David Cronenberg’s latest, Eastern Promises, is a powerful movie, better than nearly anything else (David Lynch aside) being made in the English-speaking world these days. But even though it had a powerful impact, I felt blank afterwards thinking about what could be said about it. This has something to do with Cronenberg’s tightness and closure: like many of his more recent films, Eastern Promises is so tightly organized, and so perfectly self-enclosed, that it doesn’t leave the viewer with any wriggle room. But also, Eastern Promises seems less interesting, somehow, than Cronenberg’s previous excursion into the crime/gangster genre, A History of Violence.
This is partly the result of the films’ respective directions of focus. Where A History of Violence focused on both American genre assumptions and on American society more generally, with Cronenberg the Canadian able to view the USA both from inside and from outside, Eastern Promises entirely displaces its focus onto a group of exoticized Others (Russian gangsters in London). There is no inside perspective, and hence no inside critique, but only an outward one. This has the advantage of presenting Masculinity as something bizarre, ritualized, and coded (rather as being in any way “natural”); but it has the disadvantage of not reflecting back upon the film’s primary (American, and more generally, Western) audience. This is made all the stranger, or more estranging, by the curious fact that all the major Russian characters are played by non-Russian actors: they are, respectively, Danish-American (Viggo Mortensen), French (Vincent Cassel), German (Armin Mueller-Stahl), and Polish (Jerzy Skloimowski). Cronenberg masters an amazing combination of visceral grippingness and radical estrangement; I think this is a brilliant combination, but I also can’t help feeling that, in Eastern Promises, the result is just too icily perfect, or too closed.
Kim has already discussed in brilliant detail how Eastern Promises is yet another Cronenberg excursion into the visceral dimensions of masculinity. The rituals of the Russian gangsters are all about male embodiment, and the way that masculine anguish and masculine recognition alike are grounded in the flesh. Tis is reflected in everything from the fight and murder scenes, which do not dwell on the violence, but are direct and abrupt enough as not to be for the squeamish, to the full-body tattoos that are the gangsters’ signifiers of power, status, and belonging. They are incised visibly in the flesh because every aspect of power — from Armin Mueller-Stahl’z vicious avuncularity to Vincent Cassell’s dissoluteness to Viggo Mortensen’s impassive more-than-cool — has to be enacted and embodied, in order to be effective.
On the other hand, the one important female character, played by Naomi Watts, is entirely marginalized. Despite the fact that she is a kind of surrogate for the viewer, and that her investigations — stumbling unexpectedly upon a dangerous underworld that has existed in proximity to her, but unseen and unfelt, all this time– are what lead us into the heart of the film — despite all this, she nonetheless doesn’t really enter into the affect of the story at all. The sexual attractiveness of Viggo Mortensen isn’t really channeled through her sensibility at all; and her curiosity about her Russian father’s past, and her urgings toward motherhood, are the most conventionalized (and therefore least reworked, least energized) aspects of the pregiven genre that Cronenberg is otherwise so energetically reworking.
In other words, it’s all about the men. I entirely agree with Kim’s suggestions as to how Eastern Promises reworks (under the guise of gangster fiction) Cronenberg’s body obsessions in his earlier work like Videodrome (which of course is as much about ritualized masculinity, and its dismembering or “castration” when James Wood’s belly turns into a VCR-cum-vaginal-slit). But what I miss in Eastern Promises is the sense I get from Scanners and Videodrome and The Fly of something crazily transformative — the metamorphoses of the flesh. My friend William Beard (the author of a massive and very smart and detailed book about Cronenberg) sees those earlier films as being basically about masculine angst, and unreservedly horrified at the loss of male power, virility, and authority. But I think that those earlier films are also deeply hilarious in some way that (obviously without being sappily new-agey and upbeat) nonetheless points to the “joy of becoming” even amidst the horrors of self-destruction (to paraphrase Nietzsche a bit).
And this has something to do with the fact that these earlier films are also directly about “new media” and new technologies, in ways that Cronenberg’s more recent films are not. I mean, James Woods’ orifice is not simply a vagina; it is a VCR as well. And this is related to the way that, as Woods is told in the course of the film, the forces fighting over the Videodrome technology — the corporate fascists at Spectacular Optical and the new-age social activists led Bianca O’Blivion and her late father, the McLuhanoid Brian O’Blivion — are political,in ways that he, Woods, is not. Because communications media, and expressive media, are directly political in their own right. This is a much broader sense of the “new flesh,” and of politics, than the mere power struggles (who’s going to be the boss? what role will the governments play?) that are the ultimate background to the masculine rituals of Eastern Promises.
This larger sense of a technology that is also a politics, and the consequent intimations of transformation — not of something better, let alone utopian, but at least of some dynamism of becoming — is missing in nearly all of Cronenberg’s more recent films. Which is why films like Spider (and also, alas, even the Burroughs and Ballard adaptations) really do seem to me to be just about masculine angst and dissolution. Which is why I felt bummed and depressed about them, despite their masterfulness and tragic intensity. To a certain extent, by making himself into a formally more powerful and contained director, by transcending or giving up the sloppiness and (even) exploitativeness of his earlier films, Cronenberg in effect undermined his films’ very significance. The recent films are aesthetically superior to the earlier ones (taking “aesthetically” in a narrowly formalist sense), but there is something sterile about them: their fascination is too narrowly focused, too contained. A History of Violence represented something of a change of direction, and, I thought, a substantial reinvigoration. But Eastern Promises, despite being the same genre as A History of Violence, somehow doesn’t seem anywhere near as fresh or as thoughtful (or affectful). This is all relative, of course: I only find Cronenberg at fault because I expect so much more of him. I am holding him to higher standards than I do most other contemporary filmmakers. But a lot more needs to be said than I managed to say in the past (when I wrote academically about him) about the allure of techno-metamorphosis in Cronenberg’s earlier films, and why this is neither a geeky utopia nor mere masculinist backlash, but something orthogonal to the categories we are stuck in when we discuss either masculinity or media. I don’t know if I will ever manage to get back to this. But I think there are still things to discover in Cronenberg’s earlier horror films that I don’t see being taken up in his more recent work — nor in any work in the horror genre that I have come across recently.