Body Mutation and Disease in the Films of David Cronenberg
In an age where anti-flesh puritanism seems to be waning, and yet still persists in subtle manifestations, more and more extreme stimuli—both physical and conceptual—may be necessary to re-establish our relationship with our bodies. The vicious and relentless suppression of bodily awareness that is our inheritance from Pauline Christianity will not just fade away if we ask nicely. It seems that the growing popularity in the West of body modification practices, and physical forms of S/M sexuality, is indicative of the what may be necessary to reclaim our flesh and provoke ourselves into a deeper body-consciousness. And, as we shall see, our cultural myths, the imagery and conceptions that our artists generate, may also have become equally extreme in their treatment of the flesh, of necessity.
What is most relevant to us here is the phenomenon that stands as the most violent litmus test of attitudes towards the body—physical illness. I say ‘physical’ to distinguish from mental illness, and straight away we’re plunged into the arbitrary, and only sometimes useful division of existence that is embedded deep within our psyches and our language. We’re talking Cartesian dualism, of course… body = matter, mind = spirit… they’re utterly divorced, and God knows how they interact. To me, this is less a scientific observation than a philosophical rationalization of the core myth of Christianity. That is, the belief that we have been expelled from the spiritual paradise of Eden into this lumpen world of mortality, matter and disease. This world, and thus our bodies, in which our souls are supposedly encaged, is our punishment for the transgression of Adam & Eve. However, as Science gradually replaced Christianity as the West’s guiding mythology, there was a growing impatience with the whole idea of ‘spirit’ or ‘mind’ ("Where is it? How can we measure it?" cried the anxious minds in the laboratory). So the concept was dropped altogether as an embarrassing ghost that evaded quantification—and we arrive at materialist reductionism. All mental phenomena are seen as illusory by-products of the chemical and electrical activity of the brain. The world, and our bodies, move from being seen as corrupt to being seen as essentially meaningless. Disease is seen as just a mechanical fault, to be repaired and patched up. Patients are usually allowed to believe that their thoughts and emotions are real, but any connections and correlations made between the mental and the physical are seen as dangerous superstitions.
To set the debate rolling, let’s look at Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, perhaps the most concise, lucid and passionate statement denying a non-physical basis for physical illness. Briefly, her main argument runs along these lines…
In the nineteenth century, tuberculosis was a relatively widespread terminal disease that was seen in popular folklore, and through the eyes of artists, as indicative of a certain emotional temperament. The Romantics romanticized TB, seeing it as a sign of a passionate and sensitive nature. Then science discovered the physical basis for the disease, and consequently found a cure. The mythologizing of TB rapidly faded away, to be completely superseded in our century by another disease ripe for fantasy-projections: cancer. And, as a guaranteed medical cure remains elusive, cancer remains a condition muddied by unnecessary metaphorical thinking.
Sontag’s book is very persuasive, but tends to be very glib with regard to non-orthodox medical practice. Her persuasiveness largely stems from how she plays with the belittling connotations of ‘folklore’ and the authoritative tone of ‘scientific truth’. Also, she attempts to claim that ‘illness as metaphor’ is a dominant cultural myth of the modern era, when materialist science—’illness as mechanical breakdown’—undoubtedly holds this honour.
Neglecting to mention the vested interests that drug companies have in patients being treated solely via medicine, she states that "such preposterous and dangerous views", such as the idea that illness is a manifestation of unexpressed desires or impulses, "manage to put the onus of the disease on the patient and not only weaken the patient’s ability to understand the range of plausible medical treatment, but also, implicitly, direct the patient away from such treatment."1 This is a common distortion. The idea that a psychological view of certain diseases automatically places the blame for the condition on the patient is overly simplistic. In her criticism of Wilhelm Reich ("who did more than anyone to disseminate the psychological theory of cancer"—Sontag), for instance, she entirely neglects his extensive sociological analyses. While Reich placed the blame for cancer on unexpressed emotions, he usually placed the blame for this repression on repressive social systems. Of course, when thought about deeply, this reasoning leads to a classic ‘chicken and egg’ loop—which came first, consciousness or culture? To avoid metaphysical ‘first cause’ speculations, it is obvious that the most practical model for causality here is to accept the loop; to see causality as a dynamic interplay of external and internal factors.2
Essentially, then, Sontag is reiterating the doctrine of Cartesian dualism, or Christianity in disguise: that mind is separate from body; that the body is no more part of our identity than a car is; that disease, though painful, is merely a mechanical breakdown or invasion. And, like a car, the body should be repaired from a purely physical standpoint—any reference to emotional states or character traits is romantic mythologizing at best, dangerous delusion at worst.
While posing as a radical out to scythe down the perilous weeds of mythology, she perpetuates yet another form of the mind/body split that has drastically alienated us from the world we are part of.
