Abstract: This paper attempts to examine three films by director David Cronenberg, Videodrome, Naked Lunch, and eXistenZ in an effort to understand his ideas regarding the transformative nature of information on the body and mind. As a filmmaker, Cronenberg is unique in that his major influences are writers, in particular transgressive writers like William S. Burroughs and Vladamir Nabokov rather than other filmmakers. This perspective imbues his films, especially his earlier horror and science fiction films with ideas befitting his inspirations. In Videodrome, information passes from person to person in the form of pirated video cassettes and transmissions which results in (possible) physical deformities while raising the mind to a higher level of perception. Cronenberg’s adaptation of Burroughs’ novel Naked Lunch discards most of the novel’s (non) narrative and instead focuses on the protagonist, William Lee trapped in a world that might only exist because of a combination of language and a drug derived from centipede carcases. His 1999 film eXistenZ is a capstone that combines ideas from Videodrome and Naked Lunch where bio-mechanical video game systems interface with people’s spines and transports them into a hyperreal existence.
Jorge Luis Borges, in his story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” first published in 1940, tells of a fictional world, Tlön, created by a group of intellectuals who disseminate bits of information about it in various books, magazines, encyclopedias, and dictionaries throughout the world so that as people begin to learn about this fictional reality, it gradually imprints itself on the real world, re-writing reality with its own paradigm. What began as a minor entry in an obscure encyclopedia becomes more and more ubiquitous, the more that people read and learn about it. The fictional world of Tlön spreads over the earth like a virus, a virus composed of information, mutating reality (Borges 1962, 3-18). David Cronenberg has been exploring similar themes in his films since the late 1970s, beginning briefly with The Brood (1979), and then fully with Videodrome (1983), his adaptation of William Burroughs’ novel Naked Lunch (1991) and eXistenZ (1999). Cronenberg’s films show a fascination with media, information, and their power over the human body and mind.
Cronenberg began making films in the late 1960s in his hometown of Toronto, Canada. Toronto did not have much at all in the way of a film industry, so he and other filmmakers had to create everything from scratch:
There wasn’t a film industry here, so there wasn’t even a film industry where you could plug in and say, ‘OK, if I work my way up from assistant director or third assistant director, eventually I’ll be directing.’ There wasn’t that opportunity, and so I don’t know what would have happened if it hadn’t been for the 60s and the underground film movement. I might not have become a director at all.(Cronenberg 2006, 14)
This ‘do it yourself’ approach to film making was influenced largely by underground art film directors working in New York at the time. Cronenberg says “our inspiration really was more from the New York underground filmmakers: Kenneth Anger and Ed Eschwiller and Jonas Mekas and the Kuchar Brothers” (Cronenberg 2006, 14). Author J.G. Ballard, whose novel Crash would later be adapted into a film by Cronenberg in 1996, says that in the 1960s, “[t]here was a major change in the way the mass media began reshaping reality” (Ballard 2005, 177). This change that Ballard speaks of seems to relate to the ubiquitousness of television in the homes of people all over the world and the effects that rapidly disseminating information, like the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald and nightly reports about the war in Vietnam, had on people who were largely unaccustomed to seeing such violent images at all, and then suddenly to have these images beamed into their homes: a saturation of information. It seems as though this saturation of media influenced a lot of Cronenberg’s own ideas on film making and storytelling.
Cronenberg’s inspirations, however, come largely from writers rather than other filmmakers. Browning says “[t]he kind of literature towards which Cronenberg seems to be drawn is best known to academic or cultish circles rather than populist best-sellers” (Browning 2007, 27). In fact, Cronenberg initially wanted to be a writer, but as Beard says “Nabokov and Burroughs initially inspired Cronenberg to be a writer, but it was a sense that he could not escape their influence which led to a rejection of that particular ambition” (Beard 1996, 827). Browning adds that “although he changed mediums from the page to the screen, the influence of his literary mentors did not disappear altogether” (Browning 2007, 109). Cronenberg’s films are first and foremost about ideas. Like the authors Jorge Luis Borges, Vladamir Nabokov, Philip K. Dick, William S. Burroughs, and J.G. Ballard, Cronenberg uses his chosen medium of film to explore concepts. Character development often takes a back seat to the philosophical concerns he presents in his films. Cronenberg seems to be particularly fascinated with exploring the spread of information through media and the effect this spread of information has on the human mind and body. In Cronenberg’s films, information in the form of memes has a mutating effect on the body as well as the mind. This effect in turn often causes a kind of paradigm shift regarding perceptual distortions of reality. The mutations of the body lead to a perceptual awakening to the nature of reality. This paper will examine in detail three films by Cronenberg, Videodrome, Naked Lunch, and eXistenZ in an attempt to understand Cronenberg’s ideas on the impact information has on the body and how these information viruses or “memes” mutate the body and move the mind to a higher state of perception or consciousness.
