Academic journal article CineAction

In the Web with David Cronenberg: Spider and the New Auteurism

Academic journal article CineAction

In the Web with David Cronenberg: Spider and the New Auteurism

Article excerpt

David Cronenberg has long reigned as one of the principal North American auteurs of independent filmmaking. As a Canadian filmmaker, he has defined himself repeatedly in opposition to Hollywood feature filmmaking. He has operated under different industrial and national constraints, produced independent, original cinema, and at times taken an adversarial role toward blockbuster cinema. Despite this atavism, his work is global in scope and ambition and, as such, he is an ideal example of one of the most enduring concepts within film theory.


The idea of auteurship in the cinema has a long history, from its early origins in la politique des auteurs, (1) that sought to translate the literary and romantic tradition of individual expression and genius to the screen; to postmodern theories that have sought to reconcile film's status as a mass, industrial art and to understand the film author as merely one of its effects or products. (2) As a methodology, auteurism has fallen in and out of favor, but it has a tendency for reappearing as new directors continue to establish themselves as the major stylistic and thematic center of a film's identity.


Cronenberg's films seem to fit seamlessly into this methodology. His works cohere stylistically and thematically, and document a private and obsessive interest in the body and its intersection with technology. He has throughout his career continued to reveal the grotesque anomalies, transformations, and divisions of the organic, and the mysterious corridors of the psyche. His work is singular and unique, and though it expresses existential themes, it describes them as the concerns of post-industrial, urban, technological individuals. But just what is the individual? And who is David Cronenberg? Film Studies, like all disciplines in the last century, inherited from critical philosophies a deep distrust of humanism and subjectivity, and someone as concerned with the limits of existence and experience as Cronenberg, is destined in such an environment to escape understanding. While attempts have been made to think the auteur in postmodern terms--where she or he is not a subject, but a system of signs, a social construction, or a product of the industry (3)--the term continues to be problematic because, basically, it implies that there is a dominant creative subjectivity expressing itself behind the work. In a certain respect, Cronenberg's presence may seem atavistic, and his complicity in auteurship and existential themes theoretically unfashionable. And yet, Cronenberg's portrayal of the experience of the postmodern filmmaker provides an important revision of the auteur that upsets the cohesiveness and unity that has bound this concept in all its versions, and a reinstatement of the subjectivity crucial to the meaning of both the term "auteur" and the content of film works. The existential proves itself not to be containable as passing fad or theoretical movement--it is a concern with the limits of human experience. Its relation to the organic and historical make accusations of its "timeless" or "eternal" structure simply naive. Cronenberg's works raises an unavoidable question, "What is an auteur today, and what might such a figure offer the field?"

Naked Lunch (1991) is a Cronenberg film that takes up the issue of authorship quite literally, but it is his most recent film Spider (2002) that provides the basic metaphor of the web I will use to think through this depiction of authorship. Nevertheless, to understand Spider, it is useful to take a detour. Naked Lunch was based on the autobiographical work of another author, William Burroughs, working in a different medium. Adaptation of the works of others is crucial to his understanding of authorship and he has taken on many projects based on novels of others. The image of authorship Naked Lunch describes is a realm of drug-induced dementia and excessive vulnerability and dependency. …

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