Over at the Filmspotting message boards (and for the love of mike, if any of you reading this still haven't gone over there, do yourself the favour) the community is compiling its top 100 movies list for the second year in a row. Last year the event was a huge success (complete with chat room banter!) and this year promises to be even bigger. Any members who wished to submit a list of their 100 favourite/best films were invited to do so. Yours truly jumped at the opportunity, as did over 40 other people, and here is my list of my 100 favourite films. Don't mind the dividing lines, they merely seperated the point allocation for calculating Filmspotting master list:
1.From Russia With Love (1963, Terrence Young) You don’t like it? Fuck you too.
2. Taxi Driver (1976, Martin Scorsese)
3. Stray Dog (1949, Akira Kurosawa)
4. Les Quatres Cents Coups/400 Blows (1959, François Truffaut)
5.North By Northwest (1959, Alfred Hitchock)
6. Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959, Alain Renais)
7. The French Connection (1971, William Friedkin)
8. Videodrome (1983, David Cronenberg)
9. For a Few Dollars More (1965, Sergio Leone)
10. The Barbarian Invasions/Les Invasions Barbares (2003, Denys Arcand)
11. Diary of a Country Priest/Journal d’un Curé de Campagne (1951, Robert Bresson)
12. Mean Streets (1973, Martin Scorsese)
13. Le Bonheur (1965, Agnes Varda)
14. Apocalypse Now (1979, Francis Ford Coppola)
15. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Qai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975, Chantal Akerman)
16. In The Mood for Love (2000, Wong Kar Wai)
17. The Bourne Identity (2002, Doug Liman)
18. Happy Together (1997, Wong Kar Wai)
19. The Maltese Falcon (1941, John Huston)
20. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969, Peter Hunt)
21. Three Colours: Red (1994, Krzysztof Kieslowski)
22. The Public Enemy (1931, William A. Wellman)
23. Une Femme Est Une Femme (1961, Jean-Luc Godard)
24. Nostalgia for the Countryside (1995, Nhat Minh Dang)
25. Schlinder’s List (1993, Steven Spielberg)
26. Vampyr (1932, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
27. The Fly (1986, David Cronenberg)
28. La Fille de L’Eau (1925, Jean Renoir)
29. Mouchette (1967, Robert Bresson)
30. Yi Yi (2000, Edward Yang)
31. Yojimbo (1961, Akira Kurosawa
32. Rear Window (1954, Alfred Hitchcock)
33. And then There Was Light (1989, Otar Iosselliani)
34. The Sweet Hereafter (1997, Atom Egoyan)
35. Casino Royale (2006, Martin Campbell)
36. Winter Light (1962, Ingmar Bergman)
37. Throne of Blood (1957, Akira Kurosawa)
38. La Double Vie de Véronique/The Double Life of Véronique (1991, Krzysztof Kieslowski)
39. Traffic (2000, Steven Soderbergh)
40.Sleeping Man (1996, Kohei Oguri)
41. Aparajito (1956, Satyajit Ray)
42. Glengarry Glenn Ross (1992, James Foley)
43. Falling Leaves (1966, Otar Iosselliani)
44. Cries and Whispers (1972, Ingmar Bergman)
45. Heat (1995, Michael Mann)
46. Onibaba (1964, Kaneto Shindô)
47. Chungking Express (1994, Wong Kar Wai)
48. There Will Be Blood (2007, Paul Thomas Anderson)
49. Sword of Doom (Kihachi Okamoto)
50. Au Hasard Balthazar (1966, Robert Bresson)
51. Pierrot le Fou (1965, Jean-Luc Godard
52. Alien (1979, Ridley Scott)
53. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969, George Roy Hill)
54. Jackie Brown (1997, Quentin Tarantino)
55. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965, Martin Ritt)
56. Hail the Conquering Hero (1944, Preston Sturges)
57. Dr. Strangelove (1964, Stanley Kubrick)
58. Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock)
59. Tokyo Story (1953,Yasuri Ozu)
60. Tale of Tales (1979, Yuri Norshteyn)
61. Collateral (2004, Michael Mann)
62. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, Michel Gondry)
63. Ran (1986, Akira Kurosawa)
64. Layer Cake (2004, Mathew Vaughn)
65. Angels With Dirty Faces (1938, Michael Kurtiz)
66. The Big Lebowski (1998, Coen Brothers)
67. Three Colours: Blue (1994, Krzysztof Kielslowski)
68. Do the Right Thing (1989, Spike Lee)
69. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968, Sergio Leone)
70. F for Fake (1974, Orsen Wells)
71. He Got Game (1998, Spike Lee)
72. Wild Strawberries (1957, Ingmar Bergman)
73. Le Samourai (1967, Jean-Pierre Melville)
74. Black Hawk Down (2001, Ridley Scott)
75. Little Caesar (1931, Mervyn Leroy)
76. The Two Towers (2002, Peter Jackson)
77. Still Life (2006, Jia Zhangke)
78. Munich (2005, Steven Spielberg)
79. Je, Tu, Il, Elle (1974, Chantal Akerman)
80. Che (2008, Steven Soderbergh)
81. Gladiator (2000, Ridley Scott)
82. Pathar Panchali (1955, Satyajit Ray)
83. Schizopolis (1996, Steven Soderbergh)
84. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966, Sergio Leone)
85. The Terminator (1984, James Cameron)
86. Il Vitelloni (1951, Federico Fellini)
87. The Brothers Bloom (2009, Ryan Johnson)
88. Peppermint Candy (1999, Chang-dong Lee)
89. Beau Travail (1999, Claire Denis)
90. Sin City (2005, Robert Rodriguez)
91. Bad Blood (1986, Leos Carax)
92. Goldfinger (1964, Guy Hamilton)
93. Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott)
94. The Boys from Fengkui (1983, Hou Hsiao-hsien)
95. Batman Begins (2005, Christopher Nolan)
96. Bambi (1942, David Hand)
97. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977, Steven Spielberg)
98. The Departed (2006, Martin Scorsese)
99. Chinatown (1974, Roman Polanski)
100. A Clockwork Orange (1971, Stanley Kubrick)
Friday, August 28, 2009
A History of Violence (2005)
In a sleepy American town, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a great family man. Married to a gorgeous wife (Maria Bello) and father to two children, Tom earns a living at the local diner. The townspeople know him for his friendly and calm demeanour behind the counter. It may not seem like much to some of us, but Tom is living the perfect small town existenz.
With things running so smoothly, it’s only a matter of time before trouble comes strolling into town. Trouble takes on the form of two vicious murders on the run from the law. In the opening scene, these men are leaving a motel office. The man behind the counter has been shot, a fact revealed with a beautiful panning shot. One of the crooks is ready to leave the scene when he realizes there is a small child hiding in the back office. The man crouches down and presses his index finger to his sleep, commanding the child to remain silent. After a few moments of tension, the man aims his pistol towards the child. Clearly, this duo is comprised of the worst kind of outlaws, They are ready to shoot first and deal with the consequences later.
None of this matters to our friendly little town, and certainly not to Tom Stall. Unfortunately, everything Tom worked for, everything he cherishes and holds dear gets a severe reality check. In fact, this reality check is occurs when Tom’s own reality will crash the wall of lies he had built to shelter his loved ones.