What are Memes?
To begin with, it is important to understand what exactly memes are and how they work. The term “meme” was coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 in his book The Selfish Gene:
Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense canbe called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, in can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain.(Dawkins 1976, 192)
Additionally, Blackmore says, regarding memes that: “[t]he human language faculty primarily provided a selective advantage to memes, not genes. The memes then changed the environment where genes were selected, and so forced them to build better and better meme spreading apparatus. In other words, the function of language is to spread memes” (Blackmore 1999, 99). Memes are ideas that spread like a virus from person to person. The fictional universe in the Borges story mentioned earlier functions like a meme that re-writes the rules of reality. Regarding the psychological aspects of memes, Brodie says: “the memes in your head cause behavioral effects. Likening your mind to a computer, memes are the software part of your programming; the brain and the central nervous system. Produced by your genes is the hardware part” (Brodie 1996, 7).
Cronenberg first began to touch upon this concept of viral ideas in his film The Brood from 1979. In The Brood, a psychiatrist, Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) has developed a method whereby a patients’ fears and psychological traumas are, upon discovery, manifested physically in the form of lesions or tumors. The patients convert this information into illnesses, sores, lesions. Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar)’s trauma manifests itself in an ever-increasing “brood” of mutant children who kill. In The Brood, information becomes an agent of mutation: “[m]emes are to a human’s behavior what genes are to our bodies: internal representations of knowledge that result in outward effects on the world” (Brodie 1996, 7).
Videodrome: The Video Word Made Flesh
Videodrome, released in 1983, is where Cronenberg truly begins to explore the idea of information as an agent of mutation. The story concerns the owner of a cable TV station, Max Renn (James Woods) who discovers (or as we find out later, is led to) an underground TV show called “Videodrome.” From the moment Max sees Videodrome, his reality begins to shift, subtly at first with Max’s bedroom changing into a kind of temple while having sex with Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry) and then gradually increasing in intensity and frequency until Max (and we, the viewer) has no idea what is ‘real.’ The character Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley), a so-called “media prophet” provides most of the exposition regarding the nature of Videodrome and its purpose. In the film, O’Blivion appears only on television screens, his daughter Bianca (Sonja Smits) says “the monologue is his preferred method of discourse.” That O’Blivion prefers monologues is significant, not because he has been dead for some years and only appears via videotape, but because he is primarily interested in the transference of information, specifically the Videodrome meme. The origin of Videodrome is somewhat unclear. O’Blivion, in a taped message tells Max, “I had a brain tumor. And I had visions. I believe the visions caused the tumor and not the reverse. I could feel the visions coalesce and become flesh, uncontrollable flesh. But when they removed the tumor, it was called Videodrome.” As for what caused Videodrome to manifest in the first place or the reasons behind it, Cronenberg does not say. That it exists is all that is important.
But what is Videodrome? Masha (Lynne Gorman), a producer and dealer of underground and soft core porn videos tells max that, “it [Videodrome] has a philosophy. That’s what makes it dangerous.” Later, Max learns that Videodrome is not a show, as he first believes, but rather it is a subliminal signal, “the Videodrome signal, transmitted subliminally through any television broadcast begins to alter the brain of anyone from the first moment they see it.” Sperb notes that “[t]he tumor [like effect] is what emanates from the “Videodrome” broadcasts and which then pre-personally constitutes perception [hallucination] for Max” (Sperb 2006). The Videodrome meme closely resembles William Burroughs’ conception of an electronic virus, “in the electronic revolution a virus is a very small unit of word and image…such units can be biologically activated to act as communicable virus strains” (Burroughs 1974, 14). O’Blivion tells Max that “massive doses of the Videodrome signal will ultimately create a new outgrowth of the human brain which will produce and control hallucination to the point that it will change human reality.” O’Blivion sees Videodrome as a means of altering the perceptions of humanity, of evolving human consciousness. “After all,” O’Blivion says, “there is nothing real outside of our perception of reality.” Concerning the film itself, Harkness states that “[t]he inexorable logic of Videodrome is that the illusion is the reality, and when dealing with a medium as insidious as television, it doesn’t make any difference which is which (Harkness 1983, 25). O’Blivion’s goal seems to be for everyone to eventually evolve beyond flesh and bone into a kind of electronic soul, becoming pure information, he speaks of “Total Transformation. Kill the old, become the new.”
