For this special, Reverse Shot–hosted, supersized edition of Willow Maclay and Caden Mark Gardner’s ongoing Body Talk series of conversations, Maclay and Gardner invited critics and RS contributors Sam Bodrojan and Mackenzie Lukenbill to discuss the work of David Cronenberg and specifically his latest film, Crimes of the Future, now in current release and opening today at Museum of the Moving Image. According to Maclay and Gardner, “It feels appropriate to enlist other trans voices on this subject and how they see Cronenberg, his body horror, and his cinema in relation to the trans film image.”
Willow Catelyn Maclay: The term “body horror” has been a source of constant discussion and interrogation since the release of David Cronenberg’s latest feature Crimes of the Future. It was suggested that Crimes would be a return to Cronenberg’s brand of flesh, bile, and technological evolution, and it more than delivers on that front, but this film also sees Cronenberg looking at his recurring concerns with a hopefulness that was rarely ever present before. Cronenberg is an existentialist, and his films often end in death, such as the total decomposition, as in The Fly (1986), or suicide, as in Videodrome (1983). Crimes does see a future for all of us, and while it is one that he doesn’t quite comprehend—suggested in his inability to imagine how we would learn to eat plastic or what that would be like on a textural level—he does compose something resembling optimism, expressing that nothing has changed regarding the finality of our bodies.
Cronenberg is expressly interested in the flesh, but he doesn’t admire the term “body horror.” He has said that he believes “body beautiful” is a more accurate summation of his work. He finds the consciousness related to the body to be juicy with meaning, and he has come back to it again and again throughout his career, and it is because he is so taken with the flesh, and the way it evolves with aging, and the shifting of identities and politics, he has become something like the poster boy of the metaphor of transness on-screen.
It is both limiting and liberating to address transness on screen through such a wide lens, but due to the historical lack of employment and creative options for trans people in the film industry, and due to the difficulty of availability for films with direct trans images, we have been forced into a situation where we rummage through other films for things to try on. Cronenberg fits better than most, and trans cinephiles have been discussing his potential relevance to our experiences since he first began making movies. It is not new to argue that body horror is trans adjacent, nor is it right to say that Cronenberg invented the subgenre, but we have seen an intertwining of the two in film circles for decades. With this edition of Body Talk we hope to untangle why that might be, what it can offer trans people to cite work like Cronenberg’s, and what body horror can look like in the hands of actual trans filmmakers like Jane Schoenbrun, whose excellent We’re All Going to the World’s Fair offers something more directly potent than Cronenberg ever has for trans people. But first…Crimes of the Future.
Sam Bodrojan: First off, I just want to say what an honor it is to be a part of this project. Body Talk has been a cornerstone of my critical practice and growth as a writer since before I could even conceptualize myself as a trans woman, and to discuss not simply Cronenberg, the quintessential voice of Western body horror, but this Cronenberg, with you all, is honestly such a gift.
In my Matrix Resurrections piece from earlier this year, I voiced a bit of dissatisfaction about contemporary trans cinema’s obsession with metaphor. Ironically, so much of what I have to say about Crimes deals in even further abstraction, because ultimately I don’t think the film is so much about transness as Cronenberg’s own relationship to his work’s appropriation. So much of Crimes’ world-building is fixated on the mundanities of health care—upkeep on AIDS, registration, legislative violence. To Cronenberg, non-normative bodies are a material concern, and the film’s villains are just as much those who wish to exterminate them as much as those who wish to allegorize them. The child who can digest plastic, often referred to as “the cadaver,” is made to be a symbol of hope instead of a living being, defiled by Timlin with engravings of Saul Tenser’s own neuroses. The autopsy is really the moment where my reading of the film clicked for me: Cronenberg’s surrogate character represented by his admirers through an active desecration of the future. I think this scene could be read, not absolutely but potentially, as a resistance to trans film criticism of his work.
