera Madame Butterfly, which contains, in Hwang’s terms, “a wealth of sexist and racist clichés.”8Madame Butterfly, in other words, is a showcase of the Western sexual/colonial fantasy which is most vividly embodied in the opera through the stereotypical representation of the submissive and obedient “Oriental” woman who falls in love with a Western, white man and sacrifices herself for him.9 Hwang reads the text of Puccini’s opera against the grain and creates a “deconstructivist Madame Butterfly”: the story of a French diplomat who falls in love with the image of an ideal Oriental woman which is created by Western modernist/imperialist culture. What is “deconstructivist” in this story is that the ideal Oriental woman is actually a man, and, at the end, the French diplomat turns himself into “M. Butterfly.”

Adapting Hwang’s play into film, Cronenberg emphasized an element which is already strongly evident in the original text: the blatant banality of the Western sexual/colonial fantasy. Cronenberg’s camera in the film assumes the French diplomat’s dull and ignorant perspective, turning the entire historical complexity of Chinese culture into a big cliché. In effect, what is offered by Cronenberg’s film is not so much a critique but a caricature of the old imperialist dream, the romance with the Other. The blatant banality of the colonial fantasy is emphasized in M. Butterfly on both narrative and visual levels.

Two major discursive strategies can be delineated in modernist narratives in relation to the representation of the Western sexual/colonial fantasy: “colonization of the feminine” and “feminization of the colonized.” Both strategies center around the Western, white, male subject who is the main protagonist of a sexual/colonial scenario through which he assures the unity and integrity of his own identity. In this respect, there is a commonality in the representations of women and the colonized (non-Western, nonwhite) cultures on the basis of the shared strategies employed by Western modernist discourse in constructing them as Others with regard to the Western, white, male subject. In both cases, Otherness is constituted as a fixed, stereotypical construct. Homi Bhabha asserts that “an important feature of colonial discourse is its dependence on the concept of ‘fixity’ in the ideological construction of otherness. Fixity as the sign of cultural/historical/racial difference in the discourse of colonialism is a paradoxical mode of representation: it connotes rigidity and an unchanging order as well as disorder, degeneracy and demonic repetition.”10 In this regard, then, what gives the colonial stereotype its currency is its ambivalence. The colonial stereotype connotes both a desire and an anxiety. It is simultaneously inscribed in the economy of pleasure/desire and domination/power. In turn, the double articulation of the forms of sexual and racial difference in the colonial body marks it simultaneously as the object of desire and domination at once in relation to the Western modernist project and its central subject. The intertwining discursive formations of racial/sexual desire and domination produce and maintain the status of Western, white, male identity as the sovereign subject of the modernist project. Parallel discursive strategies employed in the construction of Otherness on the part of women and colonized people consistently invest them with the attributes of difference, disorderliness, chaos, mystery, enigma, irrationality, and so forth. Exotic and erotic become intermingled discursive tropes in the modernist narratives, justifying the discovery and control of the female/colonized body.

At this point, it is important to note that the construction of Otherness on the part of women and colonized people is constitutive for the centrality of the Western, white, male subject in the hegemonic humanist discourse of modernity. As Chandra Talpade Mohanty notes: “it is only insofar as ‘woman/women’ and ‘the East’ are defined as Others, or as peripheral, that (Western) Man/Humanism can represent him/itself as the center. It is not the center that determines the periphery, but the periphery that, in its boundedness, determines the center.”11 Therefore, the very constitution of the Western, white, male subject depends upon the construction of Otherness in a certain way. The intertwined strategies of the colonization of the feminine and the feminization of the colonized open up a discursive space in which the categories of self/other, male/female, subject/object. West/non-West appear as binary oppositional constructs that mutually define and determine each other. It is not only the first term that defines, determines, and controls the meaning of the second, but it is also the second term that gives definition to the first one.

M. Butterfly overtly employs these two discursive strategies—colonization of the feminine and feminization of the colonized—in its portrayal of Otherness. On both narrative and visual levels, the film highlights the interplay between the binary oppositional categories of male/female and West/East.

M. Butterfly consistently associates erotic desire with desire for domination from the first encounter of its two protagonists, the French diplomat (Rene Gallimard) and the Chinese opera singer (Song Liling). Gallimard (played by Jeremy Irons) first sees Song (played by John Lone) at an ambassador’s residence in Beijing where she performs the death scene from Madame Butterfly.12 Deeply moved by Puccini’s opera, Gallimard has a chance to talk to Song after her performance. Gallimard says that Song’s performance made him realize for the first time the beauty of Madame Butterfly’s story. What Gallimard finds beautiful in this story, in his own words, is the “pure sacrifice” and the “death” of the Oriental woman. Although Song belittles Gallimard’s taste as a product of a colonialist mentality, the French diplomat still falls in love with the romantic imperialist fantasy in Puccini’s opera. The dominant/submissive pattern of the fantasy that Gallimard falls in love with is vividly illustrated on the record cover of the opera that he orders the day after he meets with Song. On the record cover, we see a man standing in a white navy uniform and an Oriental woman in a kimono kneeling down in front of her lover. Gallimard looks at this dull cliché admiringly. What he is actually attracted to is the stereotypical image of the Oriental woman as passive, submissive, and obedient. As Gallimard admits at the end of the film, he in fact falls in love with the image of an Oriental woman created by the Western man.

As their relationship develops, Gallimard’s desire to restage the dominant/submissive pattern of the colonial romance becomes more aggressive. Once he gets Song’s affection, he starts to ignore her. Song’s desperate letters, overt vulnerability, and passive obedience make him feel, for the first time, the “absolute power of a man.” For Gallimard, this is an exciting experience. As in Puccini’s opera, what is arousing is the experiment of catching a butterfly, piercing its heart with a needle, and then leaving it to perish. The new masculine self-confidence that Gallimard gains through his domination over Song makes him more successful in his diplomatic career, and he gets a promotion to vice-consul. Learning that he is promoted, Gallimard goes to see Song after several weeks of not answering her messages. Now, being flattered by his victory, he wants Song to say that she is his butterfly. Behind Gallimard’s determination to hear Song’s submission is the eroticized imperialist desire to conquer and dominate the Other. In order to assure his own “masculine” self-integrity and power, Gallimard needs a declaration of “feminine” submissiveness on the part of the Other. Once Song accepts being his butterfly, Gallimard never uses her name again; instead, he calls her “butterfly.” The metaphors that Gallimard chooses to name their relationship are no less revealing with regard to his desire to conquer and dominate. Theirs is a “master/slave” relationship. Song is an “obedient slave,” a little “schoolgirl” waiting for her lessons.

In the course of the years that Gallimard spent with Song as his mistress, the last instance that his masculine potency is fully affirmed is when he learns that Song is pregnant with his child. In this way, all his suspicions about his own masculine potency are happily resolved. The moment that Gallimard learns that Song is pregnant with his child marks the moment when the remaking of the Madame Butterfly story is completed: just as in Puccini’s opera, we have a Western man having a child from his Oriental mistress. What happens next, however, is not the tragic and “beautiful” death of the Oriental mistress.

The second major narrative strategy employed by M. Butterfly is the feminization of the colonized. In Woman and Chinese Modernity, Rey Chow analyzes Bernardo Bertolucci’s highly acclaimed film The Last Emperor (1987) by employing the psychoanalytic model developed by Laura Mulvey.13 In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Mulvey engages in a critique of the patriarchal regime of looking embedded in the visual organization and narrative structure of mainstream cinema and suggests that in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. In this regard, the three kinds of gaze involved in the cinema (the gaze of the main character, the gaze of the camera, and the gaze of the spectator) collapse into one masculine gaze. Whereas the gaze in cinema is necessarily masculine, the sexualized image on the screen has to be feminine. Chow further complicates Mulvey’s argument in two ways. First, she extends the interpretation of “image as woman” to “image as feminized space” which can be occupied by a male as well as a female character. In this way, “femininity” as a category is freed up to include fictional constructs that may not be “women” but that occupy a passive position in regard to the controlling symbolic.14 Femininity, in other words, does not have to refer to a woman; it can be produced as a feminized space and spectacle. Second, Chow asserts that the “image as feminized space” raises questions as to what is involved in the representation of “other” cultures. The category of Other is mostly produced in the dominant cinema as a “feminized space.” According to Chow, in Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, for example, China occupies the “feminized space” in the cinematic structure of eroticism. Idealizing China through the category of the feminine, The Last Emperor counterposes China to the West not only because the former is different but also because it is “feminine” from the masculinized perspective of the West. Through this feminization, China is marked off taxonomically from “our” time, and it is located within an ahistorical mode of existence in which it is allowed to play with its own rhythms. Being defined as a mysterious, exotic, and spectacular culture, the entire social and political complexity of Chinese society is reduced to a pure object of display investigated and colonized by the masculinized Western gaze.

Following a similar line of argumentation, I would like to suggest that China is consistently depicted as a “feminized space/spectacle” in M. Butterfly. Within the film’s narrative, Chinese society is portrayed from the perspective of the French diplomats, especially that of Gallimard. In this view, China is romanticized and eroticized as an Oriental culture whose exotic and mysterious quality makes its control justifiable. As Edward Said argues in Orientalism, the Orient is constructed as a distinct entity whose traditional ways and rhythms mark it off from the modern Western culture.15 Orientals live in their world, “we” live in ours. A certain “freedom of intercourse,” however, is always the Westerner’s privilege; because his is the stronger culture, he can penetrate, he can wrestle with, and he can give shape and meaning to the Orient.

In this framework, Gallimard himself has a cherishing approach to China which benevolently acknowledges that “the Orientals are people too.” For him, Chinese people are willing to get the good things that the Westerners could give them; indeed, they find Western ways exciting, though they would never admit it. These “feminine” attributes which portray Chinese people as naive, childish, and submissive also imply that China requires Western control not in brutal but benevolent terms. Ella Shohat suggests that the “civilizing mission” of Europe is established in colonial narratives through two ostensibly opposite but actually connected constructs of the Other culture as feminine: the “inviting virginal landscape” versus the “resisting libidinal nature.” Shohat notes: “colonial discourse oscillates between these two master tropes, alternatively positioning the colonized ‘other’ as blissfully ignorant, pure and welcoming as well as an uncontrollable savage, wild native whose chaotic, hysteric presence requires the imposition of the law, i.e., the suppression of resistance.”16 Given this split discourse of virginal/libidinal, Gallimard’s approach to China clearly falls into the first narrative trope, which sees the Other culture in a state of availability, that is, logically calling for Western penetration. In this sense, Gallimard’s response after learning that Song is a virgin is characteristic of his overall attitude to China as a feminized culture: “Then, I want to teach you gently!” A similar chain of reasoning is also evident in Gallimard’s rather naive opinions about the Vietnam war which eventually lead to his transfer to France. Since “the Orientals simply want to be associated with whoever shows the most strength and power,” Gallimard suggests that the Vietnamese people would welcome Americans. Relying upon his own sexual/colonial fantasy, he envisions the “Oriental world” as a shy but in essence passionate virgin, submissively welcoming Western “penetration.”

Feminization of the colonized is a recurrent strategy in M. Butterfly at the visual as well as the narrative level. Visually, the film offers a blatantly banal and romanticized image of China. In a sense, Cronenberg’s camera totally identifies with Gallimard’s perspective and shows us how the French diplomat sees China as an eroticized Oriental culture. Though it was shot on location, the China reflected in M. Butterfly is unmistakably artificial and visibly staged. The effect of staginess is self-consciously created by the film at the very opening. The film begins with the image of a white door opening from left to right. As the credits appear on the screen one by one, we begin to see certain objects moving from left to right against a background composed of Chinese watercolors and prints moving in the opposite direction. The slowly moving objects on the screen are supposed to represent the traditional Chinese culture to a stranger, probably to a Westerner. We see a mask from the traditional Chinese theater, a little purple piece of flower made of tulle, a globe-shaped object covered with yin and yang signs, a small Chinese umbrella, a traditional musical instrument, a rice cup with Chinese prints on it, a blue stamp, a little butterfly. These can easily be the souvenir objects that one can find in the living room of a Western traveler who has visited China. These small artifacts do not necessarily tell us anything about China, but they successfully reveal the commonplace image of China in the West. The opening of the film with the display of the objects which supposedly symbolize the “authentic” Chinese culture gives the first signal of the fact that Cronenberg’s real concern in M. Butterfly is not Chinese society but the image of China in Western imagery. In this sense, Cronenberg’s camera never pretends to be a transparent medium reflecting the reality of a different culture. On the contrary, we are consistently reminded that what we see is an artificially constructed image of China. The exaggerated constructedness of the film is especially evident in the use of color and lighting. In the outdoor shooting, especially when nighttime is represented, Cronenberg uses an excessive purple lighting. With the artificial color effect, Beijing’s dim and foggy streets appear exotic and mysterious. In such a theatrical setting and lighting, we see equally artificial images from Chinese culture: an old Chinese man hunting butterflies along the river, a small handcart fading out in the darkness of the night. Every image contributes to the artificially constructed look of the film, which is self-consciously ignorant of the cultural and historical complexity of China. In this regard, the political developments in Chinese society (the Cultural Revolution) are also reduced to a cliché.

The staginess of the film, however, is nowhere more evident than in the first and the last images. As I mentioned above, the first image of the film is a white door opening from left to right. The last image is also a white door (this time, the door of the plane that is carrying Song back to China) closing in the opposite direction: from right to left. The effect created by these two images that we see at the beginning and at the end is that of a bracketing which emphasizes the constructedness of the events in the film. In a sense, these opening and closing doors function like the opening and closing curtains in a theater performance: both mark the film/performance of the “reality.” The choice of the opening and closing doors as the first and the last images of the film, in this respect, does not seem to be coincidental; instead, it illustrates the film’s preoccupation with theatricality and staginess. This is a pull away from the cinematic conventions of realist representation to an artificial construction of reality. In this regard, Cronenberg does not try to give us a realistic representation of Chinese society, but he plays with the eroticized imperialist fantasy that produces China as a feminized Other.

On the visual level, China is constructed as a “feminized space” in M. Butterfly most evidently through a strong emphasis on the spectacular aspect of the Chinese culture, which is strikingly embodied in the Oriental theater. As Marjorie Garber points out, makeup, costume, symbols, and stylization are the key elements of the Oriental theater as it is known by the West.17 In Western culture, these are also the key elements of female impersonation. In M. Butterfly, China is constructed as an enigmatic Oriental woman hidden behind a spectacular mask represented by the traditional Chinese theater. The mask is a recurring figure in M. Butterfly and symbolizes the enigmatic and mysterious qualities of the feminized China. The mask, just like the veil, covering the face of the non-Western (and usually female) Other, has a special meaning in the Western sexual/colonial imagination. It provokes curiosity and desire on the part of the Western subject to discover the truth of the Other. On the one hand, it is seductive, since it invites an intervention to solve the puzzle, to reveal the truth hiding behind it. On the other hand, it indicates a “danger” because of its opaque structure that prevents the Western male gaze from seeing through it. Behind the mask, there is the unknown, the enigma, the trap. This double function of the mask as a seductive and dangerous figure is undertaken by the heavy makeup that Song puts on when she performs in the Oriental theater. Her costume, makeup, and hairstyle function as a deceptive cover which provokes Gallimard (as well as the audience) to see her truth. Rather than reinforcing it, however, M. Butterfly subverts the Western sexual/colonial fantasy by suggesting that there is no “truth” behind the mask. The film never attempts to capture the “truth” of the Orient. On the contrary, at the end, the mask is finally put on by the Western, white, male subject through a subversive role reversal.


What makes a film which simultaneously reveals and reproduces the blatant banality of the Western sexual/colonial fantasy subversive? Adapting Marjorie Garber’s argument, I would like to argue that the subversive potential of M. Butterfly lies in the border crossings that it invokes.18 In this sense, it can be argued that the film is based on political, cultural, and sexual acts of border crossing that revolve around the notions of spying, acting, and performing. In each case, the act of border crossing is embodied by the figure of the transvestite. According to Garber, the transvestite figure functions simultaneously as a mark of gender undecidability and an indication of crisis. Here, crisis means “a failure of definitional distinction, a borderline that becomes permeable, that permits border crossings from one (apparently distinct) category to another.”19 The borders between male/female and West/East are crossed twice in M. Butterfly, first by Song and then by Gallimard.

Song’s presence in the film as a transvestite body is consistently contained within the boundaries of performance. As an actress she performs on the stage, and as a spy s/he performs off the stage. In each case, s/he crosses sexual, cultural, and political borders. Through this constant shuttling between different positions and roles, we never know Song’s true identity. Her/his “reality” is circumscribed by the different roles s/he performs. In her own terms, she always tries her best to become someone else. And in each performance what we get is this someone else, not Song’s true identity. In this way, the identity of the transvestite figure in M. Butterfly is deliberately constructed as performative. Song’s multiple performances, as both female and male, put into question the very binary oppositional categories of male and female as ontological essences. To use Judith Butler’s argument about the “performativeness” of gender, Song’s impersonation of the Oriental woman implicitly suggests that “gender is a kind of persistent impersonation that passes as the real.”20 In imitating femininity so perfectly, the transvestite figure actually reveals the fabricated structure of gender itself. The transvestite body suggests that gender is constituted through the stylization of the body and through the stylized repetition of certain bodily movements, gestures, and acts. What is subversive about the transvestite figure embodied by Song, then, is the way that transvestism renders the notion of “true” gender identity obsolete. As Butler notes: “If the inner truth of gender is a fabrication and if a true gender is a fantasy instituted and inscribed on the surface of bodies, then it seems that genders can be neither true nor false.”21 Similarly, at the end of the film, it is impossible to tell which performance of Song (female or male) is “true” and which one is “false.” All we have is several border crossings; each passes as the real.

It is possible to identify four major performances by Song in M. Butterfly. Each performance is supported by the use of special costumes, hairstyles, and makeup. First, Song has on-stage performances in which she plays several roles from traditional Chinese theater as well as from Western opera. In these performances, she usually puts on exaggerated costumes and makeup.

Second, Song plays the ideal Oriental woman in her relationship with Gallimard. In this off-stage performance, her costumes are simple but elegant. The dark or white silk tunics and slim pants she wears reflect her modesty and humility as a traditional Chinese woman. (Indeed, her costume is nowhere more vital than in this performance, since it hides his genitals. Even when Song makes love with Gallimard, she refuses to take off her clothes.) Similarly, her makeup and long, black hair seem quite plain and “natural.” In performing the ideal Oriental woman, every single gesture is carefully calculated. Song usually sits on her knees and looks down. There is always a suffering expression on her face. Her voice is soft and low. All these details build up the image of the obedient, submissive, and self-effacing Oriental woman. After all, as Song herself puts it, she gives a perfect performance as the Oriental woman, because “only a man can know how a woman is supposed to act.”

The third performance by Song is a more complicated one, that is, her/his performance as a spy working for the Chinese government. In this case, s/he plays a man who impersonates a woman for the sake of his country. The troubling aspect of this performance is that Song continues to wear feminine clothes even when s/he is giving reports to the Chinese officials. To justify his situation, he says that he practices his deception as often as possible. In this statement, her/his identity is even more obscure: what is Song’s deception? Being a female or being a male, being a lover or being a spy? The film does not allow us to know either her/his “deception” or her/his “reality.” All we have is a constant sense of ambivalence between ever-changing roles and performances. Interestingly enough, Chin, the Chinese official that Song contacts, gives another gender performance that further complicates Song’s position.22 As a committed member of the Chinese Communist Party, Chin stylizes her body in such a manner that she tries to efface all signs of femininity. Hers is a performance of androgyny. Once again, gender appears as a performative construct, a truth effect which is produced through a certain stylization of the body. The contrast between Song and Chin is strikingly ironic: a man who tries to be feminine and a woman who tries not to be feminine.

