I have seen David Cronenberg’s brain. Or rather, its POD (Personal On Demand) implant, preserved in a glass jar along with hundreds of other PODs, glowing red. It’s part of Evolution, an extraordinary exhibition I visited a couple of weeks ago at Toronto’s glorious new TIFF centre devoted to the great Canadian film-maker.
A lab-coated technician on the fourth floor explained: “We’re working on an implantation system similar to [Cronenberg’s film] Existenz. Members of the public have been going online and answering questions, teaching the computer programme to become more like them so it implants better. Once done, we 3D-print the PODs, all different, put them in a jar, and then in a big ceremony we’ll implant them into the back of their skulls. They’re like a pacemaker for the brain.”
Just as in many of Cronenberg’s films, it’s hard to know where reality ends and fantasy begins in this exhibition. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Canada so I have a patriotic affinity, or maybe it’s because I saw Scanners at an impressionable age AND THEIR HEADS EXPLODE, but I’ve seen every Cronenberg film as it comes out; he’s one of only about ten directors whose movies I will see without question, regardless of review. So there’s a real thrill of recognition when walking round the exhibits.
Here is the Ducati 450 Desmo RT motorcycle cylinder that inspired the design of The Fly’s telepod, with “cockroach colour” paint to finish the job. Here are the gynaecological instruments for operating on mutant women from Dead Ringers, which in 1988 caused my companion to leave the screening and be physically sick in the Ladies’ toilets. Other exhibits have titles such as “Stage 3 Torso for Parasitic Twin Puppet”, or “Studies for Two-Headed Mutant Amphibian, In Four Parts”, or “Jeremy Irons Ear Moulds”.
There are a couple of framed fan letters to the director: “Saw The Fly – loved it – found it deeply moving – when you’re in town again please call.” This was from Martin Scorsese (his name misspelled as “Scorcese” on the caption, naughty TIFF). “The Crash script is brilliant – it’s even more frightening than the book.” This was from Jim (J.G.) Ballard.
In the centre of it all is a video room in which Cronenberg describes the leap from being a writer to a director in his twenties: “I literally looked up ‘camera’ and ‘lens’ in an encyclopaedia.” His 1975 horror film Shivers provoked a heated debate in the House of Commons, as it was funded by taxpayers’ money. Two decades later, the UK release of Crash was delayed for a year while the BBFC havered over its future; I travelled to Paris to see it, loved it, and put it on the cover of Time Out. Even after release it was arbitrarily banned by some local councils. As if it would encourage cinema-goers to crash their cars for a sexual thrill.
Cronenberg is, bizarrely, almost a mainstream director these days. The likes of Eastern Promises or A Dangerous Method are hardly blockbusters, but they don’t quite have the singular vision of old. This quote about The Fly helps illustrate why: “This is a movie about two eccentric people who fall in love,” says Cronenberg, “and the man contracts a terrible wasting disease. She watches, unable to help him, until she helps him to commit suicide. You would never get that made as a mainstream movie, it’s too dark, too depressing; but it’s protected by the genre.”
Now, as a grand old man of 70, with a Cannes lifetime achievement award, the Légion d’Honneur and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, an Officer of the Order of Canada and fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, he can pretty much make any type of damn film he pleases.
But I still like to think of him as the guy whose brain implant sits in a glass jar, glowing red.
Evolution ended on Jan 19, but they will soon be putting online an ambitious Virtual Exhibition. See http://tiff.net/cronenberg/museum.