David Cronenberg: Get Happy

If Scanners, Videodrome, and Dead Ringers didn't lift your spirits, you missed the point. David Cronenberg, director of the new Naked Lunch, talks about life, death, pain, guilt, heaven, hell and, yes, happiness.

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The first time I saw David Cronenberg was from the nose up, behind a surgical mask. Playing an obstetrician in his own smart remake of The Fly, he was assisting Geena Davis in the delivery room. His voice soothing and reassuring, he rooted her on, urging her to push. And then, with a mixture of professional pride and detachment, he displayed the newborn--a giant, squirming larva.

If the eyes are the windows to the soul, I am tempted, in the case of director David Cronenberg, to request frosted glass. Because here's what I see: someone (not Sean Young) plunging an arm up to the elbow into James Woods's chest in Videodrome, a head exploding like a detonated cantaloupe in Scanners, Genevieve Bujold biting through the tree-root-like flesh joining twins Jeremy Irons and Jeremy Irons at the stomach in Dead Ringers.

I have seen only Cronenberg's eyes, the filmmaker as a bank robber, just a glimpse. Now I am visiting him in his hometown, where he has just finished his screen adaptation of William Burroughs's brilliant, idiosyncratic 1959 novel Naked Lunch, wellspring of the late 20th century cyberpunk movement, a modern day odyssey of illusory freedom and dissipation.

Toronto is haunted by the murmur of derivative French and the scrawl of graffiti in the train yards. Hacks of Greek, Croatian and Bahamian descent slalom their cabs between the oily sparks of trolley cars that look like crimson beetles on NutraSlim. Providence, comptroller of life's dosages, has mixed my medicines. I am alone in a city peopled by businessman, skateboarders, artists, hashish peddlers and the homeless man who writes "Like clockwork, she was always late" on the sidewalk in front of the train station. And for the first time in 11 years I am going to miss my wife's birthday. True, somewhere in Toronto, David Cronenberg, master vendor of psychic infections, is waiting to show me the lower half of his face. But that is of no consequence to my wife, who was not amused by that delivery scene in The Fly. Perhaps there is some minor solace to be found here; I'll ask Cronenberg to help me decide on a birthday present for her. Chances are she'll end up with something she's never gotten before.

Prudence Emery scolds me for climbing into her car, arguing that she could've been anyone--Toronto is filled with red Datsuns. Right away I see that this woman, unit publicist for Naked Lunch, is like bingo night at the skeptic's lodge, with a bullshit detector like a radio telescope. The numerous little dents in her car, however, indicate benign recklessness. And when she talks about Cronenberg, I'm reminded of the way my sister's eyes rolled into the back of her head when the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan. "David is a sweetheart. When you're on the set of a Cronenberg film, it's like a love-in. Nobody wants it to end." Prudence, whose production notes for Naked Lunch run to novella-length at 60 pages, has the fever. Despite being a woman, she is an apostle of David Cronenberg.

The prototypical Cronenberg disciple (and there are many) marches to a different drum machine. He is a blend of extremes--synthetics and wool. He ranges from the car mechanic with a six-pack looking for a cul-de-sac to the dweeb with a stratospheric IQ. The hacker who fixes my crashed hard drive knows exactly who David Cronenberg is. The guy who comes around on Fridays to air-blow the leaves and flick slugs off the porch thinks Cronenberg is the name of a standup comic, but he damned well knows The Dead Zone and Scanners.

Prudence's agenda has me spending my morning at a facility called Cinematheque, where she has arranged screenings of older Cronenberg films. Employee/Cronenberg disciple Michael Anderson, a mild-mannered human bookmobile in sagging black nylon socks, approves of my selections, especially Stereo. "You'll like this one. But don't be alarmed when you don't hear any sound for the first 10 minutes."

Stereo has the feel of a documentary in the way that our national anthem might be thought of as an opera aria. Institutionalized patients, later described as suffering from "telepathic dependency," "an electro-chemical addiction," wander about a postmodern stone building in Hamlet attire, with piercing expressions of profound mental disclosure. Halting narration is eventually provided by the saccharine voice of a clinician. In one scene, a topless woman makes passionate advances to a medical school mannequin, its chestplate removed to expose its inner organs. Another woman, fully clothed, "witnesses" the event with her eyes closed. I find more laughs in my viewing of Rabid, a hysterical indictment of cosmetic surgery set against a sunless Canadian winter (there's no daylight savings time in a Cronenberg film--all afternoons are suicidally bleak and night comes on like liver cancer), starring seminal porn star Marilyn Chambers as the victim of third-degree burns from a motorcycle accident.

The couch in David Cronenberg's office is too low, with a pitch that replicates an on-your-ass condition, as if the room were a bronco and I've been thrown. I have just apologized to the director for not being entirely familiar with his body of work and not being the kind of movie buff who knows all the dialogue to The Third Man. "That's okay. That's really the way I am, too," he assures me. "You'll never hear me say that movies are my life."

The lower half of Cronenberg's face fits the upper half just fine. The hollowness of overwork set in shades of purple around his eyes is offset by smooth skin and a jowl-free, Balkan jawline. He has the mannerisms of someone who's spent his entire life wearing glasses. The look is spring practice and L.L. Bean, the flagship of his wardrobe being the knit shirt. "When you show Stereo to a sociologist or a psychologist," he says, when I've told him what I thought of this short film, "they laugh all the way through, because the jargon is pretty accurate, pretty funny. And underneath, all of it means something. In a way, it's like stereo. The whole film together takes an hour. But you should listen to the sound first, then start over and watch the picture. That way you get a two-hour movie."

Cronenberg obviously does not go out of his way to take himself seriously. Oliver Stone plays a film school professor in The Doors, Cronenberg casts himself as a baby doctor who brings ghastly mutations into the world. Stone's Bible is probably a dog-eared copy of the Pentagon Papers; Cronenberg's is the latest issue of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. "Penis! Penis! Penis!" says a self-righteous Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July; "I sure as hell don't want to become the Colonel Sanders of plastic surgery," a specialist complains in Rabid.

"I think the only two movies I've done that didn't have laughs in them were probably The Brood and maybe The Dead Zone. Otherwise, there are hefty comic elements in everything and to me that's just part of the territory. But it's not genre humor, or spoof stuff. Not that that's not legitimate, but it's not something that I want to do. My humor is more like what used to be called black humor."

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