The fourth performance by Song is that of a man. His performance of a Chinese homosexual man being judged in a French court for spying against the French government is again accompanied by a certain stylization of the body. In this performance, Song looks like a real man with his short hair, his masculine face without makeup, and his dark-gray suit. Here, Cronenberg engages another small trick to further unsettle the notion of a stable gender identity. In contrast to Song (the homosexual), who looks like a “normal” man with his plain appearance, the members of the court (the supposedly regular, heterosexual French men) look quite “queer” with the small red caps they wear as part of their embellished costumes. Once again, gender is to be found operating in the realm of stylization and performance.

The most ambiguous moment in the film—and one which does not quite fit into any of these performances—is when Song takes off her/his clothes for the first time in front of Gallimard while they are brought to the jail in the same van. In this scene, we see Song naked only from behind. By denying the sight of his frontal nudity to the audience, Cronenberg once again avoids giving us a final closure with regard to the gender ambiguity surrounding the transvestite body. We see Song’s naked body bent and kneeling in front of Gallimard. Song’s body is marked by the ambivalent signs of both genders. Despite the short hair and masculine lines of the body, s/he speaks with her/his soft female voice. Song wants Gallimard to look at her/his body; after all, s/he says, “under the robes, beneath everything, it was always me.” The pronoun “me” escapes from any gender marker. Therefore, when Song declares that under the “mask” there was always the same person, indeed he/she does not reveal much about the truth of that person. As Homi Bhabha argues in a different context, the most threatening aspect of mimicry is that it “conceals no presence or identity behind its mask.”23 The ontology of gender/colonial mimicry in this sense defeats the binary opposition between essence and appearance, inner truth and surface, and renders the notion of essence/inner truth of identity obsolete. At the end of Song’s final performance, although we know that it was always the same person behind the mask, we are left not knowing who this person really was beyond the roles s/he played.


Unlike Song, whose presence in the film is consistently framed as performative, Gallimard saves his sole performance to the very end. This is an on-stage performance which is set in a French prison where he was put after having been convicted of spying. In front of an all-male audience, Gallimard transforms his body into the body of an Oriental woman: Madame Butterfly. As he puts makeup on his face, Gallimard begins to tell his story to his audience. With each item that he puts on his body (first he wears a black kimono with a white belt, then he puts exaggerated, masklike makeup on his face, and lastly he wears a black wig), he gradually becomes a transvestite. Gallimard’s performance is juxtaposed with the scene showing Song in an airplane returning to China. By juxtaposing these two scenes, the film radically switches the gender and ethnic stereotypes that it had presented at the beginning: now we have Song in a suit and Gallimard in a kimono, Song as a male, Gallimard as a transvestite. Toward the end of his performance, Gallimard remarks: “I have a vision … Of the Orient … that, deep within its almond eyes, there are still women. Women willing to sacrifice themselves for the love of a man. Even a man whose love is completely without worth.” With a spectacular twist at the end of the film, Gallimard becomes one of these women, while Song becomes the man whose love is worthless. Gallimard’s final words are “My name is Rene Gallimard, also known as Madame Butterfly.” Once again, the pronoun “me” escapes from a gender marker. Mirroring Song’s final statement (“under the robes, beneath everything, it was always me”). Gallimard’s self-definition at the end also embodies a gender ambiguity (“My name is Rene Gallimard, also known as Madame Butterfly”). As the audience applauds him, Gallimard cuts his throat with a small mirror that he used when he applied his makeup. After he collapses, we can see Gallimard’s bloody face reflected in the mirror as he dies. The horror in this scene arises from the disjuncture between fantasy and the real, “body-as-experience” and “body-as-spectacle.” At fantasy level, Gallimard identifies with “Madame Butterfly” and experiences the “graceful” self-sacrifice of the Oriental woman for pure love. The smooth and lyrical tone of his voice speaks the seamless elegance of Madame Butterfly. The spectacle of his body, however, reflects the grotesque image of a composite being who transgresses the conventional boundaries of gender and ethnic identity. Like Cronenberg’s other films, monstrosity occurs at the borderline, at an undecidable and composite space. The incompatibility of “body-as-experience” (Cronenberg’s male protagonists always experience empowerment and liberation at the beginning of the process of monstrous transformation) with “body-as-spectacle” (the male protagonists’ lack of awareness about the monstrosity of their look makes them even more horrifying) is the locus of abjection in M. Butterfly.

In Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva develops the concept of “abjection” in relation to the notion of a self-integrated and unified body.24 According to Kristeva, subjectivity is organized around an awareness of the boundaries that separate inside and outside and, in this way, around the sense of the body as a unified whole. In this regard, the constitution of acceptable forms of subjectivity demands the expulsion of those things that are defined as improper and unclean, that do not respect borders.25 Those expelled things that disturb identity and order are constituted as the abject. What causes abjection, then, are the things that disturb identity, system, and order. In other words, the abject is “what does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.”26 According to Kristeva, the boundary between the subject and the abject can never be completely secured. The abject continuously threatens the borders of subjectivity. The subject’s relation to the abject, however, should not be conceived only as fear and repulsion. Besides being threatened by the abject, the subject is also fascinated and enticed by it.

Cronenberg’s films are predicated on the pleasures and terrors of abjection. The male protagonists in Cronenberg’s films usually experience abjection quite literally through a monstrous transformation which includes the dissolution of the boundaries defining and securing the body as a unified and integrated whole. Borders of the male body and male subjectivity are radically decomposed in a way that the inside and the outside of the body, the self and the other, human and nonhuman are no longer identifiable as separate entities.27M. Butterfly is consistent with Cronenberg’s earlier films in the sense that its white, male protagonist experiences abjection at the end of the film as a result of his desire to enact the Western sexual/colonial fantasy. Gallimard pursues a romantic ideal to reach omnipotence. He wants to play the part of the white hero in Western sexual/colonial fantasy who would enjoy absolute domination over the Other. His desire for fullness and omnipotence, however, only brings a complete loss of unity and self-integrity. Crossing the borders between male and female, West and East, life and death, Gallimard’s self-destructive performance ends up in an excessive and wasteful spectacle. His body becomes abject through a confusion over the limits of identity and the appropriation of Otherness.


M. Butterfly overtly employs a postmodern mode of representation at several interconnected levels. Postmodernism in cinema complicates the transparency and smoothness of the very process of representation by denying the audience a sense of having direct access to the “real.” Pastiche is one of the strategies through which the assumption of the transparency of representation is disrupted. Adopting Fredric Jameson’s well-known definition, pastiche is a “neutral practice of mimicry,” that is, the imitation of a peculiar style without a satirical impulse.28 Unlike parody, pastiche does not invoke a sense of comic irony, because it does not have a notion of “normal” compared to which what is imitated would become comic. In M. Butterfly pastiche is incorporated in the representation of the recent history. The film stages history as an empty signifier which does not connote any “real” referent. As I discussed above, from the credit sequence to the end, postrevolutionary Chinese society in M. Butterfly is reduced to an exotic backdrop. Mise-en-scène produces a sense of unrealness and artificiality which does not necessarily create a critical distance or comic effect. The cultural signs that supposedly reflect the “essence” of China appear in the credits only to reinvoke the cliché image of the exotic Orient in Western imagination. Given these characteristics. M. Butterfly is actually consistent with a particular form of pastiche in contemporary cinema that Jameson calls “nostalgia film.” Unlike conventional period films, which reinvent a “picture of the past in its lived totality,” the nostalgia film reinvents the “feel and shape of characteristic art objects of an older period,” and therefore it seeks to reawaken a sense of the past associated with these object.29 In this framework, M. Butterfly is consistent with some aspects of the “imperial nostalgia film,” which seeks to reinvent the feel of the past by reinvoking the commonplace figures and images of the Orientalist fantasy. Unlike mainstream examples of imperial nostalgia films,30 however, in M. Butterfly nostalgia takes a catastrophic rather than a celebratory tone.

When history becomes pastiche in the film, it is impossible to maintain a coherent and centered narrative subject who advances the story. Like earlier Cronenberg films, M. Butterfly testifies to the disappearance of a fixed, unified, and coherent mode of male subjectivity. Instead, male subjectivity becomes a fluid, unstable, and insecure construct which cannot be located within a cohesive narrative. Blurring the boundaries between the self and the other, the male and the female, the heterosexual and the homosexual, the Western and the Oriental, M. Butterfly positions its narrative subject at a postmodern double-cross. Here, “double-cross” refers to what Scott Bukatman calls the “double articulation of subjectivity” in Cronenberg’s cinema, that is, both the end of a modernist construction of sovereign subject who is capable of knowing himself and the world surrounding him from a detached and controlling standpoint, and also the emergence of a postmodern subject who is constituted as an effect of various discourses, images, and narratives.

Returning to the question that I began with, what is the significance of acknowledging the gender and cultural identity of the disintegrating subject in the postmodern film text? In other words, why is it important to acknowledge that the subject of “double articulation” in Cronenberg’s cinema is specifically the Western, white, male subject? In a discussion of Cronenberg’s M. Butterfly, Rey Chow indicates that in Western sexual/colonial fantasy, the Orient is often associated with femininity itself.31 In Orientalist representations, therefore, both the Orient and woman function as the support for the white man’s fantasy. What distinguishes M. Butterfly from these Orientalist representations, according to Chow, “is precisely the manner in which the lavish visible painting of fantasy finally takes place not on the female, feminized body of the other, but on the white male body, so that enlightenment coincides with suicide, while the woman, the other escapes.”32 Following Chow’s argument, I want to suggest that M. Butterfly is a horror story, since it is about the undoing of the Western sexual/colonial fantasy—one of the prominent sites of the modernist discourse—and the psychic and physical destruction of the central protagonist of the modernist/imperialist narrative. The process of disintegration and self-destruction that Gallimard goes through, however, is not presented in moralistic terms, in the form of a punishment. Instead, Gallimard’s abject body at the end—a composite being who is both male and female, both Western and Oriental—signals the emergence of a new, composite, fluid subject position which is constituted through the very act of crossing the borders of gender and cultural identity. The narrative death of Gallimard is not a closure but a beginning. Having said that, however, it is also crucial to acknowledge that Gallimard’s transformation, which takes place in interaction with the Other, cannot speak for Song and the transformation that he/she goes through. The voice of the Other subject, in other words, whose presence radically unsettles the sovereign, self-integrated, and unified status attributed to the Western, white, male subject, is unspoken in M. Butterfly. Gallimard’s transgression tells us only half the story. The Other half is yet to be told.


  1. Scott Bukatman, Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993).

  2. Ibid., 9.

  3. Ibid., 17.

  4. Michael O’Pray, “Fatal Knowledge,” Sight and Sound 1, no. 11 (March 1992): 10–11.

  5. M. Butterfly is different from Cronenberg’s earlier films not only in terms of its generic structure but also in terms of its production conditions. Besides being Cronenberg’s first film to be wholly financed by a Hollywood studio (Warners) and first to be made outside Canada. M. Butterfly is also atypical in that Cronenberg himself does not have a writing credit on it.

  6. For more discussion on the melodramatic structure of the contemporary Chinese films, see E. Ann Kaplan, “Melodrama/Subjectivity/Ideology: Western Melodrama Theories and Their Relevance to Recent Chinese Cinema,” East-West Film Journal 5, no. 1 (January 1991): 6–27.

  7. It is interesting to note that M. Butterfly came out almost at the same time as Neil Jordan’s 1994 film The Crying Game, which explores similar issues like the construction of the cultural, national, and ethnic identity; the fine line between homosexuality and heterosexuality; the scandal of the transvestite identity; and so forth. For more discussion about The Crying Game, see, for example, Kristin Handler, “Sexing The Crying Game: Difference, Identity, Ethics,” Film Quarterly 47, no. 3 (Spring 1994): 31–42.

  8. David Henry Hwang, Afterword, in M. Butterfly (New York: Penguin Books, 1989), 95.

  9. In an extensive analysis of the representation of Asian people in Hollywood cinema, Gina Marchetti points out that “Madame Butterfly” stories have had quite a legacy in Hollywood since the 1920s. Though allowing a possibility of the resolution of the racial tensions on an emotional level, those interracial romance stories almost always end up with the elimination of the Asian, female Other. See Gina Marchetti, Romance and the “Yellow Peril”: Race, Sex and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

  10. Homi Bhabha. “The Other Question: The Stereotype and Colonial Discourse,” in John Caughie and Annette Kuhn, eds., The Sexual Subject: A Screen Reader in Sexuality (New York: Routledge, 1992), 312.

  11. Chandra Talpade Mohanty. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” in Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres, eds., Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 73–74.

  12. In discussing a transvestite performance, the use of gender pronouns becomes inevitably confusing. As a way of coping with this confusion, I will adapt Marjorie Garber’s strategy and use the pronouns “she” and “her” to describe the Chinese actor (John Lone) when dressed as a woman and the pronouns “he” and “him” when the actor is dressed as a man. See Marjorie Garber, “The Occidental Tourist: M. Butterfly and the Scandal of Transvestism,” in Andrew Parker et al., eds., Nationalisms and Sexualities (New York: Routledge, 1992).

  13. Rey Chow, Woman and Chinese Modernity: The Politics of Reading between West and East (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1991).

  14. Ibid., 18.

  15. Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 44.

  16. Ella Shohat, “Imaging Terra Incognita: The Disciplinary Gaze of Empire,” Public Culture 3, no. 2 (Spring 1991): 55.

  17. Garber, “The Occidental Tourist,” 135.

  18. Ibid., 125.

  19. Ibid.

  20. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), vii.

  21. Ibid., 136.

  22. James Moy makes an interesting analysis of this character in his discussion of Henry Hwang’s play in the context of the representation of Asian identities on the American stage. Moy argues that though Hwang seeks to criticize the stereotypical representations of Asianness in American theater, Comrade Chin is more stereotypical and cartoonish than the worst of the nineteenth-century stereotypes. For Moy, Chin serves as a stereotype whose “jarring” language alienates while fixing a provisional position for this traditional view of the Orient. For more discussion, see James Moy, “David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly and Philip Kan Gotanda’s Yankee Dawg You Die: Repositioning Chinese-American Marginality on the American Stage,” in Janelle G. Reinelt and Joseph R. Roach, eds., Critical Theory and Performance (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1992). In Cronenberg’s film, Chin is represented in a similar way as a one-dimensional stereotype. Actually, in Chin’s personality, the entire political system of communist China is reduced to a cliché.

  23. Homi Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man” in The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994), 88.

  24. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982).

  25. For Kristeva, the maternal (female) body is most closely affiliated with the abject. The major source of abjection in relation to the female/maternal body is menstrual blood. The female/maternal body is conceptualized in opposition to the phallic/paternal body, which represents the symbolic order. The female/maternal body lacks “corporeal integrity.” Its borders are constantly violated by fluids and substances coming in and out of the body. It secretes blood (menstruation) and milk (nursing). Its size and shape change through the process of pregnancy, its borders are decomposed. And finally, giving birth is the ultimate violation of the borders of the body.

  26. Kristeva, Powers of Horror, 4.

  27. Several feminist film scholars applied the concept of “abjection” to earlier Cronenberg films. For more discussion, see Barbara Creed, “Dark Desires: Male Masochism in the Horror Film” and Helen W. Robbins, “More Human Than I Am Alone: Womb Envy in David Cronenberg’s The Fly and Dead Ringers.” Both are published in Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark, eds., Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema (New York: Routledge, 1993).

  28. Fredric Jameson. “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” in Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (Seattle: Bay Press, 1983), 114.

  29. Ibid., 116.

  30. A commonplace example of “imperial nostalgia film” would be Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones series. For more discussion about the contemporary “imperial nostalgia film,” see Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism (New York: Routledge, 1994).

  31. Rey Chow, “The Dream of a Butterfly,” in Diana Fuss, ed., Human, All Too Human (New York: Routledge, 1996).

  32. Ibid., 86.

Kevin Jackson (review date May 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1079

SOURCE: A review of eXistenZ, in Sight and Sound, Vol. 9, No. 5, May, 1999, p. 46.

[In the following review of eXistenZ, Jackson writes that the film is unthreatening and unsatisfying. Despite its unconventionality and its creation of an alternate-reality games world, the film fails to provoke an adequate response.]

North America, the near future.

A group of players gather to try out eXistenZ, the latest brainchild of the games world’s most notorious genius, Allegra Geller. eXistenz is an elaborate game in which the players wire themselves up via a bioport—a plug inserted in the spinal column—to a semi-organic game pod, to induce plotted hallucinations. However, as Allegra begins to download eXistenZ, an anti-games assassin opens fire on her.

Allegra is rescued by Ted Pikul, a junior company member. They set off on the run, pursued by bounty hunters, though Allegra is more concerned about her damaged game. She insists she and Ted must play eXistenZ to assess the damage. Initially fearful, Ted agrees finally to have a bootleg bioport shot into his spine by Gas, a roughneck garage man who turns out to be one of the enemy.

They flee to a ski resort where Allegra’s colleague Kiri Vinokur replaces Ted’s sabotaged bioport so the couple can finally plug in and play. Together, they enter a violent and frequently bloody set of narratives about spies, counterspies and assassins—a story which becomes increasingly confused with events in the outside world. Finally, it emerges that the entire action so far has itself been a game called transCendenZ; “Allegra”, “Ted” and all the other men and women are merely players. “Allegra” and “Ted” are themselves the true anti-games terrorists. As the lethal couple corner transCendenZ’s inventor Yevgeny Nourish, he asks them fearfully if this is only an episode in a still more inclusive game. They do not reply.

Fairly or otherwise, two of the critical terms least frequently applied to the Cronenberg oeuvre thus far have been ‘fun’ and ‘cute’: a regrettable state of affairs that eXistenZ should do much to remedy. First, the fun part: notwithstanding its showstopping metaphysical somersaults between Chinese-boxed levels of reality, eXistenZ is in many respects an unexpectedly conventional entertainment. Some of the conventionality is due, we must assume, to the imaginative tastes of Allegra Geller (or, more pedantically, of the tranCendental inventor of “Allegra Geller”), who may be a whiz at bio-tech confections but seems to enjoy an essentially rather banal, if lurid, fantasy life. On the evidence of her taste in adventures, Allegra must have spent her childhood gorging on B movies, Bond films, The Avengers and such like, and she’s plainly not averse to rescripting herself from a barely articulate wallflower in real life into a devastatingly sexy action babe in eXistenZ life. Somehow, Jennifer Jason Leigh manages to make Allegra into a sympathetic and very nearly plausible character, the single fleshed-out (if that is the apposite term) human being in a gallery of ciphers and caricatures. It’s quite a feat.

Next, the cute part. At one point, Allegra notices and smiles at a frisky little two-headed amphibian that wouldn’t look out of place in a Disney confection. A few years ago, the Independent asked its readers to nominate the least likely combination of director and subject. The winning entry was: “David Cronenberg’s National Velvet”. Maybe that competition came to the director’s notice, and gave him some ideas. Rest assured, the wee beastie meets a literally sticky end, for in most other respects eXistenZ is something of a resumé or, less kindly, a puree of just about every previous Cronenberg film, from the mournfully dignified score by Howard Shore to the sombre lighting and preposterous names. Among its equally familiar attractions are furtive visits to the House of Fiction (cf. Naked Lunch), a dangerously seductive new form of entertainment (Videodrome, the most obvious precursor of eXistenZ), crossings of the borderline between biology and technology (Crash and so on), lashing of erotic body modifications (Rabid and so on) and, of course, a generous portion of the old Cronenbergian red glop.

