Tag Archives: david cronenberg

Blood Money

Motifs in Cinema is a discourse across some film blogs, assessing the way in which various thematic elements have been used in the 2012 cinematic landscape. How does a common theme vary in use from a comedy to a drama? Are filmmakers working from a similar canvas when they assess the issue of death or the dynamics of revenge? Like most things, a film begins with an idea – Motifs in Cinema assesses how various themes emanating from a single idea change when utilised by varying artists.

My subject is “Economics and Money,” which has me thinking about how Mitt Romney—that scion of wealth, that symbol of the 1%—worked his way into the movies of 2012. You could see him, for example, in The Dark Knight Rises and its garbled vision of class warfare; in the resilience of its “job creator” hero Bruce Wayne. You could feel the GOP’s “We built that!” ethos writ large in Wayne Enterprises and in the way Wayne’s money entitles him to our trust, because he and only he can build “all those wonderful toys.” (I also spent election season thinking of Romney in terms of another iconic Christian Bale plutocrat: American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, who exhibits precisely the same supreme confidence and nonexistent empathy as Romney’s public persona.)

Ah, but The Dark Knight Rises was a wish fulfillment fantasy where the rich got richer and retired to Italy. Whereas Romney lost. So maybe a more accurate avatar for him would be David Siegel, the real estate mogul whose downgrade from “mega-rich” to merely “rich” provides the narrative for Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles. It’s hard not to laugh at Siegel, who’s really the victim of his own mammoth hubris, but it’s hard not to pity him either; post-2008, liquid exhaustion seems to have replaced blood in his veins. So while Christopher Nolan depicts the rich as our saviors, Greenfield turns them into a queasy cosmic joke. The film does humanize the Siegels, but I still occasionally felt like cackling at the screen: “That’s what you get, motherfuckers!”

Yes, Mitt Romney oozed his way into superhero movies and documentaries. But you may be wondering, “What about middlebrow dramas?” He was there too! In Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage, that is—2012’s “Wall Street thriller” follow-up to Margin Call. Robert Miller, the stock market savant played by Richard Gere, is not unlike Bruce Wayne or David Siegel: like them, he depends on an elaborate façade. As with them, it’s all that keeps him from personal and financial ruin. Although Gere squeezes some pathos out of the film’s half-dozen dilemmas, it’s obvious that Miller’s morally compromised down to his bones, willing to endanger family, friends, anyone to save his own ass. Yet he’s still allowed to impress the audience with his quick maneuvering, which is symptomatic of the thoroughly disposable Arbitrage’s have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too inclinations.

Light-years from the pedestrian likes of Arbitrage lies my favorite 2012 manifestation of Recession-era anxiety: it’s David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, with heartthrob Robert Pattinson starring as Romney-ish lizard-god Eric Packer. Cronenberg takes a tack opposite that of most filmmakers, choosing to anti-humanize Eric, to embalm him in theory and harsh lighting until he becomes this throbbing, phosphorescent thing. It’s alienating to watch, since you can’t give Eric your pity or sympathy or love. But for a year so full of unfeeling, digitized violence (whether physical or economic) and with more of both on the way… I suspect Cronenberg got it just about right.

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One Hour Mark: Dead Ringers

Dark bedroom or alien landscape? 1:00:00 into David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988), the two are more or less the same. The bedroom belongs to Beverly Mantle, half of the twin gynecologists played here by Jeremy Irons. In the absence of his actress girlfriend, Beverly is descending into a lethargic, overmedicated hell. As this shot begins, he fumbles along the bedside table, groping at the watch before locating his pill bottle, then turning away and raising it to his mouth.

Seconds later, the shot fades to black with its focus squarely on the watch. By now, Beverly is a mere background detail, his face nearly abstracted. You can make out impressions of an eye, ear, and nose, but they could just as easily be tricks of the meager light. His addiction is a sarcophagus—or, given Cronenberg’s obsession with biological transformation, a cocoon. Just as Beverly’s receding into his own drug-induced delusions, he’s also receding into the cold, blue night.

This leaves us with the gold watch curled up in the foreground, shadow looping beneath it. Under the subtle lighting, its curve and texture make it look less like an inanimate object, and more like some uneasy compromise between organic and metal: like a beetle’s shell, or Dalí’s melting watches, or even Videodrome’s “new flesh.” Although it’s just a watch, the shot’s diffused twilight and shallow focus imbue it with surprising potency. They change it from an upscale accoutrement into an agent of horror.

It’s a sly visual strategy. By reducing Irons to a vague blur, Cronenberg and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky shift the brunt of the image’s menace onto the watch. More likely than not, they were inspired by Citizen Kane and its representation of Susan’s suicide attempt. Both shots share the sinister bedside table, but in Dead Ringers that detailed bedroom is condensed into just two layers, with the frame dominated and divided by the watch.

It’s an ominous, understated composition. Since it’s so pervaded by darkness, the string of blue light that runs through the watch, cleaving the shot in half, is endowed with eerie power. The surface, intended to look sleek and modern, seems sterile and predatory by night. The room is entombing Beverly and abetting his addiction; his surroundings are aligned with the disease that’s eating at him. Nowhere—inside or outside his body—is safe.

