David Cronenberg Kind Of Had a Point About Superheroes… But What About COSMOPOLIS?

Last week, David Cronenberg incurred the ire of comic book fans when he made what appeared to some to be disparaging comments about the art form. You can wade through some of that ire here and here, if you like.

As for Cronenberg’s actual words, here is what he was asked, and what he said:

David, you’ve done drama and horror. Some fairly formidable directors have branched out into superhero movies pretty beautifully —is that something you would consider doing? 

DC: I don’t think they are making them an elevated art form. I think it’s still Batman running around in a stupid cape. I just don’t think it’s elevated. Christopher Nolan’s best movie is “Memento,” and that is an interesting movie. I don’t think his Batman movies are half as interesting though they’re 20 million times the expense. What he is doing is some very interesting technical stuff, which, you know, he’s shooting IMAX and in 3-D. That’s really tricky and difficult to do. I read about it in “American Cinematography Magazine,” and technically, that’s all very interesting. The movie, to me, they’re mostly boring.

Do you think the subject matter prohibits the elevated art form?

DC: Absolutely. Anybody who works in the studio system has got 20 studio people sitting on his head at every moment, and they have no respect, and there’s no…it doesn’t matter how successful you’ve been. And obviously Nolan has been very successful. He’s got a lot of power, relatively speaking. But he doesn’t really have power.

So that’s a no.

DC: I would say that’s a no, you know. And the problem is you gotta… as I say, you can do some interesting, maybe unexpected things. And certainly, I’ve made the horror films and people say, “Can you make a horror film also an art film?” And I would say, “Yeah, I think you can.”

But a superhero movie, by definition, you know, it’s comic book. It’s for kids. It’s adolescent in its core. That has always been its appeal, and I think people who are saying, you know, “Dark Knight Rises” is, you know, supreme cinema art,” I don’t think they know what the f**k they’re talking about.

I pasted the entire section because his statements are so disjointed and random that pulling only one or two sentences runs the risk of taking him out of context, which I don’t want to do. I want to keep Cronenberg in context, and the context here is kind of hilarious.

It’s impossible to argue with a person’s opinion, in particular when they’re using words that have no, or relative, meaning. What is “elevated art”? For that matter, how does Cronenberg define the word “art”? Is it just something that he enjoys, or must it provide some kind of edification? We don’t know.

In the Afterword to his classic novel Lolita, the great creator of elevated art (that’s my opinion!) Vladimir Nabokov wrote,

“For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.”

I’m quoting Nabokov not only because I think he was one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, but also to emphasize the fact that even when a great master of “elevated art” attempts to define art, you get what amounts to a seemingly random word list. As someone who has been accused of having idiosyncratic taste, I like the fact that Nabokov’s definition doesn’t mention anything about “quality” or “aesthetics.” To Nabokov, it’s about how a work makes him feel. By Nabokov’s definition, all of Nolan’s Batman films, including the last one, qualify as art, for a lot of people.

I’m not going to argue with Cronenberg’s assertion that the superhero movie is “adolescent in its core.” I think he’s probably right about that — the concept of the superhero appeals to a very adolescent part of myself and, given the nature of the movie business and the vast amounts of money involved in bringing superheroes into movie theaters, there is a lot of pressure to assure those films appeal to as wide an audience as possible. What is often dismissively called the “lowest common denominator.”

Not a lot of people realize this, because I just made it up, but David Cronenberg's classic film "The Fly" was actually based on this comic book.

What I would like to point out, however, is that Cronenberg made these comments while promoting a film entitled Cosmopolis. I actually read the novel on which that film is based.

Oh, boy.

Cosmopolis is like a catalogue of the worst instincts of a snotty adolescent who thinks he knows everything because it just dawned on him that there’s a lot of stuff that happens that just doesn’t seem fair, and starts hectoring random people on the street who happen to be wearing business suits. But he hectors them in obtuse aphorisms that he thinks are “deep.”

