The Mother Of All Fears

David Cronenberg talks about signing a contract with death and the yucky kind of mommy love

Summarized more succinctly: With Spider, Cronenberg has written yet another memorable chapter in The Joylessness of Sex. The director has been asked many times over the years to explain why there are so few fun times to be had on the mattress of his imagination. True to form, Spider's feelings for Mommy seem cribbed from one of the less sunny passages of Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis. You don't have to hold a lifetime subscription to Off Our Backs to wonder why so many of Cronenberg's male characters lose their senses around the time that women lose their panties.

"Political interpretations of my films can be made, but that's not really a structure I want to submit to," Cronenberg says when confronted with this line of questioning. (And hey: Not everyone gets off on submission.) Such an obdurate streak speaks to the director's defensiveness about his own imagination, and the freedom of the artist to give voice to it. Cronenberg was a vocal opponent of a proposed Canadian anti-pornography bill in the late 1980s, and speaks proudly of his membership in the international writers' organization PEN.

And so the director prefers to see Spider's destructive sexual anxiety as "a kind of no-fault look at the human condition. From my vantage point," he continues, "when it comes to social structures and laws, of course you can assign blame and try to correct things. But there are certain existential conundrums that don't involve fault. Like the fact that we die, for example, which I find quite annoying."

Bending it like Beckett: David Cronenberg on the set of 'Spider'
Sony Pictures Classics
Bending it like Beckett: David Cronenberg on the set of 'Spider'

It's an unusual streak of humanism that runs through this filmmaker. On one side, Cronenberg puts his characters through torments that make Hieronymous Bosch seem like a luxury spa host. ("I don't kill thousands in my movies," he says. "I kill one or two and I mean it!") On the other side, he's hardly callous to the experience of human suffering.

"You can rant and rail [about death]," Cronenberg elaborates, "but it's the contract you signed before you were born--and you didn't have your lawyer with you--that says, 'Yeah, and guess what? You won't live forever. You're going to die. What's more, all the people that you love are going to die, too. And your children and your grandchildren. What do you think of that?' And the answer is, 'I don't like it! It sucks!' But who do you blame?" Cronenberg laughs again, and raises his eyebrows a little.


For all the gruesome episodes the director inflicts on his characters--and, of course, his viewers--it's hard to imagine a more pleasant or thoughtful guy to stick a tape recorder in front of. Dressed neatly in a black collarless shirt and checked sport coat, with a blown-back shock of gray hair, Cronenberg seems temperamentally far removed from the bent visionaries of his pictures--Videodrome's Dr. Brian O'Blivion, say, or Scanners' Dr. Paul Ruth, or Naked Lunch's Dr. Benway. This is not a creepy man.

Cronenberg speaks fondly of his encouraging, now-deceased parents--a music teacher and a journalist--and his daughter and sister have worked on several of his movies. And though Cronenberg bemoans the current difficulty in scaring up industry financing for his pictures--he, as well as all Spider's stars, have deferred their salaries--he continues to enjoy great professional success and acclaim. (Spider has been hailed by several critics as the best work of his career.) Which prompts the question of why some of this pleasure and contentment doesn't find its way onto the screen.

"Because it's boring!" he says, leaping in before the question is finished.

Is it really?

"Well, not to live. Look, George Bernard Shaw said it, [and] he wasn't the first: 'Conflict is the essence of drama.' If I did a movie about everybody is nice and is having a nice time, would you go see it? I wouldn't! People often confuse the artist with his work, or they don't understand the complexity of the relationship. I've had people want to do a documentary on my life, and I'm saying, 'Why? I wouldn't watch it! It's boring.' It's not boring at all for me to live. But it's not the stuff of drama in the movie sense."

But surely joy and passion aren't without some artistic interest?

Cronenberg interrupts again: "Everything you see in Spider expresses that."


"Because I made the movie," Cronenberg says in a rush of thought. "Because we all made the movie. Because to do that requires enthusiasm and energy and focus and excitement. So the actual act of making the movie is the affirmation-of-life part. And the attention to detail--which is very loving. I think you can tell. Even the empathy there is for Spider as a person. We don't condescend to him. I think that's where it is. I think it's there in all my movies--because of the process we go through to make them. If I were really despairing I wouldn't do anything. I wouldn't make movies anymore, for sure."

In other words, David Cronenberg is perfectly happy to keep exploding our heads.

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