Cronenberg’s latest film, “eXistenZ,” is the first screenplay that the director has authored since the twisted cult classic “Videodrome” in 1983. It is thus not surprising that his new work in many ways feels thematically similar, and at times, even reads like a sequel.
Cronenberg is disarmingly straightforward, thoughtful, and articulate, and does not match the mental picture some might hold of a man who brings notoriously dark imaginings and extremes of psychological dysfunction to life.
At the Prescott Hotel in San Francisco, I discussed the director’s relationship to his films, and man’s intimate relationship to technology.
What scares you? What are your nightmares?
The same things scare me that scare most people. I mean, I’m not superhuman or parahuman, or whatever. You worry about your kids getting sick and dying, and you worry about your plane crashing that you’re flying in. I mean, all the usual stuff. I mean, I’m not immune to it. It’s odd — I don’t really think about fear all that much. I mean, when I’m making a movie it’s not like I’m thinking, “What is the essence of fear? How will I make people afraid?” Which I think ultimately is one of the reasons that I never thought that I was doing the same thing as directors like John Carpenter or George Romero, or even, at times, Hitchcock, even though I was compared with those other guys. I always thought we were doing different things, we were after different game. And I figure the filmmaking process is a very personal one to me, I mean, it really is a personal kind of communication. Obviously, then, I’m communicating on a lot of levels on a lot of different things. But it’s not as though it’s a study of fear, or any of that stuff.
It’s a collaboration. Anybody who comes to the cinema is bringing their whole sexual history, their literary history, their movie literacy, their culture, their language, their religion — whatever they’ve got — and I can’t possibly manipulate all of that, nor do I want to. So it’s really meeting them halfway, in a way. We’re mixing our blood together in some way, we’re collaborating on a reaction, on their part. You know, I’m often surprised; I mean, I expect to be surprised by my audience’s reactions to things.
Do you even think of your work as horror, in that respect?
No, I don’t. “The Fly” was, technically, a horror/sci-fi film. And this film (“eXistenZ”) is technically a sci-fi film. But to me it’s not a creative category. That’s a marketing problem, or it’s possibly a critical problem, you know, a journalistic preoccupation. But it just doesn’t function on a creative level. There’s nothing I can do with any of that on a creative level. It doesn’t mean anything.
Because each movie generates its own little biosphere, and I has its own little ecology, and its climate, and you’re attuned to that more than anything else. So when people say, “Is there anything you wouldn’t show on film,” or, “Do you ever draw back?” I’m saying if I do, it’s only because of that biosphere; what is appropriate, what works within the ecology of that movie? So in one movie sex and blood would be very up-front, like “Crash,” because it’s sort of the subject of the movie, and in another movie, like “The Dead Zone,” it would not be appropriate. It just doesn’t work somehow; it would be disproportionate.
So there’s no sex, really, in “eXistenZ,” except metaphorically. And there was an opportunity to have sex, to have sex scenes, and we were all willing to do that. But as the film evolved, you know, we just thought that would be wrong. It would take away from the metaphorical sex, which is more interesting, it has more resonance, and if you suddenly threw a real naked sex scene in the middle of it, it would not balance all that, almost invalidate it. So you wait, and the movie gradually tells you what it wants to be, and you have to sort of go along with that.
You’ve got to understand that I’m not actually that interested in predicting anything. It’s not like Arthur C. Clarke saying, “I predicted satellites twenty years before there were satellites.” I don’t get much joy out of that, even though there are instances that I could point to where things that I invented in my movies actually have come to pass. But that’s not a big deal to me. It’s all the metaphor and the drama and the meaning of it, and all of that that’s interesting to me. The technology is just a I mean I kind of sidestep it in this movie. Because we don’t have any computers in the movie, and you don’t have computer screens, and it’s really not about videogame-playing, or computer game playing — it’s a completely different technology. But, at the same time, I’m certainly aware that the big chip makers, like Intel and everybody, they’ve all done heavy, heavy research into using protein molecules in their chips as the basis of their chips. Protein molecules are the basis of organic life. There was an article recently about experiments done to try to use DNA strands as electrical wiring in a chip. So it’s inevitable to me, since I see technology first of all as being an extension of the human body, it’s inevitable that it should come home to roost. I mean, it just makes sense. I literally show that in the movie with the pods plugged into the bioports.
The man-machine interface is a big theme in a lot of your films.
See, I don’t think of it as a man-machine interface, though. See, that’s the thing — I’m trying desperately to get it’s much more intimate than that.
“Cyborgization” is the word I think of.
But, see, I don’t.
What is it then, for you?
Well, because technology is us. I mean, there is no separation. Technology is a pure expression of human creative will; that’s what technology is. And it doesn’t exist anywhere else in the universe, I’m rather sure of that — but we’ll see if the spaceships come. And if it is at times dangerous or threatening, it’s because in us we have things that are dangerous, self-destructive and threatening, and is expressed in various ways through our technology.
