A few weeks ago I watched eXistenZ (1999). I was surprised to realize that it’s the seventh David Cronenberg film I’ve seen. Not that I’ve avoided him, but I didn’t think I’d seen that many. The first I ever saw was The Fly (1986) which I think we had on Betamax when I was young. Unsurprisingly it left a pretty strong impression on me, particularly the graphic arm-wrestling scene, but having seen it again more recently I don’t think it’s actually that great of a film.
The second Cronenberg film I saw was probably Naked Lunch (1991), which I remember watching nearly a decade ago. My family has always found my taste in films a bit odd, and many of them have sat down to watch a film with me only to wind up hating it. During a summer I was watching a lot of old Italian films I remember my mother’s response to the end of L’avventura (1960)—”That’s it?!” or my (then) thirteen-year-old sister’s response to La dolce vita (1960)—”That’s the worst movie I’ve ever seen.” Naked Lunch was one that I knew very little about when I put it on, and I watched it with my younger brother. I don’t think either of us were quite prepared for it, although I think both of us had some appreciation for it.
It was about five years ago that I saw Videodrome (1983) which I think is the best of his films that I’ve seen. It’s probably the pinnacle of “body horror”, with all of its nightmarish blurring of technology and flesh, sex and violence. It is incisive, prescient, dark and powerful, without veering too indulgently into the gore porn from trying too hard to shock. It walks a fine line, using the power of de-familiarization to provoke real thoughts about what effect images and technology have on our unevolved animal minds and bodies.
Videodrome is Cronenberg at his most brilliant, but he is also quite capable of making very good films when he aims for the mainstream. Both A History of Violence (2005) and A Dangerous Method (2011) are good films precisely because of their restraint. They have elements of his characteristic style without becoming too self-indulgent and unpleasant. Dead Ringers (1988), on the other hand, is extremely transgressive against its audience, but without the artistic or intellectual merit of some of his other films.
I started writing this because I saw eXistenZ, and yet I don’t have a great deal to say about that film. I think it’s reasonably balanced—it’s not as mainstream as some of his films, but equally it’s not as insane as others. It has aged pretty well for a movie about video games, and it’s not totally without unique and clever moments (the characters getting stuck in dialogue loops is eerily prescient of Rockstar games). Yet adds little to the themes of Videodrome, and doesn’t have that film’s power. Moreover the acting, even though it’s intentionally stilted, is so jarring as to destroy the suspension of disbelief. It’s not that it’s a bad film, just that it doesn’t offer much beyond Cronenberg’s early works.