Archive for April 23, 1999

eXistenZ

April 23, 1999

In the agreeably low-tech world of eXistenZ, the elaborately entertaining new film by David Cronenberg, technology has sort of gone backwards, or sideways, and become technobiology. Those who fetishize computers and hardware won’t find much to plug into in this movie, which imagines, among other things, guns made out of flesh and bone and virtual-reality gamepods that resemble nothing so much as pulsating sex toys. This is not the Cronenberg of Crash, a stark icicle of a film; eXistenZ finds him in a witty and playful mood. The whole movie is a game, visceral as well as philosophical; it’s a great wild ride to stand alongside Cronenberg’s Videodrome and Naked Lunch.

To attempt a plot synopsis would be folly; I will limit myself to the basic set-up. Jennifer Jason Leigh is Allegra Geller, a renowned virtual-reality game designer preparing to unveil her latest masterpiece, “eXistenZ.” Unfortunately, a Khomeini-like fatwa has been issued on her life, and she goes on the run with public-relations rookie Ted Pikul (Jude Law), who becomes her bodyguard by default. What follows is 90 minutes of guess-what’s-real hijinks. In Cronenberg’s hands, however, such games are never played on the audience for their own sake: not for nothing do the game and the film have a metaphysical ring. A clue is provided the first time we hear someone pronounce the name — “ex-is-tenz” — which sounds closer to “existential” than to “existence.” If, as existentialism has it, we are responsible for our own acts in this reality as we know it, what happens if that reality is false?

As the middle film in 1999’s unofficial trilogy of virtual-reality fantasies, eXistenZ will no doubt be compared with the big hit The Matrix and the also-ran The 13th Floor, but Cronenberg works his own side of the street. He gets better and better as a filmmaker; every frame is meticulous in its control and purpose. Regular composer Howard Shore and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky build a firm aural and visual backdrop for Cronenberg’s complex ideas and structure. Ted Pikul, the latest in a long line of passive Cronenbergian observers, is our onscreen counterpart; we share his confusion and are grateful when Allegra briefs him on the rules of “eXistenZ” (first rule: there are no rules).

Even without the icky organic biomechanics, eXistenZ would be completely in keeping with Cronenberg’s method, which is to suggest that the world as seen through the eyes of the protagonists (and therefore through the audience’s eyes) shouldn’t be taken at face value. Cronenberg uses the multilevel construction of a game to show us what he has always shown us: that there is more than one way to experience reality. As the plot of the game keeps shifting, we are left without any bearings, without any way to know whether to trust anyone, even ourselves. This, of course, is life — or existence.

Depressing? Not the way Cronenberg approaches it. He’s a laughing existentialist here, a philosopher who sees the comedy in disorientation. In his version of Naked Lunch, everything we saw was merely the lead character’s self-protecting fantasy filter for what was really going on, and here we go deep inside a game designer’s contrived, cliched view of what’s happening around her. eXistenZ comes complete with its own self-critiques, but it’s not a shallowly amusing exercise in deconstruction á la Scream; it’s closer to our own detached experiences of watching ourselves watch ourselves until reality becomes a hall of mirrors in which we can’t escape the reflection of our own perceptions. eXistenZ is a fast and engaging joyride; it takes you around in circles, but you don’t see the same things twice.

Election (1999)

April 23, 1999

Teen cinema is full of here-today, gone-five-minutes-from-now stars — today’s Hilary Duff is tomorrow’s Dana Plato — but Reese Witherspoon is the real thing. She is the oddest young actress: a perky lioness who can shift from a sunny grin to a squinched-up pout of disgust in a millisecond. In movies like Freeway, Pleasantville, and the biting new satire Election, Witherspoon sometimes seems like the only fully alive person on the screen — if only because she has so much more energy than her costars — and sometimes that energy lashes out and zaps people. This lioness can be red in tooth and claw.

Election, the second feature by director Alexander Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor (their previous collaboration was 1996’s Citizen Ruth), finds Witherspoon sharpening her fangs on her hapless classmates and teachers at George Washington Carver High in Omaha. She’s Tracy Flick (the surname spelled in caps on a poster sometimes comes prankishly close to obscenity), a true renaissance girl who throws herself into every possible extracurricular activity. Tracy knows that women must work twice as hard for success, so she’s starting early. In fact, when it comes time to begin her candidacy for Student Council President, she has her table set up, her sign-up pads neatly arranged, long before the first bell of the school day. And God himself couldn’t help anyone who gets in her way.

Watching the brash, confident, resourceful Tracy, we might wonder how she’d get along with a brash, confident, resourceful teen of a decade ago — Ferris Bueller. As it happens, we don’t have to wonder: Matthew Broderick, with some meat around the middle and some gray in his temples, is Jim McAllister, a well-respected history teacher at Carver High. Ferris was a different prodigy than Tracy — he was more of a goof-off, using his wits and energy to get out of school. Jim could almost be Ferris ten years later, settled into a stable job, an unsurprising life. The answer to our question is, Ferris and Tracy wouldn’t get along, and neither do Tracy and Jim; Jim sees Tracy as a ruthless climber, and he tosses a few roadblocks in her path, including a likable but dim jock (Chris Klein) and the jock’s nihilistic lesbian sister (Jessica Campbell), both of whom run against Tracy.

It’s said that the rest of life is high school, only more so; Payne and Taylor invert the equation here, treating the power plays and snubs and naked competition of high school as a microcosm for American politics (with a little economics tossed in). The script, based on a Tom Perrotta novel, is tight and elegant; Payne’s neutral eye, which he turned so effectively onto pro-choicers and pro-lifers in Citizen Ruth, stares just as unblinkingly at the fallible students and teachers brought low by their own unattainable desires. Everyone, that is, except Tracy; for her, no desire is unattainable, provided you get up early enough and press enough flesh.

Tracy seems almost like an alien, but then so do Anthony Robbins or Stephen Covey or your choice of personal-improvement gurus. One can picture her ten years from now, tossing off a bestseller explaining how to achieve your dreams, using the banal language of optimism and self-realization to smother the cries of those she’s destroyed on the way up. The brilliance of Election, and of Reese Witherspoon’s performance, is that we also see the human being inside all that manipulation and muck. When Tracy thinks she’s defeated, her despair is nearly Homeric; she bawls like the little girl she never really got a chance to be, and our hearts go out to her in spite of ourselves. But the movie isn’t over yet, and there are more twists in store. Alexander Payne catches us feeling sorry for these characters — Tracy in her time of agony, the hapless Jim, the miserable lesbian outcast, the aw-shucks jock — and then turns the tables on us. Nobody in Election is as bad as they seem; nobody is as good as they seem, either.