Wednesday, May 18, 2011

THE DAVIDS: MASTERS OF CEREBRAL HORROR

Over the years we frequently hear horror fans and film critics comment on a vague sense of similarity between visionary film directors David Cronenberg and David Lynch, but we never encountered a significant comparative analysis to explain why. In hopes of stimulating a more thoughtful look at the two filmmakers, we will discuss some of their basic similarities, some of their basic differences, and briefly compare several of their films to each other. We also propose a series of double features that you can watch at home to take advantage of the Davids' oddly poignant similarities, while contrasting beautifully their differences in style.

David Cronenberg's Cameo as a Physician in
The Fly (1986)
Directors David Cronenberg and David Lynch share the following things in common:
  1. Their first name.
  2. Their strong stomach for dark, disturbing, and frequently gory dramatic material.
  3. Their masterful ability to direct the finest performances in several great actors' careers.
  4. Their penchant for making psychologically rich films that only improve on repeat viewings.
  5. And their unique directing style that results in innovative, cathartic horror films that transcend all expectations for the genre.
David Lynch's Cameo as FBI Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole in
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)
But in spite of these rare points of intersection, the two artists differ from each other in the following ways:
  1. Cronenberg's films tend to take place in a recognizably concrete reality, grounded in an objective temporal realm. Lynch's films tend to take place in an abstract plane of reality, afloat in a subjective spiritual realm.
  2. Cronenberg emphasizes his characters' physical actions and focuses on revealing characters' mental states through manifestations of their physical bodies. Lynch emphasizes his characters' spiritual actions (or consciousness) and focuses his attention on revealing the internal thought processes of their minds.
  3. Cronenberg's narratives tend to be more straightforward with easy-to-follow, relatively simple plots. Lynch's narratives tend to be more ambiguous with frequently difficult-to-follow, somewhat convoluted plots.
  4. Cronenberg frequently boils down complex character issues into sequences and scenes simple to understand intellectually. Lynch frequently expands on seemingly simple character issues through the use of abstract sequences that are complex to understand intellectually, but more easily understood emotionally.
  5. Cronenberg's movies tend to appeal more to the left hemisphere of our brains, or the analytical and controlled side of our psyches. Lynch's movies tend to appeal more to the right hemisphere of our brains, the creative and free side of our psyches.
You could challenge these categorizations by drawing our attention to Cronenberg's highly stylized and abstract Naked Lunch (1990) and expressionistic Spider (2002), or point out Lynch's grounded and body-centric work in The Elephant Man (1980) and relatively linear Dune (1984), but we are simply summarizing some basic principles of the Davids' oeuvres, not attempting to pigeonhole these complex filmmakers into boxes. Exceptions clearly exist for each of our preceding generalizations, but a fair comparison of the two director's overall bodies of work supports these broad classifications.
Raphael Illustrates the Philosophers' Differences of Opinion by Painting Plato (in Red) Pointing Toward the Spiritual Realm of Ideas, While Aristotle (in Blue) Points Down at the Earth, Where He Feels Man's Attention Should be Focused
We will compare the Davids to another interesting pair of men: Plato and Aristotle. The two Greek philosophers were undisputed geniuses in their time, providing fundamental research that helped propel the world toward greater enlightenment, the founding of democratic republics, the beginning of the scientific method, and a greater emphasis on ethics. They also inspired countless numbers of artists through the ages, seriously influencing the way we view and study art to this day. Aristotle was one of the first people on record to analytically study live-performance plays, providing the foundation for the very article you are reading.
David Lynch: "The first thing is the Kingdom of Heaven. And when you dive withinand you become part of the lightyou're reaching that place. And it's a wonderful, wonderful thing."
David Cronenberg: "My movies are body conscious. The first fact of human existence is the human body. The more you get away from physical reality, you're fudging in fantasy land, not coming to grips with what violence does."
But in spite of these ancient philosophers having so much in common, including a common interest in the teachings and mentoring of Socrates, the two men differed wildly on some fundamental principles of how they should best use their abilities to reason and how the mysteries of the universe could best be unlocked for deeper study. To paraphrase Terrence Malick's Tree of Life (2011), there are two separate ways men can live their lives: the way of grace and the way of nature. Generally speaking, Plato sided with the way of grace and Aristotle sided with the way of nature.
Michelangelo's Centerpiece of His Mural on the Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel Depicts a Bridge Between the Temporal and Spiritual Realms, Where the Mortal and Eternal Meet: Where Body and Mind are One
Do the differences between these two philosophers signify one is superior to the other? Not necessarily, although people frequently gravitate to one philosopher's approach over the other. Likewise, the differences between the Davids guarantee unique artistic outputs, each director engaging and challenging us on a slightly different level. Like Plato and Aristotle before them, the Davids' combined talents help increase our understanding of the human condition, contributing in some measure to our ultimate goal of overcoming Cartesian Dualism by making a psychoanalytic integration of our bodies and minds.
David Cronenberg Setting Up a Shot on the Set of A History of Violence (2005)
Plenty of room exists for both men to occupy their own niches in the film industry. So while their films may complement each other, neither could ever substitute for the other. Perhaps you prefer the films of one director over the other, but chances are if you like the work of one David, then you will at least appreciate the films of the other. Cronenberg and Lynch make films remarkably similar in tone and theme, if not always in the particulars of their approach to revealing plot and character.
David Lynch Setting Up a Shot on the Set of The Elephant Man (1980)
We are writing this article to promote greater awareness and respect for the two Davids, each of whom is a master of cerebral (or intellectual) horror, and whose experimental film-making techniques have advanced the art of cinema to greater heights in the last 35 years. And in the process of comparing their bodies of work, we discovered some interesting parallels between their films. In fact, many of Cronenberg's and Lynch's movies are so complementary that we propose the following 10 David Double Features:

