Watching Cosmopolis a second time recently was instructive on two counts. First of all, I realized how distracted I was when I saw it in a theatre full of audibly miffed, hyper-texting teenaged Robert Pattinson fans last summer. Favourite exit line: “That was the worst movie, like, ever made.” Secondly, I was again convinced David Cronenberg is one of the most important artists this country has, like, ever produced.
It’s a timely occasion to have such a revelation. Apart from the recent Blu-ray release of the profoundly challenging and proudly provocative Cosmopolis – which features pop culture’s most desktop-friendly heartthrob vampire as a dead-eyed, soulless bloodsucker of the one-per-cent variety – it’s the 30th anniversary of the original release of the terminally brain-scrambling Videodrome, the movie that effectively vaulted Cronenberg into the realm of the WTF international-cult-moviemaker elite. And then there is the sobering fact that, in March, this most sui generis of Canadian filmmakers turns 70. While it may be a bit late to suggest a national holiday to mark the occasion, it’s not to late to take a moment and reflect why this once widely dismissed, ridiculed and generally undigestible of Canadian filmmakers – especially by the Canadian cultural establishment – has become the most familiar and celebrated maker of movies this country has ever produced. While, that is, never leaving home.
Here is the stark fact of the matter: not only is Cronenberg the most sustainably idiosyncratic feature director his generation – a cohort which includes the fellow birthday boys Martin Scorsese, Michael Haneke, George Lucas, Werner Herzog and Terence Malick – he built that career in a country with almost no precedent, let alone demand for, an artist of his stubbornly strange inclinations. For years, critics and scholars of the nationalist bent struggled mightily with the attempt to place Cronenberg as a distinctly “Canadian artist” – when, that is, they weren’t dismissing him for insufficient Canadianism – until the director’s sheer refusal to budge or go away compelled a fundamental paradigm shift: If Cronenberg couldn’t be made to fit the definition of Canadian artist, then the definition of Canadian artist needed to change to fit him.
It wasn’t easy. For one thing, Cronenberg came to public consciousness as a director of disreputable genre movies – in his case, an especially icky science-fiction/horror hybrid – in a country with little tolerance for or tradition of commercial genre movies. (We were not only proudly non-commercial, we made movies that were stubbornly unwatched.)
Moreover, he emerged at a time when the preferred mode of “distinctly Canadian” cinematic expression tended toward the realist, docu-dramatic and flagrantly un-sensational. Worse, his status in other countries – especially England and Japan – rose in direct inverse proportion to his pariah status at home.
But there was no vexation greater than the single fact that he wouldn’t stop: He kept on making movies.
Movies that were resolutely determined to pursue the director’s increasingly focused fascination with the collision of individual consciousness, technology and physical desire – that commanded attention as an utterly distinctive and consistent evolving body of work. While so many of his particularly accomplished contemporaries – Scorsese, Coppola, David Lynch, Malick – wavered, stumbled, compromised or withdrew, Cronenberg carried on, perhaps the sole surviving spirit of an otherwise faded era.
And then, at one point, we looked around and realized: David Cronenberg was not only a well known, widely respected and avidly studied filmmaker, he was the only Canadian director of whom that could be said. Denys Arcand came close, but has lately diminished in influence. Atom Egoyan and Guy Maddin are still contenders as Canadian brand-name filmmakers, but both have yet to prove capable of Cronenberg’s durability. In a country notorious for aborted careers, unfulfilled promise, southward migration and breakthroughs gone bust, Cronenberg had accomplished the hitherto impossible: he’d made a career for himself. Here.
The really cool thing about Cosmopolis, especially when considered in the context of a career that began with decidedly experimental and cerebral mini-features such as 1969’s Stereo and 1970’s Crimes of the Future, is how unapologetically strange and abstract it is. (It still amazes me that Cosmopolis and A Dangerous Method were released within a year of each other: two movies as superficially different as they are internally pure Cronenberg.)
A hermetically sealed parable of spiritual bankruptcy set in the Nautilus-like floating limo-tomb of a 28-year-old Wall Street billionaire (Pattinson) making his way across a riot-strewn Manhattan (played, to near-Method effect, by a heavily green-screened Toronto), Cosmopolis was only more amazing for the fact that it even made it to the multiplex long enough to be booed by the Twilight mob. If there was a movie less likely to please in commercial first run last year, I’d crawl across the ruins myself to see it.
So it doesn’t really matter whether you like his movies or not. The test of real art isn’t if it’s likeable, but whether stands up to time and intense scrutiny, and when it comes to Cronenberg, of this there’s no doubt. Come to think of it, maybe a national holiday isn’t such a nutty idea.