commissioned by The Sunday Times – November 1991
At Mosport, a motor racing track in the South Ontario flatlands, film director David Cronenberg is about to try to put as much space as possible between himself and his fellow men. He had been up at five, loading his pale grey Formula Junior Cooper into its trailer. Now, unshaven, clad in faded blue shorts and a Daytona International Speedway cap, the director is enjoying his hobby. He checks the wheel nuts with a torque wrench, chats about the Cooper rear engine revolution and confesses that the stewards have their eye on him. “Two weeks ago I had two crashes and a spin off here. This means you’re being observed – they want to see I’m not running amok.”
Imperturbable and little given to emotional display, Cronenberg is a man who has probably never even walked amok. An unsympathetic inspector of his oeuvre might conjure up an image of a director whose acquaintanceship with the abyss is so terrifying, whose depravity is so considerable that women and children must be sequestered until the spittle-flecked, staring-eyed fellow is hunted down. Was it not in Shivers, after all, that the turd shaped parasite, capable of infecting its hosts with uncontrollable sex mania, oozed along the bottom of the bath into the vagina of the unsuspecting bather? And did not the demonstration of laser-like extra-sensory mind-invasion in Scanners cause the head of the volunteer to swell, redden, boil, burst and splatter before our very eyes? How about that moment in The Fly when Jeff Goldblum’s half man half household pest character throws up on a doughnut in order to make it slip down so squishy? And Videodrome, wasn’t that the one where a glistening slit opens up in the guy’s stomach and he sticks a pornographic video cassette in it?
Now Cronenberg’s reputation, recently verging on the respectable after the mainstream success of the Jeremy Irons movie Dead Ringers, may head back down the tubes again – a location many feel to be the proper destination for the source material of The Naked Lunch, the Cronenberg movie to be released in this country in March.
William Burroughs’ notorious novel presents a film-maker with considerable problems. The Naked Lunch was published in Britain in 1964, after it had been declared obscene in America. It detonated the most extreme reactions in its critics. One of the most eminent, George Steiner, described it as an “array of nauseating images, rhetoric, theatrical asides and soft-core filth. It leaves one numb, and perhaps afraid. It seeks to sicken…, making the imagination vomit.” The book certainly contains an abundance of episodes that many have found emetic. The most disturbing is probably the scene in which Mary and Mark both sodomise Johnny (Mary straps on a greased dildo for this task) then lead him to a gallows for further diversion: “Johnny sees the gallows and sags with a great ‘Ohhhhhhhhhhh!’ his chin pulling down towards his cock, his legs bending at the knees. Sperm spurts, arching almost vertical in front of his face. Mark and Mary…push Johnny forward onto the gallows platform covered with moldy jockstraps and sweat shirts. Mark is adjusting the noose. After Mark breaks Johnny’s neck, Johnny’s cock springs up and Mary guides it in her cunt… She bites away Johnny’s lips and nose and sucks out his eyes with a pop… Now she lunches on his prick.” Few lunches have been more naked. Few texts declare more stridently their resistance to being filmed.
Cronenberg retires to the shade of the empty trailer and starts spraying Windex on the visor of his white crash helmet. He polishes the plastic with a clean rag. The conversation turns to scriptwriting. “Leonard Cohen said he would wake up in the morning to see whether he was in a state of grace. If he wasn’t he’d go back to bed. Certain things can’t be pushed – with me directing is more driven but scriptwriting isn’t. It keeps me off the streets, out of the depths.” Out on the track a deafening roar signals the start of the afternoon heats. Cronenberg rubs busily at a grease spot. What does he mean by ‘the depths’ ?When my father died my mother said to me “You have to look into the abyss and know it’s there. Then you have to ignore it” That’s the project.” Did he look? “Oh yes. I’ve been there. I know it. The abyss is empty, it’s personal. If you don’t acknowledge it you’re living an illusory life.” There aren’t unpleasant things in it? “Bosch populates the abyss – his creatures aren’t there before him. There’s not a creature that’s stalking you, it’s just waiting patiently. If it was predatory then you could joust with it, have a relationship with it. It’s death that stalks you, the finality, it makes everything else absurd. It makes reality untenable. You can bypass this or acknowledge it on Sundays. But not the rest of the week! I gotta put my suit on.” He reaches for his bright orange flame-proof one-piece.
