Sunday, October 6, 2013

Betwixt Thee and Me, Cronenberg, an Unbridgeable Gap

Last week I watched David Cronenberg's 1996 film Crash. (NOT Paul Haggis's 2004 ensemble piece about racism in Los Angeles.) This film has been on my tentative watch list for years now, ever since I heard about it, but I generally delay watching Cronenberg films for far longer than necessary, for reasons that I shall illuminate at length.

The topic of Crash is symphorophilia - a sexual fetish centered on car accidents. To oversimplify the film to its most lurid elements, a group of characters change partners and dance repeatedly to get their jollies before, during, and after car wrecks; while watching crash-test footage; inside previously wrecked cars; in the course of replicating famous accidents such as James Dean's and Jayne Mansfield's; and in other situations as well. If you want to watch James Spader fuck every possible cast member of a movie, rent this one.

So, although I posted on Facebook that my reaction to Crash was essentially this

, that's sort of tongue-in-cheek. I'm not a prude, and even though car-crash-iphilia does seem a little weird to me, different strokes for different folks, y'know.

I thought many other things about Crash, too. The film was fascinatingly distant, and near-perfect in a sub-Arctic kind of way. Even though I didn't enjoy it on a thumbs up/thumbs down level, I'll be thinking about it with intellectual interest for a long time. So this seemed like a good occasion for me to talk about Cronenberg for a bit, hopefully drawing in a larger point about creators and audiences somewhere down the line.

Cronenberg is quite an important figure in late 20th century film. He's Canadian, and which films of his you recognize kind of depends on what you're into, but you're likely to recognize at least one of them. I've seen seven of his 20 films to date, and liked only one of them more than a little bit: A History of Violence, with Viggo Mortensen, which I consider a rare film indeed. What happens to me when I see his films is what happens to me when I read Pulitzer Prize winners: I do not connect. It doesn't reach me. I feel constantly as if I can't get a grip on the art, and I get confused, and I walk away alienated and a little mad.

Technically, he's very easy to admire, and his particular sensibility is fascinating. And it perplexes the hell out of me that I don't seem to like his films as a rule, because one key characteristic of Cronenberg films is that they are fuuuuucked uuuuuup (in a plethora of mainfestations), and I tend to love art like that as a rule.

Like his 1988 film Dead Ringers, starring Jeremy Irons and Jeremy Irons. It's about psychopathic twin gynecologists. No, really, that's what it's about. I hear a premise like that and I go wow, what a horrific and delicious idea, sign me up! And then I see the actual movie and I go, what? 80s decadence? The terrors of drug addiction? Nihilistic sexual relationships? What is this crap? I was sold a bill of goods!

His films just don't slot into my preferred way to explore any given topic. Of course he's a brilliant artist, and how he chooses to make his art rightly has nothing to do with me. But I find it a revealing puzzle that he continues to explore subjects and characters that interest me all the way down to my lizard brain by making movies that fail to work for me at all. I couldn't put my finger on why, either. Something about his treatment of the material just always feels off to me - not as interesting as it should be, or maybe not as cautious as it should be, or not as grotesque or funny or sympathetic or pitiless as it should be.

Have you read books like this, too? Where the author has an idea that you totally love and an execution that you totally hate? Although I don't like his ideas much either, Chuck Palahniuk is a great example of a writer with whom I just don't get along. I've tried four of his books and hated them all, and I know quite well that it's not all me and it's not all him. We don't mesh, is all. Whatever the quality is that other readers like about him, I am not seeing, and it's possible that I never will see it.

This mysterious disconnect between receptive audience and giving artist - what a pickle! There isn't much can be done, unless someone flips a manual switch in my brain that gets me to see that Palahniuk thing that everyone loves. But not every book is for every brain, much as the writer might wish it to be so. All I can do is avoid his books and smile and nod when people talk about how much they love him.

As for Cronenberg, I'm doomed to keep seeing his movies. As I said, he's an important figure, and my devotion to film means that I can't ignore him. Plus, after I see a movie of his that I don't like, I can always just go back to the other famed David of the 80s cinema scene - Lynch. Him I comprehend; him I love. David L. gets under my skin, and gets me to see, in a way that David C. simply does not.


Appendix: Cronenberg films I've seen and what I thought

Scanners. Pretty cool, but disjointed and bleak.
Videodrome. Even a smidge more commitment toward either vagueness or concreteness, and I could've really gotten behind this. As it is, huh?
The Fly. Fuck this movie and everything about it. I've almost never hated a film as much as I hated The Fly.
The Dead Zone. Good enough, but compassion is a critical element of the story, and it consistently feels faked. The violence, however, seems sincere.
Dead Ringers. A depressing bafflement. Why isn't this better?
Crash. Chilly, complex, arousing, appalling. Why didn't I like this better?
A History of Violence. No time to explain - just see it. Not for the faint of heart.

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