Tracing Mental Images
Identity and existence in the postmodern landscape of eXistenZ and I Love a Man in Uniform
By Li Xueying
“Human existence is realised simultaneously on two parallel planes, that of temporality, becoming, illusion, and that of eternity, substance, reality,” wrote Mircea Eliade. Today, the two parallels are defying their very own definitions and the absolute laws of mathematics to collapse into each other. Plato is turning in his grave as human understanding moves towards a paradoxical marriage of the two seeming irreconcilables – abstracts that cannot be defined in and of themselves except through their dichotomous relationship to the other. Temporality cannot exist without eternity; becoming cannot exist without substance; and illusion cannot exist without reality.
The classical principals are presented as hollow and ringing false, in two films that are emblematic of the post-modern age – David Wellington’s I Love a Man in Uniform (1993) and David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999). Both, in their own ways, explore themes such as post-modernism and the fragmentation of reality, identity, technology and sex. In addition, this essay will relate pertinent themes to Canadian culture and film.
It has been said that the spirit of our present Internet age is that of post-modernism. It rejects narrative, and there is no overarching explanation for the way things are. Instead, we live in disjointed and self-centred capsules of existence, a “schizophrenic experience... of isolated, disconnected, discontinuous material signifiers which fail to link up into a coherent sequence” (Jameson). The real contexts of existence are so fluid and dynamic that often, our points of reference shift at will. This is a point that is vividly brought up in eXistenZ, which provides a metaphor of this fragmented quality of existence in the form of a video game. To begin with, the setting is fittingly anonymous and impersonal – the usual icons of milieu, such as time and place, are missing, and one notes that it is also stripped of the usual signifier clues that construct a situation. Considering that this is a film based on technology, there are ironically no signs of technology as we know it. Computers, telephones, televisions and clocks – the usual trappings of modernity – make no appearances, while costumes are kept minimal. Painted over with dreary shades of bland greyness, there is a deliberate lack of constructed situations, which prevents the audience from slipping over sets of pre-conceived notions – the film is accepted on its own terms.
Thus, when the male protagonist, Jude Law’s Ted Pikul, expresses his anxiety about playing in an “unformed world where the rules and objectives are largely unknown”, he is in fact describing a game that everyone in the post-modern world is already participating in. This sets the stage for the film’s main theme on the blurring of the line between reality and illusion. Director Cronenberg skilfully navigates several layers of corporeal existence vs. digital fantasy as the players of the game eXistenZ plug into a virtual world, and we, the audience, are swept along. And to prove the point about not bringing our assumptions into the world with us, the penultimate twist, with which we realise that the film began within the game instead of being rooted in reality, overturns the comfortable linear sequence of existence that we have come to expect. However, Cronenberg is kind enough to provide hints for the discerning viewer – the image before the opening credits is structured in the format of a video game, as though we were preparing to play a game ourselves instead of watching a film.
Thus, even as our expectations of what the real world is disintegrate, so real life “feels completely unreal” to Pikul. As Ballard, the writer of the novel on which Crash!, another Cronenberg film, was based puts it, “the one small node of reality left to us is inside our heads”. In an Internet world, reality is what we define it to be, in a game of life that is driven by the player's own experiences, fears and memories. What is important is the series of “perpetual presents” that is happening here and now.
In I Love a Man in Uniform, reality and fantasy segue into each other seamlessly, both in the mind of Henry Adler (Tom McCamus), the loser bank clerk moonlighting as an actor playing a cop, and what we literally see on the screen – a rehearsal of a love scene transits into a real take as the camera, which we do not see, draws back to reveal other cameras. Just as director Wellington’s selective shooting and editing of sequences present an interpretation that he dictates, so Adler’s mind acts as a gatekeeper, sifting out the mundane details of his real identity, and retaining and amplifying his other persona. As the method actor brings home his police uniform costume from the set, and thus, also importing the theatrical world within his head, he fleshes it out, in all senses of the word. The outer disguise subsumes the inner person. In his last scene with co-star and onscreen beloved Charlie Warner (Brigitte Bako), he despairs, saying, “You don’t see me and you don’t hear me.” What Warner does not see is the inner picture in his head that he has constructed. He tells her of his desires and aspirations in a desperate attempt to induct her into his “inner space, that psychological domain where the inner world of the mind and the outer world of reality meet and fuse”, as Ballard puts it. But what Warner sees instead is a man who is off kilter – her modernistic mind does not grasp the possibility of such an alignment. The escape of the characters in both films to a virtual world of their own making is the film’s indictment of reality as we know it today, one which, as Armour says, “becomes increasingly empty and meaningless”. Gas (Willem Dafoe) declares that he has been “liberated” by eXistenZ, while reality is alluded to as “the cage of your own making, which keeps you trapped and pacing about in the smallest space forever” by eXistenZ designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh). As the author and creator of fantasy worlds into which people can escape from the humdrum of reality, she has attained the religious / cult status of “God, the artist[,] [t]he mechanic” who remakes the rules of existence.
