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David Cronenberg

Stuart Klawans
March 20, 2008

The rabbis of old, argumentative and far-sighted, predicted that someday we would celebrate no holiday except Purim. Who am I to disagree? Granted, the day has not yet arrived. The most popular production among American Jews remains the Passover Seder, while Yom Kippur still sells the most tickets. But if we’re talking about showbiz—and in this case, we are—the rabbis were right to pick Purim as the act with legs.

Any promoter with an eye toward the long run could tell you that Purim offers the perfect dinner-theater package: drinks, a meal, more drinks, dessert, drinks and a script that’s one long double entendre. (Who can resist the scene—in canonical scripture, yet—where gorgeous Esther, working the king for a favor, reaches for the tip of his big, um, sceptre?) And in the best tradition of dinner theater, Purim excludes from its audience only the grimmest sticklers for good taste. Are you a believer? Then this show’s for you. Are you a skeptic? You can come in and sit down too. No one will try to sell you a miracle. You won’t even hear about God.

This holiday is built to survive—and the ultimate reason, of course, is that its theme is survival, the favorite topic of Jews everywhere. Some say the Torah holds us together; others, that we’re bonded by love of justice, Israel, or cream cheese with chives. But at the broadest base we define ourselves as a touchy people, a people constituted by our touchiness. Why, I can’t imagine; but listen now to the words of a Jew, who at most times would not bother to call himself one:

My parents were secular. I was never bar mitzvahed. At a very early age, I decided I was an atheist, and I still am. I don’t feel the need to involve myself with the traditions of Judaism. In fact, I’m rather anti-religious. . . . I wasn’t hiding my Jewishness. It just never seemed to be an issue. But when I started to make this little short, suddenly, it was. It was provoked by what’s going on in the world right now. The pronouncements of various Islamic leaders about how nice it would be to kill all the Jews in the world—you know, like the Hezbollah leader. I thought, “Well, what if that would happen? How would that happen?”

These words belong to the eminent filmmaker David Cronenberg, speaking to Eric Kohn of New York Press; the “little short” the director mentions, first shown in May 2007 at the Cannes festival, is a three-minute-long provocation with himself in the starring role. Its title: At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World in the Last Cinema in the World.

To judge just how high this particular Jewish middle finger was raised, you should know that it was lifted at an official celebration. The Cannes festival observed its sixtieth anniversary in 2007, and to mark the occasion invited thirty-three of its favorite auteurs to create little movies. The only restrictions: each film could be only about as long as a trailer, and each had to take place in a theater. Given the vagaries of DVD releases, I cannot claim to have seen all thirty-three shorts. But of the ones that I’ve managed to track down, most have participated in the romantic, nostalgic, self-congratulatory spirit evident in the project’s French title, which translates as To Each His Own Cinema, or That Little Thump in the Heart When the Lights Go Down and the Movie Starts.

No little thump for Cronenberg. He promises a bang.

The lights go down; the movie starts. Almost before you register his face on the screen, you see his hands looming in the foreground, holding a stack of neatly aligned bullets. Their long, gleaming cylinders seem outsize, given how close they are to the camera, which provides the fixed, warped perspective you associate with a monitoring device. A logo on the right-hand side of the image confirms your impression—“MBT AutoBioCam,” it reads—while the canned musical cue of a cable network trumpets the importance of the moment: This is news, and we’re going live!

The picture looks anything but triumphant. Cronenberg’s head—rumpled, grizzled, grim—occupies most of the unevenly lighted middle distance, bobbing and twisting before a shadowy background where you can just make out, amid the jumble, a toilet bowl and a wash basin. Cronenberg looks down at his hands as he loads a gun. He wrenches his neck to one side, jamming the muzzle against his right ear. He holds the posture, trembles with the effort, unclenches at last, and, perspiring, pokes the muzzle into his left eye. Again he freezes. Finally, resolutely, he peers down at the gun, then wraps his lips over the business end. The screen goes black.

Fortunately, two unseen chatterers have been enlightening us from the short’s beginning, speaking from their posts in what we can assume is the MBT studio. A typical guy-and-gal news team, they cheerily explain that these terrific pictures are coming to us from the washroom of an actual movie theater—the very last movie theater, recently uncovered by the people who look out for these things—and this man, whose name is here somewhere, is certifiably the last remaining Jew in the world. Having been sentenced to death, he accepted the alternative of killing himself and chose to do it right here.

Out burble the clichés. You know: the Jews invented the movies, or Hollywood (same thing). A lot of trouble that little invention caused. And this junk pile was the private movie theater of a Jewish family—very wealthy, of course. Strange that this Jew—a Hungarian, we believe, who once worked in the movies himself—isn’t ending it all in front of the screen. Why do it in the toilet? But then, why commit suicide at all? Execution would be the stronger choice, wouldn’t it? Well, exactly. But now, we’re ready to witness a great moment in world history, or the history of a subculture at any rate. There never were that many of them, were there?

An unbearable image combines with an insufferable soundtrack, yielding a comedy of non-survival. It is, on its face, the very opposite of a Purim story, not only because the last Jew will die but because no determined enemy does him in. There’s no Haman lurking in the script, no Hezbollah leader, no hate-spewing Islamic preacher (to cite another inspiration mentioned by Cronenberg, in a Film with Amy Taubin). The Jew dies at the hands of banality itself, and his means of self-expression dies the same way, with TV indifferently murdering the movies.

And yet, as at Purim, you get the full effect of the story only if you read it topsy-turvy. Cronenberg, though disguised as a wretch, does not ultimately play the victim in his little movie. He comes before us, in fact, as the aggressor, taking revenge upon cable-news bubbleheads, mocking the self-satisfaction of red-carpet cinephiles, waving a gun in front of all the casual anti-Semites whom he’s now locked into a toilet. With its parodic reversals, At the Suicide of the Last Jew laughingly celebrates Cronenberg’s survival, and the survival of the true movie-lovers (or are they Jews?) who constitute his people.

This is his Purimspiel—even if he doesn’t care for the tradition.

So, shalom aleichem, Jew of the Old Flesh! It’s good to have you home for Purim. Perhaps you won’t want to stick around for the other celebrations, but as I said, the rabbis thought they ultimately wouldn’t be needed. Of course, the rest of the festivals were supposed to drop away only with the coming of the Messiah, so by limiting yourself to Purim, you’re being a trifle premature.

Or—who knows?—you’re maybe hastening the day.

Stuart Klawans is the film critic of the Nation and author of the books Film Follies and Left in the Dark.