Tag Archives: David Cronenberg

CAPSULE: EXISTENZ (1999)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , ,

PLOT: A game designer and a security officer flee violent sabotage during a virtual reality game demonstration and are thrust into increasingly bizarre and dangerous scenarios inside the virtual world.

Still from Existenz (1999)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This movie is weird in a very obvious way, full of gross insect brunches and squishy scenes of body horror.  Since nothing less is expected from Cronenberg, however, eXistenZ simply remains a solid entry in the sci-fi/horror genre, but not one of the weirdest.

COMMENTS: It’s not difficult to imagine the comment section of a youtube upload of eXistenZ to be laden with the now-famous phrase “WTF did I just watch?”  If you were to present eXistenZ at a casual movie night with friends, then there would be no question that at least one person in the room would not-so-kindly ask for the movie to be turned off, and it’s probable that this would happen in the first twenty minutes. To its credit, eXistenZ reels in even mainstream viewers quickly, as the audience is desperate to find out just how the virtual video game will work (especially considering the game controllers look like alien sex toys from LV426). But Cronenberg sends the squares back to their cubicles when the characters Ted Pikul (Jude Law) and Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) actually begin the game, which soon takes us from one “WTF?” moment to the next.  eXistenz is not a dream, nor is it the Matrix.  It hints at something dark within us, something ferociously organic and nasty, filled with bile and ooze and slime.

From the beginning, it appears that there is something vaguely sexual about the game.  During the opening sequence we see several adults–this is peculiar, since video games are assumed to appeal to a younger demographic–sit in wooden chairs and fondle their controllers, which are be blobs of gooey, elastic flesh.  As the game begins they squirm while sitting with eyes closed, and we are given a powerful image of human beings experiencing something sensationally fleshy. When Allegra (Leigh) is shot with a gun made of human teeth, she tells Pikul (Law, who was placed in charge of her safety) to pull over for “an intimate encounter”; we then cut to him holding a Swiss Army Knife and slicing into her flesh to remove the tooth. The sexual imagery reaches a peak when the game controllers are revealed to be biological organisms that plug directly into the spine via a lubricated bio-port.

Sidestepping the usual sci-fi entrapments of robotic laser fights and anti-gravity fight scenes, Cronenberg focuses on the complexity of the human body, desire, consciousness, and free will. There are moments when the characters are compelled to make certain decisions in the game in order to progress, and they must endure extreme discomfort (i.e. eating mutant frogs) to move forward. Cronenberg’s frequent jabs at philosophy are far from cliché, and with its powerful score the movie stimulates the curious mind holistically and sometimes aggressively, all the while maintaining an exhilarating sense of fun that comes from the wackiness of it all.  The two leads both give powerful performances, while some of the minor characters in the movie fall flat (Ian Holm and Willem Dafoe are typically intense but perhaps a bit over-the-top). The picture’s strength comes from its volatility.  Slimy fish guts, assassins, virtual games that run up a tab of 36 million dollars, and back-stabbing (literally and figuratively) wild-eyed gas station attendants make up the bulk of this wild romp through a world where games are hip, powerful, and significantly more important than reality itself.  The relevance of these ideas can’t be understated in a world where kids in China die from playing too much World of Warcraft.

eXistenZ is an underrated picture, with detractors arguing that its ideas are worn out and too similar to other sci-fi movies. There’s no doubt it stands in the shadow of Cronenberg’s masterpiece Videodrome, but eXistenZ is intriguing, suspenseful, and creative on its own terms.  It falls flat at times, especially when side characters are introduced, but whatever slump it rolls into is quickly saved by the bizarre plot progression, where characters change moods and motives at the drop of a hat in a setting that is at once alien and strikingly familiar. We experience what the characters are experiencing; we don’t know what the game means or if it even has an end.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In the hands of anyone else, the notion of computer game terrorists would be ludicrous, and even Cronenberg fails to explain their motives, using the film instead to indulge in surreal exercises of dream logic.”– Jamie Woolley, BBC (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “alex.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

154. VIDEODROME (1983)

“My early drafts tend to get extreme in all kinds of ways: sexually, violently, and just in terms of weirdness. But I have to balance this weirdness against what an audience will accept as reality. Even in the sound mix, when we’re talking about what sort of sound effects we want for the hand moving around inside the stomach slit, for example; we could get really weird and use really loud, slurpy, gurgly effects, but I’m playing it realistically. That is to say, I’m giving it the sound it would really have, which is not much. I’m presenting something that is outrageous and impossible, but I’m trying to convey it realistically.”–David Cronenberg on Videodrome

