Eastern Promises

Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises (dir. David Cronenberg, 2007).

I had a little epiphany while watching Eastern Promises: another filmmaker David Cronenberg closely resembles in a key way is John Sayles. Both directors work with standard generic conventions (and they usually are conventions associated with genre narrative: horror, science fiction, crime), but throughout the course of the story, those conventions fade into the background, sometimes refusing to resolve themselves, or resolving themselves in deliberately cursory and anticlimactic ways. For both Sayles and Cronenberg, the conventions are red herrings, or expedient means to a larger purpose. In Sayles' case, that purpose is clearly political, and it is this that keeps me at arm's length from most of his work: not that I resist the political themes as such, but the inevitable flattening out of expected cinematic pleasures that results from the bait-and-switch. In a way, this happens in Cronenberg too, but in the first place, his politics are more challenging (if not necessarily more attractive), and in the second place, when he switches the bait, he never tries to situate what he replaces it with entirely outside the realm of the filmic like Sayles, but instead acknowledges the filmic as immanent to his larger purpose and does what he can to mess the art form up from the inside out. This is why Eastern Promises behaves on the surface like a gangster film, but reveals itself very quickly to be, like all Cronenberg's films, about prosthetics and fake blood. Lest it be objected that it's hard to accept these elements as the basis for a politics, remind yourself what century you live in.

Viggo Mortensen has become Cronenberg's ideal leading man: his face, stiff and menacing, is a prosthesis. So too Armin Mueller-Stahl, as the malevolent gangster king Semyon, is as leadenly impassive as one of Duane Edwards' vinyl sculptures. Even Naomi Watts, who concealed her pregnancy from Cronenberg until they had already begun filming, reveals some context-appropriate "padding." When one character's throat is slit (the second one, not the first one), the wound is so obviously made of latex that you want to stand up and cheer for the minor, temporary triumph of lo-fi auteurism over both the hegemony of bland "realist" drama and simulacral CGI illusionism.

See also Ron Silliman's comments. [Addendum: and Steven Shaviro and Kim Dot Dammit.]


girish said...

Steven Shaviro has a nice essay/analysis of the film as well.

Ed Hardy, Jr. said...

Interesting piece. I never would have made the Sayles connection, but as soon as I heard it I got it--which is what makes it such a brilliant comparison. It seems left-field, but then you realize it makes perfect sense. Nice!