INTERLUDE: antiseptic notes on dead ringers (1988)
decomposition, the sterile flesh, and god's love
I will skip the greeting.
There are five stages to the decomposition of a corpse. First comes fresh, or autolysis— the body is insect free and goes through algor, rigor, and livor mortis, or cooling, temporary stiffening, and blood pooling, respectively. Second is bloat, or when the body begins to eat itself and release gasses and fluids, and after that comes active and advanced decay, which cover the process of putrefaction. The fifth stage is the eternal one. Skeletonized remains occur after the soft tissues collapse in on themselves and the remains begin to dry, which is a ray into eternity. Eventually we turn into dust, but still it’s considered skeletonized— the only true resting place we can be sure of.
Revisit that first paragraph. Decomposition is described objectively and honestly, with enough word pattern variation and commentary for the reader to be able to detect that the writer was human. There is, as much as there can be, an absence of bias, a clinical eye that happens to be attached to a head. To paraphrase The Fly (1986), a machine can create a translation of a steak, but the poetry of the steak will be absent— creative activities, like writing, can be done by a machine but something will noticeably be lost in translation. The idea is to meet both elements in the middle, to sterilize the flesh; become detached from all the blood and guts, but remain human enough to know where and how to look.
Of course, it’s awfully isolating to have sterile flesh. You don’t belong with the machines or with the humans. If anything, you’re closest to the animals that we share the planet with, creatures who act out of intention and not motive, but even they are of some red and thick race that you hover outside of. You witness. You understand, but you are never understood. And you’ll look normal, until you don’t. It surfaces. The sterile flesh will always surface, and it’ll leave you totally alone— there is nothing else like you and there never will be, which means you are forced to be looked at without being seen.
Additionally, the paragraph was a clinical description of a process.
To watch a Cronenberg film, you have to be aware that it’s inherently religious— not in the sense that the film is shaped by religious hands, but that you wear the eyes of God to witness it. The camera is God. The framing is unflinching and detached. The characters are forced into the sterility of the flesh like ground meat into sausage casings. They are films about processes, and they are as solemn and earnest as a film about anything else would be. The camera takes it all seriously, depicts it all, no holds barred. Nothing is too grotesque or too plain for the Cronenberg camera. Everything gets the same attentive and unemotional focus, and the camera holds the hand of the subject as they die from gunshot wounds or combustion or a car crash, spiraling with them into the unknown. This is a form of divinity— this is the act of God. To never say “I” or “me”, to witness, to carry the weight.
Tenderness is not a word that is associated with Cronenberg films, much like how tenderness is not a word that is associated with God. Being softly sublime was always more Jesus’s thing, anyways, just like how the characters of the films are morally complex beings capable of both gentleness and violence. The camera has been described as every synonym in the book for cold and detached, but the camera does it for love. There is nothing but tenderness in that camera. The camera just loves you too much to interfere or call for help— the camera knows that the only way you’ll learn is by doing it yourself.
Dead Ringers follows a similar formula as described above— documentation of a process, exploration of the sterile flesh, the divinity of the camera— but it acts almost as a subversion of it. The Mantle twins, both portrayed by Jeremy Irons, begin as the sterile flesh and end as the “real” flesh, forced to confront the unsustainability of their codependence and pay the deadly prince of their actions’ consequences. It’s one of Cronenberg’s best.
Almost more than any other Cronenberg film, the viewer is made to be aware of the flesh and blood behind the lens. Some movies you can almost forget that— some you can watch without ever thinking about the crew and producers and director and such until the credits roll. It’s not a matter of the story or the characters not being enthralling enough to fully absorb your attention, it’s a matter of the movie being so quintessentially and brutally human that the viewer is forced to reckon with the idea that the camera, still never saying “I” or “me”, is directed by a living person. The camera does not draw attention to itself, but looks after the Mantle twins mournfully, unable to stop the events as they unfold.
The details are spared in hope that you, if you haven’t already, will go watch the movie yourself. Whenever Dead Ringers is brought up, so is the idea of “failed mitosis”— an attempt at separation that only fastens the elements together harder. The context it is being used in is not of a scientific nature, even though the biological phenomena of failed mitosis could still apply. It’s codependency. It’s an unsuccessful tumor removal.
Mostly, it’s a love story. Separation can be a terrifying thing.
Not only is it the story of the twins’ love and, inadvertently, the story of Beverly and Claire’s love, it’s about the camera’s love— the kind of love that leaves you alone, the kind of love that burns bright from a distance. The kind of love that says: even when you are at your most wretched, I will love you nonetheless. The kind of love that says: even on the downward spiral, I will hold your hand. The kind of love that says: even when you’re sitting on your dirty bedroom floor reverting to your most basic childhood self, crying for cake and ice cream, I will hold you gently nonetheless.
have u watched crash? one of my fav of cronenberg's........also why is every word surrounding death & decay so gorgeous.....livor mortis, putrefaction, skeletonization.....all the weird sexy consonants