Our two thugs on the run make a late night appearance just as Tom and the others are closing shop. The criminals demand for money while holding the restaurant hostage. In the heat of the moment, Tom, with stunning precision and speed overpowers the thugs, gunning both down with their own firearms. All’s well that ends well it would seem. The hostages, Tom and his colleagues are all safe and sound and the money is still there. Word of this heroic exploit spreads like wildfire, in no small part to the media attention. Tom is a quiet man however, rather reserved when in front of others, and he appears a little stiff when interviewed by the media or the authorities. When he speaks, the phrases are short and simple. He’d much prefer to be left alone with his family peacefully as if nothing had ever happened, to return to life as it was before the incident and not be the center of attention. He will soon discover that such a wish is completely unattainable.
Just as things appear to be slowing down a little bit, a strange man dressed in black (Ed Harris) with shades enters the diner one day and orders a coffee at the counter. He is a sinister looking character who clearly who clearly came into the restaurant with a purpose (other than to get a coffee). This man in black seems to be familiar with Tom, continuously making comments and even referring to him as ‘Joey’. Tom innocently rebukes these ramblings and the claim that he is someone other than Tom and that he had a life in Philadelphia. The strange man even accuses Tom of having caused the horrible scar on his left eye. If this encounter wasn’t enough, the mysterious visitor then proceeds to hound Tom’s wide Edie (Maria Bello) while at the shopping mall with their young daughter. He keeps insisting that Tom is not who he claims to be and has dangerous underground connections in Philadelphia. Edie refuses to believe these accusations, but if there ever was a moment when a seed of doubt planted itself in her mind, then that doubt shifts to outright shock and horror the day the Jack and his small band of gangsters confront Tom on his front lawn. With his family in grave danger, Tom, now definitely Joy, once again comes to the rescue, getting his son out of the way while completely wasting the opposition, turning his front lawn into a complete dead zone. While his family is probably grateful to be alive, they are taken aback by this stunning revelation. Tom isn’t Tom. He doesn’t come from where he said he did, he didn’t work where he said he did, etc. He isn’t at all who he said he was, his identity was a lie, which in turn makes his family’s existence a lie as well. They are, for better or worse, pieces of a fabricated life. They are, by extension, what Joey chose to become when he fled the gangster life in Philadelphia.
Earlier in this marathon I analysed (if I may be so foolish to use the term) M. Butterfly and mildly criticised that film for lacking any weighty Cronenberg-esque style and tone. It was a period piece romance more than anything else. With that in mind, it may be tempting to toss a similar criticism regarding A History of Violence: it’s just a family drama. No monsters, homo-eroticism or fantastic physical transformations here. Nonetheless, the film is deceptively simple. Joey’s intentional decision to leave his former life behind, as well as any trace of his former attitude and general approach towards life, ultimately has significant repercussions on his family when they learn the ugly truth. But there is something to be said about this situation. Setting aside momentarily the problematic question of self-identity of Edie and the children (although that is a huge problem), what would it mean for them to never accept Joey? If Tom was Tom, completely separate from Joey, then Joey is not the children’s father nor Edie’s husband. But is this actually the case? Is Tom Stall dead from the moment his family learns of the man’s history? These are delicate questions, ones that people like you and I may face on a normal. Granted, the example thrown into the ring by the film is very cinematically dramatic and extreme, but any friend or relative can reveal a secret about something they did or said in the past. Whether the revelation concerns you directly or not, it can still impact your perception of that friend or relative, even if it is for a short period of time. Eventually, time may heal those feelings and thoughts, inviting you to accept that person for who they are, strengths, weaknesses and all that jazz. ‘Water under the bridge’ as they say. In other cases, the revelation may indeed bring upon a change in perception of that individual that is too great for it to ever be tossed ‘under the bridge’. The new bit of information provokes a dramatic shift in attitude that carries over into the relationship, forever changing it and even possibly cutting it short.
So Cronenberg tackles the notion of identity, but in a very humanistic fashion. Is the family incorrect in rejecting the real Tom at first? I don’t think so. After all, it isn’t as if he had been hiding anything pleasant about his past. It turns out that he was a wild gangster, particularly adept at kicking ass. That’s a tough pill to swallow for his young family. Nonetheless, the fact of the matter is that Joey wanted to have a safe and honest life. A good life with a loving family, a family he could give all his care to. Is that too much to ask for? Ah, circumstances, circumstances…
There is the matter of violence, how it is dealt, when it is dealt and its tight grip on the human character. Joey thought he had escaped his violent past (and he had, if only temporarily). He moves to a quiet town where his gangster skills aren’t required and adopts some radically different social skills. The moment the two thugs from the beginning arrive at the diner is a crucial one for Joey for more reasons than one. The customers and other colleagues may be hoping that, with the money in their hands, the hoodlums will leave everyone in peace. I bet Joey reads the situation differently. Not only can he prevent these punks from causing serious damage, but he should prevent them from even leaving the establishment. The crooks are a couple of real wild beasts who can and most likely will start busting caps at the slightest sign of trouble, or just for the heck of it even. Joey sees a bit of his former self in these two hooligans. He risks revealing his dark secrets by rescuing friends and customers. His own history of violence helped him in the short run, but comes back to bite him eventually. It’s a classic tale of someone’s inability to escape their past no matter how hard he or she tries. The sins he committed in the past return to eventually punish him. He doesn’t die physically for his mistakes, but his ideal version of himself, his fabricated version of himself is buried six feet under the ground by the end of the film. The closing moments of the movie are arguably the best. After laying to waste his former gang friends (including his own brother, in a rare action sequence in a Cronenberg movie), Joey returns ‘home’ where his family is having dinner at the kitchen table. Not a word is spoken. Some food is passed around and the look on Edie’s and Joey’s faces can be described in a million words: Sadness, regret, shame, hope, forgiveness perhaps… I’d go so far as to say it’s one of the best acted and directed scenes in any Cronenberg film. I’m gushing, but allow me to indulge, if only for a moment.
There is a good chance Edie will forgive him and accept him for who he really is: Joey with a Tom Stall attitude. She herself gives in to Joey’s wilder side, albeit briefly, when they have rabid sex on the staircase shortly after the revelation scene. It’s a difficult scene to digest. Why is it happening? Isn’t she repulsed by Joey’s true identity? How could she give in to this act? Edie’s human after all. She may be a woman (with all the virtuous qualities associated with it), but she is a human being who can let go and allow the darker instincts to take over. For all we know, Edie may have fantasized about Tom being big bad Joey the moment a seed of doubt was planted in her mind. May she began fantasizing about Tom in different fashion after learning her husband had given the smack down to a couple of criminals. I do not ask the following question in a derogatory way, I can assure you, but why shouldn’t she find that sexy? The opposite question is of course ‘why should she?’, I realize that, but I sincerely don’t think the second question applies here. The movie deals with violence in many ways, most of which are quite subtle. The sex scene plays out like a rape, which is disgusting of course, but in the context of the film and in the context of what Joey and Edie may be (and probably are) feeling and thinking, it’s kind of fits the occasion. The emotions running through each of their bodies are particularly intense. This rush of emotions in turn produces extreme reactions. The sex may be her first sign of accepting Joey as her real husband. Even for the briefest of moments, she is giving in to a kind of violent act, just like their son gave into a violent act at school when he stood up to his bully nemesis. These acts of violence are not mistakes. They are instincts, decisions made in a split second that, for the shortest of moments perhaps, feel like the right one. Should their son have sunk as low as the bully to teach him a lesson? Probably not. When Joey and Edie have sex on the staircase, does it feel a little messed up? You bet. Within the emotional and psychological context of those two situations, the sex and the fight at school, the reactions feel right for the characters as they occur. They may not feel right when the acts are over and done with, but definitely as they happen. It’s difficult to accept at moments, but Cronenberg, like a scanner of human behaviour, does a fine job of tapping into this darker side in all of us. Violence and identity are issues that the director’s movies have explored before, but A History of Violence does it in a superbly subtle way that impresses me every time.
