We’ve already talked about the top four storytellers in TV today. Now, slowly and sporadically, we’re starting a four-article series about the top four storytellers in cinema today.
Storytellers in Cinema
In television, the storyteller is the writer. In cinema, the storyteller is the director. There are many kinds of directors: an actors’ director, a visual director, a lyrical director (Greenaway, for example), a storytelling director, and so on. In this column, we care about those who tell a story best. There are four storytellers in cinema whose power to captivate us when telling us a story, even a crazy story, is unmatched. They are, in no particular order: Steven Spielberg, the Coen brothers, David Lynch, and David Cronenberg.
Today we’re going to talk about Cronenberg. He is the director (and, often, writer) of The Fly, eXistenZ, A History of Violence, Naked Lunch, Videodrome, Scanners, Dead Ringers, and more. Cronenberg tells us dark and strange stories, sometimes disgusting, at best weird. And yet we sit there and take it, not because of the subject itself, but because Cronenberg can tell a story.
There are things we can tell about people who tell stories, facts we can deduce by the way the story is told. It would be the easiest thing in the world to try and deduce something about a mind that invents such eerily dark stories. But let’s take a different tack. Let’s put aside the content of the story, and try and learn things about Cronenberg simply from the way he positions the camera.
Take A History of Violence, for example. Leaving the story completely out it, most of the frames in the movie give us a feeling that something is very very wrong. And yet these frames are usually of one or two people, just standing there, in front of a completely ordinary background. But that nagging feeling that something is wrong does not leave us.
That nagging feeling is not our imagination. Cronenberg put it there for us. He put it in the frame.
But where is that wrongness found? It isn’t in the background, because the background’s normal. It isn’t that the shot is framed in a particularly freaky way; it isn’t. It’s that somehow a bigger emphasis is given to the character’s head. Everything that’s wrong in the picture is in the character’s head (and it doesn’t matter what character we’re talking about). But, look hard as you can, you won’t see what’s wrong. Cronenberg doesn’t tell you what’s wrong. You have no idea what possibly could be wrong. But you do know that something is very wrong.
What’s Behind Those Eyes?
If we look even more closely at the way the frame is positioned, we’ll see that the picture is framed in such a way as to make us look not exactly at the person’s face, but at what’s behind it.
Cronenberg is focusing out attention not at the person’s face, but at their intent, that murky, intangible thing which causes us to act and think.
There is something behind a man’s (or a woman’s) eyes. Something lies behind that normal shell, behind the skin and bones that nature gave us. Something lies behind our thoughts. Something inexplicable that brings about those thoughts. Something beyond what we understand, beyond what we know is there and Cronenberg obsesses over it.
When he looks at a person, and when we look at a character through his eyes, what we see is: intent. A Cronenberg character looks at someone or says something, and there is intent in those eyes. And behind the intent, there is... something.
What Cronenberg Finds Weird
Cronenberg doesn’t know who we are really. All he sees when he looks at a person is ‘intent’. But he knows that there is something behind that intent. He feels it in his bones. And he feels that he doesn’t know what that thing is or where it comes from or who it belongs to. He doesn’t know why that intent is there, what it really wants. And he fears that our intent may come from a dark place or that it may not actually come from us.
Look at his movies again, and you’ll see how he frames the shots in such a way as to put intent as the most important thing in almost every shot. There is something mysterious behind those eyes, his work screams. If the shot is about two people talking, you’ll see that very often, they get equal treatment in the frame, taking the same space and equally interesting to the eye. That is because they are both human, both have intent, and both are therefore equally mysterious. Cronenberg doesn’t care who is in the shot, as long as s/he’s human. It’s the intent he’s trying to catch; that’s the real hero and villain of his stories.
And that’s where his darkness comes from.