“Life is a hospital where every patient is obsessed by the desire of changing beds. One would like to suffer opposite the stove, another is sure he would get well beside the window.
It always seems to me that I should be happy anywhere but where I am, and this question of moving is one that I am eternally discussing with my soul.”
–Charles Baudelaire, “Anywhere out of this world”
The most fundamental distinction in the human race is between female and male. Coming a close second is probably that between those who liked the Wachowski Brothers’ The Matrix (1999) and those who liked Canadian director David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999). If there’s a viewer or two out there who somehow managed to thoroughly enjoy both these films, I’d suggest they’re either hopelessly confused or represent Arthur C. Clarke’s long-anticipated next step in human evolution.
What ingredients do you need for a good science fiction story? First, some interesting ideas. Second, some characters the reader can relate to. Third, credibility. The first two criteria are straightforward; the second needs some explaining. An s-f story becomes believable when one or both of the following things happen: the new technologies presented have an innate “rightness” to them (a reverse déjà vu, a strong sense of something you may be seeing) and/or the story develops original cultures or subcultures. The very best science fiction is a mouth-watering techno/cultural gumbo—Frank Herbert’s Dune novels, Gordon Dickson’s Dorsai series, William Gibson’s cyberpunk trilogy, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, C.J. Cherryh’s Union-Alliance Future History and anything by Ursula Le Guin. The list goes on. There’s a lot of great s-f. Switching media, I’d add Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek legacy and J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.
How does The Matrix stack up? Well, um, there’s …one interesting idea? Character? Nah. Credibility? As much as money can buy.
There’s also a whole whack of state-of-the-art special effects and almost-as-good-as-made-in-Hong-Kong martial arts.
Too bad those aren’t on my list of necessary ingredients for s-f gumbo.
Let’s try eXistenZ. Ideas? There’s the ultimate blurring of the distinction between reality and fantasy as computer gaming’s sophistication increases exponentially. Virtual Reality games become the new booze—just as common, just as addictive, just as damaging. Instant-on anomie. A new excuse for waking up next to someone you don’t recognize (“Hey, that was my game character, not me”). “Anywhere out of this world” can be a very tempting destination, whatever the cost of reaching it.
Continuing with the same theme, eXistenZ plays shamelessly with the viewer’s perceptions of what’s real and what’s illusion. Manipulation is fun when it’s this clever. This is the Twilight Zone/Outer Limits school of screenwriting. No one inside or outside of the computer game called eXistenZ knows the exact rules of the game, its objectives, when it begins or ends, or how a player wins or loses. Some of the manipulation is flagrant (every building is labelled generically: CHINESE RESTAURANT, COUNTRY GAS STATION; characters comment on their own roles); some are subtle, almost subliminal (repeated, irrational duplication of patterns and textures; subtle shifts in dress and character; the total absence of clocks, watches, jewellery, common appliances).
The final twist, and I’m not giving away anything by saying this, is that you’ll never know if you’ve just finished watching a movie about a future game-obsessed society, or just the game itself. If it’s the former you see, welcome to my nightmare. It’ll linger. If it’s the latter, it was just a good ride on a roller coaster. Freaky fun.
Is the fact that there’s more (admittedly black) humour in eXistenZ than in all the rest of Cronenberg’s films combined an argument for the “just a good ride” analysis? He seems to have thoroughly enjoyed messing with our minds. Or is this, as one critic wrote, “the dry humour of cannibals discussing dinner”?
If eXistenZ the Movie is just about eXistenZ the Game, it tells us nothing about the future at all. As a computer game about being trapped in a computer game, eXistenZ could be on the market tomorrow. Or it’s out there already. If the movie is the game it’s not science fiction at all. It’s just Myst or Doom translated into another medium. It’s just a roller coaster. Which is hard to review in terms of ideas.
Which would make this whole column a mistake.
