Posts Tagged With: David Cronenberg

Sonic Does Solipsism… Cronenberg’s eXistenZ Reviewed

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Ted Pikul in the throes of an eXistenZial epiphany. Yesterday.

BD/DVD Combi. Region B/2. 101 Films. 15.

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Why do artists feel the need to revisit former glories? Perhaps because their glory days are so demonstrably behind them. Consider Opera (1987), the final fling in a string of baroque, bloody, beautiful and flat-out berserk horror and thriller classics that Dario Argento had sustained for nearly two decades. Then consider his abysmal Phantom Of The Opera (1998), a weak-as-piss rehashing of the same themes with the same cinematographer, Ronnie Taylor, merely underlining the point that Argento’s muse had deserted him, to be replaced by… well, by Asia.

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Just a year later, David Cronenberg brought us eXistenZ, which on superficial perusal (and that, I confess, is all I gave it at the time) came across as a pointless and decidedly less full-blooded and edgy reworking of his polymesmeric Videodrome (1983). Obliged to give it a second viewing (by the fact that those nice folks at 101 sent me a review copy of their new BD / DVD edition), I find that I’ve given eXistenZ shorter shrift than it merits (e.g. in my cursory dismissal of Cronenberg’s post-Fly output while reviewing his debut novel Consumed).

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In the near future, wimpy marketing trainee Ted Pikul (Jude Law) accompanies legendary games designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to a test seminar for her latest advance in virtual reality technology but no sooner have she and a bunch of fans plugged pulsating, placenta like game consoles into their spines (all par for the Cronenbergian course) and started communing in cyber space, than a pro-reality terrorist (ditto) makes an attempt on Allegra’s life with a gun fashioned from bones which shoots teeth (a piece of mutant technology that has clearly evolved out of Videodrome) and Ted finds himself promoted to Allegra’s body-guard. Brow beaten by her into having a bioport inserted in his spine (by Willem Dafoe’s freelancing gas station attendant) Ted embarks on a white knuckle adventure in which it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish gameplay from reality…

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Just as Brian de Palma was justified in reviewing the ethical quagmire of Casualties Of War (1989) through the lens of subsequent media technology developments  for Redacted (2007, above), eXistenZ cannot simply be dismissed as “Videodrome light” (although I’ve been guilty of doing precisely that)… it’s a genuine auteurist reconsideration of that film’s thematic concerns in the light of technology-driven cultural change on the cusp of The Millennium (and goes about its business so much more smartly than it’s vastly bigger budgeted contemporary The Matrix).

eXistenZ is “Videodrome updated and upgraded”, a film addressing the concerns of those who used to worry if young people watching The Last House On The Left really got that it was “only a movie… only a movie” and now wake up in a sweat in the middle of the night wondering if players of Grand Theft Auto or Call Of Duty can correctly answer the question that provides the last line of eXistenZ”: “Are we still in the game?”

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Ordering Chinese food becomes a tricky business amid the fluid reality of eXistenZ.

Despite its shifting planes of reality, this one is narratively much tighter than its predecessor and boasts an ending that is simultaneously more predictable but more satisfying than that to Videodrome, which Cronenberg was notoriously still trying to work out on the last day of shooting.

Over and above its Videodrome connections, eXistenZ reflects Cronenberg’s musings (after conversations with William Burroughs and Salman Rushdie) on the independent existence an artistic creation takes on, with potentially malign consequences for its creator.

It’s also, regretfully, the closest we will ever get to Cronenberg’s once-mooted screen adaptation of Philp K. Dick’s darkly psychedelic 1965 novel The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch… observant Dick heads will appreciate the packaging of the fast food Ted and Allegra consume while on the lam.

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Get your skates on, 101’s release of this title, number 002 in their Black Label range, is limited to 3000 copies and comes with slipcase and a booklet including the essay Enemy of Reality by Alex Morris and an interview with Denise Cronenberg  by Phillip Escott. Can’t comment on either of those because I haven’t seen them.

The disc comes stacked with extras, including (alongside the mandatory trailer) Cronenberg’s audio commentary, “making of” and promo feaurettes plus one that focuses on the work of DC’s long-serving production designer, Carol Spier and interviews with the director himself, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Willem Dafoe, visual FX technician Jim Isaac and Jude Law.

