Thursday, December 18, 2014

Book Reviews: Cronenberg & Spielberg

Consumed by David Cronenberg (Hamish Hamilton, 2014)

 “I’m a very sick woman. Does that turn you on?” Dunja, a Slovenian woman at the Molnár clinic in Budapest, asks the New York journalist Nathan Math. “Well, I told you. I’m a failed medical student. Now I’m a medical journalist. So, yes, I guess sickness does turn me on in a way.” (Pg. 30). A sick woman, who is about to get an illegal radioactive treatment for her breast cancer, tries to seduce a medical journalist, and they end up having sex. She transmits to him a rare STD, the Roiphes disease, which he ends up also passing to the women that he’s seeing, Naomi Seberg. Naomi, also in the field, is researching to write a book on the case of Aristide Arosteguy, a famous philosophy professor, who left his native France for Japan, after being investigated for cannibalism, eating his wife Célestine. The title of the book comes from Barry Roiphes, the now-retired doctor famous for discovering the disease, who wants collaborate with Nathan to tell his life story, work history, and his experiments on his daughter, Chase, who is now dealing with some mysterious form of post-traumatic stress.
Surrounding all of this is the ghost of the Simone de Beauvoir-like Célestine, who’s never encountered because she was supposedly eaten (the description of the photographic death scene is nightmarish), but who prior was sexually promiscuous with her disciples, who Naomi is now interviewing. Célestine and Aristide describe themselves as open to ‘philosospams’, episodes of obsessive behavior involving sexual affairs or political activity. After the two professors attend the Cannes film festival as a jury members, Célestine becomes obsessed with a controversial North Korean film, The Judicious Use of Insects, which she suspects her former lover Romme Vertegaal made under a pseudonym, specifically for her. This experience causes in her a rare form of apotemnophilia, and she starts to believe her left breast is infected with bugs and would stop at nothing to get it removed. (The diagnosis scene appears in a slightly altered form in the EYE Film Institute commissioned Cronenberg video, The Nest starring the raw Evelyne Brochu).
What is it about episodes like these – typical of Consumed in their mixture of Eros and Thanatos – that draws people towards the works of David Cronenberg? Sex, disease and death. Journalism, cameras, and social media. This is the shadow world of Consumed. It’s these taboo themes and obsessions, which are typically repressed in everyday life, that are brought out into the open and freely indulged. In Cronenberg’s world, more general human experiences like relationships, education, professions, growing old, diseases and death are heightened towards an extreme, parasitical level.
This theme of the parasitic and infections is everywhere in Consumed. Nothing is safe from it. If something bad could happen, then it will. No wonder Stephen King praises the book. But there is almost a mathematical and scientific structure to how it unfolds, just like in a Cronenberg films. After Cronenberg’s more recent gangster films (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises) and probing the subconscious (A Dangerous Method), now he’s returning to the original body horror of his early career, but the world is different and its implications scarier. So similarly to Maps to the Stars, Cronenberg’s most romantic film in the Goethien sense, or Cosmopolis, in Consumed and in these recent works, the worlds, both individual and social, end up falling apart. For example, Agatha is scarred with burn wounds (among her other psychological and physical problems), Eric Packer has an asymmetrical prostate, and in Consumed bodily mutations and deviations are rampant. But even if the world is dark, there is still a beauty to this gesture of showing it fall apart and disintegrate in its multifaceted forms.
