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MOVIES : Out to Lunch With the Guru of Gross-Out : David Cronenberg says the only way he could be faithful to William S. Burroughs' celebrated 'Naked Lunch' on film was to betray it

January 05, 1992|GENE SEYMOUR | Gene Seymour is a writer for New York Newsday

For what Cronenberg says are "the usual complicated and boring reasons," "Dead Zone" wasn't "distributed as well as it could have been when it was released. It's shown a lot on cable now and that's made up for a lot."

With "The Fly," produced by Mel Brooks' film company and distributed by 20th Century Fox in 1986, Cronenberg's directorial image began to undergo considerable upgrading.

Many of the rave reviews went directly to Jeff Goldblum for his performance as the scientist who accidentally turns himself into a giant fly. Yet the film was also an apotheosis of some artistic concerns Cronenberg has sustained from the beginning of his career.

In "Shivers," for instance, one of the victims of the parasite talks about a dream she had in which an old man is making love to her. "He's old and dying and he smells bad. And I find him repulsive. But you know what he said to me? He said everything is erotic, everything is sexual. He tells me even old flesh is erotic. That disease is the love of two alien kinds of creatures for each other. That even dying is an act of eroticism. That breathing is sexual. Talking is sexual. Even physical existence is sexual." In other words, what repulses some can be transcendent for others.

Like his fellow Canadian, Marshall McLuhan, Cronenberg doesn't explain these ideas so much as explore them. The erotic is, for Cronenberg, just one route for physical, emotional or mental transformation, and for Goldblum's hitherto gawky scientist, a heightened sexuality is just one of the dubious benefits of his change.

'In 'The Fly,' the disease I was talking about was aging," Cronenberg says. "That's the disease we are all born with. AIDS is another possibility and that's been suggested here and there by others. But aging, for sure. Nobody's written us a way out of that one yet.

"So as a compressed version of aging where you see this guy change into a giant fly, you kind of have to decide whether you are, in fact, a lesser version of what you were before or are you, in fact, a neater version of an entirely different thing. And dealing with this question forces you to create your own reality, which is something I deal with in 'Naked Lunch' and other films. That you are capable, by force of will and perception and understanding of entering a whole new reality."

Another less exotic but no less bizarre transformation takes place in "Dead Ringers," in which twin gynecologists, played by Jeremy Irons, both become romantically involved with the same woman (Bujold). One of them gets addicted, first to her and then to drugs, causing him to deteriorate physically and emotionally. His brother, feeling responsible, follows him into addiction and, then, death.

Drawn from the novel, "Twins," which was based on the real-life case of New York twin doctors Cyril and Stewart Marcus, Cronenberg, as is his habit, moved the setting to Toronto and aligned the story to fit his own concerns with the mind-body schism, the nature of disease and how risky the pursuit of perfection can be without self-knowledge.

As with "The Fly," many critics were moved to praise the performance of "Ringers' " lead actor. But the Los Angeles Times' Sheila Benson said that "Ringers" "announces David Cronenberg's full maturity as a major director. Not a science-fantasy director or a hyphenate of any other description."

Non-hyphenate or not, one suspects Cronenberg will always retain a kind of perverse joy-buzzer instinct for goosing our nerve endings, for jolting our senses. In "Naked Lunch," for instance, typewriters become twitching, mucus-secreting insects that, by the way, talk. He has his reasons for doing this kind of stuff. And they, well, sound reasonable enough.

"Basically," he says, "I'm trying to change your aesthetic response to these so-called repulsive, disgusting things. And it's just like my response to insects. I mean, most people find insects disgusting. They don't want to know about them. Step on 'em, throw 'em away. And I've always thought insects were beautiful and fascinating since I was a kid. And I'm trying to convey that kind of thinking in other areas. And yet some critics insist on seeing it as revulsion on my part. I keep saying that the revulsion is theirs, not mine."

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