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David Cronenberg - Existenz

“My dentist said to me the other day, I’ve enough problems in my life, so why should I see your films?” David Cronenberg

With something like 10% of the population of the developed world already dependent on doodads like digital pace-makers, cochlear auditory implants, spinal cord stimulators and artificial skin (to say nothing of ye olde hip replacements, silicone breast implants and fancy dental work), the era of the cyborg has clearly arrived. Ever since Donna Haraway’s celebrated 1985 A Manifesto for Cyborgs, (‘I’d rather be a cyborg than a Goddess’), human-machine hybrids have been fetishised by some theorists, especially those intent on dismantling hoary old humanist narratives of subjectivity, agency and consciousness. But too often the implications of technologically enhanced human beings have been buried beneath an impenetrable haze of theory-babble. Recent books, like N Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, and Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence, have tried to disentangle some of the terminology, although it is John Searle, who has been writing on these topics for the past twenty years, who remains the most clear-headed and clear-eyed of commentators, extremely well-informed yet resolutely non-proselytising. But these kind of academic studies only take us so far, and so we look to the artists to tell us what is happening, or will be happening soon. For David Cronenberg, the posthuman is no longer just some Edward Scissorhands amalgamation of gizmos and flesh, but a new kind of subjectivity, one that undercuts the centrality of consciousness and erodes the distinction between humans and machines, nature and culture, the primitive and the advanced, reality and fantasy.




