Twin suicides, disease, mutation, insanity and gynecological instruments,
viruses, snuff porn, sexual confusion and mind control: David Cronenberg is one of the few moviemakers who has managed to invent a
genre, mixing up the darker elements of the bizarre to make a somewhat lurid name for
himself. Although with Dead Ringers he graduated from "cult" to "auteur"
status, Cronenberg has never worked in Hollywood, and it shows. He goes over the line and doesn't look back, and this makes watching his movies unpredictable as hell, not to mention
fun. Pseudo-science and freak technology are abiding currents in his work, so it seemed to make sense to test the Videophone on him -- maybe he'd provide some invaluable feedback for AT&T.
"I remember people used to say 'Well it's obvious you want to shock people,' and they wouldn't believe it when I'd say 'No, I don't want to shock people, in fact I'm relatively shy and unaggressive.'"
He wasn't, in fact, all that interested in the phone itself, and of course there were no Scanners-like head
explosions. But the man who made Videodrome, The Fly, and Naked Lunch is,
perhaps, our leading philosopher of the future, and talks lot about technology and flesh -- and about
viruses. The influence of William S. Burroughs' transient-body/eternal-mind mysticism is evident in Cronenberg's
metaphysics, and he manages a Burroughs-like deadpan tone and posture while saying the most unexpected
things. Maybe being Canadian has something to with it as well
A prediction: Cronenberg's next film is going to make waves; it will be the most shocking big-budget movie ever
made. Last summer he told an audience at the American Film Institute in LA that he's considering Crash, J. G. Ballard's classic apocalyptic novel about the erotics of car
wrecks. It would be a perfect fit. After the rather staid M Butterfly, die-hard Cronenberg fans are hungry for a return to the
grotesque, brain-squeezing excitement of his past work. No-one does shock film better than
shy, unaggressive David Cronenberg.
Long Live the New Flesh
By Lukas Barr
Photos: David Roy Schervish
What do you think about this phone, first of all?
It's kind of interesting, isn't it? I mean, it's not as revealing as one might have
thought. And people are just getting used to the incredible mobility that a remote phone gives
you, moving around, doing stuff while you're talking on the phone, so I wonder whether this is going against the momentum of that
What do you think is happening to the mind-body opposition in the context of digital technology?
Well, I think the tendency still is for the separation of the two. I think rather than integrating those
things, what all of this technology is doing is further separating the two. I think the mind is easier digitised than the
body, and so it's flowing further and further away from the body. I think that's really what the end result of it all is.
Of course that's the opposite of what's supposed to be happening--all the hype around virtual reality is proclaiming the collapse of that distinction as it becomes increasingly possible to exist inside a computer, for example.
But I wonder if that's really what's happening. I mean of course it wouldn't be the first time that our perception of what some technology is doing is one
thing, and what it's actually doing is quite something else. I don't mean to be
alarmist, because I'm not sure--you're kind of throwing this at me and I'm kind of thinking well...I mean for
example, what we're doing now--is it...is the fact that I can actually see you, and get a sense of what your body is like--is that really integrating
you, your mind, and your body for me, or not? Or is it separating it more? The telephone voice, separate from a body, is about as close as we get to mind reading. You know, you close your eyes, you imagine someone...I'm not sure what the effect of it
is, it's kind of problematical. Are you more disembodied from me now that I can actually see you--I've never met you of
course, so, it's kind of an interesting experiment.
Your earlier work seems to centre on technology. M Butterfly is different.
Yeah, but for me, technology is an expression of will and human inventiveness and
creativity, and in that sense, it's no different really, than what happens in M Butterfly. I think MButterfly is just a more
subtle, spare, austere version of some of the other stuff, because in it you do have two people who are creating the opera of their lives together--they're creating their own
sexuality. But they're not doing it surgically, let's say, the way I might have shown it in a earlier film. They're doing it by the force of their
imagination, and their own self-delusion. So in a way, I do connect M Butterfly with all those other
movies. It's sort of approaching some of the same themes from a very different angle. Thematically it feels very
Talk about viral film.
Well, it's really a matter of self-replication, and the fact that a virus can't exist in a vacuum--it has to have a
host, it has to embed itself in something. I mean viral film making sounds like film making as a
disease, art as a disease, but also as something that embeds itself in your genetic
structure, your chromosomal structure, and in that strange way becomes part of you even though it's not. So that's really what I think that
Video especially, because it can be reproduced so easily, and cassettes can be handed around and passed off and spread through a whole network of people.
Right, and virus mutates as you do that, because things get lost from generation to
generation, and the image starts to change--things are added--the remnants of what other people are taping
over. It's the same but it is mutating into something else, and that's carried on the next
generation. So it is very viral. It's also in a strange way half-way between being alive and being
dead. I mean, viruses really are on the edge of being machinery that's alive. I think the images we create are like that too -- they have the feeling of life, they have the semblance of life, and we're not sure whether it really is alive or not -- is the
communication, the life that's embedded in it still there, is it really there or is it just an
illusion? And because of video -- the fact of video and what it's done to film -- it's an alternative form of literature in a way, because you can keep your movies with
you, you have access to them, you can look at your favourite parts, the way you can with
books. So it means that your movies have a chance to shift with time, and become re-perceived in another
context. Maybe that's what has to happen.
In Dead Ringers: what is the virus that enters into the relationship between the brothers? Is it the drugs, is it the woman, Claire, is it their technology, their tools? What happens to them?
Well, I think the virus is the mirror, the fact that there are two of them that are not complete
separately. And that they're constantly watching themselves and so in a bizarre sense there's no privacy when you're a
twin, because you're always seeing yourself. Video only begin to give us what a twin has all the time: how many times have you seen yourself walk down a hall from
behind? You know--it's a very revealing, shocking thing, to see your body
language, your posture, your size relative to everything else--most people don't see
that. And of course, before there was film and video no-one ever saw that, no-one in the history of human life ever saw
that, except for twins. That's when you see yourself all the time. You're never allowed to be unselfconscious when you're a
A question about AIDS, since we've talked about viral film making: do you see any relationship between what's happening in the real world, all the political movement that is going on around AIDS, and the discourse that you're operating in?
I think it's something that comes around continually, it's a cyclical thing. It's interesting -- disease is
politics, and always has been, whether it was syphilis in the old days, and even
herpes, which very hot for a while. I don't mean to diminish the importance of AIDS, it's
huge, at the same time if you can step back you see that this is a cyclical
thing, and every disease had politics attached to it. Based on who the people are who are the most common victims of the
disease, how people try to separate themselves from those people who have the
disease, whether it's the black plague, or whatever, it's just politics. And I don't think that's ever going to end, I mean that's innate in the human condition.
Burroughs says the human race itself behaves like a virus, in the way it mutates and adapts to--and alters--its environments. How do you read that?
That's a metaphor that meant to shock you into a perspective of human beings as not the centre of the
universe, but only one more instance of some kind of energy that goes through it, so I think that's what Burroughs is talking about
there. He was probably depressed that day.
But because AIDS is a virus, and behaves like a virus, it's transfigured the we understand the human body quite radically I think.
I wonder, I think the real breakthrough in understanding a virus is still yet to come, and I don't know that it's going to be necessarily because of research that's triggered by a disease like AIDS. There's something about virology that's incredibly charismatic and potent for the human imagination--I don't think we've really connected with that
yet. I'm not even sure that it's a medical phenomenon, or will be, so...
Copyright 1995 KGB Media Inc.