There are many episodes from Consumed that bring to mind ones from other Cronenber films. The journalist protagonists and their globetrotting adventure recalls Naked Lunch, the medical setting and the procedures that go awry makes one think of Dead Ringers, the carnal love affair that takes place in Asia is reminiscent of M. Butterfly, and the mad scientist character could be right out of The Fly.
Cronenberg had always wanted to write. Originally, after his first two underground films (Stereo, Crimes of the Future) he moved to Tourrettes-Sur-Loup, France to try to become a novelist. But he would return to filmmaking, as he tells Serge Grünberg, because it was “a ‘modern’ way of writing.” And with his filmmaking practice he would remain loyal to writing: creating his own stories, writing his own screenplays, and adapting novels. And in this period he would have close working relationships with many esteemed novelist including King, William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, and Don DeLillo.
            It’s worth noting Cronenberg’s popularity and relevance. Where other older directors like Peter Bogdanovich or John Sayles can no fund their films and start taking up other projects like film blogging or novel-writing, with Cronenberg there isn’t the sense that he ‘lost it’ with the mass public. In the ten years since the president of the publishing house Hamish Hamilton, Nicole Winstanley, asked him if he wanted to write a book, throughout his sixties he was able to artistically reinvent himself, working with some of the most famous young stars, Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska, on the two critical successes Cosmopolis and Maps to the Stars.
So the next question: is David Cronenberg a good novelist? Yes. With Consumed, at a length of 284 pages, he crafted a gripping page-turner, which isn’t clumsy in its prose, and in it he creates both a world distinct to itself, and one that is in parallel to his body of work as a filmmaker. Though let me said, if it wasn’t written by him it would probably have received a lot less attention. But Cronenberg is still great at creating interesting characters, atmosphere, dialogue, and intrigue. There are two parallel stories that take place and the switching between them is never awkward. Though there is a section where Aristide is describing what has happened to Célestine, which goes on for too long at 50 pages, and lacks the multi-character energy of the rest of the book.
The Nabokov influence, which Cronenberg speaks of, is there, as they are both cerebral writers that regularly bring up major ideas of continental philosophy and psychoanalysis, along with a wider openness towards the arts and culture. Cronenberg is especially fond of describing cameras and lenses, though maybe too much.
Naomi is as complex and fascinating as Maxine Tarnow from Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, both young women investigators. And there are also similarities between Consumed with the world of Infinite Jest, as in both works the authors critique the growing use of technology to mediate interpersonal relations, and the role of entertainment in our culture and its ability to become a gross obsession. As well Dr. Roiphes’ project seems similar to James Incandenza’s, and Consumed bleak and ambiguous cliffhanger ending also recalls David Foster Wallace’s.
On a potential adaptation of Consumed, Cronenberg has said: “I’ll let David Fincher or Neil Jordan destroy my novel.” And he presently does not have any new projects in the works.