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Brand new to this edition are two commentary tracks, one by Kim Newman and Ryan Lambie and another from Mondo Digital’s Nathaniel Thompson, plus an interview with Christopher Ecclestone, who freely admits that his American accent in the film is crap but tries to explain this away on the grounds that nobody in eXistenZ is quite what they seem. Nice try Chris, but you can’t pin the blame for that preposterous accent on Allegra Gellar!

Ecclestone also suggests that in the light of ever-accelerating technological change, a remake might be in order. Cronenberg was way ahead of the curve, though… what’s the betting that if such a project were ever green lit, its protagonists would be schlepping around collecting Pokemons?

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… And Duly Regurgitated. David Cronenberg’s Debut Novel CONSUMED, Reviewed.

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Consumed by David Cronenberg. Fourth Estate. P/B. 358 Pages. ISBN 978-0-00-729914-0. 

The cover boasts a generous testimonial from Stephen King, no less, identifying Consumed as “an eye-opening dazzler… as troubling, sinister and enthralling as (Cronenberg’s) films”. I’d go along with the latter part of that quote, while qualifying my assent with the observation that it’s been quite some considerable time since any Cronenberg film has troubled, enthralled or dazzled me.

Like a lot of other people, I found myself fascinated by Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979) and Scanners (1981), while wondering when Cronenberg was going to hitch his undoubted fierce intelligence and the maverick morbidity of his imagination to some kind of coherent narrative sensibility. In 1983 he veered between extremes… his genuinely troubling, sinister and enthralling Videodrome (a hi-concept hallucinatory gore-fest, unencumbered by anything so mundane as a storyline that stood up to cursory scrutiny) was followed in rapid succession by The Dead Zone, which benefited from the narrative discipline of Stephen King’s source novel (and presumably the commercial discipline demanded by heavyweight producer Dino Di Laurentiis) but uncharacteristically side-stepped the brain tumour imagery that King himself employed in the book and with which one might well have expected Cronenberg to have a field day. He finally managed (again under the influence of a heavyweight producer, in this case Mel Brooks) the long-awaited synthesis with The Fly (1986), the perfect Cronenberg picture and a tremendous film by any yardstick. I didn’t have long to savour that before the director and I definitively parted company…

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… the rock on which we foundered was Naked Lunch (1991). Given that William Burroughs’ stated intention for his 1959 act of literary terrorism was to upgrade The Novel’s arsenal of narrative techniques to the point where they matched those of Cinema, the point of adapting it to the big screen was always going to be, at best, a moot one. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder how Cronenberg was going to render the moral and literary complexities of a book that had been horrifying and tantalising me in equal parts for decades. Well, there was some nonsense about “sexual ambulances”, then Roy Scheider ripping off a Mission Impossible-style latex mask to announce himself as Dr Benway (ta-da!) Oh dear… we’d been giving Cronenberg credit for his intelligence all these years and now he was repaying us by insulting ours. I never felt the inclination to seek out any Cronenberg pictures after this and those I did find myself accidentally exposed to on TV did nothing to convince me that I was missing much.

DC got my attention again with Consumed, which I picked up in a remainders shop three years after its initial publication in 2014. This time he’s attempting the reverse trick of rendering that Cronenberg sensibility via the printed page. So you won’t be at all surprised to discover within it a bunch of preposterously-named characters, travelling the world to have sex with celebrity cannibal intellectuals, contracting hitherto unguessed at venereal diseases and seeking out the assistance of a VD professional whose daughter is herself engrossed in a drawn-out process of auto-cannibalism. The protagonists’ lovingly chronicled hi-tech communication appurtenances only serve to further alienate them from each other, in the style of J.G. Ballard characters… irresponsible avant-garde surgeons slice their way merrily through human tissue that is, apparently, on the verge of collapsing into unspeakable insect horrors (still can’t resist a bit of Burroughs, ol’ Dave) and as for Dick… there’s plenty of dick herein – much of it diseased and deformed – and Philip K. even gets a personal name check on page 227. At several points Cronenberg seems determined, for some reason, to shoe-horn Samuel Beckett into the mix, too (that whirring sound you  hear might just be the irascible Irish minimalist rotating in his grave).

