eXistenZ

Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh in eXistenZ

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

14 June

 

Charles Babbage’s difference engine, 1822

On this day in 1822, Charles Babbage presented a paper to the British Royal Astronomical Society. It was called “Note on the application of machinery to the computation of astronomical and mathematical tables”. What he was proposing was, in effect a mechanical computer. First conceived in 1786 by JH Müller, an engineer in the Hessian army, the difference engine was of interest to governments because it allowed them to produce tables (of whatever sort – tides, for instance) much more economically. To this end, in 1823 the British government gave Babbage £1,700 to make his engine. By 1842 they had given him more than £17,000 and there still was no machine. Partly this was because Babbage got bogged down in the detail, partly because he’d moved on to another project (the analytical engine) and partly because it was difficult, using the technology of the day, to work to the tolerances that the difference engine required. The difference engine  was only completed in 1991, with the ancillary printer (Babbage’s plan was to print direct from the machine, avoiding the errors introduced by typesetters – another astonishing concept) only finished in 2000. Both machines worked perfectly.

 

 

 

eXistenZ (1999, dir: David Cronenberg)

You used to know what you were getting with David Cronenberg. Generally roaming the territory where technological and the human body intersected, to gruesome effect, his films such as Videodrome, Scanners, Dead Ringers, Crash and The Fly all featured people being subject to what became known as “body horror”. These days Cronenberg has broadened his range to make fragrant delights such as the Jung/Freud costume drama A Dangerous Method, but back in the day “body horror” and Cronenberg were pretty much synonymous, even though other people (such as Shin’ya Tsukamoto, with his Tetsuo films) were wading in the same water. What make eXistenZ interesting is that it’s effectively his last gambol through the ooze where metal meets flesh, a fun bit of sci-fi about a computer game virgin being inveigled by the creator of a video game creator into “testing” it for her. Jude Law plays the neophyte, Ted, Jennifer Jason Leigh is Allegra, the uberprogrammer whose dabblings in the territory some say is reserved for God have earned her a fatwa from fundamentalist “Realists”. And of course Allegra has more in mind for the slightly blank Ted than just quickly going through the motions. They enter the reality of eXistenZ, a computer program so vivid that it feels and looks, even tastes, like another world. “Reality is all a construct” is the big idea, lifted from philosophy and worked into … I was going to say a meditation, but in fact Cronenberg is more turning the idea this way and that, seeing which way the light bounces off it most acutely. So after Law and Leigh enter the game they end up at a Chinese restaurant, where they order the special and it turns out to be very special indeed – strong stomach warning. From here Cronenberg takes us to the “gristle gun” scene, in which Law constructs a weapon out of body parts, an echo of the “bioport” we’ve already been introduced to (like a USB socket straight into the small of the back), a foretaste of the bullet in Allegra’s shoulder which turns out to be a tooth. As I said, there’s a rough and ready aspect to Cronenberg’s first entirely original screenplay since Videodrome, which was prompted by the ructions over Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses, and the subsequent fatwa that put its author under a death sentence. But if it started in Cronenberg’s mind as an exploration of fundamentalism and relativism, it soon morphed into prime cuts of organic tech fantasy. Released around the same time as The Matrix, its special effects and its conceptual reach pale in comparison with the Wachowskis’, but Cronenberg’s film is ageing well, and in any case when you’ve got so much yucky content, who wants to see it all pin sharp? Enjoy.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A good cast – feisty Jennifer Jason Leigh, detached Jude Law
  • The slick trick ending
  • Ian Holm, Christopher Eccleston and Sarah Polley in the support cast
  • Carol Spier’s carnal production design

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

eXistenZ – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Last Night

Sandra Oh in Last Night

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

24 February

 

 

The Battle of Los Angeles, 1942

On this night in 1942, with the US at war with Japan for less than three months, air raid sirens started wailing throughout Los Angeles county. A blackout was ordered. Air raid wardens were summoned. At around 3am the Artillery Brigade began firing machine guns and anti-aircraft shells at reported aircraft. Over the next hour over 1,400 shells would be fired. At 7.21am the blackout was lifted. Several buildings had been damaged; five civilians were dead – three in car accidents, two from heart attacks. No planes were downed, or even hit, as far as anyone could tell. By the next morning at a press conference, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox was claiming the whole thing was a false alarm brought about by itchy trigger fingers and nerves stretched taut in expectation of a raid. In some quarters a cover-up was suspected – was there a Japanese base in Mexico? Were there Japanese submarines offshore? Was it a government-generated stunt designed to stiffen the sinews? A UFO? Or, as a report in 1983 seemed to suggest, just weather balloons?

