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The Return of Jewish Body Horror

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Sean Alexander featured

In the first of two articles, Sean Alexander explores the films of Brandon Cronenberg.

‘Long Live the New Flesh’ has become a mantra for the underlying themes in the films of David Cronenberg, long since it was first uttered by Max Renn (James Woods) in the climactic scene of 1983’s Videodrome. Cronenberg’s tracking of humanity’s ongoing relationship with technology, by forging new forms of humanity, philosophy and even sexuality, is evident in his films from Shivers (1975) to Maps to the Stars (2014), and this ‘new flesh’ has always been some meditation on aberrant physicality, psychology or procreation.

David Cronenberg’s directorial oeuvre seems to have permanently stalled since the release of Maps to Stars, with ongoing rumours of anything up to three projects stuck in ‘development hell’. It is therefore some consolation to discover that the director’s own ‘new flesh’ in the form of son Brandon Cronenberg has in part taken up the mantle of ‘showing the unshowable, filming the unfilmable’. Given that Cronenberg’s own relationship with his Jewish heritage has often been repressed and obliquely coded throughout his films, the work of son Brandon similarly yields an interesting subtext of Jewish themes and readings.  Not to mention that, by returning to the same sort of body-centric meditations on physicality altered by technological progress that made his father’s name, Brandon Cronenberg is fulfilling the desires of many hardcore Cronenberg-ites by producing the kind of material his father himself has largely divested himself of since at least the late 1990s.

The first example of this ‘new flesh for old’ is 2012’s Antiviral, an engaging if largely emotionally disconnected tale of drug smuggling, disease and corporate control that already chimes with much of Cronenberg Snr’s early output. Caleb Landry Jones plays Syd March, a technician and salesman for a company called The Lucas Clinic, offering the ultimate connoisseur experience for obsessed fans in some future world where celebrity culture has somehow become more obsessive and personalised than it already is. Like Videodrome, the Lucas Clinic has a philosophy – ‘celebrities are not people, but group hallucination’. Syd sells vials of celebrity ‘diseases’, or bespoke samples of viruses contracted by the rich and famous for which their loyal fanbase is eager to pay top dollar in order to achieve the ultimate connection with their muses.

Chief among these celebrities is Hannah Geist (played by Sarah Gadon, a regular in father, David’s later films) whose blemish-free, China doll features make up much of the Lucas Clinic’s billboards and virtual advertising campaign. The herd-like obsession with Geist by her followers also claims Syd, who we discover has been smuggling out samples of the company’s product for his own use at home by removing their copyright protection. Syd replaces a colleague to extract further blood samples from the bedridden Geist like some vampiric blood-donor in a world where plasma has become the ultimate corporate commodity.

From the film’s very first scene, Syd exhibits all the characteristics of the stereotypical sickly, terminally ill, Jew. His pallor and complexion are deathly white, pale red lips permanently wrapped around a thermometer while he sits juxtaposed in front of a huge billboard showing Hannah Geist’s pixel-perfect face. Later, when we see Syd return to his basic, impersonal apartment, he lies sweat-soaked and feverish in white bedsheets, in a room of little or no personal effects, with only a bedside fridge (stocked with nasal swabs and vials) and kitchen fridge (stocked with individual orange juice bottles and plastic-wrapped sandwiches).

Syd’s Kafkaesque tuberculotic condition will only worsen as the film goes on, especially when he is purposely infected with a new strain of disease via his regular pickings from Hannah Geist’s donations. His stooped walk with the aid of a stick belies his otherwise youthful condition, much as father Cronenberg showed the debilitating effects of disease and disuse on protagonists Seth Brundle in The Fly (1986) and Johnny Smith in The Dead Zone (1983). 

Similarly, Syd seems to have little more than a perfunctory relationship with his work colleagues and bosses, retreating to his apartment alone and estranged like some Jewish loner or outsider. He has no personal life, sexual interest or indeed family. For a young man clearly sick of (and sickened by) his job, Syd holds little hope of salvation beyond discovering who has infected him mortally and how can he find the cure.

Knowingly or not, Brandon Cronenberg includes several ‘easter egg’ rewards for devotees of his father’s work. The relationship between Syd and Arvid (Joe Pingue) echoes that between Max Renn and Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) in Videodrome, both benefactors of and persecutors of each other for mutual gain. Arvid runs a butcher’s selling cuts of ‘meat’ harvested from the muscle cells of celebrities (a cheaper and more downmarket spin on celebrity consumer culture), and introduces Syd to Levine (James Cade), a rival smuggler working for another clinic, Vole & Tesser. 

The clinics operate in mutual competition in much the way the Cathode Ray Mission and Spectacular Optical fight for Max’s soul in Videodrome. Syd is similarly comparable with any number of Jewish Cronenberg scientists in that he (foolishly) tests his own product on himself, with mortal consequences. By now, Hannah’s infections have stretched to a new variant, somewhat prophetically so from China (like the rumoured origins of COVID-19 as Borat called it, the ‘Wuhan flu’). When Syd discovers that her own death is faked to prevent rival factions from obtaining her valuable, disease-ridden blood, he is offered a position with Vole & Tesser, both as demonstrator and technician. With Hannah’s designer-gene blood now held in suspension in a ‘living coffin’ (or ‘afterlife capsule’), Syd’s unaddressed addiction compels him to cut her arm and drink from it in some bizarre fusion of vampiric suckling and cunnilingus.

While Brandon Cronenberg’s debut premiered during 2012’s Cannes Film Festival (alongside his father’s Cosmopolis), it failed to make back much of its estimated $3.2 million budget.  Nevertheless, it garnered mostly positive reviews, some of which even managed to barely mention the director’s familial links and thematic coincidences.

It would however be some eight years before Brandon Cronenberg would unveil any follow-up. 

All photos: Alliance Films

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Sean Alexander is a PhD Candidate at Bangor University, exploring Jewishness and Judaism in the films of David Cronenberg.
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