Crimes of the Future (2022)

He has not announced plans to retire, but if Crimes of the Future does end up being David Cronenberg’s final film, it would be an excellent send-off for the director’s career.  Just as A Dirty Shame registers as the perfect marriage between John Waters’s early-career transgressors and his late-career mainstreamers, Crimes of the Future lands midway between the sublime body-horror provocations that made Cronenberg famous and the philosophical cold showers he’s been taking in more recent decades.  It’s less of a complete, self-contained work than it is a loose collection of images, ideas, and in-jokes aimed at long-haul Cronenberg sickos.  It’s got all the monstrous mutation & fleshy, fetishistic penetration of his classic era, which makes it tempting to claim that the body horror master has returned to former glories.  It presents those images in the shape of his more recent, more talkative cerebral thrillers, though, as if to prove that nothing’s changed except that’s he’s grown out of a young man’s impulse to gross his audience out.  Crimes of the Future is the kind of film that’s so tangled up in the director’s previous works that it makes you say things like “‘Surgery is the new sex’ is the new ‘Long live the new flesh'” as if that means anything to someone who isn’t already a member of the cult.  And yet it might actually be a decent Cronenberg introduction for new audiences, since it’s essentially a scrapbook journal of everywhere he’s already been.

If there’s anything missing from Crimes of the Future that prevents it from reaching Cronenberg’s previous career highs, it’s not an absence of new ideas; it’s more an absence of narrative momentum.  Much of it functions as a dramatically flat police procedural, gradually peeling back the layers of a conspiracy theory that never feels as sharp or as vibrant as the future hellworld that contains it.  It’s a pure, playful exercise in complex worldbuilding & philosophical provocation, which are both major markers of great sci-fi no matter what narratives they serve.  Cronenberg essentially asks what our future world will be like once we inevitably accept the New Flesh mutations of his Videodrome era body horrors, as opposed to recoiling from them in fear.  He imagines a scenario where the pollution of accumulating microplastics in our bodies has triggered a grotesque evolution of new, mysterious internal organs that are hastily removed in surgery as if they were common tumors.  Meanwhile, our new bodies have essentially eradicated pain, making the general populace a depraved sea of self-harming thrill seekers.  A murdered child, an undercover cop, a network of paper-pushing bureaucrats, and a nomadic cult of proud plastic eaters all drift around the borders of this new, grotesque universe, but they never offer much dramatic competition to distract from the rules & schematics of the universe itself.

Crimes of the Future is at its absolute best when it’s goofing around as a self-referential art world satire.  Its most outlandish sci-fi worldbuilding detail is in imagining a future where high-concept performance artists are the new rock stars.  Viggo Mortensen stars as “an artist of the interior landscape,” a mutating body that routinely produces new, unidentifiable organs that are surgically removed in ceremonious public “performances.”  Léa Seydoux stars as his partner in art & life, acting as a kind of surgical dominatrix who penetrates his body to expose his organic “creations” to their adoring public (including Kristen Stewart as a horned-up fangirl who can barely contain her excitement for the New Sex).  Cronenberg not only re-examines the big-picture scope of his life’s work here; he also turns the camera around on his sick-fuck audience of geeky gawkers & fetishists.  It’s all perversely amusing in its satirical distortion of real-world art snobbery, from the zoned-out audience of onlookers making home recordings on their smartwatches, to the hack wannabe artists who don’t fully get the New Sex, to the commercialization of the industry in mainstream events like Inner Beauty Pageants.  Although it appears to be more self-serious at first glance, it’s only a few fart jokes away from matching Peter Strickland’s own performance art satire in Flux Gourmet, its goofy sister film.

I hope that Cronenberg keeps making movies.  Even five decades into his career, he’s clearly still amused with his own creations, when there’s big-name directors half his age who are already miserably bored with their jobs.  Hell, he doesn’t even need to create an entire new universe next time he wants to write something.  Crimes of the Future‘s plastic gnawing, organ harvesting, surgery-fucking future world is vast & vivid enough to support dozens of sequels & spin-offs.  It turns out you don’t even need much of a story to make it worth a visit.