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Jack Creley, Sonja Smits

PLOT: Searching for the next level of violent and pornographic entertainment, CIVIC-TV president Max Renn discovers a pirate broadcast called “Videodrome” that depicts the torture and killing of nude men and women in an undisclosed location. Renn is thrilled by what he sees as the future of television, a savage show with no plot, characters, or budget, but his interest in in the program becomes more personal than professional as he watches it with radio personality Nikki Brand and develops his own taste for sadomasochism. Meanwhile, Renn explores the origins of “Videodrome” and its connection to media prophet Professor Brian O’Blivion, whose lectures about the relationship between the human mind and televisual media suggest “Videodrome”’s influence over Renn goes much deeper than he realizes.

Still from Videodrome (1983)

BACKGROUND:

  • David Cronenberg’s inspiration for Videodrome came from his childhood experiences of watching televisions pick up distant, distorted signals after the local stations had gone off the air. He imagined what it would be like to see something obscene or illegal on the screen, and he wondered whether he would turn away from the sight or keep watching.
  • CityTV, a Toronto-based independent television station that controversially broadcast softcore porn movies late at night in the 1970s, was the inspiration for Videodrome‘s “Civic TV.”
  • Special makeup effects designer Rick Baker began work on Videodrome shortly after winning the Academy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Makeup, the first award ever given in that category. He was awarded for his work on the film An American Werewolf in London.
  • The character of Professor Brian O’Blivion was loosely based on Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher of communication theory. McLuhan is famous for coining the phrase “the medium is the message,” echoes of which can be seen in Videodrome. Cronenberg may have been a student of McLuhan’s at the University of Toronto.
  • Videodrome was a box office bomb, earning only $2 million at theaters (it cost $6 million to make). It has since become a cult film.
  • At the time of this writing Universal Pictures lists a Videodrome remake as “in development.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Videodrome is full of unforgettable scenes, from Max Renn inserting a gun into his stomach to Barry Convex’s death by cancer-inducing bullets, but it is Renn’s sexual encounter with his television that best captures the hallucinatory, philosophical, and disturbingly erotic aspects of the film. After watching footage of Nicki Brand strangling Prof. O’Blivion, Renn is drawn to his television by Brand’s playful but insistent voice, as her lips grow to fill the screen. Soon, Renn is close enough to reach out and touch the device, which throbs and grows veins under his fingers like an engorged organ. Between rasps and sighs, the television says, “I want you, Max,” as Renn caresses its frame, becoming more aggressive and aroused. The screen begins to bulge under Renn’s groping hands as he leans forward, his face disappearing into the screen’s disembodied lips while they slurp and moan in ecstasy. Though Brand initially seduces Renn, by the end the television has become the willing object of his lust. Renn is not a passive observer of the screen, nor is his television a lifeless machine. Rather, Renn’s craving for the television enters the device and animates it, infusing it with so much desire that it is able to desire Renn in return. This giving of life to the mechanical captures Videodrome’s most salient theme, the idea that technology is not separate from humanity but instead represents an expansion upon the human form, a “new flesh” that may either subjugate or liberate us all.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Videodrome ((Videodrome is used in three senses in this essay. When italicized (Videodrome), the word means the movie directed by David Cronenberg. “Videodrome” is placed in quotes to signify the pirate broadcast Renn watches. When not in quotes or italics, Videodrome refers to the abstract entity or idea of the Videodrome.)) is weird from the moment it introduces its titular snuff program, not just because of the violence it depicts but also because of the characters’ casual acceptance of that violence. Renn and Brand’s unreserved fascination with the “Videodrome” broadcast places them in an alternate moral universe, one where murder is simply the next step for television; the viewer is displaced from his or her own ethical reality.

That disorientation only increases as Videodrome takes hold of Renn, inducing horrible visions that further loosen his and the viewer’s grasp of what is real. In those hallucinations, Renn is subjected to brainwashing and disfigurement that warp him on a mental and physical level, shaking the sense of himself that is his most basic link to the real world. In one scene Barry Convex forces a videocassette into the vaginal slit that Renn has grown on his stomach, adding overtones of surrealism and rape to the story. It is an assault on not just the body and the mind but also on reality, an experience that shatters the protagonist and the viewer in a way few other films can match.


Original trailer for Videodrome

COMMENTS: Near the beginning of Videodrome, a talk show host asks, “Don’t you feel [violent and sexual] shows contribute to a social climate of Continue reading 154. VIDEODROME (1983)

CAPSULE: COSMOPOLIS (2012)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Kevin Durand,

PLOT: A young financial genius is intent on taking his limo across Manhattan to get a haircut from his father’s old barber, despite the fact that the streets are gridlocked due to a Presidential visit, “occupy Wall Street”-type protestors are rioting, and there is a credible threat against his life.

