Evolving Mantras and Restricted Vocabularies

For someone so hung up on the body, David Cronenberg sure has a way with words.
James Lattimer

For someone so hung up on the body, David Cronenberg sure has a way with words. Amongst all those blooming wounds, moist openings and jagged cavities, it’s often the mouth that’s the most persuasive orifice of all. Whether slogans which feel like rallying cries or individual words rendered hypnotic by repetition, Cronenberg’s mantras echo so long in the mind they often encapsulate the films they inhabit: for what would Videodrome (1983) be without the new flesh, Naked Lunch (1991) without the Interzone? While many of his dialogues draw on languid repetition to create the same sense of dreamy, heightened unreality that envelops his entire oeuvre, there are certain cases where his mantras seem to work their magic on the narrative itself, itemising its key components, ushering in shifts between different levels of reality or even mimicking its very structure. And yet this approach too is in continual flux, shifting and evolving across his body of work like language itself, each fresh enunciation at once familiar and new. Different universes each expressed in their own discrete sets of words and phrases; perhaps Cronenberg’s greatest talent lies in making restricted vocabularies feel limitless.

Videodrome feels like a blueprint for Cronenberg’s approach to mantras, its comprehensive arsenal of repeated concepts, breathy sexual cajolements and fully formed slogans all working in tandem to enable television executive Max Renn to learn, embrace and ultimately embody the one true mantra of “Long live the new flesh!” This process is largely governed by two people, with media prophet Brian O’Blivion providing the words to make up the mantra and radio host Nicki Brand making submitting to its power suitably alluring. O’Blivion’s various speeches over the course of the film seesaw between different repeated words, tying them together to form a chain whose final link is flesh. The first link is television: his first speech, not coincidentally conducted from a TV set on a TV chat show about the evils of TV, shunts back and forth between repetitions of the words ‘television’ and ‘name,’ thus already linking the film’s central theme to the importance of giving things names. His next speech draws on the same repetitive back and forth to connect television to reality, reality to hallucination, hallucination to visions, visions to tumours, tumours to flesh and flesh to Videodrome, the malevolent political force at the film’s heart. Following the revelation of Brian O’Blivion’s death, it falls to his daughter Bianca to make the final set of connections, her speech to Renn a fresh cascade of carefully entwined words: destroy leads to kill, kill to dying, dying to death, death to Videodrome, Videodrome to video, video to word and word to flesh. One simple inversion to reflect Renn’s shift in loyalties and we arrive at “Long live the new flesh, Death to Videodrome!”

The concepts that have led to this mantra’s creation thus invariably follow in its wake like the train on a bridal gown, with each respective utterance pulling each and every one of them along with it. This train of concepts is simultaneously the film itself: no one element of the film is not expressed by them. Yet despite drawing on such a restricted set of concepts, the film still feels unbounded, the potentially infinite number of connections between these various notions akin to a syntax always capable of producing new, unforeseen configurations.

Although the sheer frequency with which these concepts are repeated already exerts a hypnotic, almost erotic pull on Renn and the viewer alike, it is Nicki Brand who makes the sensual power of repetition explicit. As befits her taking O’Blivion’s place within the television at the end of his first speech, Brand’s murmured commands draw on the same repetitive ebb and flow, a suitably heady mix of comes, wants, pleases, Nickis and nows. Instead of forming associative chains however, Nicki’s words instead bring about a change of state, the television set heaving and bulging before expanding outwards to take Renn’s head in its embrace. So mantras can trigger shifts or transformations and shape the very fabric of reality; by declaring his allegiance to the new flesh in the final scene, Renn is indeed able to follow Nicki into the television set and cast off his now useless body. Ostensibly about submitting to the power of the image, Videodrome is just as much about getting lost in words.

