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David Cronenberg: Evolution @ TIFF

Wild Bill Ketelhut provides the "blog" to this anti-blog

Wild At Heart

About three years ago I was covering the Tim Burton exhibit at the TIFF and was teased about an exhibit they were working on which really piqued my interest. Three years later, “David Cronenberg: Evolution” has finally come to fruition as it shows at the TIFF until January 19th.

For those not familiar with the name, Cronenberg is a Canadian filmmaker who directed some very interesting and influential 70‘s and 80‘s horror/sci-fi movies like “The Brood”, “Videodrome”, “Naked Lunch”, “The Fly” and “Dead Ringers”, not to mention recent success with films like “A History Of Violence” and “Eastern Promises”. With a few exceptions, most of his films are challenging for audiences and are the types of films that are equated with the term “cult films” rather than box office successes. I got to talk with curator Noah Cowan about why he was chosen by the TIFF for this major exhibition.

Cowan discusses, “For many us he is the most important filmmaker ever to emerge out of Canada. As champions for our National Cinema we (TIFF) wanted to make a big splash with our biggest force. On a second level, we think Cronenberg stands apart from a lot of contemporary filmmaking. He is a unique filmmaker...a unique individual...a unique intellectual in our world. He brings both a rare viserality to his work as well as a philosophical acuity. We have had a personal relationship with David for a long time. He created a series for us in our second or third year on contemporary horror and then he continued to have this rich relationship with the organization including opening the festival twice, having about a dozen films played here and being the first filmmaker to donate to our collection.”

That collection contains over 300 pieces of material from film props, scripts, creative designs, etc. Cowan continues, “It was during those early donations that we knew that an exhibition would be successful. The objects themselves had a very particular power. Most film props look like props and when displayed feel like nostalgia. Cronenberg’s props have a very unusual resonance...their magic is retained so when you see them they still hit you in the belly like you had just seen the film whether is be the Mugwump from “Naked Lunch”, the surgical tools from “Dead Ringers” or even some a bit more benign like the galvanometer from “A Dangerous Method”. They remain very present in your consciousness.”

That is very true. Walking around the exhibit I was amazed by the quality of the exhibit which is a must see for any real fan of Cronenberg or horror/sci-fi in general. It is split into three eras of his work. The first section begins with his early shorts like “Stereo” through “Videodrome” and explores the themes of finding one’s creator or father figure as his characters are confronted by new evolutionary possibilities such as deadly telepaths from “Scanners”, the ‘psychoplasmic’ offspring in “The Brood” or Johnny Smith in “The Dead Zone”.

The second section, covering “The Fly” to “eXistenZ”, sees characters experimenting on themselves from Goldblum’s scientific experiments in “The Fly”, the drug induced visions of “Naked Lunch” (which has it’s own room with tons of great props and you can have your picture taken with a Mugwump) or the sexual exploits of the Ballard’s in “Crash”.

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The third and final section starts with “Spider” and concludes with “Cosmopolis” where his protagonists try to connect more closely with the social world as shown by the recenty released mental patient Cleg in “Spider”, Tom Stall’s desire to remain hidden in his small town in “A History Of Violence” and Sabina’s decent from madness to become a successful child psychologist in a”A Dangerous Method”.

When you look at the evolution, as the exhibit title suggests, it is easy to see how his work has remained fresh as a lot of his contemporaries such as Carpenter or Romero have seen there work become derivative. Cowan elaborates, “A bit of Red herring grouping Cronenberg in with the 80’s American horror masters. He was always kind of up to something different. From my perspective, Cronenberg functions much more readily as a science fiction filmmaker than as a horror filmmaker even though there is considerable overlap in the work esp early on. The reason why that difference matters is that when you are a horror director you dealing with the collective unconscious, collection nightmares that need to expedited usually through a monster of some kind or another. That tends to make you very specific to your age. Nightmares evolve and change with collective panic...collective anxiety alters over time. As a filmmaker it is hard to keep up...Cronenberg as a sci-fi filmmaker isn’t bound by those same kind of societal constructions, he is always looking to the future that humanity is craving the next stage of its own evolution.”

“Cronenberg has consciously evolved his own approach to that topic. In early part of career when many of us are more oriented towards the body and panics brought forth in horror films, the way that scientific experiments tend to occur with a very confrontational amount of fluid and a lot of explosions and a lot of violence. As he evolved into his second stage, there is less of all of that though still present but he is still interested in human beings taking themselves to the extremes and finding extreme ways of pushing themselves into their next stage of evolution and make constructive little societies and sustain those dreams of being in that next phase. As he has become older, he has come to peace maybe with the realization you can’t really exist within a bubble like that of a certain new humanity. Takes these evolved humans like Stahl from A History Of Violence and tries to find a way to reintegrate them back into society and recent films have been this ::: with the world but his characters are still victims of or advocates of the new type of human beings. Following his filmmaking, it is like the evolution of generations. Not in control of your own body. Lot of panic about it and how it is going to change when you are young. Sense of being a perfectionist and create your own world. As get older realize you need to make peace with your world and Cronenberg has evolved with this. david Cronenberg is true to his own vision of the world.”

