Beyond the Currency of the Common Imagination
Is David Cronenberg a moral conservative with the perspective of a radical phenomenologist? The director often makes films that have pushed the perceptual envelope while nevertheless indicating that there might just be a problem with certain societal advances. The sexual revolution was met with caution in Shivers and Rabid, divorce was seen as problematic in The Brood, and a viewer's desire for stronger and stronger content critiqued in Videodrome. Some might see in Cronenberg a hypocrite, someone who wants to warn us about the perils of excess while revelling in that excess himself. By suggesting that he is a moral conservative with the perspective of a radical phenomenologist we can perhaps rescue him from charges of hypocrisy and see instead a director who wants both to show and to question the dangers of advances in science, technology and their relationship with our bodies and minds to slow down the process of absorbing them so that we can give such issues some thought.
In an essay on Videodrome, a film about Max Renn and his determination to exploit the explicit in visual media, Scott A. Wilson intriguingly suggests one way to understand the film is to think of Cronenberg's very specific use of metaphor. "I suspect that the reason these objects are so transformed - the gun and hand into 'hand-gun', the empty fist into 'hand grenade' - is that the passage into the ontological structures of the film's diegesis (and necessarily our own interpretive activities) and which in effect 'ontologises' them, renders them comprehensible by locating them within a representational schema that allows us to make sense of them, to recognise them as objects with a narrative function, shrinking these irruptions from the overwhelming totality of what Zizek refers to as 'the Thing' (and which might correspond to a Real for the diegesis) to the more manageable and residual 'objet (petit) a'." ('Death to Videodrome': Cronenberg, Zizek and an Ontology of the Real') Wilson is here invoking Lacan's theory of the Real and its impossible realisation as we nevertheless have moments of recognition that quickly become absorbed into our accepted view of reality. Wilson suggests that this gives Cronenberg's strange, possibly surreal and certainly horrific images a function quite different from a narrative one as we would usually couch it. When someone pulls a gun out or tosses a hand grenade these are given objects in the world. We don't have to re-conceptualise them perceptually; they are already usually comprehensible whether within the narrative world or at least our ready perceptual categories. It is not at all surprising when a hero in a Western finally gets round to removing his gun from the holster, and it is only narratively surprising when someone in a film about gangs that relies on the presence of the knife shoots someone dead. At very different ends of this spectrum, we can think of Steven Spielberg's The Raiders of the Lost Ark and Alan Clark's The Firm. In the former, we have Harrison Ford pulling a pistol out on the sword-wielding baddie in a moment of comedy. In the latter, we have Gary Oldman finding that shotguns have replaced knives and baseball bats in the London football casual scene as he gets blown away in a moment of immense seriousness. Both films play up the surprise of the sudden, broken rule. Wilson, though, indicates that Cronenberg is generating a surprise through more than breaking a convention. He is also reimagining our assumptions about images themselves.
One way of looking at this is to invoke a term Wilson doesn't utilise but which might be useful in comprehending Cronenberg's particular deployment of imagery: defamiliarization. When Victor Shklovsky originally uses it in the context of, amongst others the work of Tolstoy, the Russian formalist points out how old language and perception can be made new with a startling image. It can take us away from the staleness of our cognition. "Habituation devours works, clothes, furniture, one's wife and the fear of war." But "the purpose of art is to impact the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects 'unfamiliar...art removes objects from the automatism of perception in several ways." ('Art as Technique') We don't have that with our examples from Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Firm. In Spielberg's case, he wants to produce a surprised laugh, a laugh that might tell us a great deal about American imperialist attitudes which says when you are confronted with a sword and have better firepower use it. In Clark's case, he wants to show us the escalation of violence in a world that might be thuggish but that seems to have rules Oldman discovers that it doesn't any longer possess them, or the rules have changed, in the moment of his demise. Yet in each instance there is no defamiliarised image generated, no equivalent of Shklovsky wish for art when he says "Tolstoy makes the familiar seem strange by not naming the familiar object. He describes an object as if he were seeing it for the first time..." Shklovsky then quotes Tolstoy describing a flogging without mentioning flogging itself: "to strip people who have broken the law, to hurl them on the floor, and to rap on their bottoms with switches...to lash about on the naked buttocks." ('Art as Technique')