The red glop factor is at its highest within the eXistenZ world, particularly when the twists and turns of the game’s plot land Allegra and Ted as labourers in a low-rent abattoir-cum-laboratory, where grubby workers hack up frogs and lizards for biotechnological ends, and take their lunch-breaks in a nightmarish Chinese restaurant. Here, Ted orders the daily special, chomps his way through the unidentifiable slippery, slimy horrors he’s served, uses the leftover bone and gristle to construct a gun which fires teeth (the very weapon used on Allegra at the beginning) and murders the waiter with a well-aimed molar. At a guess, this is the point of Cronenberg’s film at which a lot of younger viewers will find themselves thinking it might be worth saving up for a bioport implant.

But the same qualities which make eXistenZ potent for games-world addicts make eXistenZ inadequately satisfying for those of us who go in for less all-absorbing forms of diversion, like the cinema. As a thrill-ride in its own right, eXistenZ is fine—it’s slick, swift and droll. But as an anxious entertainment, which is meant to nag and gnaw at our hunger for surrendering ourselves to surrogate thrills, especially of the disreputable kind that last about two hours (for what, the film keeps nudging us, is eXistenZ if not a hyper-real story, and what is Allegra but a Künstler with the Gesamtkunstwerk to trump them all?), it’s more than a touch half-baked.

eXistenZ tries to make our flesh creep with the insinuation that many of us, if we weren’t deterred by the prospect of spinal surgery, would cheerfully invest in bioports and drift away into other people’s fantasies. It does its dutiful best to make that Huxleyan thought appear guilty and disquieting. But cheerfulness, or its nastier Cronenbergian equivalent, keeps breaking through the gloom, and the very qualities which make eXistenZ watchable also make eXistenZ seem like unthreatening fun. Cronenberg has said the film’s point of departure was an interview he once did with Salman Rushdie, but as Kim Newman has pointed out elsewhere in these pages, its more compelling literary source is the haunted fiction of Philip K. Dick. Compared to Dick’s writing at its ontologically insecure best, though, eXistenZ looks as trifling as it is diverting: a little too perky, a little too pat.

Adam Lowenstein (essay date Winter 1999)

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SOURCE: “Canadian Horror Made Flesh: Contextualizing David Cronenberg,” in Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities, Vol. 18, No. 2, Winter, 1999, pp. 37–51.

[In the following essay, Lowenstein defines Gothic films, shock horror films, science fiction films, and art films. He compares and contrasts Cronenberg’s Shivers and Crash, and also situates them into the horror genre.]

David Cronenberg has playfully suggested that the characters who inhabit Crash (1996) might actually be the parasite-infected condominium dwellers from Shivers (1975), his first commercial feature (Smith 17). Despite an interval of over twenty years between the two films, Cronenberg’s comment seems more accurate than outlandish. Indeed, perhaps the sole cinematic context that finally suits Crash is the niche carved out by the director’s previous work, a body of films marked by a thematic resemblance as powerful as their ability to confound any tidy classification—particularly with regard to genre or national character. In recent years, these issues of categorization have informed a number of scholarly discussions focused on evaluating Cronenberg’s “Canadianness” (Handling; Parker; McGregor; Beard; Testa; Leach, “North of Pittsburgh”). Juxtaposing Crash and Shivers allows us to reassess the assumptions underlying these discussions, and to illuminate how perceptions of Cronenberg’s relation to the charged oppositions of Canada/ Hollywood and genre/ art continue to challenge our understanding of their points of contact. I will argue that it is Cronenberg’s engagement with a specific mode of viewer confrontation linked to the modern horror film that necessitates fresh consideration if a meaningful reckoning with his “Canadianness” is to be reached.


Any investigation of Cronenberg’s critical reception in Canada must acknowledge the impact of Robert Fulford’s damning review of Shivers, which appeared in a 1975 issue of Saturday Night with the title “You Should Know How Bad This Film Is. After All, You Paid For It.” As the headline suggests, Fulford (writing as “Marshall Delaney”) embeds his condemnation of Shivers within an outraged assault on the film’s federal co-sponsor, the Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC): “If using public money to produce films like [Shivers] is the only way that English Canada can have a film industry, then perhaps English Canada should not have a film industry” (Delaney 83). In hindsight, Fulford’s invective against the CFDC seems more understandable than the dismissal of Shivers as “an atrocity” (83). After all, the “principal legacy” of films produced during the mid-1970s and early 80s under the CFDC’s sponsorship, especially after the supplement of the Capital Cost Allowance of 1974 (a one hundred percent federal tax shelter used to stimulate private investment), has been aptly described as a “gaping, self-inflicted national wound” (Pevere 11). Many films produced during this period were approached primarily as tax write-offs, with a significant number never even reaching the theaters. The CFDC specialized in funding imitations of Hollywood genre fare, resulting in what have been described as “the anonymous films of Hollywood North” (Leach, “Body Snatchers” 366). Fulford’s double-pronged attack implies that the CFDC’s misguided tendency to produce films “imbued with the Hollywood ethos” led directly to Shivers, which he calls “the most repulsive movie I’ve ever seen” (Delaney 85, 84). It is crucial to bear this connection in mind, for Fulford’s review effectively set the critical tone in Canada for Cronenberg’s early work and assured that the reputation of his films at home would lag significantly behind their status abroad, at least until Videodrome (1982) (Handling 98).

Patricia Pearson’s 1996 article on Crash (also published in Saturday Night) contrasts sharply with Fulford’s account of Shivers. Pearson introduces Cronenberg as “Canada’s pre-eminent filmmaker” (119) and describes what must have been Fulford’s nightmare in 1975: Cronenberg given permission by the city government to close sections of major Toronto freeways in order to film car crashes and actors “[making] explicit, moaning love amidst the wreckage” (119). Yet Pearson, like Fulford, carefully situates Cronenberg between Canada and Hollywood. Pearson’s Cronenberg is not just a director, but a “radical philosopher” because his films feature provocatively graphic sex instead of mindless Hollywood violence (122). She focuses special attention on Cronenberg’s casting difficulties with Hollywood stars because “Hollywood actors seem to have an easier time being shot than being made love to” (122).

Yet whether testifying to Cronenberg’s poisonous proximity to Hollywood or his immaculate Canadian distance from it, both Fulford and Pearson reduce the director’s films to an “us vs. them” matrix of interpretation. Of course, there are powerful social and economic factors informing the deployment of this distinction. Manjunath Pendakur’s study of the Canadian film industry’s political economy has a simple title that speaks volumes about its subject: Canadian Dreams and American Control. Pendakur cites a Canadian government report which estimates that 90 percent of annual revenues from Canadian film and video markets are controlled by U.S. interests, and notes that since 1974, Canada has had “the dubious distinction of being the number one foreign market for American feature films” (29–30). Barry Keith Grant, paraphrasing Peter Harcourt, goes so far as to conclude “it is nothing less than the Canadian imagination that has been colonized by American culture” (3). Paradoxically, this condition of cultural colonization has led to a tendency among Canadians to “define themselves not in terms of their own national history and traditions, but by reference to what they are not: Americans” (Lipset 53). Canadian criticism has chronicled the influence of such (dis)identifications on its films and literature by noting, for example, the centrality of the Canadian male “loser” or “outsider” figure as distinct from the aggressive, self-assured, and successful American hero (Fothergill, Atwood).

Given these factors, it is not surprising that Canadian film criticism has continually anchored its engagement with Cronenberg in poles defined by Hollywood and Canada. But what, then, do we make of a remarkably successful Canadian director whose work consistently treads on the territory of horror, that seemingly most American and un-Canadian of film genres? Where does he belong? R. Bruce Elder’s expansive study Image and Identity: Reflections on Canadian Film and Culture suggests Cronenberg does not belong at all; Elder refers to him only in a footnoted rejection of Shivers as a “schlock commercial vehicle … constructed on the model of the American B-Movie” (420n). Piers Handling also admits Cronenberg’s complete formal departure from a national tradition of Griersonian documentary realism, but then makes the first claim for a “Canadian Cronenberg” by relating his films to themes such as fatalism and alienation from the landscape prevalent in numerous Canadian literary and cinematic narratives (Handling). Handling’s model has recently been refined by a number of critics who offer a variety of lenses through which to view Cronenberg as a specifically Canadian artist. These range from a paradigm of national identity derived from Northrop Frye and Margaret Atwood (Beard), to a deployment of ethnographically-inflected criticism (McGregor), to a literalization of George Grant’s concept of technologized humanity (Testa), to a theorization of Québecois separatism as key to Cronenberg’s representations of national and sexual difference (Parker). Rather than systematically review the strengths and weaknesses of each of these models, I will speak to an issue which informs nearly all of them, and which stems from the Canadian reception of Cronenberg I have outlined: the connection of Cronenberg to horror, and consequently to American genre film.


First, I wish to interrogate a key assumption that underlies discussions of Cronenberg’s Canadianness: that the modern horror film within which Cronenberg must be contextualized is a definitively American generic form. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) are often cited in the articles mentioned above as examples of the modern horror tradition Cronenberg must be measured against, whether finally to attach him to it or divorce him from it (e.g., Beard 130; McGregor 50). But the shorthand exercise of using these films to represent modern horror again defines the genre frame within which Cronenberg will be evaluated as a matter of competing Canadian or American (and by extension, Hollywood) contexts. Such a framework erases not only the key fact that much of the most influential American horror of the 1960s and 70s came from independent filmmakers working outside the Hollywood mainstream (including Romero and Carpenter), but also the considerable international complexity of the birth of the modern horror film in general.

Night of the Living Dead’s debt to The Birds (1963) is nearly as pronounced as Halloween’s to Psycho (1960). Both Romero and Carpenter are direct descendants of Alfred Hitchcock’s landmark delivery of graphic carnage to the modern American horror film. Yet Hitchcock himself made Psycho in response to the European film scene at the close of the 1950s, particularly the bloody remakes of Gothic fiction standards by Britain’s Hammer Studios and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s French thriller Diabolique (1955) (Rebello 20–22). Hitchcock’s rivalry with Clouzot, who had been dubbed “the French Hitchcock,” extended to battles over rights to stories by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who provided the source material for Clouzot’s Diabolique as well as Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Boileau and Narcejac also collaborated with the French director Georges Franju, most notably on the contemporaneous horror film Les yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face, 1959).

Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, though less well-known than Psycho, has an equally powerful claim to the title of modern horror prototype. In fact, the graphic gore that would later gain such central generic importance is only flirted with by Hitchcock, while it occupies center stage for Franju. I believe that it is the work of Franju, far more than that of Hitchcock, Romero or Carpenter, that provides an appropriate model of modern horror with which to evaluate Cronenberg’s engagement with the genre. Through Franju, we can contextualize the aesthetic that binds Shivers and Crash in terms of a generic mode I have defined elsewhere as “shock horror.”1

Shock horror, which I date from the late 1950s to the present, is characterized centrally by a confrontational address of the audience. This address utilizes graphic gore and visceral shock to access the social and historical substrata of traumatic experience for viewers, and challenges them to integrate these publicly disseminated traumas with the realm of the personal and private. In this sense, I understand “shock” as it is theorized by Walter Benjamin—a symptom of the alienation and impoverishment of modern experience, but simultaneously a means of “adjustment” by jolting us into a state of awakened consciousness (Benjamin, “Work of Art” 250n). Shock horror’s merger of horrific spectacle, visceral viewer response, and social trauma challenges the audience’s relation to perception—both of the body and of history. This emphasis on self-recognition in shock horror extends the modern horror film’s shift to inner, human monstrosity following the more external threats characteristic of the Gothic adaptations of the 1930s and 40s and science fiction efforts of the 50s.

Shock horror also tends to blur distinctions between genre film and art film categories, thus disrupting high and low cultural boundaries. In this sense, the shock horror aesthetic mirrors Surrealism’s destabilizations of art and popular culture. Franju greatly admired Luis Buñuel’s Surrealist milestones Un chien andalou (1929) and L’age d’or (1930), and Cronenberg included both films in his eclectic program for the 1983 Toronto Film Festival Science Fiction Retrospective (Drew 57). Le sang des bêtes (Blood of the Beasts, 1949), Franju’s first professional effort, is a grisly documentary study of Paris slaughterhouses with a decided Surrealist edge. Although Franju once planned to give a lecture with André Breton on “fragments of bad films which correspond to Surrealist notions” (Durgnat 28), the Surrealism of Blood of the Beasts seems much more indebted to Georges Bataille. It is Bataille’s relentlessly embodied, brutally shocking Surrealism that animates Franju’s film, rather than Breton’s more romantic investments in automatic writing and liberatory love. Blood of the Beasts enacts Bataille’s fascination with slaughter-houses as a space of social confrontation; Bataille criticizes the “fine folk who have reached the point of not being able to stand their own unseemliness” and have ensured that “the slaughterhouse is cursed and quarantined like a boat with cholera aboard” (Hollier xiii). Franju, like Bataille, insists on restoring the diseased substance of the slaughterhouse to the social field of vision and challenging those who wish to look away.

Franju powerfully adapts this Surrealist mode of confrontation for the horror film in Eyes Without a Face. In the film’s most notorious sequence, a plastic surgeon removes the facial skin of a kidnapped female victim in order to graft the flesh to the maimed face of his own daughter. Franju’s horrifyingly graphic spectacle juxtaposes visceral viewer response with the distant rationalism of medical practice and the disembodied method of the science film in order to undermine the authority of the social structures depicted. But the sequence is also confrontational on a more specific historical level: this scene resonates with other key moments in the film to evoke the trauma of World War II. The surgery strongly suggests Nazi medical experiments, just as the doctor’s noisy kennel recalls the guard dogs of the German Occupation. The film presents a shocking vision of the present impregnated with a disturbing past, the everyday world haunted by specters of war, tainted technology, and death. Franju’s achievement in addressing the traumatic legacy of the Occupation and the Holocaust is all the more stunning in the context of late 1950s France, a moment when the explosion of the New Wave masks the disavowal of World War II trauma in most French fiction cinema.

Cronenberg’s films share strong affinities with Franju’s model of shock horror, and distinguish him from a director like George Romero, with whom he is more often associated. Shivers certainly resembles Night of the Living Dead at the level of broad narrative themes, such as the siege of individuals by a contagious, infected mass, and both films comment bitterly on contemporary social issues (the aftermath of the sexual revolution in Shivers, the racial turmoil of the civil rights struggle in Night of the Living Dead). But where Romero constructs a strong and sympathetic protagonist in Ben (Duane Jones), Cronenberg’s Roger St. Luc (Paul Hampton) is cold, unemotional, and bland. When Ben is shot by a redneck militia posse at the conclusion of Night of the Living Dead, we are meant to feel sorrow and anger at his death, to criticize the social order that murders him, and to acknowledge that his supposed saviors are no less deadly than the zombies. By contrast, when St. Luc finally succumbs to the infectious parasitic kiss at the end of Shivers, we are torn between horror and relief as we contemplate the shot in agonizing slow motion. St. Luc’s transformation is violent and disturbing, but it is also a welcome abandonment of his stifling disconnection from desire exhibited throughout the film. While Romero reaches a dramatic endpoint (albeit a nihilistic one), Cronenberg inhabits the ambivalent moment of transformation itself, where neither forward nor backward movement promises any definitive resolution of conflict.2 This variation in emphasis establishes an important index of difference between the films, one that seemingly points toward a matter of familiar Canadian/American distinctions (e.g., St. Luc the “loser” vs. Ben the “hero”), but that ultimately exceeds such formulations in a register of shock horror.

Cronenberg has referred to himself as afflicted with the “very Canadian” and potentially “paralyzing” curse of balance—to “see all sides of the story at once” and “come down on all sides at once or none at all” (Beard and Handling 176). By considering his work in terms of shock horror, however, this “curse” becomes the productive foundation of his films, as well as the basis for an account of his Canadianness that moves beyond paralysis. Cronenberg’s films do more than merely contrast or even dialectically oppose “the Canadian drama of restraint, internalized violence and stasis” with “the American drama of freedom, externalized violence and progress” (Beard 129). Instead, Cronenberg transforms these categories by insisting on their absolute interdependence in a shock horror aesthetic of viewer confrontation. There is no possibility of artificially separating one element from the other, nor of dividing them neatly into “Canadian” or “American” components, nor of determining one’s ultimate domination of the other (contra Beard 131–32). Cronenberg’s realism depends on the shocking spectacle of horror, just as his horror depends on the shocking recognition of a realistically depicted world. In this sense, Cronenberg does not completely diverge from a Canadian tradition of documentary realism, but revises and challenges its scope in critical ways.3 Although he has referred to “the heavy hand of John Grierson” and the National Film Board as a “suffocating” influence in his early years as a filmmaker (Rodley 35), Cronenberg ultimately integrates horror with acute social observation in his films. Just as Franju imports Surrealism to documentary form in Blood of the Beasts in order to engender a brutally accurate vision for his audience that surmounts the eye’s resistance to “seeing everything as strange” (Durgnat 20), so Cronenberg presents a brand of social realism in his features that uses horrific affect to lend truthful color to its documents.

The same strategy permeates the work of both J. G. Ballard and William S. Burroughs, authors whose importance for Cronenberg is evident even outside the adaptations of Ballard’s Crash and Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (1991). When Shivers is considered in conjunction with Ballard’s High-Rise (also published in 1975), the revelation of two such idiosyncratic imaginations working along uncannily intertwined lines is startling. And when Ballard speaks of his own admiration for Burroughs, he could be describing the impulse behind Cronenberg’s films as well:

Burroughs called his greatest novel Naked Lunch, by which he meant it’s what you see on the end of a fork. Telling the truth. It’s very difficult to do that in fiction because the whole process of writing fiction is a process of sidestepping the truth. I think he got very close to it, in his way, and I hope I’ve done the same in mine.

(Kadrey and Stefanac 5)

Although the social trauma addressed by Cronenberg is never as specific or as pointed as Franju’s engagement with World War II, his representation of social strife mirrors Franju’s confrontational methods: the embodiment of the social issue through painfully literalized images and a visceral audience address. Witness, for example, the treatment of divorce in The Brood (1979) and media manipulation in Videodrome. Cronenberg’s interaction with the horror genre has been long-term and consistently subversive of genre expectations. With each new film, Cronenberg reinterprets his central question of “What is horror?” Can it be found in a single psychology shared traumatically by identical twins (Dead Ringers, 1988)? Or at the heart of writing as a perilous creative act (Naked Lunch)? Or at the intersection of sexual and imperialist self-delusion (M. Butterfly, 1993)? Cronenberg’s films answer “yes” by consistently adapting an aesthetic of horrific confrontation to terrain that may seem alien to the genre, and even diametrically opposed to it. In this sense, Cronenberg has always been and continues to be in conversation with the horror film, but his contributions to that conversation constantly renegotiate its very parameters. Much of Cronenberg’s power comes through an encounter with and transformation of genre, where the manipulation of genre conventions and even the orchestration of his own patterns of genre revision are constantly reworked to keep the disturbing challenge to his audience potent and vital.


