David Cronenberg's Meaning of Life

The player: David Cronenberg on the set of eXistenZ

YOU'VE HEARD OF Method acting? A couple of weeks ago, this critic got a taste of Method journalism when, unwittingly overpreparing for an imminent chat with the director of Crash, I slammed my Jeep into a Geo Metro. "Oh, no. Were you hurt?" asks David Cronenberg on the phone from Toronto (I wasn't), evincing further proof that this heady auteur of body horror hardly lacks for human kindness. Indeed, as Crash ended almost tenderly with its pair of married strangers finally getting to know one another (albeit at the site of yet another bloody wreck), Cronenberg's new eXistenZ likewise reaches for close contact, this time casting the viewer as the third member of a ménage à trois that includes the movie's game-designing protagonist (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and the filmmaker himself.

"It is a collaboration with the audience," says Cronenberg of the unusually interactive eXistenZ, an oozing slab of existential sci-fi in which players of the movie's game are plugged by "UmbyCord" into a squishy, human organ-style joystick "pod" that allows them to fantasize and free-associate. "I don't have this Hitchcockian idea in my head of being a puppeteer who manipulates the reactions of the audience, making them jump and twitch whenever I want. The viewer, by his very nature, has to bring his whole life to the movie--his sexual history, his literary history, his film literacy or his lack of it. There's no way that I can anticipate all the collaborations that will happen. But it is a more active state that I'm seeking for the viewer, rather than the more typical, catatonic one."

In accordance with this challenging ethos, Cronenberg's films have never been easy to finance or distribute: His impeccably morbid trilogy of The Brood (1979), Scanners (1980), and Videodrome (1983), for example, was made possible only through a brief window of tax-shelter incentives in his native Canada, and a healthy climate for transcendent exploitation in the States. eXistenZ's $20 million assemblage of fleshy signifiers was funded by Miramax's "genre division," Dimension Films, whose recent revitalization of the medium-budget horror movie could bode well for a visceral iconoclast like Cronenberg. Small wonder eXistenZ's director views the industry as a game. ("If you want to have a budget of this size," he says, "then it helps to be making a genre picture so that there's a marketing hook.")

Still, eXistenZ skews closer to film theory than market analysis. "With this one," says Cronenberg, "I'm really observing myself making the movie and commenting on it as it unspools." Although the filmmaker is reluctant to acknowledge that Leigh's radical-artist-under-siege might personify his post-Crash creative paranoia, it's hard not to hear Cronenberg describing himself in terms of his latest alter ego and her relation to Salman Rushdie. "I don't think Allegra [Leigh] is thinking of herself as being transgressive--any more than Rushdie was when he wrote Satanic Verses. I'm sure that Rushdie did think he was pushing the boundaries of literary creation, because he was doing something that was very intricate and difficult and strange and maybe unprecedented in terms of narrative structure. But you don't normally think you're going to be condemned to death for it."

So if the revolutionary artist needn't choose to take up arms, how to explain those gun-toting surrealist guerrillas near the end of eXistenZ? "I don't think of the characters as being confrontational. They're searching, searching for..." Cronenberg pauses briefly, searching a bit himself. "Well," he concludes, "let's just say the movie is called eXistenZ for a reason."


eXistenZ is playing at Lagoon Cinema and Pavilion Place.

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