Yet Cronenberg wants, of course, to take defamiliarization much further, or at least make it much more imagistically explicit. Developments in make-up artistry and special effects work at the time helped enormously. From Alien to American Werewolf in London, from The Thing to Cronenberg's own Scanners, by the early eighties, the special effects in films had become a star attraction. But while most filmmakers would use them occasionally, and see them as far from central to their vision, for Cronenberg in The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly and Dead Ringers they became vital. What he wanted was to find we believe a cinematic equivalent of defamiliarization that would both get us closer to an understanding of the Real (to run with WIlson's argument), but also to augment and collapse the metaphorical, to suggest that his images aren't just metaphors for certain states, but that certain states are no longer metaphorically distinguishable. Thus when we say our computer has a virus we are offering the language of metaphor to understand the workings of a machine. People have viruses, machines malfunction. Using the metaphorical makes us understand more easily the working of machines as we personify the object to comprehend the problem. Defamiliarization often works like this and gives us a fresh perspective on an old perception. Shklovsky takes the metaphorically original, seeing that not only can writers revitalise language but they can also revolutionise perception itself Shklovsky was after all a product of revolutionary Russia. If most of the other filmmakers utilising special effects (Ridley Scott, John Carpenter, John Landis) saw it as a way of generating strong and surprising imagery, Cronenberg seemed able to see that while cinema had a weak sense of metaphor when it came to trying to transpose what was on the page into film, it had other means by which to make those metaphors properly new. Imagine Shakespeare's 'this is our winter of discontent' taking metaphorical cinematic form, with the filmmaker separating out the literal from the figurative. You could have a discontented group in summer before cutting to a snowy landscape. Usually, though film would settle for the literalisation: discontented men standing around in a wintry climate. Cronenberg uses the development in special effects to work through a metaphorical image structure that can dissolve the categories of the metaphorical and the literal to offer a means by which to get closer to the Real as Wilson, through Zizek and Lacan, would describe it. "The passage into the diegesis, in effect, tames the objects, renders them sensible for once they are ontologised they can function as objects of desire (and of interpretation). Yet they remain horrifying, covered in fleshy pulp and moist reminders of Max's interior and it is this remainder that suggests that Max provides the corridor from the Real to the ontological." ('Death to Videodrome': Cronenberg, Zizek and an Ontology of the Real') In other words, the film takes what cannot be countenanced and narrativises from the Real and turns it into the realisable. It becomes an image we can comprehend and thus no longer belongs to the Real that cannot be comprehended. But Wilson suggests that Cronenberg's images retain an aspect of the Real in the way, obviously, moments in Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Firm, do not, and in ways that the literalisation of men in a snow landscape wouldn't either. In Spielberg's film the moment is surprising and in Clarke's shocking. In a Shakespeare adaptation it would be straightforward and to separate out the literal from the metaphorical by a cut, clumsy. But in Videodrome the moments are disturbing they disturb the boundaries of the literal and the metaphorical to create not just a narrative novelty but also an imagistic terror.
There are great films that do not at all rely on this imagistic terror even if they play up the dramatic horror. Few watching Jaws find the shark itself terrifying: it works much better implicitly than explicitly. It works because of metonymy, or more specifically synecdoche, not metaphor. It is the fin that signifies the rest of the shark allied to John Williams' music that terrifies, while in Cronenberg it is metaphor rather than metonymy that disturbs. There is, of course, something of this disturbance in Alien and The Thing, films that like Videodrome, Scanners and The Fly couldn't easily survive without effective make-up work, but Scott and Carpenter used this imagery for specific ends in one film. Nobody more than Cronenberg wanted to utilise special effects to search out metaphorical possibilities across a range of them. When Rolling Stone magazine mentions that Cronenberg "...said that all horror springs from the Latin phrase 'Timor mortis conturbat mea' - the fear of death disturbs me," we might wonder if death seems to be the preoccupation. Is it not even more confronting the collapse of sense that generates Cronenberg's specific horror, a fear greater than death? Discussing Hemingway's death, Cronenberg talks about it in terms of meaning. "I was shocked when Hemingway committed suicide, because he obviously could have lived a lot longer. But he made his very Hemingwayesque statement that all that mattered to him was fucking and writing and hunting and fishing, and that he couldn't do any of them worth a damn anymore, so why be alive? And as you get older you say, he has a point, he really does." Cronenberg adds, "If your life has meaning, then it can also cease to have meaning. And if you're still alive after that point, what are you? And I also believe, really, that the only meaning that there is in the universe comes from the human brain I don't think that there is a God or that there is an external system of meaning out there that exists apart from human beings." (Cronenberg on Cronenberg) Death is, by such a reckoning, not so bad if people willingly take their own lives, but how many would so willingly lose their own minds, would will a collapse of their own perceptual faculties? Someone taking LSD might be seeking a moment of mind alteration but would they take the drug knowing its effect would be permanent?