-Brandon Ledet

Flux Gourmet (2022)

David Cronenberg isn’t the only auteur fetishist who’s recently revisited his early work to construct a new fantasy world overrun by grotesque performance art.  I didn’t have time to catch Crimes of the Future opening weekend because I spent those four days submerged in the lower-budget, lower-profile offerings of The Overlook Film Festival at Canal Place.  From the vantage point of that Overlook microcosm, the premise & circumstances of Peter Strickland’s Flux Gourmet appeared eerily in sync with what I’d been reading about the new Cronenberg.  Strickland obviously doesn’t have as deep nor as prestigious of a catalog as Cronenberg’s (yet!), but there’s still a clear, circular career arc to his latest bedchamber dispatch.  Flux Gourmet feels like Strickland revising the giallo-tinged Berberian Sound Studio to bring it up to speed with the more free-flowing, one-of-a-kind absurdism he’s achieved in the decade since.  The result is not quite as silly as In Fabric nor as sensual as The Duke of Burgundy, but it hits a nice sweet spot in-between, just as Crimes of the Future reportedly lands midway between the sublime body-horror provocations that made Cronenberg famous and his late-career philosophic cold showers.

Strickland’s preposterous performance art fantasy world is enclosed in an artists’ colony that patronizes “culinary collectives” & “sonic caterers.”  Its current artists in residence are an avant-garde noise band that mic & distort routine, mundane cooking processes for a rapturous audience of pretentious art snobs.  Their work recontextualizes the sounds of food prep as both a difficult-listening version of music and as a low-key form of witchcraft, recalling the fuzzy borders between foley work, madness, and divine transcendence in Berberian Sound Studio.  Despite their inscrutability as artists, they suffer every dipshit rockstar cliché you’d expect from broader, more accessible comedies like Airheads, This is Spinal Tap, and That Thing You Do. The film essentially gives the witchy performance art collective of Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria the VH1 Behind the Music treatment, with petty squabbles over what to name the band, how much creative input the frontwoman allows the rest of the “collective,” and what they’re going to eat on tour overpowering the more supernatural goings on at the art institute. 

If Strickland’s kinky, insular phantasmagoria has anything to say about the real world outside its walls, it’s in the way it satirizes the creative process of all commercial art, no matter how fringe or intellectual.  Every character at the culinary art colony has a direct equivalent in the production of music, movies, and fine art.  Gwendoline Christie funds the collective’s work, limiting their creative freedom with producer meddling & studio boardroom notes just to flex her authority.  Longtime Strickland muse Fatma Mohamed plays the hothead bandleader, enraged by every one of her collaborators’ minor creative suggestions, especially Christie’s.  The list goes on from there: Asa Butterfield as a go-with-the-flow bandmate who tiptoes around his hot-tempered bosses; In Fabric’s Richard Bremmer as an insufferable academic who intellectualizes everything the band accomplishes without contributing anything to the project; a faceless audience who shows their appreciation for the band’s performances in writhing backstage orgies; etc.   My personal favorite is, of course, Makis Papadimitriou as a quietly suffering journalist who attempts to remain objective & separate from the work but gets sucked into the absurd drama of the band’s creative process anyway.  Not only is Strickland more appreciative of the journalist’s significance in the artistic ecosystem than most art-world satires normally are, but he also uses the writer as a constant fart-joke delivery system in a way that tempers the film’s potential for pretension.

I don’t know that Flux Gourmet’s art-world parody has as much to say about the creative process as The Duke of Burgundy has to say about romantic power dynamics or In Fabric has to say about fetishistic obsession.  I’m also at the point with Strickland that I don’t need him to prove his greatness with profound statements or unique observations about the world outside his head.  The nail-salon talons & over-the-top Euro fashions of his visual aesthetic remain a constant delight, as does his naughty schoolboy sense of humor.  I wouldn’t recommend Flux Gourmet as Baby’s First Strickland, just as I imagine Crimes of the Future wouldn’t be as valuable of a Cronenberg gateway as bona fide classics like Videodrome, Dead Ringers, Crash, and eXistenZ.  I guess if there’s any way Strickland has the one-up in that comparison, it’s that there’s a lot less homework you’d have to catch up with to understand his whole deal, so Flux Gourmet is an easily digestible delicacy for the those with only a slightly advanced palate.

