Spine-tingling

David Cronenberg finds a new place to stick it in eXistenZ

David Cronenberg has a thing for body openings. His movies are, literally, full of holes. There's the botched surgery wound on Marilyn Chambers that bites and infects unsuspecting sexual partners in Rabid; the vaginal VCR in James Woods' chest where he plugs into tapes to experience ever more exotic porn in Videodrome; Genevieve Bujold's malformed uterus that inspires twin gynecologists Jeremy Irons to create torturous new examination devices in Dead Ringers; and the car-wreck injury that offers James Spader the opportunity to penetrate Holly Hunter's calf in Crash. Add to this hall of legendary orifices the moist, sensitive spinal punctures that transport Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law into eXistenZ, the name of a genetically grown virtual-reality game and the title of Cronenberg's new feature.

In person, the Canadian writer-director is polite, almost hypnotically articulate. He rarely says an uninteresting thing, and is able to link religion and philosophy and technology and sexuality without stammering or restarting a thought. But he's not especially keen on elaborating why, in almost all of his movies, the conflict arises from what goes in or comes out of a traditional, traumatic, or wholly invented canal into the human body.

"Most of my movies are very bodycentric," he concedes. "Freud is a very nice mythology, but if you get into Freud, you're going to talk about sexual reversals and castration complex and Oedipus. I don't know that this (eXistenZ) connects much with the normal psychological understanding of orifices."

Actually, no one in the room mentioned Freud. And Cronenberg puts too fine a point on his statement about understanding orifices: Neither the surprisingly humorous eXistenZ nor any of his visceral, unemotional, and addictively watchable features connect at all with the normal psychological understanding of anything. This is precisely why they are so damned fascinating for some, and predictably pathological for others. eXistenZ, in which Leigh plays a world-famous computer programmer who must escape an underground cult of Christian realists with the help of shy bodyguard Law, has as its dripping, diseased heart the title game, which is pumped directly into the nervous system through an anus-like hole created at the base of the spine.

Another romper room for psychosexual speculation. Cronenberg himself says, "Certainly for a movie with no sex, there is a lot of sex in it." And watching everything from the oozing holes to the tawdry, plastic, scaled-down production values to Jennifer Jason Leigh's crimped hair, fuck-me pumps, and adult-film patter ("This thing looks ready for action," she coos, fingering Law's new socket right before she plugs him in), you think it's not just any sex, but the cold, virtual sex of pornography. The director doesn't like this analogy, either.

"I'm wary of the term 'pornography,'" he says, while allowing that he is a consumer of the stuff. "The word has been used for all kinds of political reasons to talk about the pornography of poverty and the pornography of racism. And once you start talking about that, what does it mean? It just means something that people don't like."

Good God, man! eXistenZ features characters who must bend over and be penetrated by a giant black gun ("I have a fear of penetration," a trembling Jude Law says to leering Willem Dafoe as he's leaning over a barrel; cue the wah-wah pedal). Fleshy tubes are, in turn, inserted that connect back to the central game unit, a genetic creature that looks like a giant, multi-bulbed clitoris and begins to writhe and gurgle when you run your finger over it. Jennifer Jason Leigh spends a lot of time running her fingers, quite lovingly, over it.

Cronenberg probably--and with justification--fears that an admission of porn influence in his films will be used against him in the court of journalistic sensationalism. But the inquiries are not intended to be pejorative. So he concedes that some of the dialogue has been lifted, with satirical intent, from dirty movies. Valiantly continuing the sex metaphor, he finally offers, "Why not go all the way and say, invent a couple new sex organs? It would be a new kind of body pleasure apart from reproduction. In a way I'm doing this in the movie by creating new sexual organs for game-playing. I'm having some fun with that, but serious fun, by observing that there are these new orifices, but all the old sexual habits are there."

There is the game-playing dimension to eXistenZ. When Leigh and Law, while on the lam from the Christian-realist terrorists, link up to that big noisy clitoris, they are sent to a virtual but three-dimensional world of superstores featuring even more advanced games; a farm where mutated amphibians are raised and harvested for the genetic material required to create the pearly, fleshy eXistenZ unit; and a Chinese restaurant where the special of the day is zealously guarded.

But reality has bled into virtual reality, or so it seems, because the Christian realists have invaded the game, searching for Leigh and Law. As the two leads attempt to negotiate their way through mysterious clues and hostile strangers using a creaky self-referencing game logic, eXistenZ develops a playful, perverse, deadpan tone that's like nothing on the multiplex's gazillion other screens. Not only do you not know who the adversaries in the game are, but you don't know what the rules are, much less what the object is.

"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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