There is a tendency amongst trans people to project the visceral nature of dysphoria onto disabled people in the media. Even when it’s showing empathy and desire for pain and institutional barriers of care, it’s still commodifying the lived experience of another group of people for the sake of metaphor. The line “Surgery is the new sex” has become a bit of a meme in the marketing, but I’m struck by how brutally it’s brushed aside in the film. “Just another epiphany,” Saul laughs dismissively in response.
By the same token, Crimes of the Future is extremely focused on this future vision of radical trans politics, a thing of beauty and a tool of survival. In a time where there is a not just a discursive, ambient transphobia increasing within every sphere of American life, but also tangible legislative violence against trans children and their caretakers, it was genuinely cathartic for me to watch a film honestly depict how those who alter their bodies in ways not sanctioned by dominant society are systemically silenced and murdered.
Despite the trans dialectic that pulls at the edges of the film, Cronenberg cannot seem to really grasp transgender thought beyond an abstract self-acceptance. In response to an invitation to an Inner Beauty Pageant (which Cronenberg chooses not to depict within the film), Saul says “What if you give my organs an award and then the next week I cut it out?” He sees a world of radical body politics and feels unwelcome; he cannot move into the future alongside those he has inspired. The engineers, who obsess over machines that seem straight out of eXistenZ (which he wrote immediately prior to the first draft of Crimes’ script), seek to decimate those who make outdated the practical effects of Cronenberg’s early work, to shrink back into a long-gone artistic era. The final shot evokes the religious sublimation of Joan of Arc, and although part of the text suggests radical acceptance, there is also a tinge of old-school bafflement, as if Cronenberg’s camera can’t quite catch the reflection in Saul’s teary eye.
I guess what I really want to say is that watching Crimes of the Future for the first time, I walked out feeling like maybe he had never really made movies for me, that I’d lied to myself. And then upon subsequent viewings, with a more generous reading, I fell into this deep gratitude. I don’t know if Cronenberg believes there’s a place in the future for him or his work, but he has faith that there’s space for us.
Caden Mark Gardner: Thank you, Sam. I think there is something to be said in trying to not rely on the flexibility of metaphor for transness but also not rely on the paucity of direct representation, which, in terms of tackling gender dysphoria and trans healthcare, you have to often jump straight to nonfiction to even see some version of, and this can be too clinical and entrapped in their time periods. In returning to the topic of metaphor, while Cronenberg recently spoke directly about the potential readings of the real-life ways in which trans bodies are being legislated, I think that was possibly something that was brought to his attention—in terms of this film and his whole work—rather than something he was actively conscious of for several years. It is nice that he mentioned it without derision, of course, but important to note he did not state it directly influenced the film—it’s more that what his work yields is open to that interpretation. The Matrix trilogy already had been tagged as trans allegory before either Lilly or Lana Wachowski co-signed that in recent years. Films can be read as separate from the author’s own intention—as pedantic as it is to write this all out, I do often have to bring it up because the trans metaphors still feel like a new concept for cis film viewers and critics. It is just in the case of Cronenberg that so much of his filmography contains these incidents and moments visually and textually—aside from the most directly trans film image he has done with his adaptation of M. Butterfly—that can run parallel to a trans image in a way that really comes easy to me as a viewer of his work.
Watching Crimes of the Future, it is obvious that this is a very personal film about art-making, mortality, and how the world has incredible potential to be both remodified and corrupted, and those who are the actors of that corruption are those with power. Sam, you mentioned in a prior conversation that Crimes reminded you of a film noir. Beyond the obvious aesthetic connections in the film’s often nocturnal and shadowy look, I have to say that framework really clicked with me in terms of the moody post-war, Atomic Age of societal distrust with bureaucrats, cops, doctors, and underground capitalists all seeming to be hiding from each other in the film. I also thought a lot about the incidents informed by my own separate readings of trans medical histories, which in North America at least, really took off in the post–World War II period. Individuals sought underground channels for hormones and some even sought medical intervention domestically only to be denied by both state medical boards and elected government officials (gender dysphoria and its outdated antecedent gender identity disorder were not at all in the vocabulary of most American medical institutions, let alone in governments at this time) due to “medical mayhem,” as in a “healthy organ” would not be removed. In short these were the reasons why the first known Americans got their trans medical surgeries in Europe where gatekeeping was not as restrictive and there had been studies and surgeries happening for years. The North American trans history is very much intertwined with this period of the Atomic Age, the phenomenon and iconography of which historian Susan Stryker linked to the atomic bomb in her scholarship and film on Christine Jorgensen. But back to Cronenberg, I think much like David Lynch, the innovations tied both to industrialization and medicine in the postwar mid-20th century are clearly what informs Cronenberg, who of course came of age in this period.
