Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Films of 1999: eXistenZ

The year 1999 brought audiences a slew of virtual reality or “simulated world” works-of-art. A few-month span – from early spring to fall of 1999 -- saw the premieres of The Matrix, The Thirteenth Floor, the Chris Carter TV series Harsh Realm (1999-2000), and the subject of this review: David Cronenberg’s often impenetrable eXistenZ.

Why did all these science fiction productions -- about people interfacing with artificial or alternate realities -- filter to the surface of the pop culture virtually at once? 

One seeking answers to that question might consider the historical context.

In 1999, a major technological concern was on the horizon, for one thing, in the shape of Y2K, or the Millennium Bug. That problem, as you may recall, turned out to be nothing but hype.  However, the very thought of what might happen as clocks ticked over to January 1, 2000  roiled a culture that was, very quickly, growing accustomed to the Internet and the online world of entertainment, news, and information it offered. 

The fear inherent in the Y2K Crisis was that too much of our world had been erected around computers, online and offline, and so to lose computers would send society back to the equivalent of the Dark Ages.

Planes would fall out of the sky.

Power grids would go dark.

Everyday appliances, PCs, and other devices would freeze up…becoming no more than glorified paper-weights.

The year 1999, similarly, was the era in which violent video games were blamed, in large part, by the media, for the Columbine Shootings. 

The press went on and on about “the Trench Coat Mafia” and the fact that the teenage Columbine shooters enjoyed playing first person shooter video games. Years later, we know that much of this detail was fabricated, exaggerated, or at the very least mis-reported.

Nonetheless, efforts like The Matrix were targeted by moral watch-guards for creating violent fantasies that young people not only found appealing, but could, essentially, get lost in.  The video game world could, -- according to the same paranoia -- replace the real world and real life for some people.  Impressionable youngsters would become lost morally, and rudderless spiritually, unable to determine the difference between the game world and the real world. 

And if they learned to kill in the game world, what was to stop them from doing the same thing in reality?

Today -- a long way down the line since 1999 -- such concerns seem a bit quaint; naïve even.

You can’t walk down the street -- any street -- without finding people gazing into their hand-held i-devices. Games of all varieties can be found on these mobile devices, on at-home game systems, and on your TV too. So the wholesale integration of commercial game worlds and consensus reality is complete -- and permanent -- in the world we live in today.

But eXistenZ cannily, memorably and often grotesquely blends the 1990s fears of technological/human integration with director David Cronenberg’s career-long obsession with body horror tropes.  In 1983, for example, his film Videodrome explored the terrifying possibility that people would become living VCR machines, playing the VHS tapes, as it were, of nefarious programmers. 

eXistenZ takes a step further down that weird road, depicting the complete union of mankind with his game systems, which, in the film, are depicted, perversely, as fleshy pink outcroppings attached to organic umbilical cords. To operate the game, players literally finger or manipulate mounds of flesh, or nipples for lack of a better word.

A brilliantly crafted -- and yet wholly bizarre --- film which plays strongly with the viewer’s sense of reality, eXistenZ also mirrors, in the words of the movie’s programmer character, a strong “anti-gamer” view-point.

Specifically, the game system in eXistenZ is equated with the rape of the natural world.

And life in the game world begins, importantly, with an act suggesting sexual violence or aggression, the penetration and insertion of a “port” into the human flesh so tgat one can access the meta-flesh game pods. 

Even the act of playing the game, finally, is visually equated with a solitary sexual behavior: masturbation.

But the film’s final point, intriguingly, is a refutation of the “movies/video games cause violence” argument so prevalent in fin-de-siecle 1990s culture. Contrarily, as eXistenZ’s finale points out, real-life attitudes (such as an anti-gamer belief system) influence game play instead. We bring our (pre-existing) attitudes to the game, eXistenZ tells us, so that life changes the nature of the game, not vice-versa.

