DAVID CRONENBERG: EVOLUTION

geoffreygunn_cronenbergexhibition

Clearly, you’ve come to the right place when the three signs above the entrance portals read: “Canadian Academy for Erotic Enquiry”, “Cathode Ray Mission”, and finally, “Spectacular Optical.” Yes, friends, welcome to David Cronenberg’s Toronto.

The long-promised and enormously hyped David Cronenberg: Evolution exhibit – for a while here in Toronto, you couldn’t wait at a bus stop or attend a film-related anything without “Long Life the New Flesh” adverts and info pamphlets – is as comprehensive as you could possible hope for, and a mostly chronological, thoughtfully arranged labyrinth through the architect of body horror.

It’s a big deal for the Toronto International Film Festival’s Bell Lightbox cinema, Toronto’s undisputed and best-budgeted leader in inventive film programming in a city spoiled with rep cinema options. Twenty years in the works, this project is indeed extra special because unlike other major TIFF exhibits – James Bond, Tim Burton, the upcoming Stanley Kubrick showcase – this is not a museum tour that started in New York or London. This is 100% homegrown, and will certainly hammer the point home with an exploding head that subversive Toronto cinema has a place in the world’s film history beyond Rob Ford drunken stupor clips.

So, what will you see? The centerpiece for many is inevitably a full-size prop telepod from THE FLY (1986) sitting right next to the Ducati motorcycle engine that inspired its ribbed, egg-like design in the first place. It’s a stunner. Next in line is the flesh-gun pressing through a television’s stretched-skin tube, perhaps the most iconic images from VIDEODROME (1983). But for disciples of Cronenberg’s early years as a student of the Canadian Academy for Erotic Inquiry, it’s a blast to take that first step into the main room and see Ronald Mlodzik’s cape/poncho and pendant from Cronenberg’s first feature length film experiment, STEREO (1969).

geoffreygunn_cronenbergexhibition-Videodrome FleshTV

But I suspect many will beeline next door to the two parasitic aphrodisiac worms from SHIVERS (1975), and across the hall to a bound copy of Hal Raglan’s Psychoplasmics textbook, “The Face of Rage” from THE BROOD (1979). Nearby – and make sure to look in the unmarked drawers on the ground, as I missed ‘em the first time – there are plenty of lower key gems like the “Fast Co.” racing team T-shirt from FAST COMPANY (1979) and “Stillson for Senator” shirts from THE DEAD ZONE (1983).

eXistenZ (1999) gets a surprising amount of coverage, probably the most of any film alongside THE FLY and NAKED LUNCH (which has a separate “Interzone” room all to itself). This film’s creature creations are all over the place, an extensive collection of gooey, foam latex creations, though the mock-ups of THE FLY transformation stages are what you’re here for. eXistenZ umbilical cords and bio-ports also line the walls near the “Cathode Ray Mission” where a handful of Cronenberg shorts play on loop, including his latest, THE NEST, commissioned exclusively for the exhibit. It’s a single shot POV of a doctor (voiced by Cronenberg) interviewing a woman (Evelyne Brochu), who’s made the request for a very unorthodox breast operation. The scummy concrete operating room seems to be David’s actual garage.

There are some gorgeous costumes on display from M. BUTTERFLY (1993), designed by Denise Cronenberg (David’s sister), but more compelling are the body braces from CRASH (1996), which look about as chilling and purposeless and unbearably uncomfortable as the Beverly brothers’ “Instruments for Operating on Mutant Women” gynecological tools from DEAD RINGERS (1988), laid out in a display case. These instruments were the showstopper for me – or at least, I thought as much until I spotted Cronenberg’s script samples and plot synopses from the early 70s, when the recently graduated up-and-comer was trying to pitch a series of sex films to pioneering “maple syrup porn” production company Cinépix, who eventually produced SHIVERS (1975) and RABID (1977) and launched Cronenberg’s professional career.

