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Rage Magazine (Mark Dery Interviews Crash Director David Cronenberg

Rage Magazine (Mark Dery Interviews Crash Director David Cronenberg

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Published by Mark Dery
Cultural critic Mark Dery interviews Canadian body horror/SF director David Cronenberg for RAGE magazine on the occasion of the release of Cronenberg's movie CRASH, based on J.G. Ballard's novel of the same name.
Cultural critic Mark Dery interviews Canadian body horror/SF director David Cronenberg for RAGE magazine on the occasion of the release of Cronenberg's movie CRASH, based on J.G. Ballard's novel of the same name.

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Published by: Mark Dery on Feb 20, 2009
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01/02/2013

David Cronenberg, our foremost theoretician of viral horror, polymorphous perversity, and lIuncontroliable

flesh,II hasbroughtJ.G. Ballard'swhiplashingsci-finovel, Crash,to the screen. Thereis, as Ballardwould
say, a certain nightmare geometry to the conjunction.' Crash is about the posthuman psychology and pathological sexuality of characters seduced by what Ballard calls IIthat brutal, erotic and overlit realm that beckons more and more persuasively to us from the margins of the technological landscape. II It is a genre unto itselLauto eroticism in the literal sense, written in a style that is as obsessively repetitive as the thrum of tires on concrete and as antiseptic as a textbook description of craniofacial trauma in head-on collisions. In many ways, it's about our increasing alienation from our own bodies and other people at a time when our interaction with the world around us consists, increasingly, of headfirst immersion in machines with screens or human contact squeezed through wires, whether they're connected to phones, fax machines, or networked computers. Crash's terminally numb narrator, autobiographically named James Ballard, is jolted

out of his postmodernautismby a collision, litheonly real experienceI had beenthroughfor years.II
Vaughan, a car-crash fetishist he meets through his accident, embodies the sped-up, out-oF-control psychology of the late 20th century. Representing the Final, fateful collision of autonomous technology and the human psyche, Vaughan masturbates to carefully orchestrated crashes at the Road Research laboratory, savors slow:m.otion films of test collisions as oneiric pornography, and dreams of dying, at the moment of orgasm, in a spectacular accident with Elizabeth Taylor's limousine. likewise, Cronenberg's perversely 1111_ brilliant bio-horror I constitutes I.. extended meditation on the mind/body an 0.. .1 r .0.1. I _ . . II I I. I I I .1 .,
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mind/body/machine, II as Scott Bukatman points out in the essay collection Alien Zone. The filmmaker, who has wondered if IIwe are just beginning a very important phase of our evolutionll-a sort of unnatural selection catalyzed by technology-is lIalways talking about Mcluhan, II according to Martin Scorsese in Chris Rodley's 1986 documentary on Cronenberg, Long Live the New Flesh. In a sense, Cronenberg is Mcluhan's dark twin, theorizing electronic media and mechanical devices less as Mcluhanesque lIextensions of manll than as agents of a morphogenesis that is not always pretty to look at. In nearly all of his films, the dichotomy between mind and body-the age-old conundrum at the heart of the human condition-is exacerbated by the ever-more-technologicallandscape we live in. As the roboticist Hans Moravec notes in Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence, IIln the present condition we are uncomfortable halfbreeds, part bioloJ

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with part culture, with nllr minds our biological traits out of step gy, th", inv",ntinn nf many of II

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Often, Cronenberg uses human sexuality, morphed and . mutated by our increasingly cybernetic psychology, as a magnifying glass to examine Bukatman's mind/body/machine trichotomy. His littleknown early movie, Crimes of the Future 11970, now available on video), imagines a near-future plague culture straight out of Beauty Myth author Naomi Wolf's worst nightmares: postpubertal women are dying from a disease induced by cosmetics; men are sprouting bizarre new organs in an evolutionary response to the disappearance of potential mates; and pedophilia is beginning to look like the last, best hope for $-p-eciessurvival.

the surface-literally,

In The Brood 11979), the mutagenic technology in question is a cultish form of psychotherapy called Psychoplasmics, a tongue-in-cheek sendup of Primal Scream therapy in which a Dr. Raglan teaches his patients to bring their neuroses and psychoses to in the form of gut-wrenching stigmata. The results are not always promising, as a dis-

traught graduate of the program reveals. lilt's a form of cancer of the lymphatic system,II he explains, exposing grotesque tumors on his chest. IIRaglan encouraged my body to revolt against me and it did. Now I have

a smallrevolutionon my handsand I'm not puttingit down very successfully. II
In Videodrome 11982), the filmmaker's masterpiece,' the agent of evolutionary mutation is the welter of disembodied electronic fictions that constitutes our media reality. The IImedia prophetll Professor Brian O'Blivion speaks to all of us when he tells the movie's protagonist, Max Renn, IIYour reality is already half video hallucination; if you're not careful, it will become total hallucination. You'll have to learn to live in a very strange Irl~

