Hark! The squeal of the two-headed amphibian. Mating season must have begun. Now women loll in motels, dreamily fondling umbilical cords, while men pay midnight visits to gas stations, to have their spines punctured. Into the raw apertures they poke opalescent tissue–synthetic, amphibian-born stuff, capable of causing infection, swelling, short circuit or rapturous fugue. Heavy tongue-kissing follows.
Which is to say that a new David Cronenberg film has materialized, and critics offering the barest description must sound like W.C. Fields. Contemplating eXistenZ, I suddenly recall that Fields was a great inspiration to William S. Burroughs, who in turn spurred Cronenberg to make Naked Lunch. Perhaps there’s a lineage to be traced. It might even be a tradition: grandiloquence wed to disgust for the flesh.
Delirium presides over the union, assisted by gin, heroin or one of the more advanced neuromechanical agents. I suddenly understand that film screenings are advanced neuromechanical agents. I see that Fields’s self-reflexive masterpiece, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, may be a model for Cronenberg’s eXistenZ.
Let us begin at the beginning. Never Give a Sucker an Even Break opens on a Los Angeles street, where Fields stands before a billboard advertising himself in The Bank Dick. Lonely despite his fame, Fields cannot entice even the idlest passerby to join him in a cup of mocha java, or attend to his new screenplay. No one is interested–including Franklin Pangborn, the movie producer who subsequently is shown in full fluster in his office, trying to get Fields to stop reading aloud the script for Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. Yet the author persists. Despite Pangborn’s protests, Fields narrates his story to us, the audience:
The screen fills with a highly fragmentary series of adventures, set in highly unconvincing locales. Intrigues and rivalries abound, to no intelligible purpose. Woo is pitched, with no likelihood of action. Characters and situations seep across the barrier between script and life, but with questionable effect, since both exist within a movie.
The above paragraph may also serve to summarize eXistenZ. For “script,” simply substitute “virtual reality role-playing game.” In place of “W.C. Fields,” imagine “Allegra Geller,” a game designer portrayed by Jennifer Jason Leigh.
As eXistenZ begins, a market research group is preparing to test Allegra’s new game, “eXistenZ by Antenna Research.” (You can all but see the trademark symbol floating in the air, each time the chief researcher unfurls the name.) The atmosphere feels disturbingly cultlike, even before the trial run begins–perhaps because the setting is a deconsecrated church, perhaps because the marketing people combine forced cheer with tight control. Volunteers for focus groups typically undergo something like indoctrination; but in this case, the brainwashing turns out to be direct.
Allegra’s software resides in a fleshlike, pulsating “pod,” whose control buttons look like nipples. She downloads her game from pod to players (or “slaves”) through cables made in the form of umbilical cords, which plug directly into the base of the spine. At a touch of the switch, the players all slump forward, as if hypnotized.