Cineastes who’ve gotten used to David Cronenberg’s grotesque explorations of malfunctioning human bodies ought to be really shocked by the opening credits of his 1979 gearhead melodrama Fast Company. While a rollicking, Bruce Springsteen-esque rock ’n’ roll song plays, Cronenberg cuts swiftly between stylish angles of a decked-out 18-wheeler, as it rolls down a highway flanked by mountains. Then the movie’s chrome-plated, ultra-’70s logo flashes onto the screen. Cronenberg fans may wind up scrambling for the Blu-ray case, to make sure they didn’t pop in a Hal Needham picture by mistake.
As Cronenberg himself puts it on Fast Company’s commentary track, “There are a lot of things that interest me in my life that don’t make it into my films.” Fast Company is an example of Cronenberg taking one step back from his idiosyncrasies, and spending 90 minutes reveling in one of his passions. Between the cult horror hits Rabid and The Brood, he made this straight-up, unapologetic B-movie about an over-the-hill drag racer (William Smith) who fights to keep his career viable in spite of behind-the-scenes sabotage by villainous corporate goon John Saxon. Fast Company isn’t packed with complex character motivations or rich themes; it’s more about dynamic shots of fast cars, rugged men, and curvy women. But while Cronenberg keeps his squishier obsessions on the shelf, he doesn’t set aside his artistry. The movie contains multiple memorable images: a sunset framed by legs and beer cans, a landscape shot through the window of a speeding dragster as it gradually slows to a stop, and so on. As the slick pulps A History Of Violence and Eastern Promises later reaffirmed, Cronenberg has never been averse to pure entertainment.
Fifteen years after Fast Company, Cronenberg had already established himself as arguably the smartest, artiest science-fiction/horror filmmaker around, and he’d begun to move beyond the genre ghetto with odd hybrid films like Dead Ringers and Naked Lunch. When Cronenberg’s adaptation of M. Butterfly was released in 1993, it was dismissed by many critics as too dryly intellectual, with little of the punch of the similar The Crying Game or Farewell My Concubine—or even of David Henry Hwang’s stage play. And yet M. Butterfly is more Cronenbergian than it initially appears. Set primarily in Beijing in the mid-’60s, the movie tells the story of high-level French diplomat Jeremy Irons, who has a lengthy affair with politicized Chinese opera performer John Lone, apparently without ever realizing that his lover is a man. Or does he realize? M. Butterfly is about the benefits and deficits of a Westerner’s oriental fetish, and how succumbing to the fantasy of the exotic can be a journey of the mind as much as the soul. As directed by Cronenberg and portrayed by Irons, M. Butterfly’s romantic diplomat may be completely aware of what he’s doing, and willing to preserve pretense if the end result is satisfactory for all concerned.
Lone’s character is too one-note and on-point, and as the critics of the time noted, he’s so clearly masculine that it makes Irons’ delusion seem all the nuttier. But if viewers approach M. Butterfly with the understanding that Irons might not be deluded, the movie reveals itself as another Cronenberg study of a character disappearing into a carefully constructed fantasy. When Irons comes face-to-face with a business-suited Lone in M. Butterfly, it becomes tragically clear that he never really got to know the man he so passionately loved. And yet their affair inspired Irons to stand up to his own countrymen and advocate for the Chinese perspective, and even though he had his facts wrong, his vision of better relations between the East and West maintained its own inherent nobility. As Lone says of the politically incorrect opera Madame Butterfly, “The point is the music, not the story.” That’s a sentiment that Cronenberg—who can find the poetry in drag racing and the horror in lovemaking—clearly understands.
Key features: M. Butterfly includes a brief but thorough interview with Cronenberg (produced by DVD extras maestro Laurent Bouzereau), while the Fast Company Blu-ray—in addition to offering an amazing-looking transfer—comes bearing a motherlode of Cronenberg-iana, including the aforementioned commentary track, a charming conversation between Smith and Saxon about the art of character acting, an interview with Cronenberg’s longtime cinematographer, and the complete hourlong cuts of two highly experimental Cronenberg science-fiction exercises: “Stereo” (1969) and “Crimes Of The Future” (1970).