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Now, wearing your literary loves so brazenly on your sleeve isn’t necessarily such a bad thing. Will Self and Martin Amis, among others, have done very nicely for themselves by, er, channeling the influence of some of the above-mentioned writers. What’s more, Cronenberg is an accomplished and assiduous pasticher… this is, after its own wilful fashion, well written stuff. It’s just that after the sound, fury, calculated unpleasantness, deliberate ennui and all the rest of it, the reader gratefully lays Consumed down with an overwhelming sense of: “So what?” Charlie Brooker covers this beat with so much more wit and emotional resonance. Presumably intended to hit with the impact of some mortifying cancer or exotic new STI, Cronenberg’s novel registers merely at the level of an irritating head cold. Ironically, when I tackled Consumed I was too depleted by flu to abandon it in favour of more rewarding activity, e.g. surfing the TV for old episodes of Quincy ME.

Having previously discussed with the late, great Joe D’Amato the debt that Videodrome might or might not owe to his Emanuelle In America, I was intrigued to find Cronenberg naming this novel’s outlaw lifestyle philosopher, who might or might not have eaten his girlfriend’s brain, “Aristide”. As I struggled to finish Consumed, I kept consoling myself with the prospect that this character might just be about to rip off one of those Mission Impossible masks, revealing himself to be none other than jolly Uncle Joe… but (spoiler alert) no such luck.

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Oblivion Express… VIDEODROME reviewed

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DVD. R2. Arrow. 18.

Horror Hack: Are you aware of the story that David Cronenberg was inspired to make Videodrome after seeing your Emanuelle In America?

Joe D’Amato: Yeah? (Laughs) Maybe I should ask him for some money…

Horror Hack: I’m not sure Videodrome actually made any money!

———-

“Videodrome… has something that you don’t have, Max. It has a philosophy. And that is what makes it dangerous.”

Masha to Max Renn in Videodrome.

———-

Since my breakfast exchange with Uncle Joe in London, back in 1995, Videodrome has made its money back (and then some) in the video arena, in stark contrast to its theatrical failure in 1983, thereby vindicating some of the dark prophecies made in it by director David Cronenberg (don’t hold your breath waiting for a sequel, though.) But does Videodrome the movie, as opposed to Videodrome the malevolent broadcasting enterprise featured in the movie, have a philosophy? And if so, has Cronenberg (during the course of the movie or in any of the many interviews where he’s discussed it) ever explicated that philosophy coherently? Given that he was struggling to come up with an ending, late on the very last day of shooting (bonus material contained herein reveals just how fluid things remained until the final call of “cut”) I would answer “no”, “no” and “I’m still listening, David.

Videodrome is a polymesmeric meditation, by one of Horror’s outstanding intellects, on identity, technology, sexuality, social responsibility and more, not least the very nature of reality itself… a mind fuck of monumental proportions. It crowns the director’s earliest and most fruitful phase, the “body horror” / “venereal horror” cycle initiated with Shivers (1975) and continued through Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979) and Scanners (1981.) His post-Videodrome offerings were nothing like as challenging, though his 1986 remake of The Fly, which recapitulated some of the themes of his most vital, most viral period, was splendid in its own way. Now, I’m aware that some people who’ll be outraged at my low regard for, e.g. Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991) but, y’now… when that one came out, Burroughs’ novel had been horrifying and tantalising me in equal parts for decades and if Cronenberg really thought the best way to encapsulate its moral and literary complexities was to have Roy Scheider rip off a Mission Impossible-style latex mask and announce himself as Dr Benway… well, ‘nuff said. As for eXistenZ (1999)… Videodrome lite!

