Monday, October 03, 2005

Movie: A History of Violence (2005)

In college I took a class called “The Body In Film,” a survey of the ways the human anatomy was treated in movies. It gave me the chance to see rarely-screened films like Nicolas Roeg’s BAD TIMING and Dusan Makavejev’s one-of-a-kind W.R., MYSTERIES OF THE ORGANISM, which is half documentary about psychotherapist Wilhelm Reich and half ... well, I never actually worked that out. It was the only course where the opening day lecture included the phrase “fucking like puppies.” In the film school, at any rate. I can’t speak for the veterinary college.

Not that I told my parents what their tuition money was going for. When my report card arrived, my mother asked about the class. I said, “It’s about structure. You know, like the body of a letter?”

“Right,” my mother said. “That must be why you got an A.”

Much of that grade came from my term paper on the films of David Cronenberg. It was easy to write, because I truly loved the subject. THE FLY is one of the great movies of the 1980s, a decade in which the director also made VIDEODROME and DEAD RINGERS. He has a singular sensibility that makes his every film worth seeing. The notion of him tackling a contemporary pulp thriller was almost more than I could bear.

Imagine my surprise when it left me cold. At least at first.

The story of a seemingly peaceful man facing up to his dark past is a familiar one in several genres. So familiar, perhaps, that Cronenberg never seems fully engaged by it, using it solely as a carrier for ideas that interest him. But I think of myself as a genre guy, so the underdeveloped plot and inconsistencies of character were initially all I saw. Roger Ebert, in his rave review, notes that VIOLENCE “is not a movie about plot, but about character.” I’m old-fashioned enough to think that the two should be one and the same, especially in a thriller. I like a little text with my subtext.

Ah, well. Nobody’s perfect. I’ll console myself with the new 2-disc edition of THE FLY.

Silly me. Days passed and I couldn’t shake the movie. Cronenberg has packed its deceptively simple frame with concepts and moments that resonate:

- Acts of violence that, as in life, erupt with suddenness and never play out as expected, at times veering into the blackest of comedy

- Unruly sex scenes that deepen our understanding of the participants

- Discomfiting notions about the obligations of family, biological and otherwise

And on top of that, brilliant performances. Maria Bello is matchless; I would now like her to be cast in everything. And William Hurt comes along to blow the roof off the joint in the best scene I’ve encountered in any movie this year.

I should have known Cronenberg would never let me down. VIOLENCE is like a dinner in which the main course is undercooked, but the side dishes are divine. There’s still plenty with which to make a meal.