Part 1

The Thin Red Line to Star Wars Episode I (January - May 1999)

by PopMatters Staff

22 March 2009


eXistenZ and more

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Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm, Willem Dafoe, Don McKellar, Callum Keith Rennie, Christopher Eccleston, Sarah Polley

(Alliance Atlantis)
US theatrical: 23 Apr 1999

eXistenZ Director: David Cronenberg

eXistenZ is clearly the finest film in which Jude Law eats a platter of mutant frogs. David Cronenberg’s take on virtual reality is Matrix-like in trippyness, but with greater ambiguity, satire, and gristle. It’s classic Cronenberg: part eschatology, part scatology; a distressing blend of the biological and metaphysical. The progressive physical disintegration detailed in The Fly is applied on a cognitive level with surreal results. 

Jennifer Jason Leigh plays video game designer Allegra Geller, whose newest game (“eXistenZ”) is being shared with a testing group in the film’s opening sequence. Nintendo Wii these games are not: The game consoles are amorphous maggot-hued blobs that plug an umbilical-like chord into a “bioport” located in each player’s spine. The game world is indistinguishable from real life and the game experience is considered sacred by many players.     

When Allegra is attacked by anti-game “realists” she goes on the run with Ted Pikul (Jude Law), an uptight square turned ad hoc bodyguard. Unsure if her gamepod is damaged Allegra and Pikul port into “eXistenZ” to test the system, entering a confused and decaying universe that’s easier to enter than to leave.

What makes the film so wild is it’s never exactly clear when Allegra and Pikul stop playing “eXistenZ”. Reality becomes indeterminate and formless and Cronenberg never tips his cards. Each time players port into the game, events become more dreamlike. In contrast with The Matrix, corporeality diminishes as plot develops. It’s clearly inspired by sci-fi philosopher Philip K. Dick, known for novels and short stories that question the nature of reality. Dick fans are sure to love eXistenZ. Attentive ones will recognize the Perky Pat’s fast food Allegra and Pikul scarf as a nod to the Dick novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

The prismatic plot development in eXistenZ would become unmoored without Cronenberg’s recurring visual signatures and aesthetic underpinnings. His realm is unnatural and maimed, with tooth-shooting guns made from cartilage and video games that run on mutated organs. The game world has a William S. Burroughs quality (all exotic tissues and corruption), possibly a residual effect from Cronenberg’s 1991 film adaptation of Naked Lunch. It’s vivid and grotesque, and you can’t look away.   

It is also magnificently acted. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Allegra Geller with both introverted geekiness (she’s a game designer) and knowing self-confidence (her games cause devotees to fall prostrate before her). Jude Law as Ted Pikul is a cautious dweeb, new to virtual gaming, who becomes progressively freaked out. Great together, Leigh and Law develop a tense and unconventional on-screen chemistry.  Also good is Ian Holm as a sinister game technician, and Willem Dafoe, more psychotic than usual, in his bit as an illegal bioport installer.   

Doubting the fabric of reality isn’t the only trouble eXistenZ is happy to stir up. As players are forced to perform out-of-character actions to advance the game, free will becomes increasingly difficult to define. Or even to prove. Genetic modification and animal rights are examined through the use of the mutated amphibians that are butchered for video game parts. And with all things Philip K. Dickian, it’s not complete without a schizophrenic close. Resolved, but not conclusively, eXistenZ remains a troubling nesting doll through repeated viewings. Michael Pursley

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The Winslow Boy

Director: David Mamet
Cast: Nigel Hawthorne, Rebecca Pidgeon, Jeremy Northam, Gemma Jones.

(Sony Pictures Classics)
US theatrical: 30 Apr 1999

The Winslow Boy Director: David Mamet

The characters of The Winslow Boy, a film by David Mamet based on Terence Rattigan’s 1946 play, live in an Edwardian England ruled by moral absolutes. When the youngest member of the Winslow family, 13-year-old Ronnie (the “Winslow Boy” of the title, played by Guy Edwards) is expelled from the Royal Naval College for stealing a five-schilling postal order, his father asks him if the accusation is true.  When Ronnie denies the charge, that’s all the evidence Arthur Winslow (Nigel Hawthorne) needs. A retired bank examiner whose means are comfortable but not unlimited, he is prepared to spend them “down to the last collar stud” as they say at Lloyd’s of London in what becomes a two-year campaign to clear the boy’s name.

In the process Arthur subjects his family to nationwide scorn (inserts show the Winslow Boy mocked in everything from political cartoons to sheet music), drives off his daughter’s fiancé, and damages his own health, while the expense of pursuing the case force his older son to leave Oxford and take a job. The fact that Ronnie is settled happily into a different school long before his case is heard is beside the point: Arthur is pursuing justice for its own sake.  He enlists the noted attorney Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam) to argue Ronnie’s case, and finds in him a man equally devoted to absolutes.  Sir Robert’s justification for pursuing the case before the House of Lords (because the Royal Naval College is run by the Admiralty, a branch of the English government, it cannot be sued in an ordinary court) is simple: “Let Right Be Done.”

Arthur Winslow and Sir Robert Morton are as ruthless in their way as the real estate salesmen in Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross are in theirs, which may explains the appeal of this rather traditional play to the director. Mamet is not interested in establishing the truth or falsity of the accusation, but rather in observing how it characters to reveal their true moral fiber through their reactions to it.

The merits of being true to your principles are echoed in a parallel plot in which Catherine Winslow (Rebecca Pidgeon), Ronnie’s older sister, must choose the course her adult life will take. As the film opens, she has accepted a marriage proposal from John Watherstone (Aden Gillett), a convenient but apparently loveless choice: when questioned by her mother (Gemma Jones), Catherine’s protestation that “I love John in every way that a woman can love a man” rings entirely false. John can do no better: in the obligatory interview with Arthur Winslow, the best account he can give of himself is that of course he wants to marry Catherine “because I’ve proposed to her and she’s accepted me.”

Ronnie’s misfortune proves to be Catherine’s salvation: in the wake of the ensuing scandal, John withdraws his proposal. To her credit, she refuses the easy option of a safe but passionless marriage to the family solicitor, Desmond Curry (Colin Stinton), who’s been carrying a torch for years. Instead, she embraces grossly underpaid work in support of women’s suffrage and accepts the possibility of living out her life as an old maid. 

Or perhaps not: the film hints at the possibility of a future marriage of true minds between Catherine and Sir Robert. Seemingly as dissimilar as chalk and cheese and in disagreement on many major issues,  over the course of the trial they come to recognize that they have one important trait in common: the passion to pursue what they believe to be right. Mamet gives them the final scene, and suggests that each may have met their match in the other. Having been informed by Sir Robert that women’s suffrage is a lost cause, Catherine responds “How little you know women.” Being told that it’s unlikely they will meet again, he gets the last word: “How little you know men.” Sarah Boslaugh


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