While the movie may come across as atypical Cronenberg material upon first glance, it’s difficult to imagine anyone other than himself responsible for the film. He has a history of making some violent films, but I for one wouldn’t want him to change that history for a second.
Sunday, August 23, 2009
The Fly (1986)
With The Fly, Cronenberg made a name for himself amongst more mainstream movie goers. It offered a more straightforward plot and even a good old fashioned love triangle. The film earned Oscar recognition by capturing a golden statuette for its remarkable make up effects. Needless to say, The Fly was his biggest movie yet and remains the one he is the most recognized for, even till this day. But anyone fearing Cronenberg gave a subpar, mainstream film should toss those fears out the window. The Fly is a masterpiece of the horror genre, and an excellent, excellent piece of cinema. When comparing this film to the masterpiece of another great filmmaker who chose to do things a bit differently one time, I keep thinking of Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. The latter had all the Tarantino stylish hallmarks, such as great casting and acting, slick dialogue and impromptu violence, but it had a heart and two characters that the audience could genuinely sympathize with. It’s pretty much the same with The Fly. Plenty of great Cronenberg material for all to enjoy but with a touching love story at the heart of it all.
Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) is a hard working and brilliant scientist who is attempting to conceive of a device that would push the boundaries of how humans perform travelling. In essence, Brundle is determined with finalizing a teleportation device. A duel-pod (beehive shaped) machine that would, theoretically, teleport one being or object from one pod to the other. The idea would involve a rather complex and sophisticated process by which the molecules that constitute the being would detach themselves from the object, be removed from the space in the original pod, and finally reappear in the second pod, perfectly glued back together again as they were before the trip occurred. This or something like that. Dr. Bundle explains it much better in the film anyways. The important thing to recognize is that the process deconstruction and reconstruction of the object being teleported at the molecular level. The system not being fully ready yet, one wouldn’t want to cause any molecular damage by teleporting more than one object at a time…
While Brundle may be a lonely man, fortune seems to smile at him for a while when he meets Veronica (Geena Davis), a reporter for a science magazine. They go well together, like peanut butter and bread, and while initially their relationship purely professional, as Veronica is privy to observing Brundle’s work for a report, but that partnership eventually blossoms into something more personal. Her editor, Stathis Borans (John Getz), certainly doesn’t appreciate this buddying rapport between Brundle and Veronica, and much of that probably stems from the fact that Stathis and Veronica are former lovers. That relationship failed bitterly and now Stathis gets the privilege of playing the role of the jealous, power wielding editor. Clearly, Stathis still longs to have Veronica back in his arms, but he also thinks Brundle to be a somewhat of an annoyance. Sooner or later, something’s gonna give of course.
Brundle’s pioneering ways get the better of him one night however. He boldly tries to do what no man has ever done before: teleport himself. The attempt is made and it would appear that Bundle leaves the second pod perfectly intact. Success! He has completed one of the most daring research and science projects ever known to Man! Ah, but there was but one tiny, puny hiccup that occurred during the process: a fly took the trip with our friend Seth. Remember that mumbo jumbo I wrote earlier about possible molecular damage or fusion? Yeah, that turns out to be true as Bundle slowly, very slowly in fact, begins to change behaviour…and physically until he is but a shadow of his former self. In more ways than one in fact.
The Fly gets to me when I watch it, and I’ve seen a few times. It offers a superb marriage between great Cronenberg themes of the past, most notably the fear of bodily harm (fear of the flesh), that fear becoming a reality and its psychological and behavioural effects on a person’s identity, their character, their ‘self’, with a worthwhile mainstream love triangle plot. The movie tackles the notion of flesh in a slightly different way than in some of the earlier Cronenberg films. That theme is directly applied to the story of the main character. As a scientist attempting to teleport live beings through a process of molecular vaporazitionathngywhatever, he must understand flesh and how to master it. Failure to do this ultimately leads to the transformation and destruction of his own flesh. There’s even some Frankenstein in there as well, although this time Frankenstein is the scientist and the monster all at once.
The brilliant but sometimes frightening attempts of mankind to push the bounderies of technology and to control what, under normal circumstances, shouldn’t or couldn’t be controlled, is endlessly fascinating. When a movie scientist played by Jeff Goldblum is doing it, it’s even better. When those attempts fail accidentally and the shit hits the fan suddenly, it’s all kinds of fun. In a twisted sense, Bundle is like a martyr for his cause, even though he never intended to become one (nor a fly). Theoretically he does prove that his invention functions and it, if used correctly, could prove to be endlessly beneficial to society. His downfall is purely accidental, cause by the silliest of mistakes: he didn’t sweep the pod clean before commencing the test run. He really should have, it’s not a particularly demanding exercise and it is absolutely essential. In his giddy excitement he was blinded, and overlooked a mundane but all-important task. A bloody fly killed him after all! Still, it feels as though there is nonetheless the undertone of a specific moral lesson, that is, some things just shouldn’t be toyed with. Fly too close to the sun and you can lose your wings.
But the accident and the horrific side effects are effective for another, altogether more basic reason: Brundle is a nice bloke. Sure, he can be a bit obsessive regarding his pet project sometimes, but the viewer can still sympathize with him. A lot of the credit goes to the actor Jeff Goldbum. I don’t wish to take anything away from the writing, which I think does a fine job at setting up the principal characters, especially Seth Brundle. However, Goldblum is one of those actors who is excellent at infusing a certain likability in the characters he portrays. I can understand how some people don’t appreciate his acting style and how he can get on their nerves, what with his fast mumbles and beady-eye staring, but I can’t help but love the guy. Brundle feels like a real character, someone who the audience can cheer for and, ultimately, feel deeply sorry for.
Both Davis and Getz also give fine performances given the material that’s awarded to them. Davis and Goldblum in particular have great chemistry together, and so even though they get together a bit too quickly in the early stages of the story, they work well off one another. This reinforces, I believe, the likability of the two protagonists. Getz plays Stathis like a good villain in the pure Hollywood sense of the term. Cocky, mischievous, determined to get his way, all the ingredients are there for a great villain. Mind you, those ingredients do not equate to an original villain. I’d be hard pressed to argue what makes Stathis a different type of bad guy. He even sports a villainous beard! It comes to the actor portraying the role for the a character like this to really pop on the screen, and so much of the credit has to go to Getz for his performance. He has very few scenes with Goldblum specifically, but several with Davis and, for the mot part, they’re pretty good. He’s not maniacal
Which brings us to the film’s greatest triumph and surprise. The fact of the matter is that the movie is a love story. It’s one that spells doom and gloom for one of the two lovers, but The Fly possesses an emotional core that viewers can relate to. Director Cronenberg, who also performed some touch ups on the script, rarely deals with material that carries this much emotional weight, and to see it work so well is as surprising as it is satisfying. It makes for a slightly different Cronenberg experience, one that delivers both some of his more traditional ideas and visual elements as well as offering something mainstream audiences generally enjoy. At first glance, if one has not watched the film, it would seem like a pure horror story, but closer inspection reveals much more to be boiling beneath the pot’s cover.