-Brandon Ledet

Madeline’s Madeline (2018)

Although she’s been working steadily since the buzzy “mumblecore” movement that established a new standard tone for microbudget indie cinema over a decade ago, 2018 is proving to be a breakout year for Josephine Decker. This started for me, personally, when Decker’s collaborative, self-loathing documentary Flames tore my brain in half in its emotionally volatile record of a toxic, years-long romantic detangling. Her much larger cultural breakout arrived later in a drama where she was more of the auteurist voice: the festival-circuit darling Madeline’s Madeline. What’s impressive about Madeline’s Madeline as a follow-up to Flames is that it maintains the documentary’s emotional volatility and damning self-reflection on the nature & tortures of its own medium, while branching off into the realm of fictional drama. It didn’t hit me quite as hard in the gut as Flames did (perhaps because I was braced for impact this second round in the ring with Decker, whereas I was caught off-guard for the first bout), but Madeline’s Madeline is just as heart-achingly confrontational in its emotional honesty and just as complexly mapped out in its engagement with its own medium as an artform. Decker may have been active and in-plain-sight in both theatre & cinema for at least the last decade solid, but in just two films 2018 has been the year when she set a staggeringly high expectation for the form-breaking phenomena she can achieve on the screen.

Teenage newcomer Helena Howard stars as the titular Madeline, a mentally ill high school student who finds a brief utopian respite in an avant-garde NYC theatre troupe, before that artistic safe space becomes just as messy & volatile as her home-life & her internal psyche. Her home-life crisis is mostly anchored to her relationship with her dangerously high-strung mother (played by Miranda July), a conflict that often erupts into physical violence. As she coldly rejects one mother’s affections at home, Madeline seeks a new motherly figure in her theatre director (played by Molly Parker). This relationship also sours when the play they’re collaborating on with their troupe mutates into a sinister meta-drama about Madeline’s “real” home-life. Madeline’s discomfort with her real-life domestic conflicts being exploited for Art is complicated by the film’s exponential detachment from realty, where the divisions between Art & “reality” become blurred to the point of effective obliteration. A spiritual descendent of Charlie Kauffman projects like Synecdoche, New York or Michel Gondry’s “Bachelorette” video for Björk, Madeline’s Madeline’s echoing of the artifice of theatre in the “The world’s a stage” artifice of real life folds the plot in on itself so many times that it’s near impossible to distinguish what’s “really” happening from what’s just in our protagonist’s head. There’s a clear three-way war that develops between Howard, July, and Parker’s characters, but everything else on the screen is highly subjective to personal interpretation.

This immersion in theatre & artificiality is an immediate cornerstone of the text, as Madeline finds comfort in her troupe’s exercises of getting lost in character work. This starts innocently enough when she’s pretending to be a cat, a turtle, or a pig, but concerns about whether she’s being a sea turtle or “a woman playing a sea turtle” eventually give way to much more violent crises of perception & reality. Madeline has no appetite, is prone to bursts of physical violence, and suffers auditory hallucinations of constant, rhythmic whispers. She’s already a blatantly untrustworthy narrator, then, which Decker chooses to amplify by immersing the audience in her POV on an almost subliminal level. The insular sound design & detail-obsessed photography of the film is so personal to Madeline’s sensory experiences that any “What’s really happening?” narrative concerns are beside the point beyond how they relate to Madeline’s emotional state. Its immersive POV falls closer to the anxiety-driven horrors of Krisha more than the eerie beauty of The Fits, as what Madeline’s feeling is often frustration & an urge to lash out. Her relationships with her director & her mother gradually sync-up with her relationship to theatre, as art itself becomes the weapon she uses to lash out in her all-out war with her dual parental figures (who also wage their own war on each other through theatre). By the time the whole conflict reaches its climax in a Tune-Yards reminiscent performance art piece on an art instillation set, theatre itself becomes both the battlefield & the weapon, whereas it starts the film as a safe-space sanctuary.

