The Way of All Flesh

The Way of All Flesh

Hark! The squeal of the two-headed amphibian. Mating season must have begun.


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.

From here on, things get a little strange. Before the game can begin, a young man jumps up from a front pew, cries “Death to the demon Allegra Geller!” and starts firing a gun, which seems to have been assembled out of bone and gristle. Chaos erupts. “Trust no one,” warns the focus group’s organizer with his dying breath, wheezing to an Antenna Research trainee named Ted Pikul (Jude Law). “Trust no one.” At this, Ted scoops up the wounded Allegra and drives her into the night, into a back country that’s crawling (so she claims) with designers for neural role-playing games.

So much for exposition. The rest of the film is a fragmentary chase, which runs through patently unconvincing locales populated by actors with hilariously improbable accents. Transitions from one scene to the next are abrupt, since they’re motivated by calamity: gunfire, explosion, heavy tongue-kissing. But the main cause for the jerkiness is the role-playing itself.

To test whether her beloved pod has been damaged, Allegra demands that Ted join her in a round of “eXistenZ.” By now the couple has holed up for the night in a ski chalet–the sort of place where movie characters ordinarily proceed from flirtatious bickering to romance. But in the Fields-Burroughs-Cronenberg tradition, arousal takes unusual routes. Allegra and Ted join physically, but only so they can morph into the three-dimensional game world of “eXistenZ”–and then, at the first opportunity, they morph further, into a game within the game.

Disorientation, both creepy and comedic, becomes the norm, as Allegra and Ted trip from one level of hallucination to another. It certainly makes for “a wild ride,” as Allegra promises at the start. What’s more, the ride comes with its own criticism–a great labor-saving convenience for people like me. “Not a well-drawn character, and his dialogue was just so-so,” Allegra says at one point about a figure she encounters within “eXistenZ.” A few moments later, she abruptly feels the need to glue her crotch to Ted’s. (I hasten to add–Cronenberg being Cronenberg–that I use “glue” metaphorically.) Passion, Allegra claims, has nothing to do with the frottage. The “game architecture” is urging her on, making her do whatever’s needed to advance the story–and in this case, she pants, the plot device is “a pathetically mechanical attempt to heighten the excitement of the next game sequence.”

While the sound of that line echoes in memory, I should pause to call Jennifer Jason Leigh indispensable. She’s also crafty, feral, insinuating, spontaneous and every other quality Allegra Geller might need in her multiple lives. Leigh is capable of underplaying a moment to the point of moving nothing but her eyelids, or overplaying to the point of mimicking a gargoyle. She’s the kind of performer who believes (in Martha Graham’s words) that center stage is wherever she happens to be; but she’s also so alert that she makes other actors look good, too. Jude Law, as Ted Pikul, has the unenviable assignment of impersonating a “total PR nerd” (as Allegra says)–a 21-year-old virgin who still combs his hair just as Mother did. With Leigh to play against, Law makes mere dewiness overflow into a lake of bafflement, exasperation and rising excitement.

Yes, we’ve circled back (as Cronenberg tends to do) to that rising excitement. Is it the only point of the exercise? Is that what eXistenZ is all about?

I will remind you that people have asked the same question of existence. Close your Burroughs, open your Schopenhauer, and you will find page after page on the subject. From a certain point of view, accessible through delirium, the concepts we call “nature” and “reality” are mere illusions; the flow of excitement, the only absolute. I’m not sure whether Cronenberg would speak in those terms. But like Fields and Burroughs before him, he portrays ordinary social relations as a laughable sham; biology as the sickening substratum, absurd and unavoidable; and fantasy as the sole vehicle of escape–a broken-down vehicle, with unwanted passengers popping clownlike through the cushions.

Did you notice, speaking of clowns, that Allegra is the ostensible author of the character and plot device she so coldly dismissed? Take time, on your wild ride, to question a few such anomalies as they whiz past. They won’t necessarily point the way toward any ground of existence–but they ought to help convince you that eXistenZ is the first North American release of 1999 that can make you tingle while you’re watching it, then think three days later while you replay it at home.

Terence Rattigan wrote The Winslow Boy three times–once as a proposal for a film, once as a play (when the film project was turned down) and finally as a complete screenplay (when the theatrical version scored a great hit). He did this work within a brief period; the play opened in London in 1946, and the film, directed by Anthony Asquith, was released in 1950. So it might be misleading to speak of the play’s having been opened up for the movies. Rattigan may have started with an open, cinematic plan and then closed it down for the stage.

I bore you with this observation only to point out the combination of logic and perversity in David Mamet’s new film of The Winslow Boy. If you compare his version with Asquith’s, you will see that Mamet, like Rattigan, has closed down an existing structure–which in this case was unnecessary.

Why would Mamet have eliminated so many of the settings that Asquith used, confining most of the action within the home of the Winslow family? The answer, I suppose, is that the concentration is emotional and thematic, as much as physical.

The story, as you may know, concerns a 13-year-old boy, Ronnie Winslow, who has been dismissed from England’s Naval College on the grounds that he stole a five-shilling postal order. Ronnie insists he did no such thing; his father, Arthur, a retired bank officer, believes him and presses for exoneration. Although Arthur succeeds in making his son’s case a public cause, he does so at the expense of his own health, his wife’s peace of mind, his family’s finances and his daughter Catherine’s marriage prospects. The only hope of making good on the sacrifices (including Catherine’s) lies with a famous barrister and Member of Parliament, Sir Robert Morton, who takes the matter into the House of Commons.

The Asquith version contains many speeches by Sir Robert and by Arthur Winslow on the principle behind the case. It’s not about a five-shilling postal order; it’s about the right to a fair trial. In Mamet’s version, all that stuff’s been thrown out, along with the extra locales. In effect, Ronnie has turned into a 13-year-old MacGuffin, useful only for setting off the real action, which is Catherine’s decision about which man to marry. To give her more of a choice, Mamet has introduced many long and meaningful glances between her and Sir Robert, right from the start.

In the roles of Sir Robert and Arthur, Jeremy Northam and Nigel Hawthorne more than live up to their predecessors, Robert Donat and Cedric Hardwicke. That’s saying a lot; but I almost prefer the new performances, which allow the characters a degree more of humor and self-knowledge. But, that said, I have to add that Mamet has thrown this party for Catherine–or rather for his wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, who plays the part in orthodox Mamet style. She speaks the lines clearly.

So much for Rattigan’s debates about logic versus emotion. Mamet’s The Winslow Boy may be an unembarrassed exercise in sentiment, a Valentine’s Day card to his wife; and yet Catherine’s now as much of a stick as Sir Robert.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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