DAVID DOUBLE FEATURE #1
A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (2005) and TWIN PEAKS (1990-91)
What kind of secrets could people be hiding in your small town? You might be surprised by what you discover about your friends, neighbors, even family members. The Davids explore this and other powerful themes in their two popular and critically acclaimed works: Cronenberg's A History of Violence (2005) and Lynch's TV Series Twin Peaks (1990-91) and his later prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), which are our favorite projects from the Davids' careers. The Davids balance on a precarious line between horror and drama in these stories better than anyone, yet without ever sacrificing their unique senses of humor in the process.
Viggo Mortensen Plays Tom Stall, a Loving Husband and Father Whose Life Changes After an Act of Heroism Propels Him into the National Spotlight in Cronenberg's A History of Violence (2005)
Watching the brilliant Twin Peaks Pilot should be sufficient to make our point, in case you are not ready for a marathon to watch all of its mostly brilliant 30 episode run and prequel film in their entirety. Regardless of how many Peaks episodes you watch as part of this double feature with A History of Violence, you are in for an amazing night filled with startling revelations as the central protagonists learn to fight evil, whether in others or within themselves.

A History of Violence (2005) Trailer

Twin Peaks (1990-91) Trailer

DAVID DOUBLE FEATURE #2
EASTERN PROMISES (2007) and MULHOLLAND DR. (2001)
Aside from the Davids being at the top of their game when crafting these masterpieces, the two films are also connected by a lead actress: Naomi Watts. These films explore what happens when a good woman inadvertently finds herself sinking into a dark and twisted underworld laden with dangerous mysteries and mafia conspiracies. Both were extremely successful films for the Davids and help contrast their styles clearly, and each film arguably represents the epitome of each director's craft. Cronenberg's Eastern Promises (2007) and Lynch's Mulholland Dr. (2001) will entertain and shock you with their sophistication and raw cinematic power. You are in for a night of dramatic entertainment at its best.

