Friday, May 25, 2007

Cronenberg's World of TranscendenZ (1999)

I liked eXistenZ so much that I'm reviewing it again. It is a pessimistic film, like most futuristic films, cautioning us to be fearful of a technological singularity. According to David Cronenberg, the future will have less autonomy, people will be less free to make their own decisions, and there is a struggle between realists and “gamers”. Cronenberg’s postmodern eye looks into the future and dreams only about corrupt lifestyles and perverse political systems. “Dreams are the postmodern solution to life in the present,” says Denzin, a popular film critic.

The most piquant moment (or the moment when I realized something deep about the film) is when Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) repeats her “scripted” line. It’s at that point you realize that the people in the game have voluntarily surrendered their free will in order to participate in a story--a scripted story. This is made even more frightening at the end when D'Arcy Nader (or rather his player) comments on the possibility of spending one's life in the game. I don’t sympathize with the “realist” philosophy of the film, and the director, David Cronenberg. He seems to take a stance that is luddist in nature, implying that providing interesting worlds in which people are located, like in the virtual world eXistenZ or TranscendenZ, is a recipe for a negative living experience. Futuristic films don’t tend to be technoprogressive, and I didn’t expect this from Cronenberg. The “anti-game elements” in the game were there because he is pessimistic about our potential for biological morphism, meta-consciousness, mind-uploading, and other feats humans will soon over come. Living “in the game” is considered by most people to be not really living at all, but is a tempting way to spend one’s time.

As Allegra comments about the real world, “There's nothing going on here.” But in her game nothing is going on either--and it's a scripted game, so there is no free will. (Although I have to ask whether Cronenberg considers this a self-indictment, considering that he himself offers up deterministic worlds to be experienced in 90 to 120 minute snippets.)

The “game” aspect of the film is what makes it postmodern. Located in the strange, eclectic world of eXistenZ, the players treat other “players” as if their lives were dispensable, as when Jude Law says he feels the “urge to kill someone”. But he hesitates, “He’s too nice. I won’t do it.” Moments later he’s shown exploding the organic pistol in the waiter’s face, sending bone fragments everywhere, and nobody seems to care. Their big hairy dog cares the least, and would much rather chew on the bone fragments. The dog is a device Cronenberg used to show apathy. We encouraged by Allegra to believe that acting in this way is a good thing. Before this scene, Ted (Law’s character) says, “I actually think there is an element of psychosis involved here.” Allegra replies cheerfully that this means his nervous system is engaging in the game fully.

There is also something to say about the pastiche of eXistenZ, which is absent in the real world. eXistenZ is an excuse to make the world pastiche-looking by using various film topoi which Cronenberg gathers from many different genres, styles, and compressions of time and place. The first set in the game, for example, is some kind of retro, mid-80s style rarity shop with lots of neon lights. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law are dressed like hipsters, and they become wildly sexual when left alone. This has no explanation other than it’s the game’s way of heightening the tension “for the next game sequence.” This way of referring to the past without being in the past is postmodern. Every game sequence has this pastiche element, and there’s something nostalgic about it, while at the same time there’s an element of terror, or perversity.

The only sets that are non-pastiche and un-interesting are the ones in “reality”—or at least the sets that Cronenberg would have us believe are reality in either eXistenZ or TranscendeZ. Reality in general is played down. It’s unimportant. Phantasy and gaming are much more important. But living in the Noosphere too long leads to problems, as Cronenberg points out. Jude Law exits the game at one point and says, “I’m not sure this is real at all. You’re beginning to feel like a game-character.” Cronenberg does little to create meaning in the real experiences of the characters. The game experiences are much more lively.

The question the film poses at the end is whether we are still living in a game, whether what we believe is reality right now has not already been replaced by a game, a false-consciousness of some sort (since we’re not aware we’re in any game.) I would argue David Cronenberg actually gives the answer to the question the Chinese gamer asks at gun point, “Hey guys, are we still playing the game?” The answer lies in the clue about the shaggy dog found in each of the game-scenes. Each time Ted and Allegra load new personalities the dog is somehow part of the set, like when he retrieves the weapon. However, the dog is not plugged into the TranscendenZ at the end, so he is not a part of the levels unless on some higher order. On the last sequence we see that the dog is not plugged in. A keen observer would have noticed that there must be at least another level that they are all, dog included, tapped into.

While I didn’t appreciate the film’s pessimism, it does make for good story-telling. I enjoyed the sci-fi theme of biological and technological mashups. The game pods were all too reminiscent of virtual world play like Second Life. And indeed, people in SL often act quite similar to the role-playing that goes on in Cronenberg’s gaming sphere. eXistenZ is a bit more prescient, however, since the technology in his film wants to be in our bodies. I believe Cronenberg thinks that technology came from our bodies in the first place. Technology is supposed to be inside the body, or at least close to it. First of all, in the obvious ways -- the eyes with binoculars, the ears with the telephone -- technology had to be an advancement of powers humans knew they already possessed. Technology then becomes more elaborate and more distant from us. More abstract. Yet the technology still emanated from us—technology is us.

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