With this analytic framework in mind, perhaps now we can better comprehend Crash, a film which resolutely evades audience attempts to define its generic, authorial, or national identity. Crash generated specific viewer expectations through advertising emphasizing its Special Jury Prize for “audacity” at Cannes and its preoccupation with “sex and car crashes.” Additional publicity came from the film’s struggles with censors and distributors, most notably in Britain and the United States (especially Ted Turner). One critical reaction to the film has been dismissal based on a perceived failure to live up to its controversial advance word—for delivering unerotic sex and unthrilling car crashes.4 But the film resists such blanket descriptions. James Ballard’s (James Spader) first crash shocks us in its jagged, real-time rapidity, while Vaughan’s (Elias Koteas) climactic suicide wreck stuns us in its denial of dynamic spectacle in favor of a brief aftermath shot. Likewise, the stagy emptiness of the opening three sexual encounters lulls us into unreadiness for the intensity and erotic danger of scenes like the car wash sequence, which establishes an electric relay of desire between Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger), Vaughan, and James. Cronenberg’s staccato rhythm of engagement and estrangement of audience expectations persistently questions just what these wishes are, and how our urgency to fulfill them may access the very subjectivity of desperation embodied by the film’s characters. Murray Pomerance eloquently distills the philosophy propelling these characters, as well as the film itself: “Action is nothing in the face of the desire for action, and the desire for action is exhausting” (Pomerance 20). Crash’s ever-receding address of audience desire for genre sex and violence ensures that its level of confrontation remains both challenging and exhausting. In other words, the film’s shock horror aesthetic paradoxically maintains its affective power by querying the very desire for affective arousal.

Crash, in keeping with shock horror trends, does not limit itself to an interrogation of genre filmmaking pleasures and conventions; like almost all of Cronenberg’s work (and increasingly so since Dead Ringers), it also calls to mind genre film’s flipside, the art film. David Bordwell describes international art cinema as a “distinct mode of film practice” that appears after World War II, defines itself in opposition to classical Hollywood structures, and “foregrounds the narrational act by posing enigmas” for the viewer to ponder (“Art Cinema” 56, 60). Since the art cinema “defines itself as a realistic cinema,” it also tends to feature “realistic” locations, character psychology, and most importantly, sex (“Art Cinema” 57). Given the importance of sexuality and censorship to the success of the international art film, “it could be maintained that from the mid-1960s onward [art cinema] has stabilized itself around a new genre: the soft-core art film” (Neale 33). In light of these definitions, Crash’s scandalous sex and enigmatic, non-classical narrative substantiate its status as a textbook art film.

Or does it? A crucial ingredient in the marketing and criticism of art cinema is its identity as an author’s cinema, associated with the names of certain individual filmmakers. The art film, according to Bordwell, often “uses a concept of authorship to unify the text.” The effect is that “the competent viewer watches the film expecting not order in the narrative but stylistic signatures in the narration” (“Art Cinema” 59). Crash directly preserves the literary imprint of J. G. Ballard by retaining the name of the novel’s protagonist, “James Ballard,” but where are the cinematic “stylistic signatures” of David Cronenberg in the film? Certainly the broad thematic components (bodies, technology, agonized transformation) match his oeuvre, but where are the fantastic images, the grisly metaphors made flesh that earned him his cult status as the “Baron of Blood?” The scars and prosthetics of Crash cannot begin to approach the nightmarish convergence of human, housefly, and telepod in The Fly (1986). The spectacle of Colin Seagrave’s (Peter MacNeil) demise as Jayne Mansfield barely registers next to the flamboyance of the exploding head sequence in Scanners (1980). Even when James penetrates Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette) through the wound in her leg, we are only given the suggestion of an image made graphically explicit via Max Renn’s (James Woods) slit stomach in Videodrome.

Yet Cronenberg does appear in Crash. Near the end of the film, James and Catherine visit the auto pound to claim Vaughan’s wrecked Lincoln. The pound officer, invisible behind his post, tells the couple he cannot fathom their attachment to the car, aside from its value as “a total write-off,” and informs them that they will have to return during regular business hours to file the correct form. The disembodied voice of the pound officer belongs unmistakably to Cronenberg himself. This unusual, spectral cameo (Cronenberg has guested only once before in his own films, as an obstetrician in The Fly) deserves consideration for its appearance at a point in Cronenberg’s career when his status as a cult celebrity has reached a level of real visibility. In addition to playing himself on Canadian television programs like Maniac Mansion (1991) (in the spirit, perhaps, of Videodrome’s McLuhanesque Brian O’Blivion?), Cronenberg has landed starring roles in Clive Barker’s horror film Nightbreed (1989) and Don McKellar’s Canadian short Blue (1992), along with smaller but notable parts in Extreme Measures (Michael Apted, 1996), To Die For (Gus Van Sant, 1995) and the Canadian vampire film Blood and Donuts (Holly Dale, 1995). So why has Cronenberg, whose chief authorial sign would have to be depictions of the body in all its painful corporeality, chosen to present his own now-recognizable person in such a flagrantly disembodied manner in Crash?

The cameo is a significant hint about the film’s stance toward the safety and stability granted by a traditional art film label. Cronenberg’s appearance as a faceless voice (upholding the tidy order of Canadian bureaucracy, no less!) satirizes the mystique surrounding notions of the author as individual genius that lends the art film its coherence—both as an industry and as a mode of viewing practice.5 When Vaughan refers to “the reshaping of the human body by modern technology”—the standard critical interpretation of Cronenberg’s films—as a “crude sci-fi concept that floats on the surface and doesn’t threaten anybody,” employed only to “test the resilience of my potential partners in psychopathology,” he is on one level speaking for Cronenberg and directly to the audience. Vaughan’s challenge underlines the fact that there is no truly comfortable position offered to the spectator of Crash, whether they appeal to the familiarity of genre conventions or to the art film’s trademarks of authorial expressivity. Cronenberg’s cameo ultimately questions the nature of his own position as “star” author, and, by extension, his status as a national author. David Bordwell asserts that the “fullest flower of the art-cinema paradigm occur[s] at the moment when the combination of novelty and nationalism” converges in an ideal marketing package, such as a film representing a distinct national movement or “New Wave” (Narration 231). Cronenberg’s (dis)appearance in Crash mirrors the film itself as it frustrates attempts to compartmentalize identity under art film banners of the author or national essence. Rather than display a celebrity visibility in the manner of Hitchcock, Cronenberg’s cameo emphasizes the unseen, suggesting that capturing star identity or national character is as tantalizing (and as improbable) as placing an invisible face to an ethereal voice. But the desire to capture such definable identities brings us to the heart of Crash and its address of contemporary social crisis—namely, the imagination of self across the traumatic divide of public and private in the mass media age.

Crash’s status as shock horror revolves around the obsession of its characters with the pleasure and pain drawn from the crashes of public icons such as James Dean, Jayne Mansfield, and John F. Kennedy. For Vaughan, who literally lives in a replica of the car in which Kennedy died, the president’s assassination is a “special kind of car crash.” Vaughan and his circle reflect our own participation in “the public fascination with torn and opened bodies and torn and opened persons” described by Mark Seltzer as a “wound culture” (3). The phenomenon following Princess Diana’s death is yet another instance of the “collective gathering around shock, trauma, and the wound” characteristic of wound culture, with its ability to function as a “switch point between individual and collective, public and private orders of things” (Seltzer 3, 5). The characters of Crash also worship the violent and erotic moment of impact, but participate physically in crashes in order to bring themselves ever closer to the fulfillment it appears to offer: a flashing instant, however brutal or fleeting, which could truly bind a private self and public icon, along with the networks of fantasy and desire traversing them. For the relation between private selfhood and public star iconicity can be volatile, fluid and resolutely ambivalent. Public star bodies are at once “prostheses for our own mutant desirability” as well as objects of humiliation “reminding us that they do not possess the phallic power of their images: we do” (Warner 250, 251). As Hal Foster characterizes this fraught dynamic, “the star is too far from us, or too close … the star has too little, or too much, over us.” (58) By painstakingly restaging James Dean’s crash down to the smallest “authentic” detail, Vaughan and his comrades (including, by proxy, ourselves, represented by the diegetic audience of witnesses) attempt to capture a moment when the shifting private relation to the public star body—identification and abstraction, longing and hatred, sympathy and revenge—crystallizes and coheres. There is no longer a private self existing in tension with a famous public other, but a perfect fusion, an integrated embodiment of all the psychic energy that has attracted and repelled them.

The utopian moment of private/public fusion always proves just beyond realization, so compulsive repetition ensues.6 Vaughan plans the Jayne Mansfield reenactment as blood still trickles down his temple from the Dean crash. Vaughan’s group feverishly pursues activities that strive to surmount the impossibility of fusion by testing the divisions between public spectacle and private act: studying crash-test videos with the rapt (and erotic) attention of devoted movie fans, posing in photographs designed to evoke the documents of famous crashes, having sex in cars and public spaces with interchangeable partners in order to erode the intimacy of the act. But eventually and inevitably, there is only repetition, and then the simulation of repeated events. Vaughan dies with a cry of frustration, not triumph, as he abandons yet another attempt (whether using cars or sex) to collide with James and Catherine. The cycle continues even after Vaughan’s death, as James assumes Vaughan’s role and stalks Catherine. The last lines of the film, spoken by James to Catherine after she survives her crash, are “Maybe the next one … maybe the next one.” This doubled phrase is itself a duplication of lines spoken near the beginning of the film by Catherine to James. The sense of an inescapable standstill is highlighted by the camera movement, which effectively cancels the descending tracking shot of the film’s opening sequence by concluding with a mirrored ascending shot away from the couple in the grass beside the highway.

But Crash, like Shivers, complicates its shock horror aesthetic of audience confrontation by insisting on irreconcilable counter-currents in its portrayal of social trauma. The intertwined horror and relief of Shivers’s climactic transformation as a commentary on the sexual revolution finds an analogue in the wrecks of Crash as displays of wound culture. These crashes are horrifying in their violent, destructive, and ultimately failed attempt to fuse public icon and private self, but somehow also affirming in their furious determination to connect with a sense of truly lived experience—at any cost. Cronenberg has called Crash “an existentialist romance,” and the label rings true in terms of the film’s ability to convey the real affect at stake in the desperate desire for experience (Smith 17). The disarming long take of James gently retracing and caressing the bruises inflicted by Vaughan on Catherine’s body reveals the need to heal and empathize behind the drive to alienate and destroy. Similarly, Catherine’s tears at the end of the film disclose the powerful emotion motivating an increasingly mechanical series of forced, disengaged simulations. Crash insists that these tears cannot be fully explained as an empty gesture of mourning practiced by a wound culture—a culture which Walter Benjamin foresaw in the individual consumed with “the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about” (“Storyteller” 101). Instead, Catherine’s tears also signify the genuine, bodily vulnerability and pain of groping for experiential meaning in a deeply threatening world. Benjamin’s description of such a world, which bears a spiritual resemblance to the final scene of Crash, vividly captures this dimension of pain: “A generation … now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body” (“Storyteller” 84).

Benjamin’s countryside belongs to a Europe irrevocably altered by the destruction of World War I. Where, then, does the landscape of Crash finally belong? Some might claim the film is the most persuasive evidence yet that Cronenberg is fundamentally a Hollywood filmmaker, enraptured with specifically American icons and stardom above all else. Yet the representation of these icons, as well as their consumption, reflects back an image so fractured with ambivalence that any simple association with American mythology crumbles. Others might interpret Crash as testimony to Cronenberg’s Canadian identity, with its unprecedentedly explicit and strategic use of Toronto locations. But witness the crucial Jayne Mansfield crash scene, where a Toronto freeway is denaturalized by heavy stillness and the absence of diegetic sound to the point of unrecognizability. Yet this sequence does take on a somewhat familiar aspect when considered in conjunction with the recent work of such major Canadian directors as Atom Egoyan, Guy Maddin, and Jean-Claude Lauzon, all of whom have also given shape to troubling visions of fantasy, violence, and insanity as documents of a Canadian imaginary.7 The fact that Cronenberg’s shock horror has helped pioneer a “Canadian” framework for these visions precisely by transforming generic and national traditions is an appropriately ironic tribute to a career which continues to expand the horizons of both the modern horror film and Canadian cinema by never truly finding a home in either.


  1. The following three paragraphs summarize my previous work on shock horror and Georges Franju. For the more fully elaborated discussion, see my “Films Without a Face: Shock Horror in the Cinema of Georges Franju.”

  2. At this point, I should underline my argument’s divergence from the reading of Cronenberg advanced by Robin Wood, who interprets just this sort of painful ambivalence as “reactionary” (“Introduction” 24) and an expression of “total negativity” (“Cronenberg” 132). See, respectively, Robin Wood, “An Introduction to the American Horror Film,” in The American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film, ed. Robin Wood and Richard Lippe (Toronto: Festival of Festivals, 1979), 7–28; and “Cronenberg: A Dissenting View,” in The Shape of Rage: The Films of David Cronenberg, ed. Piers Handling (Toronto: General Publishing, 1983), 115–35. Of course the title of this subsection is meant to signal both my indebtedness to and departure from Wood’s analysis of Cronenberg.

    The ambiguity of the Shivers ending also resembles the “loosening of causal relations” that David Bordwell finds characteristic of art cinema narration (“Art Cinema” 57); I will return to the matter of the art film later in the essay.

  3. Along similar lines, Murray Pomerance describes Cronenberg’s work in these terms: “As a portrait of the Canada of his time it is—remarkably and perhaps unbelievably—a kind of photo-realism.” “Considering Cronenberg,” Canadian Art 9: 2 (Summer 1992), 42. Jim Leach believes Crash “works best as a documentary … it is a film about Toronto, a slightly skewed account of the experience of living, and especially, driving there … Grierson meets Baudrillard?” Review of Crash, Film Studies Association of Canada Newsletter 21: 1 (Fall 1996), 19. Cronenberg wrote, photographed and directed several Canadian landscape documentary fillers for Canadian television in the early 1970s.

  4. For a Canadian statement of this position, see Bart Testa’s review in the Film Studies Association of Canada Newsletter 21: 1 (Fall 1996), 15–17. Interestingly, Testa’s review recalls Fulford’s attack on Shivers in both its vehemence and its need to associate Cronenberg negatively with Hollywood: “Crash is the biggest erotic-film-scandal dud since Showgirls (Paul Verhoeven, 1995), or maybe that’s too general, let’s say since Barb Wire (David Hogan, 1996). (Both films star Canadian women, incidentally, while Cronenberg relies on American stars)” (15).

  5. This is not to say that Cronenberg has resisted cultivating his image as an auteur throughout his career. Indeed, his cooperation with the recent release of digitally remastered “collector’s edition” videocassettes by CFP attests to his support of such an image, at least on a marketing level. The cassettes feature his photo on the packaging, and new interviews with the director. It is also worth noting that Cronenberg’s cameo in Crash recalls Jean-Luc Godard’s audio “appearance” in Vivre sa vie (1962). (I am indebted to Tom Gunning for this observation.)

  6. Failed fusion and the subsequent attempts to revisit that site of failure are themselves (compulsively?) recurring themes in all of Cronenberg’s work. The increasingly desperate “experiments” of Seth Brundle/Brundlefly in The Fly and the Mantle twins in Dead Ringers are especially noteworthy examples.

  7. Also worth mentioning here are the Canadian horror films beyond Cronenberg’s oeuvre. These films, most notably Bob Clark’s Deathdream (1972) and Black Christmas (1975) and the prolific genre work of William Fruet, including Death Weekend (1976), Funeral Home (1982), and Spasms (1983), have received only the slightest critical attention.

A version of this essay was presented at the 1997 Society for Cinema Studies Conference in Ottawa. I would like to thank Peter Harcourt, William Paul, and Murray Pomerance for their comments and encouragement at the conference. Lauren Berlant, Barry Grant, Tom Gunning, and the Mass Culture Workshop at the University of Chicago also provided valuable questions, suggestions, and editorial feedback.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1972.

Beard, William. “The Canadianness of David Cronenberg.” Mosaic 27.2 (June 1994): 113–133.

———, and Piers Handling. “The Interview.” The Shape of Rage: The Films of David Cronenberg. Ed. Piers Handling. Toronto: General Publishing, 1983. 159–98.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller.” Illumination. Ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1969. 83–110.

———. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1969. 217–252.

Bordwell, David. “The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice.” Film Criticism 4.1 (1979): 56–64.

———. Narration in the Fiction Film. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1985.

Delaney, Marshall [Robert Fulford]. “You Should Know How Bad This Film Is. After All, You Paid For It.” Saturday Night (September 1975): 83–85.

Drew, Wayne, ed. David Cronenberg. London: British Film Institute, 1984.

Durgnat, Raymond. Franju. Berkeley: U of California P, 1968.

Elder, R. Bruce. Image and Identity: Reflections on Canadian Film and Culture. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 1989.

Fothergill, Robert. “Coward, Bully, or Clown: The Dream-Life of a Younger Brother.” Canadian Film Reader. Ed. Seth Feldman and Joyce Nelson. Toronto: Peter Martin, 1977. 234–50.

Foster, Hal. “Death in America.” October 75 (Winter 1996): 37–59.

Grant, Barry Keith. “Introduction.” Post Script 15.1 (Fall 1995): 3–5.

Handling, Piers. “A Canadian Cronenberg.” The Shape of Rage: The Films of David Cronenberg. Ed. Piers Handling. Toronto: General Publishing, 1983. 98–114.

Hollier, Denis. Against Architecture: The Writings of Georges Bataille. Trans. Betsy Wing. Cambridge: MIT P, 1995.

Kadrey, Richard, and Suzanne Stefanac. “J. G. Ballard on William S. Burroughs’ Naked Truth.” Salon Magazine (2 September 1997): 10 pp. Online. Internet. 9 September 1997.

Leach, Jim. “The Body Snatchers: Genre and Canadian Cinema.” Film Genre Reader. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin: U of Texas P, 1986. 357–369.

———. “North of Pittsburgh: Genre and National Cinema from a Canadian Perspective.” Film Genre Reader II. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin: U of Texas P, 1995. 474–493.

———. Review of Crash. Film Studies Association of Canada Newsletter 21.1 (Fall 1996): 19.

Lipset, Seymour Martin. Continental Divide: The Values and Institutions of the United States and Canada. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Lowenstein, Adam. “Films Without a Face: Shock Horror in the Cinema of Georges Franju.” Cinema Journal 37.4 (Summer 1998): 37–58.

McGregor, Gaile. “Grounding the Countertext: David Cronenberg and the Ethnospecificity of Horror.” Canadian Journal of Film Studies 2.1 (1993): 43–62.

Neale, Steve. “Art Cinema as Institution.” Screen 22.1 (1981): 11–39.

Parker, Andrew. “Grafting David Cronenberg: Monstrosity, AIDS Media, National/Sexual Difference.” Media Spectacles. Ed. Marjorie Garber, Jann Matlock, and Rebecca L. Walkowitz. London: Routledge, 1993. 209–231.

Pearson, Patricia. “Crash, Bam, Thank You, Ma’am.” Saturday Night (October 1996): 119–22.

Pendakur, Manjunath. Canadian Dreams and American Control: The Political Economy of the Canadian Film Industry. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1990.

Pevere, Geoff. “Middle of Nowhere: Ontario Movies After 1980.” Post Script 15.1 (Fall 1995): 9–22.

Pomerance, Murray. Review of Crash. Film Studies Association of Canada Newsletter 21.1 (Fall 1996): 20.

Rebello, Stephen. Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of “Psycho.” New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

Rodley, Chris, ed. Cronenberg on Cronenberg. London: Faber and Faber, 1997.

