[Spoilers for both eXistenZ and Spider are contained herein]
The turn of the century, or right around there, can now be looked back upon as a pretty significant turning point in David Cronenberg's career. This change began in the late 1980s, really, when his body horror films began to merge with a more overtly literary, for lack of a better word, and which I use here both literally and figuratively, sensibility. This sensibility had always been present, but Cronenberg's fierce intellectualism, pairing off with an almost supernatural ease with classic genre structures as it does, stopped being subtext by the time of Dead Ringers in 1988, and by Naked Lunch in 1991 his grotesque images were lifted out of genre and placed in the arthouse. Though there wasn't in fact much difference for anyone paying attention, spending most of the 1990s adapting William S. Burroughs, David Henry Hwang, and J. G. Ballard had changed the way Cronenberg was perceived. He'd officially become "interesting." Never before had he made a film as extreme as Crash in 1996, but while it faced protests and calls for censorship, it also put him in competition at Cannes for the first time in his career.
If the above sounds cynical, I don't mean it to be, at least the cynicism is not directed at Cronenberg. The artistic impulse that led to The Brood was no less pure than the one that led him to make Naked Lunch, but, in ways outside of his control, having a literary base seems to have helped his career. All if which makes Cronenberg's 1999 film eXistenZ, whatever its links to his famous early work, feel almost like an anomaly, somehow out of character. In an interview with Serge Grunberg, later collected as part of David Cronenberg: Interviews with Serge Grunberg, Cronenberg talked about his relationship with his earlier films:
...With my new movie, eXistenZ, people say it reminds them somewhat of Videodrome. I can see that in a superficial way. I'm wondering though, I think I'm not the same person who made those movies, and when I watch the movies that I've made it's shocking really. I mean it's shocking because it's not a question of not remembering what I did...but I'm surprised at what I've done. It seems alien to me. I find it very difficult. Almost impossible to watch my old movies. I never do. I've recently had to do the commentary on laser disc, and now DVD versions of the film...And even Crash, watching it a year later and talking about it, it's almost as though I'm talking about somebody else's movie. It's very strange. So I do feel that distance, it's increasing rapidly as I get older.
The first thing to say about eXistenZ, it seems to me, and this is a key point, is that to date it is the last original script written by David Cronenberg to make it to the screen. A little while later it was announced that Painkillers, another original script, would be filmed, but that never happened, and I remember some time in the mid 2000s, when asked about the status on Painkillers, Cronenberg said it wasn't happening, and that he was no longer interested in doing it anyway. This is the sort of accumulation of ambivalence that generally indicates that the film in question -- in this case eXistenZ -- is no good, or a somewhat tedious final trip to the well. However, eXistenZ is a strong shot of the old Cronenberg, the genre Cronenberg, a return in some ways to Videodrome, as mentioned, while also being the first part of a two-film mucking-around with twist ending and the nature of reality, a structure and theme that were hugely popular in mainstream filmmaking at the time. However the other film, 2002's Spider, based on Patrick McGrath's novel and with a script by McGrath, though it feels more at one with the stately perversion of Crash and Dead Ringers, it's another step in Cronenberg's pulling away from the grotesque, even cutting disturbing images from the novel that McGrath had included in the script with the full confidence that Cronenberg was the man to bring them off. But he didn't do them at all. Everything was changing. So you see these two films match up quite well, and I'm not just being lazy.
The injured Geller is hustled out of there by Pikul because it appears that this may not have just been a case of a lone gunman, but rather they may (or may not) be caught up in some kind of anti-gaming terrorist attack. They hit the country roads at night, get a motel room, and because Geller has this new game of hers loaded into her game controller, which she treats and cares for as if it was a living thing which it kind of is, or actually is, and part of taking care of it is to play it, she needs Pikul to get a bioport. I'll skip ahead -- he does, but the black market bioport is intentionally compromised by the terrorist plot, which draws into the drama the very Cronenbergianly named Kiri Vinokur (Ian Holm), a kind of mob doctor for game controllers. His allegiance will be questioned, and the health of Geller's controller is a constant concern. For her, anyway.
