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Nashville Scene Welcome to the New Flesh

David Cronenberg blurs reality and illusion in the devious "eXistenZ"

By Jim Ridley

MAY 24, 1999: 

Dir.: David Cronenberg, R, 97 min.

It's no longer enough for action movies to be amusement. Now they have to be amusement parks as well. They're blurbed as "thrill rides" and "roller coasters," and the more they follow the basic pattern of your average Nintendo game, the more highly they're touted. It was considered a breakthrough a few years back when a studio tested "interactive" movies, which gave the illusion of choice by letting audiences pick from different (fixed) outcomes.

Now, what would really be interactive would be for someone to say screw the movie and take a pickax to the screen--if not to the moviemakers themselves. And if you push audiences far enough, removing just enough of their sense of the familiar, they just might do it: All it takes is crossing the line from safe entertainment into uncontrollable chaos.

This distinction has haunted the work of director David Cronenberg for the last 20 years. In his latest film, the sense-deranging thriller eXistenZ, the potential for chaos exists at every turn--as befits a vision in which reality is manufactured, flesh fuses with metal, and organic guns shoot human teeth. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Allegra Geller, the world's hottest game designer, who assembles an audience to preview her mind-blowing new VR creation "eXistenZ." At the test run, however, she learns all too vividly that she's under a death sentence from "realists," terrorists who see virtual reality as life-threatening--and will therefore kill to stop it. Soon Allegra is on the run through a surreal underworld, followed by a wide-eyed PR flack (Jude Law) who has never played a video game but will have to play hers. Naturally, there's a catch. Playing eXistenZ requires humans to plug the game directly into their spines, through an "UmbyCord" into an anus-like "bioport."

That's a lot to go through for cheap thrills, and lots of folks likely feel the same way about Cronenberg's gooey, horrific oeuvre. With its spurting goo, transgressive sex, futuristic paradoxes, and death matches of mind and flesh, eXistenZ is a Cronenberg career summation organized along the theme of interaction--not just between player and game, but between viewer and art. Once inside eXistenZ, Allegra and company pause to note the triteness of their dialogue, the inadequacy of their characters. You get the feeling the movie's eyeing you for a reaction.

Consequently, the movie plays tricks on what audiences want and expect from pop entertainment, be it a video game or a sci-fi thriller. Want blood? Cronenberg provides the requisite gory violence, only in such an arbitrary way it's exposed as shameless yahoo-pandering. Want a rational narrative? Cronenberg makes leaps of logic, character, and setting so baffling that they don't become clear until the end. Even then, the final outcome is so devious you'll sit poking yourself to make sure you won't disappear with the click of the projector. Only the dullest of brains could fail to interact with this gale-force mindfuck.

Still, Cronenberg has frequently contended with the dullest of brains--most recently, the reviewers who took the sex-as-collision simile of Crash as literal pornography. The writer-director has said the idea for eXistenZ came from the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, whose fiction provoked a potentially lethal real-world backlash. But the movie's "realists" could stand for all the pundits who point to scary movies and Sega whenever inexplicable real-life violence erupts. Even our president apparently sees no contradiction in chastising Hollywood mayhem, even as he OKs bombing the hell out of the Balkans. Subversive and sneakily funny, eXistenZ operates on just such levels of irony.

Under fire

The trailer for Black Mask promised the antidote to typical summer action fare: a master of martial arts whirling, twirling, tightroping, and suspending himself in midair. And having seen what Hong Kong's Jet Li could do during his few stellar moments in the miserable Lethal Weapon 4, I couldn't wait to see him tear up an entire film.

What the trailer didn't tell me was that submachine guns are at least as much the star of Black Mask as Jet Li's flying fists and feet. The kung fu scenes, spectacular as they are, huddle near the end of the film. And by that time, hundreds of unknown villains and cops have been chopped to bits by bullets. The graphic gore deadened my senses so effectively that my appreciation for Li's legendary quickness and innovative defensive technique could only be muted and secondary.

Extreme gun violence, stuff blowing up, rebar impalings--I'm not against them in principle. A redubbed version of the 1996 Hong Kong release Hak hap, Black Mask clearly wants to justify its massacres with the John Woo defense: that operatic gunplay and gushing blood express the outsized psychological conflicts of the characters. To that end, writers Teddy Chan and Anna Hui give Jet Li's character Simon an origin in a battalion of biologically enhanced supersoldiers, the 701s. Simon escapes and reinvents himself as a mild-mannered librarian, but when he finds that his old bunkmates are involved in a plot to murder Hong Kong drug dealers and triad members, he knows that the police can never defeat them alone. He takes on a secret identity with a cap and mask and goes after the 701s' cultic leader.

The conflict that's supposed to motivate all the bloodshed is Simon's inner struggle between protecting his cop friend Rock and his vow of pacifism. But unlike John Woo's films, in which the characters' split personalities bear the dramatic weight of classic archetypes like Jekyll and Hyde, Black Mask barely touches on Simon's motivation before getting down to work on killing extras. It's nothing more than an alibi for the filmmakers, should they be accused of presenting violence without a story context. In fact, the tone of the film as a whole is light entertainment, fun action. All the more disturbing, then, that director Daniel Lee gives spurting exit wounds the fetishistic slow-motion treatment.

