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The Works Of David Cronenberg Film Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 4084 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The dissertation reviews works of David Cronenberg circa 1976-1999 in relation to Truffaut’s theories of the auteur to show the relevance of auteur theory in today’s cinematic climate. The dissertation will look at Cronenberg’s recurring themes, subjects such as biology, the use of insects as a supernatural force, body horror, and themes of psychological delusion and repression. These themes are consistent in Cronenberg film practice, and will form the basis of identifiable traits for consideration in defining contemporary autership. It will look into both of sides of the argument comparing the evidence from sources that believe directorial auterism is a viable concept and those who feel film making is a collaborative process and therefore a director can never truly take ownership of a piece of work.

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In this chapter the dissertation will also look at Cronenberg’s “Rabid” which is the director’s second feature film. The genre is a Horror film and relies heavily on one of the staple themes of the vampire sub-genre Infection which in this case a strain of rabies being passed on from person to person through the exchange of bodily fluids. The plot is simple girl falls off motorbike, girl has pioneering yet risky surgery, surgery turns girl into bloodthirsty vampiress The recurrent themes are ones of body modification (surgery), faceless medical organisations, sexuality and penetration, especially in the manifestation of a phallic, knife-like probe that emerges from lead actress Marilyn Chambers’ armpit to stab and infect her victims. The dissertation will discuss the different aspects that make up the film including the actors and their performances, staging (Director of Photography) the narrative and the script and look to relate them back to Truffaut’s guidelines to highlight key elements.

Dissertation chapter 3: The Fly (Dir. David Cronenberg (1986)

A scientist invents a teleportation device and accidentally teleports both himself and a fly at the same time. This unfortunate event leads to the scientist becoming part man part fly. The film is a story of blind ambition, a love story and also a story of metamorphosis. The consistency in Cronenberg’s choice of film crew (Director of Photography, composer etc) will be looked at in detail and compared to his previous films along with the other recurring themes mentioned in the introduction.

Dissertation chapter 4: CONCLUSION

In this chapter the dissertation will compare the recurring themes between the films in relation to Truffaut’s theory of autership. This correlation between the content of both films and Truffaut’s work aim to show that, Cronenberg can in fact be classed as an auteur.

Chapter 2


Rabid is a 1977 film both written and directed by David Cronenberg. It is often seen as a sequel to his 1975 film “Shivers” both films deal with the subjects of disease and sexuality. The film tells the story of “Rose” Cronenberg has stated that he named her Rose as a metaphor for her innocence. Rose is played by American pornographic movie star Marilyn Chambers and tells of her newly acquired taste for blood that appears after pioneering life saving surgery after suffering a horrific motorbike crash. The skin graft surgery that Rose undergoes causes a mosquito like probe to appear in her armpit which she then uses to drink the blood of her victims. The probe itself is very phallic and is sheathed in something that resembles a vagina adding to the metaphor of this being a way of spreading sexual disease. The disease in this case is explained as a rare strain of rabies.

The opening scenes of the film are set in the “Keloid” clinic. The director seems to have intentionally used this as a name for both the clinic and the head surgeon “Doctor Dan Keloid” as Keloid is a biological term for a type of scar. There is a discussion about investors being interested in putting money into the clinic between the members of staff to help create a franchised series of plastic surgery “resorts” which although shot in 1977 seems to reflect the modern day attitude to plastic surgery. It mirrors the blasé approach of people to undergo potentially life threatening surgery in the name of personal appearance. The character of Lloyd Walsh (Roger Periard) is introduced into the story by stating that, “I’ve already had my ears done twice, i’m just here to get my eyes done…” there is evidently nothing wrong with the bags under Lloyd’s eyes. The discussion of franchisation is transposed with the images of a couple on a motorbike, Rose and her boyfriend, Hart Read (Frank Moore). The sequence on the motorcycle is very similar in style to sequences in the 1969 film “Easy Rider”. Close ups on the drivers foot changing gear are interspersed with shots of the bike weaving along country lanes. This editing technique is a horror film staple with quick cutting from actions that seem quite banal cutting back to another action that is building inevitably into catastrophe and violence. The tension helped to build by the use of sound, Howard Shore as the composer for Rabid has used strings and driving synthesizer noises and increasing in volume. As the motorcycle winds through the country lanes we see that a third set of protagonists are brought into the scene in the form of a camper van with a family in. As the camper van driver realizes his mistake in taking a wrong turn he turns the van around blocking the road.