As the cars line up in the entry lane for the big race, Cronenberg takes up pole position. Behind him is a line of vintage racers: an MG, a Lotus, a Porsche, even a Volvo saloon. The drivers, all enthusiasts rather than professionals, are lounging around in twos and threes, chatting and joking. Only Cronenberg is seated in his car, very still, white helmet enveloping his head, hands gripping the steering wheel. No fidgeting.
The Cooper quickly gets ahead and over eight laps develops this into a 200 metre lead at the finishing line. The drivers mill around off-track, doing the post-mortem. The winner smiles calmly and drives back to the trailer.
Martin Scorsese was so convinced that Cronenberg would be a dangerous weirdo that he expressed profound unease at the prospect of meeting him. After the event he told Cronenberg he looked like a Beverly Hills gynaecologist. Certainly as the director strolls around in sneakers and shorts, he resembles less a past-master of perversion than a lawyer on the way to the beach. His wavy hair, light brown streaked with grey, falls from its centre parting onto the black frames of the round-lensed spectacles which dominate his clean-cut features. The appearance is earnest, cerebral, with a dash of postgraduate. No visible sign of the screenwriter who, in Dead Ringers, proposed the notion that people have an inner beauty, so why were competitions not held for Best Spleen or Most Perfect Kidney?
A camera panning round the walls of the compact two-room office suite housing David Cronenberg Productions in uptown Toronto might start off by holding for a moment on a framed drawing mounted midway between the director’s desk and the adjacent room. The drawing appears to have been cut from a medical textbook, and depicts a detailed cross-section of a womb and vaginal passage. The legend beneath the illustration reads ‘Section 33: Anomalies of the Female Urinogenital System. Fig 999 – Trifurcate Uterus.’ At the top of the vagina are three cervixes leading into three separate compartments of the uterus. This exotic deformity was to be found inside Claire Niveau, the prized patient of the gynaecological Mantle twins in Dead Ringers. The drawing was given to Cronenberg as a birthday present.
The camera would continue to pan, taking in tidy computer tables and inoffensive filing cabinets before alighting on the desk occupied by Sandra Tucker, Cronenberg’s personal assistant. If the director’s doctor/ lawyer image is slightly compromised by the length of his hair, then Tucker’s neat coiffure, spectacles and smart but staid outfit quickly restore the balance, establishing a neat visual incongruity that speaks volumes about the contradictions in Cronenberg himself.
While he may not look or act like a wild man, Cronenberg is resigned to being treated as one by ‘the money’. “Home Box Office asked to meet me and I said ‘No, my work is extreme’ and they said’Don’t worry, we don’t have the same censorship practices as the networks’ so I took them some stuff and said ‘This is extreme, you know’ and they said ‘Don’t worry’ again, so I showed it and then they said ‘This is extreme!’ I probably shouldn’t bother.”
David Cronenberg likes looking into bodies. Their surfaces are not enough; to really get into them you have to get into them. His own body is no exception. In the 60’s he fell off his motorcycle during a race and separated his shoulder. “The surgeon said I had to have a shoulder pin. It was a nail and a screw in chrome cobalt, very exotic and shiny. Later on this thing started to unscrew inside me and they said ‘It’s starting to migrate out!’ They asked if I wanted to have an anaesthetic and I said ‘Have you seen any of my movies?'”
