Brandon Cronenberg: Antiviral

Brandon Cronenberg finds horror in our obsession with celebrity in Antiviral
If Brandon Cronenberg looks a little shell-shocked when we convene for an interview at last May’s Cannes Film Festival, there is a good reason. It is not only his first feature, Antiviral, that has got the world’s media buzzing, but also his background.
Not just any tyro filmmaker, he is the son of legendary Jewish Canadian auteur David Cronenberg, who also just happened to be at the festival with his chilly adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel Cosmopolis. Talk about pressure.
A few months later in London, the 32-year-old newcomer is more relaxed, but still trying to understand what happened.
“Cannes was insane,” he says, smiling wryly. “It was this weird little bubble of an experience that I can’t quite reconcile with the rest of my life. But it was interesting and fun. Being there with my family was, you know, cute,” he laughs, using an adjective that could never be applied either to his own blood-spattered film or any of his father’s edgy offerings, which include The Fly, the controversial sex-and-wrecks drama Crash, and violent London-set thriller Eastern Promises.
In truth, Cannes was the perfect launchpad for Antiviral: a provocative take on modern celebrity that chimed perfectly with film fans’ daily ritual of lining the resort’s main strip to rubberneck stars on the red carpet.
In the movie, infatuated fans buy injections of viruses such as herpes sourced from their idols, eat meat cloned from their bodies, and have celebrity skin grafts. A sick scenario perhaps — and Cronenberg says he was not in the best of health when the idea took root in 2004.
“I was having this delirious fever dream and obsessing over the fact that I had something in my body that had come from somebody else’s body, and how that was an intimate thing, if you look at it that way.”
At the time he was studying film at Ryerson University, in his home town of Toronto, and wanted to write a script. “So I was trying to think of a character who would see disease as something intimate, and I thought a celebrity-obsessed fan might reasonably want Angelina Jolie’s cold as a way of becoming physically connected to her.”
The film taps into a very modern kind of celebrity — first crystallised, Cronenberg believes, in Paris Hilton — where people are famous simply for being famous. If the filmmaker’s vision seems grotesque, it is because the whole phenomenon is grotesque, he says, and we have become inured to it. His response to this was to make Antiviral physically and intellectually unsettling.
Growing up and watching the way his father was portrayed in the media — as the “Baron of Blood” for example — Brandon came to see from an early age that a person’s media image often had little to do with the human behind it. Celebrity was an artificial construct. Or as someone says in the film, a “mass hallucination”. An atheist, his father would probably say the same thing about God, wouldn’t he?
“A lot of the time I think it’s through discomfort that you can say something,” he asserts. “We’ve actually become so comfortable with the grotesqueness of celebrity culture that we don’t feel gross about it anymore. So to push it to a place where it’s viscerally disgusting was part of the intent.”
“Yeah well, that’s my perspective too. I’m definitely an atheist,” he says. “I don’t think I was pushed towards atheism, but I wasn’t pushed towards religion either.”
Interestingly, his father’s Jewishness did not really become explicit on screen until he released At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World at the Last Cinema in the World — a 2007 short film made as a personal response to a statement by Hizbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah calling for the murder of all Jews. Brandon understands his father’s compulsion to make the film.
“Judaism is funny because it’s the race and religious thing — you can identify as being racially Jewish and still be very upset by antisemitism, and be afraid of that current in society, and not at all believe in God.”
Brandon’s maternal grandfather was Orthodox and he says he has an affection for Jewish tradition. “I would go to Passover dinners and stuff like that. So I have that weird nostalgia for those things even though I never was religious.”
Brandon is clearly his father’s son and, inevitably, is having to try and carve out his own course while at the same time dealing with people scrutinising him and his work for similarities. At film school, he consciously tried not to concern himself with such things. “It’s not that I wasn’t affected by any of it in any way,” he admits.
“But I feel like it would have been paralysing, and also impossible to work from an honest place, if I was too worried about my father’s career and what people would think, and the significance of what I was doing.”
Choosing to make his debut with a horror film — territory associated with his father — seems like asking for trouble, though. But Brandon insists, that it is hard to avoid crossing paths with Cronenberg senior, because he has worked across so many different genres.
“But the truth is, the film represents my interests,” he says defiantly.
And what does Cronenberg senior think of Antiviral? “He likes it. I’m very close to my father and he likes my film and I like his film. It’s all very adorable and emotional.”
Of course, being the son of such a famous father meant that Brandon work was always going to get attention, which is what any new film-maker hopes for. However, there was never any guarantee that it would always be the right kind. A mixed blessing, then?
“It’s absolutely a double-edged sword,” he laughs. “But it was a sword that was waiting for me.”
First published in The Jewish Chronicle, 1/2/13
© Stephen Applebaum, 2013


