Monday, April 14, 2008

Cronenberg's Canada

While writing the script for Rabid (1977) at producer John Dunning's country house outside Montreal, having a brief loss of confidence in the film's merit, writer/director David Cronenberg admits referring to the film as a story about 'this woman [that] grows a cock thing in her armpit and sucks people's blood through it.'[1] While this might not be the most flattering view of the movie, it is not entirely inaccurate. In response to this, Dunning reassured him that despite this, 'there's something about it' adding, 'it's compelling and weird'[2]. And indeed, while the film can be seen as a dumb horror movie about a woman growing an organ from her armpit, it is at the same time something unusual and certainly with at least some filmic merit. No less weird and certainly no less compelling is Cronenberg's twisted-metal sex-romp completed almost 20 years later - Crash (1996). While he did not need reassurance by now, it must have been nonetheless encouraging for the Canadian director to win a special jury prize at Cannes for his work. While this relative international acclaim might have shined a certain light on Canada, it might be useful to observe how these two works fit within the Canadian context and more importantly within the notion of national identity.

Another Canadian artist, acclaimed experimental filmmaker and feminist Joyce Wieland says that she thinks of Canada as female[3] but does this woman Canada, through Cronenberg's eyes, grow a metaphoric cock thing in her armpit and sucks people's blood through it? Or is it more compelling and weird? In essence, it can be both. Through a formal and thematic analysis of both Rabid and Crash, I intend to examine Canada as presented through the landscapes (Toronto and Montreal) and characters in these films. Through this examination I intend to show that Cronenberg's Canada is deeply influenced by marginalization from society, sexual exploration (both literally and figuratively) and blurred gender roles.

To achieve this, I will first consider the geographical element in both films and how it works toward presenting this view of Canada. How do Montreal and Toronto as well as their less urban outskirts serve to establish the unique Canada presented by Cronenberg? Following I will consider the characters in the two films. Specifically, Marilyn Chambers' character in Rabid and James Spader's in Crash - how do they function in each film and to what purpose? Finally, I will look at the characters' relationship to each other and to the space that they inhabit. How is each affected by the other and what does this say about the Canadian nation?

To begin, let's consider the landscape in both films. While both happen in two of the biggest urban centers of Canada, Rabid starts in a rural setting, on a desolate roadway among decaying shacks and leafless trees. There is still snow on the ground and the dry vegetation and cloudy sky set a tone of gloom and imminent dread. It is not a happy landscape, nor a welcoming one, it is a landscape of abandon, one of solitude and isolation and it is this landscape that sets the mood for the rest of the film. To most Canadians and specifically Montrealers this would be a familiar sight and immediately identifiable with Canada, but it is not enough to set the film as specifically happening in Canada. Using unmistakeably Montreal locations like the Cremazie subway station[4] or Cavendish Mall[5] (sporting a big 'Canadian Tire' sign in the opening shot of the scene) serve to further nail down the fact that this is happening in Canada if one wasn't already convinced.

While Crash starts off right away in a more urban and modern setting, it is again not one that is immediately indicative of Canada. The first shot of landscape that we are presented with is one of a city skyline as seen from the Ballards' apartment[6]. While this is less rural than the one in Rabid, it is nonetheless just as welcoming (that is to say, not very welcoming at all). We see some apartment buildings in the distance, but they are separated by numerous multi-lane highways with buzzing cars. It gives the impression of small pockets of humanity, stacked in concrete prisons and separated by humming death-traps of asphalt and rubber. Later on, like in Rabid, we see more unmistakeably Canadian locations, like the train-bridge overlooking the scrap yard marked in big letters as 'Canadian National Railways'.[7] In fact, Crash makes extensive use of Toronto locations that it becomes a strategic element for asserting (and selling) national specificity[8].

But to what end this preoccupation with the landscape? An insight into this might be what Cronenberg chooses to do to the respective environments in each film. In Rabid he is 'showing an entire city in thrall to rabid maniacs: army trucks, martial law in Montreal and so on.'[9] In essence, he has taken the familiar and everyday and shaped it into something out of the ordinary. He has disrupted the normal environment which his characters inhabit into something hostile, something unknown, something that they are thrust into without a choice. Seeing familiar Montreal locations manned by armed guards, people lining up for controls, army trucks with masked biological response personnel fighting maniacs on the streets - this is not the Montreal that we are familiar with. This is a more hostile and unwelcoming city. This is a city that tells us to stay indoors and lock our door.

Similarly, Crash presents an equally hostile environment. Here, again, Cronenberg is taking the everyday and changes, disrupts it to its liking. The fact that Cronenberg was allowed to 'close sections of major Toronto freeways in order to film car crashes and actors making explicit, moaning love amidst the wreckage'[10] was nothing less than disruptive, one would imagine. It is a striking reminder that we are never safe. The highways that we drive to work on every day are presented as dark and dangerous death traps. They are inhabited by maniacs like Vaughan and his gang which turn them into their own personal playground. But despite this, we still inhabit this place.

