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Art Is the New Puberty

David Cronenberg’s portraits in flesh

At the root of David Cronenberg’s lifelong project is, of course, the flesh. And at the root of his engagement with the flesh is an apparent parting of the ways between evolution and reproduction. On the one hand, his most iconic characters—Seth Brundle in The Fly, Max Renn in Videodrome, the twin gynecologists in Dead Ringers, and, now, Saul Tenser in Crimes of the Future—turn away from the “normal” path of biological reproduction and toward a shadow realm where flesh and spirit combine. They are driven to explore the twisting tributaries and back alleys of the human bodily experience rather than passing their genes on to the next generation (with the possible exception of Seth Brundle). Having refused to become fathers, these men become artists, seekers compelled to abandon the human community, with its seemingly redundant circle of life, in favor of lonely but essential contact with the taboo forces that swim through our DNA just as powerfully as the urge to reproduce and care for our young.

The grotesque ways in which these body artists (to borrow a phrase from Don DeLillo, one of Cronenberg’s literary inspirations and spirit colleagues) offer themselves up as vessels for the new flesh are immensely stylish and alluring, but, in every one of Cronenberg’s “body horror” films before Crimes of the Future, they’ve also been biologically doomed, usually culminating in early death. I think of this archetype as the “heroic pervert,” a kind of warped hero who redeems those who witness his dissolution not by conquering evil or sacrificing himself for the greater good, but by following his own compulsions beyond the furthest limits of self-regard, unraveling his organism in thrall to the unholy forces of media, madness, and disease.

No longer does he court death as a rebuke to a sickening excess of life; now he does what it takes to live, in the only body he has, in the only world there is.

Saul Tenser, a performance artist blessed or cursed with the ability to grow new organs of unknown function, played in Cronenberg’s new Crimes of the Future by his latter-day muse Viggo Mortensen, shares much in common with his forebears—his inability to look away as his body confounds his understanding of it; his sexuality becoming bound up with dysfunction and disfigurement and closed off from what he calls “the old sex”—but he is also something else: an older man who knows the value of life and who decides, in the end, to embrace rather than throw it away. In this regard, he’s a new kind of hero for Cronenberg, proof of an evolutionary process within a filmography that has tried to reconcile the often violently opposed dictates of body and mind, and to seek a place in the future where any distinction between them vanishes into the past.

Being, like all of us, appreciably closer to death than he was forty years ago (when he made his defining masterpieces), Cronenberg has now made a film that bears witness to the value of life as only an older artist can, after a season in the wilderness. Crimes of the Future is his first new feature since 2014’s Maps to the Stars, and the first “full Cronenberg” film since 1999’s eXistenZ, in the sense that he wrote as well as directed it, based on his own script and original story, also penned in the late ’90s. I don’t want to consign this towering figure to a premature grave—especially as he’s already cuddled his own corpse in last year’s short The Death of David Cronenberg, and now has an even more death-obsessed-sounding film, The Shrouds, in preproduction—but there’s no way to watch Crimes of the Future and not perceive a strain of valedictory wisdom animating its tissue. Where once it was cathartic to see the heroic pervert burn down his life in its absolute prime, catharsis now comes from seeing an artist well past that prime grasp the deeper wisdom of acceptance. No longer does he court death as a rebuke to a sickening excess of life; now he does what it takes to live, in the only body he has, in the only world there is. If the earlier archetype defined Cronenberg’s punk phase, this one marks the onset of his monk phase.

The slogan “Long live the new flesh,” which has become a rallying cry for all that goes with Cronenberg fandom, was first uttered with bitter irony at the end of Videodrome, just before Max Renn, driven mad by the pirate signal (or else long-since coopted into its snuff extravaganza) blows his brains out. Striking a very different tone, Crimes of the Future ends with the stark, affecting image of a man who’s made a career out of publicly killing the new flesh—offering his body as the canvas upon which his partner, Caprice, played by Léa Seydoux, “paints” by removing each new organ in order to preserve the sanctity of the old flesh—at last accepting that his body has changed for good, and perhaps also for the better. He gives in to the growths that have coalesced into a new digestive system and, with a grimace that conveys both trepidation and relief, bites into a purple candy bar made of industrial waste, the fruition of an evolutionary process that cannot be stopped and, if allowed to take hold, might save us all from extinction.