Of course, there is also the matter of the makeup which helped bring Brundle’s eerie transformation to life. As I wrote earlier in this review, the superb job of the makeup team was rewarded at the Oscars that year, and with good reason. As Bundle’s physical metamorphosis enters deeper stages, he suffers more and more hideous bodily alterations, from teeth decay, rotting skin, the growth of strange and slimy insect parts, etc. Even by today’s standards, the effects work in The Fly is incredible. In our day and age, where digital effects take precedence over most other techniques, it’s great to look back at a time when practical effects ruled the day. The Fly looks complex and anything but practical. Suffice to say that Bundle’s transformation from human to fly looks disgusting and real. One can only take makeup for its face value however (ha ha). The performer still has a job in conveying the emotions of the character. Again, Goldblum delivers in spades. The physical change is simultaneous with his switch of character and behaviour. He picks up new, unusual ticks and behavioural habits as his old physical self becomes a new creature. His entire identity leaves him as he unwillingly adopts a new one, a fate which many Cronenberg characters seem to suffer.
Whatever faults the film may have, they never affect my viewing experience. By the closing credits, I’m under the impression that a great tragedy has concluded, a story in which a bright, eager and decent man experiences the worst and last accident of his entire life. Watching the ‘making of’ documentary on the DVD (which I would definitely encourage anyone to buy since it’s a) a fantastic DVD and b) its price has dropped in the past few years) I learned that the pre-production stage experienced some considerable problems, including a last minute director change (the director previously attached had to leave the project due to serious personal reasons). Oftentimes, a chaotic pre-production stage is seen as a bad omen to the rest of production, which subsequently leads to a sub-par movie. This was absolutely not the case with The Fly. It’s a classic tale of a scientific experiment gone haywire, but with those great Cronenberg touches. If you’re a fan of the director and somehow, someway, have not seen this movie, then you have some homework to do.
Not done with The Fly? Check out the review from the dude who wants to have my baby at Bill's Movie Emporium.
Thursday, August 20, 2009
Naked Lunch (1991)
Welcome agent *****. Well rested after the assignment in London? Good, because there’s something we have to look into and quickly.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to intercept and retire a rogue agent named Bill Lee, who recently ventured into two significant underground agencies and murdered two woman, one of them his very own wife. We think he’s a loose cannon, who is probably in over his head and can only cause further damage if he continues to work for any side. The spy war between the various agencies is enough of a concern without Lee destabilizing things further.
This is Bill Lee. Rather easy to identify really. Looks a bit like that actor, Peter Weller.
Our intel indicates that Lee, before stumbling into renegade espionage, was an aspiring writer, although such dreams never amounted to very much. He therefore earned a paltry living as an exterminator. Yes, bugs, rather large ones it seems. Despite his dead dream of becoming an author, he has been known to impress others with his particular language skills.
Unhappily married it seems. His wife, not the most clever woman, actually stole from the bug poison tank to satisfy her own selfish desires. A short time ago Lee was the victim of a hoax arrest, the intent of which was to have Lee reach his contact and immediate superior, Carl Nova, for the first time. That slimy bugger set him on the path he is on now. It was Lee's initial taste of things to come, of this strange and dangerous world we work in, including the sexual deviancy and excessive drug use. Would you believe Carl Nova asked Lee to cover his anus shaped lips with the yellow powdered poison? The nerve... His first mission? Kill his own wife who, as it turned out, was a caterpillar. They're an even worse lot than the cockroaches, if you can imagine that. Following this event Lee was sent to the Interzone to work some assigments. What followed was anything but ordinary for the rogue agent, although he tried to make the best of it.
We think agents on both sides may have awakened his homosexual tendencies, presuming they weren't there to begin with. Heaven knows how many ideas float around about how espionage attracts lonely, confused little boys and girls. If you want to hide yourself, what better way than to be a spy, a role which requires a person to wear many masks, some of which may even reveal your true self. I suppose it's a world that attracts a certain type... Not that we ever doubted your orientation agent *****. There is a degree of promiscuity and debauchery in our world, we're well aware of that. Sex and death make excellent bedfellows in the Interzone.
Lee can be quite the articulate man. Even though he may be taking an eternity to get his career as an author off the ground, he has been known to dazzle those around him with fancy wordplay. Some even thought he was trying to make a pass at them. We think he might be providing them snippets of his literary work, which would seem fine, but in this upside down world, who knows how enemy and friendly agents will react. The Interzone is the place where reality crashes into fantasy and imagination as you know.
Before you start wondering, yes he has been using the special type writers. Agents more accustomed to these critter machines know how to handle them. When Lee began using using the Mugwump machine, he easily came under the influence of the Mugwump's brain fluid. It's surprisingly potent stuff, not to be taken lightly. The goop's effect on Lee even led to the to the death of another agent when they were led to Yves Cloquet's place. It wouldn't be the first time that caterpillar's homo-erotic and psychotic killer tendencies get the better of someone. Even when it isn't one of our own agents, it's a dreadful thought nonetheless.
Lee is convinced he's switching sides for a good reason (a woman who looks like his late wife). He's now working for Dr. Benway. Yes, that Dr. Benway, the nefarious busybody who is obviously farming the Mugwamps for their juices, which is the equivalent of hahish. Whatever you do agent *****, do not fal prey to this product.
Don't be fooled by Lee's attitude. He's become a very covincing fellow, who has completely emersed himeslf in this world and is inhabiting his persona perfectly. For someone who is supposedly terrified of bugs, exposed to bug poision almost every day while filling his exterminator duties and began drinking the infamous Mugwump bain juice, it's quite remarkable that he's gotten this far. He's become a cool customer and doesn't get easily intimidated by any opposition in his way. We think he believes he may belong in this line of business and in this part of the world. This arguably stems from his own creative mind as an aspiring author. Witnesses attest that his mind creates a litterature that has some rather bizarre sexual undertones and psychological musings. It may very well be that he believes this is a world he could have created in one of his stories. He therefore feels very much at ease amongst these dangerous characters and sexual promiscuity. With his own sexuality clearly in a state of flux, it's small wonder that he feels he fits right in. If such is the case, then this Lee fellow is indeed a peculiar character.
There's little doubt that the cast of characters he's encountered is a colourful one, albeit not the kindest. From Joan Frost, to Yves Cloquet, Tom and Dr. Benway, everybody played their parts in pitch perfect way, even though most were in destructive or manipulative. We've got eyes on all of these people. When the time comes to make a move, we'll alert all the concerned agents, including yourself.
Additionally, if you can capture of of Tom's critter typewriters, it would be very helpful. We've been after one of those for some time now, but to no avail. Lee used two during his time in the Interzone. One was a Mugwump and the other was Carl Nova, the latter who bought the farm after undergoing brutal torture while at Tom's residence. They obviously store plenty of critical information about the agencies they operate for, including future assignments. Be careful when spotting them however. Our rivals may have just given the typwriters the allure of bugs given Lee's familiarity with such creatures, which again supports our theory that this world may have been tailord made from the man's own imagination. The last bloody thing we need is for that fool of a man to write a book on his adventures. Naked Lunch...heaven forbid. We're worried that Lee's imagination may be too friendly with his current surroundings. He may see fit to use this synchronization of the mind and the matter to finally complete his novel.
