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Of all David Cronenberg’s work, it’s his 1990 ad for Nike Air 180 that captures the spirit of his project most succinctly. ‘Transformation’ is only a thirty second footwear promotion but it packs a guttural punch that stays with you, that transforms the viewer just as the shoe transforms the slimy alien creature into a brand-awakened athlete.
The Cronenberg canon is full of freaks, mutants and hybrids. He’s something of a mutant himself. Before finding his feet in filmmaking, Cronenberg was an English major at the University of Toronto, in fact it seems literature was his main preoccupation in his youth, particularly the work of Vladimir Nabokov and William S. Burroughs.
For anyone familiar with his filmography, it should be surprising to know that there was ever a time when David Cronenberg lamented the work of William Burroughs, but in fact there was – Burroughs, he felt, had so thoroughly exhausted the dimensions of the written word that the young Cronenberg felt boxed-in, pre-empted in his literary ambitions.
Cronenberg was not alone. Burroughs’ writing is known for its startling originality, how it seems to pre-empt modernity itself. It’s indicative of the strength of his ideas that a man who by all accounts didn’t begin writing seriously until his thirties became not just the leader of a literary movement but one of the great writers of the 20th century.
Like Burroughs, Cronenberg would have to chance upon his artistic calling. After seeing Winter Kept Us Warm (1965), which was directed by his classmate David Secter, Cronenberg was bitten by the film bug and quickly became obsessed.
In the following years he’d go on to find his feet in filmmaking where the ideas that once delimited his creative aspirations would, like a mutating pathogen, find radical new expression in the cinematic form and propel the young director to world renown.
Before settling on English for his degree, Cronenberg initially enrolled in the Honours Science program at Toronto, led by his keen interest in botany and lepidopterology (the study of moths and butterflies). This fascination with creepy crawlies manifested itself in a more clinical form than Burroughs’ brand of elemental disgust but is an interesting point of shared fascination all the same.
The revolting alien form of insects features prominently across the work of both men. Burroughs was obsessed with centipedes and features them at various points in many of his books. He considered them the basest of the base, little more than an “animate[d] bundle of nerve wires”. In one of his final journal entries he speculates that they exist to remind humans of how kind evolution has been to us.
Both Burroughs and Cronenberg are in the business of instinct, of dissections and indecent exposures. In their work, humans are imagined as tropisms, driven by and composed of base desires. But desire is also recognised as a catalyst of transformation, for its ability to engender changes of state, but also as a tool of manipulation.
Burroughs was preoccupied with systems of control and how languages might be characterised as such – not just written language but communication in general. Having lived through almost the entire 20th century, he witnessed the rapid ascendancy of the moving image and regarded this development with deep suspicion, a cynicism furthered by his proximity to the dark arts of manipulation through his uncle Ivy Lee, the godfather of modern PR.
Burroughs ultimately saw the brain as a passive recording device, receiving inputs and then playing them back in response to stimuli. In this model, image association is a physical process whereby the senses can be hijacked and the mind conditioned via the eye.
Famously he declared language to be a virus from outer space – Cronenberg extends that metaphor beyond Burroughs’ written word, deconstructing and exploding the viral behaviour of symbolic communication through the visceral visual vernacular of our time.
This unique bodily conception of control finds its definitive expression in Videodrome (1983), in which pornography is imagined as a cybernetic reprogramming of the mass audience.
Videodrome draws on the work of media prophet Marshall McLuhan, even directly quoting him at various points in the film via Brian O’Blivion, the celluloid-bound inventor of the titular mind virus. “Television is the retina of the mind’s eye” he says to James Woods, embodying the broader theme of accelerating integration between humans and media technology, the emergence of a hideously beautiful new organism from the chrysalis of modernity. The film’s famous mantra “long live the new flesh” points toward this sublimation of the body across virtual space.
Videodrome exposes the image junkies in all of us and tells us how we’re never going to kick it. Cronenberg’s body horror articulates Burroughsian paranoia at a sensory velocity beyond anything the man himself ever could have.
By the time Cronenberg got around to adapting Naked Lunch in 1992, it almost seemed like a re-hash of everything that had come before, if not an outright anti-climax. The hallucinatory heterotopia of Interzone in the film is visceral, shocking and strange but not unlike what had come to be expected of the director. The ‘new flesh’ appears again in the form of horny talking typewriters. The act of writing, of creative work itself, is configured as something sexual, as the expression of desire.
In a bizarre sex scene between Bill Lee and a hallucinatory manifestation of his dead wife, a typewriter gets an erection, turns into an insectoid approximation of a human torso and then flops around on the fornicating couple. The camera alternates shots of their two faces and the floundering torso, such that it appears as though artist, muse and typewriter have all melted into one.
Despite all the successes of the Burroughs-Cronenberg complex, Naked Lunch fails to stand out in the latter’s filmography, at least. Although perhaps this is the ultimate testament, a sign that the freaky contagions Burroughs dreamt up in the Interzone all those years ago have well and truly gone viral.