Friday, November 12, 2010

Talking Out of Turn #2: David Cronenberg (1983)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. 

With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

Tom Fulton of On the Arts.
For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

The horror film genre in the eighties had grown significantly more popular because horror writers, like Stephen King, were pumping out books that were already infused with a film sensibility. But the success of thillers like Friday the 13th and The Nightmare on Elm Street also brought on a deluge of dread-inducing suspense pictures that were essentially about people bent on, what my friend Alex Patterson once called, head-pulling rampages. Although these films and their imitators were often lauded for their subversiveness, they were actually quite morally conservative, fitting snuggly into the Reagan era. After all, in those movies, why was it the sexually active teenagers who always got snuffed out and it was the virgin who became the hero that vanquished the killer? Many of these horror movies did more to re-enforce our fears and prejudices than help us come to terms with transgression. 

David Cronenberg.
What true horror became in the eighties and what it began to mean in artistic terms was part of a discussion I had with one of its practitioners, David Cronenberg (Shivers, Rabid, The Brood), in 1983. As a Canadian director who began his career in the seventies making low-budget thrillers, Cronenberg was just about to release his first big-budget commercial movie, The Dead Zone, which was adapted from a best-selling Stephen King novel. He was also about to be honoured at the Festival of Festivals (the original name of the Toronto International Film Festival) and had programed a series on science-fiction films for that year's event. We began the interview talking about the changing face of horror right at that moment when, in retrospect, he was beginning to move beyond the genre.

kc: Horror is a genre that often hasn't been taken very seriously as art. But today it seems to be more so than ever before. Has this change enabled you to be taken more seriously as a film director?

Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby

dc: I think there have always been horror films that were taken seriously, if only for the fact that they made a lot of money. The Exorcist was taken fairly seriously. Back in the sixties, Rosemary's Baby was taken seriously by both the audience and critics - and for good reason - but I do wonder about things like this. I wonder if I should worry about becoming a member of the establishment, or should I worry about being too accepted. But there are always people who will remind you that you are not. Just a while ago, Jeremy Ferguson was reviewing two of my films in a television guide - Shivers and Rabid - and he was not very kind. So there will always be people out there who will remind you of how untalented you are. 

kc: I suppose what I'm getting at here is that, although there have been a glut of horror movies in recent years, they have done little to be considered works of art. Do you know what I mean?

dc: Sure. I think there is that attitude. But when you begin to define what you mean by a horror film and you start to put films on your list of great horror classics, you might end up with Ken Russell's The Devils or Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. And I think you could include those movies with justification. Then you would really have to expand on what most adult's understanding of what a horror film is, what it's about and why it exists. Kids, on the other hand, get very excited about horror films because it touches a certain part of them and their imagination. It touches their fear and their general enthusiasm about life, which many adults lose very quickly. I think kids understand why horror films are art because what it does to them is what art does to a human being. It illuminates them. That is justification enough for the existence of the horror genre. 

kc: It's funny that these attitudes exist because horror has always been with us.

dc: Sure it has. Since man began to first tell stories around the campfire, horror existed. You can also go back to The Odyssey, or The Iliad, which are full of things that would today qualify as science-fiction or horror. There are witches, demons and a cyclops -- grotesque creatures who kill. But there is in the film business a strange feeling about horror that separates you from the mainstream even if now horror films are regularly produced and distributed by major studios.  

kc: How's that?

Samantha Eggar in The Brood
dc: When I did The Brood, which was not that long ago, we didn't even try to find distribution with a major studio because they were too aloof. They wouldn't touch a horror film unless it was The Omen with Gregory Peck. Shortly thereafter, they started to buy up all the most awful schlock in the world. They realized that for the money, after the success of films like Halloween and Friday the 13th, they couldn't afford to ignore even the lowest of the low within the genre. Now that barrier and sanction against horror films has definitely broken down. But there's still a feeling that, God, if you really could do what you wanted to do, you'd probably make Sophie's Choice rather than Videodrome.  

kc: If there is one idea that links your own films, and the horror within them, it's the notion that the body is mortal and it rebels against you. What got you interested in that side of horror?

dc: My predilection when I went to university was towards the biological sciences and bio-chemistry. But, for me, the essence of a horror film is the fact of human death. That's a very physical thing rather than an abstract spiritual concept - even though those aspects are involved. That means I have to start to really contemplate what physical existence means to human beings and how absolute or not our physical existence is. That's why I got into some strange areas in my films.

kc: Because of your background in science, does that also mean that you bring a more clinical feel to your work?

dc: There's an understanding of the clinical mind. Although, to tell you the truth, you can certainly find that in other disciplines within the walls of academia besides science. One of my favourite novels is [Vladimir Nabokov's] Pale Fire, which is about a crazed scholar who is a professor of literature. I think there's a great affinity between this man who dissects the poem and my crazed scientists who dissect bodies and societies. I see them as being very similar. So it's not really so much the clinical, or medical approach, but rather just an approach to the world where one wants to make order out of chaos and logic out of illogic. If you follow a rational argument to the end, you end up with madness. It happens all the time. It certainly happened to Descartes.