Steven Spielberg and Duel: The Making of a Film Career by Steven Awalt (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014)

Steven Awalt's new book, Steven Spielberg and Duel: The Making of a Film Career, is about a little-known period in the director’s career. For an older generation, the film might be known for its acclaimed television screenings, for a younger one it might not be that familiar as Spielberg is now more associated with his classics like Jaws, the Indiana Jones films or Jurassic Park. What is it about Spielberg’s early career that demands re-evaluation? Even the author of Steven Spielberg and Duel doesn’t deny that the film is “a somewhat forgotten work.” But according to Spielberg himself, Duel is “the key to unlock a career for me.”  So with that, the book’s aims are two-fold: it explores Spielberg’s early television career at Universal, and it tells the equally gripping narrative of the film’s production.
While Spielberg’s early career is usually treated cursorily, in Steven Spielberg and Duel Awalt does it justice by making it the subject of his book. Awalt, who is a scholar on this period in Spielberg’s career, focuses on Universal’s television production and Duel’s many collaborators that would lead to make the film a reality through its different stages of production. The television dramas that Spielberg worked on, and which are discussed in depth, include his episode Eyes starring Joan Crawford for Night Gallery, LA 2017 for Name of the Game, and Murder by the Book for Columbo. In this period the economic restrictions of the productions instilled in Spielberg a quick working practice. Spielberg was working with a lot of older technicians, many from the classical studio era (and was sometimes in conflict with them), which led to a rich collaborative atmosphere. The many collaborators of Duel include its lead actor Dennis Weaver (Spielberg was a big fan of his performance in Touch of Evil), author and screenwriter Richard Matheson (whose screenplay is included in the book), director of photography Jack Marta, stunt coordinator Carey Loftin (Bullitt), editor Frank Morriss, composer Billy Goldenberg, producer George Eckstein, and studio executive Sid Sheinberg. This impressive group led to a creative atmosphere that gave Spielberg the creative freedom to make Duel especially cinematic. It’s practically a non-verbal sensorial experience as its story is told through ambitious filmmaking techniques more so than the conventional ones associated with the television of this period, which includes impressive mobile shots following the car, a long-take into a café, and dramatic staging during the confrontations.
The origins of Duel begin with Richard Matheson who was inspired to write the original short story after a similar experience happened to him. The murderous truck of Duel, which pursues David throughout the film, is a significant villain for multiple reasons. First off, he is significant as a faceless antagonist, which is the catalyst for the film’s Hitchcockian wrong man narrative. Secondly, the chase story would become a regular structural trademark for Spielberg. And thirdly, as a symbol of an environmental problem, as its petrol freight reflects a natural resource that is constantly and recklessly exploited under industrial capitalism.
Also related is Duel’s critique of patriarchy. The film begins with a travelling salesman named David Mann driving down a desert highway. He is listening to the radio where on a talk-show a caller is discussing a survey where he admits that he’s no longer “the head of the family.” Shortly after the driver stops at a roadside Laundromat to call his wife in which they continue their argument from the previous night. Like the son Michael Brody from Jaws who can’t connect with his father, or Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind who runs off from his family, or lonely Elliott in E.T.; Spielberg is presenting the disintegration of the nuclear family. And as he expands upon in his Suburban trilogy (Close Encounters, E.T., Poltergeist), Spielberg in this early stage of his career is chronicling issues surrounding Fordism and the growing class of American society and especially the complexity of their emotional lives.
In the book, Awalt engages with the discourse around Duel by employing a close reading of every scene in the film. Awalt is especially critical of Andrew M. Gordon’s contentious psychoanalytic reading of the film. The side-bars and footnotes in the book offer a wealth of supplementary information regarding the film. There are side-bars that focus on the swearing that had to be censored, harbingers, its class consciousness, and how some of its footage would be used in an episode of Hulk (to Spielberg’s chagrin). Awalt debunks the myth of a young Spielberg escaping the Universal Bus Tour and setting up shop, as the truth is that his father knew a librarian that sponsored him as an intern. And there is a fascinating footnote of Spielberg’s rare cameos in his own films.
In terms of Spielberg making-ofs, Awalt’s book isn’t as richly illustrated and colorful as some of the other ones (The Complete Making of Indiana Jones, Memories from Martha's Vineyard). But it’s as gripping and informative as either Carl Gottlieb’s The Jaws Log or any of Laurent Bouzereau’s special features. There is a charm to the modesty of the project, in comparison to more theoretical film books, and Awalt’s sense of story-telling is open, fun and generous. For example, if in Ray Morton’s book on the making-of Close Encounters of the Third Kind he makes the argument that it’s Spielberg’s first personal film because it owed to his earlier teenage film Firelight. (Spielberg himself typically identifies his first personal film as E.T.). Awalt pushes this intertextuality even further by arguing that Duel owes to Spielberg’s earlier train-crash home movies that he’s famous for bringing up. It’s the casualness and insight of observations like these that reflect a deep knowledge and contemplation of Spielberg’s cinema, which makes Awalt’s analysis so pleasurable to read.
Steven Spielberg and Duel: The Making of a Film Career stands alongside the other note-worthy recent Spielberg books that includes: James Kendrick's reconsideration of Spielberg’s oeuvre which argues for the persistence of his pessimistic themes and the complexities of its ideological incoherence (Darkness in the Bliss-Out), Richard Schickel's general overview and interview with the director (Spielberg: A Retrospective), and the official book on Schindler's List and the USC Shoah Foundation.

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