If you ever wanted a sense of how deep Cronenberg’s obsessions go, there were at least four (!!) unfilmed scripts and outlines on hand concerning sexy and strange gynecological misadventures, including one called something like “Dr. Pagan, Gynecologist” (forgive me if I got the name wrong!). But nothing in the whole showroom is as laugh out loud funny as a VIDEODROME test screening feedback card with the generic question: “What did you especially dislike or would like changed in the movie?” In huge underlined letters, some embittered joker wrote: “SUCKED.”

In the NAKED LUNCH area, a photo booth is set up to take a picture of you next to a mugwump – those Greedo-looking creatures from the film – who’s chilling at a bar. It’s a real Disneyland moment, and I confess I felt a bit awkward mugging for the camera like a tourist inside Burroughs’ brain, especially while my eyes were locked on another mugwump, this one bound and tied inside a glass case (no interactive jism drinking, regrettably). It was also pretty remarkable to see the word “anus” used so much in a museum context, in numerous references to the insectoid typewriter with a thirst for hallucinogenic bug poison, incarnations of which are peppered throughout “Interzone”.

Dave with Mugwump 1

David Bertrand hangs with a mugwump

From the less visceral later pictures, A DANGEROUS METHOD (2011) is mostly represented by period piece costumes and a recreation of Sigmund Freud’s bizarre narrow-backed custom-made desk chair (now Cronenberg’s bizarre narrow-backed custom-made desk chair). EASTERN PROMISES (2007) features a top-opening maquette of the Trans-Siberian Restaurant where the Russian mafia conducts its shady business, a very cool piece of tradition production design. And I was surprised by how much time I spent examining a fascinating series of photos from COSMOPOLIS (2012), showing the complicated gear rigging set up around the deconstructed limousine, to shoot the single set film inside a green-screened studio.

But this is all just the tip of the ’berg. Make a trip and see it yourself if you can. Incredible to see firsthand such dark and challenging material presented as a major work of hometown pride, in a way that we Canadians usually only see reserved for the Group of Seven painters or maybe Leonard Cohen. It’s been a remarkable 40+ year uphill climb for the filmmaker who was publicly lambasted upon the release of SHIVERS with headlines like: “You Should Know How Bad This Movie Is, You Paid For It.” Well, here in 2013 the governments of Canada, Ontario and the City of Toronto are the exhibit’s major supporters, and proud of it.

Upstairs on the 4th floor there’s an additional add-on (free admission) called the Body/Mind/Change Lab. Here you can create a pod creature – something about eXistenZ blobs in mason jars. Even though I don’t fully grasp the concept, and mostly was encouraged to go home, get on the computer, log on to the TIFF website and follow the program, then return later – I appreciate that the staff wore lab suits and stuck in character. Quite a change from the gallery staff downstairs, who were, unfortunately, the only real disappointments of the experience. One guy was hammering and drilling for about 30 minutes straight (why this couldn’t have happened before or after closing hours, I have no idea), while the rest of the staff wandered around and loudly gossiped. It was a slow afternoon at TIFF, I guess. Still.

On the way out, a “Long Live the New Flesh” baby onesie at the well stocked TIFF book & gift store will set you back $22, a “Civic-TV” T-shirt, $45. The accompanying film series, covering Cronenberg’s entire filmography and then some, is playing throughout the coming months and often with amazing guests (I was lucky enough to see Jeremy Irons and David Cronenberg present DEAD RINGERS). There are discount deals if you buy a movie ticket plus entrance to the exhibition. If you’re anywhere near Toronto at the end of 2013 and love cinema, it’s a no-brainer.

For more details including exhibit hours and prices, see the TIFF website HERE.

geoffgunn_cronenbergmediaday-David Cronenberg, Piers Handling, Noah Cowan, mugwump

David Cronenberg with TIFF’s Piers Handling and Noah Cowan

All photos courtesy of TIFF, Geoffrey Gunn.

About the author:

David Bertrand

David Bertrand is the Operations Manager for the Fantasia International Film Festival, a writer for Fangoria Magazine and DJ at Toronto's Fear Street.

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