« The current cinema, "let's not go to the 'Dogs' tonight" edition | Main | I remember Lee Lipsenthal »

September 17, 2011


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Bruce Reid

This isn't even a new shtick. I've read a few critics' complaints over the years about the supposed banality of Cronenberg's head-on angles and shot/reverse-shot setups, ignoring (as you indicate) that such lucid presentation makes the imagery and, more importantly, the effect such emphatically corporal violations have upon the subjects' minds that much more inescapable, and harder to dismiss. His lack of show-off camera moves or self-conscious flair contributes immeasurably to the profound tragedy (and humor) of his best films. Even while everything's going to hell Cronenberg's worlds are so solid and foursquare it seems impossible for them to teeter and crash--but they do, every time.

Looking forward to November.

Ryan Kelly

This is a sore spot for me as well, and it's an aesthetic standard that I literally find offensive. Maybe I'm being reactionary, but the notion of dialogue being inherently un-cinematic is bonkers. So what if a movie is too much like theater? I have no problem with a movie being "like a play", so long as it's like a good play. The way a sequence is staged and the way the performances are cut together is capable of being every bit as cinematic as a sequence that features no dialogue at all. You saw a lot of this when Inglorious Basterds came out as well.

Tony Dayoub

Besides, as Farber sort of implies in his essay, "The Gimp," most of cinema post-CITIZEN KANE relies on techniques with theatrical roots which first gained traction as a result of Welles's use of them in his film. That is to say, aren't most movies theatrical in some way anyway?

Dan C.

I'm looking forward to this one. The Victorian milieu of early psychoanalysis is just one step closer to my daydream of having Cronenberg adapt Charles Brockden Brown.

It strikes me also that theatricality has become a stronger strain in Cronenberg's creative reportoire at least since eXistenZ, where the uncanny tonal shifts between spontaneous speech and in-game dialogue anticipate the sudden shifts in persona during History of Violence and Eastern Promises, both of which fixate on disguises and dissembling rather than the spectacular mutations that I'd kind of like to see again (although the tattoos are a good enough substitute, I guess).

Rabid sounds right because the infection is also a kind of narrative logic, which makes the film feel at least a little Freudian. Given Cronenberg's gnomic statement that he identifies with the disease in his films, I'm curious whether his portrayal of hysteria will be easily reducible to personal and explicable causes...but that can wait until I get to see this thing.


I noticed Carnage came in for a lot of the same criticism in Venice; it seems some critics think that films consisting primarily of interiors are somehow inherently "stagey". One critic even claimed that The Ides of March was more successful at "opening up" its theatrical source material than either Carnage or A Dangerous Method. Whatever one thinks of George Clooney as a director, it seems ridiculous to me to claim that he's making more cinematic movies than Polanski or Cronenberg.


Sounds great, I will for sure have to check it. Thank you for the information and review.

Matt Zoller Seitz

"More often than not Cronenberg is happy to have us believe that the camera is merely making a record (c.f. Cronenberg's haunting 2000 short Camera), while he very subtly manipulates the perspective..."

Hey, mise-en-scène! I recall much (sometimes heated) discussion of this in a recent Some Came Running thread.

Interesting that, in your account of those three pivotal shots, everything in the frame contributes to the overall effect, but blocking, composition, cutting and camera movement ultimately convey the shift in consciousness.

I contend, yet again, that these four elements are really the heart of mise-en-scène, no matter how fervently we might wish to assign equal or greater value to other things.

It's not the costumes, it's not the dialogue, it's not the lighting, it's not even the actors' performances, however marvelous they may be. All those things are hugely important to a scene, but they do not put across exactly what is happening in a moment like the one you describe. Blocking, composition, cutting and camera movement are what do that. They are the heart of visual storytelling.

This is an art that Cronenberg mastered long ago. In the age of get-a-lot-of-coverage, we'll-fix-it-in-post filmmaking, it is increasingly devalued, and increasingly rare.