The films of David Cronenberg are, if nothing else, resolutely body-conscious. Although the average reaction to this consciousness is one of hysterical revulsion, and although many critics claim that Cronenberg demonstrates a puritanical disgust with the flesh, it is my view that his films can be seen as a bloody and painful—but natural—conceptual birth process. The birth, back into awareness, of our relationship with our bodies. Just as scarification or piercing may be necessary to re-invoke body-awareness on an individual scale, the visceral pain of Cronenberg’s imagery may be a good example of what is necessary to kick-start the cultural meme-pool’s body-awareness.
Cronenberg has stressed his fascination with Cartesian dualism in statements too numerous to mention. He envisions the ultimate comment on this unfathomable ‘split’ (and the basis of all horror) as being the process of physical death. "Why should a healthy mind die, just because the body is not healthy? … There seems to be something wrong with that. It’s very easy to see why many philosophers detach the mind from the body … But I don’t believe that."3 It is this anguish of contradiction that lies at the heart of the painful mystery in his films. Cronenberg sees an apparent split—but his intuitions deny that such a thing exists.
Martin Scorcese once said that Cronenberg doesn’t understand what his films are about.4 Cronenberg himself has admitted that he makes a film to find out why he wants to make it. It is my argument that, from film to film, his central line of questioning has revolved around the mysteries of the mind/body/disease axis; and that in recent years, he may well have started to brush against some answers.
The Brood (1979) was Cronenberg’s first film with ‘name’ actors—starring Oliver Reed and Samantha Eggar. Reed plays Dr Hal Raglan, a maverick therapist who has set up a retreat to practice the controversial technique he has developed, known as Psychoplasmics. It is here, at The Soma Institute, that the film begins.
We are immediately plunged into a dark auditorium, where Raglan is giving a demonstration with a male patient. Psychoplasmics appears to be a rough parody or charicature of many of the alternative body-therapies of the seventies. Here, the patient is taunted and humiliated by Raglan, who plays the role of the dominant father, persuading him that he would have been better off as a girl—his weakness would then be more ‘acceptable’.5 The patient resists this suggestion fiercely, and as his anger wells up, Raglan encourages him. "Show me your anger!" he shouts, and the patient removes his top to reveal his torso—which has developed strange scarlet boils. With a mixture of defiance and frustration, the patient cries, "This is me, daddy!"
In line with the real-life therapies it apes, Psychoplasmics proposes that bodily dysfunctions give physical form to emotional dysfunctions—a hypothesis amplified here under the cinematic lens into a quite immediate process. This concept is neatly expressed in the title of Raglan’s book, The Shape of Rage.6 And this, in turn can be seen as a reflection of Cronenberg’s greatest contribution to cinematic expression, its visual grammar. In exploring and revealing hidden anxieties and abstracted conflicts, he has utilized the "gloop" (his word) of prosthetic special effects to give visual form to these mental phenomena. The basic model for nearly all Cronenberg’s films is to turn a violently alienated individual inside-out, to externalize their internal dynamics for the audience’s inspection—in the same way that illness, in the psychosomatic model, brings repressed conflicts to the attention of the individual.
Videodrome (1982) is probably Cronenberg’s most complex and provocative film, in both form and content. It deals with a vast constellation of issues that infest the late twentieth century: mass media landscapes, censorship, the effect of technology on humanity, loss of stable identity, violent sexuality, mind control… All these themes are woven together in the film via the body-mind of one individual, Max Renn (James Woods).
Renn runs a small cable TV station, Channel 83, which specializes in softcore sex and hardcore violence. While looking to commission a new show, he is intrigued by the latest illicit interception made by Harlan, Channel 83’s satellite broadcast pirate. Renn watches a short scene from a show called ‘Videodrome’. We see a rust-red chamber, lined with electrified clay, in which naked women are beaten and tortured by men clad in enveloping black uniforms. No plot, no dialogue, no characters, just "torture, murder, mutilation". Max tries to track the show down, encountering an intricate maze of leads, and it is revealed that what he has seen is in fact a prototype of a new TV show to be broadcast in the near future by a large, sinister defence corporation, CONSEC. He had been shown pre-recorded tapes by CONSEC plant Harlan to expose him to a signal which is transmitted together with the televisual images. The violent imagery supposedly opens up neural receptors, allowing the signal itself to sink in, and to eventually induce a tumour (or new organ) to grow in the brain—which in turn triggers bizarre hallucinations. It is also revealed that this Videodrome signal was invented by an eccentric, McLuhanesque media prophet, Brian O’Blivion, who was killed by CONSEC—they intend to utilize his creation to facilitate extensive mind control over the population.
Max’s hallucinations begin with video cassettes turning fleshy, and imagined episodes of sadistic violence against women. Never a friend of the censors, Cronenberg is confusing expectations here by following the censors’ own ‘screen violence leads to real violence’ logic. But, as in reality, things are not quite so clear-cut. On viewing some Japanese porn intended for Channel 83, Max remarks, "There’s something too soft about it. I’m looking for something that’ll break through, y’know, something… tough." Thus, before he’s even aware of Videodrome, we can see his attraction to the violent, penetrative shades of sexuality. And later, when confronted by CONSEC head Barry Convex, he comes close to having his rationalizations about Videodrome undermined. "Why would anybody watch a scum show like Videodrome?" Convex asks, "Why did you watch it, Max?" "Business reasons," is Max’s glib answer. "Sure, sure," Convex smiles. "Why deny you get your kicks out of watching torture and murder?" Convex knows Max better than he knows himself. This is precisely how CONSEC was able to lure him into being exposed to the signal, placing him under their control and giving them access to his TV station for the broadcast of Videodrome.
