Stripped to the Bone: David Cronenberg’s Spider
by Maurie Alioff
“If I could turn you on, if I could drive you out of your wretched mind. If I could tell you I would let you know.” – R.D. Laing in The Bird of Paradise.
If Spider, David Cronenberg’s impeccably directed, deeply moving portrayal of a schizophrenic outcast had a guiding shrink, it would be R.D. Laing, the late Scottish psychoanalyst whose radical methods and ideas made him a hero to the 1960s counterculture. Rather than treating the insane as neurochemical anomalies, he envisioned madness as a perilous voyage to be lived through, learned from and hopefully transcended on the way to renewal. Laing also believed that going crazy sometimes makes sense in a world gone wrong.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the period that helped form David Cronenberg’s sensibility, figures like William Burroughs, Robert Crumb and Laing routinely broke taboos in their full–frontal assault on the oppressive blandness of mainstream culture. But the pendulum is now firmly stuck in the opposite direction. In film, most of today’s “independents,” at least in Western countries, avoid the territory staked out by the Cronenbergs, Lynchs, Kubricks, Buñuels and contemporary Asian directors such as Takashi Miike and Chan–wook Park. The pictures made by these artists are unrestrained depictions of the grotesque twists and turns of destiny. In the era of Dr. Phil, darkness and tragedy don’t exist, and psychiatrists insist that life is a bowl of SSRIs. Gabriel Byrne, who plays a key role in Cronenberg’s new movie, said during an interview that Spider “is important because our alternatives in every facet of life are becoming less and less.”
Like R.D. Laing, David Cronenberg embraces dangerous mental travelling at the risk of the voyager being ground into mush. In the typical Cronenberg film, the protagonist’s journey into lunacy begins when an over whelming event, often a sexual one, destroys his superego and unleashes a raging id. In conventional horror movies, scary creatures are unwelcome invaders of normal life. Cronenberg slyly implies that the worst fiends are incubated by their repression—or as Francisco Goya put it: “The sleep of reason breeds monsters.” His besieged characters often think way too much. And when they let loose, they metamorphose into oversexed insects, sprout video–cassette slots in their bellies, or get their kicks from car crashes.
Spider is different because right from its eloquent opening shot, our hero, performed with unwavering commitment and precision by Ralph Fiennes, is floundering in a soup of psychic turmoil. The camera fast tracks along a train station platform as the passengers disembark and rush toward us. They have destinations, they know people and there’s an apparent purpose to their lives. Then we see schizophrenic Dennis Cleg (nicknamed “Spider,” we eventually learn, by his mother). Dressed in a rancid–looking raincoat, backing off the train with a pathetic little suitcase, muttering non–stop, he seems hopelessly disoriented on the now empty platform. Robin Williams’s psychotic bum in The Fisher King and Russell Crowe’s Beautiful Mind have it easy compared to this man.
On the other hand, despite the bizarre array of junk in his suitcase, not to mention his sartorial habit of wearing four shirts, Spider clearly hasn’t given up trying to navigate through the confused pain evident in his clenched face. Although he never explains himself verbally throughout the entire movie, we are always acutely aware of his human suffering. Unless your mind has been completely shut down by our maniacally success–driven culture, you can’t help but recognize your own ordeals in this alien creature, Cronenberg’s most compassionately treated character since the doomed Mantle brothers in Dead Ringers. Spider recalls archetypical Everyman ranging from Sisyphus to Chaplin, Keaton to Samuel Beckett’s tramps in Waiting for Godot, and especially to characters from the latter’s trilogy of novels that begin with Molloy and end with The Unnamable. If he could, Spider might say, as one of Beckett’s characters does, “I can’t go on. I must go on. I’ll go on.”
Who hasn’t been in Spider’s tattered shoes, shell–shocked by life, trying to figure out what the hell to do next, wondering if there’s any point doing anything. In retrospect, the subversive irony of the movie’s opening scene is that Spider might have a deeper purpose than the solid citizens bustling out of the train station to their offices and lunch dates. Or conversely, they could also be him. As Cronenberg told me the day after his gala screening at the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival, “Without being cute about it, it wouldn’t take much to put anybody on the street like that. You have a stroke, you have an economic disaster or an emotional disaster, and you are walking the streets talking to yourself. Without a cellphone. With a tiny suitcase that has everything that you own in it.”