Mackenzie Lukenbill: Hi! Thank you for inviting me into this conversation. Sam, I’m so glad you brought up health care because I think it’s an area of study that perhaps summarizes Cronenberg’s interest in the human body more than metaphor. Post Judith Butler, queer theory has run in tandem to illness and disabilities studies in a way that has always been particularly attractive to me. I can only speak for myself, obviously, but my “coming out” as trans in my mid-twenties is inexorably tied to medical care and illness. For the first time in my life I had steady work, medical insurance, and supportive friendships with other queer and trans people. These things tend to snowball quickly—within the span of a year, when I was finally diagnosed with multiple chronic and autoimmune disorders, I used this momentum and material support to blurt out to my doctor, “By the way, let’s talk about gender.”
Cronenberg, I think, is primarily interested in what I’m going to continually refer to as biopolitics or thanatopolitics, pulling from Christopher Breu’s book Insistence of the Material. This is the idea that a capitalist society prioritizes bodies that can grease its wheels—non-normative biologies are subjected to the back of the queue if they don’t reproduce, are slow to complete tasks, or sleep too much. Cronenberg’s movies are rarely about the horror of the self, rarely about masochism, disgust or self-hatred. His films are so pertinent and enjoyable because they take great pleasure in imagining a governmental response to bodily development. The spectacle of Crimes of the Future is not so much that Viggo Mortensen has a zipper installed in his abdomen, but because of the legislative and bureaucratic fuss that ensues as a result of that act.
In When the Sick Rule the World, Dodie Bellamy has an essay called “Barf Manifesto,” on the biologically abject. Bellamy writes, “The vulnerable body subverts the forward propulsion of the narrative arc, that fantasy of progress, resolution… bodily emissions nauseate because they aren’t alive yet they come from us, bodily emissions point up our mortality, our impending thingness.” Here I have to pause and posit that Cronenberg’s movies don’t really cause much of a nauseous impulse for me—I primarily find them pretty hot. In all of his “body horror” films, Cronenberg wonders how a non-normative, non-complicit body can survive in society, and also how it can fuck. “It’s probably something you’re just gonna have to live with,” another plastic surgery patient tells Hart (Frank Moore), about the side effects of the reconstructive surgery that saved him and transmogrified his girlfriend, Rose (Marilyn Chambers), from a fiery motorcycle accident in Rabid (1977). This is primarily the response of polite society to what Breu and Bellamy would call the “disinterred,” those still forced to possess a material body despite their corporeal form not quite functioning the way the average worker does. During Crimes of the Future I continually thought of my own gastrointestinal struggles, as well as the one-stop-shop meal product Soylent. Saul Tenser can wriggle and ache in his “digestive chair” or he can simply eat a bar of synthetic plastic waste, just as we can all navigate our own allergies and intolerances, or we can consume a product made specifically for tech bros who want to maintain their productivity and skip lunch.