I want to make it perfectly clear that Lee must not make it back to his home in the United States alive. He's become far too sure of himself, in addition to knowing too much. If, after Bill Lee's liquidation, either side begins coming to us for answers, we will respond in kind. Be swift and silent please, this isn't some sort of silly James Bond adventure. Your equipment awaits you in the armoury. The quartermaster will supply you with the necessary items.
Good luck agent *****
Sunday, August 16, 2009
M Butterfly (1993)
M Butterfly is a bit of an oddity in the Cronenberg cannon. I may be the only one who holds this sentiment towards the film, but I can’t help it. Inspired by real events and based on the play of the same name (David Henry Hwang wrote it and then adapted it to a film script for Cronenberg), M Butterfly is the tale of a love so intense, to true, that it couldn’t help but exist despite its nature given the widely accepted social norms of the time. There’s no obvious social commentary denouncing those who cannot accept true love when it doesn’t conform to their expectations. Much of this is underplayed, as is usually the case in Cronenberg movies. What is this great love I write about?
René Gallimard (Jeremy Irons, in his second starring role in a Cronenberg film) is a French diplomat stationed in Beijing during the 1960s. He’s a bean count, a number Nazi… an accountant. He annoys many of his colleagues quite frankly, mostly because he spoils their fun in his precision with the budget and spending numbers. French-China relations are on the rocks to say the least given the post WWII international political climate. In fact, Chinese relations with the West in general are not in the best of shape, and this does not only apply to high end bureaucrats and diplomats, as can be seen from the attitude displayed by some of the more ordinary Chinese citizens. René himself is a witness to this hostility when he meets a local opera singer, Song Lily, after a mesmerizing performance of Madame Butterfly in front of a primarily Western audience. René is immediately enchanted by this performance, and especially by this performer. Intrigued by Song’s beauty and exotic qualities (exotic when compared to René’s typical standards). As he walks Song home, he encounters a clear resistance on the artists behalf as the former blocks away his charm. Song shuns all the Western ideals of beauty and love that René holds dear. The artist finds particularly revolting the emotional bedrock of the opera itself, which has a Chinese woman fall in love with a Western man, and completely give herself to him, to the point of taking her own life upon realizing that her love is no more. The thought of a Chinese woman uprooting herself for the sake of the corrupt western man is the source of anger for Song, although the performer displays such emotion in a very restrained way. China’s culture and heritage need not be influenced by Western decadence.
Needless to say, Song isn’t really reciprocating René’s at first. But this sudden rush of passion isn’t easy to quell, and so René continues to visit Song during performances and at the performer’s home. It takes some time for René to crack Song’s armour, but he eventually succeeds and the two begin a passionate affair, albeit a sexless one. It is during this time that René gains prominence in the French embassy and is privy to more important documents and government secrets. Little does he know, until it is too late, that that is precisely what Song has hoped for all along, for Song is not merely a performing artist, but a spy for the Chinese government.
From there on, as is so often the case, things take a turn for the bitter. To review the film properly, it becomes absolutely impossible to avoid the unavoidable: Song is, to René's remarkable surprise (and everyone else’s in the film), a man. All these long years, René was in fact madly in love with a man… Had he known this during the affair? More importantly, with love at stake, does it even matter?
Sexual tension, issues related to the physical and psychological, we won’t do the ‘this is what Cronenberg does’ shtick. If you’re still in this marathon, you know this already. What’s interesting is the ending in this case. The revelation itself affects much of what came before, especially if you hadn’t realized Song was a man (something I’ll get to in a moment). It’s just really interesting to reminisce about all those scenes in which René begged for Song’s love and other scenes when they showed deep passion for one another. For Song, it was a job, a duty for the country and its interests. Some would consider that a great sacrifice, to give one’s self to a stranger for a cause, let alone someone of the same sex. Is Song a homosexual or has he perfected his role so much that he is living it, has become his character and let go of his former self temporarily? Both are interesting ideas in their own right. When discussing with one of his superiors, Song explains that it takes a man to understand the behaviour of a woman. I’m tempted to think that such a statement supports the second theory, that Song has in fact lost himself in this new character. Then again, perhaps this assignment has merely enabled Song to be himself, his true self, with his straight man persona being the mask. That makes him a uniquely effective agent, and certainly a uniquely malleable persona.
René is another ballgame entirely. The film makes some relatively effective choices in never providing any big moment during the affair when the French diplomat could have realized the shocking truth about Song and confront his lover. Rather, the affair plays out like any other affair would, minus the sex of course. What’s fascinating is how the mannerisms of Song, as convincing as they may be, don’t hide his true biological self. I’d like to know if anybody watched the movie and not realized that Song was a dude. I have a hard time believing it. There’s something about him, his voice I think and certain facial features, that give it away. But all this makes René’s attraction (infatuation?) all the more curious. Does he see past the mask? If so, then he has chosen not to betray his emotions and give in to what his heart asks of him. Maybe that means the film tackles repressed homosexuality. M. Butterfly is a love letter to those who are struggling with ‘coming out of the closet’. On the other hand, if René really hasn’t noticed, not even doubted for a moment, that Song is a man, well that’s just screwed up. Screwed up in a interesting, ‘awesome twist’ kind of way, but screwed up nonetheless. Perhaps this is all working on a subconscious level, wherein something in René is triggered without him realizing it at first.
The final moments of the film provide a tragic twist of fate. After being found guilty of treason René is incarcerated. Inside the slammer, he performs a sort of one-man play, a monologue, to the other inmates in which he slowly dresses up as a woman, telling the story of his last love. Before slitting his throat (literally, not as an act), he cries out that he is both René Gallimard and Madame Butterly. With this, the roles of René and Song are completely reversed. The latter is now dressed like an ordinary man whereas the former has become has become another being. More poignantly however is how René has ended his life in identical fashion to the character of Madame Butterfly in the play, which is precisely what had disgusted Song earlier in the film. René and Song have ‘lived the play’ so to speak, although the ethnicities of the characters have been reversed.
The two leads give solid performances. John Lone inhabits this curious character with plenty of conviction. The fact that I knew he was a man made the performance all the more intriguing. Him trying to be a woman and almost succeeding made for a strange but interesting viewing. It’s like when you look at something that strikes you as odd but you can’t turn away. You aren’t attracted or repulsed, but you look because it is out of the norm. Irons is also good here, particularly in the final act when the reality of the situation hits him in the face. There aren’t many poor Jeremy Irons performances, and M. Butterfly doesn’t contradict that necessarily, but apart from the final 20 minutes or so, it’s not mesmerizing. I thought his casting was a bit strange. I can only assume that hiring the English actor had much to do with popularity (read=marketability) among Enlish-speaking audiences, the primary target. British actors are more recognizable than French actors by and large. It’s just…everyone in that French embassy speaks with a pompous British accent. Forgive me for being finicky about the matter, but I’m sure there were French who were more than suitable to play the role of René and the other diplomats.