Eastern Promises (2007) Trailer

Mulholland Dr. (2001) Trailer

DAVID DOUBLE FEATURE #3
THE FLY (1986) and THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980)
These films were the Davids' breakout successes, finally earning them big money at the box office and their first Academy Award nominations. To this day, Cronenberg's The Fly (1986) and Lynch's The Elephant Man (1980) are the most financially successful feature films of their careers. And both films just happen to be produced by the legendary comedic filmmaker Mel Brooks, who is best known for directing movies like Young Frankenstein (1974) and Spaceballs (1987). In their films, the Davids take supremely different approaches to a central theme of body-centric horror, staying true to their particular niche and tastes.
Mel Brooks Directs and Stars in The History of the World: Part I (1981)
Plato: "It's beautiful that in spite of The Elephant Man's rejection by his mother, he still loved her and longed to see her again in heaven."
Aristotle: "But I felt a stronger catharsis in The Fly when Seth Brundle comes to grips with how he has become a monster and decides to die rather than hurt anyone else."
The Fly explores the more gory side of horror as we see a scientist changed after an unsuccessful experiment. The Elephant Man, on the other hand, delves into a more restrained side of horror that taps into a realistic portrayal of Joseph Merrick's life who was deformed from birth, a movie mimicking more closely the form of a drama than a conventional horror movie. But both are powerhouse films about bizarre physical deformities, both are heartbreaking in the best kind of way, and they are frequently hailed as the Davids' best mainstream films. You are in for an emotional roller coaster with these dramatically weighty films.

The Fly (1986) Trailer

The Elephant Man (1980) Trailer

DAVID DOUBLE FEATURE #4
VIDEODROME (1983) and BLUE VELVET (1986)
Both films follow a leading man protagonist who becomes increasingly involved in questionable activities until he finds himself sinking lower into an exciting mystery that turns into a frightening underworld bubbling just below the surface of their home towns. Cronenberg's Videodrome (1983) leans to science fiction and Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986) is more of a mystery-drama hybrid, but both films will engage you on a deeper level than normally attempted by most established filmmakers. Be patient with some of the more disturbing scenes, which can be naturally off-putting at first. These master filmmakers have expertly crafted a path for us, but be prepared for a dark journey ahead. At the end of the day, we promise the destination will be meaningful and worth the trip.

Videodrome (1983) Trailer

Blue Velvet (1986) Trailer

DAVID DOUBLE FEATURE #5
DEAD RINGERS (1988) and INLAND EMPIRE (2006)
Identity is an elusive, ever shifting thing in these two psychologically disturbing movies. And like Naomi Watts, who starred in both films of our Mulholland Dr. and Eastern Promises double bill, here Jeremy Irons is now prominently featured. Starring in Cronenberg's Dead Ringers (1988), Irons delivers one of finest lead performances as twin siblings on film, and co-starring in a supporting role as a Lynchian director in Lynch's meta-marvel Inland Empire (2006). Although these films are depressing compared to our other double features, you will still find yourself deeply absorbed by these unconventional stories that take very stark twists and turns. You are in for a fascinatingly nightmarish and horrific night as characters give way to compulsions and become slaves to addiction, their lives spiraling out of control.

Dead Ringers (1988) Trailer

Inland Empire (2006) Trailer

DAVID DOUBLE FEATURE #6
SCANNERS (1981) and DUNE (1983)
On the surface, these films might seem almost conventional compared to the Davids' other films, but both filmmakers bring subtlety and nuance to these science fiction projects that propel them into a higher strata of excellence. Some criticize these as the less artistic works of the Davids, but we disagree. Cronenberg's low-budget Scanners (1981) and Lynch's big-budget Dune (1984) are science fiction masterpieces, belying their fantastical elements with a weighty sense of realism not seen in the genre since Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). You are in for a mind-expanding night as you watch some of the most straightforward yet incredible films of the Davids' careers.

Scanners (1981) Trailer

Dune (1984) Trailer

DAVID DOUBLE FEATURE #7
THE DEAD ZONE (1983) and THE STRAIGHT STORY (1999)
Cane-carrying protagonists in small-town America make difficult sacrifices to do the right thing before they die. Okay, we admit we are stretching the parallels between these two films slightly, but they are both the most underrated movies on the Davids' resumes and are also among their very best. Both films should have been mainstream successes, but likely due to poor marketing, both films underperformed at the box office. Cronenberg's thriller The Dead Zone (1983) and Lynch's Disney family-drama The Straight Story (1999) feature interesting and complex characters and are probably their most enjoyable and satisfying mainstream films. You are in for a deeply moving and inspirational night.

