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The Artist's Open Wound in a Dead World

Crimes of the Future (David Cronenberg, 2022, USA)

by Filipe Furtado

          Far more than most of his peers who started out in the exploitation cinema of the 1970s, David Cronenberg was always very aware of his place. It's something that served him well as he moved through a series of different roles over his five decade career. Films as different as The Brood (1979), Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986), Dead Ringers (1988), Naked Lunch (1991) or eXistenZ (1999) deal directly with creation and its consequences, with medical/psychological issues sometimes posed as representatives of the creative endeavor - the figure of the artist proving to be a direct descendant of Victor Frankenstein. Even a potboiler like A History of Violence (2005), so seemingly bound by the basic rules of genre cinema, brings same of these ideas to the forefront.

         The new Crimes of The Future (2022) takes its title from Cronenberg's first feature, when these concerns were already there, but he had no idea how to channel them through a more organic narrative drive. It is certainly an intentional decision to mark a return to an original well, and the film has been heavily publicized as a major return to body horror. It has no shortage of recognizable signifiers on screen, but this film is much more haunted by the idea of the artist's place than by the body itself, this flawed and agonizing body being a direct consequence of the uncertainty of its place. The similarities between the two Crimes of The Future begin in the way that 2022 one is an essayistic and self-conscious movie, with great difficulty in making its narrative structure move from one block of action to another. It is a talky film, dealing with how bodies perform a series of physical actions; body horror as a form of discourse. Which means that there is a constant alternating register between discourse and its physical consequence. Although advertised as a return to familiar ground, this year's version has no interest in genre pleasures, this distancing being precisely one of its key points. On the surface, the film is organized as a series of discussion threads: recognizable signifiers are there presented as literally as possible, a kind of film text to be read. Crimes of The Future offers them for us to read and react to while acknowledging them as minor distractions. In lazy times, this should be enough, and playing with this surface reading is part of its strategy.

          What does it mean for Cronenberg to return to this place? This is a question he has asked himself before. It is the thematic center of eXistenZ, the last film in which he contributed an original screenplay. Before that, he hadn't worked on one since Videodrome; from The Dead Zone (1983), his Stephen King adaptation - his first real attempt to leave the exploitation ghetto - onward, the Canadian director has served as an adaptor who often mines recognizable material and prefers a more sober, respectable aesthetic. eXistenZ was Cronenberg's first genre film since The Fly. Reviews at the time drew many comparisons to the then recently released Matrix (1999); and it is true that the two features are part of a series of angst-ridden films about virtual reality released around the time [along with Dark City (1998) and The 13th Floor (1999), to mention a couple more of them]. But what mattered was how far apart they were from each other. eXistenZ is essentially self-referential, a cyber-thriller rather than a real-world simulacrum, less concerned with weaving a contemporary commentary. By then, popular cinema had become more of a useful subject for the former horror and science fiction filmmaker whose own preoccupations with the subject were vibrant but insular. By way of comparison, one gains very little by talking about Baudrillard when dealing with eXistenz, as opposed to Matrix. Body horror takes the same role in Crimes of The Future,  those were talking points the movie is using as much as the director had previously borrowed from the acclaimed novels on which Crash (1996) and Spider (2002) were based. There is a lot of talk about the body, but this is just a gateway to a film about how its world echoes and mourns ours.

         Cronenberg, far more than any other filmmaker, made the move from grindhouse to arthouse in a way that suggests less a desire for respectability than practicality (Abel Ferrara is the only other candidate, but he's always felt more comfortable as a maudit artist). After functioning as a horror auteur through the 1970s and 1980s - his biggest success of the period being The Fly - he abandoned the vein around that time when the old system that supported independent, low and medium budget, ambitious and viable genre films fell apart as Hollywood absorbed the old exploitation cinema. As one type of film disappeared because the conditions that sustained it dried up, a recognizable array of stylistic ideas and meanings were transplanted into a new filmic body-which is another way of saying that the artist remained consistent, even as its wealthy patrons changed radically.

        This process is very central to highlight how Crimes of the Future moves between different approaches and notions of artistic patronage, which also recur through diverse films like The Naked Lunch and eXistenZ. Recognizing the auteur matters in a film about the artist's plight in the face of everyday horrors is what separates Crimes of the Future from his earlier works: if Cronenberg has always been quite suspicious of the world around the artist, he now reveals himself to be much more anxious about it. "Is the role of the artist still possible in this world?" the film seems repeatedly to question.