To call such an ending “hopeful” or “humanistic” might sound glib, but I don’t think it is. Cronenberg has shepherded his heroic pervert into a new realm here, safely beyond irony and suicide. Insofar as the years weigh on Crimes’s star and its director, this weight makes the final image of candy-bar-as-Communion-wafer genuinely enlightening, a sacrament imbued with spiritual uplift. It’s a cliché to point out that almost all atheistic artists turn mystical as they age, but rarely has this turn come across more sincerely.

The politics of this monk phase are commensurately different from those of Cronenberg’s heyday in the postmodern Reagan ’80s and the nihilistic Clinton ’90s: in those films, yuppie scientists, surgeons, and media moguls, trapped by a sterile excess of bourgeois stability and consumer chic, torch their own lives out of morbid curiosity and a need to re-engender the funk and filth that allows a culture to grow, in both the social and the biological sense of the word. As in American Psycho, the adaptation of which Cronenberg nearly directed, the heroic perverts of the late twentieth century were malcontents within a system of too much Western stability, a post-political hegemony that must’ve seemed eternal and immovable, a what now? epoch animated by the lack of any external crisis, which led to the fear that the call was coming from inside the house.

Now, in the 2020s, as in Crimes of the Future, the world has grown appreciably less stable, while the characters’ commitment to staying alive within it has grown more so. There’s less countercultural glory in throwing your life away when the world is trying to take it from you. Operating under these new conditions, Crimes presents a near-future not of gleaming chrome and glass clinics, or shabby broadcast stations staffed by bored pornographers and their snarky assistants, but rather one of shadowy bureaus, underground factions, infiltrators, assassins, secret police, unverifiable rumors, basement rituals, and conspiracies within conspiracies. It’s a paradigm that feels more like that of Cronenberg’s earliest films, from the ’60s and ’70s. All in all, the world of John Le Carré has returned, while that of Bret Easton Ellis has receded.

The 2020s have come to resemble the ’60s and ’70s in all of these ways and many more. A shortlist would include wild inflation, racial and sexual unrest, bitterness at the prospect of any collective values, escalating conflict with Russia and China, a weak and out-of-touch government, mounting street violence and militia activity, and a massive growth in doomsday cults, psychotropic drugs, and alternative realities. Given such a post-millennium redux, it’s no surprise that the film’s central conceit, that of humanity evolving to meet its moment by metabolizing that moment’s poisoned atmosphere, is so resonant right now. It speaks directly to an era where we, too, must wonder whether we’re evolving. And, if so, into what?

Like the underground factions in many of Cronenberg’s early films—from the 1972 short Secret Weapons, about a biker gang opposing a pharmaceutical corporation that has merged with the Canadian government after a “Second Civil War,” to the “scanner underground” opposing another corporate-government merger in 1981’s ScannersCrimes of the Future abounds with agents and counter-agents. These range from the cultish secret surgery enthusiasts among whom Saul and Caprice are stars, to the “New Organ Registration” employees whose motivations are ambivalent to say the least, to, most crucially, the dissident surgeons (reminiscent of the gear-heads and garage-dwellers in The Italian Machine, a short from 1976, as well as Willem Defoe’s body-mod mechanic in eXistenZ) working in secret to redesign the human digestive system through the mind-body alchemy that Cronenberg has never stopped trying to conjure. This fusion of man and machine defines a threshold where clinical secularism takes on the power to produce a “miracle child”—a young boy born with a new digestive system already in place.

