SECOND CHANCES

john cribbs

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE

Despite their reputations, some films and filmmakers just don't do it for Funderburg and Cribbs. This series, Second Chances, follows their attempts to find greatness where they've previously failed to see it; to actively make an effort to appreciate esteemed artworks for which they currently have a distaste (or feel indifference). They'll give cult favorites like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 another shot and dig deep in the filmographies of beloved auteurs whose appeal baffles them (like Alfred Hitchcock) - and with a little luck, maybe they'll even end up as newly-minted fans...

 

The subject: A History of Violence

Initial Resistance:

2005 seems so far away. I know five years is no short change, but I feel so removed from my life at that time that it's almost like it existed in some alternate universe - like I was a different person. That was the year I quit my job and set out to make a feature film from a script I'd written, a process that both saved my life and drove me a little nuts. I went up to the Toronto International Film Festival* for the first time, something that's since become an annual tradition - it was such an overwhelming orgy of screenings, I enjoyed sitting through the great movies I saw there (Thomas Vinterberg's Dear Wendy, Larry Clark's Wassup Rockers) just as much as the bad ones (Sturla Gunnarsson's Beowulf and Grendel, Vincent Ward's River Queen). There were lots of titles to be excited for in 2005, and just about everything I had been looking forward to and expected a lot from more than exceeded expectations: Michael Haneke's Cache, Shane Black's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Werner Herzog's White Diamond and Wheel of Time, Terrence Malick's The New World, Takashi Miike's The Great Yokai War. Just as a sports fan remembers years in terms of sports - "Oh yeah, that was the year the lockout canceled the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1919" - I tend to remember them in terms of movies and, for me, 2005 was a great year for movies. With one big glaring exception.

I missed A History of Violence at Toronto, but caught it in Philadelphia the first week of its release in September. I'll admit to being excessively excited to see the movie - moreso than any other movie from the last decade, possibly more than any other movie released during my adult life. Up to that moment, it wouldn't be a stretch to say that I considered David Cronenberg to be the world's finest living director, at least working in North America. His career seemed to me to be separable into three distinct stages: Shivers to The Fly marked his genre films, Dead Ringers to Crash a remarkable period of transition of horror into the baroque sub-realities of modern life, and his most recent work - 1999's eXistenZ and 2002's Spider - seemed to suggest a new period, one that took Cronenberg to the next visceral level where the mind was just as relentless a prison as the body. History of Violence felt like it could be even better than its grossly neglected predecessor, a movie about the ugliest aspects of human nature hidden within us; a film for which the American retitling of his first film, They Came From Within, would seem even more appropriate. In his last two films he had examined the horror of not recognizing true reality (eXistenZ) and the horror of reshaping your identity and memories to suppress a violent act from the past (Spider), and from the preview it looked like Cronenberg's latest would be a combination of those two ideas. The image constantly in my head those weeks leading up to seeing the movie was of Spider putting the pieces of the shattered mirror with the blood-splattered middle back together: the warped reconstruction of a fractured psyche. And with this film Cronenberg was getting the best reviews of of his career...man I was excited!

My reaction to the film can best be summed up using shots of William Hurt from the movie's penultimate scene:

I was dumbfounded and devastated by how bad it was. From the second scene in the movie on, everything just failed to work. How could such a great artist be responsible for such poorly-conceived, badly-executed hack work as this? I won't bother going into A History of Cronenberg, at least not a personal history - I'll just say he's probably the first filmmaker to make me believe the horror genre could be used for something more than cheap drive-in thrills and a reliable place to find famous actresses shedding to their skivvies prior to their big breaks. His films are unmistakably his own, vanguards of visceral horror that pit modern technology against the emerging "new flesh" of anatomical rebellion. Physiology and psychology are both equally weighed in his innovative  studies of teratologic and oniric abnormalities, re-examined as stages of biological progession outside the restrictions of human experience. And like the creative diseases and mutated body parts that make up his work, Cronenberg himself has evolved (that sounds gross, but also very Cronenberg-ian) and managed to spread his intelligent filmmaking and unique themes to such unexpected avenues as the psychological thriller (Dead Ringers, Spider), adaptations of underground literature (Naked Lunch, Crash) and even a theatrical period romance (M Butterfly). Over the years his reputation has grown and he's developed a comfortable working relationship with frequent collaborators Ronald Sanders (editor), James McAteer (art director), Carol Spier (production designer), Peter Suschitzky (dp), Howard Shore (composer) and Denise Cronenberg (costume designer/sister/doppleganger).

