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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Link Dump: #5

Well, mid-September has arrived, and now Ashley and I are going to kick this blog into high gear. That’s right: Ashley is about to return from the land of the dead and start blogging (and making audacious tweets) again! Meanwhile, I’ve returned to school, and will soon be buried under piles of books & papers… but I’m sure I’ll still find time to blog every now and then. And to presage this purported autumn renaissance here at Pussy Goes Grrr, I’ve got links for you! Links, and freckly goddess Julianne Moore covered in lion cubs!

  • Google has been, well, being evil lately. Among other issues, Carnal Nation reports that their new Instant search service blocks “lesbian” and “bisexual”… but not gay? Oh, silly Google, what the fuck are you doing?
  • Ashley reblogged this fun list of “Anti-Gay Activists Caught In Gay Scandals” from STFU Homophobes.
  • Here’s a handy list of online academic resources about Paul Thomas Anderson. It’s fun to peek in on other people’s classes!
  • On the blog Mystery Man on Film, we’ve got the full text of a lecture given in 1939 by the Master of Suspense himself.
  • In the “Fun Comic Summaries of Crazy Movies” Department, we’ve got a one-page condensation of Eraserhead. (Thanks, @baconalert!)
  • Stacie Ponder of Final Girl wants you to make yer voice heard by sending her a list of yer 20 favorite horror movies. So go do it! What better way to get into the pre-Halloween spirit?
  • The Daily Beast has a list of Martin Scorsese’s favorite gangster movies. Scorsese is a man who knows good movies, so it’d probably do us all a lot of good to watch every movie he mentions here. (Via @TCMOnAir.)
  • A David Cronenberg Blogathon happened! Sadly, I wasn’t able to write for it, but for what it’s worth, here’s a post I wrote about Cronenberg at Happy Postmodernists back in July.
  • Jezebel recently had a piece about a new trailer for David Fincher’s The Social Network. I’ll admit I’m excited for the movie: some of the lines sound kind of ridiculous (they are talking about Facebook, after all), but Jesse Eisenberg looks so earnest and jittery as Mark “No privacy for you!” Zuckerberg. What do you think?
  • Also via Jezebel: the voice of Daria’s Daria, Tracy Grandstaff, answers questions from luminaries like Diablo Cody.

And now for some crazy-ass search terms! Unfortunately, we’ve had a dearth of truly bizarre searches lately. It’s mainly just been the usual “snails in pussy” or “fuck in my hair” nonsense. However, there was this: “horror movie scene woman forcibly milked.” I don’t know what movie that’s from, but it sounds pretty horrifying.

Less horrifying but more odd was this: “18th century renaissance pussy fucking.” While the searcher’s sense of history is a little off (the 18th century was the Age of Enlightenment; the Renaissance was long over), I still hope that they were able to find the powdered-wig-and-petticoat porn they were looking for.

  • Addendum: I just discovered this 8-bit video game based on The Room from Newgrounds. It’s time-consuming, but hilarious. If Johnny’s your favorite customer, be sure to check it out.

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Misspent hours late at night

It’s almost 3 am. I have to finish My Man Godfrey tonight (at least, for my cinematic conscience’s sake). I am fucked. Bed, sleep – I’ve complained about this bullshit before. For us poor people who happen to find it most convenient and natural to stay up really late, wake up at midday, and start our day then, the world basically has a message: “Fuck you.” Because it sadly doesn’t work that way, at least if we want to interact with others (that’s okay, I’ll pass) or visit businesses or take classes. It’s the last one that does it for me. Sure, some places have “night classes,” but Carleton doesn’t offer a 16a where I can head on over to Scoville at 2 am for a lecture. Although that’d be awesome. They really should start offering extra sections where they append “noctural” to the class names. If only. I guess it’d be problematic for some of the professors who live outside of Northfield. But it’s even more problematic for me! Me!!!!