While Naked Lunch might lack Videodrome’s sheer proliferation of mantras, those that are there behave in much the same way. Once again, certain concepts  – bugs, roaches, centipedes, Joan, the Interzone – are repeated to beyond the point of redundancy, as if bug exterminator William Lee were in constant need of being reminded where he is, what he is looking for and what is always lurking in the shadows. The loose connections between these elements are reinforced by two further mantras, each of which spoken only twice. After (the first) Joan, Lee’s wife, implores him to “rub some of this powder on my lips,” the exact same words are used shortly afterwards by the quivering insect that emerges from the box at the police station, its own “lips” a yawning cavity of flesh under its wings. Joan is thus linked to the insect world, while the differing rules of the two realities – “normal” life, hallucination – are also demarcated, with an erotic gesture in one reality taking on more stickily transgressive dimensions in the other. Only a short while later, after discovering Joan’s infidelity, Lee announces “I guess it’s about time for our William Tell routine,” subsequently shooting her in the head and thus ushering in his flight to the Interzone, a shadowy north African port of total permissiveness. In the film’s final scene, once the dangers of the Interzone have already been navigated, the goal is now to gain entry to Annexia, a new, heavily guarded realm, whereupon the William Tell routine must now be re-enacted, the same words killing (the second) Joan for the second time to enable this new territory to be entered. Joan, or rather her execution, is thus also tied to passage into a fresh reality, with the mantra once again marking the point at which one zone ends and another begins.

Unlike in Videodrome though, the mantras in Naked Lunch neither form direct chains, nor does their content encapsulate the entire film, as the central idea of writing remains stubbornly untouched by their operations. Yet perhaps this is because their place is already taken in this context, as Burroughs’ words, liberally sprinkled across the narrative, possess a mantra-like quality of their own. The asshole story, itself repeated, yet subtly altered on each telling, is perhaps the best example of this: a stream of words flowing into one another that cannot help but work like a spell.

As befits its role as a funky videogame-minded remix of Videodrome, eXistenZ (1999) is also given a central mantra to call its own: “Death to the demon (-ess), (name to be inserted here)!” But this mantra does not hold sway over the entire film like its fleshy predecessor, a step down in complexity that reflects the relationship between the two films. Rather then emerging as the product of a carefully constructed chain of concepts, this mantra is there from the outset, just one of the many elements to be flushed through the different levels of the game. Yet there is still something unique about the mantra amongst the tangle of shifting characters, partially capitalised game titles, mutated amphibians and game pods, another restricted vocabulary just not spoken out loud in this particular case. The central call to arms is the only thing to remain unaltered by its passage through all the game’s differing realities, aside from the biological gun whose firing it always accompanies, with only the respective demon or demoness being named anew each time. In fact, the mantra and the violent action it sets in motion are the one part of the narrative that must occur in the same way in each different level, the unchanging core around which the entire film pivots. And much like in Videodrome too, this central mantra is flanked by other, secondary mantras that once again provide passage through the different stages of reality in a manner akin to Naked Lunch. For when programming flaws emerge in eXistenZ (or transCendenZ, depending) which make it pause at particular narrative junctures, there is only one way to get it moving again: repeating the correct words in the correct way, individual mantras that work like a self-conscious open sesame to give access to the next chambers of the game.

Cosmopolis (2012) often feels like a sleek futuristic machine for creating slogans, in perfect tandem with the darkly gleaming limousine at its heart. But just as the limousine gradually loses its sheen over the course of the film, so too does this machine begin to sputter. For the first half of the film, slogans are tossed off seemingly at will, immaculately formed and immaculately empty, just like the world they populate. “Don’t trust standard models, think outside the limits.” “Life is too contemporary.” “Nature is yet unknown.” “Talent is more erotic when it’s wasted.” – each one like advertising taglines for products whose precise nature is irrelevant, they feel like they could be repeated ad infinitum, though none of them ever actually do re-emerge from the linguistic quagmire. All this semantic hedonism is building to currency speculator Eric Packer’s encounter with his head of theory Vija Kinsky, by which time every sentence feels like a potential mantra, a potent stream of consciousness hemmed in by money, time, capitalism and the future. It is in this scene too that the film’s key mantra seems to receive its anointment, as a passing billboard spells out the same slogan of “A specter is haunting the world” just yelled by the protesters in the café.

