Spine-tingling

David Cronenberg finds a new place to stick it in eXistenZ

"You play the game to find out why you're playing it," Leigh tells us. Less adventurous audiences who have sat through the whole movie waiting for the point (and who experienced this film's undeniably lame ending, an eye-roller even for those who have been intrigued by its disoriented feel) will probably leave thinking that line is the best per-pound manure deal they've been sold for seven bucks in a while.

As Cronenberg freely admits of the film's circular tease, "It's not just a puzzle, it's a philosophical puzzle. It's not just that once you solve it, it's over. You can't solve it, and it's never over."

Still, because of the aforementioned finale (just changing the "It was all just a dream" end to the "It was all just a virtual reality game" end doesn't make the device any fresher) and because Cronenberg never expounds the religious realist resistance to the movie's title game, it's hard to meet on fair terms what is putatively the film's core: that, according to Cronenberg, "all reality is virtual."

He claims that one of the inspirations for eXistenZ was the plight of Salman Rushdie, whom he interviewed in England for Shift magazine. Discussing the Islamic fatwa against Rushdie (that word is used in the film as a description for the price on Jennifer Jason Leigh's head), Cronenberg says, "The Rushdie situation is a clash of two well-formed realities; the Western liberal tradition includes things like irony and subtlety, and the religious fundamentalists"--and he's not just talking about Islamic fundamentalists here--"just won't recognize those things. They think anything that's art must serve God in a very narrow way. The people who believe that are walking around in the same space, but they're living in a completely different place [than the rest of us]. That's what I thought was a good place to start for a film about the variable nature of reality."

For many, eXistenZ, which opens in Dallas on April 23, will probably be more trick than treat. But the film epitomizes the phrase sui generis ("of its own kind") and still maintains a wry attitude toward itself, almost as though Cronenberg had been caught in the pod with Jeff Goldblum while shooting their project The Fly and some of Goldblum's restless, witty self-deprecation had spliced into the director. This alone makes it a better movie than the unintentionally hilarious Crash, which with its Cannes Grand Jury Prize and crowning by Bertolucci as a "religious masterpiece" is a sterling excuse to skip controversial art fare and pour your dollars into Adam Sandler movies. Still, the virtual-reality theme of eXistenZ feels like just another tool to reshape a favorite Cronenberg theme from The Dead Zone to Naked Lunch--how the experience of different individuals constitutes an almost metaphysical overlap of realities. In the end, you feel that technology matters very little to him. It's what his flesh and blood characters do with it that counts.

"I think it all has to do with death," Cronenberg says of technology and art. "We realize that our lives are time-limited and space-limited, yet we know we have the capacity to go far beyond that. That's the human conundrum. Much of what is in art and culture is a flight from the human body, because to accept the human body is to accept mortality. Existentialism is a philosophy that says you must do that, that to accept it is to live the authentic life. But with that painful awareness comes acute understanding of your own existence and what that might be. And that makes us have a desire to experience other people's lives, however strange or different from our own.

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