BUT, as a projection of the possible future of gaming, eXistenZ is a lot more than a ride. And it becomes really creepy. Not satisfied with our current choice of religious and political conflicts, Cronenberg introduces a new one—between those who embrace the new corporate technology of Antenna Research and those who see it as a death warrant for humanity. Cronenberg has said that one of his major sources of inspiration for the story was an interview he conducted with Salman Rushdie shortly after the Islamic fatwa put a price on his head. Given the flesh-based nature of eXistenZ’s technology, I’d say an even stronger analogy might be the current battle over abortion.
The link with abortion takes us into the movie’s disturbing take on technology. Or rather, biotechnology. People today have real concerns about current corporate trends aimed at fusing biotechnology, genetics, and medicine. The concerns range from the production of “Frankenfoods” to the genetic manipulation of the unborn, from the dubious ethics of cloning to pills that abort or that alter personality. A potentially apocalyptic distortion and devaluation of life itself. Seen from this angle eXistenZ is these fears made, literally, flesh. Here is a world where technology is manufactured using living tissue. Flesh is no longer just farmed for food; it’s a raw material. Guns are made of gristle and human teeth. “Metaflesh” game pods jack into “bioports” in peoples’ backs. The human body becomes open to entirely new forms of violation. Technicians are simultaneously butchers and surgeons. If you refused to dissect frogs and foetal pigs back in high school, David Cronenberg (“Mr. Viscera” himself) has always been glad to show you what you missed.
eXistenZ is also about sex, even though there isn’t any. Or not quite. Roger Ebert commented that Cronenberg must be a thorn in the side the people who rate movies: “He’s always filming activities that look like sex, but don’t employ any of the appurtenances associated with that pastime.” Cyberspace has already had an effect on human relationships. The more multi-dimensional this cyberworld becomes, the more powerful its influence will be. Many science fiction writers have seen the “natural” evolution of this technology culminating in a direct interface with the human nervous system. A new orifice. One that probably makes most of us a bit squeamish. One that Cronenberg’s not at all shy about exploiting.
The character side of eXistenZ also holds up. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Allegra Geller, either a master game designer hopelessly addicted to her own creation, or a “demonness” deliberately subverting civilization as the people in her world know it. Jude Law is Ted Pikul, who is….well, I’ll let you figure that one out. Willem Dafoe has the juiciest “baddie” role: the garage guy from hell, using what looks an awful lot like a jackhammer to do delicate surgical insertions. The supporting cast includes some familiar Canadian faces: Don McKellar, Callum Keith Rennie, and Sarah Polley
The future of science fiction movies is not in the hands of the Wachowskis and Keanu Reeves. They work out of that part of Hollywood that can’t even get Mission Impossible right after 200 million dollars and two tries. Science fiction film is in the hands of the true believers. Like Cronenberg. Like the people who, in 1980, spent $250,000 making an extraordinary PBS adaptation of Ursula Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven. Broadcast only one time twenty years ago, by the time of its re-release this summer The Lathe of Heaven became the single most requested encore in the history of American public television. That’s what happens when someone gets it right.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
“Death to Realism!”
“You have to play the game to find out why you’re playing the game.”
“I think we’re still inside the game….”
PIKUL: I don’t want to be here. I don’t like it here. I don’t know what’s going on. We’re both stumbling around together in this unformed world, whose rules and objectives are largely unknown, seemingly indecipherable, or even possibly nonexistent, always on the verge of being killed by forces we don’t understand.
GELLER: That sounds like my game all right.
PIKUL: That sounds like a game that’s not going to be easy to market.
GELLER: But it’s a game everyone is already playing.
–from the screenplay for eXistenZ
“The tricks this [SARS-CoV-2] virus uses to foil the body’s counterattack are diabolically effective. Once it gets inside via the nose or mouth, the corona-virus eludes the first line of immune defense, slides easily into cells, churns out copies of itself by hijacking the cell’s machinery, and makes sure those copies work by using a proofreading mechanism that many other viruses don’t even have. Its effect is relentless. It can turn a person’s lung cells into useless material that looks like ground glass; blow open blood vessels or destroy them with microscopic clots; and gunk up the workings of a kidney, heart, or liver, rendering them too stiff to repair. It can defang the cells that attack invading viruses and then provoke a secondary immune reaction that goes badly haywire [called a ‘cytokine storm’], paradoxically causing its own catastrophe.”