The main character, Eric Packer, is a stunningly good-looking and fabulously wealthy 28 year-old assets manager who uses his brilliance to make money, read poetry, study physics in German, master complex concepts in an afternoon, and just generally act like a superhuman. In a 2003 review of the novel, Laura Miller, one of the founders of Salon.com notes,

Perhaps it’s not possible for an American man to write about an ostentatiously wealthy guy like Eric-who has a 48-room triplex at the top of the world’s tallest residential tower, complete with rotating bedroom, lap pool, screening room, borzoi pen, two elevators (one timed to Erik Satie and the other to Sufi rap) a shark tank and, if Eric gets around to it, shooting range-without sounding like he’s creating the alter ego of a comic-book superhero. Mr. DeLillo certainly hasn’t proven it’s possible here, that’s for sure. Eric is also a polymath (“he mastered the steepest matters in half an afternoon”) who studies Einstein’s special theory in both German and English, reads poetry, contemplates the Middle English roots of the word “hangnail” and works out faithfully (a universal trait of the protagonists of cheap thrillers). People, especially women, are forever feeding him observations about himself, like slave girls dispensing peeled grapes; these are flattery disguised as reproaches. “I think you’re dedicated to knowing,” his wife says. “I think you acquire information and turn it into something stupendous and awful.”

Cosmopolis is “adolescent in its core.” It’s a comic book story (without pictures!) for people who read The New Yorker and Paris Review. Reading it is a stultifying experience. It’s short, but it feels overlong and padded. It’s full of phonybaloney portentous-sounding dialogue and narration that’s just inane. Here’s a bit of a conversation between Packer and Shiner, who is his kid sidekick:

“What have we learned then?”

“Our system’s secure. We’re impenetrable. There’s no rogue program,” Shiner said.

“It would seem, however.”

“Eric, no. We ran every test. Nobody’s overloading the system or manipulating our sites.”

“When did we do all this?”

“Yesterday. At the complex. Our rapid-response team. There’s no vulnerable point of entry. Our insurer did a threat analysis. We’re buffered from attack.”



“Including the car.”

“Including, absolutely, yes.”

“My car. This car.”

“Eric, yes, please.”

It goes on from there. On and on and on. Just like that. Every character sounds like every other character, and all the characters talk like the narrator. (Oh, and there are also sex scenes.) No doubt it’s meant to be a droll commentary on the way the modern world turns people into monotonous, unconscious robots, so that not even sex is particularly interesting to them. But if you’ve ever been out in the real world, you know that this isn’t true. The world is full of different types of people, who are affected  by the world in different ways. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert says the characters speak in “morose epigrams.” Joshua Chaplinsky at LitReactor says,

The book is filled with rambling, often didactic conversations, written in a hyper-realistic style. Theatrical repartee with off-kilter rhythms and turn-on-a-dime non-sequiturs. It is the literary equivalent of a composer eschewing standard 4/4 for more complex time signatures.

That’s quite a feat, being both “hyper-realistic” and “theatrical” at the same time. But, when you’re describing dialogue that seems to have been written specifically to say EVERYTHING IMPORTANT while saying NOTHING AT ALL BECAUSE MODERN LIFE IS ULTIMATELY SO DEHUMANIZING, you can describe it any way you want.

Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Grant Morrison, Neal Gaiman, Stan Lee, Steve Gerber, Steve Englehart, Denny O’Neal. All of these writers have written far more interesting and intelligible stories on the important issues of the day than can be found in the rambling, turgid, and self-important adolescent novel Cosmopolis. And they wrote those stories with superheroes.

BONUS: Just for fun, I took some (post-coital!) dialogue between Eric Packer and Didi Fancher from the book Cosmopolis, and attributed it to Superman and Wonder Woman from the cover of Justice League #12. It looks like comic book dialogue to me. Only, you know, slightly more adolescent.

Superman and Wonder Woman kissing-- dialogue taken from Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo.


Fly cover source.