I saw two of his films – The Dead Zone and The Fly – on TV as a kid, but I didn't know who he was yet. To me those films were just a Stephen King movie and a remake of a 1950s movie, respectively. But a bizarre promo clip of his William S. Burroughs adaptation Naked Lunch caught my attention on MTV, and so I later watched the making-of documentary “Naked Making Lunch” (made as an episode of the UK arts series The South Bank Show) on Bravo.
Well, I say “watched”, but in those days if you didn't subscribe to a pay channel (which Bravo then was) then you could still hear the sound but the picture was scrambled. But since Bravo was still an arts channel back then, there was a lot of content that was worth listening to (and getting the occasional garbled glimpse of).
So I sat, fascinated, absorbing this distorted version of “Naked Making Lunch”, intrigued by the philosophical musings of Cronenberg, Burroughs and their collaborators. I was a big sci-fi nerd back then, but was also (like many alienated, artsy teens) fascinated by alternative and “subversive” ideas and intellectual concepts, and Cronenberg seemed to combine both of those interests.
When Naked Lunch finally came out on video, I found it “challenging” but also loved its emphasis on the power of writing, and its surreal, metaphorical portrayal of writing as a way of creating realities and reporting on the world as you see it. When I finally read Burroughs' original novel (which was more specifically about sexuality and drug addiction, and not so much about creativity), I didn't like it at all and found it very difficult to get through. Everything I had liked about Naked Lunch was Cronenberg's invention.
But while I was an admirer of a specific film he had made, I didn't become a big fan until 1996. That was the year that some RIT classmates and I drove to Ottawa for an animation film festival. While I had visited Canada on family vacations several times as a kid, I think that trip was when I really felt that I learned something about Canadian culture, and saw how much reverence Canadians seemed to have for their artists.
Leslie Nielsen had by that point been typecast in Hollywood as a comedy buffoon, but on the streets of Ottawa there were endless plastered posters for a dramatic play he was appearing in. Cyberpunk author William Gibson had a new book out at the time, and the local chain bookstore (Indigo or Chapters, I forget which) had a massive display for it, as if he was Stephen King or John Grisham. Coincidentally, Cronenberg's Crash (based on the J.G. Ballard novel, and no relation to the Oscar-winning Sandra Bullock movie) was in Canadian theaters at the time; while its U.S. release had been postponed due to its content, in Canada it was actually getting television ads.
Anyway, while we were there I snapped up a remaindered copy of Cronenberg on Cronenberg, a book-length interview by Chris Rodley, and read it avidly. I might have read half of it before we even got home. I found Cronenberg's artistic philosophy – his thoughts on censorship, on the media, on the role of the artist as a moral explorer – fascinating. As an American, I was also fascinated by his perspective on Canadian culture. At one point in the book (I don't know what page), he points out that American culture would rather move in the wrong direction than stand still, but that Canada would rather stand still. While American liberals tend to stereotype Canada as a haven of artistic freedom, Cronenberg had interesting things to say about the challenges of being a genre filmmaker in a country that has traditionally favored documentaries and dramas.
So I began to seek out his films. I still haven't seen his earliest films (the horror films that made him so infamous), but have now seen everything from The Brood onwards, as well as his earlier Shivers. But the two I enjoyed most were Scanners and Videodrome, for the way they balanced grotesque, disturbing imagery with stimulating intellectual concepts. Many fans still see Cronenberg as a horror director (the term “body horror” was pretty much coined to describe his work), but by the time I discovered him he had a greater reputation as an arty director and so I've always been drawn to the philosophical aspect of his work.
How well that aspect of his work holds up is not for me to say. While I have had the chance to watch “Naked Making Lunch” properly (it's an extra on the Criterion DVD), I haven't watched Naked Lunch itself in many years. I'm kind of reluctant to. I caught the beginning of it on cable several years ago, and was amused by a scene in which Judy Davis, explaining why she's injecting herself with bug poison, says, “It's a very literary high, a Kafka high. You feel like a bug.”
I found that line hilarious in its freshman-English-class pretentiousness. A “Kafka high”? Who talks like that? But I'll bet my younger, pretentious, college-aged self loved that line.
So there's a part of me that finds Cronenberg's intellectual solemnity more amusing than I used to. And I've also learned that some folks in Canada are kind of sick of hearing about Cronenberg (and other alleged national treasures like Atom Egoyan and Margaret Atwood) and are much more mocking of arty work that they find pretentious, humorless and dull.
But I can't mock Cronenberg for producing work that appealed so directly to my alienated, bookwormy younger self. The reality-warping, artistic musings of his Naked Lunch were a big influence on my previous feature, Curse the Darkness. And the combining of psychology, media, and bodily mutation in Scanners and Videodrome – as well as his own philosophizing in Cronenberg on Cronenberg – were all huge influences on Saberfrog, even if my own take on these themes was much more wacky and irreverent.
Cronenberg seems to have more or less left his sci-fi/horror days, becoming a respected director of dramas such as the excellent A History of Violence and the recent Freud/Jung biopic A Dangerous Method. But there's still a possibility that he may return to the genre that made him notorious. To quote one of his own lines – which has become a catchphrase in its own right, with most people not realizing it's from his remake of The Fly – Be afraid. Be very afraid.