Then there is Masha, an ageing woman who commissions shows for Max. She can also sense Max’s hidden desires. She asks him what kind of TV show he would produce, given the chance, "for the subterranean [read: unconscious] market. Would you do… Videodrome?" Cut immediately to a scene between Max and Nikki Brand, a radio personality with a strong and guiltless penchant for scarification and masochism. Here, after Renn has frantically tried to persuade her not to ‘audition’ for Videodrome, she takes a cigarette and burns her breast.7 Previously, we have seen Max pierce her ear during sex. Nikki’s role in the film, then, is to initiate Max into the expression of his sadistic impulses.8
But the relationship is never allowed to settle into an easily categorized top/bottom, male/female one. And it is here where the role of the body becomes paramount in the revelation of Max’s unconscious dynamics. The first body-image hallucination that Max experiences involved his stomach opening up into a throbbing vaginal slit. In a startlingly literal scene of self-penetration (=self-knowledge?), he forces his handgun into his stomach, which then, inexplicably, closes up, leaving Max to search vainly for the gun. It is this slit which provides CONSEC with their control over Max. Fleshy video cassettes are inserted into his slit to ‘play’ a programme (or program) on his psychic video (or biocomputer). So Max’s body has become the site where his unacknowledged receptivity has manifested, with a vengeance. Aleister Crowley once wrote, "The act of repressing has the effect of exciting."9 Max’s repression of his passive receptivity (which seems to be more insidious than the repression of his sadistic aggression) leads to this receptive aspect emerging even more strongly—allowing CONSEC to control him with relative ease. But categories are mixed up again when Harlan tries to insert a cassette, only to have his hand ‘bitten off’ by Max’s slit. Vagina Dentata is evoked as Max (with help from O’Blivion’s daughter) turns his apparently receptive organ into a tool of assertion.
It may be time to pause here, and return to alternative therapeutic theories. In his many books on his clinical discoveries, Arnold Mindell has described his concept of the ‘dreambody’. He envisages this aspect of humans as a very fluid and pervasive version of the standard unconscious. It manifests in dreams, hallucinations and fantasies, as well as in bodily symptoms—the two areas are seen as opposite poles on the continuum of the dreambody. Mindell’s theories, developed through extensive work with ordinary patients in therapy, psychotics and the terminally ill, suggest that bodily symptoms reflect processes in the psyche which are trying to manifest. These processes are often natural developments in the individual’s evolution, stifled by various repressive mechanisms. His basic method for therapy involves ‘amplifying’ the symptoms (analogous to Jungian amplification of dream symbols) until their full intensity and meaning is experienced. Evading both Sontag’s criticism of models of illness that seem to blame the patient, as well as avoiding any absolutist mind/body split, he states: "I don’t believe that a person actually creates disease, but that his soul is expressing an important message to him through the disease."10 There is still a duality here—that of the individual ego and the unconscious, or the ‘soul’. I don’t think that many (except perhaps radical Taoists or Buddhists) will deny that this split exists; my main point is that it negates, through re-modelling, any absolute mind/matter division. Many consciousness researchers have realized that the ego/unconscious split is an imposition of our culture, and has been bridged in the past—and may well be bridged in the future, with the creative use of the many techniques of psychic integration we have at our disposal. What is important for now, though, is to recognise that the body, diseased or not, can be seen as a reflection of the unconscious—the regions of the soul, or Self, that the ego is removed from. Antero Alli describes this nicely: "The physical body is the visible manifestation of the so-called Subconscious Mind. The body is the fingerprint of the soul, a Rorschach of the Self. Nothing can be hidden. The body communicates it all."11 These last two sentences may be the motto of Cronenberg’s work—the unconscious is never as ‘un-conscious’ as we like to think.
