It was Christopher Walken's birthday on Sunday so I was in the mood to watch one of his movies. 1983's The Dead Zone was right there on my shelf so I watched that. It's with my other David Cronenberg DVDs and Blu-Rays--The Dead Zone is one I don't watch very often I suppose because when I'm in the mood for Cronenberg I tend to reach for Videodrome, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, or Crash (not the Paul Haggis movie)*. In many ways, The Dead Zone is atypical of Cronenberg--it doesn't have a score by Howard Shore, employing Michael Kamen instead, and there's not nearly as many biological elements as Cronenberg's other films from the era. The lack of spirituality in his work has been commented on extensively and I've heard Cronenberg discuss his belief that the mind is not separate from the body; there's no ghost-like soul animating this flesh. So the story of a man who can see the future seems an odd choice as prophecy generally seems to have a spiritual or religious element to it. Particularly when, as in this case, the prophet in question foresees calamity that through his actions may be averted or is able to gain insight into crime or injustice he may in some way stop or find means of retribution for. It's hard to put down the implicit moral element to the randomness of the universe and maybe that's why I don't consider this a sterling example of Cronenberg's vision.
It's an adaptation of a Stephen King novel, an author who believes in God, whose work often features spiritual elements. I've heard people say they consider The Dead Zone the best adaptation of a Stephen King novel--generally people who consider Kubrick's The Shining a flawed work, though it's interesting to note that in both cases the director is an atheist auteur. We do never see any god or angel in Cronenberg's adaptation and I like how he plays up the strangeness of Johnny's ability. Whenever it manifests, it causes disruption and provokes fear in everyone present, fear and pain in Johnny himself.
At that point, Christopher Walken was probably best known for The Deer Hunter, he hadn't yet become the imitable icon associated with villainous roles he is to-day. But already he was making such remarkably weird choices with his lines. In one scene, his character, Johnny, is sitting down to a meal with his father (Sean Sullivan) which has been cooked by his visiting ex-girlfriend, Sarah (Brooke Adams). When she wonders whether Johnny's father will like what she's cooked, Johnny says, "I'll bet he will, he's fed up with my cuisine."
I'd bet you anything screenwriter Jeffrey Boam didn't imagine this line being delivered in a way anything like the way Walken delivers it. If I were looking at it on paper, I'd think it was Johnny's attempt at charming self-deprecation also meant to be encouraging or polite to Sarah. The way Walken delivers it, he waves his hands in front of him slightly and raises his voice adopting the self-consciously forced quality of a one-liner comedian. I almost wonder if this was Walken's passive-aggressive criticism of the line itself or if he was thinking of Johnny subtly commenting on the artificial normalcy of the moment since he and Sarah had just had adulterous sex before sitting down to this nice normal supper.
The climax of the film famously involves Johnny's plan to assassinate a presidential candidate played by Martin Sheen. It's a bold story to tell, particularly after assassinations and attempted assassinations of political figures had been regular occurrences in the preceding twenty years. It would almost be like if a new movie were made to-day that sympathised with a school shooter or terrorist. Mostly the impression I get from the film's take is what a frightening and unnatural thing certainty is. In what other state could one be so certain it's right to kill someone who is apparently doing no direct harm to anyone? Taxi Driver is a better example of how to treat the psychology of this subject realistically but as a fantasy certainly Cronenberg did much better with Videodrome, which was, incredibly, released the same year as his adaptation of The Dead Zone. What movie has exceeded Videodrome's brilliant depiction of technology transmitting first destabilising stimuli before imparting ideological certainty to the point that a previously ordinary man is turned into a killing machine? Well, now I want to watch Videodrome again.
*Cronenberg has spoken about Haggis' use of the title and he seems to regard it as an insult. I can't say I blame him.
Twitter Sonnet #1221
The counted coins became a tambourine.
A greenish mist prepared the room for sleep.
The brightest crickets start to softly sing.
A bliss awaits in blue and shady deep.
The line of candy carries up the stairs.
A gentle motor's heard across the street.
The eyes recorded minds in many pairs.
The shuffle sound was shoes on nightly beat.
The empty seats above the stage were packed.
No watch was set for boxes built of bread.
The bag had only just to-day been sacked.
The say had only just to-day been said.
In stages nets removed to show the whale.
A banquet starts beneath the gentle sail.