There’s another topic to discuss: self-obsession. I must’ve been in, oh, 6th or 7th grade, when one of my classmates made an observation: Isn’t it natural to be self-centered to some degree? Sure, it’s good to think of others, but in the end, whose well-being determines how we feel or how our lives go or whether we live or die? Ours. Mine. At a certain point, with apologies to Spock, the needs of the one must outweight the needs of the few… or the many. (I have been, and always will be, your friend. Live long and prosper… Kirk! God, it’s been too since I’ve seen Star Trek II.) I don’t really believe in selfishness as a virtue, as every single oversimplification I’ve read of Ayn Rand’s philosophy has said she does. I’m just saying that at some level, it’s plausible and understandable to be selfish. It comes very, very naturally to us. And nature, as K-Hep says in The African Queen, “is what we were put on this earth to rise above.” Of course, she gets attacked by leeches and later tries to blow up a U-Boat, so you decide. (Another movie I haven’t seen in way too long. Aww, Robert Morley dies at the beginning! That’s so sad.) And after all, doesn’t murder come naturally, as a natural extension of selfishness? Exaggerated caveman example: “Ug want rock. You take rock. Ug strangle you and take back rock.” I wonder if any cavemen really were named Ug. And if so, did they speak in stilted English? That’d be hilarious if it was true. At least we know one caveman was named Thag. Thag Simmons, to be precise.

I’ve never read any of Jean Auel’s books. (She wrote Clan of the Cave Bear, set in caveman times, in case you’re wondering where this digression came from.) I wonder if they’re any good? I think I remember seeing them at book sales being sold as cheap paperbacks – the kind that don’t look like they’ll be good. See, I do judge a book by its cover. Because if it’s got a tacky, unoriginal, stupid-looking cover, I’ve never heard of it, and if we combine that information with the title, well, that can help determine whether or not I want to buy it. This is at book sales (or thrift stores, or other situations that contain large amounts of cheap books) I’ve talking about. In book stores, we use a whole different set of rationales. But when it comes down to it, looking for good books when you’ve got hundreds to choose from is like finding a diamond in a trash pile. Except unlike diamonds, books are worth something. (Whole ‘nother blog right there.) You have to sift through legions of shit: romance novels, cookie-cutter crime novels, bad ’80s sci-fi books, most spy novels, recent best-sellers, books that look like recent best-sellers (they suck too)… but every so often, you’ll find it. It requires a trained eye, but gaze at enough book covers and you’ll know. It has a certain aura to it that screams out, “I’m not shit!” It’s often well-designed. Sometimes it’s not. But it’ll either have some word that sticks out, or an author you know, or a picture that even by itself is really damn good, or maybe it’ll have those glorious telltale signs of age. You know, a layer of dust, yellowed pages, pages sticking out or torn, and if the front page is there, you can check the copyright date. 1930, 1920, 1895, and on backwards through printing history – you can find real treasures just by sharpening your eyes (potentially on some kind of eye grindstone?). And that’s how to build a library. Though if you don’t have book sales to go to, you’re just fucked. Just like a guy who’s not in bed yet and has class in 7 hours. Same type of fucked. Except yours is way more severe.

Speaking of poor transitions, I could not resist posting this to the blog:

This is one of the trailers for David Cronenberg’s 1983 maybe-masterpiece Videodrome, a film much-beloved of Internet morons who love seeing brain tumors spitting blood, but which is nonetheless very interesting to watch. And it’s a movie that makes the viewer think about the idea of watching, too (unless said viewer is the same 16-year-old gore-fixated would-be cineaste). Since watching Videodrome, I’ve embarked on a wacky trip up Toronto way [NOTE: I have never actually been to Toronto] trying to figure out Cronenberg’s role in the history of horror and film. He’s a master of something; whether or not that “something” should make him proud is anyone’s guess. His films aren’t always brimming with intelligence, but they do often have the same kind of curiosity expressed by the young twins at the beginning of Dead Ringers. You can visualize Cronenberg as a little kid trying to decipher what genitals are for.

I once wrote out a sentence that more or less summed up the themes of his career; I think it had words like these: venereal scientist psychic experiment sexual fluids explosion vagina. Despite adapting William S. Burroughs, Stephen King, J.G. Ballard, and others at times, he’s remarkably consistent both in theme and form. The Howard Shore scores help, too. All of his movies, I think, seem to take place in or around this quasi-mythical vision of Toronto he has (a city I’ve never been to, though I think I’d like to, and I’ve lived only a few hundred miles south of it for most of my life). It’s a city where things tend to go wrong – like the world of the Marvel alternate continuity Ruins? Except it’s that on a daily basis. The city itself contains mostly lots of dim, bland apartments and for-rent warehouses; a short drive out of town you get to the deserted rural areas containing a few farmhouses and potential hide-outs (especially when on the run from the forces of God knows what). One message Cronenberg seems to be getting across is this: Watch out for what human beings can and will do if you give them the slightest power. Especially if genitals are involved. And so, Videodrome fits pretty well along these schematics, and adds some interesting twists.