I’d also like to briefly look at another objection to psychosomatic theory—that this view doesn’t acknowledge the effect of the external environment on a person. In fact, in all but its most extreme versions, the philosophy I’m describing here has plenty of room for this side of the equation. In his vision of a utopian state, where medical science is entirely balanced, Mindell sees a world where a doctor will sometimes prescribe drugs, sometimes operate, sometimes work on body processes, sometimes bring the whole family in for therapy. And sometimes, "the doctor might say, ‘My dear man, go home, and wait and see what happens. Your problems are coming from planetary disturbance, and there is no sense in taking your problems personally. Wait until the city government makes certain changes. Write them your dreams now."12 Given the cultural milieu of Max Renn’s world, this may be a valid way of looking at his body mutations. Indeed, in his essay on media, identity and modern sci-fi, Scott Bukatman sees the body, in Cronenberg’s films, "as the overdetermined site for the expression of profound social anxiety. The subject of the Cronenberg film is hardly human action: it is instead … the structures of external power and control to which the individual (in body and soul) is subjected." Though valid, for me this is also too one-sided. Far better to view ourselves in terms of a continuum, a focused point in an organism-environment field, in the words of Alan Watts.13 Alternatively, in Mindell’s process terminology, "The inner world and outer world dreambodies are two-way streets, and it’s impossible to place blame, for we all contribute to the body as a whole. Our dreambody is part of the entire world’s dreambody, yet the world’s dreambody is also found within us."14
To return to the film itself, we can now discern a process of psychic integration, of sorts. In the final scene, Max ends up in a derelict boat—a ‘condemned vessel’. Inside, he is informed by Nikki, or at least her televisual image (if there is any difference), that it is time for him to let his body die. His present physical form, like the boat, has outlived its usefulness. He is shown himself committing suicide on the TV—placing a gun to his temple, saying "Long live the New Flesh," and firing. The screen explodes and spews out guts and intestines. Max proceeds to carry out his suicide, and the blast of the shot echoes over a blank black screen before the credits roll.
It is unfortunate that the intended ending never made it into the final cut—not due to censorship, but to inadequate gloop.15 The original script called for a scene following Max’s apparent suicide, where Max, Nikki, and Bianca O’Blivion meet in the Videodrome chamber and engage in a polysexual union, each producing new mutated sex organs, Nikki and Bianca developing cocks to match Max’s slit, all of them physically melting into one another. The New Flesh, the New Self. The Videodrome chamber, previously the site of Max’s fantasies of violence and torture, is transformed through (ego?) death into a place for a more creative, viscerally psychedelic existence—boundary dissolution and mind manifestation in the flesh. The womb connotations of the chamber were quite consciously wrought—"Freudian rebirth imagery, pure and simple."16 The dark orange/red colour of the chamber and the rusting boat Max finds himself in blend and evoke both decay and bloody birth. Note also Nikki’s advice to Max to "go all the way through". However, Cronenberg thought the scene may not have had the intended effect, that the mutated sex organ prosthetics may have been laughable.
As it is, we are left with a taste of the tragic finality that was to characterize his films’ conclusions throughout the eighties.
It is fitting that Cronenberg’s last overt ‘disease movie’ (to date) brushes closest to the roots of the quest for meaning in bodily illness. In The Fly (1986), Jeff Goldblum plays Seth Brundle, a lonely, obsessive scientist who has virtually perfected the world’s first teleportation system. There is one glaring fault—it cannot teleport live, organic matter. A baboon ends up being turned inside-out by the process. "I must not know enough about the flesh myself," says Brundle after the disastrous experiment. "I’m gonna have to learn." His first lesson occurs in bed with Veronica (Geena Davies). In post-coital play, Veronica pinches Brundle’s skin. "I wanna eat you up," she says. "That’s why old ladies pinch babies’ cheeks. It’s the flesh—it just makes you crazy." A flash of ‘Eureka!’ descends on Brundle, and he quickly realizes that he has to program that same ‘craziness’ for the flesh into his computer, so that it can cope with teleporting organic matter.
Another baboon is put through, this time successfully, and they agree to wait for tests on the animal to be performed before a human goes through. But Brundle gets drunk and jealous one night, believing Veronica to be with her ex, and teleports. He fails to notice a housefly in the telepod with him—the computer gets confused, and decides to splice the two genetic patterns together. Brundle emerges, apparently invigorated; but deep within him are insectile DNA patterns waiting to erupt.
Now, neuroscientists, psychonauts and tribal cultures alike know that we’ve already got some animals inside us. Evolution has built up layers of brain tissue, so that the human brain can be seen as being composed of an old reptilian brain, an overlaying mammalian brain, and the most recent and explosive development, the uniquely human neocortex. It seems that this neocortex developed so rapidly that it failed to fully integrate with the older animal brain sections, leaving a neural discrepancy that has been held by some to be responsible for humanity’s notorious inhumanity.17 And yet techniques for forcing integration of these layers have existed for many thousands of years. Frequently, researchers have come to the conclusion that the copious animal mythologies of tribal cultures around the globe, and the many pagan human/animal hybrid deities, represent an ancient awareness of our animal inheritance. And perhaps the most direct method of contacting and integrating this inheritance lies in the shamanic practice of shape-shifting.
