Friday, April 04, 2014

Cronenberg retrospective begins!

(Note: for my three-part Cronenberg interview, start here).

Ernest Mathijs, in introducing Videodrome last night, commented on the "wink" to horror film fans contained in the idea that the Videodrome signal in the film originates from Pittsburgh. It's something that I've noticed myself but never seen acknowledged publicly before, that this surely is a nod to George A. Romero, whose Night of the Living Dead came straight outa Pittsburgh (as did Dawn of the Dead, and so forth, but Night was the one that got contemporary horror rolling). Watching the film with this in mind - the idea of Cronenberg making a smiling nod to the horror geeks who would get the joke - made me think of another element of the film that seems to acknowledge horror fandom: there's a scene where Barry Convex says to Max Renn that all the other people exposed to the Videodrome signal need intense therapy or are hospitalized, but for some reason, Renn is still more or less able to function, which is puzzling to Convex, and never explained in the film. I've always written in my own reason, during that scene, informed by a sort of ego-gratifying geek self-congratulation: it's because Renn has sufficiently exposed himself to violent, perverse, and pornographic imagery that his brain is tougher, more resilient, and able - to some extent - to withstand Videodrome's effects. This resonates against Wes Craven's repeated observation that horror cinema is a "boot camp for the psyche;" when the going gets horrific, the horror geek acclimatizes better than average. (Granted, Renn is more associated with pornography than horror, but all the posters in the Civic TV offices are for horror movies, not porn, and he clearly is meant as a sort of extension of the director, so he can surely stand in for horror geeks in general, as well). It's a pleasant thought, and as good a rationalization for watching horror as one can offer - that it toughens the brain - although my repeated instances of fainting at the sight of blood would suggest that it may not be entirely true...
I enjoyed Videodrome on the screen last night a lot more than I thought I would.  There was a bit of a sense of the pleasant re-discovery of the power of the church of cinema, which I get to attend only infrequently of late: "oh, yeah, this is how films are meant to be seen!" Before the film started rolling, I thought the same blase feelings that have kept me from really entering it on home viewing lately would carry over - it's one of those Cronenbergs that I feel I've kind of done to death, that don't excite me as much lately. But no: seeing it projected was a great experience, made it fresh again. So I'm doubly excited about tonight's (and tomorrow's) double bill, of Shivers and Rabid, both of which are utterly fascinating to me, and neither of which get projected that often. I'm particularly interested to see which film I prefer the look of; Shivers is getting a new digital restoration - which no doubt means the movie, long out of print in Region 1, will soon be re-released on Blu-Ray - while Rabid is screening from a new 35mm print. I actually am coming to find myself preferring digital projection to film, so it will be interesting to compare these experiences; after years of watching Videodrome on DVD, last night's projection on film seemed too dark, to me - warmer, but not as clear, not as sharp as digital, especially in the shadows. It was a flawless print, too, so I can't blame this on any scratches or such.
Shivers seems to be best read as a Cronenbergian response to the sexual revolution, looking at 70's promiscuity through the eyes of a somewhat morbid artist (that is, the filmmaker  himself) and a detached doctor, his main character and onscreen representative, who presumes to be above it all. This character, Roger St. Luc (played by Paul Hampton, unknown to me otherwise), is the first of Cronenberg's many scientists to be dragged screaming back down to the flesh, the first to receive a comeuppance for his arrogance and presumption of detachment; he's also a superbly comic character, a kind of foil for the excess and insanity that rises up around him. Shivers is easily Cronenberg's funniest film, the one that will inspire the most giggling amongst horror geeks in the know.
If Shivers takes on the sexual revolution, Rabid deals with feminism, showing both the empowering and socially disruptive consequences of a woman whose body is altered by science. Comparisons between Rose's trajectory and (The Fly's) Seth Brundle's are very interesting, and an important aspect of  my article on early Cronenberg, "Sex, Science, and the Female Monstrous: Wood Contra Cronenberg, Revisited." Cronenberg argues in the commentary for the DVD that those who saw misogyny in its depiction of a monstrous female - like Robin Wood - should acknowledge that within horror cinema, being a monster does not make one any less the protagonist; he brings up Brundle himself in this regard, but could as easily point to Frankenstein (which Cronenberg was in discussions to remake, back in the early 1980's, by the by).
Monstrous or not, we identify with Rose throughout the film, and her "Frankenflesh" is shown as giving her the ability to turn the tables on several men who would (or at least could) take advantage of her, while the socially disruptive plague she inadvertently spreads shows the "downside" of her transformation (said plague is weirdly but effectively associated with the FLQ crisis, something further enriched by the Montreal locations). It's my favourite Cronenberg of the moment, though I owe my appreciation in no small part to Robin Wood's objections to it (those who have not read his "dissenting view" on Cronenberg in The Shape of Rage really should check that book out of the library; Wood is frequently wrong about Cronenberg, but thinking about why he is wrong is actually a very productive way of coming to understand what's really going on in the films in question).
