Monday, May 12, 2014

Existenz - Cronenberg Impresses. As usual.

1999's Existenz does a fine job of setting itself up at the start. This is important, since so much of the story feels like having everything on a high shelf fall on top of you. David Cronenberg's film succeeds at being unsettling, and your enjoyment of it will depend on whether you can just go with the flow.

We open on a product focus group. Adults gather in an old church to play-test eXistenZ, the new work by famous game designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Ted Pikul (Jude Law) is a trainee, there to help with the setup.

Off the bat, we have no idea what world we're in. Their speech is familiar, but the video game console is a big organic blob you connect to via umbilical cords - which looks like a melted plaster mold of a woman's chest. No one is worried by this. Soon after they start, one of the audience begins to fire a freakish-looking gun. His cries sound like a religious extremist. Pikul and Geller then go on the run, but no one calls the police. So just what is going on here?

A film like Existenz would likely fail unless made by someone like Cronenberg. The language is odd and oddly-delivered, yet feels precise, serving a specific narrative purpose with every line. I might not've had faith in such stylized dialogue from another director. Hell, at times, this pic feels more like a play.

Similarly, the cast is quite small. Ian Holm, Sarah Polley, and Willem Dafoe round out a team of 14 or so weirdly-philosophical roles. They help pull off Cronenberg's most admirable feat: making this alternate (not future) world feel natural and real, despite its strangeness. They also help make the game world insane - people stuck in dialogue loops when hearing the "wrong" words, or exhibiting group behavior. Ted and Allegra comment on the quality of the game all the while.

Yet the film almost never veers away from Law or Leigh. This ultra-narrow focus works in the movie's favor, but it's almost hard to tell whether this picture is liberating or just a quagmire.

Ted is the audience-identification role - as a newbie, he learns what the audience needs to know. Allegra, however, is amazing. She's... so vividly strange.

Sometimes, she has the callousness of a reclusive genius/artist/celebrity. Other times, you wonder if she doesn't value people at all. In still other moments, she's just a big kid. But we the audience are never sure if her behavior is due to the game, or a response to extreme circumstances, or if she herself is up to no good...

And the dynamic between the leads stands out so strongly! It's a shock to see how JJL's role runs right over Law's. In addition to the sexual, ugly visual motifs, the chemistry between Ted and Allegra often portrays the designer as a dominant and mature figure who is insensitive and self-serving with the inexperienced, innocent intern.

It's not just that Geller prods Pikul to get a spinal-plug. In scenes like the one above, she's ready to use his body as soon as it's available. Ted projects fear and vulnerability, but she isn't hearing any of it. Allegra shows zero concern for the intimacy of the act, much less Ted's highly-stressed state.

Then, when her game pod is damaged through no fault of Pikul's, Allegra snaps at him. Her first reaction is to blame him for something that she caused, something over which he had no control. I fear many viewers might be familiar with these kinds of outbursts due to "performance failure."

Coupled with Pikul's raw naïveté and his gaming ignorance - maybe he doesn't like games, but c'mon it's the company product - and there's little subtext here. Geller is using him in a way that flips some fairly ugly gender stereotypes. And when Allegra lubricates a game connector then jams it into Ted's lower back - this is not exactly... hard to interpret.

Neither are the words, "sometimes a new port is a bit... tight." That's as subtle as the Washington Monument, right there. Nor is it subtle that the gamepod controls involve Allegra stroking and flicking what looks like a nipple. It may be pretty unpleasant, but these words and actions do match nicely with the horrific look of this movie's food, weapons, and games.

Visually, Existenz is beautiful. Well, it looks beautiful when it's weird and revolting organic technology isn't making you clutch your stomach. Sure, the disgusting images help, but Mr. Cronenberg really does everything he can to leave the audience off-balance, uncertain, and (at least) a little repulsed.

I suppose what it really comes down to is that this very original film carries you through its plots at such speed that the overall story is hard to take poorly - unless you ache for clarity. The transition from Start to Middle to Finish is so smooth that the ride feels easy, even while you're confused.

I have a final thought about the characters' mutability and the slightness of the story: it makes me focus on the themes even more, because there's rich comtext here. Skip ahead to below the next video to avoid SPOILERS. Hell, I'll kick it off now by noting that Geller's obsessiveness looks like an addiction.

She's in danger, yet immediately wants to test a device that leaves users helpless and unaware. It seems like a motherly/artistic instinct to protect one's creation, yet why is Geller's every thought about something that is also such an escape from reality? Why does she want to play because she's bored now? She's being hunted!

As the film progresses, her compulsions and moods seem less an artist's and more a drug addict's. This gives the film added dimensions, recasting the extremists in a war-on-drugs context, and giving Geller and Ted a drug pusher/pushee vibe. Moreover, Allegra's comment that "everybody's already playing" her game could refer to escaping reality by some means, or it may compare Ted's description of her game to life itself.

If it feels like I'm over-reaching, here's a point I'll just sketch out: Geller enters her own created world in order to see whether it works or not. That's one interpretation of the reason behind the Christian conception of Jesus - God experiencing life as humans would. And if that sounds like grasping for depth, well, Geller enters the game in a repurposed church with 11 other people. Sure, that analogy means I have to claim everyone here is Judas (which is accurate), but it's not such a stretch.

See what I mean? Okay, I'll leave religion alone.

Further still, the dynamic between Ted and Allegra can be a microcosm of unhealthy romantic power-playing. One person is the aggressor - assured and more experienced, focused on their own needs. The other is more innocent and malleable, emotionally-protective at first, but seeks closeness by fulfilling the other. Existenz says a lot about life's scripts - just as newbie Ted is assigned to protect the injured Allegra, he assigns himself the role of giver (and subordinate). And we can't even tell if this is who they are or just how they're acting right now.

What's more, they're intimate via this crazy, penetrative device instead of actual sex. This new couple's shared, yet fake, experiences lead to what feels like a real bond. Yet early on, she points a gun at him. In the game world, he does the same, and later each intentionally deceives the other. So Ted and Allegra do live out the lies they sold to themselves because of the games that they play with one another.

There is rich material in this picture. In fact, so many lines of dialogue can be taken to have a double meaning. It's just all wrapped up in a very weird package...

Ultimately, Existenz may make as much sense as a fever dream. The audience is pretty confused from the get-go, and at times all the characters are just as twisted up and out-of-step as the audience is. This made it easy for me to focus on the actors and the odd script.

And throughout, Cronenberg's strong thematic elements help make the confusing narrative enjoyable as well as entertaining. Who are the people around us? Do we really know them, or some role they're playing? Or is it all a trick? How do we form real bonds with each other? What happens when we feel compelled to do things? What scripts are we forced into acting out? How and why do we escape reality? I write all this, but I'm still probably missing a few themes...

It's really quite amazing that this picture came out just after The Matrix. The sensibilities and goals are wildly different, of course. But where the Wachowski's pic soon switches to all-action, DC's film sticks with philosophical issues, ones both movies touch on: being lost in the reality of a virtual world, having one's identity and behavior controlled, being uncertain as to what is artificial and what these forced realities say about the people in them.

For Neo, the Matrix cannot tell him who he truly is. For Ted Pikul and Allegra Geller, it seems that they may never realize who they are. While I greatly enjoyed this movie, I know it won't be everyone's cup of tea. What I can promise, as Ebert and the NYT agreed, is that it will not be a waste of your time. Cronenberg's films never are, even the one or two I don't like.

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