Close up on Rose as she realizes they are about to crash. (Rabid 1977)

Inevitably the couple on the motorbike swerve and Hart gets thrown clear from the wreckage; Rose however ends up underneath the bike which bursts into flames burning her badly. The scene then cuts back to the Keloid clinic where one of the patients in the hospital has witnessed the crash and alerts the medical staff. They promptly make the decision to take the ambulance and help the crash victims. The use of the location in which the clinic is set helps the audience to realize that without this help then Rose would surely die. Cleverly, Cronenberg has set the clinic in the middle of the countryside. It is clearly in the middle of winter as there are no leaves on the trees and the fields are akin to barren waste ground. The clinic itself is a cold, faceless building with darkened windows and is surrounded by forest. This is consistent with Cronenberg’s use of faceless organizations such as shadowy media companies and in this case a medical establishment. The hospital appears to be the modern day equivalent of Dracula’s castle or some other horror film haunted house staple. Monaco states that:

“To experience a Horror film was cathartic, the elements are well known: there was litany to each popular genre. Part of their pleasure lay in seeing how these basic elements would be treated this time around” (Monaco, 1981)

Suffice to say that when we watch films from the horror genre we are expectant of seeing these certain location and character stereotypes although in the case of Rabid, Cronenberg has transformed the haunted castle with the mad professor into a more modern setting with the use of the Keloid clinic as a key location. The mad professor has now transformed from being that of Dr Victor Frankenstein or Doctor Moreau to one of experimental plastic surgeon Dr Dan Keloid. The use of the faceless medical organization is consistent throughout Cronenberg’s body of work throughout the seventies and eighties.

Upon the arrival of Rose into the clinic for life saving treatment, Cronenberg seems to have prophesized the modern surgical technique of stem cell research and given Dr Keloid the ability to neutralize skin tissue from Rose’s thigh and then use this to grow skin grafts that replace the damaged tissue that is affected by the crash. This yet again is another horror film staple; this experimental almost maverick attitude becomes the surgical equivalent of a character deciding to walk down the dark alley when there is a serial killer on the loose. Throughout this time Rose remains in a coma. The editor Jean LeFleur has used a static title stating “one month later” to show the passage of time and the fact that Rose has been in a shock induced coma for a long time.

“Changes in time and space invite audiences to make an immediate comparison between two distinct points in time. Changes in time and space may mark the presence of central conflicts or emphasize important stages in character development” (Pramaggiore, M. and Wallis, T., 2008)

To show the development of a character that is essentially immobile and unable to communicate without the use of something like dream sequence for instance would be challenging to the director. It seems that what initially appears to look like a potentially lazy plot device in the use of a title to show the passage of time actually becomes a logical tool to show the development of Rose’s character. It is at this point that Rose awakens from her coma. It is suggested to the audience that by Rose unflinchingly removing the Intravenous drip from her arm that something might not be right. Fellow patient Lloyd Walsh discovers Rose lying in her hospital bed thrashing around her breasts uncovered. Rose claims to have no recollection of the accident but complains of being cold and wants Lloyd to embrace her for warmth. Beard says that;

“Metanarratively there is a kind of male-sexual-fantasy skit going on, with Lloyd as the male viewers stand-in: man accidentally comes upon beautiful young woman semi-naked in a hospital room; his safety as a voyeur is guaranteed by the woman’s unconsciousness; when she does awaken, she begs him to hold her because she is cold- another opportunity for covert sexual satisfaction” (Beard, 2006)

This part of the scene can be construed as Rose’s awakening of her dormant blood lust and her way of using her sexuality to entice her prey into physical contact so she can feed on them. Another way of looking at it is that this scene is Cronenberg’s dark sense of humor coming to the fore. Casting a porn film actress in what audiences would regard as a relatively mainstream film and then placing her in a scenario not too dissimilar to the plot of a seventies porn film could be seen as amusing. The scene plays out with an ironic twist of fate; the male viewers on the side of Lloyd want to see this beautiful woman let Lloyd have sex with her, it is however Lloyd that is the one who gets penetrated with a phallus.

“Rose strikes with her armpit spike, and the scene once more is sexualized (again metanarratively) and in an unexpected way that reverses the roles of sexual attacker and victim” (Beard, 2006)

Rose then feeds on Lloyd’s blood, and Lloyd having no recollection of this starts to wander the hospital looking for help. He has no recollection of what has happened to him and as there appears to be no evidence of Rose having been awake at all it is assumed that Lloyd has had a stroke and fallen. However when the staff enter Rose’s room everything is in disarray and one of the nurses tells Doctor Keloid she believes Lloyd has tried to molest Rose. The decision is made to send Lloyd to the general infirmary in the city after they have taken some blood samples. This decision is a turning point in the story and shows how Cronenberg has married together several different horror staples; a vampire movie has now shows some of the traits of becoming a zombie film too. The idea of a single infected person being sent back into the general population unaware of the disease they are carrying after a wrong diagnosis from the doctor, furthering the spread of disease is something that has been used time and time again in film making. Metaphorically speaking the disease could be thought of as a sexually transmitted infection as the situation in which it was passed had definite sexual undertones. After Rose has fed on Lloyd they lay down in what appears to be some kind of post coital bliss.

