Much of the discourse surrounding David Cronenberg’s recently released Crime of the Future (2022) has attempted to contextualize the film as an exemplary “late work” by its director. Seeing as Cronenberg has been active as a filmmaker since the 1970s, it’s not too much of a stretch to assume that Crimes and any other films he may go on to make will end up lying near the end of his long and prolific body of work. And yet, when people discuss the film as a late work of its creator, they don’t simply mean that it comes near the end of his filmography – they are also trying to situate it within a tradition of late works in cinema history, an idea that has long been an important one for auteurist critics.
In 1988, the programmer Richard Peña organized a series at Chicago’s Film Center (now called the Gene Siskel Film Center) entitled “Testaments: Final Films of the Great Directors,” a series which was also meant as Peña’s farewell to the Film Center, where he had acted as director of programming. The series included many titles that failed upon initial release with both audiences and mainstream critics, and yet which have long been passionately defended by fans of their respective filmmakers: Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964), John Ford’s Seven Women (1966), Max Ophuls’ Lola Montès (1955), Fritz Lang’s The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960). I consider all of these films to be masterpieces, and yet they certainly aren’t to all tastes. Some of them remain controversial to this day, and they probably mean more in the context of their directors’ entire careers, as all works do.
As the title of Peña’s exciting film series indicated, these last works were meant to be seen as “testaments” – as summative, final statements on the auteurs’ personal style and vision of the world. Indeed, much of the literature on cinema’s great late works has spoken of the films in this way, as serene, prismatic texts that neatly act as compendiums of the artists’ career-long preoccupations. This testament idea may be true of some auteurs’ late films, but I’d like to propose another quality that for me links many of these great films: a purification of vision.
By using the term “purification,” I’m referring to a kind of stripping away of elements, an evolution toward formal simplicity: many of these films do away with conventional entertainment values (which probably helps to explain their commercial failure in a number of cases), in favor of a startling intensity of vision. Perhaps the ultimate example can be found in Fritz Lang’s last two American films, the RKO noirs While the City Sleeps (1956) and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956). These late Langs traffic in threadbare aesthetics and were made without prestige for an unsympathetic producer (Bert E. Friedlob).
Within the spare, purified environments of these works (Beyond a Reasonable Doubt contains only a few spartan sets), the physical gestures and facial expressions of the actors become heightened, and the precision of Lang’s camera movements seems to take on a metaphysical quality. By stripping away certain elements from his mise-en-scène, such as the expressionistic visuals, Lang can more clearly study his webs of interrelated characters, thereby offering a damning statement on social classes, on capitalism, on the country he had worked in for 20 years as a filmmaker. If the films are “summative” (and I believe that they are), this is not due to any wistful looking back on the filmmaker’s early career, but rather because they offer a clarity of style that goes beyond even Lang’s earlier great films. They are possessed by rage, rather than serenity.
Also fascinating are those exploratory late works which feel like something of a road not taken for their directors – a forging of a new style or tendency which the artist wasn’t able to continue with for various reasons. Orson Welles’ F for Fake (1973) wasn’t intended to be his last major film, but because of his disruptive career problems, he wasn’t able to see his own most cherished late projects – The Other Side of the Wind and The Deep – through to completion. With F for Fake, Welles claimed that he wanted to create a film that “had no typically Wellesian shots” of the kind we typically associate with Citizen Kane (1941) or Touch of Evil (1958). He succeeded in that F for Fake doesn’t move or look like any of his other works, and in fact the film’s dizzying and complex montage is its dominant aesthetic strategy.
Does Crimes of the Future represent a purification of Cronenberg’s aesthetics in the way that these other late works function? Though I remain unconvinced of the film’s greatness (while liking certain things about it), I would say it does. The film sees Cronenberg taking some of his most long-cherished images of the body, of orifices and incisions, and removing them from the meaningful trappings of genre. Cronenberg seems instead to have created a kind of art film rather than a horror film or thriller, and by removing this space of genre, the space that audiences use to rationalize or make sense of his disturbing images, he has boldly left viewers to draw their own conclusions. For that, I admire him.
Crimes of the Future is being screened at IU Cinema on August 19 and 20 as part of the New Americas Cinema series.
F for Fake was previously screened in April 2015 on a double bill with another late Welles film, The Immortal Story (1968).
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He graduated from Indiana University with a BA in English, and currently resides in Chicago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.