DAVID CRONENBERG IS ONE OF THE BEST AND most interesting film directors alive today. Really. His films are not just about the story or the characters, they're about ideas. In that regard, they can best be compared to science fiction novels: pulpy, lowbrow stories of sex, disease, and mutants based on highbrow, philosophical ideas of identity, reality, and evolution. Also, like science fiction or horror novels, they're often dismissed by the mainstream as generic entertainment, despite the intelligence bubbling underneath. That's his blessing and his curse.

Unlike the genre-bending Crash and Naked Lunch, Cronenberg's latest, eXistenZ, fits squarely into the realm of science fiction. With The Matrix raking it in at the multiplexes and the new Star Wars on the horizon, sci-fi is sizzling right now. Then again, this is Cronenberg science fiction: instead of glossy special effects and half-formed ideas about the nature of reality, we get fully formed ideas and (appropriately) grungy special effects.

At the heart of the film is a virtual reality game called eXistenZ, a game that plugs right into your nervous system (thanks to an umbilical-looking UmbyCord that connects to your spine through a "bioport"), creating the whole game world inside your head. It's as though you become a character in a movie of someone else's making. The game was created by reclusive designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and as eXistenZ opens, a test of the game system is interrupted by an assassination attempt, forcing Geller to go on the run with gaming novice Ted Pikul (Jude Law). Together they must try to figure out whether she's the victim of corporate warfare, or an internal security breach, or an assassination attempt by the anti-virtual reality "Realists." If the motivations for the shooting are unclear (like in life), it's possible that it's all just a dream (like in the movies).

In person, David Cronenberg is pleasant, funny, and interesting. And he's as good at talking about the ideas behind the movies as about the movies themselves. Fellow critic Bruce Reid and I confronted him with a page full of questions in no particular order. Cronenberg, with graying hair and brand-new glasses, sat with his back to the wall and braced himself for the onslaught. Seeing that he was relatively composed (compared to his films, anyway), we skipped our first question ("What the fuck is wrong with you?") and took a softer tack.

THE IDENTITY GAME

We began with a discussion of the game within the film, wondering about the fluidity of the rules. He quotes the movie: "I think she says, 'You have to play the game in order to know why you're playing the game.' Of course, I'm thinking, '...because that's how I feel about my movies.' I mean, I have to make the movie in order to know why I made the movie. I don't think we ever quite get to the end of the game. Or do we? Is the game really there to reveal to you that everything is a game? Or that all reality is virtual reality, which is basically what I think."

The movie works on several different levels simultaneously, with people creating their own personas in games within games. He continues, "What the game, and the movie, is saying is that there is no absolute reality, there is no absolute identity for people. It's a constant process of creation and reinvention and re-creation. When you wake up in the morning, the first thing you do before you brush your teeth, if you brush your teeth, is to reinvent reality. You have to reinvent your identity, to remember who you are, who you're supposed to be, what your obligations are, where you came from, what your culture is, and the context that you're in. It takes a lot of will. It takes a lot of energy to do that, to maintain an identity and reality."

All these ideas, along with game references, feed the look and feel of eXistenZ. Cronenberg says, "It's a tone that I'm sure you'll find in some of my other movies. It's a place I like to be. It amuses me, and it's provocative, and it's suggestive of a lot of metaphorical concoctions, which I like to do. I mean, just in the design of the game pod, I wanted to make it juicy--not only physically juicy, but juicy in a way that it might have many resonances on many levels of many things. I mean, it's sexual, it's organic, it's a lot of different things. So with the whole movie's tone, I want that in there as well."

THE EVOLUTION OF SEX

Ah, now we get to the lifeblood of Cronenberg's oeuvre, the transformative power of sex, which is inextricably linked to mutation. "It is my understanding that the first fact of human existence is the body," he explains. "The further away from our own bodies we get, the less real everything is. So all of my imagery is very body-oriented, and as soon as you mess around with the body, or the instant you decide you're going to create a new orifice into the body, it's going to have sexual connotations. That's how our minds work. Those are the metaphors that we deal with. So I don't resist it, I go with it. In a weird way this movie is drenched with sex, even though there's no sex in it. Both things are true.

