Cronenberg's Cultural Criticism

         One of my favorite directors of the past year or so has been David Cronenberg. I have watched all his films, including The Brood and all the films after that; except M. Butterfly, which has not been released on DVD as of yet. Throughout my exploration of his films, I noticed that there is an underlying theme of cultural criticism. This theme can be noticed most strongly in two works that I will discuss here: Videodrome and Existenz; where he criticizes, what I have come to call, our "culture of entertainment." My hopes are that, by exploring the themes of these films very generally, we can see some of the underlying similarities.

         Videodrome was released in 1983. This was Cronenberg's first film in the wake of the success of his previous film, Scanners (1981). The story begins with a small television producer on the search for something new to give his network the edge. His television pirate finds a program called Videodrome. In the segment he gets to see, there is no dialogue or plot development, just a women being brutally beaten and tortured. Something about it intrigues Max (the producer), and he sets out to find the source of this show, in hopes of acquiring it for his channel. As the story unravels, we discover that Videodrome is more than just a television show, and it causes physiological changes in its viewers. Furthermore, the Videodrome signal can be used to control the minds of its viewers and also to control their actions. One thing that is very important about the Videodrome signal is that it induces a string of hallucinations. As the viewer takes in more Videodrome signal, he starts to gradually slip into a state of constant hallucination. The film follows Max on his disconnection from reality. As he begins to lose touch with what is real, so do we, the audience. Cronenberg does this masterfully, by working exclusively in the first person and showing us only what Max is shown. Unlike much American cinema (Cronenberg is Canadian) where reality is played with, Cronenberg does not illustrate Max's decay by showing how different his perception is from reality. Instead, we are left as uncertain as Max is about what is really going on around him. We might find ourselves asking: How is there any criticism in this film? Allow me to try and answer. Many of the characteristics of the Videodrome signal, and Max's reaction to it, are exaggerations of how American culture-influenced people in general use their televisions. So many people watch hours and hours of television everyday (just as Max begins to watch Videodrome everyday), and these people begin to show a lack of interest in their own situation and everyday interactions (similar to how Max becomes uncertain as to what is real and what is hallucination). The underlying criticism of this culture of entertainment, as I have come to call it, can be seen much more clearly in one of Cronenberg's later works, however, which we will move to now to help us clarify.

         Similar themes continue through much of Cronenberg's work in subsequent years but come back full-force in 1999, with the release of his film, Existenz. Existenz follows a video game designer who has been targeted for assassination because her video games are different from video games as we see them today. Instead of an electronic gaming console that we control with our hands and fingers; there is an organic living pod which contains the game world, we omit--you port into it with an umbilical cord that goes into our lower spines. When playing the game, we realize that it is indistinguishable from reality. One of the wonderful ways that Cronenberg introduces us to world of Existenz (that is also the name of the game) is by not immediately taking us in to it. We first get introduced to our characters and the circumstances we are in. Then, after about a third of the movie, the characters finally have a chance to port into the game. Pacing is one of Cronenberg's strengths as a film maker. Once the players are in the game, it becomes unclear at times whether they are still ported in, or have stopped playing and are back in reality. The cultural criticism of this film is much more apparent and obvious. Again, Cronenberg exaggerates the actual state of things in order to deliver this criticism. Many people I know personally can start to play certain video games so much, that the time between sittings is the down time. When they are at work or school or wherever, they are only waiting to get back to the game. Included in this social criticism, is also a technological one. We see today that the games keep getting more detailed, graphics more realistic. Where do we draw the line? When does it become (to quote a line from the film) a "crime against reality?"

         I hope that now we can see more clearly the underlying theme of both of these films. He makes use of audience uncertainty about what is "really" going on in the film to make the viewer slightly uncomfortable. When first getting into his films, I had an unsettled feeling trying to understand what was "really" happening. After a while (and a number of other Cronenberg's), I began to realize that this was intended. He is not trying to simply tell a narrative story about some character(s) and show their diversions from and confusion concerning, reality. He is doing something more. This, I think, is cultural criticism. The cloudy nature of reality in his films is something I think he would want to say is something present in our culture today. So many people live in a fantasy world, where they are concerned with things separate from our everyday human interactions. Rather than figure out our own problems, we play video games and solve the puzzles and defeat the evil in that world. Rather than getting together with friends and having discussion about life, we watch television to see what life is like.

         This theme is not only present in these films of his however. Crash (1996), also contains a similar theme, but instead addresses the sexualization of our culture. The Fly (1986) (Probably Cronenberg's most well-known film), also contains criticism of blind technological progression and deals with obsession. Naked Lunch (1991) is one of his more interesting films because it deals with addiction and the literary process. What makes it intriguing is that, while it is an adaptation of Burroughs, the film departs from it on many levels. In the special features of the Criterion DVD, Cronenberg compares the phenomenon to that which occurred with a poem (which he could not recall the name or content of) where, the original poem that was not written in English was nothing special, but through translation it was given life and became something new separate from the original. Cronenberg said that while he does not at all think his film is an improvement, he likes to think that the result is something that neither Burroughs nor Cronenberg could have come up with alone.

Jacob Carl Nerney

Table of Contents