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Getting Nostalgic with Cronenberg

by Zombie-A-GoGo

Dave "Deprave" Cronenberg: the thinking man's horror director. While his films may not always be categorized in the genre, there's no denying that most, if not all, leave one disturbed in some way, shape or form. People who are not fans of his entire body of work usually come from one of three camps, separated by decades. If you love horror and don't mind having to put a little thought into your film-going experience, something of his is bound to appeal to you. Especially if you enjoy being thoroughly grossed out.

On January 31st, 2004, The Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood screened two early works of as part of a week long retrospective, followed by a discussion with Cronenberg. Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970) are two exercises that challenge even the most hardcore fan. That's not to say they were bad. They were, however, a test of one's perception. So much so that if left on my own, I don't think I could give a proper synopsis, though it was fun to try. That said, I present the following:

From The Egyptian program:
STEREO - David Cronenberg's debut feature is a disorienting faux documentary chronicling experiments at the Canadian Academy of Erotic Inquiry to test the hypotheses of unconventional researcher Dr. Luther Stringfellow.

And from
Somewhere in the future, the Canadian Academy for Erotic Inquiry is investigating the theories of para-psychologist Luther Stringfellow. Seven young adults volunteer to submit to a form of brain surgery that removes their power of speech but increases their power for telepathic communications. An unseen group of students observes the results. As the experiment progresses, Stringfellow's theories are borne out. Later, aphrodisiacs and various drugs are introduced to the subjects to expose an inherent 'polymorphous perversity'. In the end, they are isolated from each other, provoking antagonism and violence between them, resulting in two suicides.

And again, from The Egyptian:
CRIMES OF THE FUTURE - The female sex has disappeared from a mass poisoning by tainted cosmetics and "men have to absorb the femaleness that is gone from the planet." - David Cronenberg

A dermatologist creates what he calls "Rouge's Malady" - a condition that makes its victims indulge in bizarre fetishes and acts of homosexuality. Another doctor regenerates organs that have been infected with venereal diseases and creates new ones.

I think you see what I mean.

After the screenings, Mr. Cronenberg addressed the audience, but not without a little praise himself.

"Well, you're a very hardy group, to sit through these two films. I say that, not because I don't have affection for them, because I do. I haven't seen them for thirty years, basically. But because when I first made them, there were many walk-outs, you might imagine. Stereo, which was made first, I remember showing it to someone in Toronto trying to get him to book it into the theaters that he ran. The movie started and after about three minutes he said, 'Where's the sound?' And I said 'It's coming.' He got up and walked out. And that was it."

When asked about his introduction into film and how he went about it, he had this to say:

Click to Enlarge! "I did go to the University of Toronto and take a year of biochemistry, which is a very intense and very hard, difficult science. But I found myself spending most of my time at the Arts end of the campus; it was very polarized (speaking of polarization, as we do in Stereo). I was hanging out in the junior common room there and talking to everybody about literature and movies and things like that, and gradually I felt that I couldn't connect with even my classmates in science, that they did seem to be a different species, which kind of destroyed my theory. I remember two students who were together, they were a couple, they were dating. And I remember watching them, wondering what the nature of their sexuality could possibly be, because they were just so alien. I still don't know. If there are tapes anybody has, I'd like to see them."

"Anyway, so I ended up dropping out of Honor Science, as it was called at the time, and I ended up going into Honor English, which was a four year English course, which was very intensive with lot's of history and philosophy and of course literature. And at that point I gave up my dreams of being an actually scientist, so I became kind of a fraudulent, vaguely art scientist. So, there it is. And Stereo is, primarily, on one level, a parody of academia, an attempt to engulf actual human experience with jargon. Literary jargon and scientific jargon and so on. And that's why I am glad to see there were a few laughs because it's meant to be a comedy. So, that's basically the way that I worked."

"There was a lot of experimentation amongst a lot of psychiatrists and psychologists, all of which gradually lead to "The Sixties", which really was sort of into the '70's. So the idea of using drugs as a sort of psychotropic methodology to shift psychology in a measurable way, that was all very much in the air at the time. So I was absorbing and playing with a lot of those ideas."

"Ian Ewing, who is in Stereo, was one of the founders with me and Ivan Reitman and a few other filmmakers of the filmmakers Co-op, which was based on the New York Co-op. And the idea was that we would distribute our own films. This had nothing to do with making money, obviously, so to get the films out to whoever wanted to see them, whether it was universities or just film groups, we established a Co-op, where you could rent the films for very little money. And even if you were just an individual and you wanted to rent them and show them on your own projector. That was the idea of the Co-op, and it was run by the filmmakers who had films in the Co-op. And we were underground. Because it was the '60's, no, you don't have to apprentice for somebody for twenty years before you get a chance to direct, whatever. It just seemed to be the way it was at the time. It was just grab a camera and do your own thing and that was it. So, these early films, and I would include Shivers and Rabid as well, you're really watching me learn to make movies. Basically that was my learning on the job, except it wasn't really a job, because I didn't get paid."