But it’s more than an interface. We are it. We’ve absorbed into our bodies. Our bodies, I think, are biochemically so different from the bodies of people like a thousand years ago, that I don’t even think we could mate with them. I think we might even be, in other words, like different species. We’re so different. Because we absorb it, it weaves in and out of us; so it’s not really an interface, in the sense, you know, that people think about a screen and a face. I see it as a lot more intimate than that.
Technology wants to be in our bodies because it sort of came out of our bodies. I mean, in a crude way that’s sort of what I’m thinking. It wants to come home, and that is its home. First of all, in the obvious way; the eyes with binoculars, the ears with telephones, and mouths with tape recorders. First of all technology had to be an enhancement of powers that we knew we had as creatures. And then it gets more elaborate and more distant from us and more abstract. But it still all emanates from us. It is us. That’s the main thing that we do.
It’s more than a theme; to me it’s kind of like a living presence, you know, a living understanding that is behind all of the movies.
How does the idea of the technological meshing of man and machine connect to another big theme I see, which is this fascinating idea of intersexuality?
I think with “Crash,” it was just getting very focused on the idea that sex is — we’re reinventing it. We are at a major epoch in human history — which everybody really knows about, but it’s not necessarily perceived that way, but I’m perceiving that way — which is that you don’t need sex to recreate the race. You can have babies without sex. Well this is the first time in human history that’s been true. And it means that we could, for example, do some extraordinary things. We could say, “You know sex is very problematic, it’s caused a lot of problems, it’s difficult; let’s have a moratorium on sex for a hundred years. No sex for a hundred years.” We could do that now for the first time. We couldn’t have done that twenty years ago.
So I don’t think we’ll do that, but I do think that sex is being reinvented. It’s becoming disconnected from what it was initially just in the same way that we’ve taken control of our own evolution. We no longer are subject to the laws of survival of the fittest in sort of the gross physical way that Darwin articulated, even though I don’t think we’re quite aware of it, and don’t know how to deal with it. But we’re messing around with our evolution at the genetic level, you know, at the gene level. In the same way, sex is up for grabs, you know, for reinvention. There always have been elements of politics, fashion, pleasure, art, in sexuality, but now those things are in a weird way almost the primary part of sexuality. So why not say, “Okay, well, what about some new sexual organs?” Well, why not? They don’t have to reproduce, they don’t have to do all that complex chromosome splitting and stuff that goes with real reproduction. So why not have direct access to your nervous system and create new orifices to do God knows what? So in a way you’re seeing new sex, neo-sex, in this movie. Do you even want to call it sex? It’s obviously inducing some kind of pleasure in the way that sex does. So I think that’s happening.
You’re seeing a lot of body modification; while in the same way we’ve never accepted the environment as given to us, we’ve never accepted the human body either. We’ve always been messing with it to the full extent of whatever technology at the time would allow us to do. But there’s also the other element of body modification, which is not medical, but it’s social, it’s political, it’s sexual, it’s cosmetic, it’s fashion. Just what people do now, with scarring, and tattooing, and piercing, and all that, and performance art as well, it would have been unthinkable — certainly as mainstream as it is now — not very long ago.
I’m just observing the world, got born into it like you did, and then found out that there were some really disturbing aspects to being alive, like that fact that you weren’t going to be alive forever — that bothered me. Do you remember when you found out that you wouldn’t live forever? People don’t talk about this, but everybody had to go through it, because you’re not born with that knowledge, and that’s the basis of all existentialist thought, the philosophy, I mean, which of course is an underpinning of this movie — it’s not called “eXistenZ” for nothing. It’s sort of, “Oh my God, how do I deal with this?”
For me, the first fact of human existence is the human body. That is the most real fact we have. The further from your own body you get, the less real everything is, the less verifiable, the less you connect with it. But if you embrace the reality of the human body, you are embracing your own mortality. And that is a very difficult thing for anybody to do, because the self-conscious mind cannot imagine non-existence, it’s not possible to do it. Try it! So not only can you not really imagine dying, you can’t really, not really, imagine existence before you were born. So I think, for example, that that’s one of the reasons that people believe so strongly in reincarnation. They kind of assume that somehow they were there. You can’t imagine things going on without you. That’s just the nature of our self-consciousness.
So I observed these things as a kid, and then gradually I’m kind of expressing this, and I’m kind of talking to myself through my movies about all of this stuff. And then I’m really inviting the audience to kind of have that conversation with me, or watch me talking to myself, however you think of it. And you’re seeing me not only learn to be a filmmaker, to start with my earliest films, but you’re seeing me kind of learn how to be human, you know, to understand, to develop a philosophy of life.
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