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— W.C.U.N — Pittsburgh!!

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Cosmo - relating to the world or universe. Greek root meaning a harmonious whole.

Polis - city-state in Greece, especially in its ideal form for philosophical purposes.

We can take Cosmopolis then to mean city as metaphor for the ordered world or universe and while that city is New York in Delillo's source novel and ostensibly so in Cronenberg's adaptation the film exists in what Cronenberg terms a "mythic New York." Certain streets are recognizable, street names as well, but the majority of the city is projected on a Toronto green screen; a kind of second-class reality to the bubble of hyperrealism within Eric Packard's limosuine—the true reality of the book and film. It is here that we breathe the rarified air of the one percent. Seen through Cronenberg's lense they exist as abstractions of humans; robotic and awkward in their delivery of stilted and precise dialogue as they approximate human experience and relations. This is not 'bad acting' as many assume, (especially Pattinson's performance), but directed non-acting akin to what Bresson practiced with his 'models' and why Pattinson is more than perfect for the role. The fact that the book and film couches a series of didactic economic and philosophic conversations in such inhuman and unlikable characters (a kind of My Dinner with Andre and American Psycho mash-up) is understandably a big turn off for casual viewers, but I would argue it is also what marks the film if not the novel, Cosmopolis, as an unappreciated masterpiece deserving a second or even third look. It's the poster child for movies requiring multiple viewings and even then if the increasing trend toward transhumanism in society and finance as the language of that society is not of interest to you then Cosmopolis may always remain the cold and impenetrable misfire that so many see it as. If you're a Cronenberg fan, however, then you owe it to yourself to rewatch what I believe to be the summation of the man's themes and perhaps the last masterpiece we'll see from the septuagenarian.

 

Every act he performed was self-haunted and synthetic.

- Don Delillo, Cosmopolis

 

While Cosmopolis might make a more obvious double feature with Cronenberg's Crash—make it a triple feature with Godard's Weekend—it's closest companion piece both chronologically and thematically is A Dangerous Method both representative of a career-long evolution from heady, highly visual body horror to heady, intensely verbal existential horror. An evolution that has moved through distinct phases and reaches its apex in Cosmopolis.

 

From the start of his career, Cronenberg was uncompromising in his vision, limited only by his budget in the Canadian tax-shelter era of CFDC and Cinepix. A fascination with mutation, both biological and technological found ever more surreal visual expressions as he found bigger budgets and Hollywood actors. His particular brand of maple syrup Grand Guignol reaching its ultimate expression with Videodrome and—somehow—brought him into the mainstream as well. The Dead Zone effortlessly introduced a refinement and even class to his style not fully formed in previous productions and while The Fly continued the body horror under studio budget and polish, it's his next film, Dead Ringers that signaled the shift toward aberrations of the psyche—further explored in the pseudo-biography of Naked Lunch, and then the sexual inquiries of Crash and M. Butterfly. And while there remains the one-off return to body horror in this period with eXistenz, this phase of Cronenberg's career ultimately returns and culminates with the themes of identity and psychological extremes in the fractured narrative of Spider.

 

A History of Violence and Eastern Promises introduces us to another phase of Cronenberg, arguably his most mainstream, that of the crime narrative—a genre traditionally dominated by plot machinations and character-driven dialogue. These two films are exemplars of Cronenberg's transition to perceived identity as transformed by more standard plot conventions as well as his ability to marry theme directly to plot and dialogue without seeming heavy-handed or exposition-heavy. With A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg goes one step further, eschewing plot almost entirely to give us a film driven by dialogue in its exploration of the birth of psychoanalysis—a process at its heart about transforming the experiences of the body into language. Cronenberg's themes of identity and transformation take their most evident form in Keira Knightly's performance as Sabina S. as she moves from patient to psychiatrist over the course of the film while the transformation of consciousness itself is argued over between the two giants in the field; Freud and Jung. A telling line by Freud (Mortensen) that situates the film's themes for those unable to see the connection between this film and Cronenberg's past works—"Do you think they know we're on the way, bringing with us the plague?" What better subject to use as text than Freud's 'talking cure' crashing against Jung's Archetypes. While A Dangerous Method takes Psychoanalysis as the modern plague, Cosmopolis goes headlong into Abstract Expressionism—another modern movement relying on primitive symbology.

