Tuesday, February 10, 2009


David Cronenberg is probably my favorite director, yet it embarrasses me to admit that I don’t own a single one of his films on DVD. For the most part, I’ll blame the economy (because everyone else is doing it and I hate to feel left out). Since his releases are often double discs or even Criterion editions, I usually have trouble finding them for under $25 (and when your video library includes 200 titles that rang in at $30, justification is rather difficult). On the flip side, his lesser celebrated (but not by me) films like The Brood are bare bones releases, yet because of their general unavailability, rarely clock in under $15.

Perhaps I can compare it to how I feel about upscale Chinese restaurants; why pay $20 for a smaller serving of sesame chicken when I can order a lunch special double the size, a quarter of the price and get extra fortune cookies upon request? Okay, with the exception of one scene in eXistenZ, there is no actual link between David Cronenberg and my tastes in Asian cuisine, but I did just order takeout. Emily’s stomach will stop blogging now.

There’s another reason though, for the Canadian vacuum in my DVD collection. I tend to buy films with rewatchablility. I can turn on Basket Case or Dawn of the Dead while washing dishes, matching my orphan socks, or cooking (i.e., microwaving leftover Chines takeout), but Cronenberg’s works always require far more energy. There’s rarely a feel-good moment to be found, and as much as I love doublemint Jeremy Irons, randomly looking up from my computer at Dead Ringers gynecology amok scenes are less than entertaining when I just want to play Boggle.

Spider, like many C-films, is not an enjoyable film. It’s a thoughtful, well-crafted, fascinating and deep character study, but despite a title that sounds ripped off the SciFi Channel, this is no web in the park. Ralph Fiennes plays “Spider” Cleg, a middle aged schizophrenic who has recently been released from an institution into a not-so caring halfway house run by Lynn Redgrave. Within 20 minutes, we see that this isn’t the story of a man trying to fit himself into society or form some kind of relationship with another human being; this is a psychological exploration of Spider’s life and how he came to be the mumbling ghost of a man we watch shuffle through a cold and lonely London today. To do this, Cronenberg follows Fiennes as he wanders through his childhood following himself as a quiet boy whose downtrodden parents are played by the incredible Gabriel Byrne and Miranda Richardson (who also takes on the looser role of a pub temptress named Yvonne with equal grandeur, thus giving the finest dual performances since, well, Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers).

To go any further may spoil what is an intriguing and original film, so I’ll leave my rather uninformative synopsis to say this is not a film about its story, but a study in mental illness that brings the audience inside a scary, confusing, and altogether fascinating place.

High Points
The performances--particularly Richardson, who is simply phenomenal--are all top notch and become even richer upon second viewing when you realize just how multifaceted they are

Many of Cronenberg’s images--like the DVD menu shot, where Fienes huddles down in a long coat that makes him seem like he has no head--are quite haunting

Low Points
Despite a title that begs for arachnids, there are no actual spiders in this film

Buy: It’s hard to be overly enthusiastic when recommending a film like this. You don’t watch it for fun and you might not even fully understand everything you see after the first time. In many ways, this is one of those miserable tales that makes you feel tired and itchy just to be watching it.

Having said that, this is a film to own, or at least rent with the intention of paying late fines when it’s overdue. Like a good Sondheim musical, everything it offers is not on the surface and sometimes won’t be found until the third go around. Several featurettes detail all areas of production and Cronenberg’s commentary track is extremely enlightening. Not only do you learn a little more about the film, you also come to realize just how challenging these roles were for the cast. Anyone with an interest in acting can learn a lot from the very particular nuances of Byrne, Richardson, and Fiennes (who was the pioneer of bringing this book to the screen) and students of psychology may find a truly introspective look at schizophrenia (eat that Russell Crowe! I mean, I loved you in Mystery, Alaska, and I baked you cookies and put that phone down please).

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