But anyway. So. Enough of this plot shit...which is a sentiment not entirely irrelevant to eXistenZ. Of course Pikul and Geller do begin playing the game, and to Pikul it's a marvel: so like the real world that eventually the question of eXistenZ (which, I mean...) becomes what is real and what is the game. By the end of the film the divide is still unclear -- also unclear who is the terrorist and who is the terrorized -- and virtual reality videogames seem to have just come in for a right skewering. But back to my point: the plot of "eXistenZ" (this being sort of distinct from eXistenZ, you understand) is very complicated and full of double crosses, and is not treated very seriously, except to the extent that it, and its dangers, bleed over into reality (or "reality," but, I mean, you get that by now), and Pikul and Geller react to a lot of it as most people would react to any game that called for role-playing, that is to say, with a kind of self-conscious enthusiasm. And so much of eXistenZ plays like an almost romantic light thriller. It's sort of like North by Northwest, and if in that film Hitchcock used a train entering a tunnel as a visual wink towards wedding night copulation, Cronenberg uses the insertion of a kind of living, fleshy plug into a bioport in one's spine as a wink towards I think in this case anal sex. With Jennifer Jason Leigh performing anal sex upon Jude Law. Anyhow, I'm being diverted again.
So eXistenZ is ostensibly about virtual reality video games, but the points made within it, about the addictive quality of fantasy, and the formal aspects of artistically constructed fantasy, have more to do, particularly in 1999, with film than with video games. Or at least Cronenberg recognized that, as one would have then extrapolated on the idea of virtual reality games as a science fiction concept, all or anyway many of the things one might wind up thinking about were already present in cinema. So when Geller regrets that a video game character she and Pikul have just interacted with spouts boring dialogue and is not especially well-formed, these seem less like something that a late-90s game designer would be especially worried about, but a commercial filmmaker would be. The groundwork was being laid, but of course much of the evolution process of video games has been to mimic films as much as possible (I understand there are exceptions, but I'd say this is still pretty much true). To really immerse a player in a game is to make that game more like a film. And at one point in eXistenZ, Pikul, who is being swept along in the game, and is rolling with it all as well as he can, is briefly jarred by the fact that one moment he's making love to Geller in a stockroom (Cronenberg is quite capable of including metaphors for a thing and the thing itself in one film, even one scene), and the next instant he's in a kind of fish-gutting factory. Yes, these kinds of transitions existed in video games, but what Pikul is reacting to is a cut, and what he's very specifically reacting to is Cronenberg's cut, his cinematic cut -- the editing of Ronald Sanders on the David Cronenberg film eXistenZ.
Cronenberg at this point in his career and his life is perhaps a bit tired with what he'd been doing, or rather, what he was known for, and while his work after eXistenZ is actually more classical in many ways than his earlier films, in eXistenZ he's almost mocking classic filmmaking. Or sending it up, maybe. As suggested earlier, this film now plays to me as almost a straight comedy, and though it's a pretty gory one it's also not actually mean. That is to say, he's not trying to plunge a knife in the heart of movies, but you can't send up the conventions, or possible future conventions, of virtual reality without acknowledging that movies are susceptible to the same dings. If video games can be addictive, as the AA atmosphere of the bookending presentation scenes imply, as a substitute for reality, if you can lose yourself within the life you pretend to be living as you play, and if you're starting to feel actual heart-beating emotions connected to these unreal events and people (and the terrorist motives in the film, and the plot of the game, revolve around this danger), then what counts as real and what doesn't becomes a question rather than a statement. And if you can be lost in the fantasy of video games, why not the more proven comfort and potentially (depending) passive fantasy of film?
