Published September 30, 2015
The Reykjavík International Film Festival may not unveil the season’s most anticipated premieres, or unfurl its longest, plushest red carpet, but one thing it has on the competition: it is the only film festival that can offer its guest of honour a trip to Iceland. One recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s festival last touched down in Iceland in the 1960s, when Loftleiðir was the cheapest way to get between North America and the UK. Now, he’s submitting to the ritual of being celebrated by strangers for decades-old work, in part, for a chance to revisit the country, this time for longer than it takes to change planes.
He spent some time working on Old Nordic texts in his university days, the filmmaker tells me over the phone in our brief chat, particularly Njáls Saga and Laxdæla, and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see the places where they happened. Just the names of the places in the sagas are richly suggestive of the history that unfolded there, for this year’s major guest of honour at RIFF, David Cronenberg.
The Body Artist
Wait a minute—David Cronenberg? Like, exploding heads? James Woods merging with his home cinema? Marilyn Chambers turning people into zombies with her armpit? Granting that Njáls Saga includes the famous scene in which Skarphéðinn’s “axe crashed down on on [Þráinn’s] head and split it down to the jaw-bone, spilling the back-teeth on to the ice,” a description which matches outré viscerality with surgical precision in a way consistent with the filmmaker’s mythos (and that sounds like something Viggo Mortensen might have done in ‘A History of Violence’), it is nevertheless surprising to hear David Cronenberg profess an affinity for these stories of kinship, custom and landscape.
Because, you see, it’s right there in the RIFF program, in the filmmaker’s own words, taken from a 1989 interview: “I think the mind grows out of the body. I don’t believe in an afterlife. I don’t see the mind or the spirit or the soul continuing after our body dies. The mind and body are completely dependent and interrelated. The mind is somehow organic and physical. It’s only our perception and our culture that keeps them separate.” Cronenberg’s legacy is as cinema’s foremost Body Artist, the filmmaker who works through ideas about the nature of identity by conducting unsanctioned experiments on human flesh. Where do the sagas fit in with all that?
And, in the selection of Cronenberg films showing at RIFF, you can see variations on the theme. In ‘The Brood’ (1979), domestic troubles become literal, and corporeal, as a family is tormented by stunted genderless rage-babies growing out of a sac in the ailing mother’s abdomen. In ‘The Fly’ (1986), Jeff Goldblum’s nerdy-hot scientist is fused with the DNA of a housefly in a teleportation experiment gone horribly wrong, and Geena Davis has to watch her lover change and decay in horrifying ways. In ‘Dead Ringers’ (1989), Jeremy Irons plays identical-twin gynaecologists whose symbiosis begins to break down, and one of whom invents a series of horrifying implements for “operating on mutant women.” In ‘Crash’ (1996), a community of sex fetishists fuck in cars, fondle each other’s scars, and seek out the “fertilizing” energy of an automobile smash-up. In ‘Eastern Promises’ (2007), tattoos signify past deeds and status within a community of Russian mobsters (and Viggo Mortensen stabs a guy while naked). In all these films, the self is purely material, and the vulnerabilities and mutations of the flesh are also those of what you might, out of habit, call the mind or soul.
Where do the sagas fit in with all that?
Now, I don’t want to oversell “David Cronenberg, Viking Groupie” here—the unflinchingly avuncular Canadian filmmaker was probably just finding something nice to give to the local press, it’s not like he’s itching to get a runic tattoo—but a Cronenberg who remembers the Icelandic sagas, and who’s compelled even just a little bit by the connection between the Icelandic country and its culture and stories, is more like the filmmaker he’s evolved into. Especially if you look past his beginnings grafting intellectual curiosity onto exploitation fare.
‘The Fly’, set largely within a dingy warehouse laboratory, could take place anywhere at all; ‘Dead Ringers’, though set within a large city, is almost entirely indoors. In both films, biology—genetics, the womb—is the primary determinant.
By ‘Crash’, adapted from J.G. Ballard’s novel, the characters seek “the reshaping of the human body by modern technology”—all those twisted, gleaming metal machines and the media mythology of high-speed tragedy. The setting is a city, but one that feels more like The City, an anodyne urban modernity whose sterile locations are pronounced by the characters as proper nouns: “The Airport,” “The Hospital,” “The Traffic.”