By the end of Videodrome, central character Max Renn (James Wood) will put a gun to his head and presumably blow his brains out as the film closes and the credits come up. Yet Cronenberg has so far removed us from narrative coherence that we can read this as an hallucinatory action rather than an actual deed - as if metaphor has taken over and meaning has thus collapsed. By suggesting that Max has throughout the film become increasingly lost in the viral capacities of a violent TV show that messes with his brain, as we see videotapes melting in front of his eyes, and a vaginal like slit appearing in his stomach that will swallow his gun, Conenberg makes metaphor the overriding register of the film and thus destroys the reality that we see. This doesn't happen with metonymy in film and needn't necessarily happen with metaphor either. If metonymy usually asks us to understand the logic of relations without necessitating the explicit appearance of the deed (as we find when someone passes away off screen and then the next scene happens to be the characters' funeral) metaphor can offer a momentary escape from the literal without calling into question the rational out of which it comes. When a film cuts from a person being dragged away and then we cut to a pig getting slaughtered we can assume that this is a metaphor, an indirect means of showing the character getting killed. In the first instance we have the metonymic use of the implicit; in the second the explicit use of the metaphoric. It is to the latter Cronenberg is consistently drawn, but then goes much further by dissolving the categories of the metaphorical and the literal so that we can't easily distinguish between the two.
Usually in literature, the metaphorical allows for the momentary recognition of surprise as the imaginative writer indicates how we can see an image from a new perspective. When Shakespeare offers "if you can look into the seeds of time and say which grain will grow and which will not, speak then to me", the metaphor is clear but the return to the literal hasty. But what happens if that return is delayed what happens if one says that the internet is a virus, or that television is junk food that rots your brain instead of your gut, and insist that these are realities rather than just metaphors? This is close to Cronenberg's world as he could see that developments in special effects work allowed him to extend his metaphorical imagery across a film. When in the wake of her divorce the central character in The Brood says she has given birth to monsters, monsters are what we see as she opens her nightgown to reveal a monstrousness that the doctor and her husband realise is the product of an emotional reality. The doctor gets his patients to literalise their emotional pain as much as possible, only to find that the wife in her anger and resentment is producing numerous, murderous offspring. In The Fly, Cronenenberg takes an old fifties Vincent Price film and holds to the concept but advances the metaphorical imagery. If in the classic the combination of fly and man leaves us fretting over the loss of the latter as he turns into the former, it is as though the special effects can only leave us feeling the loss - the special effects cannot give us a fly-like man. Cronenberg can and thus conceptualises much further the problem of a being that becomes a fly as Jeffrey Bundle describes each stage of his transformation as we see him convincingly become an enormous insect in front of our eyes. The metaphor of feeling like an insect becomes the reality.
In Videodrome, Max Renn starts by indicating that he wants stronger images and by the end of the film their strength is such that they might have killed him and certainly driven him crazy. 'Beware of what you wish for you might just get it' goes the common saying, but Cronenberg gives to it an uncommon set of images as Max can't differentiate between what is real and what happens to be his imagination and neither can we. If the images Cronenberg shows cannot convince us about that hallucinatory dimension, the film fails. When the television starts to generate its own three-dimensional images, and the TV screen takes on an elastic, gluey form, the image has to be equal to the imagining. If we can see how traditional use of film metaphor (or more specifically simile) can seem clumsy or humorous partly because film lends itself well to literalisation, then Cronenberg demands an artificiality that can nevertheless find its own realism through advanced effects. If an image like Chaplin's in Modern Times invokes the workers like sheep by crosscutting at the beginning of the film from the workers to the sheep in a heavily humorous simile that shows just how difficult it is for film to generate similes out of dissimilarities, Cronenberg moves in the opposite direction by making his images metaphorically effective. He doesn't want to join together two realistic images to create a linkage, he wants to absorb into film a metaphoric conceit that he must find unrealistic images to express. If Chaplin suggests that the workers are like sheep, Cronenberg asks what it would be like to have a virus of the brain. A virus of the body isn't metaphorical; a virus of the mind is. How to bring the two together in a plausible image structure that can make us feel the metaphor as vividly as a reality? Perhaps by absorbing an aspect of reality into the image that means while we might not accept the situation itself is likely, even possible, it contains within it an image of reality that allows us to buy into Cronenberg's fantastic visualisations. Whether it is Scanners' famous exploding head moment or the scene in Videodrome where Max Renn shoots Barry Convex, the hotshot who wants to inflict videodrome upon the world, the films draws upon a sense in which television and death were closely interlinked. The former scene for example closely resembles in its execution a television moment when a TV newsreader, Christine Chubbuck blew her brains out live on air years earlier.
