In 1983, TIFF held their first David Cronenberg retrospective. It was during a hugely successful year for him, following hot on the heels of his media-horror shocker Videodrome and anticipating his first American production, the Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone. At the age of 40, Cronenberg was already working at the peak of his talents, and he was only getting started. Now, TIFF revisits his body of work for an even bigger retrospective, including every feature and a handful of shorts spanning over 40 years, as part of The Cronenberg Project, a massive multiplatform celebration that includes a major exhibition, special guest speakers, digital experiences and more. Whether you’re a long-time fan or a newcomer, you’ll want to catch some of his cinematic nightmares on the big screen. From Within: The Films of David Cronenberg runs from October 31, 2013 – January 19, 2014 and makes room for multiple screenings of many of the titles, so there’s really no excuse to miss out on the work of Canada’s most successful and respected auteur.
So where do you start? My two personal favourites have always been Videodrome and Dead Ringers, which remain the most potent explorations of his obsessions with mind, body, technology, sexuality and the melding of all of them together. They are also extraordinary descent-into-madness tales. Videodrome’s protagonist, Max Renn, played by a perfectly snarky James Woods, is the amoral founder of CIVIC TV, which specializes in programming sleazy sex and violence. He thinks he’s seen it all, but when he comes across a pirated broadcast of seemingly real torture and murder, he can’t shake it, and his body ends up becoming a host for a technological war. Inspired by the ideas of famed media prophet Marshall McLuhan, Videodrome is that rare film that looks more relevant in today’s age of YouTube and smartphones than it ever did before and Rick Baker’s amazing effects still retain their power to dazzle and shock.
Dead Ringers, on the other hand, is less fantastical but just as horrifying. Jeremy Irons plays identical twin gynecologists Beverley and Elliot Mantle. They live together and share everything, including women. When Beverley starts to develop feelings for a famous actress patient of theirs, however, the equilibrium between the brothers is thrown out of whack, and they begin a spiral into physical and mental destruction. Cronenberg delves into one of his key themes concerning the links between minds and bodies (see a more explicit examination in Scanners), while also looking at the psychotic repulsion of the female form as Beverley’s dementia increases. Irons is phenomenal here, creating two fully realized characters; it’s a hands-down career-best performance (plus he’ll be at the October 31, 2013 screening to introduce the film alongside Cronenberg).
But don’t stop there! Cronenberg’s early films may take the appearance of schlocky-B-movie crap, but even then, he knew how to make his material resonate. His 1975 breakthrough Shivers is a grimy little horror flick about parasites that infect the tenants of a high-rise apartment building, turning them all into sex-crazed maniacs. Cronenberg takes this potentially ridiculous idea and turns it into an effectively disturbing metaphor for the public’s growing fear of sexually transmitted diseases. The aforementioned Scanners contains the infamous exploding head scene, of course; an image that will forever be burned into cinema history. The rest of the film is a blast of gory fun, as Michael Ironside’s ruthless “scanner”, a person with immense psychic powers, plots world domination, unless one of the last remaining good “scanners” can stop him. It makes for a ton of bulging veins and contorted faces. It’s also cool to see Cronenberg’s rarely-seen first two features, Stereo and Crimes of the Future, as part of the line-up. Both films are eerie evocations of Cronenberg’s interests in scientific breakthroughs gone wrong and the resulting disease spread to the human population. He was smart about using the limited resources he had at the time, like his appropriation of the modernist architecture of the University of Toronto as a futuristic clinic, emerging with fully formed and focused visions.
If you’re looking for a good date movie, don’t forget to go see The Fly, Cronenberg’s update of the 1950s Vincent Price creature feature. He takes the silly idea from the original and plays it seriously straight, with Jeff Goldblum’s scientist slowly transforming into a grotesque mutant fly after a teleportation accident, rather than just switching heads as in the Price version. Despite all the disgusting imagery, The Fly is a romantic tragedy at heart. Geena Davis’s character watches her lover completely deteriorate before her eyes, a vivid metaphor for the AIDS crisis at the time. It’s extremely upsetting to watch and one of the most emotionally affecting horror movies of all time.
There’s so much more in this program to talk about: the hallucinations of Naked Lunch, the smash-up of cars and sex in Crash, the virtual reality games of eXistenZ, the decaying memories of Spider, and the identity crisis of A History of Violence, a movie that I consider his last true masterpiece. Ever since then, his films have been getting a little too safe or, in the case of the confounding Cosmopolis, way too abstract. Yet I still eagerly await his upcoming work because it would be stupid to count him out. Even at the age of 70, I suspect he’s got several more tricks up his sleeve… or in a flesh wound somewhere.
From Within: The Films of David Cronenberg runs from October 31, 2013 to January 19, 2014 at TIFF Bell Lightbox, and will include several special guests at certain screenings. Check their website for details and showtimes.
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