We at Spectrum Culture strive to bring you only the best. Ten auteurs at the forefront of the world stage: these are the Best Living Directors.

If Jean-Luc Godard and the nouvelle vague represent the existentialist ethic as embodied in film; and auteurs like Martin Scorsese and the Brothers Coen explore metaethical questions and moral failings, then director David Cronenberg is positively postmodern. Among the Canadian writer-director’s 18 films spanning four decades, familiar themes emerge: the creation – and subsequent deconstruction – of identity; technology as an extension of self; the obliteration or total transformation of the physical form; the constructs and artificial nature of reality; the betrayal of the mind by the body’s devices, and vice-versa. And yet, as Cronenberg evolved or, to crib a verb from his work, mutated from initial status as King of Venereal Horror, picking apart the trappings of the flesh in earlier films like Rabid, Shivers and The Brood, he never forgot his roots. Riding the high wire between B-movie schlock and artful horror at first, Cronenberg’s films gradually flowered into more mature and measured acts, but never have they lacked adequate infusions of his preferred commodity: blood.

Raised in Toronto by a journalist father and pianist mother and a graduate of the University of Toronto, Cronenberg today is by his own admission an atheist, insistent that life on Earth is the only Heaven there is. Fittingly, his work is informed by the dense realism of matter; and the hallucinatory, telepathic capabilities of the mind (and transformative powers of the body) so frequently portrayed in his work are rooted in science rather than the supernatural. Like Dr. Frankenstein, though, Cronenberg is not content to let dead matter lie, and his creations take to life so fervently and with such biological enthusiasm that they explode, like that famous cranium in his 1981 breakout film Scanners, into abominations. In Videodrome, Max Renn (James Woods) rides a spiraling, content-induced world of nightmares in which inert VHS tapes and TV screens pulse and sigh with sensual, malformed vitality. And Cronenberg’s adaptation of William S. Burroughs’s classic “unfilmable” novel, Naked Lunch, features a giant cockroach (with a sizable drug habit) doubling as a typewriter. Mutated amphibians are re-engineered into living game controllers in the epistemological virtual reality yarn eXistenZ, which contains the Frankensteinian, materialistic credo “Everything used to be something else,” and in Naked Lunch, Dostoevsky’s lament that “Everything is permitted.”

But the real transformation in his films comes when the human form is involved. Videodrome‘s Renn grows a vulva/VCR slot in his abdomen, and the pistol with which he becomes an involuntary assassin becomes grafted onto his hand. Gamers in the world of eXistenZ surrender their sovereignty through bio-technical ports installed in their lower spines; in both, the sexualization of these unnatural orifices is overt, the “point of penetration” achieved through a commingling of the natural and artificial. In 1996’s Crash, Cronenberg’s adaptation of the amazing J.G. Ballard novel of the same name, the extent to which the sexual acts involve and even come to revolve around automobiles in a state of collision blur the line between the natural and manmade worlds. Of course, no mention of physiological transformation and malformation in Cronenberg’s oeuvre is complete without mention of his remake of The Fly. Jeff Goldblum’s genius scientist, Seth Brundle, becomes a byproduct and victim of his own foolhardy experimentation, becoming a hybrid “Brundlefly.” To Geena Davis’s nigh-unending horror, Cronenberg’s scientist makes of himself his own monster, a beast of technological origins possessing only shades of the organic. (Though in it, Goldblum could at least be said to have found the “mantra” he had been searching for in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall: “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”). Not one to let idols stand, Cronenberg casts appropriate pallor on the scientific pioneers and technological prophets he introduces in films throughout his career. Brundle, eXistenz‘s legendary game programmer Allega Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the mass media gurus and cultural mavens in Videodrome and Dr. Ruth of Scanners all reach untimely – and even unsightly – ends, often being undone by the very schemes they hatched. Shameless booster of progress, Cronenberg is not.


And where would the blood of which Cronenberg is so fond of be without the violence? Whether sexualized subtly, or obviously as it is in Crash, or nearly comical in its proportions, grotesquery and scope as in many of his earlier and mid-career films, it is a consistent feature and itself an outgrowth of his fascination with flesh. In 2005’s A History of Violence, his first film with actor Viggo Mortensen, the flesh and the concept of physical violence to it are united in new ways, where the potential for and aptitude in violence are stored in unlikely hero/reformed killer Tom Stall’s sense-memory, even as Cronenberg systematically undercuts his proclivity for violence steadily throughout it.

As of the last 20 years, especially in films such as A History of Violence, his other work with Mortensen, 2007’s Eastern Promises, Dead Ringers and M. Butterfly, and the hallucinatory and epistemological question marks Spider and eXistenZ, examinations of identity also abound in Cronenberg’s work. Playing the flip card to Charlie Kaufman’s neurotic heroes, Cronenberg is less concerned with Borgesian considerations of identity and memory as much as he is with the Philip K. Dick model of existential uncertainty, the inherent dangers of duplicity and questions about the substance of fundamental reality. More often than not, the answer underlying these concerns becomes subsumed in a concert of flesh pushing through flesh, machine mating with man and reality dissipating into fantasy and bare, vivid hallucination.

Although initially pairing with cinematographer Mark Ivin for his earliest batch of films, beginning with 1988’s Dead Ringers Cronenberg has worked exclusively with Peter Suschitzky, who has more deftly brought the darkly-lit neo-squalor effect Cronenberg is so drawn to in his work. To date, his partnership with composer Howard Shore on all but one of his films has also been a fruitful relationship, as Shore’s tactile scores have added considerable gravity and eeriness to each one in the oeuvre. Having also been the writer of all but his last three films, M. Butterfly and the Stephen King novel adaptation The Dead Zone, his vision has undoubtedly exuded a vice-like grip over the content of his work. Although his work has changed in content, its tone has remained constant throughout, and thoroughly intellectual in spite of its visceral aesthetic – and aesthetic viscera. Who knows what his future works A Dangerous Method and Cosmopolis will hold – but be assured the hero will be some hollow-eyed man with a prominent brow, and, oh yes, there will be blood.

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