The body is absolutely subjective: Your body is like that of nobody else. It is absolutely objective: As Camille Paglia wrote in Sexual Personae, “We cannot escape our lives in these fascist bodies.” William Beard, a professor at the University of Alberta, places the work of Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg right in the middle of this contradiction and follows the films’ attempts to escape it. That there is no escape is no matter: If this struggle is the human condition, there can be no end to the stories it will generate.
In a book that is more akin to The Anatomy of Melancholy than a conventional study of a director’s films, Beard has the nerve to work without illustrations, to ignore production details, to dispense with a filmography. He isn’t embarrassed that Cronenberg’s philosophical investigations moved very quickly from the art-house experimentations of Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970) to the “drive-ins and second-run fleapits” where audiences hungry for repulsive horror movies found Shivers (1975), Rabid (1976), The Brood (1979), and Scanners (1980). If with Videodrome (1981) Cronenberg began both to use respected and glamorous actors and to begin a return to the independent-film venues where his pictures have mostly played since, that has not meant that The Fly (1986) and Dead Ringers (1988), both great movies, and Naked Lunch (1991) and Crash (1996), both ambitious but airless failures, were any less extreme. As Beard says of the nightmare scene in The Fly—in which Geena Davis’s journalist, Ronnie, pregnant by Jeff Goldblum’s scientist, Seth Brundle, whose experiments have left him part man and part fly, dreams of giving birth to a huge maggot while her obstetrician, played by Cronenberg himself, looks on—“It is as though the squirming parasite [that Cronenberg] had sent up a woman’s vagina in Shivers is now returning from the same place, much enlarged and with its twisted frat-house prankishness dissolved in fear and loathing, literally into the hands of the one who put it there.”
As Beard advances through Cronenberg’s films, as he writes them out, it is the increasingly ugly, seemingly unnatural events in the films themselves that move the drama of the attempt to escape from the body: the drama of the instinctive human wish for “boundarylessness,” orchestrated by the emergence of the insides of the body, representing every forbidden urge, into the outside world. A “yearning for a wholeness that [Cronenberg] fully understands cannot exist” shifts the focus of the films from idealistic scientists seeking to transform mutation into therapeutics, toward artists—Beverly Mantle, the gynecologist-turned-sculptor of “instruments for operating on mutant women” in Dead Ringers, the writer Bill Lee in Naked Lunch, the death-worshiping automotive performance artists of Crash—whose demands on life are no less great and whose creations are no less disastrous. “The notion that art is dangerous is always present in Cronenberg’s work, if we call the projects of science in the early films ‘art,'” Beard writes, gearing up for a characteristic tour de force paragraph of lucid academic analysis and deadpan wit:
From this perspective, art in Shivers is designing visceral sex-parasites and sadistically implanting them in the bodies of others, creating a landscape of maniacal sex-zombies whose activities can be consumed by viewers in an “outing” of repressed transgressive desire, while the whole undertaking is regarded by the film’s authorial sensibility as an exercise in the most admired traditions of modernist transgressive art. In Rabid, art is giving porno goddess Marilyn Chambers a “creative cancer” bodily weapon that once more transforms the landscape into a spectacle of frenzied, violent abjection. In The Brood—in which, under the direction of a psychiatrist, Samantha Eggar’s character, Nola, parthenogenetically produces an army of mutant children embodying only a single human quality, rage—art becomes explicitly “going all the way through” your transgressive feelings. Here the transgressing monsters are deliberately created… Conceiving, gestating, and giving birth to them is a creative labor like the artist’s, in a literalization of metaphors often used to describe artistic creation. The brood-children are thus works of art; but their function is not to soothe the savage beast or hold the mirror up to nature but rather to beat people to death with blunt objects.
But Beard is less interested in Cronenberg’s “authorial sensibility” than in D.H. Lawrence’s “Never trust the artist. Trust the tale.” He has a sense of the film itself thinking. This allows him to argue with Cronenberg and, as a critic, to go even farther with the films than Cronenberg, as his own critic, may be willing to do. Cronenberg posits a “double-bind,” Beard says: “Ineffective, diffident, impotent inaction,” the half-a-life of most people most of the time, or “powerful, disastrous action,” the real life of the films’ hero-villains. They “can attempt to repress and resist desire,” or they “can give it rein. There is no middle ground, because unrepressing desire only a little bit, or trying to limit and control it”—Goldblum’s scientist trying to control his experiments, the writer in Naked Lunch trying to control his talking-insect typewriter, the gynecologists in Dead Ringers trying to control women, reproduction, and themselves—“is futile: once desire is out of the cage it eats everything.”
