It was in the mid-1970s that David Cronenberg first erupted out of an unassuming Canadian film culture, announcing himself as a bold, provocative, and quite inimitable force in world cinema. An early pair of avant-garde features (Stereo and Crimes of the Future) hadn't wholly prepared audiences for the coolly catastrophic visions and scarily sexual imagery of Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977). Each subsequent Cronenberg picture, from The Brood (1979) through Videodrome (1982), seemed to deepen his highly personal investigation into the human body and its capacities for destruction and renewal. A gut-wrenching remake of The Fly (1986) was his summer box-office smash; the melancholy Dead Ringers (1988) perhaps his first masterpiece. In filming J.G. Ballard's auto-erotic Crash (1996) he seemed almost to return to his "experimental movie" roots. But these days, in the wake of a sequence of Cronenberg films originated by other writers–Spider (2002), A History of Violence (2005), Eastern Promises (2007)–viewers cannot be so sure in their sense of what will constitute "a Cronenberg movie"; other than that the ride will be intense, challenging, disturbing.
Cronenberg on Cronenberg, a career-length interview in book form edited by the filmmaker Chris Rodley and published by Faber and Faber, offers the definitive analysis of Cronenberg's work through the words of the man himself. The following are but a selection of extracts.
Cronenberg on being an auteur director:
"At a certain point I realized that what I liked about the classic filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s, like Bergman and Fellini, was that you entered a world of their own creation when you went to see their films. That world was consistent from film to film. There was a tone, a feeling, and dynamics that were consistently at work. It wasn't really conscious on my part that I should do the same, but I started to notice that what I was doing was also creating a world that had its own very specific dynamic. That's scary, because on the one hand I could say, 'Well, that's what a serious filmmaker should do,' but on the other hand it worries you because if it comes to be expected of you it can be a trap. You worry that a film will be rejected, or won't fit the pattern.
It's not unlike a child. I see it in how obsessive children can become. When a kid's turned into a cat, if you try to relate to him as your son–disaster. Emotional psychic disaster. You've crossed the line. You've done wrong. Don't underestimate the seriousness of play; the necessity to have that fantasy. For me, it's the reason for returning again and again to certain themes. The thing that would not die, you know: disintegration, ageing, death, separation, the meaning of life . . ."
Cronenberg on the shocking force of his films:
"I'm presenting audiences with imagery and with possibilities that have to be shown. There is no other way to do it. It's not done for shock value. I haven't made a single film that hasn't surprised me in terms of audience response; they have been moved, shocked or touched by things that I thought wouldn't nudge them one inch. For me, it's really a question of conceptual imagery. It's not just 'Let's show someone killing a pig on screen and we'll get a good reaction.' You would. So what?
I don't know where these extreme images come from. It seems very straightforward and natural and obvious to me as it happens. Often they come from the philosophical imperative of a narrative and therefore lead me to certain things that are demanded by the film. I don't impose them. The film or the script itself demands a certain image, a certain moment in the film, dramatically. And it emerges. It's like the philosophy of Emergent Evolution, which says that certain unpredictable peaks emerge from the natural flow of things and carry you forward to another stage. I guess each film has its own version of Emergent Evolution. It's just like plugging into a wall socket. You look around for the plug point and, when you find it, the electricity is there–assuming that the powerhouse is still working..."
Cronenberg on the reasons for making art:
"Catharsis is the basis of all art. This is particularly true of horror films, because horror is so close to what's primal. We all prepare ourselves for challenges that we can anticipate. It's only when cultural imperatives require that we avoid the discussion of things like death and ageing that the impulse is suppressed. Humans naturally prepare themselves to meet those kinds of challenges. Certainly ageing and death are two of those things. One of the ways man has always done this is through art.
"It's not just 'Let's show someone killing a pig on screen and we'll get a good reaction.' You would. So what?"
I'm not a big fan of the therapy value of art, in the psychotherapeutic use of art, because it's devalued. It's like Freud psychoanalysing Shakespeare by looking at Hamlet. But I think on a very straightforward level it's true that any artist is trying to take control of life by organizing it and shaping it and recreating it. Because he knows very well that the real version of life is beyond his control."
Cronenberg on his modus operandi:
"People say, 'What are you trying to do with your movies?' I say, 'Imagine you've drilled a hole in your forehead and that what you dream is projected directly on to a screen.' Then they say, 'Gee, but you're weird. How can you do that strange stuff?' I can they say, 'You would do the same if you had access, if you allowed yourself access.' Everybody would have weird stuff up there that an audience might think antisocial, perverse, whatever. It might even look that way to the person who created it.
That's not just your imagination up there; it's a huge synthesis of things. 'He's got a weird imagination' trivialises it and says it's just a little arabesque. Nothing serious. Not the real person. Not the essence. But I think it is the essence of the person. Maybe the exercise is to deliver an essential part of you that cannot be delivered in any other way."
Cronenberg on the artist's duty to society:
"Society and art exist uneasily together; that's always been the case. If art is anti-repression, then art and civilization were not meant for each other. You don't have to be a Freudian to see that. The pressure in the unconscious, the voltage, is to be heard, to express. It's irrepressible. It will come out in some way.
As an artist, one is not a citizen of society. An artist is bound to explore every aspect of human experience, the darkest corners–not necessarily–but if that is where one is led, that's where one must go. You cannot worry about what the structure of your own particular segment of society considers bad behaviour, good behaviour; good exploration, bad exploration. So, at the time you're being an artist, you're not a citizen. You don't have the social responsibility of a citizen. You have, in fact, no social responsibility whatsoever.
When I write, I must not censor my own imagery or connections. I must not worry about what critics will say, what leftists will say, what environmentalists will say. I must ignore all that. If I listen to all those voices I will be paralysed, because none of this can be resolved. I have to go back to the voice that spoke before all these structures were imposed on it, and let it speak these terrible truths. By being irresponsible I will be responsible."
Cronenberg on God and Man:
"I've never been religious in the sense that I felt there was a God, that there was an external structure, universal and cosmic, that was imposed on human beings. I always really did feel–at first not consciously and then quite consciously–that we have created our own universe. Therefore, what is wrong with it also comes from us.
Jaws seemed to scare a lot of people. But the idea that you carry the seeds of your own destruction around with you, always, and that they can erupt at any time, is more scary. Because there is no defense against it; there is no escape from it. You need a certain self-awareness to appreciate the threat. A young child can understand a monster jumping out of a closet, but it takes a little more–not really beyond most children, in fact–to understand there is an inner life to a human being that can be as dangerous as any animal in the forest."