“I have this phobia about having my body penetrated…”
eXistenZ (David Cronenberg, 1999)
posted by Akiva
Marshall McLuhan said something about how all forms of media are extensions of our bodies, but I doubt he had anything in mind like the game-pods of eXistenZ, fleshy modules of bumpy nipples linked to umbilical cords that, properly lubricated, plug into a vaginal “bioport” at the base of your spine. (I said this was a Cronenberg movie, right?) We generally conceive of virtual reality as an escape from the flesh — how else to define immortality? — but Cronenberg’s 1999 mindfuck wants to depict “jacking in” as just a heightened form of organic pleasure seeking. It’s a natural inclination. What other film about video games takes place entirely in the wilderness?
The pleasures of this very funny, very sick movie will deepen with time. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Allegra Geller is the Salman Rushdie of the gaming circuit, an artistic sorceress whose newest work is provocative enough to merit a fatwa from committed “realists”. After a test-market tryout of Allegra’s brand-new “eXistenZ” is interrupted by an assassination attempt, Allegra and her milquetoast bodyguard (Jude Law) — dude hasn’t even been fitted with a bioport! — escape into the woods to penetrate each other, play eXistenZ and save the game from the clutches of the fundamentalists.
Like Cronenberg’s earlier Videodrome, this is a movie about the movies in an abstract sense; it deals with the pleasures and dangers of alternate reality, and attempts to make sense of a world in which reality can be paused on demand. Free will becomes a troubling concept in a parallel universe where your character’s actions are predetermined; Allegra’s game cannot advance unless your character sticks to the program. This makes for one of my favorite Cronenberg sex scenes — and that’s saying something: Jude and Jennifer are playing the game, and he gropes her without meaning to. “Our characters are obviously supposed to jump on each other,” she responds. “It’s probably a pathetically mechanical attempt to heighten the emotional tension of the next game sequence. No use fighting it.”
I originally saw eXistenZ (which, I should add, is the last Cronenberg film that he wrote and conceived himself) on the big screen during the one week it played in 1999; it was a lot of fun, and I fell for Jennifer Jason Leigh for the first time, but it didn’t yet play like a modern classic to my 14-year-old brain. I was less intelligent, sure, but also more optimistic, less internet-saturated, and I probably didn’t own a cell phone. I never played video games, so all that virtual-reality stuff played like sci-fi to me. That year we all got excited about The Matrix, which had already cornered the market on Y2K paranoia and psychosexual gadget fixation in much more palatable fashion.
I watched eXistenZ this week right after finishing William Gibson’s 1983 “Neuromancer,” a novel that effectively imagined the internet into existence, defining cyberspace as that “consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation,” which is still about as good an encapsulation of what we’re dealing with as I’ve ever heard. And eXistenZ‘s game world is quite literally a consensual hallucination, a bunch of folks gathered in a room, smiling eagerly, plugging in in unison. It’s an update of “Neuromancer” — but a definite improvement on Gibson’s jargon-heavy pulp exercise; he would go on to write better books — and an elaboration upon Videodrome and Crash, both of which imagine the ramifications of the new and dangerous ways we might devise to get our kicks.
The film is itself a game, and the “shocker” ending originally struck me as an elaborate tease. But still, if the ending fails on a dramatic level, it helps underscore the limitations of a reality that has no firm footing. Stories need to create a coherent and consistent universe, and eXistenZ asserts that the immediacy of video games — or any other form of role playing, really — corrodes all our associative faculties. If it’s an obvious point, well, I don’t recall it ever being made so invigoratingly. Unfortunately, to Cronenberg, it’s too late now to resist plugging in; the new world order is already part of the body.