Eastern Promises

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.

8 Responses to “Eastern Promises”

  1. John C. Turner says:

    Could the problem be that Eastern Promises is about people going to great lengths and through many changes to come back to the same thing they were trying to escape? As if in The Fly a man had transformed through a messy biological process into another man?

  2. Interesting point about the technology because now that I think about it, it is almost like Cronenberg consciously banishes technology from Eastern Promises. What kind of information systems are they relying on – a paper diary, a business card? I don’t think there is one cell phone in the movie which is unusual these days. Perhaps in a way, Cronenberg is resurrecting some kind of archaic structures of masculinity by having his characters operate in this sort of Old World pre-technology arena. Certainly the bathhouse scene could be something from one of these recent movies about ancient Rome or Greece. I hadn’t thought about the absence of technology actually almost connoting a presence in its absence. Maybe rather than being a flaw or weak point in the film, this leads to some new kind of thinking and answering to technology culture. I don’t know. Too busy to think this out, but I like where it’s taking me.

    Regarding the Naomi Watts character, the thing is that she has potential to be really interesting. She’s a mid-wife and as such answers to this masculine pipe dream of wanting to reproduce without women (think of The Fly). She herself is somewhat masculine-identified (She rides a motorcycle; she can’t give birth), yet in the end she is just a regular woman in a dress, in a garden, loving on her baby. In the end, are women always going to be women and men always going to be men? I think the problem with her character is that Cronenberg wasn’t quite sure how to integrate a woman into this overtly male narrative. While structurally she is helping us read the film in interesting ways, ultimately her character is flawed, shallow, and dangling like a loose idea. I just experienced this same filmic symptom watching Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah (which I’ll write about soon).

    This makes me think of David Lynch who does women so well. All his masculine angst is projected onto females and as such he is able to deliver amazingly powerful complex studies of female sexuality and masculine angst. Lynch knows how to do women.

    Anyway, just a few random thoughts.

    Kim

  3. Regarding the lack of technology: I don’t remember seeing one single gun in the film. All the killings are done with knifes.
    Regarding the end and Naomi Watts as “just a regular woman in a dress, in a garden, loving on her baby”. This sunlit scenary seems somehow out of place. Is this real, or is it Nikolai/Viggo Mortensen imagining the kind of ending he wish for.

  4. I read an interview with Cronenberg where he said there are no guns. He chose knives for bodily intimacy and balletics. I don’t remember the exact quote, but I’ll look it up because it was interesting.

    You’re right about the end. It is oddly surreal, like some kind of dream. There is something about it that is not grounded in reality. I guess we’re left to inscribe our own meaning on it since we are given no details other than what we see. It’s also odd that Naomi Watts is wearing a dress in that scene — a very old fashioned dress — since in the rest of the movie she’s always in pants to the point of near drag.

  5. Found the Cronenberg interview, and it looks like I remembered incorrectly and was projecting my own meaning into the knives (e.g. bodily intimacy) though that is what Amy Taubin suggests, I guess. Here’s the quote I was thinking about from the Cronenberg interview:

    Amy Taubin: Also, knife violence is different from gun violence. And because it’s shot so close, the violence is very sexualized.

    Cronenberg: We have no guns in this movie. There were no guns in the script. The choice of those curved knives we us in the steam bath was mine. They’re not some kind of exotic Turkish knives, they’re linoleum knives. I felt these guys could walk around the streets with these knives, and if they were ever caught, they could say “we’re linoleum cutters.” It’s almost like they’re using their knives to re-tattoo Nikolai and change his identity by changing the marks on his skin.

  6. Thanks for the quote. That’s very interesting. If we presume the baby was born by cesarean, then the knife is significant here too. The knife is instrumental in birth as well as in death. Further, the baby is changing Anna’s identity, so in a certain sense she is “re-tattooed” as well.

  7. nihil says:

    Interesting … haven’t seen the film yet, but looking forward to it even more now. Just had to add to the gender discussion: just how is riding a motorcycle “somewhat masculine-identified”?

  8. Drew Kimmis says:

    I saw this interview as well Kim, and speaking of this personalization of violence through the knives, I thought it was interesting that Cronenberg referenced The Departed. In that film, the violence, in stark contrast to the more visceral workings in EP, is exclusively gun driven and cold. The key scenes in both stand in direct contrast to each other. As deeply personal and sexual as the bathhouse scene is in EP, the final rooftop killings in The Departed are blind and removed. I think this ties nicely with the gun/knife dynamic at play here, and the deeper issue of the “de-personalization” of violence in this type of hyper-masculine environment.

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