It’s not hard to see what moved Scorsese to make his gynaecologist gag – Cronenberg talks soberly about his films, his critics, problems of finance and the aesthetics of lighting for video as opposed to film. He smiles, makes good jokes and frequently alludes to European ‘art-house’ directors whose work has no discernible affinity with the gruesome horror on which his own reputation is founded. His speech is calm, considered and invariably lucid. Clearly his intellect rarely misses a beat, but does David Cronenberg have an emotional life? Earlier at the CBC studios in Toronto there had been a brief glimpse of a less tranquil soul.
The director is informed by the telephonist that Jeremy Thomas, the producer of Naked Lunch, has been trying to contact him. “I thought you were on set so I didn’t call you,” the young woman says. Cronenberg bristles, raises his voice. “Look – don’t think! Don’t assume! If there’s a call I want to know about it!” He turns and marches away. Moments later, in his office, he breaks off from recalling his enjoyment of Chaucer at university to confide regretfully “You just saw me get as annoyed as I ever get.”
Ron Sanders is the Editor on The Naked Lunch. He met Cronenberg through their mutual passion for motorcycles and cars and became a permanent member of Cronenberg’s production team. He has seen the director in a variety of trying situations. “Professionally he’s extremely calm. If he’s angry on set he’ll go very quiet. One night on Dead Ringers he called me to the set. He’d been in conflict with Jeremy Irons and he wanted somebody there he knew well. He’s so controlled, he wanted somebody to complain to.”
The theme of emotional containment is taken up by Norman Snyder, co-writer of Dead Ringers. “Like other strong personalities David sometimes feels uncomfortable competing with strong personalities. He likes to control his emotions. He doesn’t go to parties and he detests bars. For someone in a collaborative profession he’s pretty reclusive.”
Cronenberg comes from an artistic, middle-class family: his mother was an accompanist for the National Ballet of Canada and his father was a writer. During the Depression Cronenberg Senior ran’The Professor’s Bookstore’ in Toronto. The store later went bankrupt and the stock was stacked up against the walls and corridors of the family home. The young Cronenberg read his way through piles of novels, emerging in his teens with a keen appreciation of Henry Miller and Nabokov that led him on to Joyce, Beckett and then the Beat writers.
It was at this time that he first encountered both The Naked Lunch and the burgeoning alternative culture of the 60’s. Despite the exoticism of his film imagery, psychedelic drugs did not play a significant part in shaping his vision. “I can remember us getting very excited about Aldous Huxley. We ground up Morning Glory seeds and filtered them through our socks! It made you puke your guts out. I did one LSD trip – it was great but it was also scarey enough not to do it again. It showed me reality was illusory, it’s just one possibility out of many, and that stayed with me. But I didn’t really have trouble finding the depths, I never have. I had access to those things without any trouble, the drugs were done out of interest not necessity.”
48 years old, married, with two children, Cronenberg does not welcome questions about his family life or visits to his home by photographers. Fair enough. But these mild stipulations become teasingly obstructive when their source volunteers so little regarding his attitudes to sex, intimacy and women, issues that are vitally important in the context of the extraordinary novel upon which Cronenberg’s next film is based.
In 1966 the American obscenity ruling on The Naked Lunch was overturned on appeal. One of the two dissenting Justices was, nevertheless, moved to put on record that the book was “a revolting miasma of unrelieved perversion and disease…It is…literary sewage.”
One of the most remarkable novels of the 20th century, The Naked Lunch, like the work of Francis Bacon, is violently ugly yet has an irresistible power. Depending on which side the reader falls, the novel is either a brutally honest reflection of the moral vacuity and subsequent bestiality of much of humankind or it is a shapeless excuse for some of the most lurid and repellent scenes of homoeroticism, drug addiction and generally deviant behaviour ever committed to prose.
The book presents tremendous problems to a film-maker. Ron Sanders read it many years ago but found it all “a bit odd. It was a drug-crazed homosexual hallucination.” He was urged to read it again. “I just thought ‘How can he possibly make it?'”