Convincedthat IIpubliclife on televisionwas morereal than private life in the flesh,II O'Blivion designed a mutagenic TV signal. Covertly transmitted in a sadomasochistic snuff program called Videodrome, the signal stimulates the production of lIa new outgrowth of the human brain which will produce and control hallucination to the point that it will change human realityll IO'Blivion). The professor believes that the tumors induced by the Videodrome signal will trigger the next stage in the coevolution of humanity and technology. Meanwhile, Renn-the jaded owner of a porn channel who is attempting to track down the source of the mysterious signal-has already been mutated by Videodrome, and is suffering from bizarre, techno-sexual hallucinations Vaughan would envy: a vaginal slit gapes in his belly, moistly awaiting the insertion of a videocas-

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sette; his TVheaves and moans in concupiscent ecstacy, its screen bulging toward his waiting lips. Surrendering to the postmodern madness of a world in which distinctions between this and that side of the TVscreen are no longer meaningful, Renn killshimself-or, as the technophilic Heaven's Gate cultistswho recently committed suicide would have it, abandoned his "vehicle." His hand morphs into a gun made of molten, marbled flesh Ireality? video hallucination? both?1 and he blows his head off with the posthumanist rallying cry, "Longlive the new flesh!" In an eerie premonition of the flying saucer theology of the Heaven's Gate cultists, Renn takes his own life so that he may be born again as disembodied simulacrum-what O'Blivion's daughter calls "the video word made flesh." Watching Videodrome, we cannot help but think of Ballard's chilling observation, in his introduction to Crash, that we are witnessing the "demise of feeling and emotion." True to her name, Nicki Brand, the deadpan, affectless media personality in Videodrome, derives sadomasochistic pleasure from searing her bare flesh with a cigarette. "We live in overstimulated times," she asserts; like Crash's narrator, she has been deadened by the nonstop shock treatment of postmodern culture, distanced by the multiplyinglayers of electronic media-

tion between herself and embodied experience. Only extreme pain can bring her back to her physical body; cell by cell, she is being replaced by the new flesh, the video fleshas are we all, in cyberculture. Obviously, Cronenberg and Ballard travel the same psychogeography, and. Crash Ithe screen versionl is the predictable site of their head-on collision. LongtimeBallardians will miss the astringent wit of the novel's deadpan narration, its aphoristic one-liners I"The world was beginning to flower into I wounds"!, the deviant beauty of its surreal imagery I"The passenger compartment enclosed us like a machine generating from our sexual act an homunculus of blood, semen, and engine coolant"l. LongtimeCronenbergians will miss Scanners' tangled web of conspiracy, Dead Ringers' psychotic break with reality, The Fly's mutagenic technologies and uncontrollable flesh. Strangely, the movie lacks the book's sexual frisson, exuding a lunar cool that detractors will liken to Joop! cologne ads and devotees will compare to the moonlit tableaux of the Surrealist painter land Ballard passionl Paul Delvaux. Even so, it's a filmthat must be seen lat least twice, according to Cronenberg!, an indispensable road map to the late-night highways of the millennial mind.

RAGE SEPTEMBER 1997

.

MARK

DERY:

IN HIS INTRODUCTION TO THE FRENCH

EDITION OF Crash,

BALLARD CALLS THE NOVEL "AN EXTREME METAPHOR FOR AN EXTREME SITUATION, A KIT OF DESPERATE CRISES."
DISASTERS,

MEASURES

ONLY FOR USE IN EXTREME
FOR OUR AGE OF AERIAL

Is

Crash AN
ALIEN

APPROPRIATE

METAPHOR

ABDUCTIONS,

AND MAD BOMBINGS?

David Cronenberg: Well, it's tempting to look at whatever times one lives in as being in crisis, but I think we're always in extreme times; I have a built-in resistance to seeing these things as leading us somewhere. I see a wonderful, inbuilt need in the human mind to analyze and extrapolate them so that we can anticipate future developments, but I have this tendency to say,

"Well, my historical reading suggeststhat Nietzsche was basically talking about the samething in
ferent guise," and so on.
M D: "
UP
SOMEONE LIKE YOURSELF WHO CLEARLY HAS A SENSE OF HISTORICAL CONTEXT IS LESS LIKELY TO WA

(

EVERY

MORNING

FEELING

THAT THE

MILLENNIUM

IS UPON

US.