Having said that, I asked which film resonated with him the most. I personally feel that “A History Of Violence” is his best work though the remake of “The Fly may be my favorite and “Scanners” my guilty pleasure. Mr Cowan responded, “I have a strong infinity to Crash. Something about that movie that feels very pure. DC strips away window dressing and bares his soul. Philosophical concerns for him really comes to the fore. People creating their own worlds, a kind of lack of judgment from people engaged in activities which society might otherwise condemn and ability to fascinate audiences with things audiences can never imagine being fascinated by. Still so intense and sure of itself and leads you into another universe better than almost any other sci-fi film I have ever seen.”

When asked about the three must see items on display he brought up the shackled Mugwump in the sarcophagus which “looks so serene”, the “sheer menace of the Dead Ringers gynecological surgical tools” and the collection of 20 props and over 50 drawings covering the Oscar winning transformation of Goldblum into Bundlefly. Along with this, I would have to add the beetle typewriters from “Naked Lunch”. There are a ton of cool items from every film and this exhibit is a great look at a very talented filmmaker. In the middle of the exhibit is a video room where we can hear from Cronenberg in his own words. You will be hard pressed to find an exhibit like this this anywhere else and if you love the cinema, you have to make the trip to Toronto to see it.

Along with the exhibit, they are showing remastered films of all his movies and there are going to be special appearances by people who worked with him introducing his films and doing talks. Cowan mentioned that these were some of the easiest invites to make as they are bringing in people like cinematographer Peter Suschitzky (Dec 7th and 8th), Academy Award winning composer Howard Shore (Dec 8th) and even Denise Cronenberg (Dec 8th). Please see for more info about the exhibit and upcoming talks and films.

In the upstairs gallery, they have a related exhibit which I was given an answer by Ana Serrano, Canadian Film Centre's Chief Digital Officer and producer of Body/Mind/Change which follows:

Q: I am also interested in the concept of "Body/Mind/Change" which is advertised as being an extension of the "intellectual property" as seen in his films "Scanners", "Videodrome" and "eXistenZ". What will fans of those films get out of this experience?

“Body/Mind/Change has been created to offer Cronenberg fans the chance to feel what it's like to live inside one of his films. More than just referencing Scanners, Videodrome andeXistenZ, we are taking the iconic technologies and themes found in those films and making them real. It all starts with the premise that Cronenberg has licensed the IP of those films to a bio-tech corporation called BMC Labs. Together they set out to create a bio-tech recommendation engine called POD that Cronenberg urges his audience to register for. POD is a newly-designed creature that has evolved from all the other creatures found in Cronenberg's films. Fans of eXistenZ will definitely recognize it as an extension of the gaming pod, except in this case no bio-port is necessary. Not only that, but if users present themselves as worthy players and complete their POD training, they actually get to take the physical 3D printed object customized by their gameplay, home!”

I just finished stage two of three of this at home and waiting excitedly for part three. The website is kind of fascinating and has some video work with Cronenberg himself narrating as I am trying to create my own pod. This is a lot more engaging than I thought it would be and it was cool seeing the mock lab set up when at the TIFF.

After I left the exhibit, I went to get a great sushi dinner and took a trolley to the MOCCA on Queen Street West. The MOCCAis working with the TIFF to present two art exhibits tied to the Cronenberg though they both end on Dec 29th. “Transformation” features commissioned artworks from international contemporary artists that share the same inspirations with Cronenberg. “Through The Eye” is a curated exhibit by Cronenberg himself featuring artists that inspire him and includes works from his own collection (William S Burroughs and Charles Burns). This is a nice companion piece and well worth the side trip.

In closing, Toronto has always had a lot going on for fans of film and sci-fi and this exhibit at the TIFF w/secondary exhibits at the MOCCA really gives fans an awesome getaway opportunity. Cowan ended the interview adding "TIFF been a leader insisting Cinema doesn’t have boundaries, always felt genre cinema has a place at the dinner table and strong relationships with people into the genres" and they did a wonderful job giving us this insight behind Canada's greatest filmmaker. Take some time and see this exhibit.

If you make it up before Wednesday, you can also take it the David Bowie exhibit at the Ontario Art Gallery. Yeah, I know it is late telling you guys about it but this was the first opportunity for me to get to it and it is great for fans of early pre-1980's Bowie. I will also be working on a review of the new Ripley's Aquarium in the next couple of weeks.

In the meantime,here are a few shows worth checking out this week:

Wednesday (11/27) - Jessica Hernandez and the Deltas @ St Andrews Hall, Reefermen @ Callahans, Whitey Morgan and the 78s w/ Doop and the Inside Outlaws @ PJs Lager House

Friday (11/29) - Cherry Poppin Daddies @ Macomb Music Theatre, Uncle Kracker @ Royal Oak Music Theatre, Mahones @ Magic Stick Lounge, Howling Diablos @ PJs Lager House

Sunday (12/01) - Lupe Fiasco @ Royal Oak Music Theatre, Straight No Chaser @ Fox Theatre, Tom Paxton @ the Ark