David Cronenberg: Secret Jew or Sell-out? (Actually, he's neither.)

11 Nov 2014 | 01:47

    David Cronenberg passed through New York last night in the middle of his publicity tour for his investigative gangster noir Eastern Promises. Like A History of Violence, Cronenberg’s latest film features more straightforward storytelling than the esoteric narratives he’s spun in the past, but anyone hooked on his work for the sheer impact of his grotesque visual stylings won’t be disappointed: Promises features a horrific throat-slashing in its first few minutes, and it’s not the only one. But the movie’s focus is a tame, sympathetic heroin (Naomi Watts) seeking out the truth behind an abandoned infant whose lineage stems from the Russian mafia. Viggo Mortensen plays a great quasi-bad guy, and the actor bares all in the best naked fight sequence this side of Borat.  

    I had a brief chat with Cronenberg over cocktails at Landmarc in the TimeWarnerCenter, where the director kept his aesthetic goals in tight focus and his cult status in high regard. But first, [click here ]to read Jennifer Merin’s illuminating interview with him for Cronenberg’s unique dissection of his latest work.

    Considering the widespread appraisal of your last two films, do you have a sense for the limits of your commercial appeal? Is there a boundary that you wouldn’t cross in order to avoid being considered a sell-out?

    A sell-out is a personal thing. Ivan [Reitman] was always destined for Hollywood. That’s what he wanted. I never wanted that.

    How do you feel about people saying that Eastern Promises is more conventional than your other films?

    It isn’t. Look at its box office. It’s not going to make $200 million. The proof is in the pudding. How can it be mainstream if it only made $5.7 million its first weekend? The Fly made $7.5 million its first weekend twenty years ago when that was a lot more money, and that wasn’t a mainstream film either. I think I’m doomed to be making art films in some way or another. I don’t think that I’ve made a mainstream movie, including the last two. You talk about them being more accessible, but they’re gangster movies—genre pictures. When I was making horror films, like The Fly—that was also a genre film, and it was even more accessible. I don’t see a big shift as I move from one genre to another. I’ve made movies like Dead Ringers, M. Butterfly and Spider, which were no genre.  

    And Naked Lunch.

    And Naked Lunch. Even though it has elements of sci-fi stuff, it’s not a sci-fi film. So I don’t think in terms of genre. Frankly, The Fly is still my most successful movie and it was a very extreme horror film. I leave it to others to figure that out.  

    You made a great short film for Chancun con cinema, the complilation of shorts by accomplished directors, which premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Your entry, entitled At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World in the Last Cinema of the World, shows you in a long take with a gun to your temple for several minutes before the credits come up. What’s your intended message here? Are you unveiling a side of yourself that nobody knew about?

    It’s certainly never been a secret to me that I’m Jewish. My parents were secular. I was never bar mitzvahed. At a very early age, I decided I was an atheist, and I still am. I don’t feel the need to involve myself with the traditions of Judaism. In fact, I’m rather anti-religious. On the other hand, my father-in-law is Orthodox, so I end up going to seders and things like that because I never did that as a child. I got a little bit of that later in life, after my marriage. I was never like Philip Roth or Saul Bellow, [for whom] the Jewishness is a part of their writing. There’s a whole generation of Jewish novelist who I’ve read, but their experiences as Jews in America was always very present, very upfront. And for Woody Allen, as a filmmaker, I guess he’s the equivalent. But, for me, it wasn’t an issue. I wasn’t denying it or evading it. It just wasn’t what came up when I started to write. I wasn’t censoring myself. I wasn’t hiding my Jewishness. It just never seemed to be an issue. But when I started to make this little short, suddenly, it was. It was provoked by what’s going on in the world right now. The pronouncements of various Islamic leaders about how nice it would be to kill all the Jews in the world—you know, like the Hezbollah leader. I thought, “Well, what if that would happen? How would that happen?” I used my sense of humor and irony to produce this short, which is also quite passionate. The connection with Jewishness and cinema just fell into place really easily. As I say, I’ve never felt that I’ve censored myself in an avoidance of the subject. It’s never popped up at me until that moment.  

    Would it bother you if people perceived your work to be Jewish?

    I am who I am. I’m certainly aware that, as a Jew, you grow up knowing that in a regime, under certain circumstances, during certain times in history, you would be annihilated. And that’s still possible. Of course, Islamic extremists want to kill everybody at this moment that’s not into their idea of Islam, so we’re not alone. But the focus always ends up being on Jewishness: The Jewish conspiracy, the Jewish this, the Jewish that. I’ve never even been to Israel. It’s not because I haven’t wanted to go. It just never happened. But, once again, it’s happenstance. I never felt compelled to go. The Jewishness I felt closest to was European Jewishness transplanted to North America. Those guys—Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Jewish American writers—were the ones I felt closest to. I prefer Yiddish to Hebrew, in a way, just because I feel closer to it. I do know some Yiddish; my mother speaks in Yiddish to me. I feel quite distant from the Israeli experience. When I meet Israelis, they’re quite alien to me—quite different, even though we’re technically connected. Listen, Mordechai Richter was a wonderful Canadian-Jewish writer. He was sort of our version of Saul Bellow. His writing always involved Jewishness as a primary fact. In fact, he had a story about Jewish Eskimos.

    So, I’m always aware of [being Jewish]. It’s always on my mind, but not obsessively. When you’re threatened because of one aspect of your nature, whether it’s your sexuality or your gender or your ethnic background, you become acutely sensitive to it for that moment. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what defines you as a person.