Still from Cosmopolis (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Robert Pattinson’s disintegrating ride across Manhattan in a mobile cocoon is certainly odd, but it’s a tame and talky adventure from the man who brought us Videodrome and Naked Lunch. Far from being one of the weirdest movies of all time, Cosmopolis isn’t even the weirdest limousine-themed feature of 2012.

COMMENTS: Cosmopolis can be as cold and clinical as the routine physical examination billionaire Eric Packer requires every day, and the results as odd as the importance the examining physician ascribes to his asymmetrical prostate. Absurdly wealthy, Packer isn’t in the 1% of net wealth, he’s in the 1% of the 1%, so rich he’s not interested in buying a Rothko painting; he wants to buy the Rothko Chapel and move it into his apartment. He’s so rich that guys in Robert Pattinson’s tax bracket can credibly protest that his wealth is obscene. Able to buy almost anything he wants, he’s become jaded and now craves novel and dangerous risks; when he discovers one of his many lovers owns a stun gun, he begs to be tazed (“show me something I don’t know”). This need for new sensations drives his character’s journey as he crawls through gridlocked Manhattan, from a civilized and abstract uptown to carnal and violent downtown. Packer may be searching for authenticity, casting aside the trappings of wealth and becoming more focused on the body, but he doesn’t become more sympathetic. He remains very much an alien specimen, with speech patterns that are bizarre to us. Cosmopolis‘ semi-absurdist dialogue is its distinctive strategy. Characters discuss ideas like the metaphorical use of rats as currency, the way “money has lost its narrative quality,” and the lack of originality of Buddhist monks lighting themselves on fire. Packer holds that last discussion with an adviser with the title “Chief of Theory,” played by Samantha Morton, reading her lines like she’s delivering a lecture for a book-on-tape. It’s not just Morton who’s stilted; throughout the film the style of conversation is ridiculously unnatural, with participants incapable of following any philosophical avenues to the end before detouring onto a side street. And it is a very, very talky movie, with Packer essentially interviewing a series of lovers and employees one by one, mostly in the cool blue light of his limo’s electric interior. The exchanges are so clipped and mannered that when Paul Giamatti, a certifiable working-class madman, strides into the movie, his commonplace insanity is refreshing. Giamatti’s monologues are ever-so-slightly more deranged and rambling than the other players, but unlike Packer’s blasé platitudes, they are delivered from a place of passion and pain that the young billionaire envies. Cosmopolis is a talky, symbolic and obliquely philosophical movie, for sure, and it will turn most viewers off. But, in its confused way, it does reflect our current psychology of income-gap anger and financial-apocalypse anxiety.

Cronenberg adapted the script from Don Delillo’s 2003 novel of the same name, which is not generally considered to be one of the author’s better works. You can’t fault Robert Pattinson for trying to break away from his Edward Cullen persona. Accepting a role in a David Cronenberg art film seems a good start at distancing himself from his image as a sparkly pretty boy. Although Pattinson isn’t bad as Packer—his drained and anemic pallor physically fits the billionaire’s character—unfortunately for him, Cosmopolis did not turn out to be the prestige movie the actor had hoped for.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…I took a strange pleasure in submitting to this movie’s stilted but weirdly poetic rhythms. But I freely acknowledge that for others, enduring Cosmopolis may be less fun than a backseat prostate exam.”–Dana Stevens, Slate (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Dwarf Oscar, who advised “There is definitely some weirdness going on in Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis. Mostly a dialogue-driven weirdness for sure, but still…” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

124. DEAD RINGERS (1988)

“When was the last time a gynecologist was in a movie, even as a figure of fun? There’s something taboo there; something strange and difficult.”–David Cronenberg

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: David Cronenberg

FEATURING:

PLOT: Elliot and Beverly Mantle are brilliant twin gynecologists, specializing in fertility, with a client base of rich women. Elliot, the more outgoing of the pair, will seduce a client, and then Beverly will also romance her, pretending to be his brother. The twins delicately balanced psychological co-dependency is disturbed when Beverly falls in love with one of their conquests, a pill-popping actress with a deformed uterus.