The Fly (1986)
WCM: I liked that you mention the sexuality and eroticism that is inherent in the work of Cronenberg. You also pinpointed another reason why queer persons admire films like Crimes of the Future when you suggest that the metaphor at hand is rooted in how non-complicit bodies survive and how they fuck. It is necessary to remember that Cronenberg’s work has always been of interest for queer viewers, and this goes beyond trans people. On the director’s commentary track for The Fly (1986) Cronenberg has a long section where he talks about the AIDS epidemic, and how when the film was released many assumed it to be a metaphor for that debilitating virus. He says he never considered the film on those terms when he was making it, but he was curious about the reaction that certain viewers might have by looking at the film through that lens. He goes on to state that for himself The Fly was about mortality and illness, which brings us back to Sam’s point about the tendency of queer viewers to co-opt films that are more easily read about disability or illness. Sexuality is a component of that film as well, with Cronenberg highlighting the athletic, nubile bodies of Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, while also looking at medical advancements and the legislation of governing bodies, as when the film interrogates whether or not Davis’s character wants to have an abortion following the discovery she became pregnant after her lover began transforming. In Cronenberg’s larger body of work all of these particular elements of non-conforming bodies, sexualities, and the medical industry intersect throughout one another in a way that makes it very easy for queer viewers to find resonance, and Crimes of the Future is no different.
Crimes feels like a culmination of these ideas, with the added benefit of its being a forward-thinking picture about these non-conforming bodies in the fullest realization of the climate crisis. The idea that he pulls from plastic is entirely straight-forward, and in the director’s notes sent out to critics ahead of the release, he spoke often about his interest in humans carrying microplastics in their bodies without an immediate negative effect. He is curious about the way the human body can change, evolve, and continue to exist, and this causes his work to brush up against transness, because the act of transition is an evolution of identity and flesh. I don’t believe that Cronenberg is expressly interested in transness being a unifying key to his work, because his films are more complicated than to suggest a single meaning or orientation, but there are incidental commonalities between his interests, and our lived experiences, with some distance made for the sake of genre.
Crimes of the Future isn’t a horror film by my own definition, and I tend to align with Caden’s thinking that it has more in common with film noir because of the token signifiers of back-alley meetings, undercover agents, and legislative bodies inserting themselves into communities they deem sexually dangerous, even if Organ Registration Agent Timlin (an excitable Cluny Brown-like Kristen Stewart) finds this world very, very exciting. In those classic American noirs, which Cronenberg would have seen throughout his childhood, those deemed sexually permissive usually bit the dust because of the limitations of the Motion Picture Production Code, and that conservative quality ends up in his work sometimes. Cinema is littered with the bodies of femme fatales, but it is also that same transgressive quality to their outward sexuality that made them an exciting contradiction of morals in the first place. Cronenberg gets the same kind of thrill out of sticking his fingers in new sexual kinks on-screen and in doing so he finds new ways of filming eroticism. Saul Tenser struggles mightily with his body, and Mortensen’s performance is so vulnerable as to be protected by the more dominant Caprice (Léa Seydoux). There is an erotic charge when they entertain the idea of sex in the autopsy device they use during their organ removal demonstrations. Even though they are ostensibly a heterosexual couple they are shaded with an otherness, because the sex that they do have is not common in the larger scope of cinema, and while it would be vital to consider something more directly queer when organizing our thoughts around queer cinema and trans film images, Cronenberg does seem to admire the dexterity in how viewers respond to his works, including trans audiences, even if he could never completely understand it, or intend for his work to be read in such a deliberate way.
SB: Mackenzie, thank you for sharing your story on the snowballing nature of healthcare as a synecdoche of post Butler theory. Not to be as trite as to use the phrase “now more than ever,” but I do think that sentiment is of particular resonance in 2022. In Clarence Thomas’s defense of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade, he stated a desire to re-evaluate the legalization of gay marriage, gay sex, and contraception. I hesitate to pontificate here about such a violently fascist legislative act at a time when direct action is far more important than art criticism, but I think it is worth noting how obviously these deviations in bodily autonomy are all universally understood as linked. The fact that this decision came at the same time as state laws across the nation are criminalizing trans kids’ access to health care and seeking to define giving children access to HRT as child abuse is no mere coincidence. I think about the first scene in Crimes, where the mother says, “Don’t go eating anything you find in there,” which sounds like a caring sentiment on first blush, only for it to become clear that this is a mother starving and (and eventually murdering) her own child. That kind of abuse disguised as care has become the foundation to contemporary American fascism. Even the image of a naked child becoming a symbol of radical bodily autonomy feels like a direct subversion of the notion that queer people are inherently groomers and sexually malicious.