Spider’s story charts his attempts to grope his way toward some semblance of structure and order, the opposite of the trajectories Cronenberg mapped out in Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch and Crash. Released from a mental hospital, after years in confinement, Dennis moves into a halfway house run by the icy Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave), whom Terrence (John Neville), one of the lodgers, calls the “Tyrant Queen.” Decaying, pitilessly ugly, set in a zone halfway to hell, the house is in the same neighbourhood where Spider grew up and lost his mind.
Its anonymous, timeless London setting is right out of Dickens at his bleakest, or Orwell’s 1984. Filmed with an austere colour palette devoid of warm sunlight, it offers zero comfort; even when Spider sinks into a bath, the rusty water seems stained with blood. In director Terence Davies’s nostalgic excursions into his working–class past, neighborhoods like this offer compensatory pleasures. In Spider, there are no movie palaces screening Gene Kelly musicals, and the pub, rather than being a cozy sanctuary where cockneys sing their way out of the ugliness of their lives, is envisioned as a cesspool of loveless sin.
Cronenberg weaves inextricable threads between Spider’s gloomy external world and his madness. It’s a barren, toxic place defined by a typically Cronenbergian recurrent image: a polluting gasworks that looms malignly overhead. Throughout the movie, Spider sniffs at his clothes, terrified he’s being poisoned. But of course, the gasworks is also within. His body is so full of psychological contaminants that must be controlled that in one of the movie’s most subtly and hauntingly disturbing scenes, he wraps up his torso in a protective girdle of newspapers and rope.
Someone I know who lived through certain Spidery experiences wrote the following (unedited) passage while in the midst of them: “I would like to bretahe deeply but the air around me, feeing poisoned in a most thrstening manner. You beathe to live but if every inatale is a threat you stop breathing. Catch 22. Bretahe and die or don’t breathe and die. Right now the eectric pressre is so dense I feel like dying heavy in the chest and temples and a near nausea.”
At the heart of the picture, as in other Cronenberg films, there’s an investigation. Spider’s need is to answer certain fundamental, existential questions: “What happened to me? Why am I like this? Why am I here?” A stooped, gnomish figure barred from all of life’s joys, incapable of communicating coherently with the outside world, he suggests Diogenes or a Zen monk, relinquishing everything to pursue knowledge. As Spider shuffles along the narrow streets of his old neighbourhood, he remembers his apparently tortured childhood with his parents. And in the movie’s major break from its generally realistic approach, adult Spider sometimes watches boy Spider (Bradley Hall) à la Dickens’s Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. These flashbacks represent, according to Cronenberg and writer Patrick McGrath (whose screenplay is an adaptation of his own novel), Dennis Cleg’s real memories, as opposed to “infected” ones, or out–and–out fantasy.
When Spider is not drifting and observing, he buzzes with the insect energy of The Fly’s Seth Brundle, and searches for answers with the determination of Kafka’s Joseph K. In fact, the methodical obsessiveness of his investigation, and Fiennes’s angular physiognomy conjure up the image of a demented Sherlock Holmes, puffing away on hand–rolled ciggies instead of a meerschaum pipe.
The film deploys two powerful visual motifs that communicate Spider’s hyperactive intellect and desperate emotional hunger. As a boy and as an adult, he collects all kinds of debris—bits of feather, foil, pieces of newspaper and especially string that he uses to craft elaborate webs fit for a human–size spider. (As a child, his mum’s lyrical descriptions of spider webs in the countryside delighted him.) Analogous to Spider’s web spinning, shots of him scribbling obsessively in his secret notebooks punctuate the movie. Earlier drafts of McGrath’s script featured a first–person voice–over that Cronenberg felt was “too self–aware, and literate and articulate,” so he came up with an elegantly simple visual correlative.
