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Cronenberg: A history of mastery

His cinema goes where nobody else's quite dares, writes Saibal Chatterjee. His films thrive on contradictions. They are shocking and yet therapeutic.

india Updated: Mar 16, 2006 18:51 IST

The David Cronenberg universe isn’t a pleasant place. It is a world where you encounter the weirdest human beings and the most horrifying situations. His films thrive on contradictions. They are shocking and yet therapeutic. They are terrifying, yet strangely riveting. They are often violent and gory, yet always stylish.

The Toronto-based Cronenberg puts his darkest thoughts and his worst nightmares on the screen. He does so not because he wants to will them to happen over and over again, but because he hopes that articulating them through images and words will help him – and the world – wish them away.

Aggressively predatory sexuality, grotesque bodily deformations and severe psychological distortions are his stock in trade. They reflect his obsession with the uneasy symbiosis of human endeavour and the dynamics of technology. Cinema’s equivalent of Franz Kafka – that is what Cronenberg is.

Cronenberg’s cinema goes where nobody else quite dares. A sexually violent TV channel alters its watchers physically (Videodrome). A man turns into a fly when an experiment goes awry (The Fly). Telepathic ‘scanners’ penetrate into other people’s nervous systems and blow up their heads (Scanners). The anger of a mentally disturbed woman produces a brood of murderous mutants (The Brood).

That’s not all. Parasites infect guests at a luxury resort and turn them into diseased sex maniacs (Shivers). A bunch of auto-sex fetishists are turned on by car crashes (Crash). After protracted surgery, a woman develops a taste for human blood (Rabid).

Cronenberg is a master of a genre loosely described as ‘body horror’, but he obviously isn’t an ordinary purveyor of screen shockers. In his hands, the genre reverberates with meaning and depth. It goes beyond its lowbrow connotations and transforms itself into a vehicle of self-expression. As one critic puts it, “Horror is his native language. He dreams in it.”

So, where does his latest film, A History of Violence, one of the finest cinematic creations of 2005, figure? Barring 1983’s The Dead Zone, which is about a road accident survivor who discovers that he possesses paranormal powers, it is clearly the most ‘mainstream’ film that the Canadian veteran has ever made. Yet, as far as Hollywood studio-backed thrillers go, you cannot ask for a more offbeat film than A History of Violence.

So when a film like this one hits the Indian multiplexes at a time when independent, unusual voices are at a premium, it should make instant news. If it hasn’t, it says more about the limitations inherent in the way we Indians watch, evaluate and respond to cinema than about the shortcomings, if any, of the film.

A History of Violence plays out like an urban western that employs neatly choreographed and staged scenes of bloodshed to narrate a story about an easy-going family man who must contend with a dark secret buried in his gangland past.

The primary similarity between A History of Violence and The Dead Zone, besides the obvious fact that the two films represent an atypical striving towards conventional narrative material cast in an essentially Cronenbergian mould, is that both have been written by someone other than the director himself. Usually, Cronenberg works with his own scripts.

That apart, both A History of Violence and The Dead Zone, like many of his other films, are shot through with a strong element of humour. Cronenberg’s sly wit is in full flow in a sequence in The Dead Zone. An assassin trying to kill a presidential candidate is shot in the presence of a horde of reporters. What the journos do next is completely out of this world and characteristically Cronenberg: they flee the room as if for dear life.

The splendidly scripted A History of Violence (the adapted screenplay fetched Josh Olson an Oscar nomination) uses doses of humour to soften the blows delivered by the graphic violence. Cronenberg uses the display of machismo here not to provide cheap thrills, but to delineate character, and to cock a snook at the conventions of a timeworn Hollywood genre.

Admittedly, it isn’t easy falling in love with Cronenberg’s brand of moviemaking. He has, over the last three decades, created some of the most terrifying, shocking and perverse scenes of screen horror in the history of cinema. They have been either mesmerising or putrid, depending on how strong your stomach is.

No matter what you may think of his films at the personal level, there can never be any denying that nobody in the world, certainly not the purveyors of B-movie horror, can replicate a Cronenberg. He is that special.

Therefore, mild words like independent and unusual are hardly the sort of adjectives that can sum up the hypnotic power of Cronenberg’s cinema. Most of his films deal with material that could from the conventional standpoint be best described as grisly, glum and repulsive. Yet, his original, distinctive cinematic vision is never less than addictive and fascinating. Cronenberg provokes extremely strong reactions. He either repels you or spellbinds you. He never leaves you cold.

He usually works with complex, difficult, disturbing images and addresses provocative, confrontational themes. He revels in “showing the unshowable, speaking the unspeakable”.

The quality of his craft and imagination is of such a high order that despite the fact that he generally works within a genre that is seen as belonging to the B-grade domain and is, therefore, rarely considered worthy of serious critical consideration, Cronenberg has acquired the undisputed status of an auteur.

In A History of Violence, he does to violence what he has so successfully done to the horror genre all these years. He invests it with the sort of resonance and relevance that conventional Hollywood cinema is hardly capable of achieving.