February 27, 2009

Rear View: eXistenZ.

In the dream house of the year 2000, Mrs. Tomorrow will find herself living happily inside her own head. Wall, floors and ceilings will be huge unbroken screens on which will be projected a continuous sound and visual display of her pulse and respiration, her brain-waves and blood pressure [... ] all these will surround her with a continuous light show.

J. G. Ballard, The Future of the Future, 1977

Ten years ago, David Cronenberg's fifteenth feature film, eXistenZ, premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it won a Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Achievement. It's Cronenberg's first original film since Videodrome, which premiered almost exactly sixteen years earlier, and they're thematically similar. Where Videodrome explored our growing engrossment with television and video, eXistenZ probes our fascination with emerging media like video games and virtual reality.

Yet upon general release in April 1999, eXistenZ was eclipsed, in Canada as well as everywhere else, by The Matrix — a visually much more advanced, and certainly much more lucrative foray into similar territory. Apart from timing, the comparative simplicity with which the Canadian film was made probably contributed to its obscurity. Where The Matrix relied heavily on expensive computer-generated imagery and wire stunts, eXistenZ was created with trim sets and queasy effects.

True to Cronenberg's habit of creating hermetic little worlds, it's a very small film, shot almost entirely in a Toronto studio, with additional exteriors in surrounding rural areas. Despite being his first feature to employ CGI, Cronenberg's emphasis on the tactile ensured that the majority of its C$31 million budget (the second most expensive Canadian film at the time) was devoted to advanced puppetry: a warehouse staffed with 90 specialist created its mutated creatures and devices.

Furthermore, Carol Spier's set designs blur the distinction between the genuine and the artificial, contrasting anodyne triteness with nauseating novelty, placing the action firmly at an undetermined point in time, while Peter Suschitzky's use of a single lens throughout the film lends it an odd visual unity, keeping the framing off-kilter and modelling pools of soft lighting to provide rich contrasts. The resulting texture and depth provide an almost three-dimensional quality.

Though thematically quite advanced, eXistenZ contains only
45 scenes performed by a small ensemble of characters. The eclectic cast, including Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Eccleston (the ninth Doctor Who), Canadians Sarah Polley and Don McKellar, reflects Cronenberg's preference for mainly employing character actors he already had experience working with rather than the latest, greatest stars.

The plot revolves around master game designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), whose inventions tap into the user's psyche, utilising his body as a power source, blurring the boundary between reality and game, with the resulting game experience directed by the player's own emotions, fears, and fantasies. These highly involving and addictive games are considered a threat to normal life by a faction of "realists" intent on stopping their designers at any cost.

Following a foiled attempt on her life during a demonstrat
ion of her latest creation, Geller finds herself on the lam in the company of inept marketing trainee Ted Pikul (Jude Law) — possibly named after the Shulgins' infamous compendium of psychedelic alkaloids — drafted impromptu as her bodyguard, forcing the brilliant cybernetic mother figure to find a way through the labyrinthine plot with a technical virgin in tow; a digital Eve forced to educate her analogue Adam.

The story was inspired by an interview David Cronenberg conducted for Shift Magazine with Salman Rushdie. Cronenberg found the concept of the artist having to live with his creation once it's assumed a life of its own a very "Burroughsian" concept, adding to it the necessity of remaining perpetually on the run as the creation violently clashed with the views of people inhabiting a reality different from the artist's, completely obliterating what the artist thought he had done.

As their conversation had turned towards the impact of computers on art, Cronenberg was intrigued by the proposition that gaming can be as emotionally and intellectually engaging as any work of high art. With eXistenZ he explores this through philosophical illustrations of existentialist principles, without becoming heavy, deep, or depressing. On the contrary, the film has a much lighter, almost playful, tone, with a visual and verbal humour that surpasses the comic moments of Cronenberg's earlier films.

It's also sensual in a much more human way than, for instance, the coolly detached exploration of alternative sexual practices that characterised his adaptation of J. G. Ballard's Crash. Which ultimately highlights the fascination with change that Cronenberg and Ballard have in common. Both create futures easy to visualise, largely devoid of moralising, dire "warnings". Like anything new, they argue, the future can be unsettling and alienating, yet also arousing and inspiring, and not necessarily negative.

Another intriguing aspect of eXistenZ is its brief examination of game characters' moral boundaries. Players accept, for instance, the unbridled violence they're compelled to impart to facilitate a game's progress because they're indulging in a fantasy. Death in a game is unreal, therefore acceptable. But should the distinction between game and reality suddenly dissolve, and the consequences become irreversible, the player's actions could become increasingly difficult to justify.

eXistenZ's particular brand of biotechnology is perhaps its most disturbing facet. Devices made from a creature's organs rearranged, surgically altered to become useful tools in human hands blur the line between the animate (human) and the inanimate (machine). Representing hybrids of the two, their existence questions which is which, and poses a challenge to the value of life itself; the devices "living" without significant autonomy as tools are juxtaposed with the vast herds of animals designed to feed us.

If "living" tools and devices are still decades away (though the recent application of organic material in video displays and screens certainly brings them nearer), the concept of the human body as a machine to be augmented as we please is hardly novel. The type of direct neural interfaces envisioned in eXistenZ aren't that far removed from the currently common modifications — piercings, tattoos, prosthetics — with which we seek to compensate our real as well as perceived deficiencies.

Because the body incorporates life and the certainty of death, modification also serves as an attempt to flee our mortality — a primary source of inspiration for most of David Cronenberg's work exploring the inevitability of change, and his characters' varying degree of success in coping and adapting to it. Despite the metaphysical somersaults, eXistenZ is no exception, borrowing its fairly conventional structure from traditional video games.