DC:Yeah. ButI do sensethat someof the things that I deal with in Crash, at a 25-year remove fr< when Ballard was writing the novel, are significantly different from what has gone before, and one thesethings is the nature of sexuality, which I really think is changing-changing in a way that we I
not seen before. The fact that we can now reproduce without sex is a huge moment in human
M D: You MEAN THROUGH CLONING, IN-VITRO FERTILIZATION?
T

histor
; !. I

when you wontt need humans at ali to reproducehumans,where the DNAcould be reproducedsyntheticallyand youtll have syntheticspern
The question then becomes, "What is sex?" It has never, for humans, been a simple ter of reproduction. In fact, there have been culturesthat didn't even connect sex with reproduction Now, we're at a point where we consciouslysee sex being cut free from its biological imperatives, demanding to be redefined, reinvented-a very existential development that forces us to take respo bility for deciding what sex will be. It's a very powerful force, still very much inbuilt in us, but it no longer has the purpose that it had before. And whereas sex has always been used in various ways, from weaponry to performance art, it's now demanding to be profoundly redefined, and it's techno cal developmentswhich have caused this. I don't think it's just a conceptual change; I think eventu( it'll be a very functional difference.
M D: WHAT, EXACTLY, DO YOU MEAN BY THAT?

DC:Right.One can anticipate a time maybe not too far in the future,

andeggs.

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DC: Well, I think that more and more people will use sex less and less for reproduction. the natural course of things there will be less haphazard,

This isn't

Brave New World warning that sex will be controlled for genetic breeding purposes; I just think tha
natural child-creating and more controlled
child-creating, which will make it more obvious that sex has become a new thing. M D: SHOULD WE BE SO QUICK TO DISMISS HUXLEY'SWARNING? FOLLOWING The Bell Curve, THERE SEEM BE A STEALTHOPERATION UNDERWAY REHABILITATE TO EUGENICS AND SOCIAL DARWINISM:CHRISTOPHER BR.
A SELF-STYLED "SCIENTIFIC RACIST" WHO LECTURES AT EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY, RECENTLY SUGGESTED THAT

GLE MOTHERS SHOULD MATEWITHHIGH-IQ MALESTO IMPROVE THE G POOL. SO rr's NOT ENTIRELYALARMIST...

DC: Oh, I would never suggest that there won't be large mass energy devoted to that craziness; I'm just saying that it's not inevitable that one thing leads to the other. What I'm saying is now that we have seized control over our own evolution, natur< selection in the definitive Darwinian sense does not exist with human beings. I mean, is it the guy who makes enough money

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CD RAGE SEPTEMBER 1997
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who gets to spread his genetic material because he can get babes with his Mercedes? He doesn't have to be strong; in fact, he can be quite weak. In other words, who is the fittest? All the eugenicistsflash back to some bizarre Victorian version of what Darwinian "fitness" would be in a human being. But in our society, it might be an NBA player: he's strong, he's got a lot of money...
M D: OR BILL GATES.

DC: And between the two, where are you? We can no longer say that Arnold Schwarzenegger is the evolutionary ideal. What person are you going to hold up as someone whose genetic material should dominate? You canlt. Eugenicists who talk about the racial stuff are only exposing the very tiniest tip of the iceberg in that discussion, because who says intellectual superiority is necessarily the most desirable thing? It goes on and on.
M D: I THINK YOUR COMMENTS ON SEXUALITY GO TO THE
HEART OF Crash. SCAPE WHICH WRESTLES CENTURY. WITH THE QUESTION LANDOF THE HUMAN CONDITION IN THE MEDIA-BOMBARDED

DC: Yeah, I disagreed with him about those things, or rather thought that they needed some clarification, and I found it very edifying to hear him say he wasn't thinking these things when he wrote the book. He absolutely loves the film. He feels that the movie begins where the book ends, which I think is very interesting. I don't think Ballard's analysis of his novel-the analysis in the French introduction-is adequate, and that makes perfect sense to me, because as an artist I'm going to say that my movie has nothing to do with pornography if I'm being attacked for being a pornographer. But later, I might say, "Well, it does have some connections with pornography, but I felt they were too subtle to be mentioned at the time, for political reasons." Bertolucci said that Crash was a religious masterpiece, because he felt the characters were like little Christs, sacrificing themselves on our behalf so we can watch but not have to do it. There's some truth, there, because in a way I'm saying, "Okay, let these people do what they do; don't make a moral judgment, don't restrict them, just see where it takes us." I see them as being forced by their own inner impulses to reinvent the old forms of things which they feel are not working. That includes sexuality, but it also includes emotion-the ways emotion is expressed, social interaction, even language. Maybe this involves the death of affect, to which one might say, "Well, maybe affect is not that great; maybe that's the bad part of human nature."
M D: ONE MIGHT SAY THAT, BUT DO YOU?

OF THE LATE 20TH EDITION OF

IN HIS INTRODUCTION BALLARD CALLS IT "A TO US FROM AND

TO THE FRENCH THAT BECKONS

Crash,

WARNING AGAINST THAT BRUTAL,

EROTIC AND OVER LIT REALM LANDSCAPE."

