Oeuvre and Me

I have always avoided the idea of the “auteur” in film studies—that treatment of certain directors as the structural equivalents of great novelists. Auteur criticism has inevitably privileged a masculinist and masturbatory filmmaking practice, is obsessed with an author that Barthes has revealed as dead, and is really just annoyingly French. Auteurist thought has been the domain of the cinephile. And while I am a teacher of film, I am not a cinephile, though certainly there are movies that I love, it is through the movies that I learned to love, and it is through movies and memories of movies that I can sometimes touch love again.

As grating as I find both the “auteur” and the “cinephile,” I nevertheless find myself increasingly compelled to consider the “oeuvre” of a specific director, and to contend with the idea that though the author may well be both dead and annoying, the construct of authorship also offers a reminder of the crucial ways that texts speak to and through each other. In fact, I have always loved the films of David Cronenberg as an oeuvre, and have recently, and somewhat to my own annoyance, decided that it is actually important to start talking about what a discussion of David Cronenberg’s films as an oeuvre has to offer the world. This is all to say: I saw Cosmopolis last weekend, because it was Cronenberg, and because it was in a nearby theater, and because of, obviously, Robert Pattinson.

After I got done focusing on how pretty RPattz  is (though I returned to that thought repeatedly, because his shirt was fantastically well-tailored), I tried to pay attention to the movie, the stylization of which was so off-putting as to cause me to ask at a certain point if this was a virtual reality story, which it sort of is but not quite. This spiraling day-in-the-life of an ultra-capitalist compelled me for about 40 minutes, and then I was done. Endless conversations in RPattz’s limo about things that I no longer remember, punctuated by sex and some one-liners that will excite cultural critics, culminate with such a predictable and recognizable Paul Giamatti turn that you really are just counting the minutes and kind of wishing you were watching Sideways instead. When it ended, I was sitting there as the screen abruptly cut to black quietly muttering “please be over please be over,” and hoping another scene wouldn’t fade in. And another scene didn’t.

And then as I walked home I realized that the cut-to-black at the end of a gun barrel in a film about a world so hypermediated by the violence of capital and images of capital that the narrative folds in on itself and expires is really just a new millennial version of Cronenberg’s earlier film, Videodrome, and that, in fact, though I was wishing for this movie to end all I now wanted to do was talk about how it was a remake of Videodrome or a combo of Videodrome and Existenz (at least stylistically) and that, in fact, even beyond RPattz being a better actor than I had previously thought he was, I liked this movie.

But I only liked it as part of an oeuvre.

And the same thing had happened to me with A Dangerous Method. Besides the cheap (or at least inexpensive) thrills that it offered to those familiar with psychoanalytic histories, the movie was flat, and Keira Knightley’s teeth always scare me a little, and I couldn’t get past thinking things like how fabulous Viggo was as Freud and how I wish Freud and Jung would just kiss. But I left feeling like it was not a good or interesting movie, and wondering what the hell had happened to the David Cronenberg who made the perverse low-budget Canadian horror delights of Shivers and The Brood that make me like him perhaps better than any other single filmmaker, or even the David Cronenberg who offered sexy meditations on masculinity and violence in The End of Violence and Eastern Promises.

But out of that thought I realized that things get a whole lot more special if you consider A Dangerous Method in relation to Dead Ringers, Cronenberg’s earlier film about genius twin gynecologists who womanize and pathologize, and are so intimately connected in form and function that they eventually join each other in drug-addiction and insanity, and finally kill each other/themselves. But of course this must unfold with a woman between them, a woman whose deformed, trifurcated uterus provides both professional and personal obsession. The woman is their patient, their lover, their muse. Finally, one twin tears the other apart when he decides that they must be separated, like conjoined twins, using the tools he has created to “treat” the problematic uterus, his “gynecological instruments for mutant women.”

Thus the structure: a mirroring between two doctors, playing out their desire for and aggression towards each other via the conduit of the problematic woman, and her uterus in particular, all demonstrating the thin line between the domain of scientific mastery over the female body and the creative erotic of masculine/masturbatory homosociality. Flash forward to the completely parallel structure offered by A Dangerous Method and its psychoanalytic drama between Freud, Jung, and Sabina Spielrein, and I felt that rather than a fairly banal biopic I had actually watched an incisive, even hilarious, account of the history of psychoanalytic method—but only if I thought of it as a remake of Dead Ringers: “The patients are getting strange. They look all right on the outside, but their insides…they’re deformed. Well, I had to deal with it somehow! Radical technology was required.” With A Dangerous Method, we see that psychoanalysis is that radical technology, a gynecological instrument of its own.

So here I was—here I am—thinking that not only might there be some things to say about the connections between the films of David Cronenberg, and the trajectories his work has taken from the (mostly feminine) body, to the (mostly masculine) psyche, and back again, but that I actually think that maybe there are some things I might learn about cinematic representations of the body as psyche and vice-versa by doing so. Who could be more appropriate to contribute to the notion of a “body of work” than David Cronenberg, whose own body of work has demonstrated how the body (whether our own or that of others; as literal or as idea) serves as the ground for both creative possibility and tremendous violence? And thus, while I will never be able to nor want to pronounce it properly, I do want to think more about the specificity of the work that oeuvre is doing. And/but/because, I’m still not changing my mind about auteur criticism.

Catherine Zimmer: I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at the dirt.