Although the technical aspects of the film were flawless, the movie itself was just hopelessly terrible almost from beginning to end. The first scene of the movie was decent enough and seemed promising, but only a few seconds into the second scene I could feel the floor of the theater drop out from under my feet. When I left the theater both of the folks I was with had nothing but good things to say about it, responding with enthusiastic talk about the film's blunt effectiveness and deeper meanings. It was as if we had been watching entirely different movies: did they really sit through the same scene with the little girl shouting for her family to come save her from monsters? The obscenely broad portrayals of supportive family members and threatening school bullies? The atrocious accents that came  out of the mouth of the movie's unscary Philly gangsters? I struggled to comprehend what it was about the movie they could have possibly found not only intractably embarrassing but worthy of the highest praises (and to this day I don't believe anybody I've talked to who claims to like it has been able to tell me what if anything in this inexcusable wreck worked for them). Keep in mind that if there was ever a movie I ever would have given a pass despite a few bad directorial decisions or unsatisfying plot developments it was this one...but in the end it was absolutely undefendable, just a genuinely awful film.

Of course the praise didn't end that night outside the Ritz 5 in Philadelphia - it soon became apparent that lots of people, most of them intelligent and talented film writers, loved the movie for reasons I could not even begin to understand. Manohla Dargis called it a "mindblower" in the Times, adding that the movie was "a masterpiece of indirection and pure visceral thrills." Amy Taubin, arguably a more reliable authority on the director's work than any other writer, stated that the film was a "subversive contemporary political critique" and a "serious art-film meditation on the dynamics of identity, society, and their cinematic representation." Even the great JG Ballard, Cronenberg's collaborator on the brilliant Crash, wrote a review of the film for The Guardian so delusionally glossed-over it changes basic facts of the plot. Reading these reviews I had that same feeling as I had with my buddies: what movie were they talking about? A History of Violence is an uninspired thriller about a guy who used to be a gangster whose identity is discovered and he's forced to kill some mob goons. It's unoriginal, it brings nothing new or interesting to this pretty basic premise, features no great twist and is about as subtle as a knife thrust into a foot. But what the fuck was everybody saying - "indirection?" "Political critique?" Existence the "ultimate pathological state?" It seemed like these guys were even more desperate than me to find something of value in the movie, and I really really wanted to find something, anything, to take from the film other than its blinding amount of affirmed crapiness.

Reason for reassessment:

I want to like this movie so much it hurts. I want to believe everything that its considerable group of admirers claim they saw in it. Even now, when I think back on specific scenes and wince, I try to convince myself that maybe I just hadn't watched the film correctly, that I as an audience member had somehow failed. I really don't believe that's the case, but if anything the movie's director is man who qualifies for a good ol' second chance. Even if I hate the movie all over again, I can at least get behind who's to blame here: it was Cronenberg's biggest budget to date, his involvement was pure "work for hire"...maybe he simply never bonded with the material? (or "fused," I guess, would be a more appropriate Cronenberg word.) In an interview with Pop Entertainment just before the movie's release, he admitted that it was a director-for-hire project: "The reaction was that I didn't make any money on Spider and I needed to do a movie that I could make some money on. In the sense that I couldn't afford to do a low budget independent film whose financing was constantly falling apart and therefore we would all have to defer our salaries and not get paid. I literally did not make any money for two years and I could not afford to do that. So that was the reaction." A guilty confession of selling out? At any rate, he did a complete 180 by the time the movie started getting noticed, standing by all the merits credited to the film by admirers, and hasn't looked back since. I want to blame screenwriter Josh Olson cuz it's easy - he has since established himself as an arrogant asshole and unjustifiably smug dipshit through his appearance in the Harlan Ellison documentary Dreams with Sharp Teeth and his unprovoked vitriol "I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script". But at the end of the day it's Cronenberg's movie - he even worked with Olson, uncredited, on the screenplay - and should be judged as such, whatever the implications.

I neglected to include the film on my 2005 "worst movie" list, opting instead to crown it the year's most overrated (this was before that year's worst movie, the non-Cronenberg Crash (2005), won the Oscar, although Violence received two head-scratching nominations itself) and, hands down, most disappointing. I was certainly in denial: contemporaries of the director's whom I love such as Brian De Palma and Dario Argento had added a number of blotches to their far-from spotless filmographies as they got on in years, but I refused to believe that Cronenberg could churn out such a clunker, such an arrant smudge on his impressive record. I just can't think of any other film where everything was going so right for it only to end up so wrong. I think subconsciously my way of dealing with it was to just ignore the movie so as not to let my seething hatred for it disqualify me as an uncompromising fan of David Cronenberg. But then came the Best of the Decade lists, and it started all over again. I read other people's opinions of Violence and think "man, that movie sounds great...hey, wait a minute! What movie is that?" Its support is so overwhelming, I have to second guess my own first reaction. So this experiment is really a second chance at letting the film jump that diner counter and blow me away as it did so many others, Cronenberg followers and general movie audiences alike. Maybe I'll get a chance to re-write a little History...

* It's funny glancing over the catalog from that year: Abel Ferrara's Mary still hasn't been released, and I have a vivid memory of the massive line of people that prevented me from seeing Baltasar Kormákur's A Little Trip to Heaven, a film I haven't heard of since.

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