Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Canadianness of David Cronenberg

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Canadianness of David Cronenberg

Article excerpt

It is becoming more difficult, in a postmodern environment, to speak with any confidence of "national character" or to define nationality in broad cultural (as opposed to socio-political) terms. In English Canada, where "national character" is famously weak and ill-defined, especially in contrast to the clearer and more confident cultural nationalisms of the United States and Quebec, what was always uncertain has now become theoretically impossible or at least undesirable. The "what is Canada?" debate is a relatively recent one, but its vague and tentative wafflings--themselves very "Canadian"--have already been historically subsumed by the project of multiculturalism. The consequent attempt to define Canada actually as a place which has no "identity" other than the collective identities of its individual components, the project to strip Anglo-Canada of any claims to dominant cultural legitimacy (while affirming the cultural legitimacy of other ethnicities), is not only politically irreproachable but may even have been greeted with relief by those same theoretically disenthroned Anglo-Canadians who had become exhausted in the effort to find a stable Canadian cultural identity. In any event the older attempt at a relatively monolithic account of Canadian character, the attempt perhaps most effectively begun by Northrop Frye and seconded by Margaret Atwood to analyze Canadian literature and visual arts for a coherent set of social and psychological characteristics, has been so eclipsed as to be practically extinct.

While recognizing the inevitability and even the desirability of present cultural-theory revisionism, I believe that the Frye-Atwood model has not lost its relevance, even though it is now necessary to restrict sweeping generalizations about "Canadian character" to a more narrow cultural/historical base. If it is not adequate as a complete theory of English-Canadian culture, it retains, as it were, a local truth to the broad patterns of a particular once-dominant Anglo culture, and to particular members of that culture.

It is in this context that I wish to examine the work of filmmaker David Cronenberg, whose peculiar history as a cultural icon has always left him outside the dominant models of "Canadianism." Although his particular subjects and artistic practice have encouraged his recent inclusion in a non- or supra-national paradigm of postmodern art dominated by a thematics of gender, the body and technology, I believe that such an analysis neglects an important aspect of Cronenberg's artistic character, and that this "missing" aspect may be partly accounted for by a consideration of his work against the template of the older Frye-Atwood model of Canadianism in the arts. I would assert, then, that David Cronenberg is a profoundly and typically "Canadian" artist according to this paradigm, and that although he conforms rather idiosyncratically to the model, he finally does so in a clear and unmistakable fashion. Moreover, he conforms in ways which appear not to have been noticed and which, I believe, may help to "place" this troubling filmmaker.

For there has been a difficulty in thinking about Cronenberg within a Canadian-cultural context. He has somehow, without a lot of people in the Canadian "culture industry" quite understanding how, progressed from being an embarrassing figure who used Canadian Film Development Corporation (taxpayers') money to make disgusting exploitation movies like Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1976) to being an internationally-celebrated film artist who has, in the past few years, adapted a modernist literary classic (Naked Lunch) with the blessings of the author, and been the subject of serious books in French and German. It is now widely accepted that Cronenberg is the most, or one of a handful of the most, interesting and valuable filmmakers in English Canada. Yet he has never really been integrated into our "cultural history" (Piers Handling's 1983 essay stood for a long time as a lonely exception, and has only recently been joined by Gaile McGregor's distantly related essay of 1993). …

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