MOVIE REVIEW OF
We need goo, lots and lots of goo
Jude and Jennifer enjoying their plug-in
Several years ago I, a Chinese-American, was in an Australian youth hostel talkin' international movies with a guy from Belgium. We decided that there were a handful of great directors in the world - Italy's Fellini, Japan's Kurasawa, Germany's Herzog, Sweden's Bergman... But where were the Americans? We agreed that most U.S. movies were stamped out of a cookie cutter, and there were precious few great American directors. Kubrick was one, but we couldn't think of others.
Now, years later, I've forgotten the Belgian's name, but I think about our conversation once in a while. Most of the directors we mentioned are dead or retired. Are there any great ones left? And what do we mean by "great"? We meant, I suppose, artists with unique, distinctive styles, directors who follow their own paths - whether or not the audiences follow with them.
I think there are some great American directors like that left. David Lynch (Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Lost Highway, etc.) is one. Why, in scenes from his shows, is there a deer head lying on the table? Why is a main character replaced by a different actor halfway through a movie? Why is there a tiny mutant woman singing about heaven in a radiator? Only Lynch can scratch that itch in your brain that you didn't know was there.
Joel Coen (Raising Arizona, Fargo, Barton Fink, etc.) is another. I'd like to add Ken Russell (Altered States, Tommy, Lair of the White Worm, etc.) to the short list, with the understanding that there's a thin line between great and silly. Sometimes Russell doesn't know the difference: Ann-Margaret cavorting in a pool of chocolate? A woman with enormous eyes where her breasts should be - eyes that blink? Clever or stupid? What can one say, but, Ah, Ken Russell.
I'd also like to now add David Cronenberg. What canvas was to Picasso, what marble was to Michelangelo, the human body is to Cronenberg. If you've seen what he did to poor Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, you know what I mean.
eXistenZ, Cronenberg's vision of the future, particularly the future of computer games, is unrelentingly original and, of course, a bit gooey.
In the future game designers will be as famous as movie stars.
In the future video games will be made from organic components like mutant frog eggs.
In the future Chinese restaurants will serve two-headed salamanders.
In the future system requirements for computer games include a "bioport" inserted into your spine. If you don't have one, you can get it installed at your local gas station.
In the future "Realists" will hunt down game designers, accusing them of "distorting reality."
In the future guns will be made of bone and will shoot out human teeth. (With no metal components, they zip right by detectors.)
What a PlayStation controller looks like to David Cronenberg
eXistenZ is about famous game designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and her reluctant bodyguard Ted Pikul (Jude Law) on the run from Realists. On the way, Jude does get a bioport inserted (by Willem Dafoe as a crazed gas station attendant in the film's most memorable role) - and Jude and Jennifer enter the title role-playing game. To tell you more of the plot would be a disservice, but suffice to say that there's plenty of surprises and twists and turns, particularly at the end.
Cronenberg's film treads some of the same ground as The Matrix - the ideas of virtual reality v. real reality, VR as a drug, etc. But the takes on these ideas are very different. The Matrix has guns, lots and lots of guns, but eXistenZ has goo, lots and lots of goo. The plot is more intricate and the acting is far superior in eXistenZ. Jude Law is never forced to say "Whoah." The design work in eXistenZ is very interesting - bet you've never seen a squishy game pod or a gun made from chicken bones before. I walked out of it thinking, wow, I've never seen anything quite like THAT before - and when's the last time that's happened?
eXistenZ makes me feel good about the state of science fiction movies as a whole, and gives me hope that this year will be the best year for SF films since... since... were Planet of the Apes and 2001 both released in 1967? I'm pretty sure Forbidden Planet and Invasion of the Body Snatchers came out the same year (1956). (That was a long time ago.) As I wrote in my piece about the end of Star Wars, the 90's have been a wasteland of very expensive, very bad SF films. I was almost willing to write off the whole decade - but now, after years of glossy trash like Godzilla and Armageddon and Independence Day, we get two great movies in one month! And then, on May 7, The Mummy, which I have high hopes for, then The Phantom Menace. Buzz is that Wild Wild West is this year's Batman and Robin, but we also get Austin Powers and even a James Bond movie! 1999 is shaping up the be possibly the best year in science fiction films - ever. Let's cross our fingers.
Style: 9/10. Jude Law's old beat-up Land Rover is cool (in the future they only drive old cars...). More mutant animals than you shake a two-headed salamander at. I wonder how many people will imitate Allegra's hairstyle...
Overall coolness level: 9/10.
Agree or disagree? Let me know.
Comments from Jonathan Harvey 5/14/99:
Regarding foreign films.
1) A large number of foreign films are just as much stamped out of cookie-cutter molds as American ones. It's just that those foreign films do not make it to the United States.
2) Ken Russell is English. He started off as a maker of documentaries for the BBC. His only Hollywood production was "Altered States".
3) Cronenberg is actually Canadian, though his films are produced in the USA. Actually, "Existenz" and and "Crash" were both financed by **French** production companies, although they are filmed with American actors speaking English, so neither quite qualifies as an "American" film.
4) Kubrick is American, but has lived and worked in England since 1961. He moved there to film "Lolita" because at that time censorship in England was less strict, remained there to do "Strangelove" because Peter Sellers was not permitted to leave England at the time (re his divorce settlement in dispute) and remained again to do "2001" because Shepperton studios is the largest soundstage in the world, and the best to accomodate the 2001 sets (Yoda's planet & Krypton were both built at Shepperton. So was the Overlook hotel in "The Shining").
5) Another innovative American expatriated to England is Terry Gilliam, animator for Monty Python and director of "Time Bandits" & "Brazil" and "12 Monkeys".
6) At one time, Coppola was a promising innovator. His least successful film of all time "Rumble Fish" is a favorite of mine. Scorsese is also great though fairly mainstream.
7) An unknown American director similar to David Lynch, but to my mind much better is Philip Ridley, director of "The Reflecting Skin" and "The Passion of Darkly Noon". Ridley has the same sensibility as Lynch, but has stronger & tighter narrative. I personally think Lynch is as crazy as most of the characters in his movies, and assaults the audience too much. Ridley is like Lynch after getting analysis.
8) I have set placidly thru most of the "Elm Street" and "Hellraiser" movies and "The Exorcist", but for some reason David Cronenberg really knows what buttons of mine to press. I have consistently found his films very disturbing, and am usually only willing to see his works on matinees. That is not a criticism. It is just a statement of fact. I liked his adaptation of King's "The Dead Zone" & admired "Dead Ringers" and "Crash". I have never worked up the gumption to see his version of "The Fly".
Comments from Robert Skrinyaz
Oh, Canada..... is probably what Cronenberg sang in his first-grade class.... he is not only Canadian, but rather Canada-centric when choosing the peripherals of his movies.
Besides, what discussion of American directors would be complete without Roger Corman and Russ Meyer? :)
Response from me
Ah, yes, well, I admit it. I was wrong - I thought Cronenberg was American, but he's from Canada, our 51st state. Well, at least I've been corrected.
And, about Roger Corman and Russ Meyer. Well, in the same way that there is a notable place where four states meet, there are singularities where the good, the bad and the ugly of filmmaking join together. These are the films of Meyer and Corman.
Official eXistenZ homepage.
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