It was 1982, and I was stoned, and I happened across David Cronenberg's The Brood (1979).
The Brood is a solid entry into the horror genre, but the weed I had smoked that evening made it exceptional. Under the influence of illicit substances, every single frame of this innovative little film was to me a painter's canvas upon which Cronenberg had lovingly brought order to the whole.
Like I said, I was stoned.
I found this film so beautiful that at one point I was genuinely moved to tears.
It was during the scene depicted in the photo above, when two of the film's "brood"--gnomelike little monsters gestated in a slimy amniotic sac growing from Samantha Eggar's rib cage--donned snow suits and kidnapped little Cindy Hinds, walking her down a snow-covered road to an unimaginable fate.
This shot was so amazing to my drug-addled mind that I started weeping. Real tears, man. Real tears.
Don't judge me. It was the dope talking.
In Volume I of his popular Cult Movies compilations, critic Danny Peary notes that David Cronenberg's early films--They Came From Within, Rabid, The Brood, Scanners--all seemed to be about "our bodies in revolt; our bodies becoming enemies by creating and, sometimes, transmitting 'monsters' that literally destroy our flesh and our sanity." Peary chalks up Cronenberg's morbid fascination with "bodies in open rebellion" to "an awareness that nothing scares us more than changes in our physical composition."
In Cronenberg's They Came From Within, residents of a suburban high-rise are infected with a parasite that turns them into slathering, sex-crazed fiends.
In Cronenberg's Rabid, an experimental plastic surgery leaves a young woman (portrayed by adult film star Marilyn Chambers) with a retractable needle-like tooth in her arm pit, which she uses to suck blood from victims and turn them into mouth-foaming zombies.
In Cronenberg's Scanners, special gifted telekinetics can make the veins of their victims swell and spray blood, their eyeballs boil and pop, even their heads explode.
And Peary doesn't even touch on Cronenberg's Videodrome or his remake of The Fly, both released after the publication of Cult Movies.
I have heard speculation that the revolt of the body in these films was perhaps inspired by Cronenberg being witness to his father's slow deterioration to cancer. I have not been able to confirm this story--it seems like something I read in a magazine decades ago--but as I have recently watched my own father's painful passing, this theory makes sense to me and, as a consequence, makes these films more difficult to watch today.
Perhaps one of the most terrifying realizations we have in life is that our body is not our own, that we cannot control our outward appearance, try as we might, and that one day our physical make-up may well descend from order into chaos.
This was heavy stuff for me to digest when I watched these films back in the early 1980s. I shared Cronenberg's awareness of decay, not so much my own, but the inevitable decay of those that I loved. At the tender age of 17, over 30 years before my father would become sick and eventually die, I lived in constant dread of that day I would watch my parents deteriorate.
Perhaps that was one of there reasons I drank so much.
At the suggestion of a podcast I frequent, I decided to check out a film called Holy Motors (2012) last weekend. Holy Motors is a bit of French surrealism written and directed by Leos Carax, about a grotesque little man named Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), who spends his days riding about Paris in the back of a white stretch limousine keeping various "appointments."
What these "appointments" entail are Mr. Oscar donning costume and heavy makeup and assuming various identities in different scenarios throughout the city. Once each "appointment" is completed, an exhausted Mr. Oscar returns to his limo for another costume change (the back of the limo is a fully functioning dressing room) and moves on to the next scheduled rendezvous.
On paper, this may sound kind of cool. Without having seen the film, you might imagine Mr. Oscar as some sort of shape-shifting secret agent. In actuality, Mr. Oscar is an actor, playing parts against the intersecting lives of others. Some of his identities include a bag lady begging on the street, a motion-capture artist performing martial arts moves and simulated sex in front of a green screen, a filthy sewer gnome kidnapping a fashion model (Eva Mendes) from her photo shoot at the Pére Lachaise, and a Chinese gangster dispatched to kill a doppelganger of himself.
After nine or ten identity changes throughout the day, Oscar is dropped off at his home--a much different home than the one he left that morning--with a most unusual wife and child waiting for him. We are left to contemplate the masks that we wear, the identities we choose, and the lives we lead.
In one scene, Mr. Oscar runs into an old friend, perhaps lover, played by 80s pop star Kylie Minogue, who sings a song of lament about the passage of time before keeping her own "appointment"that results in a violent tragedy. Naturally, mortality had to be thrown into the mix.
