Home » OldThings » Long Live the New Flesh – A paper given at Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College Conference 5th May 2003

Long Live the New Flesh – A paper given at Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College Conference 5th May 2003

Do myths reflect the age in which they are told? Early folk tales tell of humans changing into animals, supernatural visions and superhuman feats. From the around the world, from the Greek Minotaur, the Garuda of Indian mythology through to Elizabethan bestiaries, creatures which inspire fear, awe and inspiration have formed a substantial part of our storytelling heritage. Myths and folklore are traditionally thought of as classical stories – from before the so-called “age of reason”, where magic and religion were the drivers for these fantastical tales. But now we have “grown up” have we cast aside primitive folklore only to replace it with demagogues of our new found knowledge and understanding. Nowadays the vampire and werewolf “phenomena”, for example, are often rationalised as propagating their species through a form of virus. Ultimately science is just the new wizardry, a way for the populous to understand forces that otherwise they would not, but it needs some grounding in the popular psyche to have relevance. Audiences don’t have to understand the science, they just have to understand it’s there, and believe in it. A myth is often about creation, a tale of how things came to be. Rather than simply dismiss old myths, science is paramount in reinventing the myth, it is about proof, refutation and improvement, but may be just as fanciful.

The film directors we intend to discuss are amongst the few that create and explore myths and new futures, their imaginations providing us with some extreme creations with which to provide the seeds of a new era. David Cronenberg is one of Canada’s critically respected film directors but also one of its most controversial. Right from his early days of filmmaking he has tackled the weighty subject of humanity and its relationship with biology, technology and medicine. A running theme through much of his work explores the geneses of new futures, the breaking down of social order and of course, new creatures. Although his films are classed as horror films, they’re really more concerned with the scientific basis for the beginning of a new order. Tsukamoto Shinya works among Japan’s new wave of underground independent film-makers. He too uses the arena of science to explore possible futures and relationships between his protagonists. His frequently hyper-kinetic style contrasts with Cronenberg’s more staid work. Neither director, however, is afraid to take their audiences into the realms of extreme viscera.

The genesis myth is a recurrent theme that can be seen in the works of both directors and the creatures of their imaginations form a fundamental starting point of the new futures they depict. From Cronenberg’s earliest output, his films deal with the breakdown in society through scientific discoveries and confront humanity’s response to these events. His first commercial feature, Shivers (1976), depicts the creation and subsequent release of a parasite that propagates by turning its human hosts into nymphomaniacal zombies who then sexually assault further victims. Rather than viewing these events in a purely apocalyptic or loathsome manner, Cronenberg subverts horror film conventions by viewing the results of parasitic infection as in some way positive. An apartment block of uptight, bickering capitalist yuppies is transformed into a happy social community of orgiastic free love, willing to spread its seed throughout the world. The irony that Starliner towers wants to herald the dawn of a new age of living with stylish apartments, modern conveniences and luxurious surroundings is not lost on Cronenberg or his audience. Crucially the parasite is man-made, initially designed to replace malfunctioning human organs, but unleashed by mad scientist Dr Hobbes on the tower block’s unwitting (and soon to be willing) denizens. In this respect the scientist is as misguided as the ancient magician, who mistakenly releases unheralded powers that destroys the community. In some way he is the direct descendent of Victor Frankenstein. The desire to do good results in tampering with godlike forces, the results of which he cannot preconceive. In Rabid (1977), unusual skin grafting techniques used on the victim of a motorcycle accident result in her developing a vampiric bloodlust, which propagates throughout a city. Hordes of her rabid victims attack innocent bystanders, the epidemic only curtailed through the swift response of the authorities. The Brood (1979), too, uses the veneer of scientific research to explore the creation of new beings. Here the Summerfree Institute of Psychoplasmatics houses the work of Dr Raglan, where his key patient Nola is able to manifest her psychological rage as physical entities, asexually reproduced, beak gummed dwarf creatures from the id. Dr Raglan’s medical breakthroughs have resulted in the formation of a whole new breed of psychologically dependent offspring, capable of murder at the subconscious will of their mother. These are scientific and biological explanations for the creation of new ages and era. To some extent The Brood is an updating of Forbidden Planet (1956) where the creatures of the id are used against people that Dr Morbius feels are threatening his stability. This same concept was of course derived from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, where science is replaced by mysticism.

