The Primal Scene

Freud’s primal scene beautifully captured in this surviving fragment of an early ALICE cartoon by Walt Disney. Seemed appropriate as we’d just seen Cronenberg’s A DANGEROUS METHOD. Disney, of course, is even spankier than Keira Knightley’s character in the latter film, probably as a result of his German-American background.

As for FREUD VS JUNG IN THE WORLD SERIES OF LOVE, I need to see it again, but I enjoyed it — an intelligent, even intellectual love story. You might expect Cronenberg, the rationalist, to side more with Freud than with the mystic Jung, and in that one respect, maybe he does, but on the whole, Jung emerges far more sympathetically that his master — and Sabina Spielrein more sympatetically that either.

Glenn Kenny, in this illuminating interview with Cronenberg, makes the point that the film relates back to RABID, with its vision of female libido running amok and threatening society. I was reminded of SHIVERS too (THEY CAME FROM WITHIN, that film’s alternative title, might make a good alternative for ADM too) — the clean, sharp-edged world of Control and Civilization disrupted by wild, animalistic behaviour. It’s interesting that in Cronenberg’s early films he seemed to suffer from the problem of The Hero With Nothing To Do — since the aberrant, monstrous characters were the ones that really interested him, his straight protagonists were left to run around and always arrive too late, and to hear about the climax via a telephone call. Only in SCANNERS, when he located the monstrous within the person of the hero, did this problem find a solution (and even then, Stephen Lack’s, well, lack as leading man kept the film from fully realizing this radical solution).

It’s interesting that Cronenberg has never made a film truly about a female protagonist  — Geena Davis is a major POV character in THE FLY, arguably the lead, but not quite — Cronenberg has too much love for his evolving monster. Jennifer Jason Leigh in EXISTENZ has to share all her screen time with Jude Law. And here, Sabina is a catalyst for Jung’s voyage of discovery.

Yet, as Fiona reminds me from time to time, if you want to talk about body horror, women have FAR more experience of that than men — you only have to look at childbirth, but you don’t have to look that far.

Maybe, Cronenberg is relocating body horror into his male characters because THAT’S his phobia — so there’s the latex umbilicus connecting the two Jeremy Irons brothers in DEAD RINGERS, the squishy bits of raw liver that go into and out of the orifices of various characters in SHIVERS, and Jude Law’s lumbar-region penetration by Willem Dafoe in EXISTENZ  — this stuff is, in the real world, natural enough, but by transmogrifying it and masculinizing it, Cronenberg is exploring its capacity to disturb. And from his own, male, viewpoint.

20 Responses to “The Primal Scene”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    Has Cronenberg really never made a film around a female protagonist? What about Samantha Eggar in THE BROOD or Marilyn Chambers in RABID?

    He seems to have started with strong (and even gynaecological) images of women and become more male-oriented (dare I say, homoerotic?) as the years go by.

  2. Insightful piece on Cronenberg.

    I wonder how this film relates to Huston’s FREUD.

  3. I suspect Huston’s film isn’t relevant to Cronenberg at all — they cover different periods (you could position the Cronenberg as a sequel if you really wanted) and he’s drawn from the historical record rather than other movies. And Cronenberg’s less enamoured of Freud, even though he apparently respects him a lot.

    The thing about The Brood and Rabid is that they are nominally “about” male characters, the way King Kong is “about” human characters, with the women occupying the sympathetic monster antagonist role. Which doesn’t work, as the men are really boring compared to the women. But Eggar gets about fifteen minutes screen time in The Brood, you can’t call her the central protagonist. Whereas the male mutants of Scanners, The Fly and Videodrome are central. In Videodrome, Naked Lunch and Spider the male character is in EVERY scene, tying together different realities: no woman gets that kind of screen time in Cronenberg.

  4. david wingrove Says:

    Yes, but everything in THE BROOD happens around and because of Samantha and she totally dominates the screen when she’s on it. You have to make a conscious effort to remind yourself just how small her role actually is!

    An old friend of my family (the lovely Nuala Fitzgerald) actually plays Samantha’s mother in that film. I always found this odd, as I figured the two women were roughly the same age. One day, I dared to broach this to Nuala, who bristled slightly…


    That was our first and last conversation on that topic.

  5. Keira Knightly does indeed give it everything she’s got (and then some) but at the end of the day A Dangerous Method is a (brace yourselves, here it comes) Bromance bietween Freud and (as my boyfriend Bill insists on calling him) Hung Jung — though we don’t see “the goods” as we did so “shockingly” in Shame.
    Fassbender is excellent, as always, but to me the film belongs to Viggo — and not just because he’s cuter, but because of the key moment (beautifully dramatized by Cronenberg) where Freud discovers “the death instinct.”

    Go Google “When Freud Fainted.”

  6. david wingrove Says:

    But does Keira Knightly actually have anything to give?!

    To me, that woman is the largest and most expensive blank space ever foisted onto a screen.