In other words, eXistenz, for all its apparent concern and discomfort about the union of man with technology, reminds audiences of a crucial fact: Art mirrors life.  The game in the movie turns murderous and bloody not because of its core nature as a game, but because it reflects the attitudes of the people -- the gamers -- who have entered its simulated world.

“It wasn’t me! It was my game character!”

At the test launch of celebrity programmer Allegra Gellar’s (Jennifer Jason Leigh) new game system, eXistenZ, an assassin from an anti-gamer sect attempts to murder her. 

A man responsible for security at the event, Ted Pikul (Jude Law) whisks her away to safety, but the duo learns there is a price on her head. Every anti-gamer in the region is out to collect a substantial reward.

Allegra, meanwhile, is desperate to link to her game after the shooting, hoping to determine if it survived the attack intact.  To do so, however, she needs Pikul to jack in from his own port. 

The only problem is that he doesn’t possess one.  To fix that problem, the duo visits a local gas station attendant and gamer, Gas (Willem Dafoe) who has the skills to surgically provide him with a port.

Gas is a betrayer however, and installs a faulty port in Pikul in an effort to kill the game.

Next, Allegra and Pikul seek assistance from one of Allegra’s friends, Dr. Vinokur (Ian Holm), who can perform surgery on her sick pod, and also install Pikul’s port correctly.

Once equipped, Allegra and Pikul enter the game world, and find themselves visiting a virtual factory by the sea where pods are crafted from living tissue.  There, they uncover the dark world of anti-gamers, and the dark secrets that make meta-flesh pods possible.

 “The game makes reality feel completely unreal.”

The first inescapable conclusion one must draw from eXistenz is that the meta-flesh pods are alive. They are not just mechanical game-systems, like an X-Box or Wii Universe.  They are game-systems that incorporate and are comprised of living tissue. 

And if they incorporate living tissue, one must wonder about their predicament.  The pods serve us; they are slaves to the gamers.

In terms of the pods being living creatures, Allegra refers to the game pod as “her” throughout the film, suggesting it has life, and more so, gender. 

And inside the game world, Pikul and Gellar end up working (as spies…) at a factory assembly line were mutated amphibious creatures are harvested from the sea and placed inside the meta-flesh surroundings.  These creatures are taken from their natural environment, and used in the pods so that humans can play games. 

In every meaningful way, this is slavery.

Similarly, when Dr. Vinokur conducts surgery on the pods, the interior we see is an amalgamation of blood and guts, again, living tissue.  And one way for the gamers to destroy eXistenZ is to “infect” the pods.  We see the pods turn purple with biological disease.

The inescapable fact, then, is that humans are co-opting a biological process --- life -- to enjoy a game world. This is not even remotely a moral act, one might conclude. And therefore, the anti-gamer personalities in the film who want to kill Allegra (an apparent metaphor for the fatwa against Salman Rushdie), may have some valid point for their concern. They have organized in a militant and violent fashion to prevent the moral wrong of harvesting living beings, but their cause, on some level, seems just.

On the other hand, these anti-gamers may be against games not because of the biological processes that incorporate the pods, but because they fear that real life is jeopardized by the existence of such games.  At the end of the film, the anti-gamers declare “the victory of realism.”  In this sense, the characters might be “read” or interpreted as being the moral watchdogs of the larger culture; the ones who don’t play games, but worry nonetheless about societal impact of games.

Secondly, eXistenZ depicts a sort of sexual violence in terms of the union of pods and people.

To interface with a pod, a port is “injected” into the base of the human spine through a large, phallic tube. 

Now, one might observe that this port of entry on the spine is only inches above another, sensitive area on the human form, an orifice, in particular. 

If one looks at the framing of the scene wherein Pikul “receives” his pod from Gas, it is clear that he is undergoing a process that visually, resembles anal sex.  Gas is doing the penetrating, and Pikul is the one penetrated.  

Pikul is penetrated, incidentally, after noting -- quite relevantly -- that he possesses “this phobia about my body being penetrated…surgically.” And when he first enters the game, following activation of his port and attachment to the pod via umbilical cord, he notes, rather needily. “I feel really vulnerable.”