eXistenZ is a new organic game system developed by Antenna Research at a cost of $38m which, when downloaded into humans from a Game-Pod (which looks like a plastic placenta, and is basically an animal grown from fertilised amphibian eggs stuffed with synthetic DNA, and has a spine, nervous system, bones and muscle, and thus susceptible to disease), via an UmbyCord (which bears an uncanny resemblance to an umbilical cord), plugged into a small ‘bioport’ implanted in the player’s spine just above the belt line, accesses the central nervous system. In a marvellous piece of bio-technology, the body’s nervous system, metabolism and energy is the power source for the game. Because the pod can then probe the memories, anxieties and preoccupations of its players, the direction each game takes depends entirely on who is playing.
The air is crackling with anticipation in a small community hall, which could easily be a Christian revivalist meeting house, where a congregation of gaming devotees have been gathered, each hoping to be chosen as one of the first twelve disciples to experience the new game designed by Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Lee), the famous but reclusive brains behind eXistenZ. What sends a special buzz of excitement through the audience is the presence of Allegra herself.
Suddenly, just as those selected have plugged in, and are rocking and swaying dreamily into the game-world, an anti-eXistenZialist protester jumps up, wielding a gristle gun - a pistol made of bone that uses human teeth as ammunition, designed to get past any kind of metal detector - and yells “Death to eXistenZ! Death to the demoness Allegra Geller!”, and fires, wounding Allegra and damaging her baby, the game-pod. In the pandemonium that ensues, she is whisked away by Ted Pikel (Jude Law), a low-ranking Antenna Research marketing trainee, who’s serving as a security guard for the event. After the chase, it’s game on, with the unlikely duo of technophobic Ted and game genius Allegra trying to dodge assassins out to cash in on the $5m bounty placed on her head by the anti-technology terrorists (a parodic extension of today’s eco-warriors), who dub themselves ‘Realists’. They also have to watch out for agents from Cortical Electronics, Antenna’s chief competitor.
The game becomes the perfect vehicle for Cronenberg to explore further two of his favourite themes: the shifting nature of identity and allegiances, and consequently the extent to which we create our own levels of reality; and the idea of a creative act being dangerous to the creator. Allegra (if it is she) is a bit of a neurotic in her ‘real’ life, and not very comfortable with people, whereas in the game she becomes more confident, beautiful and sexy, more in control. But in designing a game so intensely ‘real’ that it threatens to usurp reality, she incurs the wrath of ‘Realists’, who issue a fatwa against her.
But there is also a sense in which in this, his first completely original screenplay since Videodrome, and his best work to date not based on another source, Cronenberg is himself parodying his entire previous oeuvre. He has always been fascinated by the links between sex and terror, and many of his films have dealt explicitly with the sexual connotations of nasty entities that invade the body. But here there’s less bog standard Freudianism about the sex instinct as the energy of the life preservation instinct, and its conflict and ultimate identification with the death instinct, less credence given to them as the prime driving and determining forces in human existence, the chief ways of controlling or being controlled. (Hey, maybe it’s only his body talking: like the rest of us, he’s not as young as he used to be.) Horror has more in common with tragedy than it does with comedy (you’re not really scared if you’re laughing at those monsters), and tragedy has an optimistic side, paradoxically affirming as it does the dignity of the human being. Perhaps his new resistance to erotic content has freed up his imagination to play this one as an over-the-top, at times blood-soaked comedy thriller (or maybe, conversely, it is the humour itself that has displaced the depth and strength of the sexual imperative), and comedy takes a more pessimistic view of things in general, entailing as it does a strong, offended sense of the ridiculousness of the human being, and the futility of human endeavour.
Why is Cronenberg choosing to adopt this modus operandi just now? I have a little theory about this, as I do about lots of things, and it has to do with a geist that is more Zeit than it is Polter. Back in the fifties, everyone was repressed, as most people would be after nearly 2000 years of having the Judeo-Christian shtick stuffed down their necks, and so any non-hetero, pre- or extra- marital sex was taboo. So sex had a high transgressive quotient, and any references to it in the popular culture were subliminally veiled, done by subtle or sometimes not so subtle implication and innuendo, and picked up on only by a select few who were attuned to them. Then along came the hippies and had their sexual revolution, and everyone started shagging anything that moved, and thought they were going to change the world by doing so. Rather than being weird if you did, you were weird if you didn’t. This upped the ante on how unusual sex had to be to still rank as subversive, as a tool of rebellion against those in authority. Now, with the polymorphous perversity of the ‘90s, sex has replaced religion as the opium of the people, and a satisfactory sex life is regarded as the essential prerequisite of a happy and healthy life. But with sex now such an obvious and aggressive component of the marketing mix, an integral part of any promotion and advertising campaign, any self-respecting sexual insurrectionist has to look elsewhere for his or her kicks. Why should the discerning deviant do what they are telling him or her to do? Why would he or she want to do what the hoi polloi is doing? Since sexuality has been freed in all its anomalies and ‘perversions’, it has been increasingly problematised as an unalloyed pleasure (‘cos you’re supposed to feel guilty while doing it), and perhaps the only way to go, or at any rate the way Cronenberg has now taken, is the apparent refusal of sexuality, which is becoming the new fad, and is itself only a supercooling effect of sexual liberation.
Not that our handsome leads aren’t eminently alluring, with Jason Lee looking uncustomarily cute enough to galvanise a corpse (obviously I’m not irredeemably beyond having my sexuality controlled), and Law presumably providing the same thrill for the girls in the audience. They even get around to coupling, but it’s all very wholesome, particularly in light of the subsequent revelation by our hero that our heroine isn’t the kind of girl who would just fuck a passing security man (even in a game), without a previous relationship between them.
As should be obvious by now, there is more Borgesian playing with levels of reality and Dickian dicking around going on here than you would come across in a month of Sunday(-school)s. It would spoil the fun to reveal the climax, but suffice to say it undercuts everything that has gone before it. The game functions as a device in the narrative for Cronenberg to analyse structurally the narrative as it unfolds. Allegra inducts Ted from within her own creation, and teaches us how to play at the same time. So characters nod off into game loops, and have to be addressed by name and asked key questions to emerge from them. Characters take on (and take on) other characters within the game. “That was just to establish character and advance the plot,” Allegra tells Ted, adding, “he wasn’t a very well-drawn character”. “Isn’t there any free will in this game?” he asks her at another point, to which she replies, “Just enough to make it interesting. Like in real life.” “Haven’t you ever been to the fucking movies?” she chides, when he can’t cop the next plot development. “Couldn’t you beat the guy who invented poker?” she argues, when he is reluctant to play her at the game she has designed. We even get a stage Irishman and a stage Russian (a double-agent no less) along the way.
But apart from all these amusing but increasingly cliched self-conscious post-modernist frills, what is riveting about eXistenZ is not so much its futuristic predicative function, as how finger-to-the-pulse, up-to-the-minute contemporary it feels. You won’t see a better film about neurologically downloadable interactive game-playing all year. “But it could never happen in real life,” shriek the general populace. Wise up. Look around. Get real. It already has. As Allegra has it, in the game: “Death to realists.”

First published in Film Ireland













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