The tones & methods of collaborative theatre seem to be a guiding force in Decker’s work, perhaps best represented in the presence of Miranda July (whose undervalued film The Future frequently feels like an influence here) and Sutina Mani (whose work in Snowy Bing Bongs Across the North Star Combat Zone is a more playful take on a similar avant-garde performance art aesthetic). However, by the time the film directly calls itself out for daring to tell the inner life of another person’s story (across barriers like race, mental health, and life experience), I get the exact same form-breaking self-reflection vibe that Decker (again, collaboratively) brought to the screen in Flames. In just the two releases she’s had this year, she’s established a very distinct, often menacing tone of artistic & emotional honesty that’s just as admirably staged as it is emotionally ugly & upsetting. This film wasn’t my personal favorite of the pair, but I believe both are worth an engaged, self-reflective look. I also believe Decker’s trajectory indicates there are more form-breaking freakouts to come, and soon.

-Brandon Ledet

As Is (2017)

Imagine being told the best band you’ve never heard before just played a mind-blowing concert nearby, but it’s okay that you missed it because there was an all-access documentary produced around the event. The documentary shows you all of the practice, fine-tuning and songwriting leading up to the day of that mind-blowing, life-changing, world-stopping concert, and then documents none of the performance itself, just the reactions of the people who were there in the audience. Would that leave you frustrated or satisfied? The recent small scale documentary As Is details the behind-the-scenes production of a one-time-only multimedia performance staged by visual artist Nick “Not That Nick Cave” Cave in Shreveport, Louisiana in 2015. The film documents all of the artist’s intent, production logistics, and cultural context in the weeks leading up to this performance, then stops short of documenting any of the real thing once it’s executed. It’s like watching the behind the scenes footage of a concert you weren’t invited to for a band you’ve never heard of before. It’s very frustrating.

Glimpses at Nick Cave’s visual creations is certainly the draw for this unassuming art doc. Cave is most well-known for his “sound suits,” costumes that essentially look like a Yo Gabba Gabba! character made out of brightly colored cheerleader pompoms. The construction of these costumes is very reminiscent of the similar traditional garb worn at Cajun Mardi Gras celebrations (Courir de Mardi Gras); the beaded blankets meant to accompany them in the one-time performance are similar to the beading of Mardi Gras Indian costumes. This Louisiana cultural context is entirely ignored by Cave, an “international artist” who acts as if he were creating these works in a void. Incorporating over 600 collaborators from the Shreveport area as beaders, dancers, musicians, and lyricists, he certainly interacts with the local community. He just treats that interaction like an act of charity instead of a cultural exchange by making a huge to do about how his show has elevated local visual art with high falutin’ NYC production values. He speaks of the cultural & religious undertones in As Is in such vague terms that by the time a gospel choir arrives to sing about how “He changed my life and now I’m free” it’s understandable to assume they’re praising Nick Cave, not God. Lip service is paid to healing the trauma of Katrina, homelessness, mental illness, and so on among the local people of Shreveport, but as the film goes on the whole show starts to feel like a complex ego boost for Cave himself and nobody else.

So, was As Is a once-in-a-lifetime art event that forever transformed Shreveport and sealed Nick Cave’s legacy as a charitable, soul-healing deity? It’s tough to tell, because this film does not invite the audience to see the performance for themselves. The gospel, zydeco, light shows, sound suits, and (appallingly muted) Big Freedia performances suggest that it could have either been a total mess or a work of genius. Without being given enough evidence to verify either way, it’s difficult not to turn on Nick Cave as he boasts at length about the transformative nature of his art and all of the good deeds he’s done bringing real culture to Shreveport (again, without acknowledging the immediate similarities between his work & long-established Louisiana culture). As Is might be a much more rewarding doc for anyone who actually witnessed its subject in person, but for everyone on the outside looking in, it’s a frustratingly incomplete work about the supposedly transformative accomplishments of a very vain man. At least the beading and sound suits are verifiably cool-looking; there isn’t much else to latch onto.

-Brandon Ledet