He’s transformed Jeff Goldblum into a fly in “The Fly” (1986), a typewriter into a beetle in “Naked Lunch” (1991), and James Woods into a VCR in “Videodrome” (1983), among many other horrific and hilarious metamorphoses.
Now, after more than four decades of such transgressive cinema, David Cronenberg joins fellow luminaries John Waters, Quentin Tarentino, Jim Jarmusch, and a dozen other independent filmmakers who have received the Filmmaker on the Edge award, which will be presented to him at the 16th annual Provincetown International Film Festival running June 18-22.
“The first thing I ask myself is, on the edge of what?” says Cronenberg over the phone from his home in Toronto. “Art, or oblivion?”
Overlooking the possible reference to the character Brian O’Blivion in “Videodrome,” it’s safe to say that PIFF chose Cronenberg for the former.
“I just take it as an acknowledgment of my collegial connection with guys like John Waters,” says Cronenberg. “We are not exactly what you would call mainstream. The stuff that I’m interested in and which I manage to get made puts me in that corner, which is a pretty good corner.”
He’ll be sharing that corner at the festival with Waters, who, as is customary, will be grilling the award winner onstage in a conversation at the Provincetown Town Hall on June 21. Waters’s good-humored, outrageous questions to previous winners have included asking Quentin Tarantino about his foot fetishism.
“If John wants to ask me about Quentin’s foot fetishism,” Cronenberg quips, “I’d be happy to answer. . . . [W]hatever grilling it may be, I imagine it’s basically comradely and not antagonistic. And given his taste for interesting clothes, it should be great.”
“I only met [Cronenberg] once,” says Waters, on the phone while en route to promote his new book, “Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America,” on “The Colbert Report.” “I was drunk and it was at the Limelight nightclub when they honored William Burroughs for his 70th birthday, 30 years ago.
“But I’ve always been a huge fan,” he adds. “We’ve been trying to get him to the festival for years. I’ve seen every movie he ever made. I think he did a great job with ‘Naked Lunch.’ I loved ‘Rabid.’ As a kid I loved car accidents and I recently rewatched ‘Crash’ and it’s my favorite movie he ever made. It’s better than ever and more bizarre than ever and more sexual. David has such a great sense of humor about the perverse and horrific.”
In addition to Waters’s interview, Cronenberg will be represented at the festival by three of his films (though not, unfortunately, his most recent -- “Maps to the Stars,” which is pegged for the Toronto International Film Festival in September). “The Fly” and “Videodrome” will be screening in a double bill at the Harbor Hotel on June 19, and on June 20 the director himself will introduce “Naked Lunch” at the Art House Cinema. Though Cronenberg did not choose these films himself (he says he might have included “Dead Ringers” and “Crash”), he agrees they epitomize some of the major themes of his career.
All three films, for example, involve the merging of biology and technology. The images of a VHS slot opening in the stomach of James Woods’s character in “Videodrome,” or of Jeff Goldblum becoming one with the teleportation device his character invents in “The Fly,” or the surreal fusion of giant insect and typewriter in “Naked Lunch,” might elicit shock, horror, or laughter, but for Cronenberg the concept is quite rational.
“Technology is really us,” he explains. “It doesn’t come from aliens. We are the only creatures who create technology. And therefore, inevitably, it is a reflection and an extension of us. So when people talk about technology being inhuman, or inhuman technology, I say, ‘You’ve got it wrong.’ It’s nothing but human and, what’s more, a combination of all the things we are – wondrous and beautiful and creative and also hideous and destructive.”
Another theme, or perhaps obsession, is bugs. (“I would never call them bugs,” Cronenberg, an amateur entomologist, is quick to point out, “because bugs are a specific subspecies of insects.”) In January the Paris Review website posted “The Beetle and the Fly,” an essay by Cronenberg comparing “The Fly,” in which Goldblum’s scientist accidentally fuses with the title insect while testing his invention, to Franz Kafka’s iconic novel “The Metamorphosis,” in which a clerk changes overnight into a giant beetle. Paraphrasing Kafka’s opening, Cronenberg begins his essay with the sentence “I woke up one morning recently to discover that I was a 70-year-old man.”
Does Cronenberg (now 71) regard human beings as anthropods with delusions of grandeur? “As an avid observer of insect and human life,” he says, “I see similarities and differences.”
But the point of his essay, he notes, is not so much the insect as the transformation.
“As someone who has reached my threescore and 10 years, somewhat to my own surprise, I see there is nothing constant,” he says. “It’s kind of an illusion, the idea of a constancy, of an absolute stability. Either that disturbs you or you embrace it, and in my films I’m always showing how people react to that reality once they perceive it. Not just the sense of mortality, but also the sense that you really are transforming, day after day.”
“Maps to the Stars” further develops this notion. A kind of latter-day “Satyricon” involving assorted Hollywood grotesques, it features a lauded performance by Julianne Moore (she won the best actress award at Cannes) as an over-the-hill actress desperate to reestablish her career at all costs.
“In the movie business,” Cronenberg says, “if you’re not working, you’re invisible. If you don’t appear, you cease to exist. It is existential fear. Physically, you’re still alive but you suddenly have disappeared off the face of the map. Julianne Moore — I think she’s 53 — is herself in real life very visible and works all the time and is acknowledged to be a great actress. But she grew up with other actresses — and actors, too, though it’s tougher for actresses as we all know — who have just disappeared. Who had moments of stardom and then disappeared. Because of their age or whatever else has gone on in their lives. So she had a lot of models to base her performance on.
“But, for me, that’s the fear. If you’re a screenwriter or a director and you’re not writing or making a movie or don’t have a hot thing going or haven’t won an award, then gradually you start to feel that you’re dissolving and disappearing. So that, to me, is an existential problem for these characters.”
Has Cronenberg himself ever felt that way, a fear that he might simply disappear if he ever stopped making films and faded from the public eye?
“Sometimes there is nothing more that I would like than to disappear,” he says with bemusement. “Honestly, I can tell you that when I was president of the jury at Cannes [in 1999] it was impossible to walk in the streets. Or the beach, or anything. Because you’re besieged. Your name is in the press, your picture is in the press, people are wondering what you’re thinking.
“But we stayed a few days after the festival ended and into Cannes moved a convention of dentists. And you know what? I disappeared. I am not a star in the dentistry firmament. Suddenly I could walk in the streets. I was invisible. I ceased to exist. It was wonderful, because in that sense non-existence is freedom.”
In Provincetown, he may not be as ignored as he was by that convention of dentists. But he’s unlikely to be hounded by groupies or paparazzi. This is the kind of festival where Tilda Swinton glides unharassed down Commercial Street, like a visitor from some magic realm, and Waters routinely cruises by on his bicycle.
“It’s not as much pressure [as Cannes],” Waters points out. “You have to go to a couple of parties and stuff. You can have a good time. It’s a small town and not many people have been to a gay fishing village.”
The prospect pleases Cronenberg.
“I’ve never been in Provincetown or on the Cape at all so I look forward to walking on the streets and on the beach,” he says. “I want sand between my toes and all that stuff. Any place that John Waters hangs out I’m sure will be lots of fun.”