Archive for David Cronenberg

A One-Way Ticket to Pakulaville

Posted in FILM, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2015 by dcairns


I watched THE PARALLAX VIEW, directed by Alan Pakula — excuse me, Alan *J* Pakula — because I figured it might serve as a surprise entry to Seventies Sci-Fi Week —

— one should always have Surprise Entries. I remember reading the line-up of a season of science fiction films programmed by David Cronenberg, and they were ALL surprise entries, from Robert Wise’s HELEN OF TROY (“Indistinguishable from FLASH GORDON” — nice try, but FLASH goes like a train — maybe SIGN OF THE CROSS would be a better fit) to TAXI DRIVER (“A better version of BLADE RUNNER than BLADE RUNNER.”)

— you see, I was remembering the Parallax Test scene and thought it was a movie about brainwashing, but I think that scene is probably just testing the subject’s emotional responses to words and images. It’s not the full Ludovico. To be a science-fiction film, the movie would have to take the speculations around Lee Harvey Oswald and Sirhan Sirhan and spin them into an elaborate speculative fiction. And the speculation would have to be based on altering present conditions. The Manchurian Candidate does this. It’s based on the way captured Americans were “brainwashed” — ie tortured into submission, in reality — during the Korean War, but it speculates that somebody could be mentally adjusted and become an unconscious assassin, a human bomb waiting for a post-hypnotic suggestion to trigger detonation. That phenomenon had never been witnessed — so far as we know — so the Condon book and Frankenheimer-Axelrod film could be termed sci-fi.


THE PARALLAX VIEW instead shows an organisation recruiting subjects who would make suitable lone gunmen, based on their psychological profiles, and also supplying patsies. No such organisation is known to exist — apart from possibly the CIA and a few organisations like it — but it certainly COULD exist. No adjustment of present social conditions or our understanding of scientific principles or our mastery of scientific techniques would be necessary for this film to come true.

Now I just scared myself.

The reason I misremembered the movie, which I have seen several times, is that it’s somehow elusive in the memory. And a little hard to concentrate on, as if the Hitchcockian, paranoid thriller were a slightly inapt match for Pakula’s offbeat, observational style (and we should maybe refer to the director as Pakula-Willis, since cinematographer Gordon Willis is such a central, essential contributor to Pakula’s best work). The script is by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple, with uncredited assist by Warren Beatty’s close buddy Robert Towne.


I had forgotten some good stuff — Hume Cronyn plays by far the best character (almost the only character, after Paula Prentiss’s one scene). I had forgotten there’s a hyperbolic barroom brawl that wouldn’t look out of place in a Hal Needham movie. I remembered that there was a car chase that’s similarly out-of-place. But the good action stuff is when Pakula defies genre by sitting the camera well back and calmly watching, chin resting on knuckles, as a human life is snuffed. The skirmish atop the Space Needle at the start, and the floundering fight in the flooding river, a huge damn venting a wall of spume in the background. The documentary distance adds a sense of reality, and therefore danger. (Obviously Pakula is doing this partly so he can cover up Beatty’s substitution by stunt double Craig Baxley — excuse me, Craig *R* Baxley — but the point is he makes a stylistic feature out of it.)

A different kind of distance afflicts our relationship with Warren Beatty’s character, a classic seventies alienated douchebag — Beatty cheerfully plays his more obnoxious traits to the hilt. The fact that he spends very little time in the movie with anyone he can relate to at all makes it a little hard to see him as other than an articulated shape. And I think the film has a hard job recovering from the Parallax Test in the middle, since it’s such a tour-de-force. We go from a montage masterpiece back into what is merely a very  good movie. And nobody seems to know who is responsible. Don Record did the title designs and seems to have had a role designing it. John W. Wheeler edited the movie as a whole. Did they collaborate or was the whole sequence farmed out to Record?

It reminds me of Chuck Braverman’s amazing opening sequence to SOYLENT GREEN, which IS a seventies sci-fi movie.

Now go do what you have to do.

Ladies and Germs

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on February 24, 2015 by dcairns


There’s a commercial showing in UK cinemas right now for some kind of anti-armpit treatment. It’s mostly quite bland, but there’s a shot of an inflamed pink CGI surface that’s supposed to illustrate the concept of When Armpits Go Bad, and if you look in the upper right corner (as Fiona and Alex both did, separately pointing it out to me) you can see a caption superimposed that reads “Artistic Dramatisation”.

Over at Electric Sheep Magazine, I look at the Blu-Ray of RABID, which is another artistic dramatisation of an armpit, in this case that of Marilyn Chambers, who has a very dramatic armpit indeed.