–from Robin Marantz Henig’s essay, “In Science We Must Trust,” National Geographic, November 2020
I can’t say that I’ve ever been a big fan of Canadian director David Cronenberg. I’m not a big fan of horror films in general, except for some of the old Universal Studios classics and the occasional more contemporary film such as Psycho, The Wicker Man, The Shining, and Midsommar. Over the years, I’ve seen Cronenberg’s The Fly, Videodrome, and A History of Violence, but there was a grimness about them that didn’t make me want to go back for more. Even after being impressed by eXistenZ, I never bothered to track down his older films. That all changed recently when I came to taking a second look at eXistenz, 20 years after my original review. I decided that it was time to take a more comprehensive look at one of English Canada’s most respected, and most controversial, filmmakers. After all, I couldn’t help but admire someone with the chutzpah to think they could put William Burrough’s Naked Lunch on screen. Maybe I, too, could get into the spirit of the “gooey, slimy, grotesque fun!” that held some critics in thrall.
Did my personal Cronenberg film festival change my mind? Somewhat. I’m still not likely going to re-watch Shivers or Rabid. I might fast forward to the dueling heads in Scanners or Maria Bello in a cheerleader’s uniform in A History of Violence. I do have a greater appreciation of why some critics have highlighted moments of black humour in Cronenberg’s work, developed themes of societal alienation, and explored “body horror” as various kinds of metaphor. Good for them. I’m still stuck on the grimness and the viscera. What I did come to truly appreciate, however, was David Cronenberg’s skill as a director and storyteller. As he himself is quick to point out, his first two feature films were the first to actually make back the money that the government-sponsored Canadian Film Development Corporation put into them. Conservative Canadian arts critics were outraged that taxpayers’ money was going into b-movie exploitation pictures—featuring nudity, grotesque violence, and gore—but the public voted with their feet. Shivers cost $150,00 to make and grossed $5 million; Rabid cost $350,000 and grossed $7 million. Other production companies that availed themselves of the generous tax shelter credits offered by the federal government in the 70s and 80s often didn’t even get their films to market.
Cronenberg’s success was no fluke. He is a master at using a simple scenario (such as an invasive parasite controlling the inhabitants of a high-end high rise) and taking his audience along for a wild ride. I may not want to watch Rabid again, but I was never bored. There’s something perversely satisfying in seeing someone take banal settings in Toronto and Montreal and turn them into mini circles of hell. And it’s not just me—the prestigious Criterion Channel is currently streaming a half dozen of Cronenberg’s earliest features. Not only does Cronenberg write most of his own original screenplays, he has also acted in almost 40 films, shorts, and TV shows. And like his compatriot Atom Egoyan (who has 4 films on the Criterion Channel), Cronenberg has chosen to make his films in Canada.
Like many independent filmmakers, he has worked repeatedly with the same talented production crew: Howard Shore for music, his own wife Denise for costumes, Peter Suschitzky for cinematography, Ronald Sanders for editing, and Carol Spier for production design. No director without a real love for his craft could attract and hold onto this kind of pool of talent. Not to mention being able to call on the talents of actors such as Ian Holm, Willem Defoe, Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Barbara Steele, Don McKellar, James Woods, Sarah Polley, Viggo Mortensen, Ed Harris, Jeremy Irons, John Lone, Patrick McGoohan, Michael Ironside, Debbie Harry, Genevieve Bujold, Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, Robert Pattinson, and Juliette Binoche.