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Since Cronenberg makes much of cod-Renaissance philosophy in Videodrome, he hopefully won’t mind me pointing out that his solipsistic approach to the question of personal identity here adds little to what the likes of Bishop Berkeley (1685-1753) and even Rene Descartes (1596-1650) had to say on the subject. He does dress it up compellingly though with lashings of Philip K Dick’s bad acid consciousness (a pity Cronenberg never got to direct Total Recall, as originally planned) and a jolt of Marshall McLuhan (whose wittiest cinematic deployment remains that in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, 1977) together with an acknowledgement of frightening technological developments that Rene, The Bishop and probably even McLuhan couldn’t have begun to imagine. Videodrome is a “reductio ad absurdum” demolition of the arguments behind the video nasties shit-storm-in-a-tea-cup before that “debate” even broke (and significantly delayed the release of Cronenberg’s magnum opus into the UK home video arena) and, as if that weren’t prescient enough, it anticipates the irresistible rise of untrammeled corporatism, the internet, secret state snooping on the latter, the apparent current consensus that nothing is real unless it exists on a TV / mobile phone screen, repressive tolerance, consumerist conformity, K-holes, black sites and innumerable other regrettable aspects of Modern Life. The best critical take on Videodrome probably remains that of Newsweek’s David Ansen who contends that if it fails, it fails on a level to which few of Cronenberg’s contemporaries could dare aspire. Cronenberg has described one of Videodrome’s key grand guignol set pieces, the instant cancer karma demise of Barry Convex as a metaphor for his own hyperactive thought processes threatening to bust out of his head. Videodrome won’t make you split open. Watching it won’t even give you a brain tumour. But unless you’re thick as two short planks, it will definitely make you do what so few horror films (films, period) can manage these days… it will make you THINK!

You’ll notice that I’ve staunchly avoided any discussion of synopsis here because if you’ve seen Videodrome then you’ll already know that a synopsis of its first half is unnecessary.. and of its second half, probably unrenderable. Whereas if you haven’t yet seen it, I wouldn’t want any spoilers to impair your enjoyment of it. Having said that, if you haven’t seen Videodrome, you should endeavour to put that right as soon as is humanly possible! Here’s your chance, now that Arrow have put out a very affordable DVD edition. I’m not reviewing their sold-out Limited Edition Blu-ray release because that struck me as an expensive way to reacquaint myself with the early experimental Cronenberg shorts which sent me to sleep when Ramsey Campbell presented them at Liverpool’d Bluecoat Galleries, way back in the day. And anyway, it’s sold out! I made the penny-pinching judgement that Arrow’s subsequent mainstream Blu-ray effort would mark only a marginal picture improvement over this DVD version (the hi-def digital transfer for both has been approved by Cronenberg and DP Mark Irwin), which faithfully reproduces all the extras from that… and what an embarrassment of cool extras they are!

Tim Lucas, in his capacity as a Cinefantastique contributor, was the only journo to visit the Videodrome shoot (this was way before the “serious” pundits started earnestly pondering Cronenberg) and his commentary track here comprises the expected mix of personal reminiscence, trainspotterly factoids and thought provoking observation. Bonus documentaries include Cinema Of The Extreme (DC, George Romero and Alex Cox chew the gristle re censorship) and Forging The New flesh (Michael Lennik on concocting the film’s many video and prosthetic effects), there are also various contemporary promotional featureless in which Cronenberg, Jimmy Woods, Deborah Harry, Rick Baker, Lennik and many others get to have their say, new interviews with Mark Irwin, producer Pierre David and Dennis Etchison (author of the Videodrome novelisation), the uncut Samurai Dreams, a bunch of trailers (including a couple of bizarre, self-consciously “new wave” efforts, presumably intended to appeal to the Debbie Harry demographic.) Videodrome obsessives will be wetting themselves most copiously though, I would imagine, over Pirated Signals: The Lost Broadcast, a collection of footage that was only ever seen during certain U.S.TV broadcasts of the film. My own favourite among the extras is Fear On Film, a fascinating 1982 round table discussion between Cronenberg, John Carpenter and John Landis, moderated by Mick Garris. Teasers are shown for The Thing (imagine what Cronenberg might have made of that, given sufficient budget) and Cronenberg is described as “currently finishing” Videodrome… ah, took me back to a sweet spot in the ‘80s, just before that horrible decade turned REALLY, er, nasty. At one point in this, Cronenberg expresses surprise that his films are regarded as confrontational. Sure thing, Dave. And now for a picture of a woman about to stub a cigarette out on her boobs…

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