This representation of the geography makes the works distinctly Canadian. Not only because the 'representation of landscape has a long and venerable history within Canadian culture'[11] but also because in these two films, the landscape is modified by technology. Be it the martial law in Montreal, with the army trucks and disinfectation crews or the highways and emergency-response crews in Toronto, there is a clear conflict here between technology and nature. This conflict, argues Longfellow, lies at the heart of Canadian philosophical tradition.[12]

This opposition, however, is not only apparent in the presence of landscapes in the film. We also observe it in the characters that inhabit it. In Rabid, Chambers' character undergoes experimental plastic surgery. This immediately places her as the central point of conflict - she is transformed, mutated, with the help of technology into something different, something 'other'. She becomes marginalized, having to hide her new state from society while at once needing to reveal it in order to survive. She infects others - they become brainless maniacs. Another conflict is created - brainless maniacs vs. normal population. Martial law sets in and people are given identity cards - Chambers doesn't have one, so she is again an outsider, an outcast in the face of the normal.

This same marginalization appears in Crash. First in the police raid on Vaughan's crash re-enactment; we are reminded that what they are doing is something illegal. But it goes much deeper than that. Vaughn quickly 'corrects a view we might first have had that this incursion of the police is a demonstration of the marginality of crash culture' stating 'it's not the police. It’s the department of transport' - they are merely a nuisance, an irrelevance'.[13] And indeed, we do not easily dismiss this marginalization as simply being something defined by its illegality. We have to be introduced to the whole 'family' to grasp the full extent of the phenomenon.

The characters in Crash are obsessed with the pleasure and pain drawn from the crashes of American public icons. [14] This obsession and deep familiarity with intricate details about the lives (and deaths) of public icons, even if not illegal, can be seen as a marginalizing element that defines a society outside of the norm. Further, their performances are grotesquely exaggerated versions of what similar versions might be within the Hollywood star-system which causes the system to collapse[15] and we are left with something distinctly unique that, again, strays from the norm (of Hollywood film and as consequence of normal everyday life). In this sense, the community formed by the characters in crash can be distinguished by the style in which it is imagined (that is, one of marginalization, obsession and sexual exploration) which is precisely why it forms a community[16]. This imagined community then, becomes the basis for the nation of which it is part of, since the nation is an imagined community in itself - both as inherently limited and sovereign.[17] It is exactly this notion of an imagined community that Cronenberg uses to express 'Canada'. 'He articulates Canada not as an authentic national essence to be uncovered or realized, but as a constructed process of narration.'[18] And indeed, this nation is 'imagined not as an invulnerable national body, but as an entangled network of contested relations traversing "America" and "Canada."'[19]

But what of this network of contested relations? Cronenberg casts primarily American actors in the lead roles of both movies. He puts them through accidents and subsequent surgeries, and presents them as emerging marginalized individuals. As in most Cronenberg movies, we have characters in the midst of a transformation caused by something tangible and hostile from the outside, but inevitably born from within - either mentally or physically.[20] In Rabid it is something physical that was caused from outside (surgery) but born from within (phallic organ that emerges to suck blood). In Crash it is a mental transformation (interest in car-crash sex) caused from the outside (Vaughan's influence) but again born from within (the Ballard's already dysfunctional sex habits). Finally, they all emerge to be characters that Cronenberg is well versed in, that is, uptight and emotionally repressed people altered by acts of their own imagination, or else symbolically altered by grotesque creatures of Cronenberg's own imagination. [21]

But what does this say about the nature of Canadians? Are we all just Americans that underwent some horrific transformational or surgical process which turned us into depressed sociopathic perverts? Maybe not literally, but figuratively - yes. Let us see how this works in Rabid for example. We start off with an American porn star - Marilyn Chambers - blonde, blue eyes and all too eager to please (both man and woman) in bed. Enter Canada and the Keloid Clinic (thank you free healthcare) and we end up with blood-sucking armpit-penis monster. Again, looking at it all figuratively, what does this tell us? The image of the submissive American girl is transformed to one that (to our apparent horror) is all too eager to release her female 'activeness' - an apparently horrific and disgusting process[22] (in the face of American standards at least). Of course the flipside negative argument to this is that Cronenberg is portraying female sexuality as predatory[23] which did not seem to bother him seeing how he saw it as a no-win situation and that even if he did every character in the movie by the feminist 'book' - depending of course by which feminist book - he still could not satisfy everybody[24].

