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?
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QLRS Vol. 1 No. 1 Oct 2001