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”.
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QLRS Vol. 1 No. 1 Oct 2001