Riotously funny and dense in extraordinary incident, the novel features characters and set pieces that are beyond the pale both of filmic practicability and mainstream good taste. Willy the Disk, for example, “…has a round, disk mouth lined with sensitive, erectile black hairs. He is blind from shooting in the eyeball, his nose and palate eaten away sniffing H, his body a mass of scar tissue hard and dry as wood. He can only eat the shit now with that mouth, sometimes sways out on a long tube of ectoplasm, feeling for the silent frequency of junk.” Another denizen of the black circus is A.J., a malevolently inventive practical joker “who put the piranha fish in Lady Sutton-Smith’s swimming pool, and dosed the punch with a mixture of Yage, Hashish and Yohimbine during a Fourth of July reception at the U.S. Embassy, precipitating an orgy. Ten prominent citizens – American, of course – died of shame.”
When Sanders was presented with Cronenberg’s adaptation he was immediately impressed. “It was brilliant! He’s transformed it into a story about writers – it’s about a writer’s life and angst, and the writing process. I look forward to the fun and scandal – I don’t have to take the heat!”
Behind Burroughs’ nightmarish imagery lies a puritanical disgust with the moral failure of America allied to the cold Venusian eye of a writer who has been a complete outsider since his mid-teens when a schoolmate’s father remarked “That boy looks like a sheep-killing dog.” There is, however, one constituency whose objections to his work cannot be readily discounted. Apart from the homophobics, narcophobics and lovers of the well structured narrative novel, Burroughs manages to give great offence to women.
Throughout his work the author develops, with complete seriousness, the notion of women as literally an alien species and speculates on how males might be cloned in some way or reproduced ex utero. He has asserted “Women are a perfect curse…I think they were a basic mistake.”
Women are not overly impressed with Burroughs’ solutions to the problems of sexual duality. Some female (and male) critics have detected in the films of David Cronenberg a comparable anxiety about their reproductive capacities. Particularly unforgiving is the Australian feminist writer Barbara Creed, who takes as her starting point a classic quotation from Freud : “Probably no male human being is spared the terrifying shock of threatened castration at the sight of the female genitals.”
It’s probably phallocentric but not inaccurate to say that Creed, in her essay Phallic Panic: Male Hysteria and ‘Dead Ringers’, lets Cronenberg have it with both barrels. She asserts that his films “particularly Dead Ringers, appear to be unusually obsessed…with the connection between woman, womb and the grotesque.” Its triple-cervixed heroine is another of Cronenberg’s monstrous female freaks, examples of which are easily adduced: in Rabid the heroine grows a penis in her armpit; in The Brood her womb is attached to the outside of her body; in The Fly she dreams of giving birth to a giant maggot. Significantly, Cronenberg himself plays the gynaecologist in the latter nightmare scene.
Cronenberg himself feels the feminists are barking up the wrong tree. “The misogyny attack annoys me, but no more than any militant prepackaged approach annoys me. It’s very distorting. I don’t like people who have a rigid construct of beliefs and ideas.” Norman Snyder supports his colleague. “We haven’t, thank God, come to laws about how to live your life. Feminists have an unfortunate predisposition to censorship. David isn’t obliged to live his life like they say! If you’re looking for a twisted, tormented soul, it doesn’t exist. He’s one of the most psychologically sound human beings I know.” Cronenberg insists on his innocence. “When I look at my work I can see I’m as hard on men as I am on women. It’s obvious that what I’m making is films about the human condition.”
The human condition asserts itself poignantly during the filming of an episode of Scales of Justice, a TV true-life crime series that Cronenberg is shooting as a pre-Naked Lunch warm up. The script reconstructs an armed robbery and the complicated court case that followed it.
One evening in Toronto in 1983, eighteen year old Barbara Turnbull was working the cash register at Becker’s convenience store. Four black kids came in. One had a gun. Maybe he got angry, maybe his thumb slipped on the single action hammer. The bullet smashed her spine at the neck, like a feather dart, she would later say. At the hospital they put her head in a spiked clamp; she could move neither up nor down nor left nor right. Barbara was paralysed from the neck down, probably for the rest of her life.