There seems to be a huge leap between Crimes of the Future and Shivers. In the years between (1970-1975) Cronenberg did a lot of television work, but eventually needed to move forward.

"I had to come to understand that I wanted to make movies as a profession, which surprised me because I never really thought that that's what I would do. I thought I'd be an obscure novelist. And so I've been trying to be an obscure filmmaker, and it's worked up to a point. I had to decide that I would make a movie that I would get paid for. That meant that people would pay to see it and that meant it was a whole new ballgame."

"It's such a tradition that your first film is a low budget horror film, because it means that with a lot of energy and maybe not the greatest talent or not the greatest skill, you can still have an effect and there's a market. It's a genre with established channels for distribution. There were then and there are now, although they're quite different, in the sense that in those days, you could never get a major studio to release it. It had to be a big budget star vehicle. Something like The Brood, there was no way anyone would even look at it to distribute it."

"So, it was quite a struggle to get Shivers made. Telefilm Canada, a government corporation whose mandate was to invest in films, had decided that Shivers might be considered a movie, actually. Because up until that point, Canadian films were not genre films. There was no history of genre filmmaking. You made films that were based on National Film Board documentaries, like The Drylanders, which was about how tough it was to live in the prairies. It would be a drama, but almost a docu-drama. And that was really all that was going on in Canada at the time. Shivers…nobody knew how to react to it, and we needed government money, there was no other way to get the movie made. I thought I might have to go to LA, but then they said the money came through. The budget for Shivers was $185,000, shot in 15 days. It had a lot of special effects, and crashes and gunshots and all kinds of other stuff. It made about $5 million. It also caused a huge stir, I mean, I almost had to leave Canada afterwards. There was an article written by a very well known, very powerful critic, who wrote for a magazine called Saturday Night. It said 'You ought to know how bad this film is, you paid for it.' He called it pornographic, obscene, violent…many things. It wasn't pornographic…it was some of those other things. Telefilm, the government, was embarrassed by this, even though it was the first film that they invested in that made money back. So, the taxpayers actually got their money back, plus."

"This was my acceptance that I was still interested in continuing to make movies, that I had to deal with the idea of commerce, and I'm still dealing with that problem. Like…tonight."

When a comment was made about his staying true to his vision, he replied that he's been trying to sell out for years, but no one is buying. "Hollywood is very seductive, and it's even more seductive now, because there are so few ways to make an independent film, it's really not easy. And then you make the film and you can't get it released because that's very expensive too. So there is more than a little temptation to play the Hollywood game, at least some version of it. It seems it's becoming rarer and rarer, but it is still possible to make good films inside the system."

For Spider, Cronenberg had complete control over the script, casting, cutting, etc., but received practically no money for it. Everyone, including actors and producers had to defer payment just to get the movie made.

Eventually, someone asked about his involvement in Basic Instinct 2.

"Like I said, I've been trying to sell out! It was a very good script. The sell was 'I'm going to say something to you, David…don't hang up…Basic Instinct 2.' The next thing was 'Just forget it's Basic Instinct 2 and think of it as a really dark, perverse kind of film noir kind of thriller thing.' And it was. It was written by two people, Henry Bean, who directed a film called The Believer, and his wife, Leora Barish, and I had known them because we had worked on a project earlier that didn't work out. But I knew they were very smart, very bright, very intelligent, very literate and they wrote a really good thriller. And so I thought, why don't I just try it and see what happens. It would be a Hollywood experience, but an interesting one. It wouldn't be an in-house studio project, it would be the guys who did Corolco…C2 they called it, a new company. But it did fall apart for various reasons, Hollywood reasons, actually."

He left us with the note that, after watching the last few minutes of Stereo, he was struck with a bout of nostalgia. "Before there was SteadiCam, there was my grandmother's wheelchair."

Cronenberg is currently slated to direct A History of Violence for New Line Cinema, based on a novel by John Wagner, adapted by Josh Olson (Infested). It's being produced by Benderspink's JC Spink and Chris Bender (The Butterfly Effect, and upcoming The Ring 2). It's the story of diner-owner, Tom McKenna, who, after the self-defense killing of some robbers, receives unwanted national attention that dredges up previously unknown facts about his past. This is the first studio project for Cronenberg since 1991's Naked Lunch.

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