I believe that in The Fly the genetic splicing idea and its subsequent developments represent a science-fiction model of this ancient consciousness-expansion technique, which finds its modern equivalent in Austin Osman Spare’s ‘atavistic resurgence’ (Spare’s art contains numerous shape-shifting motifs). Using various trance techniques, a state of consciousness is induced which allows total identification with a certain animal. This may be used for achieving certain effects in the world, but often it functions as a method of psychic integration—balancing. It seems clear that Brundle’s experiences propel him through an unexpected and violent process analogous to many aspects of the traditional shaman’s vocation. Aside from the shape-shifting aspect, the film also contains the following correspondences:
- What the teleporter does is what the shaman goes through during the initiatory experience—deconstruction/reconstruction, or death and resurrection. Like a shaman, Brundle (initially) becomes ‘superhuman’ as a result of this experience, incredibly strong and energetic. He says, "I’m beginning to think that the sheer process of being taken apart atom by atom and being put back together again… Why, it’s like coffee being put through a filter—it’s somehow a purifying process."
- An almost certainly unintentional, but amusing hint sneaks into the script. After seeing Brundle go through the teleporter, a woman he’s just picked up gasps, "Are you some sort of magician?"
- The shamanic initiation is reversed in the film. Brundle gets taken apart and put back together, then experiences an ‘initiatory sickness’. "I seem to be stricken by a disease with a purpose," Brundle quips, as any proto-shaman might.
You may object that what eventually happens to Brundle puts across a very negative message about the bizarre, rapid cancer he develops as he becomes more and more fly-like. And yes, we should always bear in mind while making the above connections that Cronenberg’s films are essentially morality plays—they show where the wrong paths may lead, as warnings. I feel that the tragic conclusion of The Fly is due to two main factors. First, there is the law of repression = excitation. Brundle’s initial repression of his animal nature, his relationship to his flesh, seems to be too rapidly torn away. His moment of realization in bed with Veronica is merely a conceptual lesson. His animality is yet to be unleashed through the teleportation ‘accident’, and his body, the canvas of the unconscious, reveals not only what he has repressed, but how much he has repressed it. (In a way, Brundle doesn’t escape being turned inside-out like the first baboon.) Secondly, there is the incomprehension and revulsion of others, represented here by Veronica. "I know what the disease wants," says Brundle. "It wants to turn me into something else. That’s not too terrible, is it? Most people would give anything to be turned into something else." "Turned into what?" Veronica asks. Although understandable, to me this attitude seems to resonate with our culture’s general fear of change, especially when it involves disturbing aspects (which it usually does). Even though The Fly manages to echo the shamanic roots of the idea of transformative illness, the impulse remains strangled by Cronenberg’s acute awareness of the dangerous stagnancy of Western society.
I mentioned at the start of this essay that I believe Cronenberg may have recently been moving towards some answers to his cinematic explorations. His (probably) unconscious connection with ancient mind/body/disease awareness is one of these tentative ‘answers’. The other came as the result of his fusion with his literary idol William S. Burroughs, in his film version of the novel Naked Lunch.
I do not have space to delve deeply into the fascinating relationship between Cronenberg’s previous treatment of disease and the ‘sickness’ of junk addiction in this film.18 My main focus is on how Cronenberg utilized Burroughs’ ‘Talking Asshole’ routine, the story of how a guy teaches his asshole to talk—and eventually gets his mouth sealed by the mutinous asshole. Though the routine appears verbally in the film, its visual influence is most interesting. The insectile typewriter that Bill Lee uses, and is given instructions by, has a ‘talking asshole’ through which it speaks. On one level, it functions as an alien intelligence using Lee as an agent; on another level, it is Lee’s unconscious mind guiding his actions.
The Talking Asshole is Burroughs himself, in the sense that it’s the part of you that you don’t want to listen to, that’s saying things that are unspeakable, that are too basic, too true, too primordial and too uncivilized and tasteless to be listened to… but are there, nonetheless. So in a sense, the mind/asshole schism, the head/mouth versus the asshole, is maybe more of a Freudian schism—the asshole’s really the unconscious and the head’s the superego. More than it being a true mind/body schism, it’s a sort of mind/mind split, I think.
David Cronenberg, Naked Making Lunch
So—for the first time, Cronenberg arrives at the previously described re-modelling of the Cartesian split. The somewhat gentler tone of his recent work may indicate a level of resolution in his mind/body dilemmas; for his own work, the visceral extremities of Videodrome and The Fly may no longer be necessary as stimuli to achieve consciousness of the body. The body is no longer separate from the mind—it is merely the physical aspect of the mind’s hidden depths. The gulf to be bridged is no longer that unfathomable metaphysical abyss between spirit and matter—these are already united. What now needs to be achieved is the dissolution of culturally sanctioned ego boundaries that make us all such fragile and illusory islands in the ocean of Self.
Whether Cronenberg is able to achieve the cinematic New Flesh he fell short of in Videodrome, and whether our culture can develop respect for our bodies’ intimate relationship to the deepest levels of our Selves, remains to be seen.