Death images proliferated in the sixties and seventies. From the monk burning to the member of the Vietcong shot in the head, from Che Guevara to Kennedy, it was as though death was no longer something that happened to other people, but somehow happened to the public too as passive consumer. One had become implicated in images, drawn towards them as if it weren't quite possible to ignore them. Cronenberg seems to wonder what this implication would feel like on a vividly metaphoric level: what would happen if one were literally drawn in? While Shivers and Rabid and The Fly were chiefly concerned with the viral and the experimental as bodily force, The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome and The Dead Zone were more interested in how viruses are created through images and thoughts. It is partly why a fine critic like Robin Wood saw conservatism in Cronenberg's work, with Wood saying "Cronenberg's movies tell us that we shouldn't really want to change society because we would only make it even worse." (American Nightmares).
This apparent conservatism Wood sees in the body horror films could be seen to stretch into the media horror films too, with Cronenberg proposing a conservative argument about the dangers of the media. But this would suggest not just conservatism on Cronenberg's part but hypocrisy also. Cronenberg's work is as strong as most to be found on television, strong enough for censors to snip away at his images and argue for the banning of the films. "To this day" Chris Rodley says in Cronenberg on Cronenberg, "Cronenberg is outraged by certain cuts made in Videodrome, requested not by the MPAA [the US boards of censors] but by Universal Pictures themselves." Cronenberg was contractually obliged to make sure the film would receive an R certificate, which meant it could reach a large audience that an X certificate would curtail, but though Cronenberg had come to an agreement with the MPAA's Richard Heffner, Universal wanted more cuts still. The director remains unforgiving. Cronenberg can be pragmatic about the filmmaking industry but is apoplectic when he feels that more than pragmatism is at work. He could understand why someone who owns a picture house would remove the film when it created a stir, he understands that it might seem bad for business and the cinema owner doesn't want the hassle. But when a politician in Canada was behind the picketing he wasn't happy. "...this woman was a politician, connected with a certain party in Canada, and had many particular axes to grind." (Cronenberg on Cronenberg)
Clearly, Cronenberg is a filmmaker who is implicated himself in troublesome imagery if cuts are requested and picketing outside his films not unknown, but we can surely differentiate between someone who is exploiting the nature of a social problem and someone who is trying to comprehend what that problem might be. How to understand the difference between a Max Renn who wants more visceral images and a bigger share of the market in extreme entertainment, and Cronenberg who trades in strong imagery and isn't averse to the commercial expectations of the market? We can quote Cronenberg saying "I am pretty obstinate. I will not let go of the ending of a movie if I think it is right." Taking a diplomatic approach is important: "I would talk to the producers. This is the Canadian way." (Cronenberg on Cronenberg) Thus for Cronenberg film is part of an ongoing dialogue that wants to understand what people might see as the problem of the film partly because the work itself is part of a problem at large. Max Renn doesn't so much see a problem as an opportunity, someone who, while admitting on a TV talk show that he trades in softcore pornography and hardcore violence because he has to make money, claims, when pushed by the presenter whether he cares about what he is doing, that he cares enough to give the viewers a harmless outlet for their fantasies. It is the answer of someone pleased that he has got himself out of a tight spot rather than a figure who has justified his own first principles. Cronenebrg, in interview after interview, indicates a filmmaker very interested in problematics rather than entertainments, in seeing cinema not as a means by which to get bums on seats (though hardly unimportant), but in putting ideas in minds, as if seeing in thought the capacity to cope with the changes that technology and society insist we adjust to.
