PRINT September 2012


David Cronenberg, Cosmopolis, 2012, digital video, color, 108 minutes. Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson).

Technology doesn’t expose its true meaning until it has been incorporated into the human body.
—David Cronenberg

BY THE TIME YOU READ THIS, David Cronenberg’s narcotized, hallucinatory, minimally parodic—or perhaps simply minimal—Cosmopolis may well have arrived in and already departed from the few “art” cinemas remaining in the US. (The movie opened in select cities on August 17.) Except for The Fly (1986), Cronenberg’s films have never attracted large audiences during their theatrical releases. But the director’s ardent followers—a mix of cinephiles and horror cultists—have kept most of them alive and even profitable in what used to be called the ancillary markets. Cronenberg has remarked on the “intimacy” of his films—how, since Videodrome (1983), he has constructed his narratives largely as the projection of a single subjectivity and, correspondingly, has framed images with the small screen in mind. The solitary viewer (like the solitary reader, if these were first-person novels rather than the literary adaptations they generally are) has a one-on-one encounter with the Cronenberg protagonist, himself not merely alone but typically locked in the prison of his psyche. That this is not an entirely alienating experience has to do with the desire to touch and be touched that subtends the narrative, accompanied by the seductive sense of danger such yearnings provoke.

It is that most primal desire which accounts for the strange tenderness in all Cronenberg’s films, most obviously Dead Ringers (1988) and Spider (2002) but even the chilliest of them—the car films, Crash (1996) and now Cosmopolis. Perhaps it is merely the memory of the bloody slit that the Videodrome signal carves into Max Renn’s belly (and the way, for me at least, Max’s “new flesh” is forever associated with Richard Avedon’s photograph of the sutured torso of Andy Warhol, who for his part wished to be a machine and called Videodrome “the Clockwork Orange of the ’80s”) that makes me aware of the feel of the cassette or DVD in my hand as I offer it to the waiting player. In Cosmopolis, Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson, as compelling as he is indecipherable), a twenty-eight-year-old Master of the Universe who has made a colossal mistake by gambling against the rise of the Chinese yuan, thus bringing about his own financial ruin and possibly the collapse of the world economy, is driven by one desire: to travel in his limousine across Manhattan to get a haircut—to be touched and attended to by the barber who cut his hair when he was a child.

At Cannes, where Cosmopolis premiered this past May, Cronenberg described the movie with a single motion of his arm left to right across his body, his eyes following his hand in space. There is another film, made by another resident of Toronto, that could be encompassed by the same gesture: Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967), a defining work of postwar American avant-garde cinema, depicts a journey that takes place within a single, windowed loft space. In her brilliant essay “Toward Snow” (Artforum, Summer 1971), Annette Michelson wrote of Wavelength, “The film is the projection of a grand reduction; its ‘plot’ is the tracing of spatio-temporal données, its ‘action’ the movement of the camera as the movement of consciousness.” Of course, there are differences between Wavelength and Cosmopolis. In the former, the camera’s slow zoom traverses the room; in the latter, the room itself (in Latin, the camera)—the interior space of the limo—crawls toward a destination we realize, somewhere near the midpoint of the movie, just as we might realize in Wavelength, is death. This is not to say that Cosmopolis is as grand a reduction as Snow’s film. For one thing, as in most narrative movies, a character mediates our journey. Nevertheless, Cosmopolis raises the question of abstraction—in art, in the movement of global capital—often enough that, in conjunction with the film’s single (minimalist) trajectory, the connection comes to mind.

AS WE APPROACH the thirtieth anniversary of Videodrome (a film in which the technology that exposes its meaning when it has been incorporated into the human body is television), Cronenberg gives us this astonishingly literal adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel, also titled Cosmopolis, written in the wake of 9/11 and Enron but prophetic of the cybercapitalism that has grown all-encompassing over the past ten years. The movies are twins in that they reflect the media regimes of which they themselves are a part. Each regime has produced its own collective hallucination and its own particular twisting of personal identity. The paranoid Max Renn, who succumbed to the Videodrome signal, committing murder and then suicide in the interest of creating the “New Flesh,” is reincarnated in Cosmopolis in the form of Benno Levin, a disgruntled former employee of Packer’s company who is now determined to assassinate the boss who made him redundant without even knowing who he was. Renn and Levin have been consigned to the analog dustbin. Packer now is the “new flesh.” We have not seen his like before.

David Cronenberg, Cosmopolis, 2012, digital video, color, 108 minutes. Didi Fancher (Juliette Binoche).

Roughly two-thirds of Cosmopolis takes place in Eric’s custom-built stretch limousine as it crosses a version of Manhattan’s Forty-Seventh Street from east to west on a day of monumental traffic jams caused by a presidential visit, sporadic OWS-style protests, and a funeral for a Sufi rap star, whom, coincidentally, Eric adored. Except for the funeral, Eric heeds none of this. The vehicle’s sleekly upholstered interior is soundproof, its windows tinted, and the passenger-compartment lighting emanates almost exclusively from tastefully recessed digital screens on which the movement of money is charted in microscopic units of time—nanoseconds, zeptoseconds, yoctoseconds. The limo is like a carapace; it re-inforces the dissociation that made it possible for Eric to amass a vast fortune and also to allow it to slip away in the course of a single crosstown journey from new-moneyed Midtown East to the last crumbling shells of Hell’s Kitchen tenements on the Hudson. The journey takes a full day of gridlocked narrative time and a lifetime within Eric’s psyche, where that mistaken bet against the yuan (Cronenberg’s update on DeLillo’s yen thrusts the film a few years into the future, when the Chinese currency will likely supplant the dollar on the world exchange) erodes his belief in the infallibility of his system, allowing “the ghost in the machine”—or what Cronenberg, in light of his definitive move toward Freud’s theory of the unconscious in his previous film, A Dangerous Method (2011), might term Thanatos—to take control. Divesting himself of his fortune, his Gucci jacket, his bodyguard (whom he kills on impulse because this faithful servant has outlived his function in the young billionaire’s life), and finally his car, Eric arrives with half a haircut (a match for his troublingly asymmetrical prostate—so fleshy, so imperfect, so impossible to abstract) at some shit-brown wreckage of a tenement, probably very like the one in which his father was raised—and merely a larger version of the condemned vessel in which Videodrome’s equally deranged protagonist blows his brains out. There he courts death, putting a bullet through his own hand as if first to confirm that he was really alive to begin with.

En route to his aborted haircut and unexpected final destination, Eric occasionally leaves his car to rendezvous with his wife of twenty-two days, who has already decided to divorce him. But, for the most part, his limo serves as office and bedroom. In addition to participating in an outlandish, distinctly Cronenbergian threesome, Eric is involved in several conversations about abstraction as it applies to art and finance. His “chief of theory” tells him that “money has lost its narrative quality the way painting did once upon a time. Money is talking to itself.” His mistress/art consultant wants him to buy a late Rothko that is about to come on the market (perhaps the same Rothko that recently sold for a record $87 million), but Eric, momentarily forgetting that he is headed for bankruptcy, demands the entire Rothko Chapel, which he claims would easily fit into his forty-eight-room apartment. “The Rothko Chapel belongs to the world,” counters the woman. What world could that be? Through the limo’s windows, we glimpse what is recognizably Toronto—not, as in Hollywood movies that shoot in Canada to save money, Toronto disguised as New York, but Toronto as Toronto disorientingly referred to as New York. And does it matter, anyway? It’s all cyberspace—on the screen and in our heads.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight & Sound.