 

 

 

Last Night (1998, dir: Don McKellar)

There are two Last Nights. There’s the stump-draggingly dull 2010 relationship drama starring Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington and Eva Mendes. And there’s this much more interesting apocalyptic drama. It arrived with a flurry of “the end is nigh” dramas just as the old millennium was ready to lay down its weary head and the Y2K bug was about to launch into a hissy fit which would turn all computers to scrap metal and swipe every plane from the sky. Or so we were led to believe. In Last Night we meet a bunch of couples on the last day of the world’s existence – there is no argument, it is definitely all over. Sandra Ho is stuck with a stranger (director Don McKellar) when she’d rather be with her husband; Callum Keith Rennie is nervously meeting the high school teacher (Geneviève Bujold) he had the hots for years before; David Cronenberg is a utilities functionary staying at his desk and keeping the lights (gas, actually) on. We meet other people, and their stories too, which play out mostly in a poignant key. It’s unexpected, because this isn’t a honking Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich version of the end of the world. It’s Don McKellar’s and he’s an actor and this is his feature debut and so he does what actor-turned-directors often do – he lets the actors act. These are touching stories – only the stony-hearted won’t buckle a touch at the sight of the mother holding Christmas for her kids so as to make their last day on earth a treat. Last Night could be accused of not being Bay/Emmerich enough, of being a touch anaemic, of there being too many people chasing too little plot. But it’s an unusual way to imagine the apocalypse, of humanity not going out with a bang but a well behaved whimper. Don McKellar is Canadian. Does that account for it?

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The fine cast includes Sarah Polley
  • It asks the big question – what would you do?
  • No choppers, no gung-ho, no wisecracks
  • A lead role for Sandra Oh

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Last Night – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Cosmopolis

Robert Pattinson gets his haircut in Cosmopolis

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

17 September

 

 

Occupy Wall Street starts, 2011

 

On this day in 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement, unable to set up its protest against US financial institutions in its original two preferred locations, took over Zuccotti Park, New York. With its rallying cry “We are the 99 per cent,” it made reference to the growing disparity in income distribution in the US (back more or less to its levels around the time of the Wall Street Crash of 1929, in spite of more than 80 years of relative prosperity) and set off a wave of similar protests all over the world. Though apparently spontaneous, it was organised by the PR agency Workhouse on behalf of Adbusters, a Canadian anti-consumerist “global network of artists, activists, writers, pranksters, students, educators and entrepreneurs who want to advance the new social activist movement of the information age.” An aim they achieved. By the time the police closed Zuccotti Park on 11 November 2011, the largely peaceful protest had made its point and put income distribution back on the political agenda, to some degree at least. What gave the movement its political heft was the make-up of the protesters. Largely well educated, employed people earning good salaries, a third of them over 35 years of age, the statistic that must have caused most consternation back at the parties’ HQs is that 70 per cent of them identified with none of the political brand leaders.

 

Cosmopolis (2012, dir: David Cronenberg)

Yes, the thought of Robert Pattinson in the back of a limo, droning on for hours isn’t everyone’s idea of a great film. But it’s directed by David Cronenberg, master of a certain sort of horror (not Twilight style horror, admittedly) who uses Pattinson’s pallour and his reserve to good effect, as the super-entitled billionaire kid floating round a nameless metropolis (it’s Toronto) while outside unrest stalks the streets. It’s a Keanu role – eerie, blank – in a film adapted from Don DeLillo’s novel, a meditation on how the elite have become divorced from the rest of us. As troubled cyber-entrepreneur Eric Packer, Pattinson gets to talk in epigrams, non sequiturs, have sex with a succession of hot women, play with guns here and there. And as Packer heads off to get the haircut that the whole film hangs on we’re treated to a melding of DeLillo’s forensic cool with the weird of Cronenberg, the result an absurdist existential Camus-like examination of a distracted mind in the middle of a crisis. Give it a while to get going – the affectless style, Pattinson’s deliberately dead-eyed performance, the focus on the inside of a car almost to the exclusion of everything else, all the “just what the hell is going on?” questions it is bound to raise, they do all take a while to process. After that, though, it’s a gripping slide, effortless, graceful, towards the abyss.

 

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Intense cameos from the likes of Juliette Binoche, Mathieu Amalric
  • Watch Pattinson, then imagine Colin Farrell, its original lead, doing it
  • Pattinson’s character is the “one per cent” that Occupy Wall Street allude to
  • DeLillo’s verdit – “I am impressed… It is as uncompromising as it can possibly be”

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Cosmopolis – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

eXistenZ

Jude Law in eXistenZ

 

 

