Tuesday 24 October 2017

The Question in Bodies #5: eXistenZ (1999)

In Summer 1999, The Matrix came out, and that's pretty uncontroversially one of the most culturally significant films of the last two decades, if not the most culturally significant, period.

The Matrix changed the way mainstream films were made and watched, and its iconography is a shorthand now for the campaigners in a war against everything that many of us, including, lest we forget, the makers of The Matrix itself, stand for. But as important as The Matrix is, the thing that it isn't is prescient.

As far as its relationship with culture goes, it's mainly a set of commonly scrambled symbols, part of our cultural lexicon. It's not half as profound or coherent  as it thinks it is, and its images, which are powerful, exciting images, are more or less without any real anchors of meaning, and lend themselves to being appropriated by any number of functionally illiterate Agent Smiths. In hats. And that's how the world's most influential white supremacist can bang on with the rest of them about using the Red Pill and no one really goes, wait a minute here. But The Matrix, while absolutely a film that helped to get us where we are, was never a film that told us where we were going.

On the other hand, the second half of 1999 also gave us another VR Movie, David Cronenberg's eXistenZ, which did not gain an enormous following, did not transform cinema, and did not become part of the cultural lexicon. But of the two of them, it's eXistenZ that hasn't dated. While The Matrix looks now like the most 1999 film imaginable, eXistenZ is a film that feels like now.
In an undefined near future, Allegra Geller (the reliably excellent Jennifer Jason Leigh) is hosting a pre-release demo of her new game system, eXistenZ ("Small e, capital X, capital Zee"). It's a biomechanical thing: you plug it into your body via a socket implanted in your spine. Activate it and it sends you into a vividly realistic cyberspace, the closest cinematic representation of William Gibson's "consensual hallucination" ever made (and incidentally I can't think of any director more obviously, perfectly suited to a film adaptation of Neuromancer than Cronenberg).

A young man crashes the demo and tries to assassinate Allegra with a gun made of meat and bones, that fires human teeth (and which bypassed security easily). She escapes, herded to safety by nervous, awkward security man Ted Pikul (Jude Law). They go on the run, but Allegra insists they play the game, because she is concerned that her machine, apparently unique, might have sustained damage.
Ted reveals that he's long had a phobia of having his body "penetrated" and so does not have an implant; Allegra says she knows that there's a country gas station. The attendant, given only the name "Gas" (Willem DaFoe) does a line in black market socket implantations. Although Gas proclaims himself a fan, he has sold out Allegra. They must escape; they do, and, finding a place to connect to the game, enter a further hallucinatory space, where they begin to unravel the mystery of who is after Allegra.

The transition into the game reality is done with the same seamlessness that characterises the hallucinations in Videodrome and Naked Lunch. You're in a "real" world (inasmuch as anything in a movie can be anything other than simulacrum) and then you're in a hallucination, and they both – by design, and Cronenberg has said as much – look the same. While at the time more than one critic complained about the lack of an obvious special effect for the transition (The Guardian had a typically dreadful take, for one) this has dated far better than the raining digital glyphs of The Matrix. And expecting it to be a video game transition misses the point.
Allegra and Ted's world is a little too pat, the performances stilted and without texture. Ted's phone is a featureless lump of glowing plastic. The background to the driving scene is done with rear projection, deliberately, to suggest an artificiality to the world. Everything is is clean, solid colours. The country gas station's sign reads COUNTRY GAS STATION. In eXistenZ, the performances become even less natural; video game NPCs wait vacantly for Ted and Allegra to speak with them using the right words and talk in weird accents. Just like video game NPCs, in fact.

As reality begins to bleed into eXistenZ and the game begins to bleed into Ted and Allegra's reality, what was hinted all along becomes readily apparent: Ted and Allegra have been playing a game from the beginning, with the same nonsensical plot twists and bad acting as, well, a video game. There's a scene early on where Allegra wanders around, touching things, smelling things, and at the end, it becomes obvious why: she's experiencing how close to real it is, even though it's a created phenomenon.