Somewhere behind the spray of ammunition is an enjoyable movie. Li is a handsome, charismatic actor, and his martial arts scenes are often revelatory. The steady beats of Bruce Lee and the fluid syncopation of Jackie Chan give way to a staccato flurry, punctuated by tense pauses in which Li sizes up his competitor. Director Daniel Lee utilizes the same non-sequitur, music-video style that Tsui Hark (who produced Black Mask) employed with such glorious confusion in last year's Knock Off. Here it pays off with computer-simulated camera "moves" and "edits" that allow us to make lightning connections between an action and its consequences. Even the obligatory ditzy love interest--one of Simon's library coworkers--is memorably cute and sharp-witted. At one point, noting that his costume looks like the one Cato wore in The Green Hornet, she accuses Simon of perpetuating an Asian stereotype.

But I can't relax and enjoy what's good about Black Mask because so many anonymous flunkies get skragged in such intimate detail. The tragic events of Littleton, Colo., have sensitized most of us to gratuitous violence, especially when it involves high-powered guns that make mass murder effortless. But with the blithe assurance that no one could mistake this light entertainment for reality, moviemakers can release action films like Black Mask without hearing a whimper of protest. Populist critics fall in line lest they be accused of not understanding the difference between fantasy and reality. Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post, in a positive review, describes the plot as "Handsome guy fights hundreds of punk-looking gangsters and commandos...utilizing kung fu moves unseen on earth and all the cool automatic weapons ever conceived."

Am I the only person who would make a distinction between the appeal of "kung fu moves unseen on earth" and "cool automatic weapons"? And to be honest, I don't always make that distinction; with The Matrix, I chose to ignore the movie's idolization of guns because I loved its premise, payoff, and style. Maybe all of us film lovers who are disturbed by Littleton should rethink our positions. Maybe we should stop defending what's indefensible.

--Donna Bowman

Summer breeze

No matter who is the true author of the works of William Shakespeare, it's known that he borrowed plots and ideas liberally--from legends, history, and other plays. That may explain why modern interpreters of the Bard feel no compunction to stay true to his texts. We've had Shakespeare set during World War I, on the beaches of Miami, and in outer space. Michael Hoffman's adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream is set in Italy in 1890, for no apparent reason except that it allows the director to dress his actresses in high-neck gowns and to have them zip around on bicycles.

That's about the only change that comes off as completely arbitrary, though. The rest of his Midsummer Night's Dream is purposefully and effectively streamlined; it's funny, wistful, and comprehensible. It helps that the story is already divided neatly into three: The main plot concerns a crisscrossed pair of couples--Helena (Calista Flockhart), who loves Demetrius (Christian Bale), who loves Hermia (Anna Friel), who loves Lysander (Dominic West). The subplot follows a troupe of actors, particularly leading man Bottom (Kevin Kline), as they prepare a play to celebrate the wedding of Theseus (David Strathairn) and Hippolyta (Sophie Marceau). The superplot that helps tie everything together is the feud between the King and Queen of the Fairies--Oberon (Rupert Everett) and Titania (Michelle Pfeiffer)--who meddle in the affairs of the mortals who get in their way, with the help of the mischievous Puck (Stanley Tucci).

Hoffman has drafted some heavy hitters to bring off this production, and most acquit themselves nicely. Yes, Bale is a little shrill, and Pfeiffer has trouble with the huffier passages, and Friel and West are pretty forgettable. But Flockhart brings a lot of comic misery to Helena, and Everett and Tucci make charming schemers. The heart of the film, though, is Kevin Kline. Hoffman expands the role of Bottom into some subtle, wordless scenes, which show the actor at home with his disapproving wife. Bottom was always central to the plot, but now his adventure takes on a bittersweet edge, as Kline shows his need to be the center of attention conflicting with his need for dignity.

Michael Hoffman has made several underrated films in the past, including the funny Soapdish, the grandiose Restoration, and the sweet One Fine Day. Of course, "underrated" is often a euphemism for "unsuccessful," and each of those films has weaknesses that almost outstrip their virtues. There are weaknesses in A Midsummer Night's Dream as well, from the stagy, often amateurish sets to the pointless era switch. What's more, each Shakespeare adapter has to ask himself, "What am I trying to bring to this familiar story?" and Hoffman doesn't seem to have a compelling answer, beyond his desire to capture the tale's whimsical spirit.

But he does make some good choices, particularly downplaying the tedious lovers' roundelay at the center of the play to get to the hilarious nuptial performance of Pyramus and Thisbe. Purists may say that by rushing to the laughs, Hoffman has turned the play into a trifle. To them, I say that it was always intended to be a trifle. Hoffman has merely made it a brisk and watchable one.

--Noel Murray

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