Combining two fields of interest of director David Cronenberg – the mediated-reality musings of Videodrome and the body horror of almost everything else he’s done – eXistenZ is about a video game designer dropping into the gamesworld she’s created, accompanied by a good-looking marketing trainee, to work out if it still all works after an assassination attempt on its creator. Jude Law is handsome and chiselled and pretty much perfect as the slightly blank computer-game virgin and Jennifer Jason Leigh also scores high as the programmer who’s developed a gaming environment so realistic that it makes real life look lacklustre. This parallel reality where industrial and organic coalesce (a gun that shoots human teeth, a cyberport that seems to share at least some of the functionality of a vagina) is Cronenberg territory par excellence, a space where he can riff on the effects of hard drugs, organic technology and two-headed mutant reptiles, while the likes of Ian Holm, Willem Dafoe and Sarah Polley flap about looking like they wish there was more for them to do. Would eXistenZ be better if more money had been spent on it? The air of fake reality is deliberate – Cronenberg is saying something about the nasty allure of the simulacrum, and if we’re being generous we could account for the slight failure of the stars to connect as deliberate too. Satirical, caustic, inventive but also predictable (of course they get trapped inside the game) and disjointed, eXistenZ also suffers from being released the same month, and dealing with strikingly similar themes, as The Matrix. Even that cyberport looks strangely familiar.
© Steve Morrissey 1999

eXistenZ – at Amazon

 

 

 

The Grace of God

Gérald L'Ecuyer

 

 

 

Now this one is a hard sell. It starts with its director, Gérald L’Ecuyer, addressing the confessional camera, telling of the 16 psychiatrists and the one doomed affair he went through to make this film. Then the film proper starts and it turns out it’s all about a young man and his tangles with psychiatrists and doomed love over a ten year period. This is followed by a whole load of shots from out of the window of a moving train. And that – confession, fiction, train window – is pretty much the mix for the whole of the film’s 70 minutes, which build towards an explanation of how and who this gay man is. “Oh God,” you’re now thinking, “it’s a Canadian art film”. You’re not wrong, it is from the land where “committed film-maker” often has its own special meaning. Nor, knowing this, will you be too surprised to discover it features a cameo by David Cronenberg (as one of Gérald’s many useless psychiatrists). These attributes to one side, this film is worth a few of your hard-earned groats because, somehow, in his own completely unconventional way, L’Ecuyer manages to take us out of our world and transplant us into his. This sort of sleight of hand, this juggling of technique and imagination, using experimental narrative structure, is the sort of thing a lot of artists try. And it rarely works. L’Ecuyer is one of the few who pull it off.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

The Grace of God – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Antiviral

Caleb Landry Jones

What’s that, you say, Cronenberg? Surely not a relation of David? Indeedy, this is the son, Brandon, and, apples not falling far from tree, chips tending to fly from old blocks, he serves us up a rather lipsmacking portion of body-horror just like dad used to make. And the lips, as you might have guessed, are blistered with herpes.

We’re in a parallel world – it looks like today but the celebrity fever has got to such a point that people are happy, willing, desperate to be injected with herpes simplex virus harvested from rich and famous stars such as the Madonna-alike Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon). That’s when they’re not buying and eating the cloned muscle tissue of the stars. These transactions, so the pitch goes, lets the star-obsessed get closer to the object of their fandom, a one-sided transaction that knocks a signature in an autograph book out of the park.

And into this slightly steampunky, dials-and-pistons world, Cronenberg injects the actor Caleb Landry Jones, a pasty youth – thin, odd-looking, intense, handsome in a drowned-body kind of way, a perfect piece of casting as it turns out, because he looks as vapid and unwholesome as the world he uneasily inhabits.

If you want to know what actually happens, check out this excellent, low-budget sci-fi thriller, it’s really worth it. All I can usefully, non-spoilerishly reveal about the plot is that Landry Jones plays a lab rat at a celebrity tissue clinic where there’s only one thing he really shouldn’t do. Which is take any bits of famous people home with him… so of course he does.

Sarah Gadon as Hannah Geist
Sarah Gadon as Hannah Geist



Nicely, Cronenberg Jr leaves quite a few things unexplained, which forces us to work out the dynamics of this world, the opaqueness adding to the sense of dread and mystery. In terms of visuals, Cronenberg has been heavily influenced by the science-gone-bad vibe of his dad (The Fly and Ringers, for instance) by Kubrick, by Philip K Dick, and by the Aseptic White Room Thriller genre (Vincenzo Natali’s Cube being the daddy).

In fact technically this is a very well accomplished film in every respect. The effects are done old-school, make-up and fake blood featuring heavily. This is merciful because CGI, in spite of all the Kraken-y, Hobbit-y things done with them, just aren’t good enough yet. The soundtrack is deliberately loud but not intrusive, builds tension brilliantly as the story works its way towards a grisly though entirely logical conclusion – there is no happy ending nonsense here.

Dad’s hand is everywhere but let’s give kudos to the son, who has made the sort of film that will be gulped down gleefully by the horror nuts, but also by anyone weary with the whole notion of “celebrity”.

A word about the casting in the minor roles, which is perfect throughout, all the support actors doing exactly what is required of them, which removes a layer of storytelling necessity from Cronenberg, leaving him to get on with the business of being nasty.



Antiviral – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2012