10 Observations on 'Crimes of the Future'
Adam Lehrer on Cronenberg's first film since 2014
The Medium is the Message
This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium — that is, of any extension of ourselves — result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology. – Marshall McLuhan
In Cronenberg’s first feature since 2014’s masterfully bizarre Hollywood satire Maps to the Stars, Crimes of the Future (the title of which is taken from a student film project made by the auteur in the early ‘70s), Viggo Mortensen and Léa Seydoux are performance artists of a murky and deliberately ill-defined techno-dystopic future. Within that future, humans endure disturbing evolutionary changes: the loss of all physical pain, the disappearance of all infectious disease, and the growth of new organs that alter the very nature of human nervous systems. Mortensen’s Saul Tenser regularly grows new and indeterminate organs and sees them as cancerous growths that must be removed. To illuminate upon his plight, he offers his growths up as transgressive body art spectacle. In bizarre but compelling performative rituals, he has Seydoux’s Caprice tattoo the organs before she performs surgery to remove them before an adoring and utterly compelled crowd of art enthusiasts.
Perhaps even stranger than the artists’ process is the immense fame with which they are depicted having. Both Tenser and his partner Caprice are akin to widely renown, Kanye level celebrity artists of today. Given Cronenberg’s already infamous appreciation for McLuhan — the character of Brian Oblivion in Videodrome is accepted as a stand-in for the famed media theorist — it’s nigh impossible to look at Crimes of the Future and not look back upon the thinker’s prophecies. As the technologies evolve, so do the mediums. And the medium IS the message. With the advent of FM radio came the rise of rock n’ roll and popular music as the most important artistic expression of the 1960s. The mainstreaming of the Internet facilitated the rise of memes and their dispersion as the medium message of now. And in Crimes of the Future, where rapid technological advancement has plundered the Earth to such a degree that human bodies are evolving to meet the demands of the new environment, body artists are the new rock stars. The body becomes the medium – the central locus of philosophical fascination. The body becomes the message. Hallefuckinglujah.
The murdering of young children might be one of the last taboos in cinema. There are only a handful of films to ever cross that threshold, and Cronenberg might now be the most prestigious filmmaker to demonstrate the courage to kill a kid on screen. Crimes of the Future opens with a young boy living in some idyllic respite from the infrastructural decay of the broader world (though the film is shot in Athens, it is only these first shots that look like Athens). It all seems normal, if a bit ominous, until we see the boy devouring a trash can – consuming it with the kind of joyously ravenous hunger with which kids shovel chocolate pudding into their mouths. Then, we see the boy’s mother approach him in his sleep, place a pillow over his face, and suffocate him until he runs out of breath and dies.
The child murder is the film’s thesis and the ghost that perpetually haunts its obtuse narrative. In Bataille’s treatise on 16th Century child murderer Gilles des Rais, he proclaims that in all monstrosity is a kind of childishness. In Crimes of the Future, children’s bodies are the objects of the monstrous tendencies that emerge from the despair that accrues when adults are incapable of controlling nature. The murdered boy in the film, Brecken, is the first child born with a digestive system evolved to cope with the modern world. Instead of letting nature take its course, his mother (Lihi Kornohowski) brutally intervenes, terrified of where nature is headed. In our world, when children express static around their genders, do we let them be? No, we intervene. We ply them with hormones and — even more worrisome — surgeries, trapping their divergent energies and authentic weirdness in tightly bureaucratized medical spaces of control. We’ve made children’s bodies the avatars of our own macabre neurosis, destroying their minds and bodies to justify our own hysterical need to make sense of the insensible.
Artists as Angst-Ridden Control Freaks
Tenser and Caprice defy traditional expectations of artists’ mentalities. They are not embracing of nor even a bit inquisitive about the nature of Tenser’s bodily changes. Their public surgeries as performance art refuse to acknowledge the possibility that Tenser’s new organs could be a natural process of human evolution – instead, they are declarative statements of rejection. Caprice says that the removals of Tenser’s organs are akin to the removals of cancerous growths, and Tenser seems to agree for the majority of the film. It isn’t until Tenser meets people outside of his own niche milieu that his perspective starts to shift, and he starts letting the organs grow.