When I was writing Crash I did a fair amount of research, particularly from this book called Crash Injuries, a medical textbook full of the most gruesome photographs as well as a lot of extraordinary material . . . Upon viewing the photographs in Crash Injuries taken immediately after violent car crashes—all one’s pity goes out to these tragically mutilated people. After all, any of us who drive a motorcar may end up like them 5 minutes after starting the engine . . . But at the same time, one cannot help one’s imagination being touched by these people who, if at enormous price, have nonetheless broken through the skin of reality and convention around us . . . and who have in a sense achieved—become—mythological beings in a way that is only attainable through these brutal and violent acts. One can transcend the self, sadly, in ways which are in themselves rather to be avoided—say, extreme illnesses, car crashes, extreme states of being.
J.G. Ballard, Re/Search #8/9
After the commonplaces of everyday life, with their muffled dramas, all my organic expertise for dealing with physical injury had long been blunted or forgotten. The crash was the only real experience I had been through for years. For the first time I was in physical confrontation with my own body…
James Ballard, Crash
Seeing Crash (after aeons of waiting for the media-hounded censors to stop sitting on it) made me think of two things I had written two years before in Psychoplasmics. My tentative conclusion that Cronenberg’s work may become "gentler in tone", avoiding the "visceral extremities" of earlier films, turns out to be—thankfully!—a bit premature to say the least. While there’s no sign of a return to gloop, Crash is undoubtedly one of his most intense and provocative films—and easily one of the most uniquely disturbing films ever to make it onto the ‘mainstream’ cinema circuit.
The second part that struck me was my use of the driver/car analogy to look at mind/body dualism. My assertion that, in dualist thinking, the body has as little to do with our self-identity as a car does, is both revealing and flawed.
Firstly, by equating ‘body’ with ‘car’, it opens up the connection between the body and the environment. After the demise of classical physics, awareness of our physical manifestation in this world can no longer be seen in terms of strict separation. Our bodies are ultimately no more self-contained and isolated, no more in need of abstracted ‘spirit’ or ‘mind’ to transcend boundaries, than atomic particles are.
The flaw in my analogy is my failure to recognize that, even in a dualist, logos-dominated and bios-denying culture, there will still be very strong bonds between self-identity and body/environment. The fact that the interdependence of these things is not consciously dealt with results in the dynamics of the relationship being driven by neurotic and destructive elements in our psyches. Eating disorders, fitness-fanaticism, brand-name fetishism, fashion, all these things are signs of how deeply body-image (body consciousness) and objects in the environment are embedded into our sense of our selves. Crash is the pathological conclusion of the neurotic body-environment relationship, and hints at the initiation of a new relationship. Just as Process-Oriented therapy seeks to intensify bodily symptoms to force their unconscious meaning into consciousness, Crash pushes our culture’s deviant eroticism and obsession with vehicles (bodies or cars) into a place where they may be transformed, and true body-environment consciousness—where no fixed divisions hold inside and outside apart—may be reborn. "The deformed body of the crippled young woman, like the deformed bodies of the crashed automobiles, revealed the possibilities of an entirely new sexuality. Vaughan had articulated my needs for some positive response to my crash." (James Ballard, Crash)
The experience of seeing the film made many threads of connection between car crashes and eroticism more tangible to me than reading the book did, however vivid and striking Ballard’s prose is. One instance was when several characters were watching a video of test crashes while rubbing each other’s crotches. The slow-motion footage of cars hurtling into each other, their windows exploding out as they shatter, brought to my mind Wilhelm Reich’s focus on the idea or feeling of bursting in his patients. Many patients felt the therapeutic attack on their bodily armour, their rigidified energy structures, as a threat to their self, their entire being. In conjunction with this element of the psyche, which identifies with the body’s armour, and fears its downfall, there are also elements that desire the dissolution of these muscular cramps, longing for the free flow of bio-energies. The patient simultaneously wishes for and dreads the very same thing. Through exploring one patient’s fantasies and experiences of armour-dissolution, Reich came to this conclusion: "The destruction of the armor, the penetration into the patient’s unconscious secrets, is unconsciously felt to be a process of being pricked open or being made to burst."19 He goes on to make clear the connections between armour-dissolution and orgasm, and between the breakdown of the sense of ‘self’ in orgasm and the dissolving of identity in the process of dying.
To the extent that we base our identity, our conception of our selves, on the tense stiffness that our bodies have developed in this body-negative society, a threat to this hardness will be sensed as a threat to us. Yet it will also be, somewhere, our greatest desire. The bursting of energetic tension in the body becomes our gravest fear, often associated with death and dying; and at the same time it will be an erotic, life-affirming fantasy. One need only note the tendency of most people to invest personal energy in their possessions, to bestow upon exterior objects (especially houses and cars) an underlying quality of "me-ness", a symbiosis with our personal essence, and the formula for the psychic logic behind Crash is self-evident—not the wild alien pathology many have seen it as.
The car has been the 20th century’s dominant ‘image of self’ provided by technology, though this dominance seems quite mute and tacit. Much has been written about the computer as a self-image (or more precisely as an image of the mind or brain), perhaps because the emergence of this technology coincided with the popularization of psychology. Cars, however, seem to have slipped into our everyday lives, and thus into the deepest levels of our psyches, without overt recognition of the extent to which we identify with them, or allow them to mediate our experience of the environment. Their hard metal shells make them perfect totems of the armoured body, the petrified self. Their mutilation, destruction and deformation in violent crashes is thus the perfect exterior analogy for the melting, bursting and dissolution of hardened bio-energies, and their release in explosive eroticism.
