David Cronenberg, Dead Serious

(By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 17, 2007

When David Cronenberg brings violence to the screen, it feels like something directed at our moral consciences as much as at the dead, bleeding bodies sprawled in front of us.

His is not the popcorn exhilaration of "The Bourne Ultimatum," with punch-shoot-run fast editing. Or the adrenaline buzz in the campy gore-a-thons of Quentin Tarantino. With Cronenberg . . . well, let's just say, don't read on if you're not prepared for gore, even gore with a message at its center.

In his new film, "Eastern Promises," about nefarious doings within the Russian underworld of London, an assassin's attempt to slit a man's throat isn't quick and clean. He has to saw and saw until the blade, finally, cuts through to the jugular. In his 2005 "A History of Violence," Cronenberg ends a hero's triumphant gun battle not with reaction shots of admiring onlookers, but with a gruesome close-up of his shooting victim's bloody, shattered head. And in his 1981 film, "Scanners," a person's head literally explodes in a mushroom cloud -- the image rendered more disgusting than cinematically spectacular.

His brand of violence is apparent in virtually all of his 17 features, which include "The Dead Zone," "The Fly," "Dead Ringers" and "Naked Lunch." (The plot of his 1996 film, "Crash," even examines violence as sexual stimulant; its characters not only restage accidents for pleasure, they caress and fondle each other's gruesome scars and stitch marks during sex.)

What makes these scenes different is that they resonate beyond simple grotesquerie and plot development. They give a quite literal lesson, albeit gruesome and backhanded, about the sanctity and preciousness of life. The uncomfortable timbre of Cronenberg's violence makes us realize how insulated we are from reality in other films. And how most Hollywood movies have conditioned us to the A-B-C response to violence: fear, shock, relief.

The violence in action-oriented movies such as "The Bourne Ultimatum" is "impressionistic, there's almost no physicality to it," says Cronenberg, 64, in Washington recently to promote his new film. "It's easy to lose sight of the fact we're talking about the destruction of a body and a unique human, whose experiences are never to be replicated again. I want the audience to take it as seriously as I do. It's not just an aesthetic thing. . . . It's a tragedy, on some level, that they should feel, and I think the only way they can feel it is emotionally and physically."

Which is why, in "Eastern Promises," Cronenberg emphasizes the onus of severing a human throat -- an idea that occurred to him after watching a terrorist beheading video. The would-be assassin in Cronenberg's movie is "not very experienced at this," he explains. He discovers the human body is "a complex thing with sinews, muscles and tendons. It resists destruction to the last drop of blood. So it's not a nice clean cut. It's messy and horrifying for him -- and us."

Cronenberg concentrates his fullest attention on moments that other directors might gloss over. In places they edit for viewing speed or audience squeamishness, he keeps the cameras rolling. In Cronenberg's hands, a bathhouse battle between Viggo Mortensen, playing a Russian hit man, and two Chechen killers in "Eastern Promises" becomes a sensual, bloody treatise on the inefficiency and horror of real fighting--not the slick action sequence we'd normally find in a conventional crime picture.

Shunning professional stuntmen ("They have a routine that's too inside the box"), the Canadian director insisted Mortensen and his fellow performers create a fight that looked like "hard physical labor. It doesn't go smoothly, and things don't quite connect and things are missed, and you screw up, and all of those things should be in there."

On-screen, the scene seems to run for an eternity, as Mortensen's character -- caught unarmed and nude -- fights for his life, sustaining painful slashes and stabs from his opponents' carpet knives. After the gruesome conclusion, we have a new, palpable appreciation for the sheer grunt work of killing -- and dying.

The scene is designed to "get right under your skin and make you feel vulnerable," says Stephan Dupuis, the makeup artist who created and monitored Mortensen's extensive body tattoos and the fake flesh used to hide the blood bags. Cronenberg's passion for physiology -- whether it's severed necks or Jeff Goldblum's oozing flesh in 1986's "The Fly" -- is the underlying theme in all his films, says Dupuis, who won an Oscar for his work on "Fly."

Earlier in his career, Cronenberg found himself labeled the "king of venereal horror" and associated in press reports with horror-meisters such as George A. Romero ("Night of the Living Dead") and John Carpenter ("Halloween"). Cronenberg says he has not watched the grisly "Saw" or "Hostel" films, which he describes as nothing more than "torture movies" -- a theme he explored in his 1983 film, "Videodrome," in which a sleazy cable television owner (James Woods) broadcasts a pirated video of torture and mutilation, only to discover the violence on it is not staged. Cronenberg's work is different, in that instead of shock for shock's value, he's using the form subversively against itself, to promote nonviolence.

A conversation with Cronenberg about his use of violence quickly veers to talk of "body consciousness," which, for him, started at the age of 10, when he says he stopped believing in God. "To accept the body is to accept death, and people will do anything to avoid that reality," he says, in a voice almost as soft and evenly measured as that of HAL, the disembodied computer voice in "2001: A Space Odyssey." Art and religion, he declares, are just some of the ways that humankind attempts to "minimize the reality of the body, to say, well, your body can die but you'll still be alive or whatever. Or that this artist is immortal. Well, he's not immortal, you know" -- he interjects a momentary, ironic laugh here -- "he's dead."

Perhaps surprisingly, it was a western, "Shane," that first influenced his body-based approach to screen violence and filmmaking in general, he says. Watching the 1953 film as a boy, he recalls seeing Jack Wilson -- the heavy played by Jack Palance -- fire a bullet into a rancher that visibly propelled the victim through the air.

"Before that, in the westerns I'd seen, people would go bang-bang and other people would just fall down," Cronenberg says. "This was the first time I'd seen that effect -- the idea a bullet could lift you off the ground and blow you away. That really was horrifying, and suddenly this had an impact. You really felt the death of that person as a physical thing."

The filmmaker is "unafraid of intimacy with violence and sex," says Holly Hunter, who played one of the characters in "Crash." "He takes you on the inside track of it, which is nothing to do with slickness or glamour, and it can actually be quite blasphemous and macabre. . . . There's a coolness to David's movies -- cool in temperature, I mean -- and in that way, they're not pornographic or thrill-seeking."

Told of Hunter's comment, Cronenberg responds: "I think people are curious, drawn, attracted, repelled and afraid, all at the same time, about violence, and they're right. There's an eroticism involved, certainly in 'Crash,' and I really saw that in the beheading videos. They looked like homosexual gang rapes with all the chanting and so on. It was pretty obvious to me, though [the terrorists] would be in total denial about that. There are strange, perverse elements to violence."

Ultimately, Cronenberg says, he hopes his message reaches beyond movie audiences.

"There are so many ways to make murder abstract -- or killing, if you don't want to call it murder, or war. You can go to statistics. . . . You've got language, which is always a great curtain, such as 'collateral damage' and all these other euphemisms for ripping bodies apart, throwing heads around. But if the bodily consequences of war were the first thing you thought of, war wouldn't happen."

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