That’s minor quibbling however. A bigger issue I have with is regarding the overall direction and mood of the film. Oh god, a problem with the direction? Cronenberg’s direction?!?! Calm down, don’t get your boxers and panties in a knot, I don’t think it’s a poorly directed film. It’s just fine. The style of M. Butterfly seems to lack any kind of Cronenberg punch to the gut. There’s very little about it that’s particularly Cronenberg-esque, notwithstanding the final act. The movie feels like a historical romance drama and not much more. The director typically brings a ‘je ne sais quoi’ tone to his films that I didn’t get with M. Butterfly. There is also the matter of the timeline of the story. During René’s trial the prosecutors are stunned how the accused did not see through Song ‘during all those years.’ I didn’t have a great sense of that timeline however, it never felt as though that much time has elapsed in fact. The entire story could have taken place within 4 or 5 months.
When discovering that M. Butterfly, which I had never seen before, was part of Cronenberg’s filmmography, I relished the opportunity to potentially champion a Cronenberg film that is often overlooked. Well, I can certainly recommend it, but I can’t champion it. As good as the final act is, it doesn't change the fact that my first viewing of the first two acts didn't provide anything magnificent. As a film I think it’s very well made for the most part. As part of this director’s filmmography, it’s one of his lesser efforts. Of course, with a rock solid track record as Cronenberg’s, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Dead Ringers (1988)
For much of the 1980s, Cronenberg’s oeuvres offered stories which featured characters who underwent dramatic physical, almost sci-fi like transformations as a result of accidents or deep, troubling psychotic manipulations. The ‘inner’ troubles and fears of the protagonists were given outward physical symptoms, as if the body became the victim of the psychological and emotional symptoms themselves. It’s horrific and fascinating material on many levels, a kind of material that carries over into this film, Dead Ringers, albeit in a slightly different and unique fashion. The psychological and emotional isn’t married to the physical in any Videodrome-esque or Fly-like manners, full of bizarre and overtly monstrous disfigurations. Rather, the physical uniqueness of the protagonists lies in the fact that they are perfect twins, both gynaecologists, and both played by Jeremy Irons.
In many respects they share several critical characteristics, notwithstanding their bodies. Both are geniuses, having demonstrated their skills as doctors and researchers in the field of gynaecology. They also live in the same apartment. Lastly, both brothers tend to experience the same things, share the same things, such as women. Having set that up, the film reveals how different they are in terms of personality and behaviour. Elliot Mantle is the more outgoing of the two, maybe even a bit on the flamboyant side, whereas Beverly Mantle is, at his core, more shy, quiet and definitely more sensitive. These similarities and differences can be a double-edged sword for the brothers however. On the plus side, one can replace the other around the office or at meetings if the latter is unavailable, mostly because no one can tell the difference between the two and they can pretend to be one another seamlessly. This has in fact helped them throughout there educational and professional careers, as is seen a little bit early on and in various other scenes throughout the film. There is, obviously, a much darker side to all of this awesome twin brother hoopla. It is hinted at early in the film, mostly through dialogue, that neither has truly experienced something until both of them have. While on a surface level this could be taken as just a sign of how close Elliot and Beverly are with one another, as brothers who have spent their entire lives together, the story slowly but surely reveals how literal such a claim actually is. When one brother experiences something bad and unsettling…the other brother goes down with him. This dark revelation behind the nature of this symbiotic relationship begins when the famous actress Claire Niveau (Geneviève Bujold) steps into their office one day. It is Beverly who looks after her at first and discovers that Claire has an astoundingly rare inner deformity: her body has three cervices. This amazes both Beverly and Elliot, the latter whom, skirt chaser that he is, proceeds to snatch a date with her and eventually…you know…
It is when Elliot pushes Beverly to go after her as well (and in her of course) that a slow psychological deterioration begins for the Mantle twins. Beverly isn’t as frivolous in his ways as Elliot, and the former clearly begins to take a genuine liking to her. Claire has a dark side of her own however. She may be rich and famous, but she is addicted to drugs and enjoys some rough sexual exercises. Still, she reveals a vulnerability due to her infertility, a vulnerability that attracts Beverly very much (possibly due to a vulnerability of his own) For all their genius, the one thing the Mantle Twins have never understood is ‘woman’. A woman, ‘women’ in general. Sure, they know the inner body of the woman like the back of their own hands (which I presume are identical), but they don’t know how to really treat a woman as a human being, socially. They are brilliant scientists working in the field of gynaecology, but haven’t the faintest idea how to be good boyfriends, lovers or husbands. With Beverly’s emotional attachment to Claire, the latter becomes, unwillingly, a destructive element in the ‘Mantle twins sage’, as Elliot so eloquently puts it in the film. Very soon, Beverly is hooked on drugs, but on a far more dangerous level than Claire. Her realization that she has been screwing two people as opposed to one (Elliot went for her first, followed by Beverly but without Claire ever knowing it) also creates strain. They are so similar but yet so different. If Beverly truly loves Claire (a love that comes across as inexperienced, or simply heightened due to all the drugs he’s taking), but he and Elliot are so much alike, what does that mean for his relationship with her? Coupled with Claire’s own awkward fancies, a trap has been inadvertently been set for the brothers, the kind of trap that only fate and bad judgement can provide.
I watched Dead Ringers for the first time a couple weeks ago and had an immediate reaction it. I opted not to write a review just yet, preferring to re-watch several scenes in order to better grasp what I was attempting to comprehend and digest. I popped DVD again a few nights ago, but instead of only watching the noticeable sequences, I ended up re-watching the entire film. Virtually everything in it is noticeable. Witnessing the deterioration of the Mantle Twins as they begin to truly experience the ‘medical fact’ stated by Elliot late in the story, that ‘whatever flows through he’s blood stream goes through mine,’ was simply fascinating. I keep sounding like a broken record by stating that there is so much going on in Cronenberg films. I promise that this will be the last time I type out that phrase in the marathon, but there is, once again, a whole lot going on in this movie. The story handles marvellously the curse than is both the brilliance and the ineptitude of the Mantle twins. As I wrote above, they can both master woman’s bodies on a scientific level, on a medical and biological level, but when a woman as challenging as Claire enters their lives, the seed of destruction has been planted, whether she ever intended to play that role or not (she evidently didn’t since she takes a genuine liking to Beverly as well). As the drugs take over Beverly’s mind and behaviour, he begins to wrestle with his own self, that is, his affections for Claire and his fascination with the female body, particularly those he deems are ‘all wrong.’ It also appears that the reality of Mantle twins soon collapses onto Beverly first and then Elliot second. When juiced up whatever drug he has been taking in his office, he presents himself to a patient as ‘One of the Mantle Twins.’ No one can tell them apart anyways. I thought that short scene was intriguing upon my initial viewing, but a few nights ago, I thought it was downright chilling. Then of course comes the later scene when Elliot explains to his lover (Lynne Cormack) that, in order for he and Beverly to return to normality, they just need to get synchronized. This process of synchronization only carries them to their own destruction however. Neither twin could really ever be separate from the other. They are two different physical entities but their ties run deep, very deep.
The Mantles are in a losing battle from the start it seems. For that reason I felt the movie played out like a tragedy. There was something almost poetic about how the fate of the brothers is handled. The fall of great personalities often makes for an interesting watch, and to see the Mantles, who had a lot going for them, lose themselves within themselves (what they don’t understand and what they think they do understand). In fact, I wrote earlier that Claire is the seed of destruction for the twins, which I still hold true to a certain degree, but I estimate that it goes deeper than that. The Mantles, due to their biologically, psychologically and emotionally tight and complex relationship, are a walking time bomb for themselves. It was only a matter of time before their eerily close relationship exploded, with the full after effects felt. Like Cronenberg has done so often throughout his career, a plot that could seem fit for a drama or horror of lesser status (seeing the future, tv taking over the brain, man turns into giant fly) and uses it in a tight, and richly layered story.