That last phrase is bottomless, extreme; as extreme as the ending of The Fly. A scientist who wants to change the world (and alleviate his motion sickness) through teleportation accidentally admits a fly along with himself in the process. He will move from one teleportation pod to another through the disassembling and then reassembling of his molecular structure, and so will the fly—but only in one body. In the final disaster, a creature that is now much more fly than man takes one last, desperate trip, only now mistakenly fusing with the teleportation pod itself, the creature recreating itself as a being almost too unspeakable to look at, “trailing flesh-cables, with hairs and unrecognizable organs growing next to clunking masses of metal.” This “unflinching gaze at perdition, this iron sense that there is no way out,” Beard writes, is something that will stay with Cronenberg in the subsequent films—and if Cronenberg wavers, Beard will keep him honest.
There can be no “positive aspect” to the moral, mental, spiritual, and physical transformations the men and women in Cronenberg’s films seek, Beard insists, “no matter what Cronenberg may say.” “These people are now experimenting, they have taken it upon themselves to invent new meanings for themselves, and to reinvent sex, to reinvent death, to reinvent love,” Beard quotes Cronenberg on the men and women in Crash who have found themselves sexually vitalized through their own mutilation. Forget it, Beard says: Look at what the films say, what they show, what they cannot turn away from, whether you can or not. The artist must lie, because even if the artist’s work says there is no way out, the artist goes on living and making art—in other words, the artist must act as if his or her own discoveries are false. But a work follows the trajectory of its own drama; it generates momentum toward its own end. A film has its own fictive necessities, and so no matter what Cronenberg may say, Beard can say what, to him, the movies say: “Really nowhere in Cronenberg’s whole cinema, and despite his repeated insistences to the contrary, is this transformation or reinvention anything other than appalling.” If as a philosopher-filmmaker Cronenberg has locked humanity in a box, as a critic Beard will take away the key.
The Artist as Monster is weighty—once Beard reaches Videodrome, every chapter is the equivalent of a British Film Institute Film Classics study; provisional—with the end of the chapter on Crash the book just stops, with Beard no doubt planning to take in the 1999 eXistenZ and whatever might follow it in the next edition, staying on the case as long as Cronenberg does; and fun to read. Beard is very dry: “The project of so much theoretical writing in the field of popular culture is not to use theory to explicate texts but rather to discover texts that will illustrate theory,” he writes. “In this respect, Videodrome is an object of almost pornographic appeal.” The hero of Videodrome gazes at himself in horror when he finds a videocassette inserting itself into his stomach as if he were a VCR: Beard quotes Fredric Jameson to the effect that “corporeal revulsion of this kind probably has the primary function of expressing fears about activity and passivity in the complexities of late capitalism.”
The book has its weaknesses. Beard is so interested in the films, and usually so uninterested in who plays who, that it can be hard to see the movies in your mind as you read; he doesn’t get around to mentioning that the hero of Videodrome, an “absolutely single-character centered film,” is played by James Woods until he’s finished his chapter on the picture and moved on to the next. He has no sense that Naked Lunch is enervated and tiresome because Peter Weller is too weak an actor to carry the film. The chapter on Dead Ringers, compared to those on every other movie, is lifeless and formal, as if the characters are falling into a picture Beard has already drawn. But at any turn, even one that for the moment can seem like a dead end, Beard’s gift for language can light up the page. “The plots are simply there to encase (sometimes literally) the guts of the films,” he writes; Naked Lunch is a “consultation with one’s inner giant crab-beetle.” “[Take] away all the paranormal or monstrous aspects of these narratives,” Beard says, throwing his net as wide as it will go, “[and] what you are left with is a series of men who are introverted and emotionally cut off, unsuccessful in their attempts to break out of isolation, and finally suicidally melancholy figures of loneliness and loss. In The Fly this final condition is expressed as one of irresistible and irreversible disease and decay, a catastrophe that looms up and devours the protagonist like mortality itself.”
I said there were no illustrations in Beard’s book, but there is one on the cover: the Clark Nova insect typewriter from Naked Lunch. The left legs of the beetle-like bug carry over to the opening fold of the jacket in such a way that whether the book is open or closed the legs stick out and remain visible, producing the continual impression that somewhere in the course of reading the book you squashed a fly in its pages.
Bookforum, Spring 2002