Crimes of the Future 1970 + 2022 and the polymorphically perverse career of David Cronenberg
"In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art."
— Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation
Is David Cronenberg the greatest living English-language filmmaker? Forging an unmistakably singular, polymorphically perverse career now in its sixth decade, it’s a status hard to dispute — his fellow David Lynch may have the edge on perversity, but not polymorphism. Yet, that perversity extends even to the sometimes uneven quality of Cronenberg’s filmography, with the extraordinary, disturbing, newly released Crimes of the Future serving as something like a summation of his career to date, coming eight years after his arguably worst film, 2014’s sour, pedestrian Hollywood “satire” Maps to the Stars.
Beginning with dystopian, resourceful experimental works shot silently and with discomfiting soundtracks added later in post-production, Cronenberg eventually came to prominence as a horror filmmaker with his first truly feature-length film, 1975’s Shivers (released in the U.S. as It Came from Within). Although he is rightly tagged as a pioneering practitioner of what’s come to be called “body horror” in cinema, this designation obscures both the wide variety of films and approaches which fall under that rubric, as well as Cronenberg’s work well beyond such a classification.
Very notably, Cronenberg has, in a manner which resembles many of his films’ protagonists and their own mutations, proven to be a masterful director of adaptations from a wide variety of sources, ranging from horror standard-bearers (his versions of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone and the 1959 classic The Fly), theater (M. Butterfly, A Dangerous Method), graphic novels (A History of Violence), and, most revealingly, a series of novels distinctive for their compulsive, subversive qualities (William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, J.G. Ballard’s Crash, Patrick McGrath’s Spider, Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis). It is this literary sensibility, in conjunction with an inimitable, unconventional narrative vitality, that ultimately distinguishes Cronenberg from his peers, putting him in striking distance of Ballard’s own cool disposition towards the revolutionary, libidinous potential of pathology(1).
The new Crimes of the Future arrives in 2022 as something of a triple-recollection — its title taken from Cronenberg’s second experimental work from 1970, the new film based on a screenplay which he insists was written in the late ’90s and shot in 2021 without updating, and one which contains a number of recurring themes and tropes which he has explored throughout his career — to create something quite new in his oeuvre: a metaphor for his own sensibility and artistic practice, something touched on but never before explored as comprehensively or rigorously as new film. In addition, the political ramifications of that practice are given a rare, serious, albeit elusive, contemplation.
Yet, for all of the discussion around the new film, it’s odd how little examination there has been of the connections between the latest film and its experimental namesake, ones which extend well beyond their shared title. The just over an hour-long 1970 original shares some significant, disturbing ideas and themes with the latest film, as well as ones that reveal resonances — thematic, sociocultural, erotic, biomorphic — which redound throughout Cronenberg’s career.
“Sex times technology equals the future.”
— J.G. Ballard
Although not exactly a thrillfest, Crimes ’70 is a provocative work with much to recommend it, not least its impressive leveraging of limited resources, beginning with its lead and narrator, Ronald Mlodzik. With his cowl-collared wardrobe, shoulder-length locks and vaguely Victorian features, glasses and besotted, quasi-aristocratic line readings, Mlodzik perfectly conveys the louche, anachronistic (in its broadest definition of being entirely outside of any time) sense of depravity pervading this earlier Crimes. The film’s other significant resource — almost a character in its own right — is its location: the then-newly constructed campus of the University of Toronto’s Massey College, its Brutalist concrete expanses handily registering, then as now, as “the future,” albeit one surrounded by downtown Toronto residential neighborhoods.
Here, as in most Cronenberg films, the world and its bizarre particulars are well thought-out though only disclosed in degrees and never in their entirety — much is revealed, but far from everything is explained. Mlodzik identifies himself as Adrian Tripod (one among countless gauche surnames to be found in Cronenberg’s work), casually moving between first- to third-person narration, yet another evocative, slippery touch to be found in Cronenberg’s writing here and elsewhere.
