Cronenberg leads audience into dark woods of eXistenZ
By Yaron Blank
Staff Writer --
York University's excalibur

During a central moment in cinematic psycho-guru David Cronenberg's 1991 adaption of William Burrough's Naked Lunch, Peter Weller exclaims with provoked conviction: "Exterminate all rational thought. That is the conclusion I have come to."

After watching the filmmaker's body of work, which stretches back over 30 years and explores the twisted topics of digital mind-control, snuff porn, auto-eroticism and sexual mutilation, Weller's conviction stands out as an understatement. There's no place for logic in the Cronenberg universe.

As if further evidence was needed, the Toronto-bred filmmaker has returned to the screen with eXistenZ, a pseudo-dystopian portrayal of a voracious new virtual-reality game called eXistenZ, set in the not-too-distant future. Almost mocking in its construction, the device itself gives new meaning to the idea of plug-and-play game consoles, with Cronenberg's game pod attaching itself to the base of your spine, plugging directly into your neuro-psychological frame board. Once installed, the game lets you play out your innermost desires, never revealing its intent or purpose until the conclusion.

As with many of the director's past works, eXistenZ is a study of the merging of humans and their machines, the two locked in a symbiotic relationship that allows for an interconnection of mind and body and an evolution of human form and intellectual capacity. Whereas Cronenberg's Crash assimilated the construction of human bodies with their automotive counterparts, eXistenZ takes one step further in joining organic form with its technological master. The machines of eXistenZ closely resemble their human players. For Cronenberg, seperating the two has always been a mistake.

"That's the misunderstanding of technology," he says. "Technology is us. It's not something else. It's a pure expression of human creativity and inventiveness and it's what we do best as a species."

The kidney shaped game pod in eXistenZ comes compleat with organic nerve-endings and convulsing muscle-tissue. Its players can connect to it simultaneously but must play the game with caution, for the pod's literal interconnection with its human counterpart leaves it open to damage and destruction. This is the point, Cronenberg notes.

"The image of this living game pod module that plugs into your spine through an umbilical chord . . . that's me saying that technology is an extension of the human body." says the director. "We incorporate technology into our bodies. That's my understanding . . . and it might be one of the things that distinguishes my take on technology from the usual Hollywood version."

It is this type of anit-conventional philosophy that has been distinguishing Cronenberg's work from the beginning seperating it from any resemblance of Hollywood and mainstream forms.

From his groundbreaking cult classic Videodrome through to eXistenZ's regressive cinematic sensibilities, the Cronenberg collection is one that chooses to question the status quo rather than accept it. Hailed as pseudo-Freudian investigation and critizied as intellectualized shock-cinema, Cronenberg's films express an aggressive interest in challenging and provoking audience expectation. Cronenberg continues to indulge in an active pursuit of diminishing our acquired norms and believes cinema may be one of the purest ways of doing so.

"I know what people might expect if they're going to see a sci-fi movie about game-playing," he says. "I'm going to derail all of their expectations. If you're on those rails of people's expectations, you are going to go to the same place that they go, and I want to take you off the rails and take you into the woods where you haven't been before and see if we can reveal some things."

Cronenberg is defined by this ideal, consistently producing work that probes rather than preaches. His characters are never cut from the stock sterotypes that fill Hollywood screens and his camera always plays a vital role in his storytelling techniques. Cronenberg's approach to cinema mirrors the game-playing techniques in eXistenZ.

"The whole idea of emotion in movies is, 'We'll make you laugh, we'll make you cry,'" he explains. "So I'm saying wait a minute. What if the reactions you have to my movie are things you've never had before? Maybe you won't laugh or cry. Maybe you'll have some strange feeling you can't even put a name to it. Wouldn't that be a great thing to do?"

Cronenberg plays games
Coincidentally, eXistenZ is being released at a time when the genre seems to have exploded. Hollywood's fascination with digital The Matrix and 13th Floor, two films that tread the themes and philosophies explored in eXistenZ. But this is nothing new for the Canadian auteur. His cinematic inclinations have made him a trend setter, and his constant ability to move miles beyond the accepted borders of cinematic taste has made his work distinctly original.

"I'm not worried about what movies are coming out or what movies have been made that mightseem similer to mine," says Cronenberg. "It seems every time I come out with a movie, there are five other movies like it. You have to be arrogant enough to think you can do something else that nobody else is going to do."

Though understated on screen, Cronenberg's arrogance stands out amidst a wave of cinematic-schlock that fails to investigate or explore the deepest corners of our imagination. His ability to do so is evidence of the unique relationship he has developed with his audience over the years. Able to appeal to a wide market of visual thrill-seekers and literary intellectuals, Cronenberg feeds off his viewer's need to see the images they can only imagian exist.

"To make a movie is a collaboration between me and the audience," he says. "I know that everyone who comes to a theater to see a movie brings their sexuality, their intelletual life . . . their culture, everything. And that's going to be mixed with what you see on the screen in a unique combination, so it's a collaboration that's infinitely variable.

"My job is to make the movie as juicy and deep and interconnected and provocative as possible," he adds. "That's what I'm doing. I don't want to alienate anybody. I want them to be involved."

Inclusion is the key to the Cronenberg universe. Like the tagline from eXistenZ begs, "Play or be played." Follow Cronenberg into the woods, and the choice is yours.

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