Still from Dead Ringers

BACKGROUND:

  • Dead Ringers is loosely based on a a real-life case involving twin gynecologists. Their story was fictionalized and turned into a best-selling novel (“Twins“) by Bari Wood and Jackie Geasland, which became the basis for the screenplay by Cronenberg and Norman Snider.
  • William Hurt and Robert De Niro each passed on the roles of the Mantle twins.
  • Irons’ performance as twins Beverly and Elliot Mantle nabbed him Best Actor awards from the New York and Chicago film critics associations and a runner-up prize from the LA film critics; but the project was too strange to be endorsed by the Academy Awards, which procrastinated until the following year to recognize the actor for his role as accused murderer Claus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune (Irons credits Dead Ringers for an “assist” in nabbing him that statuette).
  • Worried that it might not be weird enough, we initially declined to place Dead Ringers on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies—but the public decided this omission was one of our biggest oversights, as the movie won its section in our third readers choice poll.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The blood-red scrubs narrowly beat out the bizarrely barbed “instruments for working on mutant women” as the movie’s most disturbing medical prop—largely because the twins were presumably sane and sober when they chose this surgical garb. Both props appear together onscreen in a scene where Beverly, high on downers, makes a shambles of the operating room, even snatching off the patient’s gas mask to take a whiff of anesthetic himself.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: When the plot synopsis contains the words “twin gynecologists,” you know you’ll be traveling into territory off the beaten path. When it’s David Cronenberg directing a story about twin gynecologists, you can expect something even further out there. While Dead Ringers is a drama, it’s a drama for horror movie fans, one that’s ultimately creepy and unnerving enough to rise to the level of “weird.”


Original trailer for Dead Ringers

COMMENTS: However unlikely Cronenberg’s tale of obsession, drug abuse, and gynecology

Continue reading 124. DEAD RINGERS (1988)

LIST CANDIDATE: DEAD RINGERS (1988)

NOTE: By popular demand, Dead Ringers has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made! Please read the official Certified Weird entry. Comments are closed on this post; this initial review is left here for archival purposes.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: David Cronenberg

FEATURING: Jeremy Irons, Genevieve Bujold

PLOT: A woman disturbs the delicate psychic balance between twin gynecologists.

Still from Dead Ringers (1988)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: When the plot synopsis contains the words “twin gynecologists,” you know you’ll be traveling into territory off the beaten path.  When it’s David Cronenberg directing a story about twin gynecologists, you can expect something even further out there.  While Dead Ringers is a drama, it’s a drama for horror movie fans, and it’s offbeat and unnerving enough that it might in indeed rise to the level of “weird.”

COMMENTS:  Twins can be mildly eerie.  Male gynecologists are slightly creepy.  Put twins and gynecologists together, though, and the ick factor increases exponentially; especially when the twin gynecologists’ dating practices are, to say the least, highly unethical.  As shy Beverly and suave Elliot, the Mantle twins, Jeremy Irons gives a fascinating and multifaceted performance.  By utilizing differing mannerisms and energy levels (Bev is jittery where Elliot is detached), Irons makes it so the viewer can immediately differentiate which twin is which about 80% of the time.  That 20% uncertainty about who you are looking at on the screen adds an extra uneasy edge to a picture that’s already morally queasy.  Bev and Elliot, you see, share their women—who are also their patients—and the ladies may be bedding Bev while believing they’re receiving Elliot.  When Beverly, the more sensitive of the pair, becomes enamored with a French-Canadian actress/patient, he decides he wants to keep her for himself and pursue a normal male/female relationship.  But these psychic Siamese twins have become accustomed to share every experience, professional and erotic, since childhood, and asserting his independence proves traumatic for Beverly.  He slides into drug abuse and professional disgrace, and drags codependent Elliot down into the sewer with him.  Cronenberg keeps the explicitly weird elements to a minimum.  There’s a dream sequence, but perhaps the film’s oddest feature is the fact that, rather than using the traditional reassuring white scrubs, the twins perversely outfit their surgical staff in uniforms of blood red—the color of alarm.  Though it’s played straight (for a Cronenberg film), there’s a murky psychological undertone to the incidents that makes Ringers unsettling even beyond its unsavory subject matter.  Cronenberg directs crisply, with sharp cinematography on elegant sets that ironically underscore the seediness of the proceedings.  Stiff Brit Irons lends a touch of class and even manages to make the unsavory twins sympathetic as they spiral to a professional and personal nadir of barbiturate withdrawal psychosis.  Irons performance nabbed Best Actor awards from the New York and Chicago film critics associations and a runner-up prize from the LA film critics, but the project was too strange to be endorsed by the Academy Awards, which procrastinated until the following year to recognize the actor for his role as accused murderer Claus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune (Irons credits Dead Ringers for an “assist” in nabbing him that statuette).  Despite the paucity of plaudits, this may be the greatest portrayal of twins by a single actor in movie history, making this unusual and extremely dark film worth a look even for conventional cinephiles.

