My first David Cronenberg was The Fly, and I was probably 15 or 16 when I watched it. Like so many adolescents, I was into horror movies, although I was never a big fan of gore. The Fly was probably the goriest film I’d seen at that point, and it’s still one of the movies I’ve seen that is most disturbing in its graphic depiction of horrible things happening to human (and simian) bodies.
Yet Cronenberg’s use of violence is very different from the wave of torture porn we’ve had lately, the films that try to top one another with even more grotesque displays of sadism. I wouldn’t say that his films contain gratuitous violence (a strange term, because violence that is supposed to titillate the audience is used for a very clear reason – it’s the only raison d’etre of those films), because there’s nothing cool about it. There is a meticulous fascination with the human body as physical material. There are few directors who show what damage is done to the body when it is shot, stabbed or cut to the same gut-wrenching effect.
There are 3 1/2 brutal scenes in Eastern Promises: two cut throats (one of them a pretty amateurish job, the mere thought of which makes me flinch), a fight between a naked, vulnerable Viggo and two armed Chechens that hurts to watch (and probably hurt to film – where do you hide padding if you’re stark naked?). Oh, and a corpse gets a couple of fingers cut off – but he’s dead, so that hardly counts as violence. Unless, that is, you can’t bear to watch the annual dissection of the turkey at Christmas.
Are all of these scenes necessary to get the point across? I guess that depends on what you think the point is. If Cronenberg is preaching about the brutalising effects of violence, then there’s something about the film that is paradox at best and hypocritical at worst. However, I don’t think that’s what he’s doing. For me at least, he revitalises the sheer physical horror of doing damage to a human body. Violence in films is so often anodyne or aestheticised to the point where you shrug it off. Especially gun violence seems simple: point, click, blam, dead (or maimed… or at the very least shit scared, if you miss). Take a knife to someone and try to take his life, and apart from anything else it’s bloody hard work. Or hard, bloody work. It’s not just a concept, an idea or a theory: it’s a physical, tangible reality.
And strangely, Cronenberg’s films more than those of most other directors remind me just how precious and fragile the human body can be. It’s no coincidence that one of the first images we see in the film is a newly born baby with almost translucent skin, still wet with her mother’s fluids. And later in the movie Viggo, naked and slick with his blood, is just as vulnerable and easily damaged. Forget notions of morals, of good guys and bad guys, of right and wrong: bodies weren’t built to take such punishment, and they shouldn’t. But they do. And Cronenberg – and some of his characters – are strangely, horribly fascinated with this tension.
But enough pseudo-academic blabbering. If the previous few paragraphs make little to no sense, put it down to the fact that I should be in bed. So, good night and see you tomorrow.
P.S.: Don’t worry, I’ll get back to Uncle Alan and his merry band of gentlemen and -women, extraordinary and otherwise, tomorrow.