In what passes for exposition in Crimes ’70, Tripod indicates early on that he is:
“…the Director of this place: The House of Skin. In a sense, my present incarnation was generated by the mad dermatologist, Antoine Rouge. The House of Skin began its existence as a residential clinic for wealthy patients who were treated for severely pathological skin conditions induced by contemporary cosmetics(2). Antoine Rouge, who at the time, was considered little more than a gifted technician, seized control of the House many years ago and guided it towards a more fantastic species of research.”
This earlier Crimes abounds with such exalted, warped voiceovers, which occasionally find a rhyme or echo in the newer work. Although the mise en scène largely remains unchanged throughout, Tripod’s own narrative arc makes him out to be something of a job-hopper, as he moves from position to position at one unlikely, speculative organization after another: e.g., therapist at the “Oceanic Podiatry Group” (bracketed by scenes of Tripod bringing bare feet to his forehead in presumed acts of sexually suggestive podiatric telepathy), a “minor intramural courier” at “Metaphysical Import-Export,” etc.
The narration rarely syncs smoothly with the visuals, superbly and fluidly shot in 35mm by Cronenberg himself. Crimes ’70 also features what might be the most radical soundtrack of his career, one that is not credited to but would appear to be Cronenberg’s own work, as well. The audio seems to be sourced and expanded from location recordings, transformed into occasionally unsettling noise, a musique concrète of the condition endeavored to be mapped by the film: intellectually, visually and very much acoustically.
The most direct connection between Crimes ’70 and ’22 is a subsequent mini-plot that seems to foretell not only the condition of Viggo Mortenson’s character in the new film but a nearly rapturous disposition towards disease and the body’s own inexplicable fecundity, manifesting from infection through libido and beyond, a fascination that winds its way throughout Cronenberg’s filmography — especially those drawn, as in both Crimes films, from his own original screenplays.
Following along Tripod’s career path, he notes: “It is perhaps natural that, in my present confusion, I should find my way to the Institute of Neo-Venereal Disease. In the exhilarating days of the Rougeian administration, there was much collaboration between the House and this institute. My former colleague has somehow withdrawn. He himself has contracted a species of venereal disease from one of his patients. He was once a fierce sensualist but he has now become a pure metaphysician.” He sounds like a quintessential Cronenberg character.
Tripod continues: “His body has begun to create puzzling organs. Each one very complex, very perfect, unique yet seemingly without function. As each is surgically removed, it is quickly replaced by another equally mysterious.” It is precisely this syndrome from which Mortenson’s character Saul Tenser suffers in the latest Crimes, and he’s not alone. As suggested, this earlier scene and the removed organs placed in fluid-filled jars on display is the fons et orgio of Cronenberg’s decades-long exploration of “body horror,” and one that reveals it to be physiological, psychological, and, in yet another correspondence with Crimes ’22, cosmological. As Tripod further observes regarding his former colleague: “His body, he insists, is a galaxy. And these creatures (i.e. his auto-generated organs) are solar systems.” When, in the new film, a murdered child who suffered from what would appear to be a variant of Rouge’s Malady is about to undergo a public autopsy, Tenser asks the child’s mother (spoiler alert: and murderer) what she expects will be found — her terse reply: “Outer space.”
Children factor powerfully in the scenarios for both the earlier and current Crimes, and, in appropriately Cronenbergian manner, in ways that maximize an audience’s discomfort. There is the implication in the earlier work that Rouge’s Malady has killed hundreds of thousands of women, leaving a potentially barren society similar to the one posited in The Handsmaid’s Tale. Tripod falls in with “conspirators” who he claims are also “heterosexual pedophiles” who attempt to artificially induce puberty in a young girl.
These closing scenes, although by no means explicit, are enormously disturbing for their implications. And the swirling metaphors of birth to be found in both films and specifically the conclusion of Crimes ’70 find their diametric opposite in the opening scenes of Crimes ’22, which present the aforementioned child’s filicide at the hands of his mother.
