Wednesday, December 24, 2003

EXISTENZ

Or rather "eXistenZ" in the title's pathetic attempt at being interesting. Okay, maybe I'm getting off on the wrong foot here, but there was a lot of hackneyed hacker speak in this film and it bugged me.
This should have been a better film. It had Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law, both of whose work I've enjoyed (although I can't say I've seen the majority of either of their work.) Jennifer Jason Leigh did a fine job. Jude Law did a fine job with one of the worst American accents I've ever heard. Worse than Michael Caine. The film kind of uses bad accents as a running joke, but it wasn't clear to me if Jude Law's bad accent was part of the joke or not. It just came off as sloppy to me. Willem Dafoe was in it for a few minutes and gave a performance consistent with the high bar he's raised for himself. It also had Iam Holm feasting, yea glutting himself on the scenery. Good Gravy. What was in the catering on this film? The cast acted so odd.
Maybe it was Cronenberg. Maybe he's lost control of his casts. I can tell you that he hasn't lost control of his fresh reinventions of horror. This film was gruelingly disturbing in its exploration of the exploitation of genetic engineering. I have to give Cronenberg credit. He can really gross you out in ways you hadn't been grossed out before. And he doesn't do it in the same way from film to film. So, there was some freshness to this film, which may have been its most redeeming quality.
This film raised a lot of questions for me that I'm not sure the film meant to raise. The main thing was that it made me happy that Philip K Dick is a name that more people are starting to recognize. Besides the literary value being discovered, one of the main points of PKD becoming more well known that I think it urgently needed is that it might prevent more people from so obviously ripping off his ideas. I remember when I saw Fight Club I was angry because Palahniuk's big surprise plot twist that the story was hinged on was ripped straight out of Philip K Dick's "Valis." People were saying what a great plot twist it was and I agreed. It was a great plot twist. WHEN I READ IT FROM PKD'S TWENTY YEAR OLD NOVEL!
Existenz (because I refused to continue the quirky capitalization), in my humble opinion, stole its major storyline from PKD's "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch." They use gaming connections rather than drugs, but that's really the only major difference. Oh and there's no Palmer Eldritch character in Existenz. I only mean to say that Existenz uses the disappearing into an alternative reality for long periods in short amounts of real time, the false reality bleeding over, and it gets dodgy as to what terrible things are happening in the false reality and which in the real. Three Stigmata is the craziest book I've ever read and I'm a fan of William Burroughs and Robert Anton Wilson. PKD himself said that when he re-read the book it occured to him that it wasn't so much that the story was psychotic but that the book itself was psychotic. Existenz was a pale rehash to me. It might have been a wild ride for others.
Somebody might make the coincidence argument. The nothing new under the sun argument. That maybe they just happened to make the film and never read PKD. We've all done it, right? We've all thought up something and realized how much it's like something else. Sorry, but I'll eat my hat if Chuck Palahniuk and David Cronenberg are unfamiliar with PKD.
So, the question the film raised for me was "Is it okay that they borrowed liberally from PKD?" It seems wrong to me. Why it seems wrong is a much harder question to answer. It's a question of where you draw the line. I myself have just written a retelling of an old Russian folk story to make it take place in Orange County in 1972. What's the difference?
What immediately springs to mind is that I just told you that it's a retelling of an early Russian folk story and I say it under the title of the story. Existenz and Fight Club at no point say that they are "retellings of an idea by Philip K Dick."
I don't know. Maybe I'm not cutting them enough slack. Maybe I'm tacking on a larger disagreement with films that were mearly disappointing. I myself also recently published a chapbook of poetry (which you can purchase through the email address at the top of this blog.) One of the poems is a ritual for getting over lost love and one of the lines says "3) Ask the gods if it is time for you to sleep with somebody else. If you don't hear from them, take it as a yes." I was in the bath the other day and it hit me, that's a joke from The Simpsons. Homer's praying "If you want me to eat these cookies, give me no sign."
I really don't know. We get so flooded with information and entertainment that these things sit right at the lip of our brains and slip out into our own work sometimes. I want you to know that I'm not saying that having ideas like PKD in these films makes them bad films. It could be totally by accident. It could be stolen outright. I don't know. I'll never know the intent of the writers. Even if I asked them, they could be lying. I will say two things for sure. One is that this is exactly why I focus so much on the editorial process in my work. In hopes of weeding out other people's ideas or giving them due credit if they seep in. The second thing is that Existenz wasn't a good film, but it wasn't a bad film either. I kept watching it and I got a lot out of it and it put ideas in my head and made me think about art (I suspect I was being led to ask questions about reality though.) It was a question that I don't have an answer to and there may not even be an ultimate answer to. That's what I enjoyed about this film.
It says on the video box "Makes `The Matrix' look like child's play." I agree, but that's not hard to do. It's not hard to make The Matrix look like turd.
In the end, it's a film that I'm glad I saw and I hope I never have to see it again.

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