Again and the again, visuals and words reinforce the sexual nature of the union of pod and man.  At one point, we see Pikul actually stick his tongue in Alegra’s back port, to “lubricate it” so as to be ready for tube insertion.  He is facilitating the tube’s penetration.

But then, intriguingly, connection, following the union, is somewhat anti-climactic. 

The film provides us shot-after-shot of Allegra and Pikul on a motel room bed, in blissful -- but separate -- worlds, stroking their individual pods and experiencing the delight of the game reality. 

I believe this visualization is Cronenberg’s cheeky commentary that video game play is, in some way, masturbation.

Such play isn’t about connection to another human being, after all, but a connection to one’s own fantasies.  

I’m not saying that I agree with this belief, vis-à-vis video games.  There have been plenty of studies to suggest that video games are beneficial to people, and pro-social. Actually. But that’s not the message of the film.  The message of eXistenZ is that once the connection is set up, it’s all a matter of people playing with their own -- organic in this case -- joysticks.  They tune out the real world, and even tune out of their significant relationships.  Consider, in the game space, Pikul and Allegra are lovers, or at least passionate about each other, in physical terms.  But in real life?

The fact that the film’s gamers jack-in, for the first time, in a church, is a symbol, perhaps, that for some people self-love (masturbation; game play) has become the narcissistic temple of worship, replacing the symbol of communal spirituality and religion.

Cronenberg is a thoughtful, brilliant director, no doubt, and his “anti-gamer” material in eXistenZ possesses the unique flip-side I mentioned in my introduction.  In broad strokes, the film concerns the way that anti-game people infiltrate a game, and bring their zealous, down-with-games belief system to that realm.  It infects that realm, like the disease that infects the pod.  Finally, these zealots are willing to commit murder, even without knowing (per the film’s final sting…) whether they are in reality or in a game world. 

This is a literalization of the fear that games breed killers, but importantly, it is simultaneously a notation that games don’t make people violent, any more than movies might. 

Games are an art form, like film, that reflects the nature of those who “play.”  In games, this is especially so, because of the high-degree of interactivity.  You choose whether to go right or left.  You choose whether to shoot or hold your fire.  You choose which door to enter, which to exit.  The game doesn’t make that decision for you, although, as eXistenZ points out, it does provide parameters for those choices.

But in real life, your upbringing, your location, your family of origin all provide those parameters, too.

Watching eXistenZ cold, without understanding David Cronenberg’s fascination with body horror, may leave one concluding that “there’s a level of psychosis” here. But in a way that’s the film’s very point. 

Those who enter the game with the zealous desire to kill are bringing their psychosis to the game; not becoming psychotic because of the game.  That seems an important distinction, especially in 1999, and one that our culture has not yet entirely learned, or at least internalized.

The weirdest and most off-beat of 1999’s simulated world productions, eXistenZ is also, perhaps, the most ambiguous. 

I have provided here my reading of Cronenberg’s symbols and visual imagery, but I would not be surprised to read an entirely alternative reading that tracks just as effectively, or meaningfully. 

And that too is the point.

We watch a film like eXistenZ, and it bring to it our own parameters for interpretation.

1 comment:

  1. I am huge fan of Cronenberg's early work. "Videodrome" is my second favorite film of all time and I remember thinking he covered this same terrain much more effectively in that masterpiece. But I need to revisit "eXistenZ" and give this fascinating film another look. I think your reading is spot on from where I am coming from. But like "Videodrome" I think you can read this film from two different places depending on your world view and sociological/political perspective.

    One thing about both "Videodrome" and "eXistenz" is the physicality and visceral feel, the texture he creates. Croneberg's ability to use eroticism and create deeply affecting sexual scenes are unmatched. Remember those scenes in "Crash"? One of those most daring and audacious films I ever saw in wide commercial release.


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