Cronenberg on subjectivity and nature versus nurture

By Willa Paskin

Chances are, if you’ve seen a David Cronenberg film you remember it. Known for weird, sci-fi meets biological psychodrama films (to create a whole new taxonomy of genre), Cronenberg’s movies have a very distinctive flair. His past movies include The Fly, Videodrome, Crash, and eXistenZ, all of which have dealt in some capacity with themes of the human body and perception. Cronenberg’s latest film, Spider, the story of a schizophrenic man grappling with memories of his past, struggles with these same issues, though without the goopy bugs or kinky car crashes of his earlier works. Any hopes that Cronenberg was going to be the bizarre mastermind you might expect to be responsible for his body of work were dashed when Voices sat down with him to chat about his newest movie.

Voices: The idea of false reality shows up in Spider as it has also shown up in some of your other films, notably eXistenZ. Is this a theme you are consciously drawn to when deciding what movies you want to make?

Cronenberg: I often have to remind critics and journalists that they shouldn’t confuse their process with mine. In other words, you don’t approach it from the same angle. Each project is unique, and at the same time what you have to do to get the best out of it seems to be the same. You’re working with actors, you’ve got your cameraman, you’re trying to get all the juice out of a particular scene, and I’m not really thinking in abstract terms. Like reality and non-reality. On the other hand, certainly in Spider, the method of dealing with that theme which does appear in a lot of my movies, had to do a lot with memory. In other words, the way in which memory is also a created reality, that memory is not an absolute thing that never changes, and that everybody would agree when you saw it, a snapshot of the past. Someone said to me, “When you see Spider looking in the widow, lurking in the corner he’s almost like a director in a film set,” and I said I hadn’t thought of that consciously. But that works perfectly because he is sort of redirecting, re-choreographing to hide things from himself, to make sense of things.

I don’t have a checklist of things that I’m known for and I look for them in a project. It’s just an intuition. You’re going to spend two or three years of your life on a movie if you decide you’re going to do it. So what I need from it is some kind of complexity, I need to know I’m not going to get bored or depressed. That it’s rich enough material for me, that it will keep me entertained and surprised, and that’s all intuitive, there’s no rule book or guide book that you can use to help you choose what you’re going to do.

You seem to have a real attraction to the macabre and morbidity. Did your childhood impact why you become interested in particular stories and the twists they have?

This sort of Freudian analysis of why somebody is the artist that he is or isn’t I don’t think holds very well. I had a very lovely childhood and wonderful parents and a house that was full of music and books and art. It’s very mysterious how those things develop, but my feeling is that if you are wanting to get to the core of things you are automatically going to be led into some unusual alleyways, because the surface of things is really the surface. Like growing up in Eisenhower era, when everything was really nice, but you knew it wasn’t just really nice, that there was something else going on.

I can give you my monologue on my philosophical approach. For me filmmaking is philosophy, I really think that what I’m doing when I make movies is talking to myself about things that I don’t understand and want to understand. I’m trying to find ways to figure things out about the human condition, about my particular version of the human condition, what life really is and what it isn’t, despite what society might tell us it is. So that means going beneath the surface of things.

The first fact of human existence is the human body. That is to me of vital importance. I think a huge amount of culture, religion, art, politics is a flight from the body, an attempt to disembody us out of fear of mortality. It is really hard for us to accept the reality that we are our bodies and that’s it. Especially when the mind, consciousness seems to be something quite different. And part of what I’m doing in my movies is, I see myself as trying to heal the mind-body schism and come to an understanding of the two as one thing. So a lot of what I do deals with the body and mortality and therefore, once you accept that, you can see why the movies look the way they do and walk and talk the way they do.

Do you understand your art as some kind of mainstay against mortality then?

It’s bizarre. It’s very hard to think of yourself not existing. It’s a difficult thing to imagine. I have a hard time imagining it. There is in art the possibility of thinking that something of you will be left after you’re dead. But how important that is to me? I’m not really thinking about that too much, because, first of all, it’s a very mysterious and uncontrollable how your work will last and how it will be viewed. You know Shakespeare went though some periods where he was considered not very good and important and now he’s Shakespeare. So who knows, it depends which era you’re in if Shakespeare is the greatest writer who ever lived, or some minor character, so its not something I can factor into my work or my life at all.

Getting back to the Freudianism you spoke of earlier, to what extent are the Freudian overtones in the film supposed to be causal?

For example we were saying to the real kid, Bradley, he’s an English boy of 10, “Here’s a scene where a woman’s going to bare her breast to you. And the way it’s cut I could do it without you being on the set.” So I asked his mother and she said, “Bradley’s main concern is that he won’t laugh.” So rather than traumatize him, he’s a normal English kid and he’s quite cool with that, he thought it was silly and funny not something traumatic or that triggered off strange sexual traumas. So you have a model of what would probably happen in the real world. So I think you would come to the conclusion that the kid [in the film] was somehow damaged neurologically, genetically, rather then it being environmental or social or cultural.

Is the ending of this movie hopeful? Or is that an irrelevant question insofar as the film is not concerned with “healing”?

It’s not irrelevant if you care for Spider, have some empathy or sympathy for him, but its not meant to be a social criticism. It could have been. For Patrick McGraw, who wrote the book and the screenplay, he was very aware, because his father was a psychiatrist and he worked for a while in the psychiatric services. It was a scandal what was happening in England after the war because they dismantled the health services and the fact that people were being forced to leave the asylums before they could really function in society. And that’s there, in the background, and can have resonance, but most people wouldn’t notice. It’s a study of the human condition as far as I’m concerned, not the study of a social condition or a disease.

Do you think that the first time Spider is having these memories/revelations is in the film, or is this a familiar repetition?

This is what I think, though now the movie has a life of its own, so what I think is not that important anymore. It’s probably not the end of the story. But what has happened is that at least Spider has realized that his memories are not the truth, they are not a truth, they are something he has structured to allow himself to live and now that’s come apart and he realizes that something else is going on. But that’s about as far as you can go. It’s really about the creation of reality, we all have alternate realities, and they overlap but they’re not the same. I think if we were in each other’s head we’d be shocked, absolutely shocked. Think about your dog. You’ve got a connection to your dog. You inhabit the same space, but if you were in the dog’s head everything would be different. Your sense of smell, color, no color, no language, it’s a different world, yet the dog has its own reality, but it’s not yours, it really isn’t. There’s no absolute reality.