While Cronenberg downplays the similarities between eXistenZ and Videodrome they're less superficial than he claims. In the case of the earlier film, see video and cable television for video games (within the context of the individual films these ideas themselves become very superficial, I'll grant you, and Cronenberg). Unlike Videodrome, though, eXistenZ almost feels conventional, at least in 1999, and now. It wouldn't have been had he made it back when he made Videodrome, but the narrative structure, and the hazy reality and twisty nature of the plot in 1999 becomes part of the game, and part of the joke. Though the "what exactly is going on?" punchline here does have a chill to it.
eXistenZ is often mentioned in relation to other science fiction films of the era that question the nature of reality, such as Alex Proyas's Dark City and the Wachowskis' The Matrix, but you could also connect it to the flood of "twist ending" films that soaked the era. The nature of twists such as the one that made M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense so famous is that it forces the audience to question what they've already seen, or the "reality" of the film. It's only later in eXistenZ that the audience questions the fact that the bizarre meat gun Jude Law assembles in the Chinese restaurant late in the film was the same gun, or same kind of gun, used by the terrorist in the film's opening scene. This realization makes you wonder if anything was real. The film doesn't have a twist, as such, but the whole premise almost functions in the same way. And traditionally that's how Cronenberg achieved this effect, not by pulling the rug out from under the viewer but by never giving them a rug in the first place. Yet in 2002 he did make his version of the twist ending thriller with an adaptation of Patrick McGrath's Spider.
Spider has a twist ending, but it also forces the audience to question their surroundings almost right from the beginning, because it's told from the point of view of a schizophrenic named Dennis Cleg, nicknamed Spider (Ralph Fiennes) who as the film begins has just been released from a mental asylum. We first see him getting off a train, and the time is clearly modern day, the other passengers wearing contemporary clothes and so on, but that's the last time Spider will feel contemporary. The boarding house to which Spider has been referred, a boarding house run by the stern Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynne Redgrave), is basically our only present day setting, the rest of the film involving flashbacks to Spider's childhood, and Mrs. Wilkinson pretty clearly doesn't have much interest in keeping the place up to date; her clientele consists entirely of men like Spider. So that's our first bit of wonkiness: when are we? Even though we know, everything feels off. It's both 2002 and the early 1960s at the absolute latest.
The question otherwise becomes, what happened to Spider to make him this way? Or what did he do? Spider is who we follow, but he's a shambling, mumbling, wreck of a human. It's not that he's inarticulate, it's that the viewer can't tell if he is or not. McGrath's novel is written in the first person, and Spider is quite articulate indeed. The novel begins:
I've always found it odd that I can recall incidents from my boyhood with clarity and precision, and yet events that happened yesterday are blurred, and I have no confidence in my ability to remember them accurately at all.
Which sets things up nicely, but anyhow, that's not the Spider of the film. Or maybe it is, in his head, but Fiennes plays him as a man who is constantly talking to himself but specific words can only be understood very sporadically. His fingers are perpetually tobacco-stained, his hair is stuck in a kind of Samuel Beckett-like dishevelment, he's hunched, he acts fearful of other people, and he's always scribbling in his...journal? It's a notebook of some sort, and what he's writing isn't English. Is it an intentional code? Or is it what Spider has come to believe is language? In any case, we're not getting any information from him, and as such Fiennes' performance is something of a tour de force, a silent film performance if silent film actors were instructed to be as still as possible. What we learn about his past, and why he ended up in a mental institution, comes from his flashbacks. Spider, by which I mean Fiennes, is present in these flashbacks (shades of Johnny Smith being present in his visions in The Dead Zone), as he follows his younger self (Bradley Hall) home where he lives in fear of his love for his mother (Miranda Richardson) and resentful of his father (Gabriel Byrne), who he views as a drunk philanderer, and finally murderer of his mother. When she's dead, Spider's father brings in Yvonne (Richardson again), the kind of woman who would once have been called a slattern. Boozy, coarse, generally inappropriate, she's reminiscent of a woman young Spider saw when, in the time before his mother's death, he went to retrieve his father from the local pub. This blonde woman -- blonde and coarse and Cockney in the way Yvonne is -- flashed the boy, frightening him and unhooking something in his pending, or occurring, puberty, as well, possibly, in the madness that is, let's not forget, a problem of biochemistry, not simply a matter of seeing the wrong thing at the wrong time.