Cronenberg emphasized that his approach to character is all about building a network of tangible detail: clothes, hair, posture and so on. “You can’t say to an actor you represent existential angst, so that’s what you’ll play. I felt that our Spider would have a compulsion to record and a paranoid need to record in code, and try and straighten things out. I needed to give Ralph something physical to do, but I said, ‘I don’t want to be able to read it,’ so I asked him to develop his own hieroglyphics that would be his own language.”
Fiennes told me he worked his way into Spider’s innermost thought patterns by studying a catalogue for an exhibition of writings by madmen. Still excited by his discoveries, he explained, “They’re all different forms of made–up writing. Very beautiful. Variations. Scrawly stuff, very detailed stuff. They write in codes. They write in stories. They write in private diaries. They can understand it, even if actually, they can’t.”
Incidentally, even though Cronenberg insisted that the “project was not to do a clinical study of a schizophrenic,” Spider’s behaviour is consistent with psychoanalytical thinking (the movie bypasses brain chemistry and modern medications). The British child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, who studied the way children play, thought that string games are all about separation, loss and trying to master a connection to a loved one. As for Spider’s coded diaries, some of Freud’s key theories were inspired by the memoirs of Daniel Paul Schreber, an esteemed 19th–century German judge who cracked up, and for years wrote compulsively about his lunacy. Among other delusions, Schreber believed that extraterrestrial rays were zapping his genitals, and that God was morphing him into a woman, specifically a hot–to–trot, irresistible Babylonian whore.
As his active, creative hands play with his string and fill page after page with deftly formed markings, Spider is trying to pull together patterns and create a structure. Otherwise, it all collapses into chaos, tears apart like pieces from a puzzle or shards of glass that another lunatic smashes in the film’s most hair–raising moment. Moreover, the glyphs are Spider’s attempt to transcribe feelings too complicated to express and require a language from another world. In other words, he’s a nutty professor saying, “I think, therefore I am,” or, as Cronenberg put it, “an archetype of the artist trying to make significance and meaning out of the chaos of existence, which, if you are an existentialist, doesn’t have any meaning.” Spider is Samuel Taylor Coleridge deliriously writing Kubla Khan, William Burroughs in Interzone, churning out Naked Lunch, M.C. Escher and his puzzling labyrinths. From one angle, Spider plays as a subtly comic picture metasatirizing the most exalted forms of obsessive human behaviour. Dennis stands at a bureau when he’s working, just like Claude Gauvreau, the schizophrenic Québécois poet, and Thomas Wolfe, the classic American novelist who wrote the 1940 novel You Can’t Go Home Again.
Walking in and out of his past like a ghost haunting the scenes of his childhood, Spider views what probably happened, what might have happened, and what probably didn’t happen. As is characteristic of Cronenberg, lines between reality, fantasy and full–tilt hallucination slip and slide all over the place. In all his films, the distinctions are elusive, partly because outlandish situations are presented with a deadpan approach, exemplified in Naked Lunch when Bill Lee (Peter Weller) acts like it’s perfectly normal to chat with insect typewriters and talking assholes. Cronenberg’s vivid characters attain heightened resonance thanks to cinematographer Peter Suschitzky’s nuanced lighting and composer Howard Shore’s subtly imposing music.
The most sober, even Bressonian of Cronenberg’s movies, Spider abstains from using lurid effects to visualize streams of consciousness. There are no giant centipedes sucking out brains or Chinese restaurant “specials” featuring mutant amphibians. The only horror flick shock is a sound cut of glass breaking and a scream. At TIFF’s press and industry screening of Spider, the audience jumped, convinced by the surround sound that some buyer in the theatre was having a heart attack.
The fantasy that inhabits the movie’s hero involves what Cronenberg referred to as “memory, identity, how the two connect and how memory is a created, invented thing.” Spider’s investigations lead him to an imaginary personal history—note: if you haven’t seen the film, big spoilers are coming up—in which his gloomy father Bill (Byrne) hammers his mousy but loving mother (Miranda Richardson) to death and replaces her with Yvonne, a nasty, shark–toothed pub slut (also Richardson). The only special effect in all this is Richardson’s finely calibrated performance, a balancing act, as she explained to me, that often involved invoking the ogress when she was in character as the saint.