The corridor of the CBC studio in Scarborough, north Toronto, is conveniently similar to the offices of the Toronto Star, the paper on which Barbara Turnbull now works. Cronenberg’s crew is packed into off-camera nooks and crannies so that a long tracking shot past a line of desks can be run through. The subject of the shot, a woman in a wheelchair, controls the chair by movements of her head. She must run the length of the corridor, finishing with a sharp inswinging turn that will bring chair and driver up against a word processor placed on a mock-up of Turnbull’s work desk. The desk has been jacked up to a better height with little piles of lath under each leg.
Cronenberg murmurs “Action!”, the dolly tracks backwards and the wheelchair hums past the ranks of extras playing secretaries and journalists. The camera clears the end of the corridor and the wheelchair arcs round, hitting the marks nicely but moving at such a clip that it ploughs into the desk and knocks it right off the lath supports. The crew freezes. A palpable discomfort fogs the air. Cronenberg strides up to the toppled desk and announces “Okay – your licence is gone!” All eyes, discreetly, shift to the occupant of the chair. Barbara Turnbull, playing herself, grins ruefully. Relieved laughter ripples round the set.
The director is so equable, so reasonable, that it is difficult to see him as the man who will ride hip-deep into the horrors of The Naked Lunch. Can it be that behind the thoughtful, measured demeanour of the family man and solicitous director of disabled actresses there seethes a Freudian repository of misogynist disgust? Is it possible that the man is harbouring at some unconscious level intentions that are radically at odds with the canons of gynaecology? Perhaps there are clues to be found in the conservative traditions of Canada, in particular the staid and orderly cultural centre of Ontario, known in the 1880’s as ‘Toronto the Good’.
Just an hour’s flight from New York City, Toronto has little of its eruptive, energising edge. The avenues are bright and clean and right in the centre of the city the east-west streets are lined with the leafy front yards of comfortable town houses. Peter Ustinov called it ‘New York run by the Swiss’, while a colleague of Einstein’s, the physicist Leopold Infeld, remarked “It must be good to die in Toronto. The transition between life and death would be continuous, painless and scarcely noticeable in this silent town.”
Norman Snyder recalls with a smile that when Cronenberg was a hitch-hiking student he chose, unlike those trudging the hippy trail to India, to spend his time in Denmark. The Scandinavian connection makes sense, he now feels. “Canada is very like those countries. It’s cold, people spend a lot of time indoors in the winter, and they have intense psychological relationships. Canadians are reserved and stand-offish, wary of one another. They think ‘You don’t want to get too close to your fellow man because God knows what monsters are going to come out.'”
If David Cronenberg’s unconscious contains the disgusted reactions identified by Barbara Creed and other critics, does this mean he is a barely reconstructed psychopath who wants to cut up women or is he an artist with unusual access to some of the most profound fears that men have? What does it mean to contain forces that women find violently offensive in their implications?
Cronenberg’s vision is primitive. It touches upon a deeply buried view of the body as a metaphor for things that happen in the mind – a place where anger becomes a vile tumescent growth and uncontrollable sexual desire is the result of a parasitic infestation. That the vehicles for these somatic disruptions are often women has disturbed those who look beyond the story-telling. Yet the psychoanalytic criticism directed towards Cronenberg’s work often omits to acknowledge that the ‘primitive’ vision is articulated in increasingly sophisticated terms that deliver highly compelling cinema. The films address issues of mortality, addiction and the ethics of science that demand a comparable level of attention.
Whether the anarchic and riotous flesh of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch has proved immune to the encoding of messages of unease and disapproval remains to be seen. Whatever the verdict it seems likely that David Cronenberg will continue to make films that speak to men about men and to women about…men.
This is only to be expected from a film-maker prone to saying things like “You take the most beautiful woman in the world, and you cut her open – is she as beautiful on the inside?”