Friday, February 6, 2009

Crimes of the Future

Crimes of the Future is, like its predecessor Stereo, an early example of director David Cronenberg's eccentric vision. Made as student films on extremely small budgets, both films betray their economical origins at every point. Unlike Stereo, Crimes is in color rather than black and white, but it shares the earlier film's minimalist aesthetic. Shot silent, the soundtrack consists entirely of a measured, stilted voiceover which appears only at intervals to tell the film's story, interspersed with noisy, crackling industrial soundscapes. The film is abstracted, its narrative willfully obtuse and elliptical. It is set in an unsettling future world in which a mysterious and incurable plague has wiped out most of the adult women, and now seems to be spreading to the men as well. The plague is, as bodily transformations and deformations so often are for Cronenberg, both disturbing and fascinating for its victims: the patients emit strange white (semen-like) foam from their orifices and bleed thick black fluid from their eyes and mouths. These discharges are, for some strange reason, almost irresistibly attractive; anyone who comes across these fluids is seized with an urge to touch them, to smear them across their hands, and to taste them, sensually licking the disease's syrupy discharges from their fingers.

It's apparent that Cronenberg's signature obsessions are almost completely intact even in this early student effort: his conflation of the gross and the sublime; his treatment of abnormal sexuality as both frightening and hypnotically erotic; his fascination with the creation of new worlds, new ways of living, through biological transformations. The world of this film is truly an alien world, a fact that Cronenberg communicates through the strange, slow-moving quality of the narrative, as well as the surreal, nonsensical actions that his characters perform, often with a ritualistic air that only increases further the feeling of something being, somehow, off. The story ostensibly centers around a certain Adrian Tripod (the gaunt, ghostly pale Ronald Mlodzik), a researcher of some kind who wanders from one obscure job to another: the head of a strange dermatological facility called the House of Skin; an observer at an STD clinic where a man has been infected with a disease that causes him to sprout countless bizarre, functionally useless new internal organs, a phenomenon his doctors have deemed a "creative cancer;" a courier whose sole function seems to be ferrying clear plastic bags of socks and underwear back and forth between silent men who solemnly arrange the garments into piles based on obscure criteria.

Tripod, who delivers the film's oddly hesitant voiceover, is less a proper character than a focal point for the weirdness of Cronenberg's images. There's no explanation for the narrator's sudden switches of jobs, nor his decision to fall in with a group of "subversive" pedophiles in the film's final act. It's telling that over the course of the film, his narration changes from the first person to the third person; by the end, he's referring to himself by his full name every time he speaks. Despite his severe appearance, with his pale eggplant-shaped head hovering above his all-black outfits, Tripod's interactions with the many people he meets tend to be sensual, bizarrely erotic. While serving as some kind of foot therapist, Tripod treats a young man who leers at the researcher while Tripod strips off the man's boot and sock and begins caressing and massaging his foot, finally pressing it against his forehead and beginning to vibrate as though electrified. Cronenberg shoots this scene like a homosexual seduction, with the young man reclining back, a knowing smile on his lips, his legs slightly spread, with Tripod kneeling between the other man's outstretched feet.

There's something unsettling about the way Cronenberg deploys gay and feminine iconography here, as markers of strangeness: the recurring image of brightly painted toe- and fingernails, the sensuous embraces between men in a world mostly devoid of women, the way Tripod kisses the cheeks of a dead patient in order to drink up the dried blood that poured out of the corpse's mouth. The film's vision of sexuality is immensely disturbing, and never more so than in the final scenes, when Tripod and his new pedophile allies kidnap a prepubescent girl. Tripod's voiceover calmly discusses the necessity of trying to "impregnate" this girl, who's treated as a test subject, and the scene where Tripod begins stripping while the girl watches, coloring pictures on the floor, is unbelievably creepy and queasy. Cronenberg is walking a tight rope here, verging on exploitation, especially when he cuts to reverse shot closeups of the girl in frankly seductive poses, her fingers twirling through her hair. There's just something icky about the whole thing, something more disturbed than disturbing. One watches a scene like this and is unsettled more by the implications for what went on during filming than by what might happen in the fictional scenario. The scene inevitably triggers unpleasant thoughts of Cronenberg directing this girl to pose in these ways, arranging her gestures and posture to suggest things she couldn't possibly understand herself; it's exploitative and more than a little uncomfortable to watch, in ways entirely different from the discomfort so often generated by Cronenberg's later work.

Even if one ignores, for the moment, the ethical implications of these scenes, Crimes of the Future can't really be called a successful film. It's sporadically interesting for its glimpse into Cronenberg's developing themes and ideas, but it's also often dull and soporific. The film is characterized by long, meandering, near-silent scenes that are often never explained, never developed into a part of a coherent story. There's a dream logic to the film's narrative structure, which switches without warning from one mostly self-contained vignette to the next, and this can be effective at times, producing the odd, hallucinatory quality of the film's most striking images and moments. More often, though, there are long stretches of utter boredom, like the seemingly endless scenes of sock-folding and sorting. The film is undeniably intriguing, and is clearly the foundation for Cronenberg's later work, a laboratory in which he could experiment and develop his unique cinematic obsessions. As a whole, though, it's a flawed and disturbing work best seen as a curiosity of the director's early career.


James Hansen said...

I've been meaning to catch up on these early Cronenberg works for a while he. He's one of my "top dogs" so I should definitely give them a look. Both this and Stereo sound utterly fascinating.

Ed Howard said...

James, any Cronenberg fan should definitely check these out. They're very interesting experiments, with Stereo being the more successful one as a whole. But they definitely point the way towards his later work. It's fascinating to see him working out his signature concerns in such a rough, raw form in these two films.

Unknown said...

Sci-fi can either be about wild ideas or about special effects and sci-fi filmmakers have been straddling this tightrope for decades. While Cronenbergs greatest achivement, 'Videodrome' was a commercial flop, and 'They Came From Within' and 'The Brood' were drive-in exploitation fare a cut above, this is pure ideas, some of which definitely spilled over into his later films as recent as 'A Dangerous Method.' There's no doubt he had the right idea to make mainstream films with the edge found in his earlier work, not unlike the 'straight' non science fiction novels of Philip K. Dick.