"You have two choices…stay behind with carbon and hydrogen, take your lunch bucket into the works every morning with the faceless droves who can’t wait to get in out of the sunlight—or move beyond… move beyond life, toward the inorganic. Here is no frailty, no mortality—here is Strength, and the Timeless."
— Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow
Although never spelled out exactly, humanity has clearly endured some disaster for which there is plentiful if ambiguous evidence at the opening of Crimes ’22. Huge ocean liners are all resting on their sides in the bay of an unnamed country (although the occasional signage reveals it to be Greece) where we find young Brecken (Sozos Sotiris) digging in the sand by the shore, where his mother Djuna (Lihi Kornowski) warns him “I don't want you eating anything you find in there.”
Later that evening, after brushing his teeth, Brecken takes the plastic garbage can below the bathroom sink and begins calmly taking bites out of it. After he has gone to sleep, and with clear apprehension, Djuna suffocates the boy with a pillow. She then calls an unknown person on a 90’s-era analog phone with an antenna: “I want you to tell Lang that if he's interested in picking up the corpse of that creature he calls his son... Yes, yes, I mean the Brecken thing.” Lang Dotrice (a nervy, engaged Scott Speedman) arrives to find Brecken’s corpse, breaking down in tears.
We then find Tenser waking in a bed that resembles a huge, animatronic tick, twitching erratically as Tenser is woken by his artistic and romantic partner, Caprice (a magnificent Léa Seydoux). “I think this bed needs new software,” Tenser remarks, “It's not anticipating my pain anymore.” This pain — and his body’s autogenerative organofacture — mark Tenser as unique in this new world where we are told pain and infections have miraculously disappeared.
Tenser and Caprice are performance artists whose work is based around Tenser’s organo-prolificacy. As new organs are created by Tenser’s body, they are tattooed internally and then carefully removed in performance by Caprice. The tattooing is mandated by what remains of the state for all organs being inexplicably created in many people’s bodies, a process transmuted into a new artform that also happens to satisfy the state’s new requirement. It’s a pas de deux, realized by the LifeFormWare legacy autopsy unit, the Sark, which Caprice refers to as her “paintbrush,” with Tenser serving simultaneously as co-author, dance partner and canvas.
Tenser and Caprice pay a visit to the National Organ Registry, little more than a dusty, nondescript office notable for its file cabinets, unorganized boxes and the almost complete absence of any digital technology, beyond an organ examination unit (the absence of the digital in the film’s new world implies that whatever transpired was appreciably disastrous). It also seems to employ only two individuals, who also happen to be my favorite characters in the film: the extroverted, gushing director Wippett and his assistant, the nervous, repressed, concupiscent Timlin (Don McKellar and Kristen Stewart, respectively and equally brilliant). They review Caprice’s own portfolio of drawings detailing Tenser’s various organ manifestations — “We call it the Tenser Organography,” Timlin later notes, because of course she does — while submitting to an internal probe via the examination unit mentioned above.
This scene, like nearly every other interior scene in the new Crimes, takes place in markedly unsanitary conditions: walls are peeling, no equipment is sterilized and — for those looking for direct references to previous Cronenberg films — buzzing flies regularly swarm across the stereo spread of the soundtrack. It’s one more unexplained manifestation of a world without infection; watching the new Crimes coming at the end of a COVID pandemic that remains contagious makes this aspect of the film’s speculative post-disaster setting play out like wish fulfillment. As such, Tenser and Caprice’s performances seem to be very much of their time and place; but, are they art? Cronenberg is glad you asked.