Another good reason to see Rabid, by the by, is that it has a terrific performance from (since departed) porn star Marilyn Chambers. Cronenberg probably exploits her comfort with her body by having her appear naked more than another actress might want to; it would be hard to imagine seeing Sissy Spacek's tits onscreen quite as often as we see Chambers' (Spacek was Cronenberg's initial ideal actress for the role). But he gets a terrific performance out of her, nonetheless; she acts her heart out, proves her talent in a straight role in a way I can recall no other porn actress doing, ever. And she IS sexy, Frankenflesh and all: the camera really loves her.
The films on Sunday and Monday are also essential viewing for Cronenberg geeks, though the Cinematheque is (wisely) presenting them out of sequence with the previous two: Stereo and Crimes of the Future (and the two shorts they're coupled with, "Transfer" and "From The Drain") are Cronenberg's early arthouse experiments, and his true first features, though they are very, very different from Shivers and Rabid. Stereo is by far the more interesting film, compared to Crimes, though people expecting exploitation will have to adjust their perceptions to some extent. Especially compared to the genre-referencing, commercially-made exploitation of Shivers and Rabid, it's very definitely an art film, shot in black and white, and without dialogue, with the action onscreen either presented in silence or with voice-over narration - and a very dense, quasi-academic narration, at that (perhaps one should best describe the narration as a satire of academy-speak). I can't begin to do justice to the ideas in it, but fans of Cronenberg's later output will be shocked at how rich, complex, and revealing the film is; it will enrich your perspective on all that came after. (It's also vastly less nasty, more polymorphously perverse and overtly pro-sex than Shivers, which fact rather startled Robin Wood, when he caught up with it after initially publishing his objections to Cronenberg in the American Nightmare pamphlet; Robert Fulford,  the critic who hated Shivers and tried to sabotage Cronenberg receiving any further government money, had previously admired all of Cronenberg's early output).
Crimes of the Future - shot in colour, and also starring early Cronenberg regular Ron Mlodzik, above - is perhaps more ambitious, showing Cronenberg edging towards a more conventional form of filmmaking, but is somehow less compelling for that (unless you're a gay foot fetishist; then you absolutely need to see this film). Cronenberg seems more skilled at inventing his own take on cinema from whole cloth in Stereo than in trying to tell a story; I'd rather a great weird little arthouse film than a flawed attempt at narrative any day, so Crimes of the Future was a hard film for me to get through, the one time I sat down to it on video. I'm hoping that seeing it projected will help. Incidentally: does anyone know where Ron Mlodzik is these days? I'd be very curious!
That's all for now, though those interested in this whole Wood-vs.-Cronenberg thing (or wanting to read more on my thoughts on Cronenberg) are directed here. Unless it's a scam of some sort - I haven't tried the link - you can apparently access my article for free, on a trial basis, on that site, which I suppose I shouldn't be that happy about (since in no way do I imagine these people have any sort of deal with Cineaction, the magazine where it appeared; you can also likely buy back issues of #88 from the Cineaction website, if you want to read the article 100% legitimately). Cronenberg may have made the odd offensive movie, like The Brood, which politically I can't really support, much as I like aspects of it - but he's never made a bad one. (Hell, even A Dangerous Method was more interesting on second viewing than on first). In case I don't get back to the blog, Scanners, The Dead Zone, The Fly, eXistenZ, Naked Lunch and Eastern Promises are all also favourites of mine... hope I'll be able to see all of them projected! And Fast Company - Cronenberg's "anomalous" car-racing film - is also definitely interesting to watch, and the film in the retrospective you're least likely to ever have the chance to see on the big screen again, though in no way does it count as a horror movie...


Allan MacInnis said...

There was a most charming moment watching Rabid... there are lots of funny bits in both Shivers and Rabid but not everyone laughs at the same things, and when you're watching a film in public, you're more attuned, more sensitive to humour... so sometimes there's a delightful discovery when you watch a film with an audience that something is really, really funny but you've never noticed it before. That happened last night: there's a scene in Rabid where a crazy is drooling and bleeding on Hart's windshield, and safety-suited snipers pick him off and drag off the body; Hart sits stunned, looking out a blood-and-spit smeared windscreen, and we get a long shot of the car with two guys in safety suits and guns on either side, waving him on. After a second, he starts the windshield wipers, and everyone broke out laughing. It was a sweet moment! New to me.

Allan MacInnis said...

By the way - I couldn't tell the difference between the digital restoration of Shivers and the 35mm restoration of Rabid. Both looked great, and both looked quite like film!

Allan MacInnis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.