Sunday, April 10, 2011

David Cronenberg talks with me about madness

Most American films dealing with mental illness lie their way to the bank, finding ready marks in audiences used to a diet of unreal assurances and cheapjack positivism. A Beautiful Mind, Antwone Fisher and Girl, Interrupted not withstanding, profound mental illness is not an eventually transcendent state that leads with perky inevitably to joy, redemption, and Jennifer Conneley. Mental illness looks a whole lot more the Douglas ‘Spider’ Cleg we see in David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Patrick McGrath’s’s novel named after this very lost man.

I spoke with the director in 2002. His droll, charming manner hardens on mention of Ron Howard’s insanity crowd-pleaser. “A Beautiful Mind is not truthful in terms of what normally happens--it’s devastating normally. There are many ways to truth. I felt that ours was the way through art as opposed to contrivance.”

But Cronenberg did not want was to sacrifice metaphoric fluidity on the alter of medical correctness. “I felt a need to allow Spider to develop. [I did not want] to not worry about ‘Would a schizophrenic do this?’, ‘Are these symptoms correct?’ and so forth.”

Fiennes, however, did meet with schizophrenics and psychiatrists, but again, Cronenberg was concerned about things getting too literal. “I said, ‘Ralph, I’m sure that you’ll find something as an actor that you can use from that, but I want you to remember that this is not a clinical study of the disease, I’m doing a study of the human condition. And Spider here is the tool that I’m using to explore that.’”

And as it turned out, a rather uncanny tool. On the day of this interview, Cronenberg was approached by no less than three journalists (this author among them) whose lives had been shattered by the direct and collateral effects of mental illness, and found his film to be the only accurate representation of the disease in North American cinema.

Meanwhile, at a screening in Toronto, “a woman came up to me afterwards, a woman that I knew slightly” who could not help but comment on an emotionally lacerating scene of Spider attempting to fit his adult body in a too-small tub for an agonizing bath.

The woman asked Cronenberg, “’How did you know about the bathtub?’ And I said ‘What do you mean?’

She said, ‘My son, he’s 6”3’, he’s 23, he’s schizophrenic and that is exactly how he lies in the bathtub.’ She said ‘You must have done research,’ and I said no, in the script it just says ‘Spider lies in the bathtub.’ She found it totally accurate--I never expected something like that.”

This is Cronenberg being humble: in fact, every aspect of the film had been painstakingly designed to increase viewer empathy. As with Videodrome and Naked Lunch, Cronenberg returned to ‘subjective filmmaking,’ shooting his film in such a manner that the audience experiences everything as Spider would so as to gain visceral access to his inner turmoil.

The film’s depopulated locales (shot in and around London and Ontario, Canada), bare bones d├ęcor and minimalist language vividly both evoke Spider’s lonely worldview while betraying Cronenberg’s main aesthetic influence. “Beckett was a touchstone for us for Spider,” he says. “In the sense that Spider could have been a character from Beckett and those photos of Beckett wandering around the streets looking like a vagrant. But of course, not being one.”

Cronenberg enhanced the introspective feel by suggesting that cinematographer Peter Suschitzky utilize a “kind of lighting which is not realistic. There are scenes where light is coming from a wall where there is no window. I said, ‘It’s his inner landscape that we’re lighting.’ Normally cameramen hate that stuff, but Peter got into it.”

Cronenberg’s obsession with audience identification--“I’m a sincere filmmaker; Spider is completely non-ironic”--extended all the way to the type of film used--a low contrast film stock “which tends to make foregrounds and background blend together.” Both Howard Shore’s sparse piano soundtrack and the film’s alternately pastoral/sonically-threatening sound design were crafted to create the “hyper sensitivity” often experienced by schizophrenics.

Although many of Cronenberg’s films explore by default the dark romance of madness-inspired transcendence—-the daft techno “New Flesh” ideology of Videodrome, reprised in the car accident appreciation cultist’s ode to mayhem in Crash--Cronenberg adds that, personally, “I resist that kind of mysticism.”

“I think that madness truly is physiological derangement. There are kinds of psychological derangement, certainly. But madness in the clinical sense is, I think, physiological and something that you have to endure and try to work with rather than something that is a transcendence to be aspired to.

“But as a continuing metaphor, it has all kinds of potential. Things that you don’t want in your life but are very neat in your art...”

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