In some respects Videodrome (1983), Existenz (1999) and The Fly (1986) mark Cronenberg’s movement from strictly biological to bio-technical myths. What makes his work so interesting in this field is that the biological background and the humanity of his protagonists are vital when considering the merging with the technical. In Videodrome sleazy TV producer Max is drawn into the seedy underbelly of snuff television, unaware that the programme is has been watching is a carrier for an electronic virus that controls his reality. eXistenZ replaces television as the source of reality altering virus with that of a video game console. Both films feature the creator as a subsidiary character with the main protagonist allowing us to understand the implications of the myth, so we the audience see the genesis through the eyes of one if its guinea pigs. It is as though we are seeing Frankenstein’s art through the eyes of his monster. Both herald a chaotic future where reality becomes a malleable commodity. In many respects Videodrome harks back to The Brood, where psychology manipulates physicality, but in The Brood the psycho-kinesis exhibits itself as external physiology. In Videodrome reality itself is changed within the mind of those infected by the Videodrome signal and that reality can also manifest itself in physical form. Max’s world is inextricably altered by his infection enabling him to receive orders physically thrust into his abdomen via a videocassette, but he learns to adapt to his new found video world made flesh and begins to control it. The merging of flesh and metal emphasises technology as the new magic. A tool created by man, alters the man. When the physicality of the Videodrome signal manifests itself Max can fuse his body with a gun. How long do you have to have a gun before you start thinking like the gun? Cronenberg’s aesthetic representation of the symbiosis between flesh and the machine is represented in both an erotic and disgusting way. The gun pierces Max’s hand and his flesh accepts it. The technology becomes more organic. In eXistenZ the games console is not a sleek piece of designer plastic or chrome, but a fleshy organic, umbilical cord that plugs into the base of the spine. It nourishes the player. eXistenZ uses the concept of the gun fusing with the human again, but here the gun has had to evolve into a biological weapon in order to avoid detection, completing the bio-technical circle. If Videodrome confronted blurring our realities through exposure to sex and violence, addressing often repeated speculation about links between what people watch and how they behave – then eXistenZ is about another media bugbear, the videogame. Popularism is always a taboo among those in control (look at penny dreadfuls, the quick arrival of cinema censorship, the video nasty furore) because anything that is seen as pleasurable must inherently be bad – puritanical fascism has been a hypocritical way of downtreading the lower classes since time immemorial. In both cases the advent of new technology heralds a new age that disrupts the reality and order of the old. The “victory of realism” promised by eXistenZ is a facade for the lack of free will that the gaming environment offers – apparently “real” people spurt out the same phrase until the desired response is received, Ted and Allegra are compelled to have sex for purely game motivational purposes. In both Videodrome and eXistenZ the future is a combination of new technology and biological alteration through the malleability of the flesh. The alteration of the flesh is the heralding of a new breed – in both Videodrome and eXistenZ this new breed can be programmed by direct injection into the flesh, either by videotape or the umbilical bio-port of eXistenZ’s game pods. Both are subject to the ravages of disease and excitation that results ultimately in sexual perversity. This serves as merging of the technical and biological – similar to Vaughan’s masterplan in Crash (1996). Crash is not a myth making film but it is about one person’s attempt to become mythical. Vaughan’s psycho-sexual obsessions have him seeking “a remoulding of the human body using technology”, the ultimate aim of which is to fuse man and machine.