"At this point I could be coy and say 'If that isn't visual storytelling, I don't know what is,' but screw it, that is visual storytelling, and the critic who can't see it is not a critic I'm inclined to trust. Please note that I said 'can't see it,' not 'isn't impressed/moved by it' or 'doesn't admire it.' I can't tell another person what to think or how to feel about a film or a sequence in a film. But I can ask a person to look at what's in front of him or her before he or she presumes to assess it."


Andrew Bemis

To heck with the Tweeters; Cronenberg is absolutely a master of visual storytelling. What about the subtly dynamic lighting in Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers and others, which darkens and changes (mutates?) in step with the inner/outer transformation of the films' protagonists. Or the amazing opening shot of Spider, and multiple instances in A History of Violence, of Cronenberg building tension just as Glenn describes - by holding the shot, drawing out our anticipation of change within the frame (open doors, seemingly empty rooms, etc.) and with the frame itself. It's a precise, organized style that may have its roots in the theatre but is hardly bound by the proscenium arch.


"Because, trust me, my challenger was not David Bordwell."

Indeed he wasn't:


David Ehrenstein

"Filmed theater" can be intensely cinematic. Seee Sacha Guitry and his star pupil Alain Resnais.

See also Dreyer's "Getrud."


@I.B. Thanks for the link to the excellent Bordwell post. I'd add to his examples another one starring Michael Fassbender--the debate in McQueen's "Hunger" with Liam Cunningham's priest. A two shot held completely static for over fifteen minutes, it could be a one-act play in a tiny venue. But the lighting, and the pace of what precedes it and follows it makes the scene resonate as "total" cinema.

Simon Abrams

I'm....going to put me...on a slow boat--to China.

Oh hi, guys.


Seems fitting:

Pauline Kael on Scorsese and GOODFELLAS:

„Yet the moviemaking has such bravura that you respond as if you were at a live performance. It's Scorsese's performance. He came of age as a director in the early seventies, at a time when many film ethusiasts were caught in the sixties idea that a good movie is always about its director. There's a streak of metaphoric truth in this, but here Scorsese puts the idea up front.

The Filmmaking process becomes the subject of the movie. All you want to talk about is the glorious whizzing camera, the freeze-frames and jump cuts. That may be why young film enthusiasts are so turned on by Scorsese's work: they don't respond to his films, they want to be him.” (1990)



"What we think of as characteristically Cronenbergian derives from what he shows us...not from how he shows it to us"

I appreciate this distinction, which I think is on the mark, and may explain why, though I respect him and his work, Cronenberg's not really my cup of tea. (Then again, what I've elided with the ellipsis should win me over somewhat; I like bold imagery as much as the next guy - still the "straightforwardness" of the mise en scene leaves me a little cold I think.)

Incidentally, I agree with Matt on his definition of mise en scene; I find whenever I'm trying to examine that potentially pretentious term, those are the exact four elements I always come to - the bare essentials of what it means to be "cinematic." I also agree with David that something like Gertrud is eminently cinematic. Why is that? Well, for one thing, there are quite visceral camera movements, as there are in any Dreyer film. (I haven't seen the film in years, but recently I watched a clip where one character lights a candle near a mirror and then the camera tracks, in a seemingly unmovitaved - and therefore hightly noticeable - move to change its perspective, and reveal the heroine in the mirror.)

So far, I haven't really gotten this same sense of Cronenberg. I've an ongoing debate with a fellow movie buff - not really a debate, actually, so much as contending sensibilities; I think what he thinks of as "cinematic" is fundamentally pictorial, while to me it's more kinetic. I suppose the pictorial is more about what's shown (though directors who we think of as having the most pronounced mise en scene, like Kubrick, could also be considered somewhat "pictorial") and the kinetic is more about the how. Maybe Cronenberg is too pictorial for me to love as much as, say, Scorsese. At any rate, I think of him more in terms of the stories he tells than his storytelling (though your lucid counterpoint here is appreciated and intriguing; if I ever went to contemporary movies these days I'd see this one for the Jung connection alone).

Incidentally I always felt Rohmer was really cinematic too. But how can you not be with Almendros shooting your pictures?

