Velocity Exhibition

I went to see the new David Cronenberg film Crimes Of The Future. But in the days before I did that, I rewatched the old David Cronenberg film Crimes Of The Future (1970).

Adrian Tripod was a researcher at the dermatological clinic called the House Of Skin. He was under the influence of the scientific impresario Antoine Rouge, who has disappeared in a world where many are afflicted by new illnesses that cause strange vomiting, and there are also new mutant strains of humans appearing.

Tripod narrates his odyssey through a series of mysterious agencies and institutes with increasingly exotic names, failing to reconnect with his mentor in a world of empty corridors and brutalist walkways. There are also obscure political extremists arming themselves with machine guns.

The effect of this deserted urban world is achieved on very low budget by filming in existing bureaucratic edifices when no one is around (if you watch carefully you can see passing traffic reflected in the windows, which doesn’t quite fit the set-up but just couldn’t be avoided).

So now in at the end of the week I travelled to a fancy modern cinema in central London, going up through a maze of escalators and walkways to get to the small auditorium.

Before the main show started, we saw some adverts for other features:

  • Oppenheimer – Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of the life of the nuclear scientist, which definitely won’t be as good as the BBC version from 1980.
  • She Said – the investigation into Harvey Weinstein, turned into a “based on true events” Hollywood version.
  • Hatching – scifi/horror about weird parents and a weird kid who keeps an egg and lots of crashes and bangs eventuate. I expect it turns out the family are aliens passing as humans and the kid is slowly coming to realise.

And so for the new Crimes Of The Future. Only the slightest thematic traces of the earlier film remain.

We start with a boy playing at the water’s edge, examining pieces of floating garbage. In the background is a decaying ocean liner on its side, which may be the same rusty hulk we see in the background in later scenes when Tenser is meeting Cope at night time, and so this is all occurring in a geographically quite small world. The boy, Brecken, is warned by his mum not to eat anything he finds. Their house is quite squalid and unclean, as are all the interiors we see in this world. Inside, we see Brecken cleaning his teeth, and then seemingly goes to spit out the white froth of the watered paste in a plastic bucket; as the camera revolves around it is clear that in fact he is nonchalantly eating the plastic bucket, and the froth is in fact a secretion that somehow enables this. His mum is disturbed by this sight, and soon smothers him to death with a pillow. Then she rings to tell her absent husband what she’s done.

We go to the world of Saul Tenser and his partner Caprice (she must have taken his surname as she doesn’t seem to have her own). She was a trauma surgeon and he was someone she had to treat, but then they discovered their love of surgery for its own aesthetics, and now they work as performance artists, performing surgery to spectators. They have special couch-devices to do this, which all have a quasi-organic form seemingly made from adapted skeletal structures. The surgical couch operates with scalpels at the end of roving arms, controlled from a distance by a squeezy pad in the form of a large shellfish. Auto-surgical beds are of course an old scifi device – Logan’s Run had laser-powered ones that could also do high-speed cosmetic changes with no pain.

Tenser and Caprice’s work is special because Tenser has a strange condition that involves his body producing new organs inside itself, which they remove in their performances. These organs are definitely new organs, not merely tumours (dysfunctional growths). This makes their work specially attractive in a marketplace where surgery-as-entertainment is widespread and almost passe. There are scenes in which many specimens of the Idle Rich (it is unclear exactly how wealth is created or accumulated in this world) decadently have their bodies incised and reshaped.

The surgical performance pair attract the attention of several other agents. Firstly there is the new Department of Organ Registration, which is Wippet (Don McKellar) and Timlin (Kristen Stewart) working from a 1940s private detective’s office, full of filing cabinets and box files. They have to take on the job of tracking and cataloging the anatomical novelties being discovered regularly. But there are also resistance movements operating in this country, though it is unclear precisely why they want to resist such a soft-touch regulatory regime. It seems the underground movement led by Lang Dotrice are keen on having special implants so that humans can consume their own plastic waste, and for reasons he can’t explain he managed to have the child Brecken who was able to digest plastic with the internals he was born with, no need for technical augmentation. Dotrice wants the pair to perform a public autopsy on the cadaver of the smothered boy; this causes Caprice to raise ethical concerns, since performance art still requires notions of consent. She also has aesthetic concerns about dissection and analysis (she compares it to a literature professor’s actions on a poem) but that would apply just as well to all her previous work with Tenser.

As all these different agencies and actors spy on each other, a lesbian couple who pose as a technical support crew for the body-enhancing machines are going around assassinating some of the troublemakers that Tenser attracts. Their preferred method of killing seems to be using electric drills, presumably a homage to the “video nasty” Driller Killer.

In some ways this is a simply a giant collage of all the ideas and imagery Cronenberg has worked with over the past 40 years. The fluidity of bodies and their representations, and the representation of torture and violence as decadent entertainment was in Videodrome. The secret agencies and their concerns for rebels and rebel intoxicants and ingestants were in his version of Naked Lunch; extreme sexual violence was in his Crash. Strange surgical implements first appeared in Dead Ringers, and the weird biomechnical constructions from bone and gristle were in eXistenZ. The strange institutions operating at the end of the world and the edge of human biology are from early Ballard stories, in particular the ones collected in The Four Dimensional Nightmare.

Something that has gone missing from the early Ballard is any sense of humour: the world of “The Sound Sweep” was based on a little jest about modern music becoming so advanced that it would be totally silent; this develops into a sad and sentimental tale about a marginal man on the side of this great wave of progress. In Crimes Of The Future there is a great comic idea as the Department propose an Inner Beauty Pageant to celebrate these new organs-without-bodies that they are having to register. That’s really a premise for a Cronenberg parody skit, but Cronenberg himself has captured it, drained it of blood and denatured it so that every line is said in the same gloomily half-hearted portentous style as all his other dialogue. There are moments when these tough serious guys talk like tough serious guys in more straightforward Hollywood fare, and I don’t know why because there are no threats or stimuli to do so in a fool’s paradise where they don’t have too much trouble surviving in dingy conditions. Brecken’s mum works in a launderette but that’s the only time anyone has a productive job, in contrast to the creative class, the state bureaucracy, and the sad plutocrats.

The underlying symbolic structure, as with Cronenberg’s other films, is the tale of Adam and Eve. Adam is the Brilliant Man who is tempted by the transgressive female – she comes to regret her actions too late, after she has destroyed his mind with the possibilities of secret knowledge and changing forms. It is not a version of the myth of Prometheus, as no new creative energies or natural powers are unleashed, simply new forms of entertainment and new dimensions of egoism. It is its own brand of entertainment, like the Star Wars films. But it looks nice if you like broken-down things and incongruous mixing of old and new devices. This style was also done very well in Tim Burton’s Batman, which also featured a body advancing into a new form with new technological enhancement.

At one point Tenser and Caprice are challenged as to how their art could compare with the work of Picasso, Duchamp or Francis Bacon. Those artists were all interested in technology creating new possibilities for creating images and depicting motion. Eadward Muybridge’s films were very important to at least one of them, and so I have put some of his work at the top as I don’t have any stills from the new movie.

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