Adler is dissatisfied with an “upside-down” world where there is a prevalence of the apathy represented by his superior at the bank whom he denounces, saying, “You lay down and close your eyes when the bad guys bomb all over society”. This dissatisfaction and, more importantly, his own futility and helplessness in the face of such “disease”, drive him to a fantasy of a world of law enforcement where the rules are set up straight again and right prevails over wrong. Ironically, he is seeking to return to a modernistic world that exists only in a TV show, for in reality, lines are not drawn in such black and white. The perfect god begins to crack, as Adler becomes privy to the corruption and sordidness that exist amongst the real cops. Another inherent irony lies in the fact that Adler himself breaks the very sacred laws that he fights to uphold – he impersonates, steals, has illegal possession of a gun and, finally, kills.
Thus, in a post-modern turn, the characters utilise the tools of post-modernism to denounce the post-modern world in which they reside. They flee from a world with fragmented and blurred lines, to seek meaning in ritualised ones, where certain things have to be said and done in order to advance the plot and move to the next level. It is no coincidence that the increasingly anal Adler is obsessed with the few standard lines and procedures that a cop deploys in his attempt to recreate a world where things are the way they’re “supposed to be”.
Consumer culture is another instrument wielded in a society where identity is increasingly being conferred by material goods. Characters rely on external forces to give meaning to their lives, and to fill up the absence of personal validation. “Cultural production…must, as in Plato’s cave, trace its mental images of the world on its confining walls”, writes Jameson. Similarly, characters seem to be so insubstantial that they can no longer be defined in and of their original selves. Rather, they are defined only in relation to other things such as material goods. The expressive power of clothes cannot be underestimated in I Love a Man in Uniform, while the pulsating game pod is clearly a vehicle of Allegra’s emotions. The pod’s nipple-like control knobs, which enable the characters to dive into the fantasy world, may lead one to postulate that there exists an almost Freudian desire to return to the mother’s breast and a world of security and comfort.
Double entendres abound within both films, often in contexts that deviate from what has been endorsed by power-embedded discourse as the norm in human society. Considering that another feature of post-modernism is that of Foucaultian experimentation that overturns traditional constructs, the extended metaphor between sex and eXistenZ the game – the sexualisation of the organs from the sinuous phallic umbilical cord that inserts into a suggestive bio-port in the spine and the nippled piece of pulsating protoplasm that is the game pod – is weirdly appropriate, if not expected. Homoeroticism is also suggested, as the original pod seems to be female, and enjoys an intimate relationship with its creator, Allegra. In Cronenbergesque fashion, the visceral becomes visual, as bodily interiors cease to be private spheres, “articulating the breakdown of the distinction between within and without”, as Linda Ruth Williams writes in The Body's Perilous Pleasures.
Though not so prominent in I Love a Man in Uniform, objects are also endowed with sexuality; in particular, guns and bullets. In the scene where Adler is being interviewed by the cops in after the bank robbery, a woman demonstrates how the gun was placed in her mouth. Kneeling down before the male police officer, she places his finger in her mouth, an unerring parallel to the performance of oral sex. Similarly, Alder loads his gun by placing bullets in his mouth, which he spews out individually. Shots are shown of the bullet hurtling through the barrel, as if reminiscent of a sexual orgasm. Here, one sees the link between sex and power. Just as the pod is the linchpin and symbol of power in eXistenZ, so too is the gun here.