Boy Spider creates Yvonne, an alter ego for his sweet mum, when his own guilt–ridden erotic longings get mixed up with Mrs. Cleg’s sexuality. In a classic Freudian primal scene, the young Dennis Cleg witnesses his parents getting hot with each other, and in another pivotal moment, Yvonne deeply alarms him when she flashes her tits. Eventually, in the movie’s final revelation, we discover that Spider, not Bill, was the murderer. Son, repressed lover, paranoid killer—just like Norman Bates—who transforms his slutty mother into a Victorian matriarch by committing matricide.
Of course, guilty feelings about mummy don’t “cause schizophrenia more than anything else,” as a psychoanalyst friend of mine put it. “A psychotic person will find a psychotic solution to Oedipal conflict. A neurotic person will find a neurotic solution.” Cronenberg’s movies invariably portray troubled male–female relationships that never offer pat explanations for anything. As Bill Lee says in Naked Lunch, “Save the psychoanalysis for your grasshopper friends.” Or as Cronenberg himself joked, “You see one breast and it makes you insane. Certainly, that’s what happened to me.”
While some viewers see boy Spider’s apparent crime as the movie’s “reality,” a solution to its mystery, Cronenberg agreed with me that Spider is open ended. There’s only one ultimate truth: Dennis’s ravaging guilt. “There could be a third ending, or a fourth or a fifth,” he speculated. “And when Spider goes back to his asylum, maybe he’ll discover those other things, and maybe he won’t.”
Cronenberg’s entirely unschematic, unsentimental picture is, as Gabriel Byrne described it, an “alternative film about the nature of madness,” far removed from a sub–genre that ranges from The Three Faces of Eve to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Girl Interrupted. “Most movies that have dealt with madness,” Byrne continued, “have tended to romanticize, patronize and simplify it. I think one of the things that Spider tried to do was to give an insight into the pain and loneliness, the consciousness that mad people have.”
Ralph Fiennes triggered this adaptation of McGrath’s novel, and along with British producer Catherine Bailey, approached Cronenberg because “he confronts things in the makeup of human beings that are sometimes worrying and frightening, but he does it, I think, with a great humanity, and he allows actors great breadth in the films that he makes.” Some of Fiennes’ admirers, particularly those who think The English Patient was to the 1990s what Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind meant to an earlier generation, can’t understand why the star would want to play a grungy figure like Dennis Cleg (or the psychotic serial killer in Red Dragon, for that matter). Fiennes, who first attracted international attention as a murderous Nazi in Schindler’s List, and played a sleazy hustler in Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, couldn’t care less. “I felt very emotional about the part,” he said in Toronto. “I love Spider’s persona. I felt passionate about this man. I wanted to be him.”
And Cronenberg, who agreed to direct the movie because Fiennes is a gifted performer who could “disappear into the role,” echoed his lead actor: “Spider, c’est moi. I’m not condescending to this character, I’m not examining this character from a distance. I feel like I am this character.” At the heart of this particular investigation, this despairing yet inspiring movie that honours suffering, was the question: “How far do you have to go, stripping things away, to get to some essence? I think you can strip away an awful lot, and still have a human. I was attracted to this character who has none of the paraphernalia of life to distract from his essential struggle. He doesn’t have a network of friends, he doesn’t have a job with all the complexities of that. He doesn’t have a religion. Take that away and then it should be very revealing. That was the idea. If you take away and take away, what do you reveal? Or do you reveal nothing? You have to be prepared for it to reveal nothing. That’s partly, I guess, the way that I’ve been going in my filmmaking. It’s just a matter of temperament. It’s not, like I say, a theory of filmmaking. It’s just the way I’ve been doing it.”
This article was originally published in Issue No. 40 of Take One magazine. At that time, Maurie Alioff made the following acknowledgement: “For their insights, I would like to thank artist/filmmaker Viviane Elnécavé and Jack Klein, Montreal doctor and onetime Samuel Beckett scholar at Yale University.” Northernstars.ca acquired the digital archives of Take One in 2007.