Georgia Straight, Volume 37, Number 1836, February 27 - March 6 / 2003, p. 23

David Cronenberg

David Cronenberg

The scare artist turns his dark-side sensibility to a disturbing Spider

By Ken Eisner

In times such as these, when people with bone-crushing power lack the wisdom and humility to exercise the skills that leadership normally requires, one begins to wonder what the uses of horror might be. Even without David Cronenberg´s patented form of creepiness coming at you from the screen, all you want to do is pull the covers over your head.

"Well, the duvet is about as secure as you´re gonna get," says the veteran director, sighing on the line from Toronto. "Of course, you can always duct-tape it around you."

He´s referring to the U.S. government´s recent advice on what one should do in the face of terror attacks - was that an orange alert or a Red Green alert? - after which duct tape and plastic sheeting would no doubt prove most useful for bureaucratic ass-covering.

Cronenberg´s own terror attacks are infamous for offering the viewer few places to hide. After he asked us to look at life from the disease´s point of view in his breakthrough ´70s films, Shivers, Rabid, and The Brood, he made heads explode in 1981´s Scanners. He assaulted media manipulation in 1983´s Videodrome, updated pulp material in 1986 to tackle the human fear of change in The Fly, took on questions of identity in Dead Ringers two years later, and aestheticized psychosexual fixations in 1996´s Crash - no, wait, he did that in all his films.

Along the way, he has also given cinematic vision to the works of writers as varied as Stephen King (The Dead Zone) and William Burroughs (Naked Lunch). His latest effort, adapted by Patrick McGrath from his own novel, is Spider. The disturbingly introspective new movie, which closed the Vancouver and Victoria film festivals, opens here Friday (February 28). It stars Ralph Fiennes as a mentally ill man, newly released to a London halfway house from an asylum but still caught in the grip of a beyond-Freudian Oedipal crisis involving his dead parents, played by Gabriel Byrne and Miranda Richardson.

"I was recently at a Q&A for Spider in New York, I think it was," the soft-spoken director recalls. "Some guy stood up and commented, 'You´re a master at creating unease.' And I said, 'I´ve just been watching CNN in my hotel room, and they´re a lot better at it than I am.' I felt really uneasy."

Currently, he´s getting fear-factor competitino from TV and other major institutions. "Why do we need governments doing it to us? I was in Washington, D.C. on this same trip, and I was flying out of Reagan International Airport, and after going through all this incredible security, and after landing, my wife tells me [she read that] they´ve been lining up anti-aircraft missiles at Reagan - ready to shoot me down!"

Cronenberg, who will turn 60 on March 15, and his darkside sensibility are not all that perishable. "People ask me all the time, 'Do you think times are passing you by?' but it just feels like a déjà vu. The thing with the duct tape is no more or less silly than being told to duck under your desk in the event of a nuclear war. They all look like snake-oil salemen these days, including George Bush, the arch con man. People are falling for this stuff. The short-term-memory-loss problem doesn´t just happen as you get older; it seems to afflict the young even more these days."

The director´s own memory might be getting stronger lately, or at least more evident in his observations. His bibliophile father, Milton, was born in Baltimore and moved with his parents to Toronto at the age of nine, leaving behind relatives in the D.C. area. Other than some PR work for Scanners, Cronenberg says he hadn´t been to the U.S. capital since he was a child, until his Spider trip. "I remember my father taking me to see the Washington Monument, and the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. And I had an uncle who taught German and drama at New York City College, so I visited there quite often."

For a while in his childhood, Cronenberg thought he would end up in the States (thereby depriving Canada of one of its future, and few, signature directors; Atom Egoyan and Denys Arcand are the only two other names that spring instantly to mind). "If that had happened, maybe I´d be making Spider-Man today instead of Spider," he muses, somewhat unconvincingly.

Years earlier, his grandparents had taken the traditional immigrants´ passage through New York Harbor´s Ellis Island, where millions of Europeans were processed from 1892 to 1954.

"Everyone else in the family is named Forman, as in Milos," he says, thinking of the great Czech filmmaker, "but Milos is not Jewish, so we´re not really related. It appears that my grandfather, when he was coming through, decided to take the name of the richest, most powerful man in his village in Lithuania, Samuel Kronenberg - with a K - so for years I´ve been getting letters from former Nazi SS officers who think I´m related to them."

It´s hard to determine if the ex-stormtroopers were hoping to party like it´s 1939, but whatever they wanted, the irony is rich. Cronenberg´s parents met in Torontom, and they both had Lithuanian roots - their families even come from the same village, he asserts. His dad wrote a stamp-collecting column for the Globe and Mail, and his mother, Esther, was a piano accompanist for choral groups and the National Ballet of Canada. An older sister, Denise, dance with the company and later became a costume designer, most notably for her brother´s movies. (She received a Genie nomination for her subdued work in Spider, which is set in the 1950s and ´80s.)

Young David wrote short stories and played classical guitar, with the music in his films reflecting the heavy dose of cosmopolitan culture in the director´s own upbringing. Still, in a fascinating interview in the Jerusalem Post, an American journalist declared the Fiennes character, called Dennis Cleg, to be a reflection of Cronenberg´s role as perennial outsider.

"I was happy to let him run with that, to some extent, since people generally don´t ask me about my Jewishness. Certainly [Franz] Kafka was a touchstone for the film, and I even told Ralph at one point, 'It wouldn´t hurt to think of yourself as a Czech Jew who speaks German, while playing Spider.' There were also Dostoyevsky and others, just to give us some external context that wasn´t necessary for the audience to get but provided a consistent texture or feel for us to work with."

