Death Is Not the End: Self-Destruction in the Films of David Cronenberg

David Cronenberg Essay - Crimes of the Future (2022)

“… Suicide is painless / It brings on many changes” — Johnny Mandel and Mike Altman, “Theme From M*A*S*H (Suicide Is Painless)”

“Don’t be afraid to let your body die.” — Nicki Brand (Debbie Harry), Videodrome 

One of the aspects that comes with becoming a world-famous auteur artist is a reputation. Reputations, as most savvy people know, are only a part of a person’s story, not the whole. David Cronenberg’s reputation is as the king of body horror, a man whose films are part special-effects-induced squick, part sexual and moral provocation. Of course, one look at his diverse and lengthy filmography makes such labels inaccurate; after all, Cronenberg hasn’t had a bevy of goopy, throbbing creatures in his films since eXistenZ (1999), and as such the fanbase garnered through his incredible early run of science fiction/horror films likes to put forth the narrative that the director became lost to a more respectable type of arthouse features.

This view is erroneous on two fronts: for one, there’s the fact that the David Cronenberg’s new film, Crimes of the Future, is very much a return to visual form, with the filmmaker’s body horror taking center stage once again. More importantly, however, is the second reason: while Cronenberg did indeed make a move away from sci-fi and horror in the back half of his career, he never for a moment lost sight of the central themes he likes to explore in his work. Chief among these themes is the notion of self-destruction, which is important to distinguish from the idea of suicide. Many of Cronenberg’s movies end with the protagonists committing some form of suicide, yet — in a very Cronenbergian body horror twist — these acts aren’t merely made out of despair. They’re the final step in a metamorphosis, and whether those changes are physical or mental, they require not suicide per se, but self-destruction. 

David Cronenberg’s early experimental short films, particularly Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (a 1970 movie which apparently shares no plot elements with its 2022 namesake), are near-impermeable works of low-tech fantasy that depict an indeterminate future where humanity has grown exponentially more detached and more transgressive. Even within the shorts’ obfuscated narratives, suicide and self-destruction turn up: two telepaths in Stereo kill themselves while another births an entire new personality which destroys her original personality; the insane dermatologists in Crimes of the Future realize too late that the plague they’d inadvertently created via cosmetic products has not only wiped out all women but will consume them, too. 

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The first four full-length films made by David Cronenberg don’t feature suicide in any conventional manner, but nonetheless self-destructive behavior is rampant in all of them. The unscrupulous scientists of Shivers (1975) create a plague of slug-like parasites that take over a high-rise building and then, presumably, the world, all thanks to the out-of-control sexual fetishes of one of the scientists (shades of the original Crimes of the Future) who turns what was meant to be an all-purpose replacement organ into “a combination of aphrodisiac and venereal disease.” In saving the life of Rose (Marilyn Chambers) after a near-fatal motorcycle accident, the plastic surgeons of Rabid (1977) inadvertently turn her into a Typhoid Mary who is compelled to suck the blood of her victims through a new phallic-like stinger under her armpit, which turns the victims into rabid zombies. Horrified by the truth of her new body, Rose locks herself in an apartment with one of her victims, hoping he won’t attack her. The woman’s hope is deferred, resulting in her committing the rare suicide-by-zombie. 

Fast Company (1979) is arguably the biggest outlier in David Cronenberg’s filmography, at least until one learns about the director’s deep love of motor vehicles. Even so, the film’s drag racers are shown to be participating in continual self-destructive behavior, as the competition between rival racing companies becomes dangerous and, eventually, deadly. The Brood (1979) begins Cronenberg’s interest in transforming the human body in earnest — where the mutated organs of Shivers and Rabid are visited upon a series of victims, here the practice of “psychoplasmics,” a radical form of mental treatment, encourages patients to express their emotions through manifesting external skin conditions and beyond. Thus, star patient Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar) deals with her deep-seated, rage-filled issues of family and parenthood by giving external birth to a brood of asexual child creatures who do her unconscious bidding. In essence, Nola creates the brood by sloughing off pieces of herself, further destroying her own family in the process of becoming something new. 

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One aspect of David Cronenberg’s films that becomes clear the more one watches them is their operatic quality, an aspect best seen in the director’s output of the 1980s. What other word besides “operatic” can best describe the finales of Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983), The Dead Zone (1983), The Fly (1986) and Dead Ringers (1988)? In each of these films, the protagonists end up deceased, yet each of them have also been irreversibly transformed. Scanners sees telepath Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) literally destroy his own body with the force of his mind powers while transferring himself into the mind of his nemesis brother, Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside). Videodrome’s Max Renn (James Woods) is told by his disappeared lover, Nicki, that the only way to combat the influence of the tumor-inducing Videodrome broadcast is to let his body die, to shoot himself with his arm (which has become a tumorous “cancer gun”) and ascend to “the new flesh.” The Dead Zone’s Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken), burdened with visions of the future, manages to shame the corrupt politician Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) enough to avoid a future where Stillson nukes the planet, even though he had a feeling he’d die in the process. Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), having become an unstable physical abomination after accidentally turning himself into The Fly, begs his lover Veronica (Geena Davis) to end his misery with a shotgun blast. The twin gynecologists of Dead Ringers, Beverly and Elliot Mantle (both Jeremy Irons), find their minds and souls so inextricably linked that when they attempt to “separate” themselves through a drug-addled unnecessary surgery, they find one cannot live without the other. 