Both of Tsukamoto Shinya’s Tetsuo films succeed in this man-machine fusion. On the surface both Tetsuo (1988) and Tetsuo 2: Body Hammer (1992) appear to be virtually identical in their make up but in fact the emphasis, the genesis of the myth, is fundamentally different despite both reaching similar conclusions. Also, despite making Videodrome seem the model of coherence, their approach to myth-making is direct and pure – it is Tsukamoto’s aesthetic that imbues matters with deliberate confusion. Leaving aside for the moment the possibility that Tetsuo is anything other than what it represents (arguments could be made for it being the deranged visions of a car crash victim or hallucinations caused by an infectious wound or anything!) the viewer is left with an epic tale of god-like power and man made madness that transcends the film’s minimal budget and scant running time. Tsukamoto’s myth is created out of the fevered actions of a metal fetishist who inserts a pipe into his leg in order to merge with it. Metal is a metaphor for his power but also his weakness because it corrodes. At the film’s start the wound from the pipe is shown to be infected with maggots – just as metal decays by rusting so people do through maggots – it is the deconstruction of the entity. Once the metal has been assimilated (rather like the Videodrome signal) then the world changes. Naturally our fetishist is not alone in the world and the film becomes a blur of conflict and assimilation. Tetsuo ends with the merging of the main metallic protagonists, creating a fusion of man and machinery. The myth of the rebirth makes the assimilated metal machine poised at world domination – the cusp of a new world order – “We can make the whole world into metal” seems a direct reworking of Videodrome’s “Long live the new flesh”.

Myths are often concerned with heroes and those with superhuman abilities. Superhuman activity, although often used in the Nietzschean sense, does not necessarily imply godlike propagation, but can also represent the animal strength of primitivism and the folklore tale. These are powerful creatures but are fantastical and part of the myth, important in the genesis of the new age. In both myth and lore you can have fantastical creatures and superhumans, sometimes simultaneously. In Cronenberg’s The Fly Dr Seth Brundle invents a teleportation device, but on using it accidentally fuses himself with a common housefly at a molecular genetic level. Initially he becomes superhuman in his abilities. He is creature, superhuman, myth and lore. The myth lies in the creation of a new age, the dawning of a new era. Seth thinks that he has found this, initially through the development of the telepod and later through the rejuvenation he feels having dipped into the “plasma pool”. He cannot understand the disgust and repulsion his girlfriend expresses. “Can’t penetrate beyond society’s sick fear of the flesh”. But Seth is suffering from the human condition, and his superhuman powers are short lived. He has become a new creature, in that one such has not existed before, so in that sense he is at the dawn of a new creation. But on the other hand he also represents the hybrid of the bestiary. In the original film version of The Fly the hybrid is depicted literally – man with the head of a fly, fly with the head of a man. Cronenberg’s hybrid is based (pseudo-)scientifically on genetic fusion creating a new breed. So in one sense Seth becomes a new race, on the other he is experiencing a form of lycanthropy (he views it initially as a “totally benign drug” only to clarify it later as a form of cancer) in which he is slowly metamorphising into something else entirely – a figure of the folktale reinvented for the new age. The folk tale and lycanthropic dimension are similarly reflected in Tetsuo. The metal fetishist, by process of changing his form becomes superhuman as a fusion between man and machine. Mercury style winged feet as exhaust pipes allow freedom of movement at break-neck speeds as he approaches mecha-dom. But this also results in an uncontrollable sexuality. The link between puberty and the supernatural is an old one. Here the insertion of metal causes sexual change in the body resulting in his phallus becoming a pneumatic drill of uncontrollable rage. There is also a love/hate relationship with homosexuality in his fear and desire at being sodomised – both literally and imaginatively both the fetishist and the people that populate his world exhibit varying degrees of pan-sexuality. This metallic polymorphous sexuality is part of a number of hermaphroditic myth models but birth or rebirth are common themes in creating myths. Tetsuo recreates the death and rebirth scenario several times in its scant running time – from the car accident and its subsequent murder, the rape-to-death-with drill penis and the final death and rebirth as über-mecha.