Rose attacks Lloyd and feeds on his blood, she strokes his hair and they lay back down on the bed. (Rabid, 1977)

After Lloyd is sent to the general infirmary in the city, Dr Keloid looks at Lloyd’s blood sample through a microscope and realizes that something Is not quite right. The blood sample is shown through the point of view of the doctor and the blood cells are being attacked by other mutated cells. This representation of the disease is akin to watching a sperm fertilize an egg except in the case of the disease the sperm like disease is not fertilizing a cell but eating it instead. This imagery is akin to the spread of the disease throughout the populace shown later on in the film.

Cronenberg stated that,

“Rabid was about the spread of disease…, how a whole city is finally almost brought to his knees by a sexually transmitted disease. My imagery tends to be very body oriented. I think I’m interested in transformation as well, but not in an abstract spiritual sense or at least not at first, but in a very physical sense”.

In the case of Rabid it seems Cronenberg is not concerned with only the physical transformation of the protagonists, but also it seems the transformation of society as a whole. It could be assumed that within Rabid, Cronenberg is addressing the changing attitudes of society and that the end of the free love attitude of the sixties and seventies is changing. Sex is no longer safe he appears to be saying. The final scene of the film shows Rose dead on the pavement. Government soldiers that have been charged with controlling the population and keeping the spread of the disease under control find her and throw her into the back of a garbage truck. Muir (2006) proposes that Cronenberg is merely having a stab at women and implying that it is women who are the carriers of disease and that the final scene with Rose getting thrown away emphasizes his thoughts on promiscuity within women equating them to the likes of garbage.

Rose, dead, is thrown away into the garbage truck. (Rabid, 1977)

Chapter 3 The Fly.

“I’m saying I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it, but now that dream is over and the insect is awake.”- Seth Brundle (The Fly, 1986)

“The Fly” is a 1986 film directed by David Cronenberg and produced by Mel Brooks. The film is a remake of the 1958 film of the same title directed by Kurt Neumann which is in turn based on the short story by George Langelaan. The Fly was Cronenberg’s biggest cinematic success to date. The director has completely re-imagined the film of the fifties and transformed it into a love story between two characters. The film focuses on Cronenberg’s recurring obsession with the horror of the human body. The scientist Seth Brundle (played by Jeff Goldblum) and magazine journalist Veronica Quaife (played by Geena Davis) are the main characters involved in the story. Goldblum plays one of the archetypal Cronenberg staples, the mad scientist. Unusually for Cronenberg the scientist is a likeable character, slightly awkward but ultimately charming. As is the norm for the director, Brundle works for a faceless scientific organization Bartok Science Industries who are financing Brundle’s work. The pair meets at a press event held by Bartok. Brundle convinces Veronica that his work will change the course of human history. Wisker (2005) states that Cronenberg’s fascinations lie in the perversions of science being manipulated by corporate interests and how humans, initially unaware, are sucked in to the danger resulting in devastation. This is especially the case regarding the character of Veronica Quaife although it seems that in this scenario, both parties involved had the best intentions and both were unaware of the horror which was to follow. When Brundle asks Veronica to come and look at the project he is working on both characters has ulterior motives, Brundle wants sex and Quaife wants a story for particle magazine. Brundle’s project is one of teleportation; he is on the verge of mastering teleportation via the use of two “pods”. Brundle and Veronica go back to his workshop, when they arrive outside the building he lives in the building is dark made of brick and has no discerning features as are the majority of Cronenberg’s choice of location throughout his career. The dark building where inside the viewer knows that scientific horror waits. In Rabid (1977) it was the use of a plastic surgery clinic, an apartment block in Shivers (1976) and in The Fly it is an old red brick mill type building.

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Muir (2007) claims that Veronica’s effect on Brundle’s work is one of humanization, initially it is seen that Brundle has the single minded focus of an insect already, in one particular scene Veronica looks in Seth’s wardrobe only to encounter five sets of the same clothes. Brundle states that this is purely so he will not have to expend energy worrying unnecessarily about what he is wearing, thus allowing him to concentrate fully on his work. Veronica teaches Brundle about “Flesh” and about with that comes feelings that seem to have eluded Brundle throughout his manhood; feelings of love and passion are intermingled with anger jealousy over Veronica’s suspected continuation of a relationship with her former lover. This is not the case however and we learn early on that veronica wants nothing more to do with Stathis (John Getz) who also happens to be her boss at the magazine. It is this drunken and jealous rage that leads Seth to decide to use his teleportation pods to transport himself. As shown to the audience previously transporting living flesh has not gone well to say the least, initially the transportation of a baboon led to the baboon being turned inside out. Metaphorically speaking the baboon incident coincided with the introduction of Veronica into Brundle’s life, figuratively speaking it was not just the baboon that was turned inside out but also Seth’s life.