This miracle riffs on the Christ story after the young boy is martyred and then publicly autopsied to show all those who can see it the way forward, out of the decadence of the old flesh and into a new age (the cloistered autopsy reminded me of the early Christians meeting in caves outside of Rome—another story of humanity evolving to begin a new chapter of its history). Strange as it sounds to say that a Jewish skeptic like Cronenberg has told a Christian savior story, the times are strange enough to warrant it. “Chop off your little finger, and your kids are born without little fingers?” Tenser asks, as the enormity of this shift begins to dawn on him. Here, for the first time in Cronenberg’s filmography, evolution and reproduction sync up. The imperative to seed the new generation and the imperative to think in such a way that said new generation is actually new, achieves a harmony that makes Crimes of the Future Cronenberg’s most hopeful and life-affirming film, truly open to the future, as its title implies, for the first time.

The question of how such humanistic affirmation has found its way into the work of an artist more commonly associated with exploding heads and gibbering insects has been on my mind a great deal over the past year, as I’ve worked with the Scottish author and anthologist Chris Kelso to produce a book, entitled Children of the New Flesh, featuring nearly two dozen authors who wrote new essays about and fiction inspired by Cronenberg’s earliest work—short films, teleplays, and early features like 1969’s Stereo and the first Crimes of the Future, from 1970, to which the new film is a spiritual successor but by no means a remake or sequel. The more we worked on this book, the clearer it became that Cronenberg had indeed generated new life, seeding something real—a new organ in its own right—within many of the writers we admired most, and that this organ had both a timeless and a contemporary function. Here, too, the tension and possible harmony between evolution and reproduction, between intellectual fecundity and sexual deviancy, was of critical importance, as we grappled with the challenge of synthesizing Cronenberg’s influence—the way in which he’s come to serve as a father figure for a certain strain of art and writing today—in our own guts and gestating it into something new and worthy of being called the children of the New Flesh, not merely its avatars or adherents.

His early and mid-career films exert an overwhelming nostalgic pull on many of us who came of age in the video era, but, in today’s moment, gorged on a streaming infinitude of denatured and re-packaged nostalgia by and for millennials beginning to approach middle age, it also, crucially, does something else, something far more volatile and generative. Cronenberg would balk at being called a savior figure, but the new film wouldn’t be such a welcome return if it didn’t posit the possibility of salvation from within. At root, his films espouse a belief in evolution, in all the fraught beauty of that phase. As our culture fragments into manifold and incompatible strains of extreme dogma, abandoning the supposedly anti-dogmatic (or purely commercial) ethos of the late twentieth century, his work serves as a testament to how the human being can find grace in the flux, not so much finding something to hold onto as finding a way to thrive while holding onto nothing—a way to embrace the disease in order to rediscover or reinvent what it means to be healthy. Beyond the particulars of its plot, Crimes embodies this idea in its very being, birthing a new lifeform from and into the Cronenberg corpus, a new means of persevering beyond the dead ends of regression and extinction.

When Kristen Stewart’s twitchy, horny bureaucrat Timlin utters what’s become the film’s tagline, “Surgery is the new sex,” she means it on an erotic level, that of the new arousal stemming not from genital interpenetration but from the penetration of metal and belly, the deliciously contradictory notion of the violation of the willing flesh. It’s a theme that runs all the way through Cronenberg, back through his two great inspirations, J. G. Ballard and William S. Burroughs, and into the Middle Ages. Indeed, Crimes of the Future partakes of an appealing neo-medievalism—Tenser’s black robe (culled from the same dank closet as the red Inquisitor gown from the surgical theater of Dead Ringers), the solemnly observed mutilation ceremonies that form the film’s major set pieces, the hermetic dwelling where Tenser and Caprice cohabitate, and the devices, like iron lungs made of bone and sinew, that Tenser sleeps and eats within—building to the implication that we are now in a “middle age” of our own. Just as the last Middle Ages led to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, perhaps, now, the twilight of the world that those epochal shifts brought about will lead to the dawn of a new one.

