You can never read too much into it

David Cronenberg on the dislocating experience of watching "Existenz," modernist moviemaking and technology as an extension of the human body.


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Alan E. Rapp
April 29, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Before 1996's "Crash,"
most of David Cronenberg's 17 films existed on the edge of
mainstream cinema, never quite visible enough to ignite
controversy. Nominally operating in the horror or science
fiction genres, they subversively explored the territories
where technology, biology and paranoia intersect. "Crash"
changed all that. His NC-17 adaptation of the 1973 J.G.
Ballard novel debuted at the Cannes Film Festival and
provoked sharply divided (and very public) opinions about
the film's subject matter: people who were sexually excited
by car crashes. Cronenberg also found a reactionary opponent
in Ted Turner -- owner of the film's distributor, Fine Line
-- who held up the film's release for months.

With his new film, "Existenz,"
Cronenberg centers on a reclusive but highly influential
video game designer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who is trying to
run from a $5 million bounty placed on her head by a
pseudo-fundamentalist organization called the "Realist
Underground." In this ambiguous, near-future environment,
she enlists a greenhorn security guard (Jude Law) to delve
into her ultra-advanced virtual reality game and uncover the
plot against her.

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"Existenz" is characteristic of Cronenberg's "mature" period
-- replete with intellectually rigorous and witty
interrogations of consensus reality, a bustling cast (old
hands such as Ian Holm and Willem Dafoe meet Canadian
up-and-comers Sarah Polley and Don McKellar), and
beautifully chilly cinematography -- and at the same time
indulgent of his more visceral, gooey predilections. As in
most of Cronenberg's work, the psycho
and the somatic conflate by film's end and a hybrid reality
emerges.

Salon Arts & Entertainment met with the always urbane
Cronenberg at the Prescott Hotel in San Francisco.

Maybe I was reading too much into it, but --

You can never read too much into it.

-- could Ted Turner be part of the Realist Underground
from "Existenz"?

He definitely is. I mean, you're reading too much into it in
that I wrote "Existenz" before I made "Crash". So you have
to realize that. And it didn't change to accommodate him --
I guess I could have invented Ted. You could anticipate
someone like Ted, even if you didn't experience Ted. It's
tempting to make it be a reaction in some ways to "Crash"
but it isn't really.

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A few years ago you conducted an interview with Salman
Rushdie where you of course discussed his experience with
the fatwa, but also the idea of a video game being
elevated to the level of an art form. How did those ideas
develop as you worked on the screenplay for "Existenz"?

Basically what happened was that it was first about the
fatwa and then about the game. I suppose I sowed the
seeds of the destruction of the other movie -- the one that
was just about the fatwa. The structure is still
there; the underpinnings are still there. We still have an
artist on the run for her life because she has a hit order
placed on her by fanatics or opposition of some kind.

But once I decided to make her a game designer rather than a
movie-maker or a writer, then it became a science fiction
movie. When I started to write the script I wanted to play
the game. [At first] I thought we wouldn't ever play the
game in the movie. I thought it would be very elegant, and
they'd talk about the game, you'd see them playing the game,
people would talk about why the fanatics would want to kill
them because of the game, but you would never see it.

But then as soon as I was writing, I wanted desperately to
play the game. I wanted to know what it was, how it worked,
what technology and hardware there was for it. I figured
that the implications of it would be significant as well,
for the sort of themes I was developing. And as soon as I
did that the whole focus of the piece shifted away from the
fatwa. Maybe it's for the best, but there is that
other movie to be made.

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And then you had to find the interface for the game and
the players -- humans have to adapt part of the game
hardware, and the game has to become organic.

That became a question of my understanding of what
technology is, and my use of special effects as imagery and
as metaphor. I think it probably came out of -- and this is
just me being able to now articulate what I was originally
only intuitive about, I'm really being a sort of a critic of
my own movie -- but I think it had to do with my
understanding of technology as an extension of the human
body. I found a way to put that metaphor on screen in a
literal way, which pleases me because I like to find imagery
that has metaphorical value. That's probably why I'm drawn
to inventing new things. New creatures, new technologies and
stuff. Because then it's imagery that has no connections with
anything else for people, except my movie. So then you can
kind of control the meaning of those images more finely.

Regarding special effects, there's a minor slew of VR
movies coming out now -- "The
Matrix"
and "The Thirteenth Floor" -- but what is
notable about "Existenz" is that it's not really an effects
movie in the traditional sense. There are mutant amphibians
and a fleshy game controller, but there's a conspicuous
absence of digital imagery. Was that a deliberate
choice?

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Well it was on one level -- that stuff dates very quickly.
My effects guys certainly offered the same sort of Gap
commercial-type technology, where everything is frozen in
midair. But freezing things in space and time doesn't have a
place in this movie. So I really sidestepped all that and
invented my own technology, my own look.

Creatively, none of that [effects technology] interested me,
so with "Existenz" I'm going after the essence of things
that do. I wasn't naive when I decided that I wouldn't have
it in any "Blade Runner" city of the future, because that's
what everybody expects. I have no computers, and I have no
computer screens in the movie. I have no screens at all -- I
don't even have TV sets in the movie.

I did have that disconnect, I felt while watching the
movie that something was flying under the radar.

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There are also no sneakers, no running shoes in the movie.
And there's also no jewelry or patterns on the clothing --
no plaids. And no mirrors. It's my attempt to dislocate the
audience without being really obvious about it, and it's
also an attempt to not have to deal with stuff that doesn't
interest me. I'm not really interested, for "Existenz"
anyway, in creating details of a future world and so on. To
me that's just a waste of resources and energy. And I insist
on being very tightly bound to what is interesting to me and
focus very intensely on that. It's kind of a simplification
-- perhaps that's some kind of a modernist, as opposed to a
post-modernist, approach to movie-making.

When it came to writing the game into the script, did you
do research by spending a lot of time with game programmers,
or trying out the newest VR hookups?

No, no -- I didn't have to really because I was already
really interested in that stuff. I played "Myst" and I
played "Gadget," which is a Japanese game that people
thought would be huge here. I played "Mech Warriors II" or
something. But mostly it's my son who plays the games and I
look over his shoulder and we discuss it. I'm curious: I
look up stuff on the Internet about what games are being
developed and how, and how many polygons closer to reality
we're getting and all that stuff.

You're considered an ur-cyberpunk filmmaker --

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Yes, I've read that.

Do you feel constrained by genre expectations?

I know that "Videodrome" is mentioned in "Virtual Light," William
Gibson's
novel. And I know that he and other people have
said that my movies are inspirations to them.

There are a lot of plot parallels between "Existenz" and
"Videodrome." Aside from the medium itself -- VR games as
opposed to television -- what distinguishes these movies on
a philosophical level?

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I can't even discuss "Videodrome"; I haven't seen it in 15
years. I'm serious; I'm not being evasive. Of course I
remember it, but it isn't right up front, and it wasn't in
my mind when I was writing this, even though there are
obvious connections. But as I say, that stripping away of
things includes not worrying about movies you have made
yourself, or what people might think, or how they connect
them or [do] not connect them. It wasn't in my mind at all making
this movie. My opinion of how this one would connect to that
one is probably -- definitely -- not more valid than yours
would be. And since I haven't seen that other movie for a
while, it's probably less valid. Unless you haven't seen it
for 15 years either.


Alan E. Rapp

MORE FROM Alan E. Rapp

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