David Cronenberg has always been a polarizing force. When he launched his career in 1975 with Shivers , a tax-shelter production about a sexual parasite, Canadian journalist Robert Fulford called it “an atrocity, a disgrace to everyone connected with it—including the taxpayers.” With more prescience, Martin Scorsese hailed it as “genuinely shocking, subversive, surrealistic.” Almost four decades later, with a career that has taken him from Cannes to the Oscars, Cronenberg’s reputation now seems safe, even if his movies are not. And if any doubt remains that he is Canada’s pre-eminent filmmaker, it’s about to be erased by a blockbuster exhibit at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Cronenberg’s brain is going on display, along with some of its talismanic creations—from the typewriter beetles in Naked Lunch to The Fly ’s telepod. Cronenberg: Evolution , which opens next week, is the first major touring exhibition ever mounted by the Toronto International Film Festival. (Other venues have yet to be announced, but will likely include New York, Paris and Tokyo.) The show features props, costumes, memorabilia and audiovisuals, displayed in a concentric gallery shaped like the cerebral cortex. TIFF has flanked it with a multi-platform extravaganza of Cronenbergia, including an art exhibit, an interactive media game and a retrospective of his films and those he’s influenced.
It’s enough to make one ask: Why Cronenberg? His films, after all, are an acquried taste—he’s not exactly the Alice Munro of Canadian cinema. More like its David Bowie, an iconoclast who has generated enough exotic artifacts to fill a gallery, and whose influence extends far beyond his commercial niche. Compatriots Norman Jewison and James Cameron have had more impact at the box office and the Academy Awards. But they did it with Hollywood movies. Cronenberg, 70, has stubbornly remained based in Toronto, shooting in its streets and studios with his local crew, though all his films take place in a Cronenberg bubble that is its own world.
“He has this odd place in our cultural universe,” says Lightbox artistic director Noah Cowan, who curated the show with TIFF CEO Piers Handling. “I’m not sure all the people who embrace Karen Kain and Alice Munro would put Cronenberg in that same bouquet of Canadian cultural leaders. It’s too bad.” In the ’70s, the director grafted two farflung strains of Canadian cinema—experimental film and exploitation fare like Rabid . He went on to implant loftier commercial genres with a stark vision that remains indelibly Canadian, even when embodied by foreign stars such as Viggo Mortensen and Robert Pattinson.
A Hollywood hero is someone who changes by overcoming an obstacle. A Cronenberg protagonist—Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers or Ralph Fiennes in Spider —surrenders to his environment (or his body) and is changed by it. Cronenberg, who tends to lead the discourse on his own films, is a thinker in the tradition of Torontonians Marshall McLuhan and Glenn Gould—fixated on the frontier where technology and consciousness merge. McLuhan explored media as an extension of the body, and Cronenberg made that concept flesh—literally, in Videodrome , Naked Lunch and eXistenZ . If Canadian culture is a perennial search for identity, this unrepentant existentialist has never stopped looking.
Cronenberg and TIFF are virtual soulmates. They have grown up together, feeding off each other so intimately over the years, it’s hard to say which is the parasite and which is the host. Cronenberg was the first director to donate artifacts to TIFF’s collections. And his DNA is woven into the origins of the Lightbox. “Five years before it was built,” says Cowan, “there was a debate about whether we should have exhibitions. David was always in our minds. We thought that one way to make an impact was to have a really good travelling Cronenberg exhibition.”
Since opening in 2010, the Lightbox has hosted touring gallery shows devoted to Tim Burton, Federico Fellini, Grace Kelly and James Bond. Now TIFF is ready to honour its own patron saint, a human telepod who has fused pop culture and the avant garde into a creature all his own.
Maclean's October 18, 2013.