The other meaning of “surgery is the new sex” also emerges from this medievalism, recalling the idea of the “Word made flesh,” another key Cronenbergian theme, and another throughline between Jewish and Christian thought, with Christ himself as the hinge between them. In this reading, surgery is literally sexual in that it leads to the conception of a new body we can all hope to live within. Reproduction and evolution fuse here, so that art—surgeons are always artists in Cronenberg films—becomes a means of genuine innovation, not only of repairing or revising what’s already the case. The Second Coming may not be imminent outside the sanctum of cinema, but a major shift in who and what we are clearly is.

Beyond its role in the life of an artist, art is thus also a form of puberty in the life of a culture. It succeeds by rendering itself obsolete.

Art, therefore, becomes a form of puberty, a dangerous and exhilarating process of growing into our next form. When I think back to my own teenage obsession with Cronenberg’s classics, which dovetailed with (and probably expedited) my own early artistic stirrings—my own sense of what it might mean to evolve into an adult form I could be proud to live within, rather than committing suicide or seeing adulthood as a living death where I’d have to smother the perversity I could feel coming alive as I watched Videodrome and Dead Ringers in my room in the middle of the night—I think exactly of this cusp. I think of how I hoped that filling my head with certain signals might lead to certain ideas that might in turn lead to my bodily transformation into an artist who, like Saul Tenser, processes reality as it comes, painfully growing organs in the deep interior of the body and then offering them up to the public in exchange for the right to occupy a bearable space in adult society.

It is often said that teenagers take huge risks because they believe they’re immortal, but I think the opposite is truer: they take huge risks because they can’t imagine living beyond their twenties. To pass through this phase and enter true adulthood is at once to accept the limitedness of life and also its potential length, the weight of supporting yourself year after year after year, a burden that, if you’re lucky, art can ease, but one that it can never alleviate in the way that your teenage self imagined it could. Having meditated on Cronenberg’s own artistic development, from his early twenties to his late seventies, this transformation couldn’t be clearer, as the weight of fully accepting life implies the weight of fully accepting death, in a way that the punk ideal of the early films, a rarefied version of the “live fast and die young” ethos of the postwar moment he came of age within, never could.

On the planetary scale, apocalypticism, yet another strain of ’60s and ’70s thinking back in the zeitgeist today, works according to the same logic, that of renouncing the entirety of this world out of a bifurcated belief that, on the one hand, it isn’t worth salvaging and, on the other, there must be another world awaiting us. The mature Cronenberg resists both delusions and argues for the power of art as a means of finding a third path, that of remaining in a world that seems to be ending.

Beyond its role in the life of an artist, art is thus also a form of puberty in the life of a culture. It succeeds by rendering itself obsolete. When Saul finally eats the plastic bar, his life’s work is a failure in that the organs he’s tried to remove have instead coalesced and changed him from within. Matter has conquered mind. On the other hand, his life’s work is a success in that it’s made him ready—just as the film has made us ready—to appreciate the necessity of this transformation, beyond which life itself, in all its fullness and finitude, awaits. Early in any artist’s life, refusing to join the human race is the most radical act you can imagine. You imagine that art can save you from the dullness of culture. Later on, if your early work has succeeded in bridging the gap between adolescence and adulthood—if the child has succeeded in becoming the father of the man, and the art has entered rather than ignored the culture—agreeing to join humanity anyway is more radical by far.

Crimes of the Future does not end with any wild messianism, but it vests this humble revelation with tremendous import, and serves as proof of its own concept by initiating a third phase in Cronenberg’s career, one that resembles the first—following the logic by which older artists so often return to the fixations of their youth, here by resurrecting the title of one of his earliest films—but imbued now with the gravity of having worked through the second, of the ’80s and ’90s, and thereby finding a way to see beyond the death of the twentieth century and the whirlpool, here in the 2020s, of its endless, maddening repetition and re-litigation. Maybe, Cronenberg has returned to tell us, in the language that only he can access, the human story isn’t over yet. Maybe we’re still undergoing puberty on a radical scale—to even suggest that we have a future seems radical today—and maybe the adulthood on the other side will be a kind of death that is also a kind of life after death, an afterlife in this world, which, for Cronenberg, is the only world there ever was and need ever be, provided we find the courage to inhabit it.