The Dead Zone (1983) Trailer


The Straight Story (1999) Trailer

DAVID DOUBLE FEATURE #8
EXISTENZ (1999) and WILD AT HEART (1990)
Two bizarre road trip movies in which romantically entangled couples run away from assassins and encounter the oddest rogues galleries you will find in major motion pictures. Although Cronenberg's eXistenZ (1999) leans to science fiction and Lynch's Wild at Heart (1990) is centrally geared for dark humor, both films follow a man and woman who pair up to seek escape from a disturbing and mysterious threat. And as Naomi Watts and Jeremy Irons were common threads in two of our previous double features, both of tonight's films feature a brilliant supporting performance by Willem Dafoe, who plays a charismatic yet frighteningly dangerous man in two bizarrely entertaining roles. You are in for a wild and crazy night!

eXistenZ (1999) Trailer

Wild at Heart (1990) Trailer


DAVID DOUBLE FEATURE #9
SPIDER (2002) and LOST HIGHWAY (1997)
These are the Davids' most expressionistic films, although one could argue that distinction for Lynch's Eraserhead (1976), too. But here the Davids explore how psychological evasion, willful ignorance, and wishful thinking can eventually lead to sheer madness. Cronenberg's Spider (2002) and Lynch's Lost Highway (1997) ratchet up their central characters' subjectivity to the nth degree, making these films feel strangely sparse and lonely. Most the Davids' films are about complex people, but these particular films are structured to mimic the way their central characters think. So prepare yourself for a disturbingly contemplative and deeply introspective night, because things are about to get stranger than usual. And for the Davids, that is saying something.

Spider (2002) Trailer

Lost Highway (1997) Trailer

DAVID DOUBLE FEATURE #10
SHIVERS [THEY CAME FROM WITHIN] (1975) and ERASERHEAD (1976)
We are going to end our double features the way the Davids began, by watching their first feature films. To watch these two masters in utero artistically (in more ways than one) is truly something bizarre to behold. Their innate creativity bleeds through every frame and a sense of awe sinks in as you realize what the two filmmakers must have done to overcome their financial constraints when making these low-budget horror classics. Cronenberg's Shivers [They Came from Within] (1975) and Lynch's Eraserhead (1976) are connected creatively by a deep fear humans have of the frequently nightmarish consequences of illicit sexual behavior. You are in for a bizarre, absurd, and frightening night.

Shivers [They Came from Within] (1975) Trailer
Eraserhead (1976) Trailer

SUMMARY
Socrates
Aristotle
Plato
After watching these 10 David Double Features, the similarities between David Cronenberg and David Lynch should become clearly definable to you, helping to explain the vague sense of deja vu you feel of the one director when watching the films of the other. The stories these two men choose to film are often remarkably similar in strangely specific ways. And while many mainstream directors seem to homogenize their originality and style over time, the Davids each remain as original and unique today as they were when they first began making films over 35 years ago.
Mel Brooks
David Cronenberg
David Lynch

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6 comments:

  1. A retrospect on the career of David Cronenberg ala Lynch's(35 years) is something to look forward to.

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  2. Fantastic article. Well-written, enjoyable, and (most importantly) interesting. I'm a fan of both filmmakers, but have never thought to link them...makes perfect sense.

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  3. Is true!!!! I love them both....equally. And now i know why:))))

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  4. It's funny because it's true

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  5. David HollingsworthJune 1, 2011 at 12:02 PM

    They are already two of my favorite directors, and this article give a whole new meaning to why they are.

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  6. 2 of my favourite directors...a very well thought out and written piece. I have loved them both for years...Videodrome being my fav piece by Croney.

    Have just taken delivery of the Criterion BR disc of Videodrome...so I can't wait to view!

    I do enjoy their use of body dysmorphia.

    As for Mel Brooks...someone give him an award or something for bank rolling The Elephant Man and therefore allowing Lynch to flourish...I really think Mel's offer to David on that film, will be remembered as one of the most important in all of cinema.

    Thanks for the great blog.

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