Mr Cronenberg’s films were of the type distinctly not welcome in our house growing up. They were the sort my parent’s slave mentality would call dirty films. Not good or bad artistically. Dirty.
Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986), Crash (1996) and eXistenZ (1999) are movies that totally affront the values of mainstream society. I imagine my parents with their Gardener’s World, Antique Roadshow and property valuation bullshit, stumbling across one of Cronenberg’s deranged psycho-sexual body-horror masterpieces, I imagine the open mouths, the moral outrage, the total bewilderment. The utter incomprehension at the sort of diseased mind that could crank out such works or even enjoy them. The sort of person that doesn’t believe in cutting the grass regularly.
Which is odd, if you think about the existential hell-scape that is the English West Midlands where I grew up – the working classes struggling to find the mythical ‘good job’, the total indifference to culture, art, literature, intellectualism, creativity. Tabloid newspaper-reading electricians with a mindset so reductive it considers a university education worthless. Imagine inhabiting a mindset so nihilistic, so reduced that the existential mysteries fail to register on it. It’s a hard life, so the cliché goes and you’d think staring it in the face would at least seem honest but no, sense it they might on some primitive hindbrain level but reflect on it, articulate it? No. Grasp at the surface features of human consciousness and dwell there. Maintain sensory awareness of your environment, find food, breed and avoid predators. Develop no further.
‘Oh no, that crap’ was the standard response every time Barry Norman reviewed something acclaimed, and as inoffensive as say, a Woody Allen picture. No-one around me had any grasp at all of the self-aware existential humour. I guess angst belongs only to the Jewish literary left. If your grasp of reality has been reduced to the tribalism of Us versus Them popular sports, then minds that penetrate beyond the veil, that transvalue values, must seem as alien to you as, well, aliens. Such self-reflection implies the existence of a self that stands out from the environment around it. Yet, in my home town the ability to stand erect is, to this day, the only thing differentiating the vast majority from the beast of the field.
On one hand, my family and their vision of Arcadia. Endless Sunday mornings wasted digging the garden and trawling nurseries for bedding out plants and my father, with a Sisyphus-like determination, endlessly moving mounds of earth across the garden this year and the same back again next. On the other, Videodrome: ‘the television screen is the window to the eyes of the soul’. If the film was a warning of the message hidden in the signal – consciousness expansion – then Cronenberg’s warning was spot on. It changed mine. I remember trying to explain the brilliant vision of these movies to people and being met with incomprehension beyond some surface grasp of the more titillating aspects. In retrospect, explaining it to the dog would have had better results. At least he wouldn’t tell me I was ‘weird’. ‘Weird’ being the worst thing anyone could be – you saw the social equivalent of a browser 404 warning going off behind people’s eyes.
Take Possessor (2020): watching it, you realise that an artistic bent toward body-horror runs in families. It was made by Cronenberg junior. Imagine growing up in that house. Actually, yes. I think I would have preferred it to mine. Imagine how those inclinations would have set curtains twitching.
As youths, some of us knew intuitively that if we stripped away a few thousands of years of material culture, you would see you had grown up surrounded by modern cave-men who intellectually failed to distinguish fore from ground. No wonder selfies fascinate these who only recently qualified for the narcissism stage; most only just scraped through the recognising themselves in the mirror test. What does your dad do? Scrounges from the dole and drinks too much. Yours? Oh, he makes visionary sci-fi horror movies that are deeply disturbing and highly original.
Of all of Cronenberg senior’s movies, Crash is his masterpiece. Deborah Unger’s expressionless mask of a face, the high-angle shot of Spader in his car leaving hospital capturing perfectly his perceived vulnerability in traffic. Gone is any pretence to societies values and yet, these characters seem so much more honest. No living in denial of our pending mortality, no hiding from our vulnerability or contingency or nature as a prey species in a Godless universe. Empty people going from one orgasm to the next. Certainly, no hiding behind Ideal Home Magazine.
Weighing these reflections, I understand now that my own upbringing was itself a sort of Dunwich Horror. Is there anything more eldrich than the sterility of Gardener’s World or Ideal Home? Is anything more deadening to the reflective mind than What do you want to do that for? No wonder surrealistic dark fantasies appealed – young minds need to be violently shaken out of the social and cultural boundaries they are born into. After 90 minutes with Mr Cronenberg, you knew life would never be the same again.
Rejoice! Cronenberg senior is returning – please, David. Sicken us to our souls one more time. Show us all how limited our imaginations are and how we are held prisoner by the conservatism of our stunted minds. Help sweep away the innocuous fog of Got Talent, The Chelsea Flower Show and A Question of Sport.
Long may the Cronenberg dynasty last. We need their brand of dirty movies more than ever. We need discomfort food.
Long live the new flesh.