Long Live the New Flesh: David Cronenberg’s Evolution

POD from Body/Mind/ Change exhibit.
POD from Body/Mind/ Change exhibit.

A progenitor of a genre typically referred to as body horror, Toronto-born and world-renowned auteur David Cronenberg remains one of the most audacious narrative directors working in cinema. Citing literary influences as diverse and incendiary as Vladimir Nabokov and William S. Burroughs (Cronenberg adapted Burroughs’s Naked Lunch), Cronenberg’s films continually blur the line between corporeality and psychological disorder, reality and hallucinatory nightmare. Currently, TIFF features a major exhibit to celebrate the director’s work, David Cronenberg: Evolution, and has been playing Cronenberg’s entire cinematic oeuvre, with special introductions to screenings and talks with those who have worked most closely with him.

TIFF, which has grown alongside Cronenberg’s own genesis as a filmmaker, brilliantly displays the director’s iconoclastic work. The primary exhibit theme is evolution, dividing Cronenberg’s work into three chapters: part one encompasses the early virology films, such as Scanners; part two includes the middle period films Videodrome and Dead Ringers, in which divided selves experiment on their own bodies; part three concerns family and power in Cronenberg’s recent work, from Spider to Cosmopolis. The exhibit features some 300 original artifacts (including surgical instruments from Dead Ringers and the telepod from The Fly), visionary designs, rare video footage, and an entire section devoted solely to Naked Lunch where you can get a free photo with a full-size replica of the Mugwump. In addition to the primary exhibit is the digital counterpart, Body/Mind/Change, an immersive world inspired by Videodrome that allows visitors to enter a Cronenbergian world through an “artificial intelligence recommendation engine” called POD (Personal On-Demand).

Of course, to fully appreciate the exhibit you need to see the films on the big screen. The images in Cronenberg’s cinematic odyssey leave their fleshy mark on the psyche, from the body slit in Videodrome, the talking insect typewriter in Naked Lunch, or the metallic sex in cars in Crash. I had the chance to hear Cronenberg and Jeremy Irons introduce Dead Ringers (1988). One of Cronenberg’s most controlled and creepy films, Dead Ringers centres on twin-brother gynaecologists who share everything, including a patient, and despite their best efforts, cannot be severed from one another. The “Instruments for Operating on Mutant Women,” displayed in the exhibit, are a haunting metaphor for male desire to control reproduction. Before the screening Cronenberg discussed how Dead Ringers was a critical turning point in his career; after the screening, the first words Jeremy Irons spoke were, “That’s a pretty strange film.”

A night at the movies doesn’t get much stranger than Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991), which focuses on writer-exterminator William Lee and his “bug powder” hallucinations and travels through “Interzone.” It was great having Howard Shore introduce the film, who has scored all of Cronenberg’s films, except one, since 1979, and whose orchestral soundtrack to Naked Lunch features Ornette Coleman’s harmolodic playing. In these Cronenberg films, and elsewhere, the characters’ identities are mutable and fragile, and the mind and body are indivisible. Many of Cronenberg’s characters suffer from a hubristic desire to control fate and human evolution. In Cronenberg’s words in the companion to the exhibit, “It is existential fear that induces the desire for control […] why escape from the body? Animals are not like that” (178).

An ornately illustrated hardcover book, David Cronenberg: Evolution, accompanies the exhibit with useful essays by curators Piers Handling and Noah Cowan. Based on two interviews, the book reveals fascinating insights throughout, from Cronenberg’s atheism and bedrock existentialism to his improvisatory documentary process of directing. Cronenberg discusses the provocative literary influences he admires, from Beckett (The Fly), to Sartre and Heidegger, stating that “If you’re not provocative on some level, you’re not an artist” (144). By this standard, Cronenberg is an artist of the highest order. In the words of Max in Videodrome: “Long live the new flesh.”

David Cronenberg: Evolution runs until January 19th, 2014.

Foldout of a mugwump from David Cronenberg: Evolution limited edition exhibit book.
Foldout of a Mugwump from David Cronenberg: Evolution (limited edition exhibit book).


Photos by Paul Watkins.