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Designer Cancer

Updated: Jul 21, 2022

or, Inner Beauty.

(*contains spoilers)

If you fell asleep on the couch and woke up seventy years later, you might find yourself in a dystopian version of your city, where the human body has changed drastically, producing 'random and novel organs' which can easily be confused with tumors since their purpose and etiology are unknown. To the dismay of governments around the world, human evolution would be wildly 'insurrectional', and bureaucrats would respond by hastily setting up an 'Organ Registry' to catalog the unrelenting progress of this phenomenon. You would also be surprised to learn that human pain thresholds are so high that people can no longer experience physical pain, and infections are also a thing of the past. Sex would consist of couples cutting each other up with blades. People would be eating plastic.

These are some of the what-if ideas suggested by David Cronenberg's newest film,’ Crimes of the Future’. Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) is a performance artist "of the inner landscape". His body grows new and purposeless organs, which his partner, Caprice (Léa Seydoux) tattoos, and then as part of a performance art show, removes, to the gasps of trendy art patrons. Her 'paintbrush' is a biomorphic medical apparatus called a Sark Autopsy Module (sarcophagus?) where Tenser groans and moans, his face rapt with pain and pleasure. In fact throughout the performance, both artists seem to be in a state of sexual arousal; the new sex is surgery.

All of this however, follows a murder, which occurs in the film's opening scene, an infanticide, no less. We find out the reasons why this eight-year-old boy has been killed by his own mother in a tearful telephone call she makes to the boy’s father, yet we must then struggle to relate this act to all that follows. We should react in horror, to it, and to all the other grisly things this film chronicles, but since this is Cronenberg talking, it evinces about as much pathos as the Dead Christ, c. 1480, by Andrea Mantegna, where Our Savior is really just a virtuosic anatomical study, featuring this new (then) crazy thing called perspective.

It is a time when food ceases to nourish, and a small sect of visionaries concoct a kind of new sustenance derived from plastic that will kill the unadapted, but sustain those whose digestive systems are somehow primed to tolerate it. The murdered boy’s father is one of these true-believing plastic eaters, and so his murdered son had inherited these "organs" genetically, making him “no longer, strictly speaking, human,” as the functionary from the Bureau of Organ Registry later explains. The boy also has a taste for PVC. He is seen moments before his death placidly eating a plastic trash bin, some milky acidic secretion dribbling from his mouth. The mutated human is already among us.

Crimes of the Future’ asks us to consider the true nature of a tumor. Is it something that kills or is it a tattooable novel organ of no apparent use? “An organism needs organization, if not it's just designer cancer,” says the technician. This statement implies that the basic modes of cancer should be upgraded to something with more Feng Shui as if having cancer were a fashion choice. Yes, we mock our fate sometimes.

Cronenberg proposes a future moment of human evolutionary importance to which a backlash has already begun. In this sense, it displays the classic dichotomy one sees in the art world: the reactionary vs. the avantgarde. He draws a parallel between an imagined human evolution that incorporates our world’s inevitable ecological disaster, and the concomitant evolution of artistic expression. Tenser seeks pain, something irrevocably lost, as a medium of expression and Caprice, his partner, uses that medium to paint with, but instead of brushes, she uses knives.

The film is a speculative answer to a question many artists ask themselves. With all that is happening in the world how can I still make art? Or, what should the function of art be now that we are on the brink of a global catastrophe? Should it even continue to exist?

And ultimately, there is the more fundamental question of how we will all survive. It reminded me of a far less successful film, ‘IO’ (2019), because of its similar message. The protagonist resists evacuating to the safety of a space station after global collapse has finally happened on Earth.

Both films suggest that humanity take its lumps and like it, that adaptation is the only way forward. It's a dismal proposition.

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