The artists in the film appear to be obesessed with the alteration of the body; but only in ways that are both aesthetically provocative and tightly controlled. Cronenberg shows us a dancer who sows his lips shut (emphasizing the society’s absence of physical pain) before breaking into some dance that appears as if an unholy conjuring of Butoh and contemporary movements, all while the audience gawks at the dozens of ears that are embedded into the entirety of his body. Later, Caprice attends the opening of a beautiful artist whose work consists of her obscenely gorgeous visage being mangled and sliced open. They are all enthusiastic about alterations of the body — the beautiful artist proclaims that plastic surgeons can’t imagine slicing a woman’s face to make it uglier due to lack of imagination — so long as the artists themselves are the ones controlling the mutations. Tenser and Caprice, even though some characters in the film believe that Tenser subconsciously wills his own growths, are the only artists dealing with mutations outside their control, and they reject them.
Intriguingly, Tenser and Caprice’s rejection of Tenser’s “cancers” is consistent with the party line espoused by the one political entity of control clearly depicted in the film. Tenser is approached by Detective Cope of “The New Vice Unit” to infiltrate a group of radical evolutionists. It seems Cronenberg might be paying attention here to Safety Propaganda, because he accurately identifies the role that artists play in enforcing state ideology and systematizing or neutralizing emergences of transgression that are beyond the reach of the control of the state. “We couldn’t let that happen,” says Detective Cope after sabotaging a live autopsy on Brecken to be performed by Tenser and Saul that would show the world that Brekcen’s mutations were natural. “It would change everything.” Cronenberg understands that true freedom can’t happen in a system of logical rhetoric. Artists don’t reject the narratives of the state, they try to change the nature of the state to make it more accepting of their own particular weirdness. That’s why we don’t have Pierre Molinier – a perverted autogynephile who masturbated to himself dressed as a woman, free from all systems of control. We have Julianne Huxtable – a trans woman begging to be liked and accepted. Artists don’t just accept the framing of the ISA, they actively shape, inform, and enforce it.
The reception of Crimes of the Future has been lukewarm. The reception of Maps to the Stars was lukewarm. The reception to Cosmopolis was lukewarm. The majority of Cronenberg’s work has earned a lukewarm reception before a 10 year gestation period would see each individual film earning status as a cult masterpiece and insightful and prophetic artistic oddity. Crimes of the Future will likely be no different, and I will again be vindicated. I assume there will be complaint fags saying they hate this film now that will be saying in 10 years they’ve always loved it (and honestly, more respect to all of those that CAN make snap judgements and stick with them over time)… Even if it’s not a truly great film, it will be one that stays with you and gnaws at you for some time after. When art leaves this kind of impact, its reception usually evolves over time.
Gore Vidal said that “There’s something about a bureaucrat that doesn’t like a poem,” but the bureaucrats in Cronenberg’s uncanny future are nothing less than bonafide aesthetes. A fascinating singularity emerges between the various institutions within Crimes of the Future. The performance art world as represented by Tenser and Caprice directly intersects with shadowy government bureaucracies, as represented by the bizarre officials of the “National Organ Registry,” Timlin (Kristen Stewart) and Wippet (Don McKellar). The two investigators of the Registry started their work as a practice of obsessively cataloging Tenser’s art organ by organ, but by the beginning of the film have taken on a more directly political role in documenting organ growths so the government can limit human evolution. Tenser then works undercover for the New Vice Unit using the worship he enjoys as an art icon to embed himself into subversive groups of radical evolutionists.
Art, law enforcement, and government research are all one single organism united by the solitary goal of maintaining a rapidly withering status quo. “Bureaucracy is wrong as a cancer,” writes Burroughs in Naked Lunch. “A turning away from the human evolutionary direction of infinite potentials and differentiation and independent spontaneous action to the complete parasitism of a virus.” Bureaucracy is a virus, and when the virus faces extinction it spreads faster and harder. The nexus of power in Crimes of the Future is under imminent threat from human evolutionary changes that threaten to upend the entire infrastructure, so it makes perfect sense that it would spread and infect any and all spheres of influence up to and including the art world. But is this so different from the world that we live in now? The Western status quo is under the assault of its own infrastructural and political decay. Perhaps this is why our culture industries function as little more than powerful propaganda arms of power itself. Cronenberg remains insightful here.