I would pick eXistenZ and Dead Ringers as my favorite Cronenberg films. The former because it’s so polymorphously perverse, the latter because it’s genuinely tragic, as well as perverse. (Interestingly enough, what’s most grotesque & terrifying in Dead Ringers is mechanical rather than organic—the so-called surgical instruments designed by Beverly Mantle). And I get the humor in eXistenZ. It’s in almost every frame of the film, from the lovingly fondled game pods with their umbilical cords and rectal jack-ins, to the mutant amphibian factory, to Willem Defoe at his sleaziest, to “sporicidal resonators” & teeth guns & pink phones, to the huge generic signage saying CHINESE RESTAURANT and GAS STATION, to game techs being essentially butchers & veterinarians, to the fact that a $38 million dollar new gaming system was being previewed for 60 very ordinary people in a small deconsecrated church instead of in a ginormous glass & steel corporate headquarters, to the way “eXistenZ” is pronounced. This movie could easily have been the pilot episode of the currently popular series Black Mirror. With its themes of media run amok and warping realities, eXistenZ was a dozen years ahead of its time. Not to mention that Cronenberg’s early interest in plagues & parasites resonates with our current pandemic. The way that the COVID virus attacks cells has a Cronenbergian malevolence to it.
The world’s video game industry pulled in something like $150 billion dollars in 2020, and the numbers just keep going up. With COVID-19 lockdowns across the planet, this alternate reality has likely been put on steroids. And with personal phones & tablets replacing personal computers, video games never have to leave our sides—we take them with us into our beds & bathtubs. Computer graphics will soon utterly erase the boundaries between the digital and the real in the gaming universe. Video game addiction may start to overshadow actual drug abuse.
I very much doubt I’ll ever be showing one of David’s films for my weekly movie night at our local Community Centre. Then again, I might feel the sudden twisted urge to demonstrate that Canadian cinema isn’t just the National Film Board, Mon oncle Antoine and Men with Brooms. Must. Not. Give. In.
From the critical record:
“Lauded as a late-twentieth century taboo-bashing genius by some, and loathed as a puritanical body-fearing reactionary by others, Cronenberg’s emergence is without parallel in this country. Moreover, his decidedly idiosyncratic oeuvre also represents a challenge to the critical paradigms and terms used to define Canadian film. Faced with phallic underarm growths spreading fatal diseases, exploding heads, videos slurped into human abdomens, men transformed into insects, and talking typewriters, the critical problem persists: just how to we talk about the work of David Cronenberg?”
“…Cronenberg developed a reputation, with Shivers, Rapid, and The Brood, as perhaps the most original, unflinching, no-holds-barred practitioner of the modern horror film. While he confounded ‘tasteful’ critical opinion in Canada, he also found himself to be a bankable genre auteur who could muster impressive budgets and still maintain a degree of artistic control.”
–from Take One’s Essential Guide to Canadian Film, edited by Wyndham Wise
r“If Cronenberg is arguably Canada’s most famous film director of the twentieth century, then what does his work say about Canadian film and its characterization? Is he an eccentric phenomenon working in marginal genres, or is his vision central to the Canadian imagination, no matter how bizarre or excessive it may seem? The answers to these questions continue to be debated.”
[Shivers and Rabid] expressed his view that human beings are ‘little pockets of private and personal chaos brewing in the interstices in the structure of society, which likes to stress its order and control.’ Eventually this personal chaos explodes and becomes public, engulfing everyone. Cronenberg’s response to the negative public criticism of the time was defiant: ‘I have something that has been lacking in Canada, a real artistic vision.’”
“With The Dead Zone, Cronenberg had turned thirty-nine, and he used the film to signal the end of the second phase of his career and the turn to a new third phase—the films of his maturity. In this stage, he worked with budgets that could generate Hollywood-level production values while still adhering to his idiosyncratic vision. This phase included three major works—The Fly (1986), Dead Ringers (1988), and Naked Lunch (1991). He co-authored the screenplays and directed each film in Canada, even though the original sources for the material were not his.”
“eXistenZ (1999) was termed ‘Cronenberg’s slap-happiest movie’ and an antidote o the bleakness and controversy of Crash. This $30-mllion production was not a commercial success (it was competing with the runaway hit The Matrix in the same genre), even though it was aimed at a broad audience. In the film, Cronenberg returned to his tried and true pool of imagery while exploiting his considerable reputation to garner large budgets, which in the case of eXistenZ was ten times a typical Canadian feature film budget. Hollywood-level budgets demanded Hollywood-level returns, a risky venture for a Cronenberg film.”