kc: It happened to Goya, too... 

dc: Yes it did. But there are many roads to madness and one of them is sanity. You might be sane and logical, but if you persist very rigorously in logic, you end up in madness. That's a very strange paradox, but it's also partly what I explore in my films.

kc: You have also made some curious casting choices in your films. When I see actors like Barbara Steele, or John Saxon, or Oliver Reed, I bring a whole world of associations from B-horror films, as if they were part of a collective memory. When you mentioned a moment ago the "lowest of the low' in referring to Friday the 13th, or Halloween, I wonder if those films bring those same larger associations.

Robert de Niro and Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets
dc: I agree with you. And it's not just a question of casting although that's part of it. It's also about creating a certain mythology. When Martin Scorsese made Mean Streets, he didn't use actors that were well known, or brought larger associations. But in retrospect, they are now well known. When you see Mean Streets now, you realize that you're seeing Robert de Niro and Harvey Keitel. It will never be the same as it was when it first came out and you saw those actors for the first time. But for the very young audience that exists for most horror films, this past that you describe doesn't exist. There are some kids who are very knowledgeable about the past and watch re-runs of The Twilight Zone. This is a puzzlement to me. It means that there is a division between where I am going and this audience that you're talking about. Part of that division is this absent knowledge of history. Not just film history, but literary history as well.  

kc: Yet most of this history of horror is literary. Frankenstein and Dracula were originally novels.

dc: That's right. There are also kids who aren't aware that The Rolling Stones go back as far as they do. I remember this young lady discovering that there were twelve albums that preceded the first one she ever heard. She had no idea that they existed at all - and this is something as pervasive as pop music! So this dilemma occurs to me as I work.

kc: With this science-fiction retrospective that you're preparing for the Toronto Film Festival, I think it's possible to make some of those historic links - and leaps - that we've been discussing. How did you plan a science-fiction retrospective that could include the obvious like This Planet Earth, yet also include Taxi Driver and Don't Look Now, films not commonly considered science-fiction? 

dc: I took my cue from Fellini who once said that Fellini's Satyricon was a science-fiction film that was projected into the past, not the future. For him, a man who has been struggling with his own Catholicism and his rejection of it, to try and create a world that preceded Christianity was as difficult as imagining an alien society on another planet. I've tried to keep that sense about me when I considered Taxi Driver. I asked myself if this really is New York. Or is this the creation of another planet? Right from the opening shots of the smoke coming out of the manhole covers, you are in an alien world. I'm not saying that some people don't feel as though they live in that world, but there are some people who feel as though they live where Forbidden Planet takes place (laughs). We'll have to discount those people.

Jack Nance in Eraserhead
kc: I'm happy to see - yet not surprised - that you inserted David Lynch's Eraserhead into your retrospective.

dc: Well, I happen to like that film a lot. It distressed me in a way because it is such an inventive film that connects to a strong tradition of surrealist imagery. Programming that film led me also to some of Bunuel's work like L'Age D'or and Un Chien Andalou. But here again we have that historical perspective and the link to the horror of the past. To me, as someone who has lived through some of this history, I have to take account of that. And it disturbs me that Lynch would go on to do something like The Elephant Man, which I thought was a straight-forward Victorian moralist drama. Much more could have been made out of that story. All it wanted to do was demonstrate that this man was disgusting on the outside, but beautiful on the inside. That was basically it. The morals were very clear and Victorian. I think the actual story is a lot more interesting. But it bothers me to see the difference between the two Lynch films.

kc: Aside from my begging to differ with you on The Elephant Man, why would this bother you?

dc: Well, now he's about to go off to do Dune for Dino de Laurentis, who also produced the film I just finished called The Dead Zone. Dune is so incredibly expensive that I wonder how it's going to turn out. And it has such a mish-mash of a cast, from Max Von Sydow to Sting, that I don't know how it's going to work together. So it worries me that the kind of talent that Lynch showed with Eraserhead can't flourish and flower within the confines of commercial cinema. It's a real paradox.

Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone
kc: You've become the fifth director to work with material from horror novelist Stephen King. How did you find working with The Dead Zone?

dc: Despite the title, The Dead Zone is a very bittersweet and strangely sad movie that I'm very fond of. It's about a man who has a car crash and wakes up five years later from a coma to realize that he's traded those five years for the gift of clairvoyance. It's a mental and physical experience that changes his life totally. I have no idea how it will do - especially if people want to see something where people get their throats ripped out. The Dead Zone is a film that an older audience might like, but I wonder if they would even bother to come out and see it. The title and the fact that it comes from Stephen King makes me doubtful.   

 -- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. 

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