  7. It turns out all she needed was a good part and a good director. It’s hard to imagine how utterly indifferent to performance her previous directors must have been — or else she’s suddenly improved no end.

    I haven’t been charting her progress much, having dismissed her as a vacuum years ago, but I did hear hints that she was improving — but this is really something. I guess the extremity of what was called for helped, because half measures really will not do in this kind of thing. Interesting to read some people struggling to accept the performance because of its grotesque elements (the chin which protrudes American Werewolf fashion), when anyone who’s been in a psych ward could tell you, mental illness ain’t pretty!

  8. I agree with just about everything herein. This movie only appreciates, as does Croney’s career/output/work. Thx, DC.

  9. That Prince paraphrase should have been the movie’s tagline.

  10. Yes, marketing lost a great mind when I opted for a life of grinding poverty.

    The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: “Jean-Do Bauby is having a REALLY bad day…”

  11. Paul Duane Says:

    The best writing about Cronenberg and sex is in Robin Wood’s books, though I think he’s a bit hard on DC (heh heh heh. I said “hard on”).

    Re David Wingrove’s first comment, it’s worth watching the very early and very gay-themed (or at the very least pansexual) Cronenberg shorts, Crimes of the Future and Stereo. Wood reckoned Cronenberg’s whole career was a flight from these early films into a horror of the ‘invaded’ male body. I think Existenz is Cronenberg’s wry joke about this reading.

  12. david wingrove Says:

    Yes, I have seen at least one of those early Cronenberg films – but can’t honestly remember which one it was! It did strike me at the time as a piece of ‘gay underground’ movie-making.

    Cronenberg seems to get ever gayer as the years go by – DEAD RINGERS, NAKED LUNCH, M. BUTTERFLY, CRASH, not to mention his recent EASTERN PROMISES, where the nude knife fight in the sauna is basically full-on gay porn. All this without ever actually coming out of the closet, and/or claiming any personal relationship with his material at all!

    Obviously, he’s not the first heterosexual film-maker to make an outrageously queer movie (think Richard Fleischer and MANDINGO or Billy Wilder and SOME LIKE IT HOT) but the sheer force and continuity of his homoerotic obsessions does make one wonder.

    Or is that just my gay man’s imagination going into overdrive?

  13. Cronenberg’s sensibility was informed by the gay theatre people he met at college, when he shifted from science to the arts, so it’s always been an influence and a world he was aware of.

    But he stated up front that adapting The Naked Lunch presented a difficulty for him, and the movie he made seems to support that, although it’s not totally de-gayed. It’s just that it treats Cronenbergian monsters in the usual full-on way, but sublimates dealing with Burroughs/Lee’s sexuality almost as if it were being made under the Production Code and had to disguise everything. But that seems to suit the espionage theme. “Homosexuality is the best damn cover story an agent ever had.”

    The attention DC gets for being explicit on the fantastique stuff is a diversion from how that indirectly allows him to do hardcore sex, with the proviso that none of it ever involves HUMAN sex organs.

  14. Cronenberg and I had quite a set-to over his de-gaying of Naked Lunch. (I also objected to his turning Joan Vollmer in Jane Bowles)

    But he made up for it with Crash and its climactic scene in which James Spader and Elias Koteas get REALLY busy.

  15. Talking about cinema walk-outs, he said that’s when a lot of straight guys left, but they had to DRAG their dates, who didn’t want to miss a moment.

  16. Paul Duane Says:

    My favourite homophilic Cronenberg moment is when Willem Dafoe drills a jack into the base of Jude Law’s spine in Existenz. Between Law’s worried discomfort and Dafoe’s sweaty concentration, it’s hilarious, and seems to me (as I said above) entirely deliberate in its intention.

  17. david wingrove Says:

    Yes, NAKED LUNCH is largely de-gayed, but it has one supremely gay performance from the incomparable Julian Sands. He’s easily the highlight of that film!

  18. I do wish he’d get more and better parts. In Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo he appears in flashbacks as the younger Christopher Plummer.

  19. I can count the Sands performances I like on one hand… he may get overtaken by Jude Law at this rate. But both of them ARE capable of doing work I admire. Having Cronenberg around may be the answer. Striking that Viggo M has become DC’s most frequent leading man, since he’s largely devoid of the quirky and perverse qualities that distinguish the director’s leading men — Woods, Walken, Goldblum, Spader, Irons, Fiennes… there’s a lot of variety there but also a consistent urge to work with oddballs.

  20. Viggo’s quite the Art Boy, you know. He was married to Excene Cerveka of the great L.A. post-punk band “X” (they have kids.) He also helped jump-start “Beyond Baroque” (along with my pal Dennis Cooper) a marvelous poetry and performance-space place in Vicne (Ca.) And on top of that he creates specialty magazines and books of his own.

    Meanwhile Here’s a very interesting article on Siggy and Sabina.

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