But ‘Eastern Promises’ is a flavoursome glimpse of London’s criminal underworld and migrant subcultures. We can trace in Cronenberg’s films an opening outward, so that it’s not just the body that shapes identity, but a whole ecosystem, which is more and more specifically a particular society (a trend which continued with the period continental settings of 2011’s ‘A Dangerous Method’, and the New York and LA of 2012’s ‘Cosmopolis’ and 2014’s ‘Map to the Stars’).
“There’s the solipsistic mode of filmmaking,” Cronenberg tells me when I lay this theory on him in breathless yet excruciating detail—a mode that naturally begins with a person alone in a room, writing about things of immediate personal interest. But because the self is connected to the wider world, he continues, the art eventually becomes larger, less solipsistic, and more interesting. All films are political—which is not to say necessarily politically “dogmatic,” Cronenberg clarifies, but certainly engaged with the culture. That 1975’s ‘Shivers’ (aka ‘They Came from Within’) is set entirely within a single apartment complex was partly a matter of finance and logistics during the early stages of his career, Cronenberg tells me, while allowing that “as you get older perhaps the balance changes,” and you’re more attuned to the way the self opens up into the world of society and politics, and more interested in following it out there.
Back in the early 80s, we all believed VHS would slowly take over first our minds and then our bodies, supplanting what had up to then been known as reality. Of course, we now know that it would take another decade and the Internet to achieve this. Nevertheless, ‘Videodrome’ remains compelling, either as an example of how new technology always creates new fears or perhaps as prescient warning of things to come. Also, James Woods.
The kick inside
Interiors remain vital for Cronenberg, of course. It’s a very, well, gynaecological selection of films we’re getting at RIFF. Not just ‘Dead Ringers’, but also ‘The Fly’, in which Cronenberg cameos as an OB/GYN as Geena Davis dreams of delivering a nonhuman baby; and ‘The Brood’, which climaxes with the revelation of Samantha Eggar’s demons manifesting in fetal form. In both scenes, the pregnant woman has what feels like an alien being inside of her; Davis’s character is horrified, but Eggar’s, in an especially memorable scene, embraces it, to our own horror.
For David Cronenberg, the process of making any film is equally wrapped up in an intimacy he describes in physical terms. “All films are personal, which is not to say autobiographical,” he tells me, because the film has to be something that will sustain your interest. His projects seem to take about ten years to come to fruition, on average, he reflected, for various funding reasons (he talks frequently and matter-of-factly about the role of money in his filmmaking process. You would, too, if your career involved filming a diseased Jeff Goldblum as he dissolves his food with thick silvery corrosive acid vomit, and you were not independently wealthy). To sustain your excitement over the material, the connection has to be emotional—even the abstract intellectual curiosity needs to remain “ticklish.” You have to be aching to bring this piece of art into the world, it seems—as an example, he recalls the long gestation period of ‘Spider’ (2002), which was so close to falling apart before Ralph Fiennes came aboard to star, and then all of a sudden “Spider was so close, we could see him and taste him.”
A History of Cronenberg (and more)
The tactility is very Cronenberg. If a film project is like a child, I suggest, a finished film is like the person that a child grows up to be, often quite surprisingly different from the parent—alien, even. RIFF audiences will be treated to some wonderful performances in some frankly impossible roles: Jeremy Irons’s precision and sensitivity as the yin-yang twins Bev and Elli Mantle; Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, so touching in their love even as his ears start to fall off. “The physical presence of the actor becomes important,” he responds when asked about the role of actors in embodying or challenging the longed-for film, because “before that it’s just dialogue, really. Just words on a page.”
So the films at RIFF exist for us perhaps a little differently than they exist for David Cronenberg—who conceived them and was present at their birth, as it were. Retrospectives are a constant for the filmmaker, who seems both gratified and bemused by the process, immediately telling me that “my first retrospective was after I’d made two underground films”—he thinks it was something to do with an effort to build up a Canadian film culture. So though he’s scheduled for a “Master Class” discussion on September 30 (1pm, at the University of Iceland), and Q&As following screenings of ‘Crash’ (6pm, Háskólabíó, September 29) and ‘The Fly’ (8:15pm, Háskólabíó, October 1), don’t expect to see him in the auditorium at any of the other ones. His films, he says, “are basically diaries. I can’t watch my movies as movies,” because every scene brings back memories of what he was doing on set that day, his life at the time. He chuckles to himself. “But maybe that’ll change as I get more senile and start to forget.”
People used to treat the sagas as precise, hyperlocal records of individual existences, too—but now we know they’re stories of their time and place.