       If it is an artistic manifesto, the film is a far cry from the dry, theoretical work with which it might at first be mistaken. For one thing, it's very funny, and it's closely tied to performance (Viggo's body language and Stewart's speech readings are especially central) - it operates through a physical world and how it relates to creation. More importantly, its effects are inseparable from its low-scale future world. It is a conceptual work about returning this concrete dimension to things. Whether it achieves its result is questionable, but the effort still strikes me as touching and audacious in equal measure.

         American critic Steven Erickson was the only one I've read who mentioned the fact that Crimes of The Future was filmed in Greece. It is likely that this was a financial decision, considering that money speaks even louder in this type of production. But this setting is also inseparable from the poetics of the film, its suggestion of history and of a world disappearing. If Crimes of The Future is a manifesto, it is about the place of art after the rise of the same capitalist world that underpinned Cronenberg's work, whether as an exploitation horror filmmaker or a celebrated auteur. From Videodrome to eXistenZ, his previous works that followed this questioning always had settings that were decadent, but at least hinted at an end that is still looming. Here, the spareness of these Greek locations that represent the future world of the film makes it all seem even more urgent. We're not getting there anymore. We're long past it, we just remain in denial. It is not the body that decays, but the world that contains its artistic types, a world that seems determined to ignore how it is agonizing. The best satirical moments in the movie come from the gap between its attempt to mimic our artistic world and the decrepit setting. The moments when the text is elevated to the forefront - as in the performance of the ear man - are those that deal most directly with these decadent perceptions, and the affliction that accompanies them. It's a disturbing film, because it acts as a distorting mirror to the way film patronage operates in a world that, rightly or wrongly, filmmakers and cinephiles can't seem to shake off entirely (and it's not surprising that the people who traveled to Cannes seemed so ready to dismiss it as a disappointment).


         There is another film set in Europe, by a major North American auteur, that deals with many of these same ideas: Abel Ferrara's much-maligned Zeros and Ones (2021). These are both art thrillers about what is visible and what can no longer be captured, paranoid end-of-the-world scenarios set in the two birthplaces of "European civilization" (Italy and Greece). They are very much pandemic productions, with Ferrara making his lockdown Rome external scenes a major part of his movie while Cronenberg staging underlines how much on set rules shaped Crimes of the Future form. They are both predicted in their revulsion to other bodies, in a constant movement of wandering and hysteria, and they remain anxious about how they can exist in a dysfunctional world. Most of both are made up of small reactions to actions and decisions that are kept off-screen, but counter that with the belief that their very existence may suggest a form of resistance.

        The question of funding hangs around them and both also assume themselves to be 'star-studded', works that are only possible because their filmmakers can gather enough popular talent on screen to economically justify their existences. Zeros and Ones begins and ends with zoom calls with its star, Ethan Hawke - the opening one feels like a festival introduction kept as part of the film, while the final one reveals that it was actually a presentation to potential investors, and that his big talk about the great film that actor and director made was based on conversations that didn't even include a formal script. By its turn, for a feature film about art and creation, Crimes of The Future is almost all taken up by lengthy negotiations. Mortensen's art may be his own body, but even so, he doesn't escape an endless series of business meetings. These movies' anxiety about cinema as an art form gains body through carefully composed digital images, they exist on a surface texture that openly acknowledges their physicality and difficulties to apprehend the same and how their near empty streets resonate, openly acknowledge a certain physical character of things, and also the difficulties of grasping it.

         Crimes of The Future exists in this series of isolated, under-populated spaces that are spare, impoverished designed - more filled with well-chosen details than by rich art direction [the production design looks like the reverse of something like Dune (2021)] - its incompleteness play around our imaginations hints of an idea of an end. We are facing the last stage of performance art, and one might note that it is not about Viggo Mortensen's sick body, but about cinema itself. The movie seems overwhelmed, at times paralyzed, with the horrors around it - the world weighs down, and at length has stopped functioning. Those same emergency exits that Cronenberg used in the late 1980s don't exist anymore. Can this current digital cinema come close to our horrors? Throughout the film, art, subjectivity, and the perception of this horror are three instances that remain locked in a triangulation of irreconcilable forces. It finally reaches a natural end point in those final shots of Viggo Mortensen, his last breath, where a new creation is born. But more than any possible solution to the impasse, what registers is its agony.

October, 2022

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