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Pretty Good with the Killing

Hey, broheim… you’re still pretty good with the killing. That’s exciting.

That’s the voice of William Hurt on the phone with his estranged brother Tom, formerly Joey, in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005). The film’s mainly interested in the brother (Viggo Mortensen), a reformed killer with a cute family and a thriving diner. But to our benefit, Hurt gets to loom over the film’s final act, delivering one of the most refreshing one-scene performances in recent memory as jocular mafioso Richie Cusack.

The distressingly casual phone call excerpted above (which ends with Richie’s ominous “You gonna come see me? Or do I have to come see you?”) is Hurt’s introduction to the film. His brother’s new life has just been upended twice in succession—first by a pair of itinerant criminals (including Pontypool’s wonderfully grizzled Stephen McHattie), then by the nosy, one-eyed Carl Fogarty (a scene-stealing Ed Harris) and his posse. Tom/Joey has been forced to kill them all.

Fogarty’s slaying prompts Richie’s late-night phone call. Cronenberg brilliantly shoots the scene as visually sparse, showing nothing but the half-asleep (and upside down) Mortensen cloaked in darkness. This lets Hurt’s smooth, expressive voice dominate even with only two short lines. It’s a chilling call, and it sets the stage for the brothers’ subsequent conference in Philadelphia, as they prepare to wrap up all of the film’s bloodshed.

There, Richie sits Tom/Joey down in his office, and Hurt’s voice really goes to work. He moves from nostalgia to indignation, pausing to mug in disbelief when he mentions how Joey cut out Fogarty’s eye with barb wire. He rationally explains why Tom has to die, haranguing him for past sins which are finally catching up to him. It’s a concentrated dose of great acting, as if to make up for the brevity of Hurt’s appearance.

Thanks to William Hurt, the ending of A History of Violence is unforgettable, and the word “broheim” will always sound menacing.

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Link Dump: #28

One of my favorite parts about the fun-but-forgettable Go, aside from the guts and raw energy of Sarah Polley, was this kitty. Look at it! It’s so cute and it’s terrifyingly telepathic! This is why you don’t pop tons of Ecstasy. Because that’s when cats start messing with you. In other news, the Internet has been happening for the past two weeks. Here’s the best of it:

  • I love my minimal movie posters, and these Stanley Kubrick pictogram posters are both well-made and dryly funny. (Also, spoiler warning on Full Metal Jacket!)
  • This Total Film article about inserting Doc Brown into every other time travel movie is pretty hilarious, and very British.
  • Pajiba has a list of “The 50 Most Expensive Movies of All Time,” with their budgets and grosses listed, plus some fun/informative trivia.
  • Badass Digest inducts Pauline Kael into its “Badass Hall of Fame,” which is a very appropriate place for her. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that Ms. Kael is a personal hero of mine, and the piece is thoughtfully written; give it a quick read!
  • The two things I never get tired of, Black Swan and Rebecca Black’s memetastic “Friday,” have finally been combined into one horrifying/funny video. (Huge spoiler alert for Black Swan.)
  • Few directors are as eloquent or congenial as David Cronenberg, and interviews with him are always a pleasure to read. This Q&A from Macleans.ca is no exception, as he dishes out yummy details about A Dangerous Method. (SO EXCITED!!)
  • Jonathan Coe in The Guardian digs into the hazards of the literary adaptation, with special emphasis on Barney’s Version and John Huston’s The Dead.
  • The YouTube channel MisterSharp has a series of hilarious pseudo-educational videos, including “The Bizarre World of the Bisexual,” which made me laugh out loud several times and is highly worth a view.
  • For The New Yorker, Tad Friend talks about the comic genius of Anna Faris, a woman we love around these parts. (This is also probably the most praise you’ll ever hear for The House Bunny.)

We had some weeeeeird search terms! I like the rhyming and biological inaccuracy of “zit on my clit,” and of course I adore the utterly inexplicable “george w bush sex in bed.” I was kind of creeped out, not gonna lie, by “female dead hand,” but the best two were definitely “молчание ягнят,” which is Russian for Silence of the Lambs (yay international readers!) and “i dont know why they dont explodes.” I don’t know why either. Maybe someday we’ll all find out.

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Francis Bacon scares me

Tonight I was reading about Francis Bacon’s Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, and the painting itself really, deeply started to creep me out. It’s not hard to see why: Bacon fucks with Velázquez’s classicism, tearing the composition apart with those rippling vertical lines. With its open mouth, the once-papal figure looks terrified, as if it’s being torn apart. It’s very dynamic, yet very ghostly. It’s a pleasant reminder that horror in visual art is not confined to film.

It’s also not surprising that Bacon’s nightmarish, agony-stricken canvases would have echoes in later cinematic horrors. Famously, a shot of a corpse suspended from a cage in The Silence of the Lambs was based on Bacon’s Figure with Meat. The Screaming Pope is also strikingly similar to the poster for David Cronenberg’s Scanners. The works of both Bacon and Cronenberg are heavily concerned with the pliability and deformation of human flesh, a topic that’s inherently a source of horror. Death to Velázquez, long live the new flesh?

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