Seltzer, Mark. “Wound Culture: Trauma in the Pathological Public Sphere.” October 80 (Spring 1997): 3–26.

Smith, Gavin. “Cronenberg: Mind Over Matter.” Film Comment 33.2 (March/April 1997): 14–29.

Testa, Bart. “Technology’s Body: Cronenberg, Genre, and the Canadian Ethos.” Post Script 15.1 (Fall 1995): 38–56.

Warner, Michael. “The Mass Public and the Mass Subject.” The Phantom Public Sphere. Ed. Bruce Robbins. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993. 234–256.

Chris Rodley (review date April 1999)

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SOURCE: “Game Boy,” in Sight and Sound, Vol. 9, No. 3, April, 1999, pp. 8–10.

[In the following review, Rodley discusses the comedy, the double meanings, and the various levels of reality in the film eXistenZ.]

eXistenZ. It’s new. And it’s here. It’s a virtual-reality game that’s almost indistinguishable from lived experience and it’s also the new movie from David Cronenberg. What’s more, it’s the first wholly original creation from the director since Videodrome (1982)—the film his fans regard as his quintessential work because it most effectively captures the alarming nature of the cinema’s invasion of the passive self. eXistenZ is Videodrome’s inverse twin, in which the interactive self invades cinema.

I talked to Cronenberg in London, a city which greeted his last cinema release Crash (1996) with an uproar of tabloid outrage. He’d just arrived from the Berlin Film Festival where eXistenZ had received its world premiere and its director had won a Silver Bear for “outstanding artistic achievement”. But there was an air of dread about him. The near-psychotic reaction of some British film critics to Crash seems to have scarred him. To Cronenberg, being in London with a new movie feels “creepy”.

Over the past 17 years Cronenberg has played the symbiotic bug, gleefully infecting other people’s texts with his own concerns—novels as diverse as Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, William Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch and J. G. Ballard’s Crash. There’s also David H. Hwang’s play M Butterfly and the rethinking of the 1958 sci-fi movie The Fly. Even Dead Ringers (1988) was loosely based on the real-life case of identical twin gynaecologists Cyril and Stewart Marcus. eXistenZ, however, is completely new.

Shy, sexy Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is an adored game-devising goddess in a near future in which the inventors of virtual-reality games have become cultural megastars. Her new game, eXistenZ, plugs so effectively into an individual’s desires and fears that the frontiers between fantasy and reality disappear, leaving the player wandering compassless in landscapes and situations that may or may not be of their own imagining. However, this successful game genius has fanatical enemies—both those who are against gaming and rival gaming companies. After a botched attempt on her life during eXistenZ’s first public demonstration, Allegra finds herself on the run with Ted Pikul (Jude Law), a novice security guard for Antenna Research, the hi-tech toy firm with millions invested in the game.

The intense game reality of eXistenZ is produced by its unique Game Pod, an organic creature grown from fertilised amphibian eggs stuffed with synthetic DNA. Resembling a kidney with large, aroused nipples, the fleshy, pulsating device is connected to each player via an UmbyCord which plugs directly into a Bioport at the base of the spine. Hotwired into the human nervous system, the pod has unrestricted access to personal memories, anxieties and preoccupations. With a $5 million Fatwa on her head from one company or another (possibly her own employers), Allegra, accompanied by Ted, embarks on a synaptic road movie into the virtual heart of her own game where nothing—and this is a gross understatement—is as it seems.

Cronenberg works this game/movie connection into a metaphor so effective that as soon as eXistenZ is over you feel the need to ‘play’ the film again to understand its rules more fully, certain you must have missed something. As one might expect from Cronenberg, eXistenZ fuses all the components of cinema—storytelling, acting, production design, sound, images, music—to play with the viewer at the same time as representing the game to them. But what makes eXistenZ potentially dangerous is its philosophic basis. Like reality, it can bite. Literally. It’s a virtual-reality game. And it’s a movie.


“It came as a shock to me,” Cronenberg says of the idea. “It wasn’t out of desperation, or a feeling of, ‘Oh my god, I haven’t written anything original for a while and therefore I haven’t been true to my flame.’ I was just ready to write something original. The spark for it, though, was the Salman Rushdie affair. I had an idea for a sci-fi movie that would have something to do with that situation, which horrified and fascinated me at the same time.”

In spring 1995, while still conceiving eXistenZ, Cronenberg was asked by Shift magazine in Canada to interview Rushdie. “I might have had the idea of making the artist character in the movie a game designer even then. Why that should be, I don’t know. Maybe I wanted some distance, some metaphorical play that wasn’t autobiographical.” During the interview, and unbeknownst to Rushdie, Cronenberg tested his ideas out on the fugitive writer. “We talked about games and computers. He’d had to learn about computers because, being on the run, he needed to work on a laptop. That meeting crystallised things for me, so I posited a time when games could be art, and a game designer an artist.”

With eXistenZ Cronenberg has returned whole-heartedly to his most abiding source of ideas—radical developments in bio-technology, and their often disturbing, but potentially liberating, consequences. As in the telekinetic conspiracy tale Scanners (1980) and the telepornographic hypnosis conspiracy tale Videodrome, the appropriation (or destruction) of these developments by political interests drives the narrative. Indeed, Cronenberg revamps some of Videodrome’s notions of “the new flesh” as technological hardware, confident that some of his seemingly outrageous past imaginings have become reality. For instance, Dr Dan Keloid’s “neutralised” skin grafts in Rabid (1976) are now science fact, not fiction.

Cronenberg: “It’s bizarre that something I invented then has come to pass. By using foetal or umbilical tissue they can now make a skin graft that will work on a kidney or whatever because it doesn’t know what it is yet. It just says: ‘Oh, I can be this.’ But that’s a classic sci-fi thing, like Arthur C. Clarke saying, ‘I invented satellites ten years before they happened.’ I’m not interested in being that kind of techno-prophet. However, I’m very aware of what’s happening with computers and I find it exciting.

“Intel and all the chip makers are now experimenting with animal proteins as the basis for their chips. They can’t use metals any more—they have to get right down to the molecular and even atomic level. Imagine the market! People will want it—either on the entertainment or the health front. You have your little case full of different organs that have been designed specifically for game playing. Or organs for things we’ve never had before. You could have new sexual organs—which I play with metaphorically in the movie. They could be very pleasurable in a way no naturally derived organ has been. People are having surgery for all kinds of frivolous reasons, so why not have it for a really good functional reason?”


In this bio-degradable anti-metal world, many of the aesthetic signatures Cronenberg’s critics love to disparage—deadpan acting, anonymous-looking locations, lack of ‘drama’—become virtual virtues. This is not a hand-eye co-ordination-testing shoot-em-up world at all, but something that allows the participant to take decisions at their own pace. At a certain point, eXistenZ takes the viewer inside Allegra’s game, providing a complex Chinese-box structure to the film itself because the game and its framing ‘reality’ look so similar. Although the ‘reality bleeds’ continually signalled throughout the movie are not an original device, they presage a massive narrative haemorrhage at the end, so much so that it’s impossible to give an in-depth synopsis of the film without literally giving the game away.

“When I started writing it,” says Cronenberg, “I remember thinking I wouldn’t play the game in the movie; that it would be about an artist on the run. I’d allude to the game and you’d see people playing it, but the audience would never get into it. It would be like an elegant frustration. But that didn’t last long! Once I’d started, I thought, ‘I wanna see what this game’s all about!’ At that point it became a meditation on the virtual-reality genre and how I didn’t want to be part of it. As soon as you do, you’re The Lawmower Man, you’re Strange Days, whatever. Of course we have to be arrogant and assume that we can do something no one else has done.”

And the weight of Cronenberg’s recent past—the somewhat solemn debates engendered by his films of the key counterculture novels The Naked Lunch and Crash—has been lifted in another way. The concern to work at the level of metaphor remains, but there’s now a rich vein of black humour. eXistenZ is never more hilarious than in the scene where Ted gets fitted with a Bioport (he doesn’t have one because of a phobia about having his body penetrated) so he can play eXistenZ with Allegra in order to assess the damage done to her Game Pod during an assassination attempt. The trouble is, the fitting has to be done off the beaten track in less than hygienic circumstances by a greasy mechanic named Gas (Willem Dafoe, in gleeful, Bobby Peru mode). Ted’s virginal fear, a filthy Bioport insertion gun and an explosive ‘fitting’—which leaves him face down in agony, legs paralysed, while Gas goes “to wash up”—are so loaded with sexual content the scene threatens to burst.

eXistenZ is full of such scenes, and Allegra’s game works on so many levels that everything the characters say, do or see offers multiple meanings—sexuality being only one of them. “At Berlin one French journalist wondered if I was aware of the homosexuality in that scene because to him it was totally an anal-fuck scene. So I said, ‘Y-e-e-s-s I can see that now you mention it!’ Humour was always there in my films, even in Crash, but here it’s right up front. The whole middle of the movie plays like a comedy, basically. People sometimes think you decide it’s time to lighten up, but it wasn’t intentional. There’s a ton of sex in the movie, metaphorically speaking, and because it pleased me so much, I didn’t want to spoil it with real sex. I’m saying, ‘This is better sex. This is sex you’ve never even dreamed of before. Let’s just concentrate on this.”

eXistenZ was initially developed by MGM, but the studio was concerned that the central character was a woman. “Their own demographics tell them this kind of movie is going to be attractive to young men—because it’s sci-fi and about games—and young men don’t want the lead to be a girl. They want it to be them. Suddenly you realise you’ve not written quite so commercially viable a script as you thought. Feminist so-called paranoia about Hollywood is absolutely justified.”

Cronenberg himself had first conceived of the game artist as male, “because it’s me, Salman Rushdie, whatever”, but the script didn’t snap into place until he changed the character’s sex. “It’s that whole role-reversal thing. If Allegra were a man and Ted a woman, imagine the scene where he has to talk her into getting a Bioport fitted so he can plug into her. It’s the guy fucking the girl, it would have been crude. But the punishment came when we tried to find a hot young actor to play a character like Ted, because they don’t want to be subservient. Even in unusual movies that same old American macho stuff is still going on.”


eXistenZ’s vision of the near future is set in a countryside littered with old buildings now being used for something other than their original function. This move away from the city comes out of a decision made by Cronenberg with regular collaborators Carol Spier (production designer) and Peter Suschitzky (director of photography) to remove from this world everything people would expect from a sci-fi movie about game playing. There are no computer screens, televisions, sneakers, watches or suits. The result of this multiplication of minor subtractions is perfectly subliminal: you can feel the operation of a ‘look’, but its exact nature is elusive.

“I removed Blade Runner, basically,” admits Cronenberg. “The production design of that movie has a weird life of its own. It’s almost as if that world exists. It’s a very interesting phenomenon. Instead, we were replicating some of the style of some video games. If you want a character to wear a plaid shirt, it takes up a lot of memory, so it’s much easier if he has a solid beige shirt. So I was trying to replicate the blockiness of the polygon structure of some games.”

Everywhere in the eXistenZ world there are game players, game inventors, game doctors and game manufacturers. As Gas declares, he’s a garage mechanic, “only on the most pathetic level of reality”. But the countryside is also home to fundamentalist fanatics opposed to the “radical deforming of reality” caused by such games. Around this conflict is where Rushdie, the game, the movie, cinema and the metaphor that is eXistenZ itself fuse so effortlessly. eXistenZ’s supporters proclaim “Death to realism!” and describe its wounded and weary as “victims of realism”. When Allegra’s Game Pod, at one point hopelessly diseased, explodes in a shower of black spores, they are the smothering black spores of “reality”. This play-off of perceptions is what makes eXistenZ such an unexpected meditation on cinema. The characters yelling “Long live realism!” are not only, on a purely narrative level, the enemy of eXistenZ the game; they are literally enemies of eXistenZ the movie—which toys with reality precisely for our visceral and intellectual pleasure.

Humorous as eXistenZ is, there’s a small scene at the centre that slyly represents the underlying seriousness of the project. Wandering around in a disused virtual-reality trout farm where components for Game Pods are now being bred from mutated amphibians, Ted confesses to Allegra: “I don’t want to be here. We’re stumbling around in the unformed world, not knowing what the rules are, or if there are any rules. We’re under attack from forces that want to destroy us but that we don’t understand.” The game goddess replies: “Yeah, that’s my game.” Ted can only observe sarcastically: “It’s a game that’s going to be difficult to market.” But Allegra has the last word: “It’s a game everyone’s already playing.”

Cronenberg: “I’m talking about the existentialists, i.e. the game players, versus the realists. The deforming of reality is a criticism that has been levelled against all art, even religious icons, which has to do with Man being made in God’s image, so you can’t make images of either. Art is a scary thing to a lot of people because it shakes your understanding of reality, or shapes it in ways that are socially unacceptable. As a card-carrying existentialist I think all reality is virtual. It’s all invented. It’s collaborative, so you need friends to help you create a reality. But it’s not about what is real and what isn’t.

“At Berlin I jokingly said the movie is existentialist propaganda. I meant it playfully, of course. But I have come to believe that this is the game we are playing. In Berlin I didn’t even get into the discussion about mortality. That’s even more basic—the absurdity of human existence. Because it’s too short to be able to understand enough, to synthesise enough, to make intelligent choices. So we’re blundering around, terrified because we know we’re going to die at some inopportune moment.”

Marq Smith (essay date Summer 1999)

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SOURCE: “Wound Envy: Touching Cronenberg’s Crash,” in Screen, Vol. 40, No. 2, Summer, 1999, pp. 193–202.

[In the following essay, Smith discusses the auto accidents that occur in the film Crash in the context of Freud’s thought on male and female hysteria, trauma, and the connection between sex and death.]

The frantic use of automobiles is not … for the purpose of going somewhere in particular; here it is not a priori a question of distances to cross, which creates inevitably new travel conditions. To go nowhere, even to ride around in a deserted quarter or on a crowded freeway, now seems natural for the voyeur-voyager in his car.

Paul Virilio1

Screen is right to have begun a debate on David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996), a film which seems to have caused so much controversy and yet, up to this point, has neither received nor generated sagacious consideration in film studies.2 Perhaps the reasons for this noisy silence lie with the manner in which Crash makes the marriage of desire and death a beautiful thing. Indeed, no one should ever have doubted the sensual poetic beauty of death’s aesthetics. In approaching the proximity of Crash one might talk of an anticipation where sacrificial urgency goes beyond vanity, of being on the verge, the sublimity of losing control, of a meeting and of a coming together. A meeting by accident, a coming together of strangers. Of the erotic tenderness of impact. The painful pleasures of the crash, the intimacy of the graze, the arousal of the head-on collision. A touching. The union of the shapes and spaces of an imploding moulded interior and the enfolding surfaces and planes of body parts reaching out for intimacy. A crash course in love.3 The fusion of every polymorphous perversity sanctioned by a deviant technology, every anatomical meld, every possible permeation of corporeal and physiological contact. Finally, at last, a remembering. The memory of a unique event that every deformity signals. An aching, barely sensed experience of pain and desire. The invention of a new algebra: wounds—not just facial and genital injuries (we should not presume or fixate)—become ‘handholds’, contact points for all of the possibilities to come; a tracing out of the machine through the imprinted contours of these mysteriously erotic stigmatized wounds and tissue-damaged scars. The beauty of having your first crush.

But beauty, as Georges Bataille suggests, ‘cannot act. It can only be and preserve itself.’4 It cannot give the imminently possible accident a meaning. It cannot show that the accident is not a defect but ‘a property of the system’5 of progress, of movement, and of speed. And anyway, the accidents that this beauty speaks of in Crash are not accidental. They are an affirmation, like the wished-for voluntary death proscribed by Nietzsche: the imperative is to die at the right time.6 These accidents, then, are desires: desires for what J. G. Ballard has called ‘the new sexuality that is born from a perverse technology’.7 And surely this is a matter not of beauty, but rather of sexuality.

And yet there is little sexuality in the history of the crash. You have to look hard for it. You have to look hard to find out how sexuality got involved with the crash. And here we might say that this hard look, the very process of searching for the history of the crash—car, train, plane, whatever—replicates and plays out the structure of the Trinity at the heart of the discourse of psychoanalysis: symptomatology, aetiology, therapeutics. First we look to the crash site for signs of life, for movement, for survivors. We inspect for damage, for missing limbs, for wounds, lesions and indicators of physiological, neurological or psychological injury. We seek to explain the lost moment of the accident. We search out the black box for unexplained truth. Then we look for causes, explanations, justifications, for who to blame, who to accuse, and for those who should be held accountable, who or what should our recriminations be directed against, and what might their motives or purpose have been. If any. Finally we mourn. We (try, and fail to) overcome loss through a search for, and the manipulation of, memories in the barely optimistic hope that ultimately, as Sigmund Freud so generously anticipated, hysterical misery can be turned into commonplace unhappiness.8

This is not sexuality. Rather, it reeks with the singed smell of trauma. And here we are at the door which opens onto the modern world of wound culture. (Etymologically, trauma derives its meanings from the Greek form of the wound, which is trauma traumatos). This wound appears in specific response to the historical industrial and technological conditions of the modern era, and is tied to the conflictual relations between trauma and mechanical discord, the human body under siege from new labouring machines and changing structures of work, modes of transport, forms of weaponry and styles of warfare, and poisons that encourage its instability. Between the 1860s and 1920 these encounters with extra-human machinery produce always mutating figurations of the wound which undergo significant epistemic shifts, the most important of which is their disappearance, their displacement from the field of the visible to the inexplicable realms of the invisible. That is, they move from a visible, if elusive, topography of organic spinal lesions, caused by what John Eric Erichsen christened ‘railway spine’ in the 1860s, to the disturbances of the cerebral function, caused by the invisible ‘railway brain’ of the 1870s. Gradually, such disappearances were also the case in J-M. Charcot’s dermographic physiological symptomatologies, or ‘body maps’, often of male hysterics from the late 1870s to the early 1890s who suffered from disorders caused by the inevitable accidents of industrial production—akin to the German neurologist Hermann Oppenheim’s ‘traumatic neurosis’—and the nervous disturbances of ‘intoxication neurosis’ identified by Gilles de la Tourette as the result of lead, mercury and carbon disulphide poisoning in the workplace.9

These disappearing signs of injury, the ‘problem of the missing lesion’ as it was known, testify not to the possibility that victims were unaffected by the trauma, or that the causes of their disorders were invisible as such—that they could not be seen because there were no patho-anatomical determinants—rather, the coordinates of the lost symptoms simply confused the medical fraternity to such an extent that the search was forced to continue elsewhere. This ‘elsewhere’ dictated that what featured as an ‘objective’ diagnosis, bearing the wounds and scars of its happening on the surface of the traumatized somatic body, became more of a—and I use this term with great caution—‘subjective’, and thus psychological, concern. It therefore became a matter of how the physical shock of trauma triggers or produces the psychical neurosis. For, it was discovered, a long time after the accident, the collision, the shock itself, the trauma returns. (This is what Charcot called the ‘period of psychical working-out’ [élaboration] and what Freud later characterized as ‘an interval of incubation’.)