The dawn of many a new age inevitably results in conflict. New creatures too have a will to power. In Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981) a new breed is emerging into society, freaks of nature who have developed various forms of ESP as the result of a derangement of the synapses caused by a radioactive disease. Darrel Revok is head of the underground scanner movement, hell bent on creating a scanner army to disrupt life as we know it. His thoughts can literally kill, either by autosuggestion or by causing massive haemorrhaging resulting in exploding body parts and viscera. Revok is like Seth Brundle in that he sees himself at the cusp of a new mythological age but their ideologies differ. Seth looks to the age of the superhuman empowered for world good through science, while Revok’s plan is for chaos and total social breakdown. Scanners are not so much super-human as supra-human, they are different to humans because the ebb and flow of their scanning gives them the possibility of group consciousness. The drug ephemerol can suppress the pain that Scanners experience but the side effect is the loss of power that sets them apart from non-scanners in the first place. But ephemerol was also crucial for creating scanners – science is creating the new myth over the “magic” or “godhead” creations of the past. Telepathy is not mind reading here but the linking of two nervous systems, systems separated by space that scanners can alter at will. What sets the scanners up as separate is the symbiosis between them and machinery – computers have a nervous system of their own that scanners can tap into. This creates a link between man and machine that links The Fly and Crash to Scanners as the merging of man and machine. A similar fusion (albeit with older technology) can be seen in The Naked Lunch (1991) where typewriters are both channels for writers and entities in their own right. Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo films similarly herald a new age by conflict, duel and assimilation. Indeed the structure of Body Hammer is identical to that of Scanners, as two brothers, ideologically opposed superbeings created by a mad scientist father, battle for group consciousness to take over the world. The new world order combines the raised fist of communism with ideals of fascism – order through strength but assimilation into a group. Rather like Scanners the two protagonists stand diametrically opposed on the cusp of a new world order. In this case the “evil” Revok-style Tetsuo has set up a network of the like minded into which he empathetically taps in a group conscious way. Paradoxically Tsukamoto relies on hard mechanics merged with flesh to “explain” his conditions of change rather than “factual” science. In contrast Cronenberg uses the language and trappings of science to justify his (occasionally) outlandish creation myths but the fusion to create a new creature is more biological and organic than harsh and metallic. It’s the opposite to their film-making styles where Cronenberg is very composed and technological while Tsukamoto relies on energy and organic camerawork. Both film-makers, however, approach the diegetically plausible over the desirable outcome. Science has become the new religion. Modern narrative structure, particularly within the horror genre often dictates that the disruption of society caused by the monster must be restored at the end of the story. Not so with either Tsukamoto or Cronenberg. Myths are about the cusp of creation and not the propagation of the new race (basically propagation boils down “repeat steps one to three again and again”) so Shivers, Scanners, The Brood and Tetsuo give us open endings which allows the new race the opportunity to propagate, the potential genesis of a new world order that has a real possibility to thrive.

Similar themes run throughout the works of both directors. A two man, one woman love triangle runs through Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo films, Tokyo Fist (1995), Gemini (1999) and Snake of June (2003), as well as Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988) and The Fly and, thematically, this triumvirate crops up in many Cronenberg films. Also taboo acts are central to the propagation of the future world for both film-makers. Cronenberg uses the threat of paedophilia in Crimes of the Future (1970) to continue a race blighted by a disease that has resulted in female infertility, violation as propagation in Shivers, and the graphic murder of children, by children in The Brood as seeds for change. Similarly in Tsukamoto’s Body Hammer the protagonist’s child is killed by his own hand, mirroring the shocking revelation (as a recovering amnesiac) that his early life consisted of brutal patricide and matricide. Alex Cox has described David Cronenberg as “the aesthetic prophet of the modern age” and in some respects he is correct. It is interesting to note that Cronenberg films his mythologies in a very precise and normally uncluttered, if not surgical, manner. He feels compelled to provide a “plausible” explanation of events. This contrasts with Tsukamoto’s handling of similar subject matters – Tsukamoto uses nervous dynamism and frenetic camerawork to show the chaos of transformation. These are diametrically opposed aesthetic choices to result in a similar outcome. Cronenberg films chaos as a disinterested (in the aesthetic sense) observer, whereas Tsukamoto shows us the chaos from within. Where Cronenberg shows us what is inside, Tsukamoto takes us inside these creatures from the new age. Perhaps we should view Tsukamoto as the aesthetic prophet of the heart and Cronenberg as the aesthetic prophet of the head.