While Wood sees simply a conservative, one reason we have suggested Cronenberg is a moral conservative with a radical phenomenological perspective lies in the director's need to draw upon a value system while generating an image system. Speaking of The Dead Zone, where after an accident a man wakes up out of a coma and discovers he can see into people's lives, Cronenberg says, "suddenly he realises he's not who he thought he was, that his life could be what he thought it could be....he has the seeds of being a visionary, the same as a Scanner. At a certain point that comes out and destroys his life as he had known it." (Cronenberg on Cronenberg) Talking about Shivers he says, "the very purpose is to show the unshowable, to speak the unspeakable. I was creating things there was no way of imagining because it was not the common currency of the imagination" (Cronenberg on Cronenberg) Discussing Dead Ringers he reckoned, in one way the film was "conceptual science fiction, the concept being 'what if there could be identical twins?' Some might say 'But there are.' But I'm suggesting that it's impossible, and let's look at them really closely." (Cronenberg on Cronenberg) The director sees that for every change society and technology demands, for every biological anomaly that comes along, the human needs to reconfigure its value system to cope with it. To chase the money Cronenberg knew he would have to sacrifice the idea. Speaking of The Dead Zone Cronenberg insisted "it wasn't a calculated attempt to get a bigger audience on my part...if you chase a mass audience you die. You don't reach one." (Cronenberg on Cronenberg)
This problematic he searches out is vitally associated with questions not only of the bodily and the societal but also the difference between literature and cinema. In an interview in Critical Quarterly, Cronenberg talks about being brought up in a house that "had walls made out of piles of books." Throughout Cronenberg on Cronenberg there are literary references, to Shakespeare, Donne and the metaphysical poets, Kafka and Beckett. Though drawn initially to the sciences at university he found himself more and more taken by the arts and dropped out of the former. But more importantly for our purposes, Cronenberg notes, "I've always been very interested in metaphor and it probably comes from my literary ambitions. But it's actually very difficult to create metaphor in film, because metaphor is linguistic, while film is working on a different level. But still, the idea of incarnating something that has meaning and symbolic significance, comparing one thing to another that is seemingly quite different" is important. Such a claim returns us to some of our own: the notion that Cronenberg is a significant filmmaker partly because he can see the difficulty of creating metaphor on film and that within his fascination with marrying science and art, medicine and morals, sexuality and violence, lies the problem of what can be visualised. When Cronenberg talks of the unimaginable, we might notice it can take three forms: the thinkable, the seeable and the sayable. We can sometimes imagine something without being able to say it, and we can sometimes say something that we cannot visualise. Of course sometimes we can visualise something that we cannot see, or at least know that the visualisation works much more immediately than the sayable equivalent. Try describing a building that you thought was beautiful as opposed to showing someone the holiday photograph of that building. Often it is easier to say 'I love you" to someone you no longer love than act in a way that conveys it. Sometimes we can recognise a feeling but cannot put it into words, and know that words will always somehow feel inadequate next to that feeling. A common example is the difficulty of describing a dream. The feeling is very strong, and the dream has no difficulty in finding the necessary images for such unconscious thoughts, but conscious language cannot get close to describing it.
If Cronenberg seems so important a filmmaker it is that these questions appear to reside more deeply in his work than the other directors with whom in various ways he may be affiliated: John Carpenter, George A. Romero, Wes Craven, maybe Larry Cohen and Abel Ferrara. Videodrome isn't important chiefly due to its impressive viscerality, nor even in its critique of television. It is more that Cronenberg finds in his images a tension between what can be thought, said and seen. A good example of this tension exists in what could seem like an obvious moment: the sequence when a female colleague from work pops round to see if Max is ok. It is one we have witnessed many times before a colleague who may have designs on the central character turns up at his door, with an item that arrived at the office. He wants to be alone; she would seem to want to dawdle and acts familiarly when she is about to put a tape in the VCR. The restless Max dashes across the room and tells her "don't touch that" as he appears to slap her. But as Max administers the slap that we see in a medium shot from behind, we cut to a close up of the slap's reception with his lover Nikki (Deborah Harry) in the colleague's place, then cut back to Max slapping her and the colleague reacting to the slap. Yet when Max apologises for slapping her she doesn't know what he is talking about. She might have been scared by his overreaction when she went for the video recorder, but while he was aggressive he wasn't violent. She wonders whether she should stay, saying he looks awful and wonders if she can get him something, but again she moves around the apartment a little too freely for Max's liking and he is relieved when he manages to get her to exit. The scene plays close to the sort of farcical scenario where a lover hides in the closet when the wife returns home, but Cronenberg turns a stock situation inside out by virtue of what underpins it. The worst that can happen in the adulterous scenario is that the husband is found out, but Max can't even begin to explain the nature of what is happening to him even if wished to do so. He is caught in an unsayable moment where the adulterous version is very sayable indeed. One needs to hide the obvious but it is still obvious. Max is lost in the properly obscure and Cronenberg's purpose is to find the means by which to make it cinematically expressed.