On the same weekend that I saw Crash there was a brilliant documentary on Channel 5(!) called Damage. It looked at the increasing number of women and girls who cut or burn themselves. This is often associated with eating disorders like bulimia, and like such disorders it’s more common in females than males (one psychiatrist astutely observed that men with similar impulses and motives often harm their bodies in less obvious ways like getting into fights and playing violent sports). Most of the girls and women interviewed had seriously scarred arms. They cut themselves whenever they felt a seething rage or unbearably intense depression overwhelming them. And most of them said that the feeling they got from the experience was one of utter release—some were blissfully nostalgic about the experiences. Of course, they suffered too. Self-recrimination for harming themselves, recrimination from loved ones for harming themselves, even medical staff scolding them for ‘trying to get attention’.
What was clear, though, was that these were not suicide attempts, not half-hearted flirtations with death with which to guilt-trip others. These people were (in my eyes) responding positively to a very negative situation. I admired some of these teenagers immensely, for staying true to their survival instincts amidst vast negative forces, however strange their method seemed. Yet the clinic featured in the programme, which specialized in self-harming, was "radical" for taking the step of not reprimanding patients for cutting themselves. For most people, all they see in someone cutting their skin is negativity and self-destructiveness. Perhaps if more people were educated about the long history of life-affirmative self-mutilation practices (the American Indian Sun Dance being a famous example), these people’s spontaneous rediscovery of them wouldn’t get caught up in the knotted tangles of guilt, shame and fear that our culture wraps around nearly every intense, direct confrontation with our bodies.
This isn’t to suggest that scarification is some cure-all for mental distress! For my purposes here, I’m just trying to get a slightly closer understanding of the obsession with wounds and scars that runs through Crash.
Our identification with the environment, at present, is usually unconscious, and often neurotic. Cars are often status symbols, emblems of power or (supposed) desirability. The characters in Crash are seeking to merge with their environment in a more urgent, erotic, bodily way. Aside from the immediate experience of physical mutilation (which, depending on whether you want it or not, can be liberating or catastrophic—sometimes both) these people are erotically fascinated by the way scars describe a history of the body’s interaction with the environment. This is conveyed explicitly in the novel. In the film, there are many scenes where people tenderly kiss and caress each other’s scars, fleshy relics of a time when the barrier between the body and the environment was literally shattered—a violent parallel to sexual union. For a while, violence destroyed the burden of being cut off from the outside, caged in a sealed shell of defences. So as well as being an exterior image of the armoured body, the car is also the place where these people try to merge with their environment. The perverse extremity of their chosen means to try and fuse with their surroundings is dictated by the extremity of their alienation from it (just as the natural sweet melting of bodily tension may evolve into a violent sensation of explosion in the chronically tense). The sad fact that their environment is overwhelmed by these metal boxes is also a factor.
A scar is at the centre of an astounding scene where Ballard fucks Gabrielle, a paraplegic crash victim. Instead of taking the usual route, he becomes transfixed by a huge gash in her thigh, and enters her here. It’s astounding in its sheer perversity, and in the fact that it wasn’t cut out; but it’s also the first time, I think, that there has been a literal equation of vagina and wound in a film (beyond degrading verbal remarks, and that slightly less obvious scene in Videodrome). For the Freudian, this equation is due to castration anxiety: boy sees that women have no cock, assumes it’s been hacked off, and fears the worst for himself. Many books have been written about horror films, particularly ‘slasher’ films like Halloween, where cuts are seen in this symbolic light.
A more solidly grounded link in the vagina/wound equation is menstruation. Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove look at a few horror films as ‘fear of menstrual power’ films in their excellent book The Wise Wound. Whichever side you take, the dream-logic association of female genitalia and bleeding wounds seems to be one of the roots of the fear, excitement and attraction generated by bodily mutilation in horror films. The literal demonstration of this equation in a film, and the fact that erotic liberation and pleasure results from this odd union, is quite something. Cronenberg has already defined his own sub-genre within horror. With Crash, he makes explicit something that only psychoanalysts could dig out of other horror films, and transcends the genre completely.
As a final note, I should say that I agree with the censors on one point: Crash will make you commit irresponsible acts! As a direct result of seeing it (no, I didn’t go and cause a pile-up) I did something I had had the impulse to do many times before, but had kept in the ‘Er… Not Yet’ box in my mind. I went up on to a very beautiful, but very spooky moor near Leeds, and spent the night alone in the open. I experienced a lot of fear, but pushed through it and experienced a glorious sunrise as I chanted over a stone, soaking in the light and five minutes of rain that created a beautiful rainbow behind me.