So, again, enough of this plot shit. When Miranda Richardson shows up twice, once as Spider's pure angel of a mother and twice as, and let's not put too fine a point on this, her whorish replacement (and accomplice in her murder, by the way), Spider's madness begins to take shape, and the extent to which we can trust his memory becomes a matter for debate. Gabriel Byrne told Cronenberg that the role of Bill Cleg was the hardest one he'd ever had to play, because in every scene he had to play Bill in a way that kept a baseline of the individual character while adding different distortions, or reality as the case may be, based on the facts, or "facts" (as the case may be), Cronenberg wanted to communicate. Meanwhile Miranda Richardson -- who Cronenberg seems to have cast because he's always wanted to see her really cut loose, and boy does she (this is a compliment) -- has to play Mrs. Cleg, Yvonne, and eventually, as Spider's past begins to take over his present, Mrs. Wilkinson, and finally Yvonne as Mrs. Wilkinson. And is Yvonne even a person?
This is the key. Spider has been driven mad, or hastened to madness, by the murder, with a shovel, of his mother by his father, because his drunken father wanted Yvonne. But Yvonne is just "Yvonne," the nameless woman who flashed him, and whose sexuality he associates with his mother -- perhaps because she's the only woman he knows? -- and the shame of the accompanying arousal forces him to imagine her dead, and the busty Yvonne to storm through, both satisfying his lust, in the sense that he can ogle her without guilt, and inciting his rage because she's taken the place of his sainted mother. But she's his mother, his father didn't kill his mother (when Bill Cleg is off fornicating with "Yvonne," does the audience at that point question how Spider could be privy to these scenes?), his father is evidently as good a man as his mother was a good woman, so that when Spider exacts his revenge, it's not Yvonne he kills. But in the end, his mother has been murdered.
That's our twist, that's how Cronenberg, and McGrath of course, has upended everything, and forced the audience to rewind the film in their brains. The difference here is that Spider is finally a mix -- not consciously, but still -- of the relentless irreality of eXistenZ and the twist structure of The Sixth Sense, so that if while watching Spider you don't know what the ending will be, you do know that what you're being told can't be right. This may be why the twist doesn't infuriate the way some twists can, when your investment in what you've seen is blown apart for the love of a gimmick, because you're unable to invest in the plot because you don't quite know what the plot is. But it's possible to be invested in Spider, and in fact I'd argue that Spider is Cronenberg's most emotionally powerful film since The Fly. To make another comparison, Spider is closer to Scorsese's Shutter Island, a tremendously good film I happened to rewatch recently, than other twist films because in both cases the twist renders what has come before, in relation to the respective protagonists, not irrelevant, which is the danger, but actually sadder. The fact that Spider isn't a victim doesn't make him hateful -- it means he has no hope.
As I said before, McGrath's novel has Cronenbergian grotesque imagery -- a bleeding potato, a tiny dead fetus in a bottle of milk -- that Cronenberg skipped over. With eXistenZ behind him, which is wild to the point of satire, with its tooth-shooting meat guns and living-flesh game controllers that buttfuck your spine, it's not impossible to understand that Cronenberg recognized that something was now past. It's also telling, if I may briefly jump ahead, that he cut a dream sequence from his next film that involved a man taking a gun out of his own chest wound because Cronenbreg realized he was repeating himself (it's also telling that for Cronenberg, that is repeating himself). Though the next phase of his career doesn't involve any narrative experimentation, this one-two shot of eXistenZ and Spider, films that traffic in story conventions of their very specific time, seems to have cleansed him of a certain self-consciousness that may have been creeping in, the kind of self-consciousness that hits a person when they've decided it's time to move on, but they haven't done it yet, because they have this one last thing to do.