Virtual reality is presented as a sort of tawdry, hallucinogenic drug, in keeping with the sub-themes of psychopathology and psychosis. The characters experience mental or behavioural disorders, as befits the existence of what Ballard calls “an almost infantile world, where any demand, any possibility, whether for lifestyles, travel or sexual roles and identities, can be satisfied”. Pikul feels “vulnerable and disembodied”, and this is not helped by advice such as “It's your character who said it... Don't fight it”. Together with Adler, he becomes the schizophrenic in today’s post-modern landscape, as espoused by Jameson (“a perpetual present with which the various moments of his or her past have little connection and for which there is no future on the horizon”), who has no “personal identity”.
This brings to mind Marshall McLuhan’s Narcissuses theme, or the concept of cultural self-hypnosis. He explains how modern humanity sees the extension of itself in technology and becomes transfixed, in the manner of the Greek myth of Narcissus, who saw his reflection in the water and was captivated by it. “He was numb. He had adapted to his extension of himself and had become a closed system. Now the point of this myth is the fact that men at once become fascinated by any extension of themselves in any material other than themselves”.
This theme is particularly illuminated in I Love a Man in Uniform. The use of television images, mirrors and reflections in windows and cabinets is a constant motif throughout the film, and is especially stunning (and telling) in the opening image of the bloodied police uniform replicated in the gleaming windows of a hi-tech building in Toronto. In this single scene, Wellington synthesised the symbiotic relationship between identity and technology within the Canadian discourse. To begin with, Wilden proposes that when the Imaginary is dominant in one’s perceptions, and when the mirror image takes over the original body, we have “no reliable way which enables us to tell the difference between what we perceive and what we think we are perceiving”. This is the root of Alder’s problem. As he checks himself out in the mirror, in the reflection of the gun cabinet and in his television persona, Flanagan, he allows that constructed, imaginary self to gain control of his original person. This results in the distortion of his reality.
And this theme of the creation subverting the creator is related to the hypothesis that even as Cronenberg celebrates the creative and emancipating role of technology (in liberating Pikul from his original self), both he and Wellington have a cautionary moral to preach – the need to harness technology to proper uses, such that Frankenstein’s monster will not devour its creator. From the simple child’s tale of Pinocchio, to the classic of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, thinkers have exhorted humankind to retain a tight grip on their own creations so that they do not turn about and bite the hands that feed them. The dangers of this are shown in eXistenZ, where Allegra loses control and is locked out of the game that she had painstakingly designed for five years. “Free will is a fantasy in this little world of ours,” Pikul complains after ordering the special and then giving in to the created "game-urge" that is so violent that he could not but force himself to eat what he naturally found “disgusting”. Together with the conclusion that poses the scary possibility that the game has not ended, this meditation on the eternal power struggle between creator and creation posits Cronenberg as a technological realist who keeps the “tension alive between the opposing tendencies to domination and emancipation in technological society”, a fact already proven with his past credentials such as Crash!.
It seems likely that the two directors intended their respective films to be pan-Canadian metaphors for their country. Technology has become the crux of an existentialist discourse on Canadian culture. The schizoid identity of the individuals in the films may be transported onto the ambivalent Canadian mind – “that of the in-between: a restless oscillation between the pragmatic will to live at all costs of the Americans and a searing lament for that which has been suppressed by the modern, technological order”, as Arthur Kroker writes. Torn between its cultural and historical legacy of a European past and its geographical proximity to and current cultural influence from the United States, Canada finds itself undecided on how to proceed down the “skywalk, into an unknown future”. The two films do not attempt to offer an answer, and instead leave more questions hanging at the end.
Ultimately, though made by Canadian directors who may have drawn their sources of inspirations from the country’s fabric and customs to express a certain sense of national identity, the influence and relevance of the films are not, and should not, be limited to this country. Technology and its relationships to power and civilisation are issues that the rest of humankind needs to grapple with too. The worldwide tsunami of technological development is a hallmark of the post-modern epoch, and as it blurs the lines between an Original and its Other, who knows which is the Man and which is the Uniform?QLRS Vol. 1 No. 1 Oct 2001