“If David Cronenberg did not exist, would we invent him? Could we invent him?” – Tom McSorley, Take One: Film in Canada
Living in this peculiar, fractious confederation called Canada, it is satisfying to observe the slow but certain ascension of David Cronenberg to the status of full-blown Canadian cultural institution – to see him in the polite, lofty company of Margaret Atwood, Peter Mansbridge or Robert Lepage. For this is a country of supremely timid and conservative cultural inclinations, which tends to favour longevity over vitality, and cast its more indelicate cultural voices into permanent exile from the mainstream.
Perhaps no Canadian filmmaker has had such a singular career path as Cronenberg, navigating his way from the underground filmmaking scene of 1960s Toronto to critically reviled commercial excrescences of the tax-shelter era, and more recently, to the well-heeled approval of international art-house and festival circuits. His latest, A Dangerous Method, is a lush period/physiological drama starring Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud, Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung and Kira Knightley as a disturbed patient who comes between them. The script was based on Christopher Hampton’s stage play The Talking Cure, which in turn was based on John Kerr’s 1994 book A Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud and Sabrina Spielrein.
The film was screened in competition at the Venice Film Festival and the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival to great acclaim. Mortensen was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance and the Los Angles Film Critics Association gave its Best Actor citation to Fassbender. “Of all of Cronenberg’s films, A Dangerous Method reminds most of the brilliant Dead Ringers,” the Hollywood Report wrote, “if only because they both so breathtakingly embrace the dramatic dualities within humans, especially when they brush up against the primal subjects of sex and death.” Peter Howell, critic for the Toronto Star, noted “Cronenberg has reached the stage of his career where he doesn’t feel it necessary to pander to expectations.”
David Cronenberg developed a reputation, with his early films – Shivers, Rabid, The Brood, Scanners and Videodrome – as perhaps the most original, unflinching, no-holds-barred practitioner of the modern horror film. Shivers was released in Montreal in October 1975. He arranged a private screening for Robert Fulford, an influential film critic. The over-the-top gruesome tale of a sexually transmitted disease that literally drove people crazy was simply too much for Fulford, and the cover of the October 1975 edition of Saturday Night screamed “You Should Know How Bad This Movie Is – You Paid for It.” Calling Shivers “repulsive” and “sadistic pornography,” Fulford fumed, “Shivers, written and directed by David Cronenberg, with $70,000 of the Canadian taxpayers’ money, is an atrocity, a disgrace to everyone connected with it.”
The controversy made the film infamous and sparked a furious debate in the House of Commons about the wisdom of public funding for the fledgling indigenous film industry. Cronenberg was actually asked to leave his rented apartment in Toronto when the landlady read about what he did for a living.
It was his re-imagining of the 1958 horror classic The Fly in 1986, with bona fide Hollywood stars Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum, which caused a critical awakening to the seriousness of his immense talent. It’s the film that bridges the gap between Cronenberg the schlockmeister and Cronenberg the darling of the highbrow critics that he would become with his very next film, Dead Ringers. To date, The Fly is the one Cronenberg film to win an Oscar (for makeup); A History of Violence and Eastern Promises were nominated in the acting categories.
Crash, based on a short story by J.G. Ballard about people who are sexually turned on by car accidents, received a Special Jury Prize in official competition at Cannes in 1996 over the objections of jury member Francis Coppola. Spider, about a mental patient released into world full of horrors from his past that institutionalized him in the first place, pushes the boundaries of sanity, and A History of Violence is a coolly observed dissection of America’s fascination with violence – a modern, minimalist Western.
These days, Cronenberg no longer draws quite the same outrage from the middlebrow arbiters of “good taste.” His films are still disturbing, but seldom as viscerally off-putting as his earlier work. From The Fly forward, film for film, Cronenberg is without a doubt one of the most audacious and challenging narrative directors working in the English-speaking world today.
Visit The Canadian Encyclopedia for more on David Cronenberg.