Willow, I love that you brought up Saul and Caprice’s queerness. My boyfriend has developed a funny litmus test: “Anyone can say they’re in a queer relationship, but only if the sex is gay.” I think their relationship is a pretty clear example to me of what I prioritize in the media I find to be “representative,” explicitly or not. I could see two women kissing in a cartoon or a sitcom where characters come out, and that would be far less meaningful to me than an honest evocation of queer sex, of the boldness of depiciting the parts of my self and my desire that others want to regulate, the sharing of private moments of tenderness and faggotry alike.
Caden, you extrapolated such a beautiful postwar reading of the film, and I am particularly grateful to that reading’s ability to highlight something like the group. The unequivocal heroes of the film are an underground, decentralized mutual-aid group for plastic-eaters—that this such immediate action is enough to send conspiratorial shockwaves throughout an entire system of oppressive institutions is a striking feature of Cronenberg’s narrative, something he has explored throughout his entire oeuvre, present in every single one of his films in the past 15 years.
What ties all these thoughts together in my head circles back to a recent interview between health justice scholar Beatrice Adler-Bolton and trans historian Jules Gill-Peterson for The New Inquiry. In it, Gill-Peterson suggests, “Disabled people, sexual minorities, and trans people are cast as bourgeois and decadent in part because their subjectivity has been reduced to cultural value.” This is a fascinating take, I think, to consider in the context of Crimes’ various shows, a medium typically associated with the elite art world racket. “Everybody wants to be a performance artist these days.” Yet I cannot stop thinking about how the organ registry is part of a Vice Unit; how Welket Bungue’s detective character ignores his own genetic abnormalities; how the government has long covertly funded artistic movements and presses in order to gain control over culture. I think the final act of espionage in the film, the double hit from the engineers, pulling the film back into the gore of Cronenberg’s early work, and Timlin’s sabotage of the autopsy (which transforms a revolutionary political act into something immaterial and individual), is a damning indictment of how discussions and art about non-normative bodies can distract from and directly harm those in most need of direct support. Cronenberg’s choice to implicate his own filmography into that, while also illustrating throughout the film why his work has been so influential, renders Crimes as a uniquely self-referential experience, though it mostly prompts me to consider the future of trans cinema more than focusing on anything within the work itself.
Crimes of the Future (2022)
CMG: Willow, I am happy you brought up the whole disaster capitalism aspect of this film’s whole plot of “microplastics.” I think if even there was no trans reading for me to find within this film, this would have been my hook. Perhaps it is because I grew up against the backdrop of an industrial environmental disaster by my hometown’s biggest employer, but I think, even in films like Paul Schrader’s First Reformed or Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters, people don’t want to directly confront disastrous environmental impact on bodies, whether potentially rendering them unable to reproduce or developing cancer or other chronic diseases; the long-term effects of climate change; or living with chemicals in your bloodstream because of a transnational corporation’s greed. To go back to my postwar film noir reading, I think in seeing how the post-war made out with these North American companies who went from making bombs and chemicals to destroy enemies to making appliances and fertlizers for the nuclear families in the suburbs, that the insidious undercurrent of these industries revealed in the subsequent decades that they harmed many people in the name of the “American Dream.” What happens in this film very much mirrors environmental disasters done by corporations who very much knew the risks and ignored their own studies in order to reap their profits. In Crimes of the Future, there is no prescription in the mainstream marketplace—or policy-wise—for this disturbing discovery about microplastics; instead those impacted by this unchecked, unregulated catastrophe have the onus placed on them. Government’s failure and unaccountability has only pushed people underground, their lives either ending in death at the hands of those who see them as problems or as a new target for policed bodies when their failures brought them to this very situation.