Brundle tries teleporting a baboon with devastating results (The Fly, 1986)

Without the introduction of Veronica it is assumed that uncalculated risk would not enter into Brundle’s research however fueled by alcohol and jealousy he decides to transport himself in the pods. Whilst entering the transportation pod Brundle fails to notice a fly has entered in with him. As the door seals the audience realize, so is Brundle’s fate.

It is at this point that Cronenberg’s film becomes a story about the frailty of human flesh and as with the major body of his work a metaphoric tale of disease, loss and the relationship between human and machine. As Brundle leaves Pod “B” he feels more alive than he has before unaware that the computer has fused, on a genetic level, both himself and the fly together in to what Seth refers to as, “Brundlefly”. Seth’s behavior gradually becomes more animalistic; he becomes more sexually aggressive, stronger and exhibits more risky behavior. Brundle thinks that he has somehow purified himself, by going through the machine and being pieced back together he somehow thinks that the computer has improved him. It becomes apparent to Veronica that maybe things are not quite right with Seth after the discovery of coarse black hair growing out of Seth’s back. After Veronica has the hairs medically examined it transpires that they are insect hairs. Seth is in denial and tells Veronica that, “I’ve become free, I’m released and you can’t stand it”.

Hairs sprouting from the back of Seth Brundle (The Fly, 1986)

When Veronica points out that Seth is not well he retaliates by going to a bar with the sole purpose of finding another woman to have sex with. in a scene which seems to encapsulate both Brundle’s new found animalistic masculinity and his wanting to take his anger and hurt out on another being he enters into an arm wrestling match. He bets the men one hundred dollars and the hand of the girl at the bar who is with the men. Brundle starts to arm wrestle, white almost sperm like fluid seeps from his hand as he wrestles the man. With little effort, Seth breaks the bigger man’s arm and walks off with the girl. Cronenberg yet again punishes promiscuity like he has done in previous films such as Shivers and Rabid. In the case of Brundlefly a combination of promiscuous behavior and risky scientific procedure leads to Brundlefly becoming diseased in a very noticeable way. The transformation of Brundle into Brundlefly at least at first seems to replicate the physical characteristics of AIDS. Derry states that:

“In Cronenberg’s, movie the scientists early manifestation of bodily change resemble the skin lesions of Kaposi’s sarcoma, the cancer so common in the early stages of AIDS-related immune dysfunction. As these changes transform him into something monstrous-looking that even his girlfriend recoils from”. (Derry, 2009)

Lesions on Brundle’s face, similar to Kaposi’s sarcoma (The Fly, 1986)

Derry is making the point that within the context of a horror film Cronenberg is asking a profound question on whether or not we as a society can show compassion for the degradation of people who are suffering from debilitating disease. By ignoring or failing to embrace these people due to revulsion are we becoming monsters ourselves? Veronica shows us that she is a strong and compassionate character by comforting Brundlefly even though to the viewer he has become a repulsive monster. Cronenberg has said that:

“The AIDS connection is very superficial. I see it (The Fly) as talking about mortality, about our vulnerability and the tradgedy of human loss” (Cronenberg)

This may well be the case but in the context of which the film was released it seems no doubt inevitable that viewers would link the film with the AIDS paranoia of the nineteen eighties. Seth Brundle states in the film that, “I seem to be afflicted by a disease with a purpose, wouldn’t you say”. In a social context at the time HIV and AIDs were misunderstood diseases with a lack of education, especially from the government and public misinformation and rumours adding to the fear felt by the public. Cronenberg has yet again tapped into the fear of the unknown. Speculation about the film’s hidden meanings and metaphors certainly helped gain public interest for the film and to garner huge box office success for the director. In one particular dream sequence there is scene involving a pregnant Veronica giving birth in the hospital. The surgeon, who in this case is none other than the director himself, pulls what the audience are led to believe a baby from Veronica’s womb. Amidst the screening the audience, as well as veronica see for the first time that this is no ordinary baby and she has given birth to a baby/maggot hybrid. This reflects the fear of the public during the AIDS crisis, what if my unborn baby is infected? What if somehow my baby is different?

Cronenberg’s cameo as a surgeonas he pulls the maggot baby from Veronica. (The Fly, 1986)

Jürgen Müller, Herbert Klemens (2003) Claim that, along with several other films of the eighties, The Fly is dealing with the theme of a person, in this case Brundle, looking for the “Lost Secret” the need for a person to become something which they are not. In the case of The Fly Cronenberg has touched on this theme but as is usual for the director the theme is based around the fact that if anyone tries to transgress the boundaries set by nature they will be found guilty of hubris, punishment in the case of Seth Brundle is creeping dissolution. Once he has felt how perfect a specimen he can be as a man, once he has achieved this greatness the only possible way for the character to go is down.


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