Film as Bomb
If you happen to glance at the Wikipedia entry for David Cronenberg's The Brood (1979) — as I, unfortunately, did — you will learn that Leonard Maltin in his famous Movie Guide damned it with a BOMB rating, and Roger Ebert called it a "bore", "disgusting in ways that are not entertaining", and haughtily inquired: "Are there really people who want to see reprehensible trash like this?"
Well, yes, there are. But the very fact that somebody thought these were the 'expert' comments worth immortalising online says a lot about Cronenberg's awkward status in the canons of our culture — yesterday and still today.
The Brood — which I rewatched for the first time in at least thirty years — is a knockout. After some promising but more amateurish earlier efforts, such as Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977), here is where he begins developing his mastery. I agree with Olivier Assayas that Cronenberg must be approached, foremost, as a writer-director — in the sense that there is an uncommonly novelistic density to his best stories, dialogue and screenplays.
Indeed, the deep continuity between The Brood and his recent novel, Consumed (2014), is staggering. His artistic sensibility was fully formed by the end of the '70s: the focus on lifestyle or 'self help' fads that turn out to be very sinister (especially when the healing guru is himself a 'polluter'); the tendency to wild, J.G. Ballard-style social satire; the central motifs of cancer and contagion; the narrative that knits itself together from diverse, slowly interlocking, conspiratorial intrigues; the guiding notion of the human body as something which can be formed and deformed at will, according to internal (psychological) and external (technological) influence.
Above all, there is a bleak view of families: this social unit is mired in trauma, and it passes down its wealth of guilt through successive generations, who endlessly repeat the same, fatal patterns of abuse and repression. In Spider (2002) — another of his greatest films — the sad hero can scarcely move one inch beyond the primal family trauma that shattered him, body and soul and voice; in the sublime Maps to the Stars (2014), ritual suicide figures as a happy release from inescapable, generational torment. And Cronenberg is surely one of the few filmmakers in world cinema today who does not exploit a facile nostalgia for the supposed happy families of the past.
With The Brood, what was the bug that Cronenberg jammed up the collective, middlebrow ass? The fact that it was outrageously melodramatic in its boldly literal metaphors: suppressed rage creates murderous children. Plus its refusal to make a scapegoat out of any one character, class, gender or type (no matter what the director's 'ideological' critics, including Robin Wood, have long claimed). Cronenberg's despair and his mockery spare nobody; and this leaves some spectators crying foul over "misanthropy" and looking in vain for "someone to care about".
A decade after The Brood, Cronenberg had toned down his style greatly. Less graphic, less gross, more subtle and Buñuelian in its provocative effects; more invested in talk-heavy chamber dramas like Cosmopolis (a limo can be a chamber, too!), where the unrepresentable complexities of a New World Order, or of the human unconscious (as in A Dangerous Method), are largely banished off-screen and summoned only as disquieting, phantom apparitions.
But Maps to the Stars and Consumed, no less than The Brood or Cronenberg's early 'body horror' extravaganzas, touch a truly raw nerve of widespread crisis. In the face of this, critics such as Maltin go on the defensive in the ways they know best: they yell 'bad taste!' (as if their own taste is so high!), and indulge in plot ridicule. In this case: "Midget clones beat grandparents and lovely young schoolteachers to death with mallets. It's a big, wide, wonderful world we live in!"
The real challenge of auteurism — to fully enter a director's sensibility, no matter how unpalatable to us — has yet to be met.