Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Signs of the times

Since the levels of simulation and reality in eXistenZ are pretty difficult to parse, it seems appropriate to abandon the usual mode of explicatory summary and simply re-present a number of the thematic “levels” on which I saw the movie operate, elaborating on each one even if I cannot put them into a hierarchy. These might be called “signs of the times,” the phrase by which Allegra named the mutant amphibian that proved to have been designed for the production of the simulation: wonders ultimately comprehensible by the logic of the narrative.

The nightmare of production. Here I’m thinking of what the project manager of sorts calls “the strong and deliberate anti-game theme” near the end, which guides the movement of the plot throughout. The play known up front as such (by which I mean to exclude the initial scene of “plugging in,” thwarted by the assassin, that we later learn to have been a simulation as well) begins with an act of consumption (the purchase of a new game system) that swiftly uncovers the nightmare of production (specifically, these systems’ manufacture). Cronenberg underscores the fantasy—that consumption might reveal something, however discomfiting, about production; some call this "the Kunkel fruit," after its most recent author—by redoubling it, insofar as it occurs within an interior simulation run on the purchased system itself. As it happens, that simulation occurs through a literal act of consumption, since the simulated game system must actually be absorbed within the body to function. And while the revelation of the (internally simulated) mode of production of the game system draws upon modern horrors of genetic modification and organ harvesting, it situates them in an oddly antique, even Californian setting: an airy and dusty wooden warehouse with a peculiarly large and unacculturated Asian population (more on whom shortly), as if the secret of late capitalist fantasy were its continuity with late American colonialism. Despite his disgust, Ted Pikul (Jude Law)—a “PR geek,” the model of a white-collar laborer and someone advanced modern enough into modernity to have developed a neurotic phobia of biological modification—finds himself laboring automatically, as an automaton. For all the truth of corporate malfeseance and biological exploitation may horrify us, it also comes to us consumers and producers quite naturally.

The masturbating, alienating woman. It’s difficult for me to elaborate on a projection of sexuality onto the scenes of “play,” in part because it’s difficult for me to interpret them in any other way. One distinction I could draw, however, would note the total absence of sexual tension between Ted and Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) until they enter a level of simulation consciously understood as such—specifically, in the back-room of the video game store, where they seem to come onto each other despite themselves. Before then Allegra is alienatingly aloof, while Ted’s neurotically so. His reserve appears to be due to his “phobia about getting penetrated—surgically, I mean,” which needs little explanation (except to maintain that Ted’s repression reads more as square than closeted, to me, anyway). I can risk the appearance of sexist essentialism in saying that Ted’s too meek to introduce any element of sexuality into his relationship with Allegra—which we learn, at the end, is an ongoing real one, making the gradual reintroduction of interest appear more like therapy than anything else—because it’s explicitly a failure to, well, give her what she wants. Allegra insists at least twice on her desire to “play eXistenZ with someone friendly” because it takes that many for Ted to overcome his phobia; before then, she is shown retreating into the game in a scene that (given Cronenberg’s perversely nipply controllers) strikingly resembles an act of masturbation. (In confirmation of this reading, I can note that Allegra is introduced as someone who “spends all her time alone in her room designing games. I think she’d like it best if she never had to show them to anybody.”) This scene alienates Ted and aggravates his phobia, unsurprisingly; the penetration of the self through masturbatory fantasy both cuts to the heart of his problem and cuts away at the livelihood of their decayed relationship.

Multiculturalism as theater of the absurd. To finish without concluding, I’ll throw up my hands in bewilderment at the function accents serve in the movie. The characters themselves are bewildered, from Ted initially to the players/actors themselves at the very end. At a loss to closely read here, I’ll wildly speculate that the interior fiction stages multiculturalism as a kind of nonconsensual element within the consensual hallucination of late capitalism (or something). Imposed upon actors earnestly attempting to acquire a starring role, these “bad” accents at once throw the entire simulation into an uncanny valley and the starring white couple in flattering relief; whatever necessitates them is the same force that ineluctably carries the recognition of difference into the stereotype. Once explicitly addressed by the frustrated players/actors, they even come to seem like a technique for the subordination of the majority necessary to the elevation of the individual promised by capitalism and narrative fiction alike.


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