We’ve got the pathetic, ugly loner, Max Renn, who makes a deal with the devil that allows him to watch lots of kinky snuff porn. Except it’s mutating his brain (or something?), there’s virtual reality involved, a character based on Marshall McLuhan – and with that, also lots of media studies wanking material. Man, I should watch that again. Especially in the early ’80s, with the Internet just a chronological hop, skip, and jump away, that’s an interesting cultural moment in which to be pondering the evolution of media beyond TV and video. Brian O’Blivion is just a great name; what can I say? Funny names really float my boat. Or whatever phrase is appropriate. It’s 3:30 am. I need sleep. Death to Videodrome. Long live the new flesh. Oh, and Debbie Harry’s in it, too. Is she really blond? Oh, I guess she is. Toward the end, the movie kind of devolves into not-making-sense territory – maybe it’s been too long, but I still have no idea who made Videodrome radiation, why, or what they were trying to do with it. But I guess for me, the movie’s ultimate draw is its appeal to me as a connoisseur of culture that’s underground and keeps on digging. Whatever’s on broadcast TV at 3:30 am on a random weekday. Holy shit, I could totally go to the lounge right now and find out. Hold that thought. Sleep can wait; this is a fucking media experiment!

Well, the results of that experiment were a lot less interesting than they used to be back when I was 14 or so. Basically, flipping down through the channels, I saw infomercial, infomercial, stupid late-night talk show, infomercial, ad, news, news, PBS special on eastern European genocide. Maybe I didn’t check through as closely as I might have if I’d had a remote and there hadn’t been that girl from my one class sitting on the couch. Maybe I’ll try it again more rigorously on another date. But that doesn’t take away from my point: stranger things make it to the airwaves after the watershed (i.e., that time when kids are supposed to go to bed and almost anything goes). I’ve found this is true for radio, too. Back in the day, I got such a thrill out of sneaking over to the TV at 3-4 am, making sure to mute it the second the light switched on, and seeing just what I could find. Usually it was anime I was looking for. But sometimes there could be odd western cartoons nobody cared to publicize, or shows about the paranormal. Every Saturday night at midnight, I would watch Horror Incorporated, a local show run by first Jacob Esau (as Count Dracula) and then Thom Lange (as Uncle Ghoulie) and his compatriots. I should look them up and see what they’re all up to now. Try to make some connections? It’s never too early/late. Except at 3:45 am. It’s too late then. Sad.

My point is, I can totally sympathize with Max Renn’s fascination when he sees the bootlegged TV signal that for all he knows could be broadcasting from anywhere – and really, anytime, too. Not that I’m all for authentic violence as entertainment – what I’m talking about is the sensation of perceiving something that very, very few other people are perceiving. Watching a broadcast and saying to yourself, How many other people could possibly be watching this right now? (Or for that matter, what percentage are stoned?) Like it or not, television has warped my mind, much like Videodrome radiation. Starting when I was little, I always felt a pang of regret and loss, for example, whenever the timeslot shifted over and instead of being some entertaining, meaningful program, instead there was an infomercial, or a sports show. And you know, when I watch or listen to some broadcast that could be from anywhere or anytime, that doesn’t seem tethered down by the constraints of, oh, ratings or immediacy or topicality – that’s when I feel a sensation even akin to love. I used to listen to Imagination Theater, this radio show that broadcast on some random AM station on, hmm, every Friday or Saturday night? They’d play radio dramas, and sometimes it’d be Sherlock Holmes, other times it’d be various random mysteries or tales of the supernatural, and sometimes paranormal investigation dramas. And – well, looking it up, apparently it was broadcast on 830 AM, WCCO, a frequency I already associated with my grandparents’ house, because when I woke up after sleeping over there and walked downstairs, I would be greeted by a radio blaring their jingle: “People you know, WCC – O.” These are 4 letters likely familiar to many suburban Minnesotans. God, it’s almost 4 am, and now I’m thinking notalgically back to my childhood? I’m just screwed. Maybe I’ll spend the next 6 hours until class starts writing the blog to end all blogs.

Or maybe I’ll end this blog now. That sounds beneficial to my health and sanity (but who cares about those?). Perhaps I’ll resume writing about my emotional experiences with media in the near future. Because these issues are important to me. These are parts of the reasons I want to get involved in studying and producing media, communicating with other human beings, exchanging messages – I want to learn about exploitation films, Tijuana Bibles, border blasters, and tightening media regulations. I want to learn about the men and women who undermined the government’s authority to tell them what they could say and how they had to say it – and God willing, I want to join their ranks someday. You are what you’re told. So listen carefully.

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