In my favorite scene of the film, the very nature of Tenser and others’ unnatural organic fertility is challenged, both in his and Caprice’s case as a species of performance art but also as a process beyond Tenser’s (and, by implication, others’) control. Brought in for an interrogation by their law enforcement colleague in the New Vice Unit(3), Detective Cope (Welket Bungué) cuts to the chase: “How can a tumorous growth be considered art? Where is the emotional shaping, the philosophical understanding, which is basic to all art?” He stands and lifts his shirt: “I have a lump on my abdomen. You see it? Picasso? Duchamp?” He pauses: “Francis Bacon, perhaps?” That line elicited a loud cackle from me in an otherwise quiet theater.
Timlin rises to Tenser and Caprice’s defense: “He takes the rebellion of his own body and seizes control of it. Shapes it, tattoos it, displays it, creates theater out of it. It has meaning, very potent meaning, and many, many people respond to it.” When Tenser and Caprice’s performance routine is described, Cope is even more dismissive: “Looks to me as though Caprice is the artist. Tenser is just a glorified organ donor.” Wippet disagrees: “We believe, that on a certain level, perhaps a subconscious one, Saul Tenser wills these new organs to grow.”
Evolution as a triumph of the will? The metaphorical richness of Tenser and Caprice’s art practice is almost an ancillary pleasure in Crimes ‘22 — willed or no, the “neo-organ” generation and artwork developed around it take place in a fallen world where human will and its toxic manifestations are destined to conjoin. And the character of Tenser has still more aspects that resist easy compartmentalizing; we soon discover that Cope knows him quite well, as Tenser is a police informant. But what he chooses to conceal from Cope reveals a great deal about him, particularly after Dotrice approaches Tenser with an idea for a different kind of performance: an actual autopsy on Brecken, which Dotrice believes will reveal to the world an even newer species of humanity, one which finds nourishment and sustenance from poisonously inorganic materials.
What does it say about Cronenberg and how he views himself and his career that the character who most resembles him in his filmography is a stoolie mutant, one who suffers pain during his sleep in a waking pain-free world and whose solution to his existential quandary is to make art out of it? It’s too much to suggest Cronenberg is personally suffering guilt as some sort of “sellout” or agent of the state — yet it’s also revealing that, given the exhilaration to be found in his characters’ biological transformations throughout his oeuvre, Cronenberg strikes a cautionary note with Tenser. “What I'm saying with that ‘body-art stuff,’” he chides a skeptical Cope, “is that I don't like what's happening with the body. In particular, what's happening with my body, which is why I keep cutting it up.”
Or, rather, Caprice does, and Seydoux’s warm, generous performance brings a sympathetic, humanistic quality to Crimes ’22 not always found in Cronenberg’s past work. The aspect of collaboration, a shared commitment both romantic and artistic, is also a welcome, expansive conception in marked contrast from his more clinical past (or indeed present) work.
“Surgery is the new sex,” as Timlin’s now somewhat famous line from the film maintains, is an act that requires an actor, and someone to be acted upon. In itself, surgery seems to possess an inevitably dominant-submissive dynamic, and one could easily see how Cronenberg might find that to be a stimulating aspect of the film. But it’s telling that Tenser and Caprice’s relationship regularly upends who is in charge at any given moment. And in the film’s one sex scene between the two, taking place in the Sark as robotically-controlled scalpels make small incisions all over their naked bodies, an audience gets a sense of their shared, kinky cooperative relationship as its own creative act — and sex, new or old, is, after all, the original creative act, although Tenser confesses to Timlin when she attempts to seduce him that he’s “just not very good at the old sex.”
Cutting, in a world without pain, becomes another act of will, as self-defining as tattoos. And the impact on social mores of this mysteriously afflicted world is established in baffling scenes like a post-performance afterparty, where a well-dressed woman marvels as she carves up her foot or our first view of Dotrice after he discovers his son’s corpse, where he and another man hold a woman at knifepoint on a city street. Cronenberg doesn’t try to create a smooth integration of such narrative provocations, an approach that seems to run counter to Caprice’s own aesthetic.
