David Cronenberg is on familiar turf with his latest film, SPIDER. The twist is that, while the film is rife with the horror, it stems from seeing the sane world through the eyes of a schizophrenic. When I talked with the soft-spoken and erudite director, I asked why he eschewed his usual trappings of blood and gore. In a wide-ranging discussion, the conversation started with art as seduction and silence as sound, and ended with a meditation on the surrealism of censorship, an issue Cronenberg has had to deal with practically from day one as a filmmaker.
David Cronenberg’s particular genius is getting inside our deepest, most primal fears, the ones that exist in the id and are impervious to any assuaging from the land of logic. Hence in RABID, Marilyn Chambers grows something suspiciously phallic in a most unexpected place, in VIDEODROME, our televisions turn on us, and in DEAD RINGERS, twin gynecologists create instruments of examination that still give most of the women I know nightmares. His latest film, SPIDER, may do for men what DEAD RINGERS did for women. Its exploration of madness, in this case schizophrenia, is rife with sexuality of a disturbingly Oedipal nature.
At the beginning of SPIDER, a scruffy, distracted Spider, in the person of Ralph Fiennes, steps off a train, stands for a moment in bemused wonder as the crowded platform gradually dissipates, and then reaches suggestively into the front of his pants. He’s not fishing for what you think. Instead, he pulls out an old sock that he uses as a wallet, retrieves an address, and then, with all the apparent sentience of a sunflower, begins his voyage of discovery and ours as he sets off to a halfway house after being judged almost sane by the asylum where he’s resided until now.
In Spider’s world, people’s identities change and merge. Mothers become prostitutes, fathers become murderers and revenge becomes an obsession with consequences in the real world. Or at least the reality most of us agree on. And that is what, ultimately, is so disturbing about this film. Cronenberg charts with starkly minute detail the fragility of sanity and, even more disconcertingly, the fragile nature of reality. Spider’s world is as real to him as ours is to us, and much more orderly in that it never changes and it never requires him to change or face anything new. You can’t tell me that on some level, that’s not mighty tempting.
Andrea Chase interviewed David Cronenberg on February 19, 2003.