Ryland Walker Knight

What Ehrenstein said. And I dig what Christoph's getting at, too. Can't wait to see this. As if Danny's review didn't get me excited enough already.

David Ehrenstein

Well its' not just that with Rohmer. Outside of a one-off like "Percival he always shot in the open air. Part od the pleasure of "Pauline ant the Beach" and "Calire's Knee" are the lovey summer locations he found to shoot his story. Even less seemingly "visual" films like "The Aviator's Wfe" and "Boyfriends and Grilfriends" sport the visual delights of everyday Paris. This was quite important for Rohmer. He wanted to show the complexity of seemingly 'simple" narratives, and visual beauty of "ordinary" Paris settings.

Tom Block

I'm convinced that Cronenberg is properly visual; it's his gassy, trivial, juvenile *scripts* that bore the silly shit out of me. I liked "Spider" quite a bit, but I wrote off both "The History of Violence" and "Eastern Promises" as the price you gotta pay to stay semi-current on things.

David Ehrenstein

Really ? I liked them boht.

Well I like anything with Viggo in it. I can't imagine why Xeene divorced him. If he were mine I'd never let him go.

Tom Block

I dunno, maybe I just haven't caught him in the right thing. To me he's like the human equivalent of white noise.

Bill Sorochan

For some odd reason Christopher Hampton seemingly always gets the bums rush in North America. "The Secret Agent" and Phillip Noyce's "The Quiet American" were both terrific films that were pretty much ignored or maligned here-my guess because they weren't self-consciously cinematic. For some reason invisible quality tends to be very threatening for a lot of critics.

Michael Dempsey

I'd like to endorse Bill Sorochan's comments about Christopher Hampton's adaptation of "The Secret Agent", which contains a haunting and frightening performance by none other than Robin Williams (who isn't even billed in the credits, though this could be his best film work to date).

Let me also add "Carrington", the dual biopic about painter Dora Carrington and Lytton Strachey, in which Emma Thompson and Jonathan Pryce are overwhelmingly moving as gay-straight lovers.

But the achievements of even actors of these people's calibre wouldn't have registered the way they do if Hampton hadn't been in firm cinematic (albeit of the non-visual-fireworks variety) control. It seems to me that he is a genuine director, not just a writer naively trying to protect his scripts.

Liz Copeland

I'm a fan of Cronenberg so I'll make sure to check it out and give him a grade compared to his other wonderful works. Thanks for the insight



Had missed this.

David Ehrenstein

Saw "A Dangerous Method" (or as I prefer to call it "Freud and Jung Go Boating") last night. Highly sober-sided for Cronenberg, thanks to Christopher Hampton's script and an overall sense of awe towards the subjects. But notable nonetheless for Keira Knightley's remarkable performance as Sabina Spielrein -- a young, beautiful, well brought up masochist hysteric and patient of Jung's. Jutting out her chin and widening her eyes as her body convulses, she's quite a sight. (Who knew this hellcat lurked within the tasty bit of crumpet in the "Pirates of the Carribean" films?) When Jung (the very fine Michael Fassbender) gets her to calm down -- via the "talking cure" his pal Freud (the ever-babe-a-licious Viggo) was inventing -- she becomes a patient of great prize. He trains her to be an assistant, and eventually she becomes an analyst herself. She also becomes his lover. Full-on fucking at first, but spanking sessions soon follow. What's fascinating is the more (guiltily) emeshed Jung becomes with Sabina, the more he questions Freud's emphasis on sexual dysfunction as the root of all ills. Eventually this leads to a break between the two that Cronenberg, most appropriately regards as far more serious for Jung than his eventual breaking off with Sabina. Freud is a Father/Brother to Jung in quite a profound way. And when Jung gets into religious mysticism Freud is appalled.
Still for all it's obvious intellectual interest the film comes off primarily as an unhappy adulterous romance, with parental figure conflict thrown in for good measure. Not at all bad as the material is super ambitious. But it'll be interesting to see how audiences are going to take it. Or not.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Tip Jar

Tip Jar
Blog powered by Typepad