“Surgery is the New Sex” and Technologically Induced Impotence
This is what Timlin, mesmerized by the power of Tenser’s performances, whispers into his ear after watching his organs removed for the first time. Later, Timlin attempts to seduce Tenser in her office, Stewart looking beautiful and sexually enticing in a kind of feral and unpredictable manner, and Tenser at first seems amenable to her sexual longings. But during a passionately full kiss, Tenser stops Timlin and gently pushes her away: “I’m not so good at the old sex.”
It’s hardly the most startling insight of the film, but Cronenberg’s anxiety over the technological eradication of the human dimension has long been a theme of his work: Videodrome, Crash, and Existenz all dealt with Cronenberg’s techno-angst rather directly. Now, I am totally sympathetic to those that will find Crimes of the Future to be little more than a rehashing of Cronenberg’s older work. But alas, its script was written in the ‘90s, and one can hardly fault the auteur for taking joy in the fact that so many of its prophecies have come to light. I was driving upstate over the weekend and using the Maps app on my iPhone to find guidance towards my destination. At one point, Siri told me to stay left, but failed to mention that one lane was splitting into two and that more accurately I was supposed to stay in the middle. How many car accidents have killed human beings in these exact scenarios? We rely on these devices for everything: travel, communication, fitness and health, and even sex. But can we really trust them?
Sure, the question is a touch hackney. But I still delight in watching Cronenberg’s depiction of the acceleration of these dynamics, where biomorphic machines that look a bit like the alien forms in Ivana Basic’s sculptural art guide Tenser, wracked with pain and bodily dysfunction from his ever mutating bodily interior, towards not just surgical removals of his extra organs, but also basic human functions like sleeping and eating. It seems that as we lose touch with the automatic ability to survive, we will also lose interest in the reproduction of our own species. The fact that Crimes of the Future debuts alongside the announcement of the world’s first sex robot is an unhappy coincidence worthy of Houellebecq’s Platform and the Bali bombings.
Body Art Touchstones: “The Body is the Essential Fact of the Human Condition”
Or so said Cronenberg in this recent interview, and many times throughout his career prior. Cronenberg’s horror has always been the horror of the body – the inescapable contradiction between a nearly infinite consciousness bound to vulnerable, decaying, and brutally finite flesh. It should surprise no one that he’s so intrigued by body art — whether Vito Acconci shooting cum all over the attic space of a gallery in Seedbed or Carolee Schneeman pulling scrolls out of her pussy in Interior Scroll, I don’t know — and its offering of flesh and bodily matter as artistic gestures. But this also elucidates upon Cronenberg’s greatest and arguable only liability as an artist: a staunch atheism befitting a liberal artist of a certain generation.
Cronenberg has flatly refused metaphysics for the vast majority of his career. Steven Soderbergh’s brilliant but short-lived series The Knick is most fascinating in its rebuke of the staunch scientism and materialism of body horror artists like Cronenberg. Dr. Thackery, played by Clive Owen, is an American surgeon in the early 20th Century of unparalleled talent and genius. He is also a bottomed the fuck out dope fiend – first of cocaine and opium in the first season, then heroin in the second. Thackery’s inability to kick is tethered to his egomaniacal belief that he can cure his affliction scientifically – that is, corporeally. Like a man being chased by a demonic entity in the woods that attempts escape by flying off a mountain only to plummet back to the earth and splatter, when he should have just turned around, stood still, turned inward and faced his fears, Thackery attempts something obviously impossible. He can’t cope with the limitations of the material world. The show ends with him attempting a self-surgery to remove a growth in his stomach that he believes is the source of his PHYSICAL addiction. He bleeds out on the table: “This is all there is,” he says. But maybe that’s not all there was. Perhaps if Thackery had thought to cure his soul, he’d have won back his freedom from the drugs.
