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Cronenberg Evolution
February 19, 2016

Cronenberg: Evolution opens at House of the Stone Bell

Film props and related items cover the entire career of the Canadian filmmaker

Props, sketches and promotional material from across the career of Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg make up the show Cronenberg: Evolution, now at the House of the Stone Bell.

A retrospective of films will run throughout the length of the exhibit, with five films showing each day.

Cronenberg: Evolution
When: Feb. 19–July 17
Where: House of the Stone Bell

The exhibition follows on the success of a similar retrospective of the work of Tim Burton in the same venue, but it is a bit less grand in scale. Cronenberg’s work, especially his early films, was not very prop oriented, and many of the visual elements weren’t designed to last.

Cronenberg’s work overall is a bit darker in tone, and that may give the show a bit less of a wide appeal, but for fans of his work the look inside the director’s mind and methods is fascinating.

Co-curator Piers Handling has known Cronenberg since the beginning of his career.

“Surprisingly David was not appreciated in Canada originally. His work was heavily criticized. He became famous in England and in France,” said Handling, who is also director and CEO of the Toronto International Film Festival.

“We mounted a very big retrospective of his works in 1983 and wrote a book [called The Shape of Rage.] This was the beginning of an attempt to legitimize David’s films in Canada,” he said. The festival also opened on two different years with films by Cronenberg — Dead Ringers and M. Butterfly.

The Toronto festival has moved on from just being a 10-day event and now also catalogs and archives the work of filmmakers in the Toronto International Film Festival Reference Library.

Croneneberg was one of the first they approached.

“What was interesting was that David kept hardly any paper material. He kept some but very little. Most of was the objects that you are about to see in the show,” he said.

The curators also searched around the globe, contacting designers, producers and special effects artists.

“A lot of these objects were very, very fragile. They were only designed to last for the production of the film. … they weren’t designed to be long-term objects,” he said.

“The mugwump from Naked Lunch is I think one of the only remaining mugwumps in the world. It is far too fragile to be preserved. Luckily we came across this in a private collection in Toronto. A friend happened to have one in his living room under his coffee table,” he said. The pod from The Fly was in a warehouse. They also have an upside down motorcycle engine, as Cronenberg in describing to the designers how it should look told them that he wanted it to have that general feel.

Some key pieces are unfortunately gone, like a giant head used in Scanners. The most impressive items come from Naked Lunch and The Fly. The gynecological implements from Dead Ringers are also quite impressive, if a bit disturbing.

Dead Ringers
Props from ‘Dead Ringers.’ Photo: Raymond Johnston

The earliest item is a cape from Stereo, an experimental film from 1969, and one of the small amoeba-like monsters that comes out of the drains in Shivers, also called They Came from Within, a horror film from 1975.

Cronenberg has not relied much on the use of CGI, so there are full-sized centipedes and insect-like typewriters, along with storyboard pages and posters.

Handling said the show is divided into three parts chronologically and the first two parts deal with gaining control over your own body, and the notion for perfectibility of the human body through science and experimentation. A curious feature in Cronenberg’s work is his lack of judgment toward the attempt to perfect man, which Cronenberg sees as an inevitable part of human nature.

“He has always been fascinated with the intersection of technology and the body and the mind,” he said. “He was one of the first artists to explore that in a very serious way.”

Cronenberg’s later films, after after the success of The Fly and Dead Ringers began to move away from horror. “A filmmaker can only go so far with a genre and then you want them to grow. I think it was very important actually for him to move beyond the boundaries of the genre. And when he did he made I think some of his greatest films. I don’t think they are entirely conventional. … The wonderful thing about David is that he has really grown as an artist. He has never remained static within his vision, he has really always been an explorer … and gone his own very individual route,” Handling said.

Even starting as a horror director was a rogue choice, as at the time most Canadian filmmakers were involved in documentary work, according to Handling.

But filmmaking wasn’t his first choice for a career.

“He didn’t want to be a filmmaker, he wanted to be a novelist. He studied English literature. He loved writing,” Handling said, adding that he finally wrote his first, Consumed, in 2014.

As for Handling’s own favorites, he said Videodrome was the first film where Cronenberg showed his potential to ba a major artist, and after that Dead Ringers was an extaordinary work.

From his late phase, A History of Violence and Crash are the favorites. “But I love Stereo. I love his first feature and I have revisited his films many times,” Handling said.

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