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by Jordan Hiller

BIO's Jordan Hiller sits down with David Cronenberg and Ralph Fiennes to discuss

SPIDER (2003)


Spider is a tale of the distracted. The celluloid study of a man who views life from a greasy, muddied lens. Reality, for him, is out of focus and those around him are a suspicious and suspecting blur. The man is Dennis Cleg (nicknamed Spider and calmly played by Ralph Fiennes), just returning to the London of his youth after a stint at a mental asylum where he was treated for schizophrenia – and he grows distracted by landmarks – triggers – forcing him to wade through his clouded, crusted memory. His walk is a dazed shuffle – in many respects he is crawling through the claustrophobic scenery like his namesake insect, making connections, piecing together an impossible puzzle leading to a terrible past through a web of subconscious guilt.

The basis for the guilt is the great mystery of David (Dead Ringers, The Fly) Cronenberg’s film based on the novel by Patrick McGrath, and the director, who stylistically makes a more pleasant and tame showing compared to former work, wants us to figure out the mystery just as Spider does and not a minute earlier. We are intended to be taking a journey through an unbeautiful mind and as the layers of pathos unravel and fold over upon themselves, we sit uncomfortably and watch the emotional and psychological (even physical) nakedness of a plagued figure. Cronenberg does not want us to pity Spider but that is certainly the simplest relationship we can develop with him. We are challenged, rather, to go back to Spider’s childhood where his father (Gabriel Byrne) and mother (Miranda Richardson doing excellent work in three very different roles) raise the quiet, perhaps not so innocent Dennis and carefully follow the warped path to a startling revelation in the understanding of a horrifyingly diseased human. Spider’s humanity is crucial to Croneberg and this emphasis separates this film from similar studies.

In light of this revelation, we are prompted to reassess the entire film. Somehow, the preceding ninety minutes curl like a cloud of gray smoke and corrupt our normally self assured lenses. What Cronenberg achieves ultimately in his latest mind bender is the full-scale distraction of his audience.

Q & A with David Cronenberg

Q: I asked Mr. Cronenberg about a recent cover of the Jerusalem Report that introduced an article about “Spider” with the phrase “Cronenberg makes a ‘Jewish’ film”. He was amused by the question and the title of the article. The article can be found here. Here is what David Cronenberg told me.

A: I remember doing that interview [for the Jerusalem Report or Post]. The question of my Jewishness came up which it normally doesn’t, but I was happy to talk about it. But even not having said that – not specifically that, there are several touchstones in Spider for Ralph and one is Beckett and one Kafka and one was Dostoevsky. And then if you were to think about modern English writers – could be Pinter or could be the works of Carol Reed. When I said to Ralph, “What are you playing?” - I said, “You’re a Jew – you’re a Czech Jew. You’re a Jew and that’s who you are – that’s who Spider is.” You can’t take that the wrong way…but of course you could. What I meant was we would talk about this film often and we would discover just awareness’s about what Spider was and what was going on with him. He would just say to himself “Czech”…y’know “Jew” just to sort of widen the context for him. Because we really felt that Spider was a very contained, austere, somewhat simple character – while being very complex in a lot of references. So that maybe…but of course to say “Croneberg makes a Jewish film”…that’s a fairly selective… but that’s probably where it came from.

I said, y’know, it was a surprise to me in a way that Spider ends up being a kind of template of an artist. He writes obsessively. He’s always taking notes – nothing gets by him. And he’s taking evidence of a crime that he might have committed and many writers do feel that they are taking evidence of crimes, but he’s writing in a language that no one can understand so it’s kind of a nightmare version of an artist. That any artist would have. You want to communicate – you’ve done all you can to communicate and nobody understands.

I think that [the interviewer] said to me [Spider] was more like a talmudic scholar, y’know, because he was also obsessive and obsessed with details that no one else would consider important and I said I think that was a perfectly legitimate – not that I’ve ever been a talmudic scholar – but I know – I understand what is involved up to a certain point and I thought that was a perfectly legitimate thing to say. So that’s where you get “Cronenberg: makes Jewish film”. [He laughs].


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