Yet just as it seems as if the same set of functions familiar from the previous films is about to rear its head here too, all the linguistic energy slowly dissipates. The key mantra apparently just established never reoccurs, the effortless flow of buzzwords comes to a halt and none of the slogans bandied around coheres into anything narratively significant. Where words previously held influence, here they seemingly have none, mere empty vessels drained of their semantic charge, one additional thing to trade back and forth. The one nominal mantra that does emerge from all the other useless ones is oddly indicative here: Packer’s repeated assertion that his prostate is asymmetrical. Despite Packer’s attempts to attach some sort of significance to his condition by constantly describing it, his words actually refer to nothing. It is, as his former employee Benno Levin informs him, merely a harmless variation that ultimately carries no meaning. What was once about discovering and utilising the power of words thus curdles into the realisation that their power is spent, a realisation that applies equally to this particular narrative and the film’s relationship to its predecessors. Perhaps the only sensible reaction here is what Kinsky can’t help but let slip in the limousine: “I understand none of this.”

After the mantra is killed off in Cosmopolis, Maps to the Stars (2014) proves a truly fiery rebirth, its sly references to “the flesh that says yes” seemingly evoking Videodrome levels of intensity. But this is not homage but rather resurrection, old strategies reconfigured into a shiny new body, a new mind full of new ideas. Rather then creating them itself, Maps to the Stars actually sources its mantras from an external text: Paul Eluard’s 1942 poem Liberty.

Yet the poem is never read out in its entirety, functioning instead like a tacit corpus of words and phrases for each character to draw on and transform at will. In their respective readings, different characters place emphasis on different words, bring different lines or sections of the poem to the fore and reconfigure prepositions, plurals or quantifiers at will, with the only single common element being “I write your name.” In this way, a dead film fan can make the object of her longing unambiguous (I write your name), just as troubled burn victim Agatha Weiss chooses to keep hers indeterminate (I write your name), even as her addition of “liberty” hints that in longing, there is also escape. Later on, the same “liberty” would appear to denote the sense of freedom she attaches to flushing her meds down the toilet. One fixed corpus is thus channelled into countless different enunciations, their respective meaning dependent on character, setting and mood: a familiarly restricted vocabulary rendered infinite by each new reconfiguration, no matter how minor. 

But the true evolution here is how this same principle is also applied to the narrative as a whole. Compared with Eluard’s 20-stanza poem, this vocabulary is positively miniscule, running to a mere five central concepts: fire, death, film, abuse, incest. Yet almost all the significant information contained in the narrative is dictated by one or more of their number. Furthermore, much like the different articulations of the Eluard poem, each concept receives a new connotation depending on which setting it’s placed in or how it’s combined with the others. To illustrate by starting from the top, the fire that Agatha sets in her parents’ house causes her estrangement from her family as well as her burns. These external burns conveniently match the ones aging actress Havana Segrand carries on the inside, which brings the two of them closer. They only made contact in the first place thanks to Agatha’s friendship with Carrie Fisher, itself based on research for a novel about a burn girl, soon to be filmed. Havana’s mother is famous for one key film, in which fires are set; tellingly, she herself died in one. And for Agatha’s mother, it is only self-immolation that can offer relief once the intractable nature of the estrangement has become clear. Fire as the plot of a film, fire as complicity, fire as rebellion, fire as escape: one concept given different meanings in different settings, invariably folding back on to the others in the process. Yet another restricted vocabulary that this time perfectly expresses the pre-existing place it describes: a stunningly hermetic realm encased in sunshine and glass, the organic always visible but just out of reach, a set of limited ideas constantly bouncing off one another to create fresh narratives, fresh opportunities, fresh suffering: not the world of Videodrome, nor the Interzone, but just Hollywood itself.

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