Crimes of the Future Programme Notes

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Spoiler warning: these notes are best read after viewing the film. They contain discussion of plot and character details.

‘You should let the body lead you where it wants to go.’

David Cronenberg has always let the body lead him. Throughout his work, the body is a vehicle for change. Physically like the grotesque degradation of The Fly (1986), evolutionarily with head-exploding minds in Scanners (1981), as well as sexually, philosophically, and ideologically in the likes of Crash (1986) and Videodrome (1983). In this context, Crimes of the Future can be read as a final statement. Beyond focusing on an ageing artist, it encapsulates the ways Cronenberg has used the body. It’s fitting that he re-uses the title from his 1970 film, despite the differences in content and form, as it feels like coming full circle. Here he asks what impact such art can have if he’s still asking the same questions, while giving us one of the best representations of life with a body outside the ‘norm’: a complex and haunting work of humour and passion.

Drawn in by Howard Shore’s squirrelly and imposing electronic score, we open on establishing the motif of a capsized ship: a symbol of depleted trade and civilisation’s crumbling. Then we meet the boy who eats plastic; the first and ultimate victim. He is radical proof in a world that needs it. Focus shifts to Saul Tenser (Cronenberg regular Viggo Mortensen), a performance artist in a world without pain. This change has caused some people to grow new organs; the removal of which forms the basis of Tenser’s art. He is one of the few to know pain, and the work-arounds he relies on are disturbing and frankly hilarious.

Cronenberg reflects on how it feels to see one’s influence on others, and what art even means if the issues you address (and get lauded for) continue getting worse. Tenser’s trauma is the art. He says ‘I don’t like what’s happening with my body’, making art out of removing these aberrations. Audiences call him a genius, while every solution offered to deal with this trauma is monstrous. From the strange and lonely hanging bed that doesn’t help, to the feeding chair which looks like you’re being operated by a disgusting puppet-master; conforming to normality looks rotten. Nothing is solved; it’s just stuffing a square peg into the circular hole of expectations. We see a purple bar and are told ‘this is a change we can’t allow’ before cutting to someone eating slop in a bony feeding device, as if that’s preferable to anyone except those who wish for things to stay the same.

Watching this film was a moving experience. I live with fairly debilitating pain, and for me this is one of the funniest and most powerfully empathetic portrayals of disability I have seen. Not only disability, but all of society’s othered bodies. From ableism, and the continuous attacks against reproductive rights, to incessant abuse towards trans people (one of the most at-risk communities), Crimes of the Future looks at our world — more illuminated than ever to our bodily differences — with abject shame. It’s a world desperate to maintain the status quo despite countless perspectives begging for change so they can simply be at ease. People will jump through hoops (like hiring drill-wielding assassins and making tumorous beds) which make people’s lives harder, rather than simply accept the new and adapt. Their solution is more bureaucracy and oppression, like the niftily-titled fresh police division ‘New Vice’ — ‘sexier means easier funding’ after all. We’re asked to look at what it says about our obsession with confronting the struggles of others while doing nothing to quell the issues that perpetuate that struggle. Tenser is the ‘good’ progressive artist; presenting the images and ideas that are aesthetically forward-thinking, but ultimately uphold the status quo. They allow an audience to feel daring, observing the challenges of those outside the norm, while reassuring them that they don’t need to do anything about it. In tying the artist directly to the state, as Tenser works undercover against people like himself, it also hits on a tragic burden. Those who already face these huge obstacles can either choose an easier life in terms of conflict (albeit with extra personal suffering) by accepting the way things are, or strive for what they need despite the massive undertaking it requires. It’s not fair they should have to struggle and fight while the privileged and able will block the way with useless applause.

Look at that last shot of ecstatic purity. The black-and-white focus on Tenser’s angelic face as he smiles for his first moment of peace echo the close-ups in The Passion of Joan of Arc (dir. Carl Theador Dreyer, 1928). In those shots of Maria Falconetti there is rapturous transcendence. A holiness. In mirroring this, Cronenberg makes the last image one of acceptance — an act he portrays as miraculous. Until this point Tenser has groaned and struggled his way through every scene, but now he smiles serenely with a tear. He had worked against what his body told him, trying to force himself to abide by the desires of the world, bringing nothing but pain. With that last shot he shows art may not change the world, but one’s relationship to art can change your world.

Along with stylised dialogue and a patient yet inquisitive visual approach, we get Cronenberg’s trademark mutilations and strange machinery, but they have been rendered near-inert rather than as instruments of change. Violence is done upon those who feel no pain — literalising the metaphorical catharsis of artistic violence — and most technology exists in a state of obscure absurdity. ‘Useful’ technology like boats lay rusting, while necessary aids are now fleshy groaning abominations, and the most-coveted tech is seemingly an elaborate gothic autopsy device used for artistic performances. This is a world where body horror is not the anomaly, it is the norm imposed to ‘correct’ those seen as anomalous. What Cronenberg does by the end is throw off the shackles of what society wants people to be and allows us a glorious moment; someone accepting that they are beyond those wants — they are different, they have distinct needs, and they are beautiful.

James M. Macleod, GFF Digital Communications Coordinator and writer
19 August 2022

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