Say Yes To No

Chile's Pablo Larrain takes down Pinochet in the Oscar-nominated drama, No 

"WITHOUT memory you are dead. You are plastic,” says the Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain. “If you don’t have memory on your side, you tend to make the same mistakes again and again. So it’s good to rethink a few things.”
Larrain has been doing this ever since his dark and troubling debut feature, Tony Manero, used a psychopathic John Travolta obsessive as a metaphor for the violence perpetrated by General Augusto Pinochet’s brutal military junta. He returned to the subject in his second film, Post-Mortem, set during the bloody coup that brought Pinochet to power in 1973. Some in Chile wondered why Larrain couldn’t let the past lie. “They said, ‘Why don’t you make a surfing film or whatever?’ But I wanted to do it because I still didn’t get it yet. I didn’t understand it.”
Born in 1976, Larrain was too young to experience the full horror first hand; however, it haunts his generation “like a big ghost”, he told me after the world premiere of Post-Mortem in 2010. “Pinochet died [in 2006] with $30 million and free. We still have 3000 people disappeared. We have nobody in jail. If somebody thinks it’s enough, I would say, ‘I don’t agree.’”
A third film, No, based on a play by Antonio Skarmeta, was already at the writing stage. “It’s going to be a trilogy and that’s it,” he laughed. “I swear I will go and do something else.”
No now arrives in the UK already having made history by becoming the first production from Chile to be nominated for a best foreign language film Oscar. Part of the reason, possibly, is that in dramatising the story of how a group of television advertising men helped to oust Pinochet in a 1988 plebiscite that was supposed to extend the dictator’s rule, Larrain has fashioned his most mainstream movie to date. Where Tony Manero and Post-Mortem were dark, twisted and oblique, with deranged, opaque protagonists, No is instantly accessible and relatively light in tone. The difference was intentional, he says.
“My previous films were made under my imagination; I created those situations in the real context of what happened in my country. This tells a real story about a real campaign with real people that did something that changed the history of my country. So we had to tell it in a proper way in order to deliver it to a wide audience. Not because we wanted to make it wider. We had to.”
The central irony of No is that Pinochet was defeated by Mad Men using advertising to sell the idea of l’alegria, or happiness, to the masses as an alternative to the dictator’s repressive rule, in the same way that they would sell fizzy pop, using humour, music, and joy.
“The advertising logic comes from capitalism,” says Larrain. “And that capitalism is a model that Pinochet imposed. So he created the tools that pulled him out. It’s like we say in Spanish: you create your own enemy.”
Not everyone believed that the “No” campaign would be successful. Pinochet controlled everything, including the media. The opposition’s TV broadcasts (the “Yes” and “No” campaigns were given 15 minutes airtime a day each for a month) would be censored, they thought; the vote would be rigged, the election a sham. After all, who’d ever heard of a dictator being voted off the stage democratically? They “usually die in power, fat, rich and shooting people”, says Larrain.
Chile hadn’t gone to the polls since the Socialist Salvador Allende was elected president in 1970, and people feared reprisals. To overcome this, the architects of the “No” campaign “created an environment where you could express yourself”, says Larrain.
“They let the people know that they can still think freely. They said, ‘Don’t be afraid. When you vote, vote for what you think is really better. Don’t let anybody tell you what to do.’ We’d had 15 years where freedom was a metaphor. That is why we show the vote in the film.”
The margin of victory was slim, but it was enough to rid Chile of Pinochet. The “No” campaign had done its work simply by promoting an abstract idea: happiness.
In the film, Mexican star Gael GarcĂ­a Bernal plays Rene Saavedra, an amalgam of several real people involved with the operation. Some people found the campaign trivial, Bernal says, while others thought it was “disrespectful to the pain that many people carried”. Moreover, in an echo of the Arab Spring, it never considered what would come next.
“Ultimately it was a partial win because the economic system, the privileges, stayed kind of the same,” claims Bernal. “Chile is a country that is doing well economically and yet all of Latin America has free education, except Chile. So there are contradictions that are still there and still hurtful.”
The film is rife with ambiguity and ambivalence, ending on a sobering note of reality rather than unalloyed optimism. Its very make up, too, is ambiguous, comprising new and old footage blended to perfection by shooting with actual U-matic cameras from the period.
Not many survive other than as museum or art pieces, but a global hunt turned up 20 which a company in Hollywood was able to cannibalise into four working units. “They were like people,” says Larrain. “They were all different and they would get tired. So we had to use one and then another day another one, because they wouldn’t be in good shape.” The results were so authentic, Larrain claims, that he couldn’t always distinguish between the archive footage and new material when they were assembling the edit. “When we had that confusion, I said, ‘We got it!’”
Whether he also gets the Oscar will be revealed on 24 February.
First published in The Scotsman, 4/2/13
© Stephen Applebaum, 2013