In the final scenes, we find ourselves in a hall, and seated in a circle in the hall aren't just the principals, but all of the NPCs with speaking parts, every one of whom is revealed to be in fact a player. They're talking with ease now, without the silly accents or forced mannerisms. They critique the shortcomings of the game plot, the accents they were forced to adopt and the characters they were forced to play. The player who took the role of the Chinese Waiter (Oscar Hsu), a racist stereotype who existed in game only to be blown away, makes a forced joke about being a racist stereotype. Everyone laughs. It's awkward (is that deliberate? I would like to think it was, but I suspect that this is not the case).

Allegra and Ted are only players like the rest of them.  The real designer is Yevgeny Nourish (Don McKellar), who we had thought was an NPC in the game-within-the-game, his assistant Merle (living legend Sarah Polley) someone who had been just a bit part.

But one thing is still the case: someone in the group means to kill the designer.
I feel very strongly that eXistenZ is a film that's found its era. Its biomechanical consoles that connect with human body orifices in a weird sexual way stand outside of any deliberate futurism. Cronenberg's films often queer their protagonists. James Wood's stomach orifice in Videodrome is positively vaginal; in Naked Lunch, monstrous biomechanical bugs speak through puckered holes that look like anuses and encourage Peter Weller's protagonist to experiment sexually.
And so in one sense, there's sex happening in every scene, even if it's not what most people consider to be sex.
Cronenberg, eXistenZ commentary (23:28)
Although there's only implied conventional sex and no nudity, it shouldn't be any surprise that the implantation of a socket is literally described as "penetration" and that the devices have a symbiotic relationship with the body, even to the extent that they can catch diseases from the human. Allegra refers to her console not only as a living thing, but as a "she", as a sentient being, flesh and spirit. She wets her finger before inserting it in Ted's bioport. Allegra and Ted lying on the bed allowing themselves to be gently fucked by the console-creature absolutely is sexual in a detached, metaphorical way. It's a liberation from conventional sexuality, a queering of bodies themselves.

This taps into themes in Cronenberg's films that go all the way back to Stereo (1969), where we are told that the telepaths at the Institute for Erotic Research are "omnisexual" because by transcending language they experience sexuality in new ways. The parasitised sex maniacs of Shivers (1975) have an extra organ in them (a tiny phallus) and have moved way beyond straightness. Cronenberg is interested in queering the body. Polymorphous perversity is his future.
Cronenberg doesn't judge these interactions. He just shows them to you, and it's entirely up to you the viewer as to whether you find eXistenZ's sexualised (and gendered) game consoles icky or, you know, sort of hot. Often, it's sort of funny! eXistenZ is the nearest Cronenberg ever got to a romantic comedy.

The living consoles of eXistenZ are a perfect metaphor for the way in which gamers often emotionally relate to their consoles, now more than ever. The same impulse that in eXistenZ inspires characters to attempt assassinate the real people behind the games inspires those who feed from the virtual umbilical to threaten, harass and dox those who they feel might threaten their "identity". And of course "gamer" is a made-up identity based upon what you consume, but these lifestyle gamers behave as if it is, as if they really are being gently fucked by their Xboxes when they turn on. They're the sex-zombies of Shivers, the traumatised telepaths of Stereo.
The attachment to a console as if it were a living thing brings with it a detachment from other humans. You only have to hear Xbox chat for maybe five minutes to hear the evidence of a shocking level of depersonalisation: other humans become sprites in the game, artifacts of the console, just as they are in eXistenZ.
An identity is not something that is given to us. It is something that takes a lot of will, a lot of human effort, to come up with. And it's created over an entire lifetime, involving interaction with other people of course, and with your body, and with the society and context you find yourself in. And this is kind of play – the movie plays games with those concepts here.
Cronenberg, eXistenZ commentary (51:00)
When Cronenberg made eXistenZ, he was thinking about the fatwa that had been placed on Salman Rushdie for having written The Satanic Verses, but of course now, entire movements exist to track down and threaten literal video game designers, and even people who write about video games, exist. An assassination attempt on a game designer doesn't sound too far fetched. Cronenberg is positing that games are art, with all that this entails, and all the reactions to them that the state of art encourages. He is ahead of his time.

When I rewatched eXistenZ, I wasn't expecting it to have aged so well as it has. But it's really remarkable how much more it speaks to the real world than it did. How much foresight it had.