National Cinema: Pittsburgh Film Colloquium
"David Cronenberg and the "Face" of National Authorship"
By Adam Lowenstein (University of Pittsburgh, Department of English and Film Studies Program)
The Canadian director David Cronenberg is finally receiving the kind of critical recognition that has long been his due as one of world cinema’s most challenging and innovative filmmakers. In the past three years, three major scholarly volumes devoted to his work have been published, his fourteenth feature film, Spider (2002), has garnered film festival raves, and he has been the subject of a major retrospective at Anthology Film Archives in New York. One significant but perhaps unexpected element of the Anthology retrospective was the inclusion of Don McKellar’s Blue, a 1992 film neither written nor directed by Cronenberg, but starring Cronenberg. I will contend that Cronenberg’s steadily increasing visibility not only as a director, but as an actor, affords an important opportunity to analyze the "face" of national authorship in the contemporary cinematic moment – a moment when the author’s relations to categories such as film genre and national cinema are undergoing striking transformations.
Cronenberg has appeared in films as diverse as Clive Barker’s 1990 horror film Nightbreed, where he portrays a killer psychiatrist; Gus Van Sant’s 1995 drama To Die For, where he shows up as Nicole Kidman’s hitman; and Michael Apted’s 1996 medical thriller Extreme Measures, where he plays the head of a medical review board. As these examples suggest, Cronenberg’s acting roles tend to emphasize either murderous embodiment or bureaucratic disembodiment, often to reveal a combination of both. I want to focus here on issues stemming from the ostensibly bifurcated nature of Cronenberg’s authorial signature: the director’s identity as an icon of the horror film, on the one hand, and of Canadian national cinema, on the other.
Cronenberg’s career in commercial features began in 1975 with Shivers, a horror film greeted by the prominent Canadian cultural critic Robert Fulford with the infamous proclamation, "If using public money to produce films like [Shivers] is the only way English Canada can have a film industry, then perhaps English Canada should not have a film industry." It is important to recall that Fulford not only damns Shivers as "an atrocity" and "the most repulsive movie I’ve ever seen," but grounds this judgment in an attack on the film’s irresponsible governmental co-sponsor, the Canadian Film Development Corporation (or CFDC). In this sense, Shivers repulses Fulford not just because it is a horror film, but because it delivers an unacceptable image of Canadian national cinema.
Although Fulford aligns Shivers with other films produced by the CFDC as "so imbued with the Hollywood ethos that they seemed like pale imitations of something from Los Angeles," I believe that one reason the film strikes him as so reprehensible is its imagination of an authentic Canadian-ness, rather than just its imitation of American-ness. Cronenberg, like the CFDC itself, came to filmmaking during a moment in the mid-1960s and early 1970s characterized by a surge in English Canadian nationalism. The spirit of that moment is captured in Margaret Atwood’s Survival, an influential volume of literary criticism published in 1972 with the subtitle "a thematic guide to Canadian literature." Atwood sets out to provide a founding symbol for the unique character of Canadian literature, and by extension, of Canadian national culture. She selects "Survival" as the symbol, as distinct from "The Frontier" for America or "The Island" for England. Atwood explains, "Our stories are likely to be tales not of those who made it but of those who made it back, from the awful experience – the North, the snowstorm, the sinking ship – that killed everyone else." For Atwood, "Survival" is a symbol rooted not only in the beginnings of Canadian national literature and cultural history, but also indicative of its current state of sickness, its lack of national self-awareness: "Canadians are forever taking the national pulse like doctors at a sickbed: the aim is not to see whether the patient will live well but simply whether he will live at all."
What Cronenberg does in Shivers, and continues to do in various ways throughout his career, is literalize, extrapolate, and confront this nationalist discourse of Canadian identity as diseased. In Cronenberg’s cinema, disease is not just the enemy of identity, it is also the source of identity. Parasites, plagues, and mutations in Cronenberg’s films surely bring pain and death, but they simultaneously endow his "diseased" characters with a savage life, an undeniable power and fascination that also structures the films themselves. By embodying the nationalist discourse in such a spectacularly literal and confrontational fashion, his films not only expose the absurdity and violence that can inform desires for an authentic national essence, but they open a space for re-imagining "Canada" in tension with (rather than unreflective acceptance of ) these desires for a foundational national identity. In effect, Cronenberg questions what exactly it means for Atwood to call for self-awareness as the solution to the problem of Canadian national identity. By interrogating what counts as "self" or "awareness," "problem" or "solution," Cronenberg’s cinema frames the question of what it means to be "Canadian" in terms irreducible to nationalism’s conventional forms of knowledge.
One striking testimonial to the impact of Cronenberg’s films in this vein is the account given by Don McKellar of seeing Cronenberg’s 1979 film The Brood at a Toronto multiplex at the age of 16. McKellar, the aforementioned Canadian actor, writer, and director who would later cast Cronenberg in Blue recalls, "The Brood was a revelation to me – the first time I saw that Canadian-ness can be used to advantage, that self-loathing can be exploited, that ugliness has horrific cinematic potential." In hindsight, McKellar can confidently assert, "The Brood was a precursor to the Toronto scene that erupted later with such film-makers as Atom Egoyan, Patricia Rozema and Bruce McDonald, all who portrayed a creepy Canadian-ness with austerity and elegance."