Such is also the case in incidents of ‘shell shock’, a phrase coined by C.S. Meyers in 1915. Like those with derailed nerve tracks left staggering by the verges of railway lines from the 1860s and before, and the disenfranchised wanderers who populated the wards of the Salpêtrière from the 1870s, so it is for those who littered the battlefields of Europe, the terrain of its satellite skirmishes, and North America from the middle of the nineteenth century to the end of World War I. Due in part to the nature of modern industrial warfare, the Taylorized mass-production of weaponry by unskilled workers, the deployment of barely trained ‘deskilled’ workers, and the fragile ontological condition of modern man, many of the traumatized and incapacitated invalids returning from war suffered from shell shock, or ‘war hysteria’, brought on and stimulated by explosive circumstances.10

The often contagious disorder of shell shock repeatedly lead to a regular confusion over the misdiagnosis of hysterical symptoms. While most victims of shell shock had suffered no organic damage to the central nervous system, soldiers’ traumatic memories of combat were treated by physical means. Suggestion was employed to help the patients remember and, obversely, ineffectual distracting techniques were used to help them forget. The patient, now cured, was ready to be sent back out into the field. But, of course, the use of inhuman techniques such as electricity—very different from the seemingly dialogic(al) talking and listening procedures of psychoanalysis—do not stop the cured patient from relapsing, from breaking down again the moment that he next hears the noise of gunfire or exploding shells. As a result of these failures, psychotherapy was turned to as a humanitarian treatment for encouraging the reliving of painful memories. However, British psychotherapy—and the same is largely true for German and Austrian thought at the time—launched an almost wholesale refutation of Freud’s sexual aetiology of neurotic disorders, although there was some support for his nonsexual aetiology.

Apart from the work of Freud, there are very few reasons to support the claim that trauma and shock provoked by the accident or crash have anything to do with the coming together of sexuality and death. Within a historical context, at least, this should have profound effects on any confrontation with Cronenberg’s Crash, and also with those numerous instances in film history when sexuality and death are seen by necessity to meld into this apparently most obvious of couplings. But in Freud these claims are everywhere. It is significant that Freud, then, marks the point at which medical observation of shock as a somatic neurological physicality is found to be insufficient as a diagnostic, thereby giving way to a more proto-psychological, or psychogenic, and decidedly sexual understanding of trauma and its ensuing scars. And it is this shift from the somatic to the psychical that we should heed. For it is a seismic displacement which takes place in his thought, almost imperceptibly, between his first dealings with the trauma of accidents in 1886—incidentally, around the same year as the appearance of the first roadworthy car, and its first crash—and the publication of ‘Beyond the pleasure principle’ in 1920, where threads of sexuality and death are intimately interwoven through the anxieties of traumatic neuroses and war neuroses.

How does sexuality emerge from this breach? Before Freud’s and Breuer’s ‘Preliminary communication’ of 1893, sexuality is almost wholly absent from Freud’s encounters with that scattering of occurrences known as hysteria. In his writings before 1893, all references to the (usually male) body are encountered through the desexualizing languages of physiology and anatomy, and are still largely tied to Charcot’s hereditary aetiology. But in the ‘Preliminary Communication’, the introduction of a psycho-analysis initiates a move away from the hysterical male figured through a nonsexual symptomatology and towards what will become a highly sexualized configuration of the female hysteric. This move, initiated by a shift from bodily contour to psychical cartography, from man to woman, takes place thanks to Freud’s introduction of the notion of memory, or, more precisely, the return of a specific memory, the return of the event which caused the outbreak of hysteria, the psychical trauma. By the time we reach Studies on Hysteria two years later, this transition is almost complete. Male hysteria is all but forgotten. And, somehow, through the fabrication of memory as a determinant, discussions of a more or less asexual physiological condition known as male hysteria give way to the beginnings of a more psycho-analytic and highly sexualized talking around hysterical female bodies.

Reminiscences become the precondition for the emergence of sexuality. They are the vehicle for fathering a now wholly sexualized female hysteria. And they still maintain an obligation to shock. The sexual shocks initiating the hysterias of Freud’s female patients have been well documented. More elusive are other incidents of shock, including those recounted in Freud’s letter to Fliess dated 2 November 1895, where he is finally able to explain how he has managed to substantiate the spurious claims of his seduction theory: through sexual shock. Other letters to Fliess during the summer of 1897 repeatedly mention his own neurosis brought on by (memories of) the earlier death of his father, a hysteria compounded by a recent visit to the mediaeval town of Nürnberg, a journey crippled by his newly found travel anxiety.11 And, similarly, his ‘Screen memories’ of 1899 centres on a recounting, if not a direct recollection, of infantile railway crash memories.12 In all cases, the return of a memory is an a priori. After all, for Freud, the finding of the lost object is the refinding of it. Although as Jean Laplanche’s reformulation of Freud’s equation makes clear, the object re-found is not identical with the object lost.13

By the time that something vaguely resembling male hysteria does reemerge in Freud’s psycho-analysis, it looks very unfamiliar. By 1919, his ‘Psycho-analysis and the war neurosis’ suggests that there is no question that the sexual aetiology, or libido theory, of the neurosis does not play a central role in the narcissistic traumatic war neuroses.14 By 1920, his ‘Beyond the pleasure principle’ is in no doubt that ‘traumatic neurosis’ no longer only appears in the great railway disasters of the late nineteenth century but also as a consequence of the psychological trauma of war. Woven throughout this text, a discussion of traumatic neuroses and war neuroses indicates that both are a consequence of the shock of the accident. For Freud, the neurotic condition is a result of surprise, of fright, of anxiety: conditions which characterize the trauma and both produce and bind an excess of sexual excitation. And here, as one would expect, the compulsion to repeat alludes to how all of this is caught up in the beginnings of a sustained discussion of the death instinct which has, in its service, the pleasure principle.

What becomes apparent in this brief trawl through over thirty years of Freud’s thought is that a shift does take place from a nonsexual typography of male hysteria to a sexually specific and sexually differentiated tropology. Male hysteria, although rarely named as such, has fallen headlong into murky relations with sexuality and death. But what brings this shift about? How do sexuality, or pleasure, or unpleasure, and death become such a tangled enigma? Not through the advent of psychoanalysis per se. Nor by means of the direct, if fleeting, interferences of memory. Perhaps, though, it is specifically the proximity that these reminiscences might have to the emergence of castration within psychoanalysis that precipitates such a knotting.

This union of sexuality and death secured under the shadow cast by castration begins to make clear my attempt at figuring its genealogy through male hysteria. And, indirectly at least, this is something similar to what Barbara Creed does in her article published in Screen in 1990 on Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988).15 It is exactly this conjunction of sexuality and death, male hysteria and castration, never clarified by Freud himself, which is central to Creed’s suggestive argument. But in portraying male hysteria as a defence against the possibility of symbolic castration rather than castration anxiety, Creed refers not to (a) lack, but to a loss: to the loss of (the) mother’s body, of the breast and of the faeces. Following Kaja Silverman following Lacan, Creed seems to suggest that this inability to distinguish between lack and loss comes about because male anxieties of symbolic castration are usually converted into anxieties about so-called female castration.16

But what if this anxiety conversion does not take place? What if the (male) subject does acknowledge the notion of lack prior to the recognition of anatomical sexual difference? And what, most importantly, is at stake in thinking castration not as loss, but as a gain? What does assuming one’s own castration and refusing to cover up this inadequacy imply?17 All I can do here is begin to try to place a necessary wedge between male hysteria and castration anxiety, and between castration and death, in an effort to challenge certain kinds of spectral male uneasiness in and around sexuality which exist and persist, unquestioned, within psychoanalysis, and that are particular to it.18 I will approach this by turning to another role that sexual pleasure might play in the discourse of psychoanalysis. But not before a final effort at putting this sex/death union to rest. To this end, I refer to Elizabeth Grosz’s ‘ANIMAL SEX: libido as desire and death’19 in which Grosz—following Roger Caillois’s and Alphonso Lingis’s explorations of the persistence of the link between desire and death, and sexual pleasure and death—proposes that there is an urgent need to dissemble or sever the relations between sexuality and death because, apart from the damage that this bonding has done to female (and male) sexuality, and potentially within gay communities, these relations are not determined in advance. That is, they are not determined by figuring ‘erotogenic zones as nostalgic reminiscences of a pre-oedipal, infantile bodily organization … of seeing the multiplicity of libidinal sites in terms of regression’.20 Grosz is against the need for sexuality to compensate for the inevitability of death, against the sexual encounter as only or necessarily an adventuring (orgasm) driven compulsion, against what she calls a fantasy of ‘the hydraulics of the Freudian model of sexual discharge or cathexis’.21 Rather, in proposing a materialist account of sexual desire which favours entire surfaces of bodies as series of erotogenic zones, sites of provocations coming together to contaminate and intensify their contiguous and disparate others, where the points of mutual interaction and intensification may come from different bodies, things, substances, the sexual encounter becomes ‘a directionless mobilization of excitations with no guaranteed outcomes’.22

As Lynne Kirby implies in her account of the historical birth of cinema in the Golden Age of railway travel, it might be seen to be this compulsive structure of Freud’s hydraulic sexuality that suggests both the narrative imperative of early moving pictures and the speeding urgency of the train, as they simultaneously hurtle towards their climactic finale (le petit mort) of shock as trauma.23 Michael Grant’s ‘Crimes of the future’ makes a similar point through Vaughan, the tragedian of Crash who suggests that the car crash should be seen as ‘fertilizing’.24 But unlike the logic of loss at the hub of this hydraulic sexuality, Grosz’s productive coming together of parts of bodies, things and substances figures an erotic desire which is always in superabundance, in excess, superfluous. For Grosz, materiality is ‘always in excess of function or goal’. For me it is always something less. And perhaps it is what lies in-between this ‘always in excess’ and surreptitious understatement that is the thing which distinguishes Crash from just any other road, or rail, movie.

The structure of Crash, both as an imaginative space of conjecturality and as a site for the playing out of sexual encounters, is unlike more familiar road movies. The banality of its narrative drive fails to direct us towards anything other than a disappointing and unresolved denouement. Its geography refuses the simple pleasures of an exploratory narrative unfolding and, instead, offers a rhizomatic network of road systems leading to nowhere in particular. The crashes which take place on these roads to nowhere are themselves rarely accidental, but their outcome is never determined in advance. By necessity, these conditions generate, and are produced by, a different order of sexual contact which must come into play, one that is proper to these new assemblages of human relations. This contact occurs, and takes the form of an offer of both explicit and discreet instances of touching between human and extra-human bodies, bodily parts, things and surfaces. Some of these instances confer a different manner of sexuality; others imply a nonsexual intimacy.

This takes us a long way from Barbara Creed’s ‘Anal wounds, metallic kisses’, where she reaffirms what we, as subjects, are already supposed to know: that a viewing of Cronenberg’s Crash will reaffirm the strong, already existing connection between desire, sex and accidental death. And we know this because the film’s violent dissembling and disarticulating experience of such a crash culture is so appropriate to us, to the postmodern desiring subject. But her account of our ontological condition, while questionable, is neither here nor there. And, incidentally, if anything, Fred Botting’s and Scott Wilson’s ‘Automatic lover’ proposes a much more empathetic understanding of where the sexualized subjects in Crash come from, and also, perhaps, how the extent to which the incomplete formation of the subject through the identificatory viewing strategies of a restrictive psychoanalysis cannot fail to replicate the pleasures of these characters. From Creed, caught, much like the characters, in Freud’s restricted sexual economy, we should not be surprised to discover that Cronenberg’s approach to questions of sexual difference does little more than replicate a series of already familiar themes around the subject’s formation through its relations with technology, the eroticization and fetishization of its already overdetermined wounds, and that this wound culture is primarily concerned with a male desire still shackled to a fear of the female body. Not unexpectedly, the erotic encounters in Crash are seen to play out this male desire through displacement onto women’s bodies, and to repeat a long-standing failure to engage with female desire, thus confirming the film’s phallocentric sexual politics.

These customary remarks notwithstanding, Creed’s most important observation is that ‘none of the characters, no matter how resourceful in their pursuit of the erotic, will ever find fulfilment’.25 This incapacity to realize fulfilment is echoed by Grant, who sees Cronenberg’s Crash emerge from the tradition of romantic art which is embodied in the necessary provocation and failure of spiritual life, the same spiritual life that J. G. Ballard sees played out in the ‘sacramental aspect’ of the car crash in Cronenberg’s film. And this competing structure of provocation and failure is very much in keeping with what Creed calls the films ‘perverse subject-matter’,26 although not necessarily in the way in which she might mean. Given the film’s perverse subject matter, she says that it is ‘unexpectedly detached’,27 a point also made by Grant who gestures towards Cronenberg’s coldness, artifice and dispassion of style. But this perverse detachment should not surprise us, given what Freud has to say about the nature of perversions.

In keeping with the colourful language within which Crash has been discussed by others, to find out just what Freud has to say about the nature of perversions it might be useful to return to the consideration of smut that appears half-way through his book on jokes. For Freud, the production of smut is about the production of pleasure through sexual exposure. And for sexual exposure to take place successfully in his smut scene, the practice of touching must be replaced by the act of looking. This pleasure, which remains so mysterious to him, is the pleasure of desire, and is discovered for the first time in the region of laughter. For him, laughter is, in fact, the first form assumed by what he calls ‘fore-pleasure’.28 Fore-pleasure is an interesting thing. In Freud’s hands, it is the thing which ‘serves to initiate the large release of pleasure’,29 that would arouse sexual excitation and demand to know how pleasure can become greater,30 that will go on to satisfy desire through the sexual act proper, or what he calls ‘end-pleasure’. But a problem arises for Freud when fore-pleasure endangers the attainment of the normal sexual aim: if an interest in fore-pleasure becomes too great, and its motivation so strong that the will to proceed is curtailed and disappears.31 Fore-pleasure, previously a precipitous act, takes the place of the normal sexual aim. It cannot become end-pleasure and is, instead, practised for its own sake or ‘without a purpose’, as Freud warns discouragingly.32 Persisting with our language of travel, Freud indicates that the pleasures of touching and looking ‘lie on the road towards copulation’,33 until their station as fore-pleasures is fully revealed.34 Once this realization takes place, we are in the presence of the emergence of perversions. This is how Freud describes perversions here: ‘Perversions are sexual activities which either extend, in an anatomical sense, beyond the regions of the body that are designed for sexual union, or linger over the intermediate relations to the sexual object which should normally be traversed rapidly on the path towards the final sexual aim’.35

Against a Freudian hydraulics of sexuality which seems to necessitate that Crash be interpreted, favourably or otherwise, through the violence of vaginal and anal penetration and its reproductive (or ‘creative’) imperatives, I am interested in the perversion of touching as fore-pleasure. I am intrigued by how Cronenberg’s film also offers numerous touching encounters, extended lingerings which conjure up a landscape of intermediate, non-genital, non-predetermined regions of the human and machinic body, and the deftness of the touch that lingers on their skin as it suggests and welcomes stimuli.36

This erotogenics speaks of earlier sensations that might have snaked their way across the perilous hysterogenic zones of Charcot’s male hysterics, had they been allowed to flourish. But they were not. Touching was made to disappear. The dominance of psychoanalysis eclipsed this sensuality. But this need not continue to be the case. Just because psychoanalysis has so much difficulty engaging with anything that is not always and already made to be about sexuality, this does not mean that figures caught in its petrifying grip, such as touching, have to continue to disappear into its grammatology simply because they have been on speaking terms with it for so long. It is tempting to suggest that touching might not be just about sexuality. If it is, it is a largely unexplored, unknown and secret language of contagious intensifications and contaminations across or between bodily and other surfaces and substances, a coanimation of … provocations and reactions, a conjunction of charged caresses which have frequently lain dormant since the beginning of this century.37 Touching can become a sexual encounter with itself. If touching is about sexuality, it might be about forepleasure. And if it is about forepleasure, it might not necessarily even be sexual.

David Cronenberg’s Crash tries to play with the idea of forepleasure. At its worst, the film draws attention to its inability to escape from a crude and contrived Freudianesque model of sexuality. But at its best, it offers innumerable touching opportunities and encounters. More often than not, this touching is an encouragement to something else: to genital and anal sexuality. But sometimes this touching is no more than simply touching. Its aim is still to produce pleasure, and it can still be sexual, but it swerves away from the a priori compulsion that is the futile finality of hydraulic sexuality for Freud. At these moments, it fails to satisfy (the knowledge of) Desire and, instead, responds to a desire that has only ever been glimpsed. This touching is, in Freud’s own words, a perversion. Following Paul Virilio’s words extracted in my epigraph, I would rather think of it as a fore-pleasure leading to nowhere.38


  1. Paul Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance, trans. Philip Beitchmann (New York: Semiotext(e), 1991), p. 67.

  2. See Barbara Creed, ‘Anal wounds, metallic kisses’, Michael Grant, ‘Crimes of the future’, and Fred Botting and Scott Wilson, ‘Automatic lover’, Screen, vol. 39, no. 2 (1998), pp. 175–92.

  3. Georges Bataille speaks of a copula as a vehicle of love in ‘The solar anus’, in Georges Bataille. Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927–1939. ed. and trans. Allan Stoekl, with Carl R. Lovitt and Donald M. Leslie, Jr (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), pp. 5–9, 6. The US trailer for Crash speaks of ‘love in the dying moments of the twentieth century’

  4. Georges Bataille, ‘Hegel, death and sacrifice’, trans. Jonathan Strauss, in Allan Stoekl (ed.), Yale French Studies, no. 78 (1990), special issue ‘On Bataille’, p. 16.

  5. See Octavio Paz, ‘Order and accident’, in Conjunctions and Disjunctions, trans. Helen Lane (New York Arcade Publishing. 1990), pp. 103–13, 112.

  6. Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘Of voluntary death’, in Thus Spake Zarathustra, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin, 1969), pp. 97–9

  7. J. G. Ballard, Crash (London: Vintage, 1995), p. 13.

  8. Sigmund Freud and Joseph Breuer, Studies on Hysteria. trans. James and Alix Strachey, The Pelican Freud Library Volume 3 (Harmondsworth Penguin, 1974), p. 393.

  9. See work by John Eric Erichsen, Hermann Oppenheim, Jean-Martin Charcot, and Georges Albert Édouard Brutus Gilles de la Tourette. For an instructive discussion on these matters, see Ursula Link-Heer, ‘“Male hysteria”: a discourse analysis’, Cultural Critique (Spring 1990), pp. 207–11.

  10. See Martin Stone, ‘Shell shock and the psychologists’, in W. F. Bynum, Roy Porter and Michael Sheperd (eds), The Anatomy of Madness: Essays in the History of Psychiatry. Volume II Institutions and Society (London and New York: Tavistock Publications, 1985), pp. 242–71.

  11. Freud discusses how a ‘rhythmic mechanical agitation of the body’ produces sexual excitation. He mentions this in relation to the movement of carriages and railway travel and how, in later life [due to the repression of adolescent pleasures], this [sexual excitation] leads to travel anxiety, or traumatic neurosis. Freud, Three Essays, pp. 120–21. For the early Freud, anxiety, as displaced libido which has failed to discharge through sexual activity, later becomes the very protection against such disturbances of the psyche. See Samuel Weber, ‘Appendix A. Beyond anxiety: the witch’s letter’, in Return to Freud: Jacques Lacan’s Dislocation of Psychoanalysis, trans. Michael Levine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 152–67, 154, for further elaborations on this theme.

  12. Sigmund Freud, ‘Screen memories’, S.E. Vol. III (1893–1899), pp. 303–22, 310.

  13. See Juliet Mitchell, ‘From King Lear to Anna O and beyond: some speculative theses on hysteria and the traditionless self’, The Yale Journal of Criticism, vol. 5, no. 2 (1992), pp. 91–107, 94.

