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, Cronenbergs latest film features more straightforward storytelling than the esoteric narratives hes spun in the past, but anyone hooked on his work for the sheer impact of his grotesque visual stylings wont be disappointed: Promises features a horrific throat-slashing in its first few minutes, and its not the only one. But the movies 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 Merins illuminating interview with him for Cronenbergs 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 wouldnt cross in order to avoid being considered a sell-out?
A sell-out is a personal thing. Ivan [Reitman] was always destined for Hollywood. Thats 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 isnt. Look at its box office. Its 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 wasnt a mainstream film either. I think Im doomed to be making art films in some way or another. I dont think that Ive made a mainstream movie, including the last two. You talk about them being more accessible, but theyre gangster moviesgenre pictures. When I was making horror films, like The Flythat was also a genre film, and it was even more accessible. I dont see a big shift as I move from one genre to another. Ive 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, its not a sci-fi film. So I dont 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 years 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. Whats your intended message here? Are you unveiling a side of yourself that nobody knew about?
Its certainly never been a secret to me that Im 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 dont feel the need to involve myself with the traditions of Judaism. In fact, Im 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. Theres a whole generation of Jewish novelist who Ive read, but their experiences as Jews in America was always very present, very upfront. And for Woody Allen, as a filmmaker, I guess hes the equivalent. But, for me, it wasnt an issue. I wasnt denying it or evading it. It just wasnt what came up when I started to write. I wasnt censoring myself. I wasnt 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 whats 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 worldyou 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, Ive never felt that Ive censored myself in an avoidance of the subject. Its 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. Im 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 thats still possible. Of course, Islamic extremists want to kill everybody at this moment thats not into their idea of Islam, so were not alone. But the focus always ends up being on Jewishness: The Jewish conspiracy, the Jewish this, the Jewish that. Ive never even been to Israel. Its not because I havent wanted to go. It just never happened. But, once again, its happenstance. I never felt compelled to go. The Jewishness I felt closest to was European Jewishness transplanted to North America. Those guysSaul Bellow, Philip Roth, Jewish American writerswere 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, theyre quite alien to mequite different, even though were 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, Im always aware of [being Jewish]. Its always on my mind, but not obsessively. When youre threatened because of one aspect of your nature, whether its your sexuality or your gender or your ethnic background, you become acutely sensitive to it for that moment. But it doesnt necessarily mean thats what defines you as a person.