Much of success of the film begins with the sublime performance of Jeremy Irons to play both Elliot and Beverly. There are so many subtleties in what Irons does with the two roles, so many little cues and ticks which hint some of the troubling aspects of their relationship to be found in this performance. The actor has given several fine, fine performances throughout his long and distinguished career but I think he may have been at his very best here in Dead Ringers. I honestly felt as if I was watching two different (but obviously similar!) characters on screen in the same movie, and I can’t imagine that being an easy task for an actor to accomplish. Whenever I have read up on Dead Ringers in recent weeks, Geneviève Bujold doesn’t receive as much praise as Irons, and this is quite understandable to a certain degree, but I wouldn’t overlook her entirely. Her Claire is a dirty mixture of sweetness and danger. She may end up loving Beverly, but she has some unhealthy qualities of her own, least of which being her drug issue which Beverly adopts. Her curiosity and eventual determination to see the Mantles as completely different beings is both a blessing and a curse. She may not have the amount of screen time awarded to Irons, but I certainly felt some gravitas about her performance.
Composer Howard Shore has worked on so many of Cronenberg’s film, but for some reason, I think his title piece, which plays as the opening credits are shown, is arguably his best work. It has such a sweet quality to it. It sounds like a theme music fit for a regular, emotionally packed film about sibling drama. It doesn’t feel like it should belong in a movie that ends up being as twisted as this one, but it works incredibly well.
From a stylistic point of view, Dead Ringers represented an interesting new step for Cronenberg. Gone were the gross monsters, disfigurations and evil children. Here was a very tragic tale of twin brothers and their inseparable and ultimately destructive ways. From this point onward, the writer-director would rarely venture back into the world of the surreal, only opting to helm two films that had any kind of sci-fi or supernatural elements to them afterwards (Naked Lunch and Existenz). A new Cronenberg was emerging, some would say a more mature Cronenberg. They shouldn’t have kidded themselves. The packaging may have been different, but the great mind behind the matter would still be at his old subversive games for years to come.
Monday, August 3, 2009
Videodrome (1983, David Cronenberg)
‘Television is ruining our lives.’ ‘Stop watching the idiot box.’ ‘You spend too much time in front of the television.’
I’m certain that you, the readers, have either heard, been told, or even said one of these phrases in your lives. On average North Americans spend a lot of time sitting in front of the television, absorbing that warm, comforting glow from which it emanates. Soap operas, prime time dramas and comedies, the hourly news, televised sporting events, we are members of a society that, for the most part, has given in to the hypnotic pleasures of the television. Our lives are often scheduled around what time certain shows are aired, and we find some kind of solace in becoming attached to the people, real or not, that we watch live their own lives, all from the comfort of our living rooms. The social consequences of such behaviour are up for debate, but for writer director David Cronenberg, the symptom of becoming a slave to the television held unimaginable and horrific potential when he wrote his Videodrome screenplay. This being a Cronenberg film, and one of his earlier films more importantly, viewers shouldn’t expect any dry, by-the-numbers commentary on the public’s willingness to succumb to the tele’s enchanting glow.
The story follows a rather simple man, Max Renn (James Woods), who works as a television station programmer. His channel delivers pornography, both soft and hard, to the paying public. He is seeking to more programming however, preferably something with a bit of an edge to it. An associate of his, who practices the all important art of pirating broadcasts, stumbles across a transmission from Pittsburgh. The show, titled Videodrome, is supported by zero plot and only seems to feature ultra-realistic torture. People are brought into a room one by one by masked torturers who then proceed to whip their naked victims. In essence, it’s snuff television, arguably the cruellest form of pornography, but Renn is convinced that there is a market for this kind of programming.
It is as a guest on a talk show that he meets the undeniably sexy Nikki (Deborah Harry), a psychiatrist of sorts who pleads that the current society is plagued by over-stimulation. Also on the show is pop-culture analyst Brian O’Blivion, although he prefers not to make appearances in the flesh. Rather, his face is broadcasted from an undisclosed location. Handsome smooth-talker that he is, Renn manages to snag a date with Nikki, this despite the stark differences in their philosophies regarding the current state of television. One night while Renn and Nikki are getting ‘close’ at his apartment, Nikki shows a keen interest in Videodrome, of which Renn has a pirated copy. To his surprise, Nikki reveals that this bizarre, sadomasochistic form of pornography turns her on. Upon learning that the show is from Pittsburgh, Nikki decides to audition. Sensing that there may be something more to Videodrome, Renn seeks to investigative assistance of Masha, another pornographer with contacts in the industry, who soon returns with news that Videodrome is not to be taken lightly. It has a mission, a philosophy. And the snuff filsm? They’re real. What’s stranger still is that Renn has begun to experience strange visions, such his television coming to life and compelling him to make love to it. And what in blazes happened to Nikki? Shouldn’t she have returned by now?
What follows is a descent into a kind of madness if you will. Max’s curiosity and determination leads him down a path littered with dark spirits and intentions. His discoveries reveal a world changing plot, concocted by the creators and suppliers of Videodrome to control the minds of people in North America, for in truth Videodrome emits a powerful signal to the individual viewer, a signal with infects his or her mind with a strange tumour-like disease, thus enslaving them to Videodrome’s stimulation. Reality and the hallucinations produced by Videodrome fuse together. What shouldn’t be real becomes reality, and those things that ‘shouldn’t be real’ consist mostly of nightmarish physical deformations and visions. Max may be searching for the truth, but the truth, Videodrome and its nature, soon begins to take over his own mind, eventually disfiguring his body for its own Machiavellian intentions. Only Brian O’Blivion’s daughter (Brian is in fact already dead, killed by Videodrome’s powerful tumour in fact. He lives merely through video recordings) can help Max fight this evil corporation. But will there be enough of himself left in order to heed her help?
The film, for its psychedelic qualities, its visual effects, its bizarre off-beat plot, and its intriguing commentary, is one of Cronenberg’s best films. In fact, it’s my personal favourite Cronenberg film, period. The Brood, Shivers, and Scanners earned him some notice, but it is with Videodrome that the director really puts his own personal stamp on the horror genre. There have been many fantastic horror films throughout the decades. It is a genre which is often maligned by being frowned upon by certain movie goers and critics alike. Those that garner considerable success, both critically and financial, don’t come around that often, and those that include gore and intensely disturbing imagery are even further and fewer between. Yet, Cronenberg managed to capture the imagination and critical eye of many. To witness a horror film that marries together schlock, suspense and intelligence is a rarity.