By contrast, only one David Cronenberg film in the 90s ends with a suicide — most aptly, his adaptation of David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly (1993), which alludes to the opera “Madama Butterfly” in the way René Gallimard (Irons again), having been betrayed by his lover Song (John Lone) on a number of levels, transforms himself into his (and the Puccini opera’s) ideal of Chinese femininity before ending his life. The other protagonists of Cronenberg’s 90s films are more obtuse in their self-destructive acts, none of them intentionally pursuing oblivion but all of them actively flirting with it as a way of becoming something or someone other than themselves. William Lee (Peter Weller) in Naked Lunch (1991), being an alter ego of the author William S. Burroughs, finds he cannot express himself unless he’s high on some arcane drug-like substance, his artistic endeavors requiring increasingly high levels of self-destruction up to and including the murder of his supposed wife, Joan (Judy Davis). The car crash fetishists of Crash (1996) literally get off on destruction, whether it’s of the vehicles they’re in or the bodies they’re inhabiting — usually both. Their detachment is briefly shaken loose in these crashes, and while one of their own loses his life in his pursuit of the car crash as a “fertilizing” event, their objective isn’t necessarily to join him, but to come as close (and as hard) as possible. The gamers of eXistenZ are on a similar quest, but theirs is only partially physical. While game designers like the goddess (or demoness, depending on which radicalized group is speaking) Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) have designed their fleshy “game pods” to plug into the spinal cord of humans, the goal of games like eXistenZ isn’t just a transformation of the body but the replacement and obliteration of reality and the self, the two becoming so unmoored that a baseline can no longer be found. 

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It is after eXistenZ that most David Cronenberg fans place a demarcation line, a before and after body horror, even though Fast Company, M. Butterfly and to a certain extent Dead Ringers and Crash already saw the filmmaker express his auteurist themes without the use of fleshy creatures or physical protrusions. Yet Cronenberg’s more internalized era doesn’t skimp on the devastating effects of self-destruction — in fact, it arguably finds them even more pronounced. Witness the titular character of Spider (2002), played by Ralph Fiennes, whose schizophrenia creates a false past that not only lies to the character himself but to the audience, the horror of Spider’s actions rendering him not a man but a near-mute, a constantly paranoid and pathetic creature. Take Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) in A History of Violence (2005), a man who thought he’d thoroughly transformed himself into a wholly new personality (shades of Stereo and Scanners) that when his violent gangster past catches up to him, it nearly destroys his family (like it does to Lola in The Brood). Mortensen and Cronenberg riff on this dichotomy in their follow-up feature, Eastern Promises (2007), where the actor portrays a good man, Nikolai, who is undercover as a vicious gangster. The complications of identity go further when Nikolai, as a part of joining the upper caste of the Russian mafia, is told by his vors that his identity must be obliterated, with his past only able to be seen in his copious tattoos. 

David Cronenberg’s most recent films (before the director stepped away from filmmaking for close to a decade, that is) seem to be approaching a kind of apotheosis, with his characters facing self-destruction as not a transformative ideal but rather a rapidly approaching inevitability. In chronicling the rift between turn-of-the-20th-century psychoanalysts Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), Sigmund Freud (Mortensen) and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) in A Dangerous Method (2011), Cronenberg not only looks at how Spielrein sees sex as a self-destructive act (with the two participants creating a new third body/persona) but examines how psychoanalysis — along with just average communication between individuals — creates enough transference as to obliterate true individuality. In Cosmopolis (2012), the director concocts a localized apocalypse around the youthful billionaire Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), with the character’s loss of his fortune mirroring his lack of identity as he goes on a Joseph Conrad-esque journey into madness and obliteration, seemingly welcoming his own oblivion. The vapid and self-obsessed showbiz characters of Maps to the Stars (2014) go beyond the usual Hollywood satire, as Cronenberg chronicles the various ways their self-delusions and ambitions create an ever larger abyss of lies that they are destined to fall into, leaving the flawed victims of their false histories and identities no recourse but to escape through suicide. 

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David Cronenberg Essay - Maps to the Stars

As early word and marketing materials for David Cronenberg’s new Crimes of the Future indicate, the auteur is once again delving into humanity’s penchant for self-destruction. In this instance, the idea seems to be body-horror-literal as well as internal, with Mortensen playing a man who has become a celebrity for cutting up and modifying the bodies of others as well as his own. Cronenberg and his films brilliantly and powerfully evoke how deeply ingrained humanity’s self-destructive tendencies are. One could trace such behavior all the way back to the concept of Original Sin, or extrapolate it all the way to present day events, where tragedies that seem preventable are allowed to happen time and again for increasingly bizarre reasons. Taking that notion further, perhaps it is the very reason that we humans are destined to die by engaging in such flirtations with self-destruction. Cronenberg realizes this, and even accepts it to a degree, his films neither judging nor endorsing his self-destructive protagonists. Like one of his scientist characters fascinated with his chosen subject’s behavior, Cronenberg is an observer of humanity who is nowhere near as cold or distant as one might think initially. He is not a religious filmmaker, but his movies are still very spiritual: like Nicki Brand says in Videodrome, “death is not the end” but rather a pathway to a new and uncanny state of being. Some of Cronenberg’s films end with his characters definitively deceased — others are only implied to be, their lives caught in an eternal limbo, a state similar to Schrödinger’s infamous cat. Death and transformation are constants for Cronenberg, who is all too aware he’s a member of a species with a built-in expiration date. Yet the seductive allure of becoming, of transcending the pain of the human experience, is also a constant, and as the song goes: suicide is painless. Perhaps David Cronenberg is owed another kind of reputation: that of a humanist filmmaker who observes and questions, who understands our pain and sorrow as well as our ambitions both intellectual and libidinous.

Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City.