David Cronenberg/David Denby: Psychology and the Body

by Will Brand on October 5, 2011 · 1 comment Events

Martin Scorcese once described technosex-body horror director David Cronenberg as looking “like a Beverly Hills gynecologist”. Decades later, the resemblance has faded, but there's still something to that: a certain distinguished matter-of-factness lingers about him that would have been put to good use in medicine. Certainly, he knows the body well enough: throughout his films, from Videodrome and The Brood to Dead Ringers and The Fly, he sustains a focused engagement with the “infinite possibilities” of the human form, mediated, mutated, augmented, beating, beeping, pulsing, growing. Somehow, this seems to have spilled over, as if Cronenberg has himself crept slowly into a sort of physical congruence with his work; it seems plain, now, from his eyes and his clothes and his gait, that he's the sort of man who creates characters who get off on car wrecks and have Betamax slots in their bellies. It was all on view Saturday, as part of The New Yorker Festival, when he sat down with film critic David Denby to discuss his work. 

They started with A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg's upcoming film based on Christopher Hampton's stage play The Talking Cure (itself based on a 1993 nonfiction book by John Kerr). It's a film about the dawn of psychoanalysis, seen through the relationship between Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Sabina Spielrein, Jung's student, patient, and lover. At first glance, the subject seems an odd choice for the director: his only previous attempt at historical fiction was Dead Ringers, which was only loosely based on a 1976 Esquire article. As the conversation turns to this apparent novelty, though, Cronenberg begins to look confused. “I've had people say this isn't a 'Cronenberg film',” he says, “I have no idea what a 'Cronenberg film' is.” Eventually, the director shrugs: “I think they meant there aren't body parts falling off.”

It's a moment of weary self-awareness from a director eager to shake off the horror typecast. Later, Denby will begin a line of questioning about the genre to which Cronenberg can only equivocate: “Do you enjoy being scared?” “I don't mind it.” “Are you drawn to horror?” “Well, 'drawn to'…”; I'll feel for him. Is this really necessary? His last two films, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, were crime thrillers, calculated doses of violence applied to evil men without rubber prosthetics or mechanized bodies. They were also enormous critical and financial successes. This shift seems to be working, and who are we to drag Cronenberg back to his ostensible roots?

In retrospect, my sympathy was misplaced. This wasn't Denby pigeonholing Cronenberg; it was Cronenberg pigeonholing himself, even as he talks about A Dangerous Method. “I look at it in terms of the body,” he says, because what else would he say? “Freud emphasizes the human body, he insists upon it, in a time when people didn't speak about penises and vaginas and anuses and excrement.” Jung, on the other hand, “moved into a religious mode, a flight from the body… a religious structure of archetypes which inhabited this platonic ideal world. Very strange, I think.” Everything starts to connect: this is history, sure, but a history of psychology, and that psychology springs forth from the flesh, blood, and semen of Carl Jung. Quickly, Denby brings up The Brood, released in 1979, in which Samantha Eggar's character produces terrifying physical manifestations of her repressed psychological condition. He states nothing outright, but his point is clear: this is not only a “Cronenberg film”, it's a near-exact inversion of a film Cronenberg made thirty-two years ago.

Indeed, as the talk moves on, any question of a conflict evaporates. Natural roles become apparent: Denby is the critic, tying fragments of Cronenberg's career together to reveal a grander vision, while Cronenberg appears personally as the sum of his films, witty and erudite but also primal and base. A rhythm appears in Cronenberg's speech. First, the low: the director “doesn't get” storyboards, and is fascinated with a story he recently read about a two-headed cat. Now, the high: storyboards suffocate the actors, and two-headed cats, in their indubitable, Guiness World Records-certified existence, prove the relevance (his words is “possibility”) of Cronenberg's films about monsters. It's an obvious one-two, but its charm is undeniable, and Cronenberg obviously enjoys the act. It seems at once to confirm everything we want to believe about the man: his intuitiveness and his dedication to craft, his attraction to the disgusting and the depth of his thinking about the body. At one point in the talk he refers to screenwriting as a kind of acting, in which authenticity can only be assured by playing out each part. Directing, it seems, follows a similar path.

At the end of the talk, the second audience member to find a microphone is a young woman who begins, “Speaking of weird sex…”, and it's entirely too good an opportunity. Of course, in the final telling, the next ten minutes will be spent in detailed argument about Sabina Spielrein's journals and letters, with both parties displaying a heartening knowledge of A Dangerous Method's source material. Before the high, though, must come the low: Cronenberg, legs crossed, leans in, at this point entirely unable to drop character. His acknowledgement is foretold in everything about him, and it drips with the lasciviousness we could not help but expect: “Oh, yes?”

  • zor

    I liked your first headline better!

Previous post:

Next post: