The Art of Bodily Horror

A History of Violence director David Cronenberg talks about history and violence

That begs the question: Do you intend for the film to be read literally, or does it function more like a dream? For example, the establishing shots of Milbrook don't really look like any part of America that I've ever seen. They're more like the way we think of the Heartland in our collective consciousness—as if a Norman Rockwell painting had come to life on the screen.

Many years ago, I got a phone call out of the blue from a producer in Los Angeles and all he wanted to talk about was how strange my movies were for an American. He said, "You know, it's really spooky—the streets look like America, but they're not; the people seem to be Americans, but they're not." He went on and on. And I said, "I'm sure you're right." Part of that feeling, of course, is Canada, which is like America, but it's not. I've really only set three films in the States—this one, The Dead Zone and Fast Company—but of course Canada is so close to America that people will look at something like Dead Ringersand probably ignore the fact that it's obviously set in Toronto, so it's going to feel like a weird parallel universe. Those differentiations are not so apparent in Europe, obviously, because there the landscape that you're talking about probably feels authentically American to them, although I do think that America's whole mythology of itself is apparent even there.

I've mentioned that the look of the film reminded me of Norman Rockwell, while Howard Shore's original music strongly recalls the stirring fanfares of Aaron Copland. Did you have certain references like that in mind?

It was all in the air. It wasn't very specific. Certainly, with Howard, we talked about the American landscape and therefore the Western, and he was listening to a lot of scores from John Ford movies and things like that. I even found his score reminded me of East of Eden a bit, which is not obviously a Western, but there's something about the classic American landscape in it. With Peter, I reverted to the gold standard, which is Edward Hopper. Hopper's lighting was very soft, not contrasty, not hard-edged. And we went for that.

The colors are also very intense, almost like one of the old three-strip Technicolor pictures.

We didn't want to go as far as Marty did in The Aviator. We didn't want to play it like it was a movie about movies, even though if you have never seen another movie, your response is obviously going to be very different than if you've seen many movies, especially older ones. But for the actors, there was no irony. The characters don't know they're in a movie. It's not a post-postmodernist movie at all.

Do you consider your movies to be horror movies?

I don't. Even when I'm doing something like The Fly, I don't think of it as a horror film in particular. I'm willing to admit that The Fly is a horror film, but the genre part of it sort of takes care of itself. It's not a creative question. It's a marketing question, a critical question, an analytical question, but not a creative one. You just let the movie talk to you about what it needs and wants. I get very focused on the movie itself, the inner workings of it, and I don't worry about the categorization part. I mean, I can imagine someone saying, "I want to make a classical horror film that builds on all the mandates of the genre," but that would be a different project from anything that I've done. Even The Fly is also a sci-fi film. And Dead Ringers—what is that? And Naked Lunch? Burroughs used elements of many genres—sci-fi, horror, detective novels—and mixed them together in a way that wasn't any one of them.

But time and again your films do deal with the idea of transmutation or the manifestation of a previously repressed consciousness—what many have called your examination of "the hidden self" or the cinema of bodily horror.

It's nothing that I would say is autobiographical. People want to try to figure that out, but I was never traumatized as a child or any of those other things you get in the Freudian version of literary biography. I think what it comes from is my growing awareness as a kid, a philosophical understanding, of what the human condition is. The first fact of human existence is the human body. I'm an atheist—when we die, that's it. But I don't find that depressing. I find it fascinating, and I'm sure that is why I have this sort-of body-centric moviemaking, because to me the further you move away from the human body, the further away you are moving from a sort of primal reality.

So whose "history" is it, anyway?

It's got three levels. There's the way that you see it in the newspapers, that a suspect had "a history of violence," so in that sense it's Tom's. But it's also America's. And then it's also the human species'. J.G. Ballard wrote about it in The Guardian and he said that it's a history of family violence in which the family is the human family. That's why you can't say that the movie is anti-violence. It's sort of saying how ambivalent we are about violence. Violence can be exhilarating; even in this movie it's exhilarating. Which I think might also be a disturbing thing for some audiences, because they don't know where exactly to put that either.

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