Asked if there is a name for Tenser’s condition, Caprice remarks: “Accelerated Evolution Syndrome. Your body gets very inventive and throws a lot of new stuff at you. I guess it wants to see what sticks for the next generation.” Asked if Tenser ever lets the organs continue to develop in his body without removal, she insists: “It's pathological. It's not healthy — it's a breakdown of the system. An organism needs organization. Otherwise, it's just designer cancer.” This is a direct echo from Crimes ’70 if one transformed from a celebration to a critique: the organ-creating “pure metaphysician”’s nurse indicates that “his disease is possibly a form of creative cancer.”
The compellingly gestational aspect of this Accelerated Evolution Syndrome shares a metaphorical resonance with an artist’s method, continually giving birth to new work (and, for non-female artists, making a psychological case for womb envy). Little wonder that both Crimes films are haunted by the fate of children, notably in Dotrice’s obsession with carrying out the autopsy on Brecken as a performance. He taunts Tenser: “I mean, how radical are you? Are you afraid of a little emotion?” (Tenser’s reply: “I'm afraid of everything.”)
Dotrice, it turns out, is part of an underground group who surgically altered their digestive systems in order to save humanity by consuming its toxic output — they compulsively eat poisonous bars of toxic waste that can kill normal humans. But, he observes “Brecken was the first-born… The first to be born with a plastic-processing digestive system. To be...naturally unnatural.” Exposing who Brecken was via public performance would reveal to the world the expansion of human agency into the realm of the physiological. Although, to Cronenberg’s credit, such hopes rarely go as planned.
For all of the brilliant and compelling qualities of Crimes ’22, it is not a perfect film. The entire “Inner Beauty Pageant” subplot is underdeveloped and feels like a separate idea (or vestigial organ?) without clear function in the body of the narrative. The realm of politics — or, at least, the word “politics” — emerges in the context of that pageant but any sense of realpolitik in Crimes ’22 is at best fugitive, inchoate.
And what exactly are those crimes of the future? In Crimes ’70, the various depraved plotlines could be argued to constitute a radical sensibility beyond the law. Things aren’t nearly as straightforward in Crimes ’22: is humanity’s capacity for transformation, realized as inexplicable adaptations to circumstances of our own making, being pitched as some sort of crime against nature? It seems an unlikely implication for Cronenberg, a filmmaker who truly loves his diseases. Even if the political ramifications of his new film seem to disappear into a haze of murky conspiracies and targeted assassinations, the metamorphosis of the prosthetic into the biological is a fathomless metaphor that I suspect critics will be unraveling for decades to come. Cronenberg is currently in his sixth decade of just such an exploration — like, as Caprice suggests during Brecken’s autopsy, “professors of literature” who “search for the meaning that lies locked in the poem” of our unfathomable Anthropocene existence.
Both films conclude with a cathartic reunion of sorts: Tripod presumably with Rouge, Tenser with his stubborn pains suggesting a separate radical process of its own, his own conjoining with toxicity: catharses transformed, redeemed, and, in both films, sealed with a tear (in Crimes ’70, Tripod’s tear is electric blue). It is a consummation devoutly to be wished — when Hamlet uttered that line, he was referring to suicide. In both Crimes films, Cronenberg makes that consummation an occasion for a quasi-religious ecstasy, the next step in our species’ wholly unpredictable evolution.
1. Ballard himself pointed to Burroughs as a signal influence on his own writing, though given their shared, almost clinical exactitude and reserved tone, Ballard is clearly the stronger influence of the two on Cronenberg.
2. Conditions which could also serve as a brief summary of the plot for Cronenberg’s Rabid from 1977.
3. An exchange during this scene also serves as an amusing auto-critique from Cronenberg of some of his more grandiose concepts:
“Why is your body-crime unit called New Vice? I don't get the ‘vice’ part.”
“Somebody in the bureau thought it was sexier than ‘Evolutionary Derangement’.”
James is a musician, writer, and multimedia artist. James’ writing has appeared in Chronogram, Pacific Sun Magazine, and New Haven Advocate, among other publications.