"I do think that sex is in a very strange place right now. We are at an epoch-making moment in human history, even though nobody seems to be noticing it as such. For the first time we do not need sex to propagate the human race. You don't need sex to make babies anymore, and this has never happened before. I think what that does is clarify and even accentuate the fact that we are reinventing sex. I mean, we could literally put a moratorium on sex for 100 years and we still would not extinguish the human race."

It's one thing to recognize this world-wide cultural shift, but another to take it to its (logical?) extreme--but that's exactly what Cronenberg does, saying, "Why not invent new sexual organs? We could do it. In a way it's happening with all the penile extensions, vaginal surgery, and god knows what else. We're messing around with it anyway, so why not go further and have another new orifice? Women can have penises and men can have vaginas, or the equivalent. And if we don't want the baggage of past sexual history, we can call them something else--we can call them a bioport. So the game playing [in the movie] is sex... sort of. It's a new sex which doesn't necessarily involve any of the old mechanisms of sex because they're not needed anymore. I'm playing with all of that as well, in the imagery that's in the film." The imagery, of course, includes licking, poking, and in other ways exploring these bioports.

A MOVIE ABOUT MOVIES

When eXistenZ's characters Allegra Geller and Ted Pikul are on the run, Geller becomes concerned that the one and only game pod for her game may be damaged. The game cost $38 million before marketing (about the same as a Hollywood movie, eh?). To see if the pod is damaged, she needs to play the game with somebody "friendly," so she chooses Ted. Once inside the game within the film, these two characters play versions of themselves in a world where supporting characters are underwritten and accents are extra broad. Cronenberg is obviously having fun with the idea of putting "people" into a genre film to see how they would react. He's exploring the limitations inherent in most movies today.

"When Jennifer [as Allegra] says, 'People are programmed to accept so little, but the possibilities are so great,' I'm talking about movies, for sure, and Hollywood being the programmers," says Cronenberg. "Are the minor characters really under-written, compared with most movies where you get minor characters like that? I think, actually, they're not. I'm forcing the audience to be very self-conscious about the process of the movie that they're just watching. I'm not sure that if this was a straight movie with these characters, they would think twice about it."

Of course, his commentary about movies and movie-making is not limited to the performances within, or the structure of the film--it's also in the visual style. As they escape from the assassination attempt, in a car, the scene is shot using rear-screen projection instead of on location, which probably would have been just as easy. The effect is stunning. Cronenberg says, "For not-so-movie-literate audiences, or for young audiences that haven't seen rear-screen projection, they know something's weird, but they don't know what. They don't necessarily relate it to old Humphrey Bogart movies the way other people might."

He continues, "It would be interesting for anyone to see the movie again, because everything changes when you see it again. The details of Jennifer's performance--I mean, she really was acting on five levels at once--you're going to see a whole different performance when you see that again." As a matter of fact, Jennifer Jason Leigh is terrific in this movie. It seems she hasn't smiled on screen in forever, and here she becomes warm and sexy, even glamorous.

THE FUTURE IS DIGITAL

Though David Cronenberg is famous for having physical effects in his films, from slime-covered puppets to exploding heads, he is not mired in the old-fashioned styles of filmmaking. In fact, he's been keeping up with the advances in technology, from the advent of digital sound recording to digital editing (which he first used on Crash). The only thing he misses is the smell of film; during the editing he'll occasionally bring in a can of film and open it up. Otherwise, he loves the new technology.

Everything nowadays has become digital, with the exception of the final product--and even that is starting to change. "We're all aware that we're in a transitional medium right now," he says, "and the transition is to digital. My next movie I might be shooting direct to hard drive. I'm not interested in being the first, because I don't care about that. I'd rather do it when it's mature and stable. George Lucas is on a different mind-set and all of that, but in fact, we all know it's going to happen. There's no question about it."

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