The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg, by William Beard. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 469 pages. $50. BUY NOW


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 (1982) 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 Flyóin 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 onó"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 artistsóBeverly 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 Crashówhose 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

óin 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, rageó

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.

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