Like Stephen King’s recent sideswipe at The Shining, it’s not hard to imagine that this little bit of resentment has been festering for a while — after all, Cronenberg directed the (very good) 1983 adaptation of King’s The Dead Zone, and it’s certainly possible that he’s irritated by the continued vaunting of Kubrick’s King picture from three years earlier, while his is mostly forgotten.
As far as the substance of his attack, let’s work our way backwards. Kubrick was certainly aware of the marketplace, as any working filmmaker in his era had to be, but to dismiss him as some sort of commercial hack “looking for stuff that would click and he could get financed” (as though that’s not, oh, how the movie business works) is kind of insane. And it’s also not entirely accurate, if you have even a passing familiarity with Kubrick’s biography: after all, this is the guy who spent years on an unmade Napoleon biopic, who followed up A Clockwork Orange with the not-exactly-audience-friendly Barry Lyndon, and who took a dozen years off between Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut. So we’re not exactly talking about Spielberg here.
Aside from the brass balls it takes to blithely place yourself in the company of Bergman and Fellini, a quick glance at the Cronenberg filmography makes his “I’m about art for art’s sake and fuck commerce” pose a little hard to swallow — including, as it does, not only a Stephen King movie, but a remake of a horror classic and an adaptation of a graphic novel. Of course, The Dead Zone, The Fly, and A History of Violence aren’t “just” a Stephen King movie and a horror remake and a graphic novel adaptation. They’re refracted through the unique prism of Cronenberg’s singular vision — which is exactly what Kubrick was doing with The Shining.
Cronenberg is, no question, a terrific filmmaker, and his horror pedigree is sterling. But it’s also not the work of a straight-up genre craftsman. His horror films, from early pictures like Rabid, Shivers, and The Brood to idiosyncratic efforts like Scanners, Videodrome, and The Fly, are not the work of a traditional horror maker; his charge that Kubrick didn’t “get” the genre doesn’t hold the same weight as if, say, John Carpenter were making it.
And that’s because Cronenberg’s films are about horror second and his own preoccupations — with orifices, fluids, and biology especially — first. In other words, their genre is less “horror” than “Cronenberg.” This is not a bad thing; the man has a keen eye and pronounced style, and the evolution of his artistic voice has made for far more interesting a career than one spent banging the horror drum year in and year out. But for such a unique artist to turn and accuse another of not falling in, lock step, with traditional notions of what the genre encompasses isn’t just peculiar — it’s downright hypocritical.