As strange and implausible as Dead Ringers scenario might seem, it’s actually loosely based on a real-life case.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Who, then, will be drawn to this spectacle? Anyone with a taste for the macabre wit, the weird poignancy and the shifting notions of identity that lend ‘Dead Ringers’ such fascination.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Mighty Utar.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS: A MAN WITHIN (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Yony Leyser

FEATURING: Peter Weller, Amiri Bakara, Jello Biafra, David Cronenberg, Allen Ginsberg (footage), Iggy Pop, Genesis P-Orridge, Patti Smith, Gus van Sant, Andy Warhol (footage), John Waters

PLOT:  A portrait of the life of the literary outlaw told through archival footage, rare home

Still from William S. Burroughs: A Man Within (2010)

movies, and interviews with friends, admirers and followers.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Its subject is weird, but despite the brief avant-garde sequences used as buffers between the praising heads, its method isn’t.

COMMENTS:  With his quick wit, cadaverous features, and patrician drawl, William S. Burroughs projected a mighty persona.  His writings were full of ironic distance, parody and outlandish stream-of-consciousness surrealism, only occasionally punctured by confessional.  The romantic myth that grew up about him—the artist tormented by guilt, addiction, and public ostracism, who strikes back at society by rejecting all forms of authority—was so powerful that it became far more influential than his actual writings.  The subtitle of this documentary—A Man Within—suggests that we may get a peek under that dapper three-piece armor Burroughs wore in public and see the real, naked man underneath.  Yony Leyser’s freshman documentary is partially successful at that task; he gives us unprecedented access to Burroughs’ home movies (showing him as an old man smoking a joint before going out to fire a shotgun) and reminiscences from those closest to him, including several former lovers.  The portrait that emerges is of a man who may have suffered as much from loneliness as from drugs and remorse; the man we see here has difficulty forming relationships with men he’s attracted to, and prefers to seek the companionship of street hustlers and boys too young and foolish to break his heart.  Topics covered, in jumbled order, include Burroughs’ upper class upbringing; his role as godfather of the Beats; his homosexuality and his refusal to join the “gay mainstream;” his lifelong relationship with heroin; his love of snakes and guns; the accidental killing of Joan Vollmer Continue reading CAPSULE: WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS: A MAN WITHIN (2010)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: SPIDER (2002)

DIRECTED BY: David Cronenberg

FEATURING: , Miranda Richardson, Gabriel Byrne

PLOT: A disturbed man is released from a mental institution and sent to live in a halfway

Still from Spider (2002)

house.  While there, he traces back to his childhood to remember a troubled past and the tragic events that shaped his current mental instability.

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: To compile a list of the weirdest movies ever made, one would be hard-pressed not to include Cronenberg’s entire oeuvre.  Here, the director eschews the “body horror” that encompassed much of his earlier films and focuses solely on the deterioration of the mind.  While this can be just as grotesque as horrors of the flesh, the journey can get so convoluted at times that the weirdness teeters on a fulcrum.  Eventually, the confusion weighs too heavy and topples the weirdness into mere befuddlement.

COMMENTS: A cinematic pet peeve of mine was surely tested with this movie.  Being American, I shouldn’t have to struggle listening to an English film (i.e., UK-Great Britain).  We speak the same tongue, albeit with some slight variances in words and phrases.  The cockney accents in this film can get so thick at times I considered reaching for the subtitle button on the remote.  To make matters worse, the film focuses on the character of Spider (Fiennes) who mumbles and spews gibberish as a means of communication.  Actually, most of his conversations are only with himself.  I loathe having to toggle the volume levels up and down.  I had to do this for the duration of the film.  Aside from this aggravation, Spider is not a bad film; nor is it a great one.

I loved the approach taken in the opening credits.  Various textiles and walls are displayed artistically with corrosion and chipped paint, each frame containing a pattern or form that is open to interpretation.  It is set up to resemble Rorschach inkblot tests used in the psychiatric field (I must be going mad myself because all I see in them are cool looking demons).  These opening credits are effective because they prepare the viewer for a movie that deals with an imbalanced mind.  What we perceive to be truth is certainly going to be skewed from the perspective of a protagonist with warped sensibilities.

Spider enters the picture slowly, exiting a train and returning onto the streets of  London.  Continue reading BORDERLINE WEIRD: SPIDER (2002)