In times that have winnowed my already short attention span down to a nub, sitting through an entire new-to-me movie has become an active, gratifying challenge in focus. Right now, I’m making my way through the filmography of David Cronenberg, the Canadian director best known for pioneering body horror. I know, I know: a movie marathon? When you’re trapped inside? Groundbreaking. But taking the time to get to know an artist whose work you’re only glancingly familiar with requires just enough dedication to make it feel like you’re 'doing something,' and comes with enough cultural payoff to fuel a few snappy minutes of party conversation for whenever… parties come back.
I’ve long aggrandized the choice to watch a capital-F Film (instead of, like, looking at my phone for 3 hours) by telling myself it’s like “reading a book.” It’s an indulgent approach to entertainment and a hill I’m fully willing to die on. Now that “current events” have sapped our collective mental energy to the degree that we’re actually kind of down to check out “Quibi,” movies are books. Fuck it!
Cronenberg’s early filmography, where I’m treading water to avoid the mindfuck of watching two Viggo Mortenson movies in a row, feels especially relevant in these paranoia-drenched times. Cronenberg’s human protagonists tend to spend their time onscreen in the process of uncovering some teeming horror just below the surface of ordinary life, where Cronenberg’s monsters ooze and bulge and shudder. Often, the line between the two blurs as they congeal into one being, something more terrible than the sum of its parts. It’s a disease-centric formula that’s especially appealing at a time when all bodies, even our own, have become objects of anxiety and suspicion.
But Cronenberg’s work functions both as a funhouse mirror to our modern pandemic and time capsule of late-20th-century neuroses. It’s almost quaint to watch James Woods play a sleazy television producer in Videodrome convinced that raw, uncensored sex and violence is the future of entertainment when, nearly 40 years later, anyone can access a near-bottomless well of accidental death videos on LiveLeak. Jeff Goldblum picking a fingernail out from between his teeth in The Fly remains cringe-worthy. But how out-of-place would his transformation from man to insectoid monster feel among the surgical transformations and dermal excavations that populate certain corners of Instagram?
Honestly, honestly, I am not even loving all of the Cronenberg movies I’ve seen so far (eight down, 13 to go, because I am not counting the short films). I found the lead actor in Scanners robotic and uninspiring, Crash is… dare I say it!... a bit of a wreck in terms of pacing and coherence, and I cannot overstate how much I don’t want to watch the Kiera Knightley/Freud movie (2011’s A Dangerous Method). But this is where the discipline comes in! It’s not just about the movies I’m watching, it’s about the act of watching the movies.
I don’t know about you all, but I’m clinging onto whatever structure I can get, even if I have to construct it myself and plant it squarely in the viscera-caked recesses of an Ontario native’s mind palace.
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