At the end of the film, after Mr. Oscar is left at his "house" for the night, his driver Celine (Edith Scob) drops the white stretch limo off at a garage called Holy Motors, where other white stretch limos are kept. Celine dons a mask (perhaps a reference to Scob's featured role in 1960s Eyes Without a Face) and walks out of the garage.
Once the garage is closed and the overhead lights are off, the headlights of the limos begin to flicker, and each vehicle speaks in a disembodied voice as all the cars lament the day they will wear out their usefulness. In a film as unusual as the one we have just witnessed, a scene where white stretch limousines discuss their own mortality seems right at home.
After the final credits of Holy Motors rolled, I stumbled upon David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis (2012) on Netflix. This selection was completely random, although the fact that I had revisited Peary's essay about The Brood earlier that day may have put me in a Cronenberg state of mind.
Based on a novel by Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis opens with a fleet of white limos parked in a row on the streets of New York City. Within the first half hour, 28-year-old billionaire Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) rides in the back of a white stretch limo, wondering aloud where these cars go at night, where they are kept, what becomes of them while the city sleeps.
Having just watched the final scene of Holy Motors, I knew the answer to that question. As such, Cosmopolis, released the same year, almost felt like a sequel.
Unlike Mr. Oscar in Holy Motors, the hero of Cosmopolis does not assume multiple identities but rather struggles to sustain a single persona. Eric Packer is a power broker so wealthy that he is beyond want, beyond desire, perhaps beyond the ability to comprehend what it means to be told no. Within the hermetically sealed, state-of-the-art universe of the white stretch limo, Eric ventures across the city to get a haircut at his favorite barbershop, all the time watching with bemused detachment as an ill-advised currency speculation devours his fortune.
Beyond the cocoon of the limo, a visit from the President of the United States, as well as a massive funeral for Eric's favorite rap artist, clog traffic, making his sojourn an all-day affair. To make matters worse, New York City is being overrun by anti-capitalist protesters who flaunt their anarchist ways with vandalism and dead rats. Even this fails to impress Eric, who devotes his long day’s journey to taking meetings in his limo--he even has a prostate exam in the belly of this great white beast.
When Cronenberg made The Brood in 1979, he was a brilliant 30-something auteur, and I was a paranoid teenager obsessed with death. In 2012, Cronenberg is knocking at the door of 70--I at the door of 50--and both of us seem to have come to terms with our mortality. By the time we arrive at Cosmopolis, we have moved past the mortal dread of physiologic revolt to the cosmic terror of losing one's soul.
In Cosmopolis, the body has been replaced by society, culture, and community (or what passes for it), and mankind has become the cancer eroding it from within. Eric's wealth is a byproduct of two motivating factors--an irrational fear of poverty and an erroneous belief that if x makes one happy, then 100x will make one 100 times happier--but it assures him no immorality.
Earlier, I suggested that Cosmopolis works as a sequel to Holy Motors. The word sequel comes from the Latin sequi, which means “follow.” From this root we get the Italian segue (meaning “it follows”), which has crept into the English language as a noun meaning a smooth transition from one topic or section to the next. As for the term sequel, it is used to define a narrative that continues or expands upon the story of some earlier work (e.g., Dawn of the Dead is a sequel to Night of the Living Dead).
In medical terminology, however, the term becomes sequela or sequelae, which means a pathological condition resulting from a previous disease or trauma (e.g., kidney disease can be a sequela of diabetes). This brings us back to idea of the body, that crazy vessel that delivers us about this physical plane, and the morbid fear that this machine may one day mutiny against us.
Breaking down the word makes sense to me. Cosmopolis may work as a sequel to Holy Motors, but both films work as sequelae to The Brood. The society man has built is the body, and man is the source of decay. The great white limos (I will eschew any formulaic Moby Dick chestnuts) are like Samantha Eggar’s amniotic sacs in The Brood, and the real monsters lie within, waiting to reveal themselves in all their distressing disguises.
The Brood establishes a paradigm of decay; Holy Motors reminds us that we may be the stars of our own movies but are just spear carriers in a larger film; and Cosmopolis takes both the paradigm of The Brood and the implications of Holy Motors and asks us to consider whether the roles we have chosen to play provoke malignity or benignity.
Perhaps this is a twisted way of looking things. I assure you I am no longer stoned. I have not been stoned for almost 20 years. The sight of homicidal gnomes in snowsuits no longer moves me to weep.
William Butler Yeats wrote in his most famous poem:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,