I think Mackenzie’s points and references also are tied to this idea of late capitalism, where hyperproductivity has yielded not so much innovation as neo-serfdom. The other side effect of human innovation in Crimes of the Future is widely perceived within that world as a positive one—the kind that does lend itself to the neo-serfs as hyperproductive—in which “everyone” no longer experiences pain or infectious disease, except Saul and those like the child Brecken. The notion that pain can no longer be felt could also be read as how we collectively have become increasingly desensitized to the images of pain and suffering due to the technological advances of moving images and media—not to mention the instantaneous feedback loop of these captured moments of trauma—which is where I am sure the connection lies in this film about an artist. To echo the quote Sam mentioned, “Everybody wants to be a performance artist these days,” could be seen as a riff on the “democratized” (except it is actually heavily censored and monetized through cooked algorithms) version of social media and contemporary moving images from phones. I am sure there can be negative readings of Cronenberg feeling like the grumpy old man for introducing this rather facetiously as the so-called advance of the human race, but he obviously centers the non-normative, aging body of Saul, who did not have the luck to receive this new nervous system. Yet Saul’s minority status in terms of his body is in many ways what makes him a major name in the art world and how producing these organs, his art, is something that brings him immense pain—and notoriety—as a medical phenomenon.
Sam, I agree with you that bodily autonomy amid the horrific strikedown of Roe vs. Wade calls for an understanding that while there are various nuances in each of these struggles, whether being trans, disabled, or having a uterus (shout out to anyone, like myself, who fall into at least two of these categories), there are links to these struggles. And this is not just because they are all currently under attack from far-right forces and questionable centrists whose prejudices are clouding a broader perspective of these struggles being linked. It is only recently these struggles have been quite properly situated together in mainstream, and part of this delayed solidarity was the doing of medical gatekeeping (the Harry Benjamin/WPATH Standards of Care was ultimately used by predominantly white, cis, male medical professionals to care for only a certain kind of trans person and trans body who had to have a certain sexual orientation until necessary, overdue updates were made).
In terms of Crimes of the Future, it is ultimately moving to see how the horrifying defilement of Brecken becomes the catalyst for Saul to take his next path, a potential way out of pain even if it means trading off what makes him famous. The last shot signifies both an end and a beginning, the kind of intersection felt by certain trans people in their steps toward liberation amid being in flux and untethered from their previous source of pain. I have seen people consider the ending of this film abrupt, but I cannot imagine it ending any other way.
WCM: With this film we have a constellation of very timely concerns regarding disaster capitalism and the threat of bodily control by the state colliding with Cronenberg’s familiar visual patterns. Crimes of the Future isn’t too far removed from eXistenZ or Cosmopolis in what it wants to convey, but the world that these characters inhabit is so precisely rendered with a scabrous failing of systems and organizations that it feels new for him. There’s an inborn chaos at hand and a community of like-minded individuals living in opposition (in this case the plastic eaters), who offer some hope on a wider scale, but on an individual one we see Saul Tenser recognizing the potential meaninglessness of his own art and a possible revolutionary path through the potential promised by Brecken’s corpse. If we take this back to transness, and even other persons whose bodies and actions are subject to potential control, it makes me wonder if Cronenberg’s obsession with bodies can only be so complete, because he is only an artist.
With the falling of Roe vs. Wade, which happened in the middle of this conversation, I’ve wondered what the potential benefits art might have in the wake of the Supreme Court’s vile ruling. While I do believe art can open the eyes of a viewer on an individual level, I also believe there is a lack of sustained change in merely being a viewer or an artist. I think those limitations are clearly considered in Crimes of the Future, and I believe that film also wonders if art still has any usefulness if we are all meant to perish. It’s the sort of thing we usually see artists reckon with at the end of their careers, but younger people are also considering such possibilities in the wake of the climate crisis. And with things getting worse by the day, art begins to feel more and more like it cannot act as a foundation, but it can do what it always does, and that’s interrogate the world we live in.