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.

No comments:

Post a Comment


Blog Widget by LinkWithin