EXistenZ, David Cronenberg’s more-comic-than-usual fantasy of “the
new flesh,” visualizes the story of an artist, Allegra Geller, whose medium is the interactive video game. Preyed upon by a posse of “realists” that puts a bounty on her head, she seeks refuge within her own game, a multimillion-dollar baby whose distinctive characteristic is a controlling device made from amphibian DNA—it looks like a uterus with nipples. This “game pod” sports an umbilical-cord-like connector that plugs into a “bioport” surgically implanted at the base of the spine of the human player.
A Chinese box filled with paradoxes, reflexive kicks, and sexual metaphors that run rampantly AC/DC, eXistenZ is a heady experience—like being stoned in good company—and, unlike its dumb blockbuster doppelgänger, The Matrix, it generates after-the-fact trains of thought that are as pleasurable as the film itself. Cronenberg, who is extremely adept at discussing his work, graciously pursued some of these with me. We began by way of Stanley Kubrick, whose death leaves Cronenberg the filmmaker intellectually best-equipped to deal with what humans might become in the cyber future.
“He died too young, Stanley, and I’m sure he’s absolutely pissed-off being dead. And I think his movie [Eyes Wide Shut] was not finished, because he had the sound mix still to do and the looping with the actors, where you add dialogue and so change performances. It’s only people who don’t know about filmmaking who think it will be Stanley’s movie because a huge part of it won’t be. And I wonder who the hell is finishing it. Are they going to get Spielberg?”
Is Cronenberg interested in the job?
“It did occur to me. Especially given what I understand to be the subject matter. It feels a little like Crash to me on one level. But I don’t know that I’d want to be in the middle of that. It could get very political. The answer for a filmmaker is ‘Don’t die!’ I’m going to do my best. I relate to Kubrick’s intelligence and literacy, and there seems to be a dearth of that in filmmaking these days, but I never thought of him as a comrade in arms. In terms of subject matter and methodology, I think we were at far distant poles. Even the way he made movies is much more techno-obsessed than I am. I don’t think I’m techno-obsessed at all. I’m organic-obsessed. That’s why my technology is all organic. My understanding of technology is as an extension of the human body. So when people say, ‘Are your movies about a fear of technology?’ I don’t see that. I see technology as innately human. It seems to be innate in us to create and so much of our creativity comes out as technological invention. And I don’t think of it as being outside ourselves. I think it’s inside us first and then it’s an extension of us. And I don’t get that from Kubrick’s films.”
To apply Freud to the difference, Kubrick’s films are in the anal-sadistic mode while Cronenberg’s are more hysterical, the hysteria revolving around an anxiety about anal penetration. There are more close-ups of assholes, or, more exactly, asshole simulacra, in eXistenZ than in most porn movies. But it would be simpleminded to label this homophobia. Rather, it’s suggestive of a more encompassing male anxiety about being feminized. For example, here’s Cronenberg talking about what a video game can do to your computer:
“Anyone who plays a video game knows the game wants to have access to your computer, the more the better. In fact, it wants to take over your computer, it wants to own the operating system, the memory, everything. Your computer probably doesn’t want to give it all that, depending on what kind of computer it is, and so it ends up freezing, and you get pissed off and kick it around.”
Sounds like typical male fear, and particularly male-artist fear, about domesticity (wife, kids) invading the work space, the place where his creativity reigns supreme. In eXistenZ, Cronenberg explores that power struggle from a different angle than in his previous films: his alter ego, for the first time, is a woman. (With her uterine playing pod, game goddess Allegra Geller could be the offspring of Judy Chicago.)
Cronenberg wrote eXistenZ before he made Crash, and the two films, which were ready to go at the same time, seem as conjoined as Siamese twins. While the darkly romantic Crash is concerned with the meaning of sexual passion in the imminent future when sex is no longer the most efficient means of procreation, eXistenZ takes a comic approach to what happens to art when the oft-attached metaphor of giving birth takes on a fleshy dimension.
When Cronenberg started writing the script, the protagonist was male. “It didn’t work so I made her a woman, and then things started to fall into place. In terms of her relationship to the pod, she could be maternal, she could call it her baby, there could be an emotional attachment. I don’t mean that men don’t feel strongly about their babies, but not in that dramatic a way. The analogy of a work of art to a child really does feel true. If you do it right, what you create becomes a living thing that takes on a life of its own and that can cause separation anxiety. Because you do have to let go of it, but it’s still connected to you. And yes [laughing], it can become a monstrous thing that comes back to haunt you. Or, it could just come back to live with you for 10 years after you thought it was gone.”
Because he wanted some distance from his artist-protagonist, Cronenberg didn’t want to make Allegra a film maker or a writer. “I guess I was sowing the seed of my own destruction. I decide to invent an art form that might come to exist but doesn’t yet—a game that is also an art form and perhaps it would be a truly democratic art form in a bizarre way—that many people would be involved in and yet would involve a vision. At first I thought they wouldn’t actually play the game. They could only discuss it and I thought that would be kind of elegant and literary. But as soon as I started to write the script I was desperate to play the game and before I knew it, the game was engulfing the movie.
“The question of whether a game can be Art with a capital A is
a whole other thing. There are some Japanese game designers who think of themselves as artists and in terms of graphics and creating an ambience, they are. But I feel there’s something else that’s going to come out of this technology, some art form, and it may very well come from the game world.”
And does Cronenberg himself play computer games?
“I don’t. I sort of look over my son’s shoulder. I played Myst—not to its conclusion, my son had to show me how to finish it off. It just takes too long to get to all those levels, but I have a pretty good feel for the world you’re in. And I played a Japanese film—see, there’s a slip of the tongue—a Japanese game called Gadget. And I played one called MechWarriors where you control these robots and they’re shooting each other. And it’s very scary. You’d think that in a movie you’d be more scared because you’re passive and subject to stuff. Of course, you’re not totally passive because your mind is working and, in a weird way, that protects you. But when you’re in an environment where you’re moving around and being attacked or surprised, the interactivity makes it more real. The fact that you’re controlling your own fate—that if you screw up, you get blown apart—makes it more terrifying. I found the MechWarriors world really disturbing. I didn’t want to be there, so I stopped playing.”