  14. Sigmund Freud, ‘Introduction to psycho-analysis and the war neuroses’, in S.E. Vol. XVII (1917–1919), pp. 207–10. Freud suggests that in traumatic and war neuroses the ego defends itself from either internal (the libido) or external (violence) threats of damage. A more fully developed and reworked version of this assertion is later echoed by Freud in ‘The ego and the id’ (1923), in On Metapsychology (London: Penguin, 1984), pp. 350–407, where he ties the ego, as the seat of anxiety, to a fear of death, a development of the fear of castration, but only once the ego has relinquished its narcissistic libidinal cathexis, given up itself, ‘because it feels itself hated and persecuted by the super-ego, instead of loved’ (p. 400).

  15. Barbara Creed. ‘Phallic panic: male hysteria and Dead Ringers, Screen, vol. 31, no. 2 (1990). pp. 125–46.

  16. Ibid., p. 138. Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror: the Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema (Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1988), p. 15, cited in Creed. ‘Phallic panic’, p. 139. Lacan’s theory of sexual identification is already a theory of inadequacy, of castration.

  17. Here I am trying to follow closely the still incredibly suggestive approach of Jane Gallop in her Reading Lacan (Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press, 1985), p. 20. That Gallop and I begin from differently gendered starting points will of course significantly impact upon both the desire behind, and the effect of, our efforts.

  18. Castration is not penidectomy. It would be interesting to consider the implications of this misrecognized misrecognition for Freudian castration anxiety, Creed’s symbolic castration, and the repercussions that this difference might have for a psychoanalysis so reliant on the successful completion, and the ensuing effects, of this misrecognition.

  19. Elizabeth Grosz, ‘ANIMAL SEX: libido as desire and death’, in Elizabeth Grosz and Elspeth Probyn (eds), Sexy Bodies: the Strange Carnalities Of Feminism (London: Routledge, 1995), pp. 278–99. For another fascinating reading of Freud’s ‘Beyond the pleasure principle’, see Suhail Malik, ‘Castrating. Inventing Death’, in Joanne Morra, Mark Robson and Marq Smith (eds). The Limits of Death (MUP, forthcoming 1999).

  20. Grosz, ‘ANIMAL SEX, p. 289.

  21. Ibid., p. 293.

  22. Ibid., p. 291.

  23. Lynne Kirby, ‘Male hysteria and early cinema’, Camera Obscura. no. 17 (1988), pp. 112–31.

  24. Grant, ‘Crimes of the future’, p. 183.

  25. Creed, ‘Anal wounds’, p. 176.

  26. Ibid., p. 175.

  27. Ibid., p. 175.

  28. Paraphrasing is too generous a word to describe what I am doing to Jean-Luc Nancy’s sharp observations. See Jean-Luc Nancy. The Birth to Presence, trans. Brian Holmes et al. (Stanford, CT: Stanford University Press), pp. 380–1.

  29. Sigmund Freud, Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, trans. James Strachey (London: Penguin, 1991), p. 188.

  30. Freud, Three Essays, p. 130.

  31. Ibid., p. 132.

  32. Ibid., p. 132.

  33. Ibid., p. 62.

  34. In Three Essays, Freud continues to use train travel, and the space of the carriage, as an example of the sexualization of movement, for this very reason necessarily leading to travel anxiety in later life. Ibid., p. 120. See also p. 101.

  35. Ibid., p. 62.

  36. In Three Essays. Freud points to Moll’s discussion of ‘contrectation’, the need for contact with the skin, see p. 84. n. 2. A footnote added in 1915 suggests that Freud is now happier to ‘ascribe the quality of erotogenicity to all parts of the body and to all the internal organs’ (p. 100, n. 1).

  37. Many of these emotive suggestions have been borrowed from Grosz.

  38. I would hope that this small gift of fore-pleasure can be offered with impunity, and that it amounts to something more than a severe, perhaps terminal, case of wound envy on my part.

Don McKellar (essay date July 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1039

SOURCE: “Children of Canada,” in Sight and Sound, Vol. 9, No. 7, July, 1999, pp. 58–60.

[In the following essay, McKellar writes of his first impressions and his later impressions of The Brood.]

I saw David Cronenberg’s The Brood in Toronto in 1979 at the world’s first Cineplex. I went with a friend to see The Silent Partner, another good Canadian film, and afterwards we walked around the complex and looked in through the doors of all the other theatres—the doors had little windows, like in an operating theatre. You could only just see what was playing inside because in those days the screens were very small and the image was very grainy because it was reel projection. Looking through that little window with my friend, the image I saw was a scene near the end of the film where Samantha Eggar opens up her white robe to expose her naked body covered in living pustules that are about to give birth. It had a devastating effect on me. I was 16 years old and I’d seen a lot of horror movies—Night of the Living Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre—and also a lot of French art-house films. But nothing had prepared me for these inexplicable, visceral images.

I remember the movie theatre well—its bleak lighting and the lavender graphics on the walls, the kind you only see now in suburban hospitals or airports in small countries—and the ushers dressed like underpaid fast-food employees in short-sleeved polyester uniforms. It was the perfect environment in which to see a Cronenberg film from that period as there was little difference between the images on the screen and the feel of the place.

At the time I felt an intuitive disgust for Canadian films. They were mostly cheap genre films with faded B-movie actors. But Cronenberg was different. The Brood was a precursor to the Toronto scene that erupted later with such film-makers as Atom Egoyan, Patricia Rozema and Bruce McDonald, who all portrayed a creepy Canadianness with austerity and elegance. Toronto is a city that functions so well on the surface you feel something must be wrong underneath, which is why I think a lot of films about Toronto deal with hypocrisy or surface alienation, and Cronenberg is certainly a master at portraying these. He used Toronto institutional buildings—schools, police stations, hospitals—to create a sinister atmosphere, just as he had done in Shivers (1974) where the enclosed, institutional spaces burst with viral menace.

I asked David recently about the ever-so-familiar, brightly coloured 70s snowsuits the seemingly innocent children—who are actually manifestations of adult repressed rage come to life to kill people—wear in The Brood. The first thing he said was, “I know, it’s so Canadian.” I’ve always loved films with evil children in them—Village of the Damned, The Omen, The Shining. In a lot of these films there’s a white-blonde little girl who plays the mute witness to the horrors, and in The Brood this little blonde girl is being fought over in the world’s ugliest custody battle. I’ve spoken to David about this and I now know that the film is autobiographical, about his own custody battle. He often refers to it as his Kramer vs. Kramer and the girl is called Candy, and looks quite similar to his own daughter Kathy. It’s the most emotional and anguished film Cronenberg has made.

Howard Shore’s soundtrack is also very creepy. It’s so stark and so very different from the busy soundtracks of most contemporary American movies, but it perfectly complements the look of the film: the cold, winter landscape and sterile buildings. And there are some fine performances. Oliver Reed at the time was the most evil man in the world of movies and here, in a typical Cronenberg paradigm, he plays the leader of a quasi-scientific pop-psychology cult called Psychoplasmics which is concerned with manifesting your emotional states on your body. It’s a satire of the 70s human-potential movement and at the time I too was fascinated by existentialism and gestalt therapy, particularly the side of gestalt that involved the dramatisation of traumatic moments of your life—exactly what this film is all about.

As an adult, I empathise with the Art Hindle character. He’s just suffered a traumatic marriage break-up, he’s trying to get custody of his daughter and he’s imagining the very worst of his ex-wife, who’s under the influence of the Svengali-like monster played by Reed. However at the time I empathised with the child, who witnesses this devastating stuff. The boils that come up on her skin are creative to some extent, and for a teenager with nascent creative impulses, that was a liberating idea. The boils were like a creative cancer.

The children are malevolent creatures who turn to violence whenever they’re denied something. In one scene they visit their grandmother, who lives in an elegant, upper-class Toronto house. first they destroy all the domestic implements in the kitchen and then they attack her with mallets—blunt weapons to break through the veneer of civility. To me Cronenberg represents the repressed id—perhaps that’s why I have his character’s head splattered on the floor in Last Night.

The Brood seems to confront the need for a healthy expression of emotions, yet the emotions are so ugly it also articulates the terror of releasing them. When I first saw it as a teenager I thought, “Oh, my God, if I allow this stuff inside me out—this rage I’d seen in my sister when she yelled at my mother, this sexual energy burning me up, my feelings about the hypocrisy of my very sedate neighbourhood—it could be devastating.” There’s actually not that much violence in The Brood; the explicit horror is held to the very end, and that’s the moment I happened to have caught as a young voyeur.

The Brood was a revelation to me—the first time I saw that Canadianness can be used to advantage, that self-loathing can be exploited that ugliness has horrific cinematic potential. And you do have the feeling that for Cronenberg it’s a catharsis.

Richard Porton with David Cronenberg (interview date 1999)

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SOURCE: “The Film Director as Philosopher,” in Cineaste, Vol. 24, No. 4, 1999, pp. 4–9.

[In the following interview, Porton talks with Cronenberg about the censorship Crash faced in the U.S. and also about the film eXistenZ—including the movie's exploration of technology and the body and the self-reflexive humor that serves as a commentary on Hollywood films.]

Ever since David Cronenberg began directing films over thirty years ago, his career has been distinguished by a string of intriguing paradoxes. A brilliant student and the son of book-loving parents who scorned movies, Cronenberg soon abandoned the avant-gardist aspirations of his early films, Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970), for gory, low-budget horror films—a genre not usually identified with intellectual audacity. Nevertheless, Cronenberg’s early horror films, particularly Shivers (1975), The Brood (1979), and Scanners (1980), confounded critics who maintained that supposedly schlocky genre concerns were incompatible with the kind of intellectual rigor identified with the ‘art cinema’ of European cinéastes such as Alain Resnais and Michelangelo Antonioni. And, most incongruously of all, these viscerally aggressive films examine irrationality and often stomach-churning violence with calm, rational detachment.

Unlike old-fashioned horror films’ fascination with the supernatural, Cronenberg emphasizes what is frequently referred to as ‘body horror.’ Instead of two-headed monsters, the villains—and, in some perverse respects, the heroes—of his films are the inner demons spawned by modern technology and sexual anxiety. Hugely indebted to William Burroughs’s experimental fiction, Cronenberg baffled audiences with deep-seated ambiguities that were more reminiscent of the modernist novel than the platitudes with which audiences are usually left at the end of horror films. To cite one seminal example, the parasites which strip middle-class apartment dwellers of all their sexual inhibitions in Shivers can be viewed as either positive harbingers of a world free of repression or warnings of the chaos which would result from total sexual revolution. Neither a prude nor an unreconstructed disciple of Wilhelm Reich, Cronenberg himself sympathized with the parasites but acknowledged that sexual freedom is neither wholly positive nor negative. Similarly, the phallus which grows under Marilyn Chambers’s arm in Rabid (1976) was both denounced as misogynistic and embraced as further evidence of Cronenberg’s fascination with polymorphous perversity—an obsession obvious as early as Stereo and Crimes of the Future.

By the 1980s, larger budgets allowed Cronenberg to abandon the bare-bones visual style of his early films and hire more accomplished actors. After the succès de scandale of Videodrome (1982), a mediation on our media-saturated society that remains hugely influential, films like Dead Ringers (1988) and The Dead Zone (1983) echoed the thematic concerns of the early films while abandoning their shock tactics for a more elegant, allusive style.

The enormously controversial Crash (1996), an adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s cult classic, synthesized the audacity of the early Cronenberg with the stylistic restraint of the later work. While Cronenberg’s adaptation of Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1991) seemed staid when compared with the more genuinely Burroughsian Videodrome, Crash’s chilly evocation of a world where automobile accidents promote sexual frisson hit a remarkably sensitive nerve in North America and among Britain’s more squeamish moviegoers. Ted Turner, owner of Fine Line—the film’s distributor—was outraged by the film’s affection for semen-stained chrome and held up its American release for months. It was a minor miracle that Crash received commercial exposure in the United States at all.

Cronenberg’s latest film, eXistenZ, recapitulates many of his favorite themes, even though many diehard fans were disappointed by this lackluster follow-up to Crash, and long-time skeptics remained hostile. eXistenZ recounts the battle between computer-game designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and the “Realist Underground,” a Luddite cell whose anticomputer zealotry rivals that of the Unabomber. Of course, on another level, the demonization of the “Realists” mirrors Cronenberg’s own antipathy towards mainstream cinematic naturalism.

Despite many witty visual flourishes (primarily the “bioport”—an anus-like outlet at the base of the spine that allows participants to plug Allegra’s game directly into their nervous systems) and inventive performances by Leigh, Jude Law, and Ian Holt, much of eXistenZ seems like a tongue-in-cheek rehash of preoccupations that had more resonance in earlier Cronenberg films. Unfortunately the script’s penchant for periodically denouncing its own dialog and plot devices with self-reflexive glee is evidence more of desperation than bona fide ingenuity. In addition, eXistenZ’s Chinese-box narrative emerges as annoyingly stale during a time when Hollywood sci-fi films such as The Matrix and The Thirteenth Floor pilfer similar gimmicks from the arsenal of the late Philip K. Dick, the twentieth century’s most enjoyably paranoid science-fiction novelist.

Cineaste interviewed Cronenberg in New York City shortly before the commercial release of eXistenZ. Our discussion reinforced his reputation as an unusually erudite director and a man who relishes his status as a cinematic provocateur.

[Porton:] The word fatwa is mentioned in eXistenZ and you’ve said that a meeting with Salman Rushdie served as an initial inspiration for the script. Can the film be considered in any way an allegory of the Rushdie affair?

[Cronenberg:] Only sort of. The film is about an artist—a game designer—who has a hit order placed upon her because of something that she’s created. As I originally wrote it, we would never get into the game or see it: you’d hear them talking about it and see them playing it but you’d never as an audience be involved in it. It was going to be elegant and allusive—there would be more about the two people on the run from the fatwa and how that affected them. But when I started to write the script, I immediately wanted to play the game and know what was in it. Although there are the underpinnings of the Rushdie situation, you could be forgiven for not noticing it. I guess it’s just an indication of how, when you start to work on something, it takes on its own life and sort of pushes you around and tells you to go here when you want to go there.

If I hadn’t read that you had planned this film before Crash, I might have interpreted it as a response to the abuse that was heaped upon you during the reception of that film.

Yeah. Of course, I didn’t suffer like Salman Rushdie, but I did feel palpable hostility and craziness in England—Rushdie’s home. That’s because of their tabloid press and the way that it works there; it’s a unique situation. In France, for example, where it was the first Canadian film to be #1, there was some controversy and discussion about cinema and sex, but it was a reasonable kind of controversy. What happened in England, however, was nuts and kind of scary—the need for sensation piled upon sensation. They have eight papers and they each have four editions a day, each one of which has to top the other, and they work people into constant hysteria. There’s always something to be hysterical about—the last time I was there it was what they called “Frankenstein foods”—genetically modified foods. You can’t have a rational debate there—all you can talk about is danger and hysteria and conspiracy by scientists. I think it’s very damaging because it ends rational discussion before it can begin.

The government became involved in England with efforts to ban Crash.

Governments do act, the government got pushed into action, knowing that it’s nuts, but it was pushed into it because of popular opinion. It’s the worst use of the press that I’ve ever seen in a democracy. Very unpleasant. Although the new movie wasn’t a reaction to Crash, I’ve had other experiences. I’ve been censored, I’ve been banned.

It’s ironic that you got into such a morass in England, since Canada, particularly Ontario, was always known for its stringent censorship. But the Canadians seem to have loosened up recently.

Yeah, I had much more trouble in the States than in Canada. Crash was the #1 film in Canada as well and no one crashed into anybody, unlike what Ted Turner thought would happen. I got even worse censorship here, even though it was unofficial, because of Ted Turner. The U.S. was a big disappointment for me, just in terms of the movie not really having a chance to get out to its audience.

Why do you think there was such a negative reaction? It was almost as if people were responding to what they had read about the film rather than the film itself.

In England, there was a ridiculous, hysterical review by Alexander Walker. Most of the press that was running on about it hadn’t seen it. That’s the theme of eXistenZ—creation of reality. There are many ways to do it, it’s always by force of human will—somebody’s force, somebody’s creative will, whether it’s the press or politicians. There was a constant campaign against Crash for a year before it came out. There wasn’t one day when at least one newspaper or one radio show didn’t mention Crash. People probably got so sick of this that they felt that they’d seen it already. Of course they hadn’t—they had no idea what it really was about. There’s a sort of phantom version of my movie floating around in people’s minds in England and most of them never actually got to see the real thing.

From my vantage point, Crash is more like an Antonioni film than lurid sci-fi.

I take that as a compliment. I wouldn’t disagree. It obviously touched some nerves, it was talking about sex and death in a very specific way that people don’t want to think about. If you look at the movie frame by frame, you wouldn’t find anything particularly disturbing or explicit or that you couldn’t see somewhere else—in many other films or stills in magazines.

And there weren’t the shock effects of some of your previous films, such as the head exploding in Scanners.

No, so I have to assume that it was a conceptual thing. It was the ideas—my God, what a thought!—that disturbed people. I suppose that’s quite an accomplishment these days, because most movies don’t have any ideas anyway, and the ones that do tend to be very cowardly and middle of the road. The cinema today tends to be the cinema of comfort—formulaic stuff that makes you feel good because it’s familiar.

Even though there’s a certain amount of humor, often black, in all of your films, eXistenZ is noteworthy for its very self-conscious, playful humor. What was the impetus for the barrage of gags and jokes?

I don’t really know. One of the delightful things, if you write your own stuff, is that you don’t know what’s going to happen. It just happened, it just sort of formed itself as I worked through the things we were just talking about—shifting from here to here and getting into the game. The humor just sort of got stronger and rose to the top. I wasn’t going to fight it. I think that all of my movies, even Crash, are funny at moments. This one seemed to get funnier and funnier and it wasn’t unbalancing anything since it was integrated into the narrative.

Although the humor was in the script, when we got on the set we had some actors who were very good and could run with it. For example, in the script I didn’t have the game players assuming accents. Once we got into accents, because I wanted to stress the role-playing elements of certain things in the movie, another dimension was added. It developed on its own in a very organic way. I certainly didn’t sit down and think, “Now I’m going to write a comedy.”

What seems to link eXistenZ and your previous films, including Crash, is the emphasis on the interaction between technology and the body. But the dynamic seems a bit different in the current film; perhaps it’s not precisely more optimistic, but there’s at least more ambiguity about the immersion into another reality.

I’ve never been pessimistic about technology—this is a mistaken perception. It’s probably the audience’s fears that are being tapped, but I think that I look at the situation fairly coldly—in the sense of neutral. I’m saying that we are doing some extreme things, but they are things that we are compelled to do. It is part of the essence of being human to create technology, that’s one of the main creative acts. We’ve never been satisfied with the world as it is, we’ve messed with it from the beginning. Most technol- ogy can be seen as an extension of the human body, in one way or another, and I show this literally in the film with the references to the bioports. I think that there is as much positive and exciting about it as there is dangerous and negative. That is a very impartial observation of all of our technology: you can see it any day of the week.

This is certainly true of computers.

With computers, but also with Stealth fighters. They talk about those planes like Allegra talks about her pods. We absorb it into our nervous systems and into our concepts of reality and into our bodies. I think that our bodies are, even literally, quite different than they were a thousand years ago. I’m not even sure that we could mate with the people of a thousand years ago, we might be a completely different species. We’ve changed so much biochemically, when you factor in electromagnetic waves and everything else, which we take into our bodies. I’m just noticing in a conscious way that we’ve taken control of our evolution. We no longer evolve in the old Darwinian ways—other species may, but we don’t. We’ve seized control of our evolution. None of the old survival-of-the-fittest mechanisms work with us anymore. We’re only dimly conscious of this, although it has been written about a bit. In terms of a physical evolution as a species, everything has changed in the last couple of hundred years since the Industrial Revolution.