 

This culmination of a life's work and themes may not be the visceral return to body-horror coup de grace fans want, but it is the purest distillation of what all Cronenberg films, to one degree or another, have been concerned with; the loss or metamorphosis of identity in the face of biological, technological and psychological extremes.

 

"It's not original. It's an appropriation."

- Vija Kinsky, Cosmopolis

 

Directing from his own script—the first time in eleven years—Cronenberg stays extremely faithful to Delillo's novel of a young master of the universe on his journey across New York City for a haircut. In fact, the dialogue is lifted nearly verbatim as is the plot save a few scenes—most noticeably a film shoot in mid-town. Packard (Pattinson) has pursued abstraction in finance and thought to the point that he can longer relate to other human beings much less foresee clearly the market fluctuations of the Yuan—he's betting his fortune and therefore his very identity on the fact that the currency's valuation cannot continue to rise. Looking at him, you'd never know it, his cold sheen of success insulating him from every warning from his chief strategist, chief of theory and chief of security. A President is in town. A rapper's funeral parade vying with the Presidential motorcade for sheer street-choking size. An unknown man is making threats against his life. It's all so much background noise to Packard's dialogues with his employees. The only thing that really seems to excite him, or interest him is his ongoing attempt to purchase "the Rothko chapel" from his lover/art dealer. He is not interested in buying a Rothko painting or paintings so much as he wants to possess the space in which the art is received. This is as clear a statement on the theme of the film as it is on Packard's desire to possess the abstract.

 

This aspect of the book, expressed in its central metaphor of abstract expressionism is carried over in Cronenberg's film first in its opening title sequence with a digital recreation of a Jackson Pollock then in the Rothko Chapel dialogue, then the 'action-painter of cream pies' scene as played by Mathieu Almaric—the only time we really see Packard angry—and finally under the end credits with the digital Rothko color-field painting. Abstract Expressionism came out of frustration with figurative painting's ability to express the current emotional climate in post-war America. As Vija Kinsky (Mortimer) says at one point: "Money has lost its narrative quality the way painting did once upon a time. Money is talking to itself ." While both, Pollock and Rothko are abstract expressionists, they are polar opposites in style, method, and execution. Pollock abandons traditional composition and lacks a point of emphasis. Rothko's work is formally strong and simple. As the flip side to the same coin, they are in dialogue like the series of one on one discussions in the film and ultimately like the Linear and the Abstract as represented by Packard and Benno Levin (Giamatti) in the film.

 

 

"People will not die. Isn't that the creed of the new culture? People will be absorbed in streams of information."

- Vija Kinsky, Cosmopolis

 

As Packard's fortune continues to hemorrhage it becomes clear that it's not so much because he has underestimated the Chinese ability to artificially inflate the Yuan, but that he is self-destructing. The reason if we're to take his conversations as any indication seems to be his inability to see the most linear of cause and effect and his pursuit of something beyond the self-evident; the abstract and asymetrical. He pursues experience beyond the pale of reason and polite society–seeking transformation from the intellect to the dumb ape physicality of sex, pain, and death. He is seeking enlightenment, abstraction, evolution in self-destruction.

 

Comparisons to Ulysses have been made by many including Cronenberg himself, but I think a more apt comparison is an inverse take on Conrad's Heart of Darkness with Pattinson's Eric Packer the Kurtz heading up-river to his inevitable face-off with Giamatti's Benno Levin—the defacto Marlow. Instead of a boat, however, Packer navigates the winding river of New York City in a cork-lined limo—Prousted, he says, to dampen the street noise. The final tete-a-tete with Giamatti's Levin is the third act itself and could almost work as a standalone work; a two-hander concerning a man whose life and identity has been defined not by biology, technology or disease, but another man who for all intents and purposes has lost his humanity to abstraction.

 

 





 

 

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