The Showroom‘s simply brilliant Film Studies Series: Long Live The New Flesh! The Visions of David Cronenberg continues with a screening of his fantastic 2005 film A History Of Violence, followed by a lecture and discussion with Sheffield Hallam University’s own Shelley O’Brien who usually wears her passion for Cronenberg with pride. I won’t lie I was a little bit disappointed at the lack of Cronenberg apparel this week, however, given the themes of the film we’re discussing this week, perhaps the lack of Cronenberg merchandise was more fitting.
Essentially and without giving too much away, A History Of Violence sees Viggo Mortensen, of Lord of the Rings fame, play Tom Stall, the seemingly gentile family man and small town diner owner, who upon confronting two would be armed robbers becomes a local hero and is forced to confront the brutal reality that actions have consequences.
A History Of Violence was one of the two David Cronenberg films I was familiar with before the start of this film studies series, mainly owing to the fact that it stars the Adonis that is Viggo Mortensen. That paired with its 2005 release date made it a lot more accessible to 14-year-old me and I still remember the first time I saw it and how captivated I was by the combination of great acting, brilliant storytelling and the attention to visual detail. Looking back over the course of this study, the visual elements have been one of the more enjoyable aspects of Cronenberg’s work. A History of Violence was also a relative success at the box office too in comparison to his previous works, which often failed to make back their production budgets. Whilst I maintain that some of the visual effects from his older works haven’t aged as well as others, A History Of Violence however presents audiences with something timeless. There’s just something more visceral about the simplicity of the gore on offer here.
A special mention must go to Howard Shore who returns again to produce the soundtrack to this work, a partnership that’s proven to be so wonderful in its ability to further immerse audiences in the director’s worlds.
The lecture and discussion that followed the screening moved away from previous themes of the body horror genre and focussed itself more on the adaptations and acting elements of Cronenberg’s work. Beginning by looking at his direction of the 1983 film Dead Zone as an adaptation of the Stephen King novel by screenwriter Jeffrey Boam with additions and deletions by Cronenberg, the discussion then moved to the bizarre 1991 film Naked Lunch, a Cronenberg adaptation of the William S. Burroughs novel with the same name. Originally thought to be unfilmable, Cronenberg succeeded in showing the unshowable and telling the untellable, with Burroughs himself recognising the genius of Cronenberg’s adaptation. He also commented that the elements removed by Cronenberg helped keep the film adaptation closer to the novel, something J. G. Ballard also noted after Cronenberg adapted his novel Crash for the big screen. This then brings us to A History Of Violence, similarly to Dead Zone it’s an adaptation of a graphic novel originally by John Wagner transformed into a screenplay by Josh Olson and then directed by Cronenberg. It isn’t until the closing sequences of the film though that its origins as a graphic novel become apparent which is a further testament to the director’s uncanny ability to show the unshowable.
With often difficult subject matter to visualise, the discussion soon turned to how the director manages to incite such masterful performances from his casts, whether that be Oliver Reed in The Brood or James Woods and Debbie Harry in Videodrome and more recently Viggo Mortensen and William Hurt who, despite only appearing for about 8 minutes in A History of Violence, won an award for best supporting actor. Cronenberg himself cites two reasons for this; “get good actors and let them be good” which affirms that Cronenberg is known for being fairly hands off with actors on set, allowing them to fully envelop themselves in their roles. He also states “you have to make the set a safe space for actors.” It clearly works for him and whilst box office takings might not be much to brag about, more often than not the performances are critically acclaimed.
Again none of this newfound understanding or appreciation of Cronenberg’s work would be possible without the Showroom Cinemas dedication to providing a platform to people like professor Shelley O’Brien to share their ideas with a wide range of people. So thanks and much praise to them and Shelley for making this series so accessible.
The series continues Wednesday 11th March with Maps to the Stars (2014). Buy your tickets here.