Radically Different Films, Part Three

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part one | part two

We all know films and novels can be vastly different, even telling the same story. The medium dictates some major parameters, and these constrain the storyteller in different ways. There is no soundtrack to a novel, and internal observations are far more clunky on screen. And, obviously, shooting sequences is more expensive than typing them out.

Trying to figure the proper approach to point of view when converting a screenplay into a novel has caused me to pause and reflect on some of these differences. Film imagery often has no point of view; the camera is its own entity. Usually the novelist hands off to another screenwriter, who can look at the story from a very different angle. This can be good and/or bad. It can please more people or displease everyone. It’s a bit of a crapshoot.

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Earlier, I did promise to mention David Cronenberg, who has pioneered aspects of modern filmmaking, particularly in creepy body horror, the images of morphing, uncontrollable biology. This post could concentrate solely on Cronenberg’s films, although I don’t believe his shocking repertoire has really broken out and made him a household name.

His first minor hit, Shivers (1975), is set in a luxury high-rise condominium. Sold as the future of living arrangements this clinical tower of glass and steel houses the cast. There is an undercurrent of promiscuity and something is awry in the building. A pandemic of sorts, the disease passes from tenant to tenant with body contact, like a venereal disease. One kiss can pass the parasitic contagion and infect person after person until none are left. This discomforting aspect to human nature assaults us on a primal level, maybe even exploiting our self-loathing at our weaknesses and vulnerabilities. This is a common theme with Cronenberg’s films. His IMDB page crowns him the “king of venereal horror.”

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Videodrome took the horror to a more intellectual level, the media, perception, the derangement of the senses by incessant video imagery and mass manipulation. The line between what is real and what isn’t is erased in an endless tsunami of propaganda from every channel. Cronenberg would return to this theme in the 1990s with the advent of video games that can virtually simulate reality. ExistenZ crossed the reality barrier into the unreal, and the dangers of allowing ourselves to be manipulated became apparent. When we can’t know what is real and what isn’t, we can no longer tell right from wrong.

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Still working, David Cronenberg’s 2012 adaptation of Cosmopolis, by Don DeLillo, is sharp and claustrophobic. Set primarily in a luxury limousine a billionaire runs his empire into the ground while protests and anti-capitalist stunts hamper his otherwise psychotic existence. Power and its discontents are naturally bound together, and the churning, slow-burn pace leads inevitably to its twisted resolution.


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Perhaps Cronenberg’s biggest film is the 1986 remake of The Fly, with Jeff Goldblum as the doomed scientist. This was right up the director’s alley, as the DNA from human and fly are crisscrossed in the teleportation experiment, and the insect takes over. Many of these films show that continuum of Cronenberg’s themes, our vulnerabilities, susceptibilities and our hubris.

A final adaptation to mention, one few may have actually seen, is The Naked Lunch, one of the all-time most disturbing films I’ve seen. This 1991 mind trip brought into the real world the rantings, ravings and dreamscapes of William S. Burroughs, who was very gay and actually shot his wife in the head, perhaps accidentally. Perhaps not.

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All these films tie into the general thread. These are radically different experiences than you’re likely to get at the Multiplex these days.

Cronenberg’s Crash kept the sickness going. Like a cult, a small group get together to derive erotic pleasure from destruction. In this case they create a sex cult around crashing cars while having intercourse. As usual it’s disturbing, but like a roadside car crash we keep looking.


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The sickness may have been passed down generationally. Cronenberg’s son Brandon turned in a twisted tale of disease and fame that could have been written by his father. Antiviral explores the same territory, a society obsessed with celebrity, even celebrity diseases, for which there is a heated black market to obtain the actual viral strains. Self-destructive obsession affects the buyers and the sellers, for sometimes the only way to obtain the valuable disease is to infect one’s self.

Infect yourself with Part Four.

 

 


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