Another example of the stock situation containing the unsayable comes when Max confronts Harlan, the tech whiz who accesses videodrome for him. Max realises Harlan has set him up and Harlan ventures into the hole that opens in Max's stomach expecting to find a gun in there. Instead, when he yanks out his hand he discovers a grenade which becomes part of his arm. "See you in Pittsburgh" Max says as Harlan gets blown up. A third and final example we can offer takes place after Max shoots Barry Convex, the man who wants to release videodrome into the world. It is a stock assassination scenically, with plenty of reaction shots and people running in all directions, but Cronenberg shows us the weapon he uses as just a lump of leprous flesh in the shape of a gun, and after Convex has been killed shows a man whose flesh splits apart while his internal organs become a bubbling, molten mess. Both instances, the grenade blowing Harlan up and the bodily collapse we see after Convex has been shot are over the top, but this sense of going over the top was the next stage on from the vivid manner in which bodies were shown in the late sixties and the seventies, in films like Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch, Taxi Driver and The Deer Hunter. In each of these great films, the directors wanted to show how a body was killed; what a body might look like full of bullet holes. But what Stephen Prince expertly observed is that such scenes are especially well accompanied by slowing the image down. "Slow motion is especially powerful when it correlates with a character's loss of physical volition. Clyde's dying arc; the trajectories of falling, dying men shot from the rooftops of San Rafael or the army personnel blasted off the flat cars of the train in The Wild Bunch..." (Screening Violence) Prince compares such moments to one in The Left-Handed Gun made a decade earlier: the camera speed just wasn't fast enough to convey the force that we would notice in the later films. Prince describes this new development in The Wild Bunch and others as 'a metaphysical poetry" as realism meets lyrical expression. By the same reckoning, special effects needed to come of age before Cronenberg's cinema could find in its imagery a metaphorical vulgarity, a means by which to give form to the nightmarishly possible in film. In Critical Quarterly, Cronenberg mentions a line one of the gynaecologist twins offers in Dead Ringers about the beauty of the organs as the director makes clear he is often interested in a beauty that is indeed much more than skin deep and that modern effects can access.
One sees in that accessing though something closer to the Real rather than reality and we offer perhaps a few value judgements here between the effects that lent themselves to the realistically inclined, utilised by Peckinpah, Cimino, Scorsese and Penn, as against the fantastically inflected effects of Carpenter, Romero and especially Cronenberg. Indeed, the realistic produced far more great films than the fantastic, yet what the latter achieves that the former does not is an extension of the problem of metaphor in a certain manifestation, to find the means by which cinema can be a metaphorical medium without aping literature and looking clunky next to it. Hence, when Wilson sees the aspect of the Real in Videodrome it needs to be much more than either admiration or shock as they are usually couched. Admiration would be premising the ingenuity of the effects and shock would be falling into the conventions of the genre. But if the film succeeds in metaphorically generating new imagery, the perceptual response needs to be a bit more traumatised than that. It needs to tear at the mind's eye, a retinal shock that is also a cerebral realisation. If the Cronenbergian is a much stronger adjective than the Romeroesque or the Carpenteresque it rests on his ability to make Real the metaphorical as a visceral response. At the end of Videodrome, Max puts the handgun to his head. It is no longer, of course, a handgun in common parlance which brings together the two words to distinguish something held in the hand from a larger gun held over one's shoulder. It has become an extension of that hand, a metaphor made flesh. Accompanying this moment of self-annihilation, Max says "long live the new flesh", a statement justifying its hyperbole as the character is now both flesh and steel, a man about to die but who can perhaps no longer die not only because Cronenberg has dissolved the clear line between what is real and what is fantasy, but also what is man and what is matter, what is perishable and what is not. The new flesh is no longer flesh alone, but a welding together of contrary materials, like the literal and the metaphorical. No filmmaker more than Cronenberg introduces as to the flesh of the new, finding a currency indeed beyond the common imagination.
© Tony McKibbin