MORE AND MORE PERSUASIVELY

THE MARGINS OF THE TECHNOLOGICAL YET THE BOOK ITSELF FEELS ROBOT HISTORIAN; DEATH OF AFFECT AFFECTLESS STYLE. rr's

AS IF IT WERE WRITTEN BY A

A CAUTIONARY TALE ABOUT THE

[EMOTION] WRITTEN IN AN UTTERLY

DC: I was onstage with Ballard at the ICA [Instituteof Contemporary Art] in london, where we had a conversation, and he said he did the book first and then afterwards he set in the rationale, which made me feel good becausethat's how it feelsto me. The impulseto make the movie, and the processof making the movie, comes before the critical analysis. Not that I'm not interestedin analysis, but the two don't come from the same place; itls a different part of the brain that does thosetwo things. Another thing that I asked him about, relative to his introduction to the Frenchedition, was his discussionof the book as technoporn. He calls it "the first pornographic novel based on technology."
M D: THEN, DEMISE OUR RIGHT. HE BEMOANS THE THE DEATH OF AFFECT SAYS THAT AND ITS TO FROM IN AT IN LITERALLY OPENS THE NEXT SENTENCE, OF THE

DC: No, I don't. I say that these people have not been able to express their emotions in the forms that are available to them because what they're trying to express is impossible in the language that exists, which is very Wittgensteinian. So, to a small degree, I'm reinventing film language in order to allow my characters to express things to themselves in their own emotional language. I see Crash as an existential romance. That simply means that maybe affect-which is to say, what we consider emotion and the way in which it is expressed-needs to find new avenues, new forms in order to express the things that we need to express these days, things which cannot be expressed using the old cliches abou! love or sexuality or family or whatever. Wetre feehng

some things that haventt been felt before, be(ause the (omplexities of life are qUite different than they were

before.

It's what Mcluhan was talking about: we keep driving and looking into the rear-view mirror.
M D: AN APPROPRIATE METAPHOR FOR

Crash.

FLOODGATES DISEASED

UNCONSCIOUS WE GO

MOST

DELICIOUSLY

FANTASIES. PLEASURE

FREUD'S THE

PESSIMISM

TO A DE SADEAN

DUNGEON

SPACE

OF A SENTENCE.

IT STRIKES

A DISSONANCE.

LEAST

TO MY EAR.

DC: The weird thing about Crash is that at first it's a complete turn-off, and then gradually you find yourself being turned on by things you never thought you'd be turned on by, in language that you never imagined you'd be turned on by. That's the art of it. Somehow, you're getting the pure experience, from the narrator's point of view, of this strange eroticism. It's disturbing, just because it's so abnormal and perhaps even dehumanized, although no one but a human could think these thoughts. I tried to do the same thing in the movie by creating a

4.

style that was sensual in some ways, and having very attractive people in the film, because I knew that, conceptually, many people would resist it. So to balance that, I tried to make it somewhat sensual and textural without making it deliriously luscious, you know. I tried to do the same thing cinematically that I felt Ballard was doing literarily.
M D: ABOUT SEEM, WAS IT DIFFICULT AFFECT TO MAKE A MOVIE THAT DIDN'T FLATTENED WELL,

FLAT-A

MOVIE

ABOUT THAT REMAINED

DESENSITIZED DRAMATICALLY LOGICALLY

CHARACTERS COMPELLING

AND PSYCHO-

ENGAGING?

DC: Never worried about it. That's absolute death, creatively, if you're making a movie. You go on your intuition in creating a world which you have to say to yourself Iknowing it to be a lie) is a hermetically sealed world that you will then take the audience into. I certainly find people having formal problems with the movie, not understanding how to deal with the structure of it. It looks like it might work like, you know, Fatal Affractionyou've got this attractive, upper-middleclass couple who don't have to worry about money, they're having affairsbut then it doesn't work out any way you could imagine. They get completely confused and disconnect. In a way, the very structure of Crash is as much a problem as the whole question of affect.
M D : WHAT'S YOUR RESPONSE TO THAT?

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comparing the film and the novel. You've really got to let go and let the movie be what it is. Of course you're going to want to discussit vis-a-visthe book, but it is its own thing.,. MarkDery
(markdery@well.com) is a cultural critic whose byline has appeared in Rolling Stone, the New York Times, Wired, and the Village Voice. He is the author of Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, a critique of fringe computer culture (http://www.well.com/user/ma rkderyl). He also edited the essay collection Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, and is currently at work on The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium, a book about madness and mayhem in millennial America (Grove Press, 1998).

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DC: My response is that you just have to let go of all that stuff. I've found that, for many people, it becomes a different movie the second time they see it. The first time, especially if you're familiar with the book, you're constantly analyzing your reactions,

RAGESEPTEMBER 1997

.

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