Cronenberg’s characters — the twin gynecologists in Dead Ringers, the investment banker in Cosmopolis, and others — similarly attempt material solutions to metaphysical problems. This is the source of much of Cronenberg’s bleak aesthetic and the seductive nihilism at the heart of his work. But the films’ bleakness lingers and depresses the viewer. Crimes of the Future is perhaps the first film where its protagonist, Tenser, forgoes physical control and gives himself over to something bigger than himself: resolve, curiosity, or spiritual strength. Whatever it is, it’s a more positive film than Cronenberg typically makes. When Tenser finally decides to let his organs grow out and eats one of the plastic synthetic bars that feeds the mutated humans, he is actually giving himself over to God. Or at least, to nature. He takes a leap into an abyss with a glimmer of hope that, perhaps, this is a fate he can find peace with.
The Body as Realpolitik and Biopolitics
Given Cronenberg’s obsession with body horror, it should surprise no one that he is incapable of grasping the point of those that are refusing the Covid vaccines. Despite this, one of the most pleasurable aspects of Crimes of the Future is the ever looming ghosts of shadowy political groups dedicated to managing the evolution of mankind to preserve the stability of the fragile social order. By and large, we rarely see these political organizations beyond single avatars claiming to represent those interests. But we feel them everywhere in the frames of the film, as if NSA agents are just beyond the screen and carefully observing both the events of the film and us, the audience watching the film. This gives the film its alluringly unsettling quality that allows its sparse plot to nevertheless instill a sense of paranoia into the viewer.
Foucault. Agamben. Biopolitics. Homo sacer or “bare life.” All of these thinkers and ideas took on new prescience during the Covid hysteria and they broke free from theory as we watched them inculcated into political practice. Perhaps Cronenberg can’t quite understand why people would refuse a vaccine. Maybe, like most boomers, he simply can’t wrap his head around the idea that Pfizer would actually make a faulty product and then lobby western governments making it mandatory to maximize profit. Fuck it. Whatever. He’s getting old. But he understands the fragility of the body, and perhaps even subconsciously can acknowledge a danger in infrastructures of power organizing new arms to manage and control the body.
Crimes of the Future isn’t a masterpiece, or at least it’s almost impossible now for me to make that case. I alluded to the film’s nostalgia in the 6th bullet point. Indeed, after two decades of detours into crime cinema (A History of Violence and the gorgeously brutal Eastern Promises), existentialist DeLillo adaptations (Cosmopolis), and Bruce Wagner-penned scathing Hollywood satire (Maps to the Stars, for me a top five film of the 2010s), Cronenberg is returning to the themes that defined him as one of the world’s most important film artists in the late ‘80s and ‘90s: the horror of the body, the horror of technology, and the god complexes of scientists.
Would I have liked to have seen him make more films in the vein of Maps to the Stars? Yes, of course. I believe that film was as radical a deconstruction of the entertainment industrial complex and contemporary pop culture as any I’ve ever watched, read or heard. But what’s interesting about Cronenberg’s return to form is that perhaps for the first time, the themes that he’s since become synonymous with look less like prophecies of the future than they do diagnoses of the ugly present. If there’s a film that is philosophically aligned with Crimes of the Future, it’s Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049. Like that film, Crimes of the Future reappropriates the prophecies of older artwork and injects it into the present as a cultural critique of the temporal now. Ultimately, it’s not quite as good as 2049, which will eventually be regarded as a pop art masterpiece, but it marks an interesting turn for Cronenberg. He is now less a techno prophet than he is a reverend of the dystopia of the present. The fact that he is already working on his next project, The Shrouds which will star Vincent Cassel, is exciting. Crimes of the Future might be the uneven and polarizing debut for a new and exciting development in Cronenberg’s body of work.
Cinema is Dead? Nah. Cinema Lives
Crimes of the Future is already the fourth film that I found myself compelled by in 2022, following Sean Baker’s terrific late 2021 film Red Rocket, Robert Eggers’s truly exciting The Northmen, and Gaspar Nóe’s indisputable masterpiece Vortex. Even if Crimes of the Future is a bit weaker than those films, the fact that it was made at all is evidence of something happening in the industry. Cronenberg has struggled with funding now for eight years. After almost a decade of cinematic false starts and a failed foray in producing a Netflix streaming series, he was finally able to get this quiet, weird, minimally plotted and esoteric thriller made. Something is happening here. The industry seems to be acknowledging that most of these films will lose money, and yet makes them anyways. Once again, cinema is at the center of cultural discourse. Thank fucking God.
In 10 Observations On…, Adam Lehrer will document his observations about recent cultural products.