How does this same principle work in Crash then? Here, like in many other Cronenberg works, there is the 'pervasive fascination with forms of perverse sexuality'[25]. Which parts are perverse in Crash? That would depend on how open-minded the society within which it functions is. I would assume that penetrating an open wound in a public parking lot can safely be considered perverse in most situations. But what does it say about us as Canadians vis-à-vis our southern neighbours? Other than the fact that we produced a director brave enough to churn out this kind of film and get awarded a prize at Cannes for it, we also let him do it right in our back yard. Production details aside, however, there are more elements in Crash that not only distinguish it from Hollywood but also render it a distinctly Canadian work. Here again Cronenberg shows us 'people digging away at their insides, desperate to get something out of them - desperate to express themselves in some way… or other.'[26] And indeed much like the characters in Crash Canada is in a way desperate to express itself, desperate to find a way to convey some national identity not in the face of American culture but rather as an individual, stand-alone entity. And much like the characters in Crash we are finding it difficult (though not impossible) to accomplish.

This difficulty is accepted however. One of many explanations for this is provided by Cronenberg himself, describing his introduction to the 'fierce nationalism' of Quebec and 'how well it worked in terms of a very enclosed culture that could excite itself' and that it is 'very hard for English-Canadian culture to excite English Canadians' because 'they are excited by Americana.'[27] But it is precisely the expression of this difficulty that gives Cronenberg's work its strength. His work is a peculiarly Canadian work exactly because it 'crystallizes a particular national angst'[28]

In conclusion, we have seen various elements that shape Cronenberg's Canada through Rabid and Crash. We looked at the landscape in the films and its significance to the Canadian nation-building process. We have seen that landscape allows the director to work on several themes that identify his work as Canadian, in particular the theme of conflict among technology and nature. Second, we have observed the characters in both films and their marginalization and sexual exploration/deviance. We have seen how they form the basis for the constructed Canadian imagined community as portrayed by Cronenberg. Further, I examined the characters' relationship to themselves, their habitat and their surroundings. We have seen their American roots, their transformation and their eternal search for identity. Together, these elements are in a way paradigmatic for the Canadian nation and its imagined national identity. This identity is not as 'clear-cut' as one would expect it to be, but rather it is formed from the relationship Canadians have vis-à-vis their southern neighbours. This particular situation, which doesn't allow the members of the community the privilege to have an easily identifiable identity and as consequence an easy way to associate with this identity, renders them in a permanent state of flux. It creates this national angst that is apparent within Cronenberg's work and which is one of the elements that forms what has come to be reluctantly identified as our national identity. And while most would be content with seeing this fact as something compelling and weird, it is not entirely unfathomable for a good part of us to see it as a major blood sucking cock thing in our collective armpit.

[1] Cronenberg, 1993, p53

[2] Cronenberg, 1993, p53

[3] Longfellow, 1999, p167

[4] Cronenberg, 1977, [1'00"14]

[5] Cronenberg, 1977, [1'05"25]

[6] Cronenberg, 1996, [0'06"16]

[7] Cronenberg 1996, [1'22"39]

[8] Lowenstein, 2005, p170

[9] Cronenberg, 1993, p53

[10] Lowenstein, 2005, p164,

[11] Longfellow, 1999, p180

[12] Longfellow, 1999, p166

[13] Boyne, 1999, p48

[14] Lowenstein, 2005, p171

[15] Lowenstein, 2005, p174

[16] Anderson, 1991, p6

[17] Anderson, 1991, p6

[18] Lowenstein, 2005, p150

[19] Lowenstein, 2005, p175

[20] Monk, 2001, p234

[21] Monk, 2001, p234

[22] Wood, 1983, p130

[23] Cronenberg, 1993, p56

[24] Cronenberg, 1993, p56

[25] Wood, 1983, p126

[26] Monk, 2001, p234

[27] Cronenberg, 1993, p36

[28] Wood, 1983, p126


Anderson, B. R. (1991). Introduction. In B. R. Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (pp. 1-7). New York: Verso.

Boyne, R. (1999). Crash Theory: The Ubiquity of the Fetish at the End of Time. Angelaki: journal of the theoretical humanities , 4 (2), 41-53.

Cronenberg, D. (Director). (1996). Crash [Motion Picture]. Canada.

Cronenberg, D. (1993). Cronenberg on Cronenberg. London, Boston: Faber and Faber.

Cronenberg, D. (Director). (1977). Rabid [Motion Picture]. Canada.

Longfellow, B. (1999). Gender Landscape, and Colonial Allegories in The Far Shore, Loyalties, and Mouvements du désir. In K. Armatage, Gendering the Nation: Canadian Women's Cinema (pp. 165-182). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Lowenstein, A. (2005). Trauma and Nation Made Flesh: David Cronenberg and the Foundations of the Allegorical Moment. In Shocking representation : historical trauma, national cinema, and the modern horror film (pp. 145-175). New York: Columbia University Press.

Monk, K. (2001). The Incredible Weight of Being: Talking Philosophy with the Grim Reaper. Profile—David Cronenberg. In Weird Sex & Snowshoes: And Other Canadian Film Phenomena (pp. 209-238). Vancouver: Raincoast Books.

Wood, R. (1983). Cronenberg: A Dissenting View. In P. Handling, The Shape of rage : the films of David Cronenberg (pp. 115-135). Toronto: General Publishing Co.

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