The director, who came to Kafka by way of Samuel Beckett and Roger Corman, says he realized during the editing process that he had created an archetype of the detached artist, with Spider obsessively documenting his observations in a hidden journal. The fact that novelist McGrath (pronounced McGraw), whose father was a hard-nosed medical administrator, grew up on the grounds of England´s Broadmoor mental hospital is worthy of its own separate analysis. In any case, McGrath´s original script, like his book, had Spider writing and speaking in eloquently constructed paragraphs of startling - if deeply misleading - insight. In the finished movie, however, Fiennes´s character mumbles inaudibly and scribbles in an incomprehensible alphabet of his own devising.

"The original version was manipulative and unconvincing, although beautifully written, and there would be a kind of dissonance with the audience that is not good, as opposed to the kind I enjoy. Also, the novel is full of special effects of the kind that people think I like, and the first script had lots of effects that I took out. They are completely legitimate in terms of the hallucinations a schizophrenic would have, but I didn´t want anything to separate Spider from the audience, so that´s why we don´t even mention schizophrenia or anything like that in the movie.

"The book works very differently; I literally read it once and have never looked at it again. Patrick had already gone so far towards reinventing the story for the screen that I couldn´t really even consider it an adaptation of an existing work."

The character they ended up with, although enigmatic in the extreme, doesn´t exactly meet the criterion of an artist holding a mirror to the surrounding society. "It´s funny, though," Cronenberg adds, "because this writer from the Jerusalem Report likened Spider to a Talmudic scholar, and there is something in that: this obsessive cogitation over minor - to anyone else utterly insignificant - things. I don´t reject that imagery."

Still, the journalist´s contention that arachnid-fixated Dennis Cleg is actually Jewish comes across as highly unlikely, given the film´s grotty row-house, Dad´s-at-the-pub, no-books-in-the-home setting.

"It depends on what level you want to take it. If you see him as someone alienated from his context and having great difficulty functioning within it, then maybe it [Cleg´s alleged Jewishness] works as a metaphor. In a way, Spider is walking the lunar landscape you find in The Pianist [when Adrian Brody´s survivor wanders through bombed-out Warsaw]. For example, when you see him walking through London, there are hardly any cars or people. I had extras and period cars all set to go, but I ended up substracting them one after another until Spider was left virtually alone."

Alone is where is characters usually end up, thanks to the vicissitudes of fate or technology, or through an existential gesture, or as the result of some social transgression. They float forever, cinematically speaking, in an unwelcoming universe, torn between mystical awe and carnal revulsion - normal responses, perhaps, in an era when religion has been replaced by science. (This is most notable in fields pioneered by Jewish idea men like Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein, the director helpfully points out.)

Whatever the connections between his characters, or their fates, Spider shows glimmerings of a subtler, more European sensibility in Cronenberg´s work, although the Toronto horror maven isn´t quite ready to have himself declared Mature quite yet.

"If there´s any movement in that direction, it´s beyond my discernment. I do these movies one at a time, and I´m always serving the project. There´s a point at which a movie starts to push you around; it refuses to do what you want and it demands other things. You want that to happen because it becomes organic and alive.

"I don´t think about my other movies or the arc or evolution of them. That´s sort of a critical question, and I could be analytical about it, I suppose, but my opinion in that area would really be no better than anyone else´s. Creatively, none of that´s ever been a question. I´ve always viewed Toronto as being halfway Hollywood and Europe, and that´s where my filmmaking is, and always has been.

"My next project may be something else, again. I absolutely guarantee that if I ever get to make any more movies, you will get to see all kinds of things, including some things you might prefer not to see. Of course, I´ve been through all this before. When I did The Dead Zone, people said I´d gone soft, or whatever, and then the movie after that was The Fly, which was very gory and violent - although it was still a love story, as was The Dead Zone. So I think it defies trend-spotting; my career is maybe more like a mosaic, or a crystal: you keep circling t and you find different facets. But I don´t know that there´s movement from one place to another."

Much of Spiders web may have been spun from McGrath´s fevered brain, but the director still leaves his mark everywhere, even if longtime fans may feel hard-pressed to recognize his trademark fetishes.

"I think everything I do is Cronenbergian - or rather, that´s much too self-aware for what I´m doing. I´m very stubborn in this regard. I don´t mind confounding people´s expectations; if you ask people what a Cronenberg movie called Spider might be about, they would have all kinds of expectations, and I can tell you the movie is not that."

Whatever else it is, the new film was strong enough to net him a best-director Genie, although admittedly from an overall field of nominations that couldn´t yield a recognizable pattern to even the most Talmudic scrutiny.

"Oh, it was a disaster this year, and widely perceived behind the scenes - to be just that. The nominating system doesn´t work, unless you´re lucky, and no one was lucky this time. I think the flaws in that system revealed themselves this time, and they will have to be fixed. I think they will be changed."

As a pioneer in the creating, directing and distributing of Canadian movies - he has made almost 30 features, shorts, and documentaries in 36 years of unique endeavour, and has acted in 23 of them - Cronenberg has endured extreme changes in fashion and finance. But, granting all that, we are still left with our original question: what´s a big-screen scare artist supposed to do when life gets weirder than the movies?

"Ignore it, of course," he concludes with a dry chuckle. "I happen to think it´s all superficial, you think of the politics that were going on when Fellini and Bergman were making their movies, and Truffaut and Kurosawa were making their movies, when there was always the threat of nuclear war. That´s all gone - that part of it, anyway - and the movies remain. If they somehow manage to annihilate the earth, then the movies won´t remain. But, in that case, it won´t bother me so much.