If I had to pin it down, I would say the scene that inspired me most was where Ballard, Catherine and Vaughan encounter a car crash site. The whole sequence creates an utterly bizarre and compelling sensation that mixes fear, revulsion, excitement and fascination in a very powerful way. Our society’s secret morbidity is brought to the surface by encounters with crashes—truckers have a name for people who slow down on motorways to look at an accident on the other carriageway, ‘rubber-neckers’. This scene pushes that morbidity into the open, and transforms it into a strangely magical feeling of boundary-crossing. It may seem odd that I was inspired to spend a night on a moor by seeing some people hang out at a car crash. I would call it an imaginative response. And this is essentially what Crash is about—reacting creatively to extreme or negative situations. That it even shows signs of catalyzing the capacity for imaginative response in its audience makes it almost unique in cinemas today.
- Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor, p.46 [back to text]
- See ‘Individual as Man/World’ and The Book by Alan Watts for perhaps the most rational and accessible discussions of these issues. Describing Behaviourism’s surprising relationship with Mahayana Buddhism, he notes that " . . . the universe is a harmonious system which has no governor, . . . it is an integrated organism but nobody is in charge of it. [The] corollary is that everyone and everything is the prime mover." [back to text]
- Chris Rodley (ed.), Cronenberg on Cronenberg, p.79 [back to text]
- ibid., p.xxv [back to text]
- The recurring polarities of weak/strong, female/male have been the focus for relentless feminist criticism of Cronenberg’s work. Most of this criticism merely reveals the simple-mindedness of the critics themselves. The director consistently portrays these polarities as intertwined, shifting continuums; his aggressive male leads usually turn out to be weak in their lack of self-knowledge, and seemingly victimized female characters are often the strongest in terms of knowing their own desires. As the refreshingly perceptive Carol J. Clover has noted in her book Men, Women & Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, "…what filmmakers seem to know better then film critics is that gender is less a wall than a permeable membrane." [back to text]
- Also, the ‘plasma’ of Psychoplasmics comes from the Latin meaning ‘form’ and the Greek meaning ‘shape’. Interestingly, the word ‘psychedelic’ is nearly a synonym of psychoplasmics—it literally means ‘mind-manifesting’. [back to text]
- This shot was originally censored. The impact of the film, in fact one of its central themes, is hopelessly distorted by this, and other cuts. [back to text]
- The casting of Debbie Harry as Nikki Brand has interesting resonances. As lead singer of Blondie, she was often criticized for using her femininity and sexuality—visually, she fitted the role of blonde rock bimbo, but her attitude as lead singer undermined the stereotype. [back to text]
- Aleister Crowley, Magick [back to text]
- Arnold Mindell, Working with the Dreaming Body, p.13 [back to text]
- Antero Alli, Angel Tech: A Modern Shaman’s Guide to Reality Selection, p.38 [back to text]
- ibid., p.78 [back to text]
- See Leary, Metzner & Weil (eds), The Psychedelic Reader, pp.47-57, and Alan Watts, The Book [back to text]
- Mindell, p.79 [back to text]
- See Rodley, p.97 [back to text]
- ibid., p.97 [back to text]
- See Janus: A Summing Up by Arthur Koestler [back to text]
- Maybe I can just mention another shamanic correspondence. When Lee’s typewriter is destroyed, Kiki takes him to get it repaired, asking if fixing the typewriter will also fix his life. Lee is led to a blacksmith’s, where the pieces of the typewriter are slung into a furnace, and re-forged into a Mugwriter – the head of a Mugwump. This represents a new stage in the evolution of Lee’s ‘assignment’ in Interzone; and it resonates clearly with the blacksmith frequently encountered in shamanic underworld journeys, where the shaman is ripped apart and then re-forged. [back to text]
- Character Analysis, p.334 [back to text]
- Cronenberg on Cronenberg, edited by Chris Rodley
- ‘The Wrong Body’ by Amy Taubin & ‘Interview with David Cronenberg’ by Mark Kermode, in Sight & Sound, March 1992
- Exterminate All Rational Thought, edited by Damon Wise (magazine accompanying Cronenberg/Burroughs season at the Scala Cinema, King’s Cross, London, 1992)
- Everything is Permitted: The Making of Naked Lunch, edited by Ira Silverberg
- Illness as Metaphor, by Susan Sontag
- Working with the Dreaming Body, by Arnold Mindell
- Angel Tech: A Modern Shaman’s Guide to Reality Selection, by Antero Alli
- ‘Who Programs You? The Science Fiction of the Spectacle’ by Scott Bukatman, in Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema, edited by Annette Kuhn
- ‘The Individual as Man/World’ by Alan Watts, in The Psychedelic Reader, edited by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Gunter M. Weil
- Echoes From The Void, by Nevill Drury
- Naked Making Lunch (documentary), directed by Chris Rodley
- Crash by J.G. Ballard
- Re/Search #8/9: J.G. Ballard, edited by V. Vale & Andrea Juno
- Character Analysis by Wilhelm Reich
- The Wise Wound by Penelope Shuttle & Peter Redgrove
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