When I first became aware of Cronenberg, it was through Scorsese’s praise, and at that time, RABID seemed to be his second film as director. A little later, we became aware that STEREO and CRIMES OF THE FURURE were actual real productions, and could even be seen if you were lucky. We didn’t learn about FAST COMPANY until quite a bit later, because the filmmaker himself wasn’t anxious to talk about it. Now, the IMDb lists RABID as something like his twentieth project, making Cronenberg one of the most retroactively prolific filmmakers I have encountered. If we wait long enough, it seems like he will eventually have made more movies than Raul Ruiz, not by actually making further films, but by the far simpler route of turning out to have made more movies than we previously knew about. I wish I had that ability.

The Vabina Monologues

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2014 by dcairns


To understand the title (above), you have to see the film, MAPS TO THE STARS. Trouble is, I’m not sure it’s worth it.

David Cronenberg’s latest, written by Bruce Wagner, deals with a set of interlocking Hollywood lives, and contains thriller elements, but differs from THE PLAYER in the blackness of the humour (several shades darker) and I guess in the fact that the film isn’t really interested in movies at all. Altman, who likewise dropped names and threw in familiar faces to boost the verisimilitude, really did want to talk about why movies had gotten so bad. The Wagner/Cronenberg is more about American culture in general. I guess it’s another science fiction film in the manner of CRASH, in that it extrapolates modern mores a little bit on from where they are. For all the denials that it’s satire, that’s exactly what it is.

Julianne Moore is excellent — Kidmanesque in her characters cringey phoniness. John Cusack, very good, his jet-black hair and eyeliner as bold a choice, arguably, as Moore’s nudity and mania (Fiona did wonder if it was how he really styles himself). Mia Wasikowska, weird and affecting. Robert Pattinson, not really stretched at all. Olivia Williams — always, ALWAYS excellent. Evan Bird (the kid) seems like he could play the role but needs a few more takes much of the time. He’s not helped by Cronenberg’s customary deadpan stillness, which feels stilted when applied to the teenage characters. There’s not much sense of life’s messiness and noise here, everything’s so cool and composed, but rather flat and televisual rather than making something interesting out of the stasis.

(What Cronenberg is always really good at shooting is modern architecture — Toronto, basically. But there’s not much of that glossy, alienated beauty here, though the movie could use it.)

There’s some complicated backstory (two fires in the past?) and the Gothic aspects of the story involving incest and schizophrenia did not much convince — and what point was being made by their inclusion? Surely the point of celebrity culture is that it can make you crazy even if you’re not the offspring of married siblings? Some of the gross ideas shocked, but the “shocking revelations” certainly didn’t.


And the attempts to evoke madness — curiously unchilling. Cronenberg is usually at his best when he has historical settings and bizarre imagery to punch up his laid-back shooting style, and his portrayals of insanity from the inside out have been most effective when he can show you crazy stuff and make you believe it’s real. There’s a moment in SPIDER that always really bothered me, maybe because I’d read a copy of the script before seeing it and imagined the scene a certain way. Young Spider’s mother, Miranda Richardson, has turned her back, and he hears her say that she’s killed his mother and taken her place. Now, this line is his hallucination. I felt very strongly that the line should have played over her back, from his POV. Cronenberg films it full-face. I guess he meant to give it more force, make it seem more real, but I would have felt it more from the boy’s angle.

Here, the various hallucinations — everybody seems to be having them — should have a Lynchian creep factor but just lie there. The theoretically clever idea of robbing them of sound effects, so that bathwater sloshes in silence, don’t carry any uncanny impact because of the dialogue and the Howard Shore music all over them. I can’t see Lynch making this movie, but in a way he would have been a better fit. He’d have pushes his own interests into it, which Cronenberg is disinclined to do. He’s become an adaptor in recent years, and it’s really questionable how much of his own personality he’s able to force into the material. In NAKED LUNCH, yes, and CRASH, but those works already had influenced his outlook greatly. We would like to see some full-on Cronenberg, but not a self-pastiche.

There’s a bit of CGI that’s so poor — unreleasably poor — that you think, “Oh dear, someone else has started hallucinating,” when in fact they probably haven’t. I’m still not sure though.


Still, looking back at the Cronenbergs that disappointed me at the time, I find I feel quite fondly about them now, whether I’ve revisted them or not, so maybe I’ll grow to like this one more.


Hey, producers! I went looking for stills of this film and found mainly behind-the-scenes paparazzi shots and images of Julianne Moore. Obviously, her Oscar campaign is underway, however you are also theoretically selling a movie that’s on release and Pattinson and Miakowska have fans too. Has the movie still quietly died? LET US PREY, the film Fiona & I are credited with writing, is now gearing up for an actual US release but you can only find about four images from it online (one of them depicting a major character’s death). Stills seem to me to still have use…


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