Saturday, August 31, 2013

Understanding Auteurs: David Cronenberg (Dead Ringers and Naked Lunch)

During the mid-‘80s, David Cronenberg sought to prove that compelling human drama could sit comfortably alongside his trademark extreme imagery.  Take away the horror elements of The Dead Zone (1983) and The Fly (1986) and you’re still left with, respectively, the tragic tale of a man readjusting to his life after spending five years in a coma, and the story of a romance doomed by hubris and insecurity.  Dead Ringers (1988) demonstrates what Cronenberg is capable of when he actually removes the genre crutches from his aesthetic.  What remains is a powerful character study that is as gripping and bizarre as anything the director has made to this point.

Cronenberg’s slow evolution away from straight horror and into sophisticated tragedy wouldn’t have worked without the support of some increasingly strong lead performances.  Early on Cronenberg didn’t have the clout to attract experienced actors to his thrillers, and while he sometimes worked around this in clever ways, such as by using the setting as the protagonist of Shivers (1975), the depth of his films was more often limited by the wooden efforts of inexperienced performers like Marilyn Chambers (in 1977’s Rabid) and Stephen Lack (in 1981’s Scanners).  The Dead Zone and The Fly wouldn’t be nearly as effective without the respective lead performances of Christopher Walken and Jeff Goldblum, both of whom found ideal outlets for their halted line readings and haunted mannerisms as Cronenberg’s outsider leading men. 

Impressive as Walken and Goldblum are in their roles, they can’t hold a candle to Jeremy Irons’ incredible work in Dead Ringers, in an incredibly complicated dual role that finds the British thespian playing twin gynecologists.  Broadly speaking, Elliot is the more confident public face for the brothers while Beverly is the shy serious scientist, but there are no convenient shortcuts for Irons to indicate which twin is onscreen at any given moment (they dress similarly and their personalities overlap in many ways), and yet it is virtually always evident within ten seconds of any given scene which brother we are watching.  The fact that Irons wasn’t even nominated for an Academy Award is a testament to how subtle and lived-in his work is here; what he’s doing is so believable that it doesn’t even register as acting (just as the post-production tricks that allow the twins to appear onscreen simultaneously are so seamless that the viewer doesn’t even think about them).  When the twins merge personalities in the climax as they fall into a drug-induced stupor, it is actually jarring to see them looking and behaving identically, despite the fact that the characters have been played by the same actor for the entire film.

Just because Dead Ringers is relatively subtle and mature compared to bravura special effects extravaganzas like Videodrome (1983) and The Fly doesn’t mean that it’s dull.  Beverly and Elliot’s professional façade hides a deeply perverse arrangement wherein Elliot does the work of seducing many of their patients and then urges Beverly to sleep with them (without letting the women know that they are sleeping with two men).  The brothers’ equilibrium is badly upset when Beverly becomes romantically attached to a particularly prized patient (Genevieve Bujold), an actress with a unique cervical condition.  When she leaves town for a film shoot, it sends Beverly into a deep drug and alcohol-aided depression that in turn creates some public relations nightmares for Elliot.  The horror in Dead Ringers is psychological rather than physical, but the brothers’ ultimate meltdown into sheer aimless desperation is just as disturbing as Dr. Brundle’s physical deformation in The FlyDead Ringers finds Cronenberg working without the crutch of his biggest trademark – extreme gore – and in the process making one of his very best films.

Exotic viscera returns with a vengeance in Naked Lunch (1991), Cronenberg’s bold adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ classic 1959 beat novel.  Of all classic novels, Naked Lunch is surely one of the least adaptable.  Most other “un-adaptable” novels are tricky to translate to the screen because they rely heavily on internal monologues that are hard to represent visually.  But where something like The Great Gatsby at least has a basic narrative that can be brought to life by actors, Naked Lunch is a mostly non-narrative book that often reads as evocatively nonsensical wordplay that would almost literally be impossible to put on screen.  Despite this major obstacle to filmic adaptation, Cronenberg managed to turn Naked Lunch into his most visually eccentric film since Videodrome.

The special effects team lead by Chris Walas really gets a workout throughout Naked Lunch, as if Cronenberg was trying to make up for lost time after the mostly gore-less Dead Ringers.  The most prominent and memorable of the film’s recurring special effects finds typewriters sprouting insect legs and filthy, talking anuses.  This is a frequent nightmare image of the film’s Burroughs stand-in (Peter Weller), an exterminator whose drug-induced hallucinations basically provide the film’s setting.  Cronenberg’s script stitches together elements of Burroughs’ original novel (and some of his other writings) and his autobiography to create something that more closely resembles a freewheeling essay about Burroughs than a traditional narrative. 

While Cronenberg proves unsurprisingly adept at creating memorably grotesque imagery, he doesn’t quite nail the tricky dream structure.  Cronenberg’s clinical detachment is perfectly suited to the story of Dead Ringers, but he’s ultimately too much of an intellectual to completely give himself over to the dream logic that a nonsensical trip like Naked Lunch requires.  In films like Eraserhead (1977) and Mulholland Drive (2001), David Lynch is able to draw unnerving power from images that can’t be explained away in any thematic or rational sense, but Cronenberg is a little too rational to commit fully to Naked Lunch’s weirdness.  When two writers engage in passion while dipping their fingers into the vaginal crevices of one of the aforementioned insectoid typewriters, the sexual metaphor is a little too on the nose even though the effect is astonishing.  Cronenberg was able to make a nightmare structure work for the most part in Videodrome, but that film ramped up to its insanity a little more steadily and also had the added interest of viscerally confronting the visual medium itself; the protruding TV screens relate directly to that film’s method of transmission to the viewer, adding an extra layer of horror.  Of course it makes sense that a surreal film about an author would feature nightmarish contortions of the elements of his own medium (such as those aforementioned typewriters), but those are too far removed from the way that the viewer is actually receiving the art to have the same meta-textual impact that the video-based imagery of Videodrome had.

While Naked Lunch isn’t wholly successful, its failures are certainly not due to a lack of ambition or audaciousness.  This is unquestionably Cronenberg’s riskiest and most complex project to this point, and even if Burroughs’ writing still seems un-adaptable after the film, it’s hard not to admire the director’s effort to achieve the impossible.  The visual effects are continuously astonishing (even by the high standards set by previous Cronenberg films) and there is certainly never a dull moment.  Weller, in a performance that is no less subtle (and perhaps only a bit less tricky) than Irons’ in Dead Ringer, effectively anchors the film with his deadpan, defeated demeanor; even in the face of the most depraved imagery in the film he maintains a jaded outlook.  That attitude, being too far gone to adequately respond to the extraordinary, is the compelling human tragedy of Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch.

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