The Mother Of All Fears

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

Even the most squeamish fans of David Cronenberg's psycho-chiller Spider may be disappointed to learn that they have been deprived of the spectacle of an exploding blood potato. "It was not meant to explode," Cronenberg explains amiably during a recent interview in a sunny room at the Nicollet Island Inn. "The boy"--the young character nicknamed Spider--"cuts into it and it bleeds. When the special-effects guy showed it to me he was forcing so much blood through it that the lines exploded from the pressure. And then it gets blood everywhere and you can't ever get it off your sneakers."

The 59-year-old Canadian director likely has a whole wardrobe stained with human viscera, the byproduct of a three-decade-plus career that at one point or another has probably sent Stephen King clutching for an air-sickness bag. The many unsettling things that Cronenberg has done to bodies--things that by all rights are not meant to be done to bodies--make up a highlight reel of anxiety and repulsion. There's the blood-slurping penis-tendril that sprouts from a porn star's armpit in 1977's Rabid. The exploding head in 1981's Scanners. The chest-cavity flesh VCR of 1983's Videodrome. Who could forget (and believe me, I've tried) the homemade gynecological devices in 1988's Dead Ringers? Or the gism-lactating mugwump of 1991's Naked Lunch? And then there's the anal-sex interlude with James Spader in 1996's Crash, whose obvious claim to grotesquery is that it's an anal-sex scene with James Spader.

But Cronenberg has never been a lazy goremeister or a cheap imagineer. Asked why the exploding--make that oozing--blood potato didn't make the final cut, he explains his choice with impeccable logic. "One of my goals was to make the audience become Spider, to really perceive everything through his eyes. And so when he was hallucinating, I wanted the audience to be hallucinating too.

"The main hallucination in the movie of course is..."

And here I will make a strategic cut of my own to preserve the mystery of what terror seizes the boy who is at the center of the new film. This hallucination, Cronenberg suggests, should strike the audience as real--and it does. "But the potato," he continues, "they would not buy as real. They would know that is an effect--that it could not actually be happening. Whereas for the boy it would be actually happening."

A man who can unravel the ontology of a potato to this extent obviously has a philosophical bent. True to that vision, Spider turns out to be a tricky, Freudian (and mostly bloodless) tale of perception and derangement. Our guide into this maze is a shambling man (Ralph Fiennes) who barely speaks an intelligible word for the entire course of the movie. When we meet him as he exits a train in London, he's wearing four collared shirts and fishing around for an address he keeps in a sock nestled in the crotch of his pants. The four shirts might not be a bad idea for the place he's going--a grubby halfway house for de-institutionalized but still addled adults, whose pettily tyrannical mistress surely practices a typically British parsimony with the heat.

There's plenty of gas in this bleak neighborhood. Hulking casks of the stuff loom over the empty streets and fetid canals like mute monuments or votive figures. The overall mood is that of an abandoned set from "The Wasteland." In Patrick McGrath's novel Spider, the title character spins eloquent delusions to fill this universe. But at Cronenberg's urging, McGrath has adapted this voice in his screenplay so that Spider's experience emerges through his fumbling physicality. And so we're left to guess at what it means when Spider prostrates himself on someone's dirt garden and emits a soft groan.

For those who always wanted to watch Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape without a tape to get in the way--or who wish to see the actor do public penance for Maid in Manhattan--Fiennes's initial stumbling is plenty arty. Everyone else will take some relief when the pantomime yields to a series of memories from Spider's happy, happy childhood. (Confidential note to reader: It's not happy.) This working-class realm is populated by Spider's gentle mother (Miranda Richardson), his short-fused father (Aidan Quinn), and the big-busted tart his father takes up with. Spider first runs across this indelicate lass--or her lookalike--in the pub down the street where he's been sent to retrieve his father for dinner. Cackling like a banshee, she exposes tender Spider to his first sweet taste of adult sexuality by demurely thrusting her bared left tit at his face.

Later, we watch as Spider's father makes a home-repair call to Yvonne's festering bathroom, where she offers this bit of badinage: "You gonna do me pipes or what?" When the time comes for her to yank his plumbing--under a bridge by the canal--she pants noisily, catches the fluid on her hand, takes a few quick, menacing steps toward the camera, and shakes it off disgustedly into the stagnant water. This lusty British monster, with her slutty posture and fluoride-free smile, seems to have escaped from one of Grimm's unedited fairy tales. Reasonable gents can disagree on what level of assertiveness is most sexy in a girl, but anyone can see that something is not right when Yvonne tries to feed Spider and his father a bowl of uncooked eels.  

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."

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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