Look at sex, as I do in Crash and the current film. Even such a basic thing as sex is not what it used to be. We no longer need it to reproduce the species. We could call a moratorium on sex. This is the first time in history that we could say, “Sex is causing too many problems, it’s just too complicated. Let’s just not have any for a hundred years and see what happens.” We could literally do that, it wouldn’t mean that the race would die out. In a weird way, we have done that because we’re redefining what sex is. It’s up for grabs. Even though eXistenZ doesn’t have much literal sex, it’s full of techno-sex.

In other words, the game itself is sexual.

Yeah. Why not have new sexual organs? We can do that surgically, we can do that neurologically. We could invent a new version of sex. People would probably like it, they’d buy it, it would sell, it could become a commodity. Sex has become a commodity, as well as a political weapon, in an unprecedented way. It’s many things besides just reproduction. I don’t feel a particular nostalgia for old sex or old technology. It’s as exciting as it is scary.

Would you characterize the anti-Allegra conspirators in eXistenZ—the “Realists”—as Luddites?

I’d say so. I let the Realist have their say, but if you allowed them to have total power it would mean the end of art. It would be the end of a lot of other things as well, which would put the brakes on what we’ve become as a species.

There are some groups that actually agree with the “Realist” perspective—the so-called ‘Neo-Primitivists,’ for example.

Absolutely. There are also some religions that prohibit the creation of art using human imagery, because God made man in the image of himself and it’s sacrilege to portray God and therefore it’s also sacrilege to portray man. There are some sects from the Middle Ages that forbade all that stuff. There are many approaches to that kind of suppression. But it’s hopeless, it’s against the momentum of where the species is heading. It’s a last-ditch nostalgia for something that’s long gone.

Your reference to technology being an extension of the body is quite reminiscent of McLuhan.

Definitely. We come from the same town and the same university. Unfortunately, I didn’t study with him. There he was, just around the corner, and I never even attended one of his classes. But I did read everything he wrote. Even though some of his stuff is dated and tinged with the Sixties, there’s still so much truth there. The Gutenberg Galaxy is still an absolutely brilliant book.

There also seem to be real echoes of Philip Dick in eXistenZ.

Absolutely. I have a little homage to Dick in the film. When they’re in the motel and there’s a close-up of Jude Law reaching for a potato chip, in the background you’ll see a bag with the words “Perky Pats.” Perky Pats is from Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch; that’s my acknowledgment of Dick. I don’t know if he’s an influence. I actually read Philip Dick quite late in life. At one point, I was involved in Total Recall and wrote a lot of drafts—none of which ended up being used for the movie.

Of course, that film completely distorted Dick’s story, “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.”

Completely. I wanted to do something else entirely. So there are elements of Phil Dick in eXistenZ—whether this was an influence, whether we both came together, or whether he crystallized certain things that interested me, I don’t know. His best work is terrific, his worst work is really awful. He wrote so fast and he wrote so much.

He’s not a stylist like Nabokov.

Or Burroughs either—there’s no comparison. I’ve never been really able to accept the notion that, since science-fiction writers’ ideas are great, you have to forgive them the bad writing. I’ve never been able to get past the bad writing, but with Phil Dick I sort of can, because, for one thing, it’s not always bad. He was capable of some wonderful writing. It’s not ideas in the abstract, it’s much more tangible—some of his characters are wonderful. One of his constant themes, of course, was different levels of reality and who was controlling which level of reality and who was actually creating it.

His obsession with addiction and the schizophrenic blurring of reality and fantasy surfaces in eXistenZ.

Yeah, but there’s not much of the drug element in eXistenZ. This is one of the things that I very quickly subtracted from the film to avoid the standard virtual-reality movie. I have to confess that I was thinking, more than I usually like to, of what people would expect. People may have thought that they were coming to see a typical sci-fi movie about game playing and different levels of reality. When I write, I try to be very naive and divest myself of worrying about expectation and who’s doing what film. But I had to with this film, especially since I ended up making it three years later than I thought I would—I thought I would make it before Crash. One of the things that you would expect would be the Blade Runner city, which has become its own movie reality—every sci-fi movie has a Blade Runner city. I decided not to have computer screens, not even TV sets. One of the other things I eliminated, but haven’t thought about much until now, is the addiction theme, because that’s also a cliché of VR movies.

If the Allegra character isn’t actually addicted to game playing, she certainly has a tremendous emotional investment in it.

That’s different, she’s allowed to. After all, it’s her game, she created it. Allegra is not just another game player. She’s an artist and this is her creation; she’s worried about it being destroyed. She’s allowed to be a little more obsessed. She’s not an addict, since she has a rational and emotional reason for wanting to keep playing that game. A movie about the addictive nature of game playing would be completely different.

How calculated were the self-referential elements in the film—the scenes featuring characters commenting on the plot twists?

That somehow took me by surprise too. But it’s definitely there and I’m definitely talking about moviemaking at one remove since the character is a game designer. Certainly when Allegra says, “The world of games is in kind of a trance … people are programmed to accept so little, but the possibilities are so great,” that’s me talking about the state of cinema. People are programmed to accept so little in cinema and the possibilities are so great. The programmers are all in Hollywood. I don’t think it’s a deliberate conspiracy or anything like that, but I really think that the success of the Hollywood template has been very destructive for any other kind of filmmaking. I feel that my audience is dwindling: by that I mean an audience that has some context, some way of accessing and interpreting a movie that is unlike a Hollywood film.

I felt that very much with Crash. Crash looked something like a Hollywood movie and it had Hollywood actors in it. But nothing else about it—including the way the characters spoke, the emotionality, the subject, the narrative, or the use of music—was like a Hollywood movie. It confused people, they couldn’t deal with it. I felt this was kind of sad. When you think of what’s around in fiction and literature, there are so many modes. There’s Danielle Steel, but there’s Joyce as well.

Isn’t that the irony of contemporary cinema? As the technology has progressed, the esthetic stance has become increasingly conservative.

Absolutely. I don’t want to sound like an old fart and talk about the Sixties and the Golden Era of the Art Film. But, my God, there was Last Year at Marienbad and it really wasn’t like a Hollywood movie and it had subtitles, had an influence, and played in Toronto. I don’t know if it would get made now. The Hollywood format is so insidious—it’s just not narrative, it’s just not action films. It’s the whole approach to character and the matter of linearity. When my films were rejected for not being linear, that was Hollywood in a nutshell. Just take the way the characters are dealt with in eXistenZ—they’re almost not characters or they’re characters who are other characters. They’re not necessarily sympathetic and they may be kind of hard to identify with for an average audience.

Many of your characters could be described as shape-shifters.

Yeah. That’s a scary and subtle thing for Hollywood—the fact that you have characters who shift. There are some layers of self-reference there without it being, I hope, ‘deconstructionist’ and cute. It’s not Shakespeare in Love.

Could the opening, featuring Allegra’s presentation of the game, be also viewed as a parody of market research?

Sure, a parody of test previews. When Allegra says, “This is my favorite part,” you can tell that she’s hating it. She’s very shy and doesn’t enjoy the presentation. That’s not exactly me, but it is the process. I could have gotten more into test previews. It was rather funny when Miramax wanted to test preview it. At the end of the movie, he’s talking about a focus group and then the lights would come up and there’d be an announcement, “Now the focus group.”

Of course, this is a serious issue, which goes back many years. Since the preview audience hated The Magnificent Ambersons, that became one justification for cutting it.

Yeah. It’s the tail wagging the dog, the audience telling the filmmaker what film they want to see. Well, then you’re limited solely by what that audience can do and understand and what they’ve seen. The film director, in the old tradition, is supposed to be the prophet, the seer who sees things that they don’t see, taking them someplace where they can’t go. But here they are saying, “I don’t want to go there—and I don’t want anybody else who sees this movie to go there either.” It’s a dire, weird looping effect. I suppose that if you’re designing a Mercedes Benz it makes sense up to a point, but there still has to be that stunning design that your test audience couldn’t have designed themselves.

Do you have casting ideas in mind when you write a script?

No, I really try hard not to, because there’s a danger of shaping the character to fit the actor. Not that that’s a terrible thing, but I prefer to let the characters go where they want to go. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t do a little rewriting once I knew who was playing a part.

If that’s true, it seems that Allegra’s combination of personal shyness and professional self-assurance was nonetheless very well-suited to Jennifer Jason Leigh’s screen personality.

I’ve had my eye on her for years and it turned out that she had her eye on me, too. We liked each other’s work and I thought that she could really add to and develop this character. She’s a fantastic actress, but she pays a price because she’s very uncompromising about the roles that she plays and, when she plays them, she plays them to the hilt. She doesn’t hold back. It’s interesting what she did with Washington Square, which was made by Hollywood a long time ago as The Heiress. The character is supposed to be an unattractive heiress, and when Jennifer plays plain and unattractive, you can be sure that she will be, by God—and awkward, too! In Hollywood, of course, the glamorous Olivia de Havilland is the version of the unattractive heiress that you get.

You seem to prefer underplaying to, say, Vincent Price’s hammy style.

Yes, I’ve never been a genre buff. People said, “Of course, you’ll have Vincent Price do a cameo in The Fly,” and I said, “Absolutely not.” He’s wonderful and all of that, but that would have destroyed the movie. Part of the art of casting is that there’s an inner dynamic and, if you transgress it, you destroy your film. Some people have asked me if there’s a certain kind of actor that I like. Well, of course, you don’t always get to choose exactly who you want because sometimes they don’t want to work with you or they’re not available or you can’t afford them or whatever. But I do think it’s true that if you put all of the actors that I’ve ever worked with in a room, it would look like a convention of some weird family. It’s hard to say—Chris Walken really doesn’t look like Jimmy Woods—but, somehow, there’s some connection. There are actors who I see and think are wonderful, but it would never occur to me to have them in one of my movies because somehow they don’t seem to fit.

Was it important for this film to employ tangible props instead of the usual blue screen used for sci-fi special effects?

Yeah. There are some things that you have to do other ways, but even though this is the first film I’ve done which has any computer effects at all, they’re almost all enhancements of things rather than computer creations. There are one or two shots that are almost one hundred per cent created by the computer and even those were kind of fun to do. Because I work in a very sculptural, physical way on set, too, I’m a bit like the actors in that I like to have the real stuff there. I want to have the real clothes and the real props before I say what the shot is. I can’t even say what lens I’m going to use until I see that stuff. For me there’s no question of doing storyboards, I can’t relate to that at all. I need the real stuff there and I need to work with its plasticity.

You’ve remarked in previous interviews that you could never do the same amount of preproduction planning that Hitchcock was known for.

No, but I think that he exaggerated that. The legions of film students who think that they must storyboard everything down to the last detail are ridiculous. Of course, you don’t even have to know how to draw. They get you a guy who has little instruments that tell you what the lens and perspective should be. The moment something doesn’t work, those kids fall apart completely—and that’s usually by the second shot. I’d hate to have worked everything out. You need the juice, the excitement, and I want the freedom to absorb what’s happening on the set at the moment.

In a weird way, when I’m shooting it’s almost a documentary of that moment. There’s a scene in eXistenZ when Jennifer is eating this weird Chinese food and she looks quite sick. Well, she was sick; she had the flu and was vomiting. It was the perfect scene for her to use that. Rather than say, “Take the day off,” we said, “Let’s use that.” That’s a perfect example of something you couldn’t storyboard.

It’s not a matter of improvisation.

No, I’m not asking the actors to rewrite the script. They know up front that I don’t want them to improvise the dialog, although I will change the rhythms if there’s something that just doesn’t sit right with them. They have to prove that there’s something better. But that’s not all that there is to acting—the way that the lines are delivered and the choreography of the scene and the body language and all kinds of stuff is up for grabs.

Peter Suschitzky has been your cinematographer since Dead Ringers. How has the collaboration with him been crucial in determining the look of the later films?

I think it’s really helped me mature. He’s so subtle. He’s a European from beginning to end—his mother was Hungarian, his father was Austrian and he was born and raised in England. His references are very exhilarating, they’re not Hollywood or American pop culture. The way he lights is incredibly subtle, but not dogmatic. He doesn’t have an agenda, which you do get from other cinematographers who will run over you in order to make a statement about lighting. Peter doesn’t do that, he works from the inside out and works for the movie instead of for himself.

Do you see eXistenZ as a continuation of some of the themes concerning technology and the body developed in earlier films, particularly Videodrome?

Yes and no. As we’ve said, I hadn’t done the self-reflexive stuff. I have this deep pool of imagery that I keep fishing in and it’s just there for whatever reason. My films are bodycentric. For me, the first fact of human existence is the body and the further we move away from the human body the less real things become and have to be invented by us. Maybe the body is the only fact of human existence that we can cling to. And yet it seems to be much ignored in movie making, although maybe not in art generally. One thinks of a lot of strange, interesting performance artists and painters like Francis Bacon. But in movie making there still seems to be this flight from the body in a weird way.

Do these preoccupations come out of reading contemporary philosophy?

I think it’s just a personal awareness that’s developed in my life. I do read a lot of philosophy. In fact, the stuff that I read before I write now is almost all philosophy. Schopenhauer, for example—The World as Will and Representation. You could almost give this movie that title. It’s about will and re-presentation.

The title seems Heideggerian.

Yeah. The irony is that when this movie was shown at the Berlin Film Festival, where it was first screened, that was the only country where the title was spelled correctly. The joke wasn’t there except for the big X and the big Z. It was funny because it wasn’t meant to be a German word, but there they thought that it was spelled fine.

But, yes, it’s a Heideggerian reference. In fact, when Jude Law says, “I don’t want to be here, we’re just stumbling around in this unformed world not knowing what the rules and objectives are—or if there even are any—and we’re being attacked by unknown forces that we don’t understand,” that’s Heidegger in a nutshell. It refers to his description of what life is, being thrown into the world. I’d like to be making a philosophical cinema, but I’m looking for metaphors and imagery that will express some of these things. When you’re dealing with the body and the way it’s being transformed, it seems very logical to end up with the kind of movies that I make.

Atom Egoyan commented that you found your niche initially in horror films because some of these themes were very well-suited to that genre.

As I’ve said about the pitch meeting for The Fly, if it’s not a horror film, you’re saying that it’s about these two intelligent, eccentric people who fall in love, and then the guy gets this horrible wasting disease and she kind of watches as he dies and then helps him to commit suicide. That’s a very tough sell. But if it’s a horror, sci-fi film, it’s fine. So I have felt protected by the genre and I suppose that’s why I was drawn to it in the first place.

At the time that I made Shivers (which was called They Came From Within in the U.S.), a low-budget horror film might have seemed like a clever, and even classical, move for a young filmmaker. But actually in Canada at that time it was impossible, it was the worst thing because there was no tradition of horror filmmaking whatsoever. I could have gotten an art film or a naturalistic film about fishermen in the Maritimes financed in Canada without any problem. There was the National Film Board documentary tradition. But wanting to make a horror film was considered repulsive, they had no way of dealing with it. It took years to get it financed, the genre didn’t help me in the beginning but eventually it did.

As I said, this kind of imagery is almost native to horror films and sci-films, so it was a natural fit. I didn’t even think of myself as genre-specific. I knew that I was making a horror film when I made Shivers, but it’s still a philosophical film for me. I think it’s very evident when you look at it and listen to the dialog and so on that it’s that, despite having all the horror-film trappings. The genre is a living thing. You can use the horror film to express anything—From Caligari to Hitler proved that.

Given your admiration for Nabokov, were you ever tempted to adapt one of his novels?

I discovered Nabokov very early on; Pale Fire is still one of my favorite novels. Nabokov was definitely an influence when I was trying to write fiction. I just came up with Nabokovian pastiche. I don’t know how much it influenced my filmmaking; he’s part of my nervous system’s basic repertoire.

I must confess that when I heard that Adrian Lyne was going to do Lolita, I felt a kind of proprietary anger. Not because of Lyne, but because I felt, “Shouldn’t I be doing that?” And shouldn’t I be doing that from Nabokov’s own screenplay, which is quite lovely and doable? I think that I would have never done it, for a lot of reasons, so I’m glad that Lyne did it instead of me. I thought that he nailed two things really well that Kubrick hadn’t. One was the child’s sexuality and the other was the incredible sense of loss.

Things have gotten so weird and repressive now that it’s obviously an even worse time to make that movie than when Kubrick filmed it. The whole child abuse thing has become so politicized; in Kubrick’s day, it was just sex that was a problem, although the age of Sue Lyon was a problem. But there wasn’t that whole militant thing going on about child abuse, which is justified up to a point but can go way over the top and become sort of fascistic. It shows up in the fact that people are trying to get Lolita out of the schools and the libraries. They can’t see it as anything else but a story of child abuse.

Could we interpret the injection of certain Yiddish words such as Haimische in eXistenZ as autobiographical references to your Jewish background?

It’s true that my mother did teach me some Yiddish, although I don’t speak it fluently. I like Yiddish—to me it’s Jewish, while Israel is not Jewish. European Jewry is the culture that I relate to. I was using Haimische self-consciously, although the actor uses a kind of corny Irish accent which, in a way, makes it even better.

Until recently, Toronto seemed like a pretty WASPy city.

Yeah, but not to me. In fact, Toronto was Presbyterian Scottish, which perhaps doesn’t quite qualify as WASP, although at a distance it does. But for me it was always, as we say, a very multicultural city. It’s governmental policy now for the city to be multicultural, which is very controversial for all the usual reasons.

Where I grew up in Toronto—Crawford and College Street—there were successive waves of immigrants. The Jews were just about leaving, there were still some Irish around, Turks and Italians were coming in. After that, there were Greeks and now I think that the neighborhood is Portuguese. On my street, there were all kinds of different languages. Maybe that’s why I felt separated from the power structure in Toronto and Canada, inasmuch as I never thought that you could make a movie because movies came from someplace else. I never once considered politics: that was also something that came from above. There was a huge WASP power structure in Toronto that ran things—the political machine, the financial machine. It’s still strong there.

The political reception of your work has been rather peculiar, because, on the one hand, the right has denounced films like Crash, while leftists like Robin Wood have been harsh critics of your work.

It was a while ago that Wood said those things. I don’t know where he would stand on those issues now. We had some wonderful debates on stage in Toronto where he was wearing a T-shirt that said something like “Marxist, feminist, anti-patriarchal.” I thought that I debated him rather well. He misunderstood Shivers completely. He thought that I was on the side of the people living in the apartment building and that these crazy people were, basically, him. I said that, on the contrary, the crew and I identified with the crazies because we were living in that apartment complex in Montreal, which was called Nuns’ Island, and was so repressive and stifling. We wanted to, and sometimes did, run naked and screaming down the halls. We were the crazies and totally identified with them. I think that a smart genre audience would have also identified with them. They wouldn’t have identified with the middle-class families living in those little boxes. I thought that he got it completely backwards.

It’s only recently that I felt that I had any access to structures of power, both in terms of studio stuff and in terms of politics. I’ve become kind of a respected figure in Toronto somehow, now appointed President of the jury in Cannes. It’s happened very naturally, but suddenly people want me to be on various boards, which I don’t really understand, and they want my input into the reorganization of this or that. I still feel rather separated from all that. I feel that I’m definitely leftish, but have the Canadian curse of seeing the validity of all points of view, which supposedly makes us good negotiators.

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Principal Works


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