Thursday, May 5, 2011

David Cronenberg: eXistenZ (1999); Naked Lunch (1991)

Maybe my memory is faulty, or perhaps I was in a bit of a Cronenberg phase without even realizing it, but I recall really liking eXistenZ when it came out in 1999.  As I recall it did not have much of a release in Madison, and I finally caught up with it at a campus screening.  Looking over reviews from the time and more recent ones, it seems like many people considered it an interesting misfire.  And perhaps one reason it has fallen from pop culture consciousness is that another film came out in 1999 that became the dominant frame of reference for virtual reality in science fiction: The Matrix.  But I recall liking its intelligence mixed with a general gooeyness that was genuinely unsettling.  No one does intellectual and unsettling gooeyness quite like Cronenberg.  Many people might imagine wanting to jack into the Matrix; I doubt anyone wants to use eXistenZ's game pods after watching the film.

Of course the film it reminded me the most of was his Naked Lunch, which also happens to be streaming on Netflix Watch Instantly.  They would make an interesting double feature.  Both deal with alternate realities which may be induced by drugs or technology (or both), or they may be symptoms of psychosis. Both are also both interesting in how they contrast with typical representations of drugs and technology.  There's always a sense of dread connected to what is supposed to be a kind of liberation through the mind alterations that both offer.  And both films (in fact, most of Cronenberg's films) emphasize the tactile qualities of the body, so as much as the mind may want to escape the body, there's no running away from the goo.

eXistenZ (David Cronenberg, Canada, 1999, 97 minutes)
Netflix: Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the world's leading designer of virtual reality games, is testing a new prototype when an assassin wielding a daunting organic weapon attacks her. She survives the assault with help from her marketing assistant turned bodyguard (Jude Law). But she'll need to "portal" into her own game to get to the bottom of the intrigue. David Cronenberg directs this mind-bending action-adventure. Netflix link.

Naked Lunch (David Cronenberg, USA/Canada, 1991, 115 minutes)
Netflix: Director David Cronenberg brings William S. Burroughs' hallucinatory, "unfilmable" novel to the screen. Part-time exterminator and full-time drug addict Bill Lee (Peter Weller) plunges into the nightmarish netherworld of the Interzone, pursuing a mysterious project that leads him to confront sinister cabals and giant talking bugs.  Netflix link.

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