Videodrome features bucket loads of uncomfortable and bizarre imagery. As Carrie Rickey comments in her essay Videodrome: Make Mine Cronenberg (available in the booklet included in the Criterion Collection edition of the DVD), the body and all the potential joys (both sensual and psychological) and ills associated with it are of great interest to the Canadian filmmaker . Several of his characters are often subject to great variations of either pleasure and pain, the latter of which can be experienced on a more basic physical level, such as having one’ head explode (Scanners), or on a more pathological level, such as with Max, the main character of the story. The signal emitted by the program accomplishes more than merely infecting Max’s mind. Its power also mutates his physical self, morphing his right hand into some sort of organically created and biologically attached pistol and at one point providing his stomach with what would appear to be a giant vagina into which Videodrome agents can insert their video cassettes. It is his ‘new flesh’ as he becomes a new member of a different kind of society, one in which Videodrome has total control. His body becomes his weapon, Videodrome’s weapon. There is something disturbing, both on a visceral and intellectual, about such deformations, particularly the latter. Cronenberg is toying, as he often does, with the dark of sexual pleasure. The most basic, elemental human pleasure (not that sex is a bad thing in the opinion of this movie fan, no worries), is being given a good shake. It’s discomforting to see such imagery. The body is no longer ‘normal’, our precious standards regarding sexuality in general, the sexuality of our bodies in particular, are challenged in the most brutal way. A man with a vagina in his stomach that receives transmission from an evil corporation hell bent on taking over the minds of North American? First and foremost, the vagina, the female genitalia associated with birth and sex (two good things) is being transplanted onto a man. Second, it is being used for destructive purposes. It’s odd, thought provoking, and depending on what type of movie goer you are, it may just be ‘provocative’.
However, even before the psycho-physical mutation of Max, sex itself is given a moody treatment when he and Nikki begin dating. In the scene in which Nikki reveals her excitement about Videodrome, both she and Max engage in a love making session of sorts involving both pain and pleasure, the former directly causing the latter. Max pierces Nikki’s ear with a pin, she emits a moan of pleasure while Max licks off the blood. It all comes back to this fascination Cronenberg has with the sexuality of the body and ties in perfectly with one of the many muddled themes from plot: stimulation. Stimulation can be rewarding, but sometimes satisfied in dark and disturbing ways. We give in to it often, but what of those who are stimulated by things that are out of the norm? What turns them on? What happens, in fact, when what used to stimulate us no longer quenches that thirst and we need a new fix, something harder, with more edge? The director taps into that zone of what we normally don’t want to see or talk about regarding our physical selves. Sexuality is not something you talk about out loud on the streets, unless you really don’t care about bystanders. It’s still a delicate subject, even now in our day and age. Sex is often depicted in very sanitized, ‘soft’ ways in mainstream media for the most part, and the director here debunks that style, opting for the flip side of the coin. He’ll show stimulation, but in the ‘bad’ sense, in the sense that doesn’t conform to what we want to see or discuss about when we think about stimulation and sexuality, which is exactly what’s happening to the characters within the story itself. Pretty nifty. In that sense, Videodrome can be seen as a certain challenge to the unsuspecting viewer. This may be the reason behind the scorn many of the director's earlier films received upon their initial release. His plots and themes weren’t seen as legitimate challenges to our perceptions of horror and the boundaries that can be pushed regarding the human experience within that genre. It was just shocking and in ‘bad taste.’ Time has been very kind to movies like Videdrome. It is in this film, arguably more so than in any of the director’s other works, that the human body and mind are given the most squeamish, horror bending treatment precisely because the issues of sexuality and stimulation are, for a variety of reasons, still treaded on rather lightly. They feel so very private to us, but Cronenberg chooses to go the other way, by stretching the possibilities within the horror genre.
There’s yet another topic that’s wrestled with in the film: the media, in this case satellite television more specifically, but you get the point. While watching the movie, I was amazed at how easily the film, for its plot points regarding a war engaged by a television show and network for the minds of ordinary people, is as relevant today as it probably was back in the early 80s. In fact, the battle for viewership by television stations is arguably even more intense today. The nature of television shows has even changed to reflect that intense battle. Networks no longer offer pieces of fictionalized drama, but ‘reality’ tv shows as well. Viewers are expected to identify with these on-screen personalities, and most often they do. Then there are the strange hybrid shows that look very much like a documentary but are in fact fiction. All these creations are there for our stimulation, even though the stimulation in question is at the most elementary level: flick on the tv, keep eyes open, intake information. Still, it must be said that up until now television has been doing a fine job of keeping us occupied. Max becomes a victim of Videodrome when his reality (our reality) is distorted by what corporation wants him to see. At first it seems like Max is only hallucinating, and perhaps that’s all it is at first when the tumour is still in its early stages of growth. Eventually, Videodrome conquers more and more of Max’s mind, eventually leading to a new moulding of his physical self. Whatever the show wants him to see is what he sees. Whatever it wants him to do he does. Before anyone reading gets some ideas, allow me to write that I am not advocating for the annihilation of all our tv sets. You enjoy watching tv shows? Good for you, keep on doing that. I only find it fascinating how Cronenberg uses that notion of the tv enslaving our minds in his film. Keep in mind that, as silly as it sounds, that was a real fear in certain circles (radical and paranoid as they may have been) a few decades prior to the release of this movie. In fact, the Criterion booklet for the movie features an essay which briefly explains how a University of Toronto professor of philosophy, Marshall McLuhan, who coined the phrase ‘The media is the message’ had an influence on Cronenberg when the man was a student there. The message is embedded in the form of media, thus influencing how the message is received. ‘The media is the message’…that’s pretty much how Videodrome is hoping to enslave the pitiful viewers who tune in. The old, almost comedic argument that people become zombie slaves to the tv takes on a drastically horrific turn when handled by Cronenberg. He’s not playing it for laughs either. It sounds like it could be a hilarious satire, it really does. Yet, the director plays his cards with a straight face and manages to pull it off.
If this review seems like it’s hopping all over the place, briefly discussing this theme and that, then I plead guilty. In trying to dissect Videodrome, one encounters a great many themes and notions to talk about. In limiting myself to only a few pages, it becomes challenging to encapsulate everything I took away from the film. Readers familiar with this film and the director’s filmmography in general will undoubtedly be wondering ‘how come I haven’t talked about so and so?!?’ There is an impressive amount of subtle, not-so subtle, subversive things occurring in this movie that it would require at least a few more pages to tackle them. Suffice to that Videodrome is the thinking person’s horror film. It’s not easy to grasp at first, and I would certainly encourage multiple viewings so you too can be enslaved by the mighty- uh, … I mean, multiple viewings so you too can discover the many themes touched upon. Not only is it an exercise in visual effects (which still look pretty good today, 26 years later), but it happens to be one of the more intelligent and intriguing horror films I’ve seen to date. As I mentioned earlier, I also think it is the one Cronenberg film that challenges the viewer the hardest, both intellectually and viscerally because of its treatment of the human body and our sexual stimulation. That is also why I chose to write about Videodrome first, to give the readers a taste of what the writer director is capable of at his most mind bending philosophical self. That isn’t to say the rest of his cannon holds nothing to wonder about or ponder on, quite the contrary in fact. It’s just that I thought I’d get the heaviest of his material out of the way first. Sex, the media and its affect on people, deformation of the body, violence, chest vaginas …it isn’t the easiest film to access, but by golly is it ever worth when you’re into this kind of filmmaking. On a certain level, it could be argued that Cronenberg thrown everything but the kitchen sink, although I’m sure genetically attach hand guns are a fine replacement. While that may be true, this would be one of the rare occasions when, thematically, a movie actually doesn’t feel too crowded with a director’s ideas. Kudos to you Mr. Cronenberg. The tv set is acting all crazy and I’m feeling fine.
Want to read more on Videodrome? Check out the review at Bill's Movie Emporium.