Beyond the down-the-rabbit-hole story, which has characters leaping from one challenge to another within a virtual world indistinguishable from a real one, lies an exploration of how we use technology to recreate ourselves (for instance, as Sims or Second Life avatars), highlighting our use of technology and how it shapes, distorts, and changes what it means to be human, exposing the special bond we have with the tools and technologies that have come to define and control us.

Toying with Cartesian Dualism — the concept that mind and body are distinct and separate, yet complement each other through interaction — Cronenberg asks the existential question "How do we know what is real?" by submitting his characters to the same treatment he already submits his audience. In the film, the game players remain stationary and seemingly lethargic while immersed in an active game — much like a movie audience may appear while actively processing what its seeing.

Unlike most other late 20th Century films probing the existential nature of reality — a trend that possibly began with Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup in 1966, if not earlier — eXistenZ examines the negative impact of immersive virtual realities while remaining on the side of art, artists, and imagination. Where The Matrix and its ilk portray the heroic recovery of "reality", eXistenZ imagines realists battling against illusion, without positing an escape from the perpetually recursive game in which their struggle takes place.

February 9, 2009

Lux Interior, 1946-2009.

Garage punk band The Cramps' vocalist and founding member Erick Lux Interior Purkhiser has passed away. The Cramps pioneering fusion of rockabilly and surf rock with their penchant for 1950s taboo's, horror, science fiction, and Satanism not only inspired the psychobilly genre, but was lethal stuff loaded with fun.

February 8, 2009


Here's something unusual, a refreshingly old-fashioned fairy story; a morality tale executed in a style on the verge of becoming a lost art. Most adults are likely well acquainted with its tagline, some may need a reminder, but to young persons — inundated as they are nowadays with fanciful egocentric escapist tales of outcast mutants and disenchanted vampires — "be careful what you wish for" may serve as a stark reminder of reality's actual premise.

Director Henry Selick's new feature film revolves around Coraline, a nine-year old girl, reluctantly resettled from bustling Michigan to the remotest corner of darkest Oregon with her rather preoccupied parents. When not busy with a crucial writing deadline, they dish out bland vegetarian cuisine and flaccid platitudes. They share their new home — a creaky old mansion subdivided into apartments — with a Russian acrobat and former dancing-mouse dompteur, and a retired, salacious nightclub act that mounts its multitude of deceased Scotties on its walls.

The only other kid around appears to be a certifiable geek, so there's little to do in these drab, remote, barren lodgings until — ignored by her parents and too proud to hang out with the geek and his mangy magical moggy — Coraline chances upon a parallel universe eerily similar, yet vastly improved, to her own. Alas, things rapidly and quite definitely prove not to be what they seem, leaving Coraline struggling not only to retain her own existence but every last boring detail of it.

The film is based on the popular, award-winning novella by Neil Gaiman, which itself could be interpreted as a semi-biographical account of growing up as a second generation Scientologist. The use of buttons for dolls' eyes is certainly suggestive, as the term "button" among Scientologists — in reference to the ones one needs to push in order to illicit a specific emotional response from another person — occupies a particularly important place in their psychobabble arsenal. A diminutive person, for instance, may have a "stature button", an obese person a "weight button", etc.

However, Gaiman provided director Selick with the manuscript long before it was published, and Selick has definitely made the story his own. Without altering it so much as to completely disappoint fans of the book, the buttons in the film simply serve as the eyes of handmade dolls and dastardly delusions; while retaining their symbolism as portals of the soul, they don't (nor does any other aspect of the film) appear to be a clever wink in the direction of a certain greedy, crackpot cult.

As one might expect from the director of the classic stop-motion animation musical The Nightmare Before Christmas, the soundtrack is engaging even though only one of They Might Be Giants' original songs was included. The award-winning college radio favourites, who've penned numerous children's songs not exclusively aimed at children, were originally engaged to provide the film's music
; excluding them for not being "creepy" enough is truly a wasted opportunity.

The voice cast reunites the retired comic duo of Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders as the quirky and quite inimitable Ms Forcible and Ms Spink, the eccentric variety performers of a variety not entirely unrelated to that of the Belleville triplets, while Coraline's father — to the joy of anoraks everywhere — is performed by John Hodgman, the Mac aficionado infamous for portraying "PC" in the devastatingly brilliant Get a Mac television adverts.

The exquisitely executed stop-motion animation of director Henry Selick's crew would've delighted such pioneers of the art as Władysław Starewicz, Jiří Trnka, and Ray Harryhausen. While its limited use of digital effects does lend the film a sheen similar to the more ubiquitous computer generated animation features, the painstaking stop-motion process — moving tiny objects, millimetre by millimetre across a three-dimensional, table-top set — immerses the viewer in an atmosphere seldom achieved by other forms of animation.

As the longest stop-motion animated feature made to date, and the first to be filmed entirely in 3-D, it's also a groundbreaking film. Dabbling in stereoscopic imagery, adding the illusion of depth, may at first seem as indulging in a gimmick long devoid of novelty (despite making somewhat of a comeback in cinemas lately), but used so moderately as in this instance, the technique is particularly effective — for example when bringing a classic Van Gogh to life.

The most novel aspect is undoubtedly Selick's approach to the morale of a story depicting a conflict between the imagined and the real; a variation of the classic "there's no place like home" theme, were "home" represents the world as it is not as one might want it to be. Though it could've ended on a typical reactionary note, it leaves Coraline's reality largely intact — made infinitely more inhabitable by it's imperfections than any imaginary world could be.

February 4, 2009

Hans Beck, 1929-2009.

The German cabinetmaker Hans Beck, who created the Playmobil toys, has passed away. Learn more about the colourful plastic dolls, of which more than 2.2 billion have found devoted homes in over 70 countries, here.


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