David Cronenberg doesn't watch his old films and keeps few souvenirs from them, so his recent viewing of the many props, posters and costumes laid out in a new Toronto exhibition about his five decades of filmmaking must have been a bit like rediscovering favourite toys in the attic. But the renowned director has so often groped for the shapes of things to come that it's no surprise that David Cronenberg: Evolution got him thinking not just about the past, but the future as well.
"I think I'm feeling my way toward a different kind of filmmaking, a kind of Samuel Beckett style, very ascetic and simple and direct," he said during a chat at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, where the exhibition opened on Friday. "Very unblinking, and not too tricky or artful. An attempt to get at some basic, primordial understanding of the human condition."
You could see the signs in Spider (2003), a sparse record of a man's half-mad solitude, and even in last year's Cosmopolis, in which a young plutocrat gradually sheds everything and everyone around him and lurches toward his demise.
Then there are the short films Cronenberg has been shooting around his house lately, using the kind of inexpensive GoPro camera that thrill-seeking athletes strap to their helmets.
"It's kind of a throwback to '60s underground filmmaking, which is what got me started, people like Kenneth Anger and Ed Emshwiller and the Kuchar brothers, and Andy Warhol," he said. "I couldn't help thinking that Andy would definitely have been playing with that kind of accessible equipment." And yes, Cronenberg wants to go there again on a larger scale, somehow, even as he finishes Maps to the Stars, his second feature film starring Twilight heartthrob Robert Pattinson.
You think of Cronenberg at 70 going underground in his own garage, still learning from Beckett and Warhol, and you start to see the difficulty of pinning the guy down, even with a full film retrospective and an extensive exhibition of props, drawings, posters and costumes, as well as two ancillary shows at Toronto's Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art. Cronenberg just won't let you feel content with a simple story about him.
The tale we love to tell about Cronenberg is about how he started with icky, cheap horror films and miraculously graduated to international auteur success. But that story is already 25 years old, and doesn't begin to account for what he has done since. Piers Handling and Noah Cowan, co-curators of the first big display of Cronenberg artifacts since the Royal Ontario Museum's The Strange Objects of David Cronenberg's Desire in 1993, have set themselves the task of finding one narrative to cover the whole of his activity.
They have written the short form of their tale on the walls, above lurid cinema cards from the early films, body parts shed by The Fly's Seth Brundle after emerging from his telepod (1986), grotesque gynecological instruments from Dead Ringers (1988) and the B&D leather body brace worn by Rosanna Arquette in Crash (1996). Amid this bewildering array (which also includes the sedate period costuming from 2011's A Dangerous Method), Handling and Cowan boil the films down to three roughly consecutive phases and three questions: "Who is my creator? Who am I? Who are we?" It's a bit like the stock narrative types dispensed by school teachers: Man against man, man against nature, man against himself.
In this telling, elaborated in two catalogue essays, Cronenberg's obsession with the remodelling of life, displayed in the mad-scientist/contagion scenarios of his early films, leads over time through a tunnel of introspection toward increasing personal autonomy and concern for community. It's Cronenberg as covert liberal humanist, aiming in the end for a place where a man can be free to reconnect with his family. How shocking to find the former shockmeister headed for the kind of denouement found in a Charles Dickens novel.
But is that really where he's going? Cronenberg's films, early and late, are always about following a rational path into the irrational. His protagonists mostly try to invent or discover some improved state of life that throws them back into the base hungers and deficiencies of their condition. They skate over chaos and call it progress, though even the thin surface that holds them up is an invention or an accident of the flesh. The scientist Seth Brundle and the Wall Street wizard Eric Packer (in Cosmopolis) are both destroyed by their convictions, by the uncontrollable ooze of the physical, and by the cosmic irrationality of chance.
Cowan sees Cronenberg's heroes becoming less narcissistic and more social over time, but Packer (originally an invention of novelist Don DeLillo) may be the most narcissistic of all, sitting in his limousine, admitting the world only in controlled doses. He's a classic existential loner, perched on a ledge built largely in cyberspace – the same invented realm that, in an earlier iteration, became the whole environment of eXistenZ (1999).
"eXistenZ is very much an existentialist statement in sci-fi form," Cronenberg said. "And A History of Violence  has a bit of that as well. And you can really connect A History of Violence with Spider, with the idea that an identity is not an absolute thing but a willed thing. I've never really thought of that until this moment, connecting those movies in that way."
Perhaps the story of the later Cronenberg is not that different from Beckett's, both of them growing ever simpler in method, both pursuing the same character types deeper into the rabbit hole, neither believing that there is any ultimate bottom to it besides death.
It's fun to see the fantastical but real-looking artifacts of TIFF's exhibition, to peer at the still-shocking frankness of the sexpod from Naked Lunch (1991), and to linger at the bar with a newly fabricated reptilian humanoid mugwump. But this show might have been better if it had included references to things outside Cronenberg's work – to the horror film conventions he inherited, to the underground cineastes he still reveres, to Beckett and Warhol, and to the spirit and malleability of his own hometown of Toronto, which he has disguised for so many films. In Evolution, he's an isolated master toiling in a vacuum, creeping toward a freer, more companionable vision of life than you will find in any of his films.
Evolution, part of the larger Cronenberg Project that includes online components, an eBook and two published volumes, has spun off small promo buttons printed with a slogan from his breakout film Videodrome (1983): "Long live the new flesh." It's a very dystopian cry, when you think of what happens to new forms of the flesh in Cronenberg's films. I left the exhibition wishing I had another button, even smaller perhaps, marked "Free David Cronenberg."
David Cronenberg: Evolution and TIFF's retrospective of Cronenberg films continue at Bell Lightbox until Jan. 19. Two related visual art exhibitions at MOCCA continue through Dec. 29