A series that tells stories about Max’s personal relationship with film.
Dead Ringers | Directed by David Cronenberg | Psychological Thriller | 115 minutes
Of late, I have been thinking about my own relationship to substance use. I am not an abuser nor very adventurous, but I have noticed that my consumption of alcohol and weed has increased in recent months. A drink or two can quickly become many or an ill-conceived plan to get crossed. The next day can easily be ruined. Avoiding responsibility for a night turns into the next day but without the added perk of no guilt. I have noticed that I’ve used drugs as uppers or downers, to forget, relax, and be more social or content. I’ve felt really fricken stupid, not only because I was hungover but because I was increasingly paranoid that being hungover made me stupid. Maybe even permanently. And being not stupid is something that, as I’m sure is the same with many of you, is essential to me. It’s part of who I am. I’d rather be dead than have severe brain damage. I’ve had cigars to lift myself out of such spells of hangover-induced intellectual insecurity, only to crash harder. I have relationships that began through drugs, others that have a solid foundation in drugs, and others that contradictorily pride themselves in abstinence. Drugs are a talking point and can be an easy one at that. They are part of our cultural coming-of-age story. A choice to abstain is just as much a statement as a choice to participate.
Dead Ringers is David Cronenberg’s 1988 psychological horror film starring Jeremy Irons. It is a fantastic film with clinical cinematography and production design. Its two main characters, Ellie and Bev, are renowned twin gynecologists who live together. Jeremy Irons plays both in an outstanding performance, and this is accomplished using some very clever camera tricks. Their identities are closely intertwined. They often switch places, posing as the other during medical exams and continuing that ruse when they seduce said patients. That is until Bev takes a particular liking to one of their patients, aging actress Claire, and wants her all to himself. What proceeds is a love triangle like no other that spirals into madness. While the film delves into various themes, the depiction of drugs is most relevant to this article. Bev uses Claire and “prescribed” medication to redefine himself as an entity outside his omnipresent brother. Claire and Bev’s relationship is built on a lie. They first make love with Ellie pretending to be Bev. It is built on substance abuse and Bev’s feelings of inadequacy compared to his brother. Claire likes Bev more than Ellie. That’s important. Bev’s substance abuse starts to spiral out of control. He embarrasses himself publicly, stops working and becomes obsessed with gynecological devices for operating on mutant women. At the same time, neglecting and perfecting his work in a weird twist of intense self-reflection. Bev becomes paranoid about his close relationship with Ellie and Claire’s fidelity. Soon enough, Ellie joins Bev’s descent, having to take uppers to prevent Bev from taking downers and not long after that, it becomes hard to tell the two apart. Eventually, it becomes clear that drug-fueled self-reinvention is NOT a good idea.
Drugs can make you a different person. That can be fun. That can also be scary. Especially when they become a part of the relationships that define you and your identity. Lines, once clearly defined, become muddy. Dependency becomes not only a physical problem but an emotional and social one. Immediate issues can be fixed by drug use, while others become exacerbating. I must wonder if anything I’m saying here is new, I’m sure it’s not, but in Dead Ringers, it’s all taken to the grotesque, horrifying and hilarious extreme.
I find it fitting that a series that reflects on my personal experience with film starts with a piece about self-reflection and identity. The first paragraph discusses drug use and MY relationship with it. It obviously isn’t a comprehensive description of my experience. Still, I want to clarify that I do not want to compare my experience with people who actually suffer from addiction or substance abuse. This is on no account some moralistic sermon. The rabbit hole goes deeper than I can presently understand. But instead, I’d like to point out how my description of my drug use is so closely intertwined with how I act, my relationships and who I am. It is a choice of identity that might start from a place of sobriety, but eventually, these choices are influenced by the drugs I chose in the first place.
My Dad’s friend’s wife’s brother is a drug counsellor. He was an adrenaline junkie. Today, he uses his stories to relate to and help those addicted. He has swum with sharks covered in chum, among many other adventures. An annual ritual he performs is during crossbow hunting season. He heads out into the wilderness to ambush and hunt deer with a crossbow. With no luck, one year, he grew bored and began doing everything he could to attract prey. Every deer call he knew rang through the forest for more than an hour until a gigantic grizzly bear burst through the woods, smashing through trees, looking for one thing. Food. And instead of reaching the presumed herd of tasty deer, the bear found a single man covered in deer piss.
The confrontation is fierce. My Dad’s friend’s wife’s brother yells and jumps up and down. The bear realizes its mistake and leaves. Risks like this are commonplace. After escaping, later that day, my Dad’s friend’s wife’s brother would return to that spot because he dropped his phone. He will go to areas known for Grizzlies repeatedly.
He relates these stories to his patients and draws some conclusions to help them. I can’t precisely remember what that conclusion was, but I won’t make one up in an effort to preserve this article’s integrity. The point is that stories are an integral part of addiction counselling, and all I remember about this man is this story. In fact, I don’t know his name. His relationship with addiction was more important to his impression on me than his name. The whole day we were together in the wilderness was spent with him telling tales of his adrenaline addiction. Yet another example of how closely addiction and identity are tied.
In the same way, that story is used in counselling, I wonder if Dead Ringers can help me understand my own experience. In the same way that Bev’s escape from the familial ties of Ellie was fueled by drugs, my own experimentation was taken in the rebellion of my own family. In this reinvention, values like hard work and honesty go out the window in favour of pleasure and self-indulgence. While I don’t regret it, I think it’s important to acknowledge drug use as a participant in my identity. It’s an oversimplification, but I never viewed it like that before. With every first puff or sip, there is new territory being explored. While rewatching it two weeks ago, I was more concerned with whether or not I would get crossed than with the film itself. If I’m not careful, alcohol, weed or any future endeavours could become more intertwined with my own growth. One day, I could make my own gynecological devices for operating on mutant women. I had never considered that possibility before. Good to know.