Juxtaposing Fulford’s 1975 review of Shivers alongside McKellar’s 1999 recollection of The Brood reveals a remarkable set of correspondences regarding Cronenberg’s perceived relation to "Canadian-ness." Fulford and McKellar agree on two things: that Cronenberg’s films have important implications for how we imagine a Canadian national cinema, and that Cronenberg’s work is built on ugliness and repulsion. But whereas Fulford sees nothing more than a cinematic atrocity that spells the end of English Canadian national cinema, McKellar sees the powerful inspiration for an English Canadian national cinema constructed on precisely the kind of "creepy Canadian-ness" that Fulford indirectly condemns. For Fulford, Cronenberg’s "Canadianness" is abhorrent not only because it is ugly, but because it is not "Canadian" at all – it forsakes any vision of Canadian cinema that Fulford would consider artistic or realistic for a genre whose excesses seem only to announce an affiliation with that age-old enemy of Canadian realism, Hollywood fantasy. McKellar does not mention Hollywood at all, perhaps in part because Cronenberg’s films have successfully redistributed the elements of realism and fantasy that once defined an artistic Canadian national cinema of realism (derived from John Grierson’s legacy at the National Film Board of Canada) against a commercial cinema of fantasy provided by Hollywood. For McKellar, Cronenberg’s films are simultaneously fantastic and realistic – this is the source of that "creepy Candian-ness" that will characterize the films of Egoyan, Rozema, McDonald, and of course, McKellar himself.
So what does the "face" of national authorship look like when McKellar again casts Cronenberg in his 1998 film Last Night? McKellar’s Last Night has special significance for discussions of national cinema because it was originally commissioned as the official Canadian entry in the series "2000 Seen By." The format of this 1998 series, sponsored by a French production company for distribution on European television, consisted of inviting ten directors representing ten different countries to contribute short films whose only stipulation was the setting of December 31, 1999. Cronenberg appears in Last Night as Duncan, an unflappable manager at a Toronto gas company who spends the last days before the end of the world dutifully calling each customer, in alphabetical order, thanking them for their patronage and assuring them that the company will do all it can to "keep the gas flowing right until the end." Cronenberg’s presence in this role is hilariously ironic – what could be more unlikely than seeing the director once referred to as the "Baron of Blood," whose films regularly scandalize conservative Canadian cultural sensibilities, appearing as the ultimate Canadian bureaucratic drone? Where Cronenberg’s films are popularly perceived as a cinema of visceral embodiment, his role as Duncan could not be more thoroughly disembodied.
I’ll now present two brief clips that demonstrate this contrast. The first is an infamous performance of telekinesis from Cronenberg’s 1981 film Scanners, and the second captures Cronenberg’s portrayal of Duncan in Last Night. [3:00]
Last Night clearly aims to evoke the humor generated by the sharp contrast between embodiment and disembodiment evident in these two clips. In this sense, McKellar’s film seems to acknowledge that reading Cronenberg’s cinema as purely disordered embodiment is just as exaggerated and inaccurate as reading it as purely ordered disembodiment. In its own way, McKellar’s casting of Cronenberg enacts, in order to deflate, the very terms that a number of Canadian critics and scholars have used to explain the Canadian-ness of Cronenberg’s films: that the moments of embodied, visceral excess are the markers of an American, horror genre semantics that is ultimately subordinate to the moments of disembodied, philosophical bleakness that are the markers of a Canadian national semantics. Disembodiment, with its connotations of paralysis and alienation, mirrors the definition of Canadian-ness submitted by Atwood, especially when juxtaposed with an American-ness of bold embodiment and spectacular action.
The fate of Cronenberg’s character in Last Night plays out this opposition. Cornered in his house by a shotgun-toting youth intent on reproducing Travis Bickle’s psychotic aggression from that most quintessential of American films, Taxi Driver (1976) (the youth is even named "Marty," to highlight the reference to Martin Scorsese), Cronenberg remains the very portrait of static Canadian disembodiment even when confronted by this equally hyperbolic visage of violent American embodiment. Cronenberg calmly tells the trigger-happy youth, "I’m not afraid of you. I’m not afraid of what you can do. It’s you who’s afraid. It’s you who’s afraid." Of course, this does not prevent the youth from blowing Cronenberg away with his shotgun. But in the final image we see of Cronenberg’s character, lying dead on the floor with a pool of blood spilling from his skull, Last Night captures the paradox that Cronenberg’s films have maintained all along – that it is a monolithic, narrowly nationalistic sense of Canadianness (represented here by Cronenberg’s physical body) that must be both literalized and neutralized in order for a new kind of Canadian cinema to be born (represented here through the implied presence of Cronenberg’s body of work). This cinema of "creepy Canadian-ness," located in dialogue with (although always under the threat of extinction from) a powerful American cinema, must be seen as a phenomenon made possible largely by Cronenberg’s films. In this sense, the face of Cronenberg’s authorship makes visible a certain Canadian cinema precisely by inviting us to imagine "Canada" and "America" not as two distinct national essences, but as a contested body of cinematic relations.
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