“…another distinctive Canadian feature that [Piers] Handling find in Cronenberg films—the lack of narrative closure. At the end of Cronenberg films, little is resolved. The problem of evil that Hollywood always banishes with its feel-good-and-safe endings is absent in Cronenberg, except when he adapts American material, as was the case in The Dead Zone. These ‘endings without resolution,’ as Handling terms them, indicate a view of the world in which evil is a fundamental structure of society and the individual human psyche, rather than some external aberration that challenges a basically good world. The ‘body-horror’ idea presented a-coming-from-within idea of evil that made the human condition permanently problematic. Vanquishing evil means self-destruction.”
“Geoff Pevere points out how ‘Cronenberg’s films suggest tat the accommodating, thoughtful Canadian exterior is a veneer that has been maintained only at the cost of a great and ever-increasing repression of psycho-sexual impulses.’ What Cronenberg has done for English-Canadian cinema is to lift the lid on this social and cultural repression and throw its hidden imagery into the face of the audience from which it came.”
–from One Hundred years of Canadian Cinema, by George Melnyk
“For the longest time, David Cronenberg’s fascination with lumpy prostheses, phallus-shaped parasites, anal penetration and the animal side of sexual metamorphosis actually had him labelled a commercial sell-out within the Canadian film clique. Critics in the early years saw his use of fantasy and fictional devices as a betrayal to the more authentic documentary tradition. His crimes were only deemed more offensive when his films turned out to make more money than any of those crafted by his earnest compatriots. And while the king of Canadian horror has certainly experimented with the vat of American genre film, there is always something undeniably Canadian about the way he uses weeping sores and rubber shlongs to articulate his philosophic stance to the Canadian reality: the monsters, or monstrous protrusions, generally manifest themselves as part of the protagonist’s body…make no mistake, they represent death. Cronenberg’s creative engine is fuelled by an obsession with death, and particularly with the way the human body is pulled apart by the Grim Reaper’s bony hand before the mind has a chance to catch up.”
“After Shivers, Cronenberg’s eye was cast: his thick-glassed gaze was focused on themes of death, repression, internal conflict, twisted manifestations of creativity and the physical means through which we process reality. Adopting a fantasy or sci-fi stance in the films, Cronenberg was able to turn everything inward. He could create anything he wanted to in his own private fantasy world. If he was thinking weeping wounds, he could make a movie about them. As a result of this leap of creativity, one is never sure what is actually happening in a Cronenberg movie, and as with most Canadian filmmakers, that seems to be the whole point of Cronenberg’s art. He creates a universe that looks familiar—if not wholly authentic—the he slowly pokes holes through his screen with clawed hands, show us that beneath the clean veneer, something strange and twisted is suckling at the teat of imagination.”
“Says Cronenberg in an interview contained in the graphic novel version of eXistenZ: ‘One of the excitements of course about getting into the game in [eXistenZ] is to find yourself questioning what reality is: to what extent we create our own reality, to what extent are we all characters in our own game and we do play certain roles and can alter them and shift them to a certain extent, and as you get older you begin to realize—it becomes a very strong and very palpable thing that people define their own characters almost as if they have written them.’”
“I had a feeling eXistenZ would do very well, not only because I like it a lot, but because, as a part-time video game reviewer, I knew how close Cronenberg was to lifting the veil on one of the most disturbing entertainment trends to hit us since TV. Video games are mind-altering, highly addictive and potentially harmful entertainment products. But we all love to have fun. We love to escape and think of nothing, and video games are the fastest-growing segment in entertainment industry, not to mention one of the major factors behind personal computer sales. I believed eXistenZ captured the gaming world in the big picture, and as a result, would become a touchstone for the times.
I was wrong. The movie didn’t fail at the box office, but it had a hard time competing against a similarly themed movie that came out just a few months earlier called The Matrix.”
–from weird sex & snowshoes and other Canadian film phenomena, by Katherine Monk