David Cronenberg's best-director prize at this month's Genies is his fifth, after previous wins for Naked Lunch, Crash, Dead Ringers and Videodrome, a fact that speaks to Cronenberg's pre-eminent position in Canadian film. During the same period (1983-96) at the Academy Awards, only two directors, Oliver Stone and Steven Spielberg, have won twice.
Even given the differences between the two industries, these five wins constitute an industry acknowledgement of Cronenberg's leading and peculiar position in Canada. He isn't just our best director; he's one of the very few Canadian directors who isn't a local, or downright parochial, filmmaker.
But as Cronenberg nears 60, he's become influential not in Canadian film, where almost no one has followed him, but in world cinema.
Check the films of David Fincher, who quotes Shivers directly in Seven, casting Shivers lead Allan Kolman (aka Migicovsky) in the porn palace scene -- and has used Cronenberg's composer, Howard Shore, on four of his five features.
Take a look at The Cell, whose director, Tarsem Singh, has explicitly acknowledged Cronenberg's influence. Or, look at The Matrix, which lifts as much from Cronenberg as it does from Japanese anime and Hong Kong action flicks, and owes a huge debt to Videodrome, which is also about a world where no one can be sure exactly who is controlling the mind of the protagonist.
Of course, Cronenberg operates almost in opposition to what we think of as "Canadian film." He doesn't pay homage to the documentary tradition, and even when his films have specific Toronto settings there's nothing "local" about them. He's like Ingmar Bergman and François Truffaut in this way. All are place-specific artists -- distinctly Canadian, Scandinavian, French respectively -- but they work big themes on a large scale, even if the film features only, say, two people in a remote cabin.
Their local counterparts -- Patricia Rozema, Jörn Donner or Claude Miller -- are also anchored in their settings, but these seem a little smaller. And these directors don't look far beyond their own borders or their own little patch of concern.
In a national cinema that is very attentive to the "real," Cronenberg creates worlds that are enclosed formal constructions. From Dead Ringers onwards, his films take place almost entirely inside the heads of their protagonists, where the "real world" is simply another relativist construct.
And if he hasn't made what we conventionally think of as a horror film since The Fly, he has dug more deeply into purely psychological horror.
That's really the thread that runs out of Videodrome, which Cronenberg once described as a film about a character trapped in "his own paranoid inventiveness." The Mantle twins in Dead Ringers, the game players in eXistenZ, the schizophrenic central figure in Spider are all forced to confront their own psychological disintegration. Jude Law in eXistenZ can never be sure if he's in or out of that film's virtual reality game, and Ralph Fiennes in Spider is haunted by his terrifying childhood memories.
Every director whose work we prize has his own set of obsessions, and for Cronenberg it's the nature of human identity. What happens to a person whose body is invaded by something inhuman is the central trope of his early horror films: Shivers, Rabid, Videodrome and The Fly.
What happens when the mind rebels against "reality"? In Cronenberg's world, the fact that our minds play tricks on us is not something to worry about, but a standard operating procedure we should expect in life.