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The Complexity of Cronenberg

The director whose disturbing films include 'Dead Ringers' celebrates his unique brand of reality in 'eXistenZ.'

April 22, 1999|JOHN CLARK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — Canadian director David Cronenberg, dressed in black, his graying hair parted on the side in a '70s-style heap, enters a hotel room in midtown Manhattan and sits down. Only it isn't David Cronenberg. It's "David Cronenberg."

"There is a media version of me that is not me," he says amiably. "It's an invented thing; it's sometimes connected to you, but it's a weird doppelganger. You've got to know that it exists on many levels."

The media version of the 56-year-old Cronenberg, who is based in Toronto, is a cult figure who has directed some of the most disturbing movies in the history of cinema. Among them: "Videodrome" (subversive television transmissions short-circuiting viewers' brains), "The Fly" (scientist morphing into an insect), "Dead Ringers" (lethally inseparable twin gynecologists), "Naked Lunch" (paranoid writer tormented by visions of a talking organ) and, most recently, "Crash" (eroticism and auto accidents).

Many of these films feature outrageous bodily mutations and extrapolations, earning Cronenberg a reputation as a purveyor of horror, though that's only one level of his complex work.

Cronenberg's newest film, "eXistenZ," which opens Friday, is about a virtual-reality game creator (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and her bodyguard (Jude Law), who are being pursued by assassins who want to strike a blow for "reality" by destroying both her and her newest creation, eXistenZ. In keeping with Cronenberg's penchant for things organic, the technology of eXistenZ is not silicon-based but rather a living organism--a "pod" that looks like a puddle with nipples on it. It plugs into the spine of the player via a tube that resembles an umbilical cord.

If this sounds unsettling, it is. But what's really disturbing is that once they're plugged into the game it becomes increasingly difficult for the players--and the audience--to determine what is the game and what is reality.

Oddly enough, this scenario was inspired not by Microsoft or Myst but by a clandestine interview Cronenberg conducted with the writer Salman Rushdie. On one level Cronenberg was intrigued by the idea of an artist being persecuted because of something he created (in Rushdie's case, "The Satanic Verses," which offended Iranian Islamic militants so much that they offered a bounty on his life).

On a deeper level, he saw that Rushdie was being victimized by a media version of himself created not only by Iran (which said he is a blasphemer) but also by elements of the British press (which said he is exploiting the government security forces assigned to protect him). That these versions of Rushdie are not true doesn't make them any less real, Cronenberg asserts.

"This movie is about the way different realities are created and the idea that we do create reality," Cronenberg says. "There is no absolute reality. It has to do with our physiology, and then it has to do with our consciousness. Just the way every movie-maker is creating a reality, the first thing people do when they wake up in the morning is reinvent reality and their identity. They have to remember who they are, where they are, what they're supposed to be doing, what world they live in."

This is pretty heady stuff, though the film works in a conventional story line: the attractive couple on the lam. But there's something a little off here. When Leigh and Law flee an assassination attempt, the background as they drive along is an obvious matte shot. The gas station they go to is called "Gas." A two-headed mutant amphibian shows up for no particular reason. All of this is made clear at the end, but will audiences still be around when it is?

"I actually think audiences in general have gone downhill since I made 'Videodrome,' " Cronenberg says. "I think the Hollywood template has taken over much more of the world in the last 20 years. I comment on it in 'eXistenZ' when I have Jennifer say, 'People are programmed to accept so little, but the possibilities are so great.' I really think people are programmed to accept only a very narrow way of filmmaking."

Not surprisingly, this programming made "eXistenZ" difficult to finance. It was actually ready to go before "Crash," but Cronenberg says studio execs were afraid of it. (Miramax ended up distributing the film.)

"It's the Hollywood approach to characters, which is very Freudian, I think; you must identify with a main character," Cronenberg says. 'People seem to want movies to be kind of psychotherapy so they'll cry and they'll laugh and they'll do this and they'll do that."

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