Book review – The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg

Beard, William, The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2001

William Beard’s extensive critical analysis of the cinema of David Cronenberg considers Cronenberg as a filmmaker with a strong authorial voice whose films make up a powerful body of work containing very specific re-occurring themes, attitudes and style. From Videodrome (1983) onwards Beard identifies the main theme of Cronenberg’s films as an existential-romantic ideal of “a pathfinding, transgressive [male artist/creator] figure delving into hidden or repressed realms where others do not wish to go”. (257) 

Beard dedicates a chapter to every Cronenberg feature film from the rarely seen Stereo (1969) right up to Crash (1996). Unfortunately eXistenZ (1999) was released after Beard’s completion of the book but it is discussed briefly in footnotes and mentioned in the chapter on Crash. Beard does not include Cronenberg’s early short films, television work or car racing film Fast Company (1979) which Beard describes as formulaic, uncharacteristic, and uninteresting.

Beard’s interpretation of Cronenberg’s cinema is original and unique, and he acknowledges the various existing arguments and how they have influenced his perspective. In particular Beard often refers to Julia Kristeva’s work on the abject and provides an excellent summary on her theory in the chapter on Shivers (1975). Beard also takes into account the large body of work on gender and psychoanalysis, especially Barbara Creed’s theories on the monstrous feminine, although he often disagrees with Creed’s arguments.

Beard examines the post-modern perspectives of writers such as Steven Shaviro who have predominantly written on Videodrome, and makes a compelling argument for why post-modern readings of Cronenberg films fail. Beard argues that Cronenberg is a modernist director whose films are predominantly about the internal desires and transformations of a single male protagonist who, with the possible exception of Scanners (1981), cause their own suffering and tragic end without hope or redemption.

Beard also does a very close examination of the literary sources behind Naked Lunch (1991), M. Butterfly (1993), and Crash. This is particularly valuable pertaining to the chapter on Naked Lunch where Beard argues that the film is Cronenberg’s vision of who William Burroughs was, rather than simply an adaptation of Burroughs’s writing. Beard examines the influence Burroughs had on Cronenberg, and the important differences between the way they both view the world. Unfortunately Beard’s descriptions of David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly and J. G. Ballard’s novel Crash serve little purpose other than to point out the discrepancies between the original source material and their respective films. This approach in the final two chapters offer less actual film analysis and as a result are the weakest chapters in Beard’s book.

Other chapters that suffer in comparison to the general high quality of writing in The Artist as Monster are the chapters on Scanners and The Dead Zone (1983). Beard has quantitative information about these films, but he struggles to work them into his overall argument concerning Cronenberg’s cinema. Beard acknowledges this somewhat with Scanners but does not make any similar claims with The Dead Zone and struggles to interpret this film by means of his understanding of Cronenberg’s cinema.

Beard argues that Cronenberg’s first two ‘underground/art’ films Stereo and Crimes Of The Future (1970), introduce his key re-occurring concept of human sexuality being self-invented and self-signifying, where there is nothing ‘natural’ or ‘ordinary’ about it. Any attempts for the mind to further remodel the body, through ‘medical sex’ or ‘erotic research’ will always result in horrific bodily mutation and disease. The “distressed sense that the power of sexuality (and the body in general) to dissolve categories and threaten ego-subjectivity is a power very much to be feared”. (22)

This idea is explored further in Cronenberg’s next three narrative driven films: Shivers, Rabid (1977) and The Brood (1979). There is a lack of clearly defined protagonists in these films but the key figures that emerge are the unscrupulous or irresponsible inventor/scientist who begin a process of transgression that will threaten society, and the ineffectual male ‘hero’ whose actions to fight the results of such transgression are failures. The men of early Cronenberg films were one or another extreme: “ineffective, diffident impotent inaction, or powerful disastrous action”. (90) From Videodrome onwards these figures merged into one clear protagonist as Cronenberg moved from a paranoid, social and external cinema to a cinema of melancholia, a personal and internal reflection.

In terms of women Beard argues that Cronenberg deliberately draws upon various cultural myths about women and femininity (a summary of these myths and stereotypes can be found in the Videodrome chapter), in order to critique the way men view women. The connections in Cronenberg’s films between femininity and monstrosity lie in the psychoanalytic structures of male personalities and patriarchal culture. Cronenberg uses the myth of female-as-desire with his own agenda of portraying unrepressed desire as being destructive and monstrous, which results in the female-as-desire as destructive and monstrous. However no matter how monstrous women and female sexuality are, it is the result of events out of their control, events often caused by men and science. Beard argues that the male protagonists of Cronenberg’s later films become ‘enfemaled’ in that the horrors traditionally associated with the female body are now subverted by being transferred onto the male body.

It is not until Videodrome that Beard finds the signature Cronenberg idea that remains in his films to this day.

Now that the centre is at last discovered to be not the sexually transgressive woman, not the inventor-father, nor the unfeeling and predatory elements of society…but, rather, the self. And the appetites and anxieties, with their bodily mutations and diseases, finally unfold in and enact themselves on the self, and the self’s body. The self is the monster. (121)

Specifically Beard identifies that Self as the male artist/creator who, like the scientist figure of earlier films, attempts to transgress into the realm of the body and desire to find something ‘new’.

This transformed identity is not functionally useful or progressive but irredeemably destructive and impossible.  It is a transgression against society, cultural conventions and the lives of other people, especially women who are reduced to objects and targets for sexual sadism.

In Cronenberg, to act at all is ultimately to destroy something, or to create the conditions of destruction. Archetypal male activity is destructive; in the sphere of sexuality it is sadistic. The dawning recognition that this is so ‘enfemales’ (renders paralysed and vulnerable) almost all of Cronenberg’s male protagonists eventually – it is coterminous with their eventual suicidal melancholy. (191)

This suicidal melancholy results from the male protagonists’ awareness of their sexual sadism that fills them with guilt, horror, fear and self-pity.

Beginning with Rabid there is a development from the “spectacle of desire or horror [to] empathetic perspectives of human sadness and suffering”. (52) Beard argues that this prevailing sadness in Cronenberg’s films is the result of his pessimistic and depressing picture of men whose only option on life is “to shut down and be desolated but survive, or to open up and be enlivened but destroyed”. (247)

Beard creates a model for Cronenberg films where the artist/creator is liberated from his monotonous life by transgressing the body, and is briefly transported to a world of heightened emotions and desires. He then becomes a sexual sadist towards the woman of his desire, and suffers a literal or symbolic suicide from the melancholia resulting from his realisation of the monster he has become. “The transgressive appetites [the artist as monster] feels and perspectives he is drawn to are felt by the artist himself to be terrible and dangerous – to himself and to others”. (289) This model is most effective when Beard analyses Videodrome, The Fly (1986), Dead Ringers (1988), Naked Lunch and M. Butterfly.

Although The Artist as Monster is divided into one chapter per film, Beard discusses the evolution of Cronenberg’s ideas as a progression from film to film rather than treating each film as a detached work. Each chapter has a detailed analysis of every character from the film, narrative developments, mise-en-scene, explicit and implicit themes, and Beard’s perception of Cronenberg’s ethical position. Beard’s arguments are extremely convincing and the result is a fascinating and rigorous critical examination of Cronenberg’s films.

Originally appeared here on Screening the Past Issue 11, 2002

© Thomas Caldwell, 2002