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A History of David Cronenberg
By David D'Arcy
March 29, 2006 - 1:19 AM PST

"The template for movies these days is very clunky."

David Cronenberg has been shifting around multiple worlds for more than three decades now. He's a Canadian who's worked for American studios, a practitioner of the gore genre who infuses those movies with a serious spirit of inquiry that seems far too challenging for its market, a visual storyteller whose strongest sense often seems to be tactile, an ironist whose best laughs come from extreme pain, and a sci-fi guy whose stories of futuristic technologies defy the general obsolescence rule of science fiction. Cronenberg's tech-society has more and more verisimilitude as time goes by.

A History of Violence, just out on DVD, is low-tech Cronenberg, not in filmmaking, but in concept and content - even though its $32 million budget is the highest that the director has ever had. The melodrama may be his funniest in its tale of red-blooded passionate revenge in picket-fence red-state America. After all, revenge has been the fuel of American politics - and, for many, of American identity - in the last five years. It's a fuel that's turned out to be far more expensive than anything under the ground. As with everything else in Cronenberg's world, the evil really comes from within. Watch the film again, and you'll get a suggestion of how far the revenge has gotten us.

Neither Cronenberg nor his cast in A History of Violence got the Oscars that many of us thought they deserved. But if you believe in Hollywood justice, you're better off with Death Wish anyway. No surprise. He's never been a Hollywood Canadian like James Cameron or Jim Carrey, which may explain why, in his 60s, it still takes a long while for him to make each film, and why the films still push a lot harder than those of his peers at those things that films with any budget tend to repress.

I spoke to Cronenberg about 30 years of filmmaking.

You've been described as having made 15 or 16 films, and it's been said that Shivers was and wasn't your first feature. Could you clarify that?

I made two underground films - Stereo and The Future. I consider those to be films, and then my first movie was Shivers, which was called They Came from Within here when it was first released. I make that distinction because I actually got paid to write and direct Shivers, so I was suddenly a professional, and that was an important differentiation for me.

We're celebrating the 30th anniversary of Shivers now. A lot of your fans were not even conceived when that film as made, so they may take for granted that there's a global phenomenon called independent film. What was it like getting that into theaters at the time?

We didn't call them independent films then. That was not a term that was used. We called them... underground films? My inspiration was not Hollywood originally, it was the underground, the New York underground in particular. Jonas Mekas started a film co-op here, and in Toronto we started a film co-op also. It was the 60s, it was do your own thing, you don't have to be part of Hollywood, you don't have to have a distributor. The co-op would give access to the films that you made to film groups, to schools, or to people who just wanted to show films on a sheet.

Those of us who know the National Film Board of Canada associate that office with longstanding support of the kinds of non-commercial or un-commercial films that would have had difficulty getting made down here. Did the state help you at the time?

We had nothing to do with the National Film Board, but it was an important maker of short films and experimental films, and animation, but every once in a while somebody there would accidentally make a feature film. Someone named Don Owen was supposed to make a film that was a documentary about broken homes, and he made a film called Nobody Waved Goodbye [1964], which was with Peter Kastner, and he used the National Film Board crews to sneak an actual movie by them. But in general they weren't interested in fiction. The National Film Board was partly started by John Grierson, a Scot who came to Canada, and his understanding of cinema was, "You show the people of country" - what they were interested in was what it was like to be a farmer on the prairies. They were docudramas, basically. He would have hated most of my films from beginning to end.

What would he have hated most about them?

He would have hated the sexuality, the violence, the sense of fantasy. He had a very pragmatic, down-to-earth sense of what was a documentary, what filmmaking should be, and that's what the National Film Board concentrated on, aside from the animation, which he didn't have much to do with.

I did get money from the Canada Council. They didn't have a film program, and I had applied for money for film, but they asked me, "Can you write?" So I actually invented a novel that was very Nabokovian, and you had to have people support you who were published poets and authors. They all thought this was going to be a terrific novel. I got $3500 and went out and shot my first movie. But if you couldn't write, you wouldn't have been able to get a grant.

The next year, there was a film program. But for many reasons, I would not have stayed in Canada and been a filmmaker there if it had not been for Canadian government money. It also invested in Shivers, which then became a scandal, a huge scandal, because government money was invested in a movie which a prominent Canadian critic called "pornographic" and "obscene." It was on the cover of a Canadian magazine called Saturday Night, and he wrote, "You want to know how bad this movie is, you paid for it." This was my introduction to the world of vulnerability that you have when you suddenly go out with a movie. And questions were suddenly raised in the parliament about whether the government should be investing in pornographic films, and then it turned out that Shivers was the only movie in ten years that actually returned its costs and a profit to the government.

Did you have the response from the public that so often happens when a critic who is a stuffed shirt denounces a film as obscene or in bad taste, and then everyone rushes to see it?

There was some of that.

I saw A History of Violence in a room full of film critics, who sat solemnly in silence. But at the Toronto International Film Festival, the audience, a Canadian audience, roared with laughter at a public screening. Does that tell us anything about what different audiences might expect of the film?

I must say, when I make a movie, I try to completely ignore everybody's expectations about what I do, and I don't think about my other movies, and I don't impose those things on any given movie that I'm making. This also happened at Cannes. The movie premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May. There was a famous incident involving an Austrian critic saying, "Shut up, you fucking piece of shit critics. Don't you know this is not funny. It's serious." This was reported in the New York Times blog, in which the writer says that he was a very good and intelligent critic, but they felt, and I think they were right, that they had a better handle on what was going on in the movie than he did, because it does ask the audience to twist and turn in terms of tone. It's funny, it's shocking, and then it's immediately scary, then it's immediately funny again, and then it's sad and emotional, and it does all that. It is a dangerous thing to do, because if you're walking a bit of a tightrope, it can't backfire on you.

What I really wanted to do was replicate the kind of emotional roller coaster that you have in the course of a normal day. You read something tragic, and you're upset; then something funny happens in your office, and then someone calls you in a panic. All of these things happen. Why can't a movie have that many moods within it? The template for movies these days is very clunky. Normal movies - that is to say, Hollywood movies and those that follow that pattern - tend to be "now it's sad, and the music is sad, and the lighting is sad, and everything's sad," so you know it's sad. And then you can move on to something that's funny. There's never any mixed scene of tones and moods. People can get confused. They can think that they're supposed to be solemn, because it's a Cronenberg movie, and they think that's a serious thing. But I've never made a movie that's not funny. They're all funny.

Maybe The Brood isn't very funny. I was in a really bad mood when I made it. It's about the only one that doesn't have genuine laughs in it.

But the conventional wisdom among producers and distributors is that this clunkiness that you're referring to is what holds the audience's attention. It's what keeps the audience focused.

There are many theories about what an audience will do. And certainly A History of Violence has done reasonably well in Europe and North America. It hasn't been a smash hit sensation, but it's been more than solid. Obviously, the audiences can respond to it, and the critical response has been one of the best that I've ever had.

"Even independent films have gotten very conservative." >>>

"The template for movies these days is very clunky."
"Even independent films have gotten very conservative."
"I don't think of myself as a post-modernist."
"First, they said no exploding heads..."
"I would rather invent my science in my movies."
"It's so easy to destroy yourself by being responsible."

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David D'Arcy
Besides reviewing art and film for National Public Radio, David D'Arcy has also written for the Art Newspaper, the Economist and other publications.

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