Regardless of what O’Blivion’s intentions are, there is another group who seeks to co-opt Videodrome for their own purposes. This group, Spectacular Optical, is a conglomerate that makes “inexpensive glasses for the third world and missile guidance systems for NATO.” Spectacular Optical seeks to use Videodrome to kill off a certain segment of the population of North America, specifically the segment who enjoys the kind of sex and violence programming Max broadcasts through his network. It is Harlan, Max’s friend, technician, secret agent for spectacular Optical, and the man who introduced Max to the Videodrome meme who explains it, saying “North America is getting soft, patron. And the rest of the world is getting tough…we’re entering savage new times, and we’re gonna have to be pure and direct and strong if we’re going to survive them.” Spectacular Optical uses the Videodrome signal to reprogram Max, like a computer or robot to become an assassin. He kills the other executives at his network, so that Spectacular Optical can take over and begin broadcasting the Videodrome signal, and then attempts to kill Bianca O’Blivion, but she reprograms Max again to murder Harlan and Barry Convex, the chief of special programs at Spectacular Optical. What was once a tool intended for enlightenment and evolution has now been turned into a weapon, bringing to mind military experiments with psychoactive substances like LSD.
The hallucinations that Max experiences throughout the film are bio-mechanical in nature. Max sees Videodrome mutating his body, which is exactly what it’s doing, except it’s also mutating his mind. The first time Max gets exposed to the Videodrome signal for an extended period of time, he sees and feels a large vaginal opening appear on his chest. Into this opening he inserts a gun, which he will use later to kill the executives. Later, when he is reprogrammed by Barry Convex, this scene is presented visually as convex inserting a videotape into Max, which is how Max perceives it. When Max attempts to kill Bianca O’Blivion, Max perceives a gun coming through a television screen, shooting him, the wounds in his chest manifesting themselves on the screen. Max is then reprogrammed, reborn as “the video word made flesh.” Concerning these bio-mechanical hallucinations, Cronenberg says “we absorb it [technology] into our nervous systems and into our concepts of reality and into our bodies (Porton 1999, 8). The blending of the mechanical with the biological is a theme that runs through many of Cronenberg’s films, particularly The Fly (1986) Naked Lunch, Crash (1996) and eXistenZ. In Videodrome, the hallucinations of cyberneticism seem to presage a move toward a new and higher level of consciousness. In the end, Max watches on a television screen an image of him committing suicide, the final act before becoming (perhaps) pure information, like Brian O’Blivion and Nicki Brand before him, living forever as part of Videodrome.
Naked Lunch: Exterminate all Rational Thought
In 1991, Cronenberg released his adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ controversial novel Naked Lunch. Published in 1959, Naked Lunch is a surreal and nightmarish collection of hallucinatory “routines” mostly centered around a place called Interzone, which is modeled on the city of Tangier, where Burroughs lived for a few years in the 1950s. According to Beard in the book The Artist as Monster, Cronenberg “as early as 1981 expressed the desire to make a film version of Naked Lunch (277). However, as an adaptation, Naked Lunch is, to say the least, a very challenging book:
Naked Lunch has no coherent narrative or even narrative line. It is a disparate series of sketches or ‘routines’ (as Burroughs referred to them) populated by flat, stylized characters regularly modulating into modernist poetic diction, and suffused with with cruel humor and a savage satirical edge. In effect it is a collection of separate fragments…giving the impression of having been individually composed and throw together in a collage-like manner—which indeed was the manner of the book’s initial writing and later assembly. (Beard 2006, 277)
Because of the challenges presented by the nature of the book, as well as the amount of sex and violence within it, Cronenberg, a lifelong Burroughs fan, chose not to film Naked Lunch as an adaptation. Instead, he combined elements from the book—mostly creatures like the Mugwump and giant insects and characters like Dr. Benway and Bill Lee along with biographical elements from Burroughs’ own life—the shooting of his wife, his friends Jack Kerouac and Allan Ginsberg—into a film that blurs the line between fantasy and reality and deals with the creative and destructive power of language and information. Thus, Naked Lunch is a film about Burroughs as well as Cronenberg’s interpretation of Burroughs, “in making Naked Lunch, Cronenberg rejected any notion of a direct translation and instead attempted to get himself in aesthetic sync with Burroughs” (Browning 2007, 127).
Naked Lunch, the film, is the story of William Lee (Peter Weller), a failed writer who is working as an exterminator. He and his wife both become addicted to the powder used to kill insects. In an attempt to get clean from the “bug powder” Lee consults with the mysterious Dr. Benway (Roy Scheider) who introduces him to “The Black Meat”— the dried flesh of the aquatic Brazilian Centipede, which Benway mixes with the bug powder as a means of weaning the addict off the powder. Benway describes the Black Meat, saying that “it will disappear completely. There’ll be no smell, no discoloration. It’s like an agent, an agent who has come to believe his own cover story, but who is in there, hiding, in a larval state just waiting for a time to hatch out.” It is while under the influence of the Black Meat that Lee shoots his wife Joan (Judy Davis). Lee then hides out in a bar where he meets a reptilian creature called a Mugwump who tells him to buy a typewriter and go to a place called Interzone. There, Lee will write reports on the shooting of his wife as well as the activities he sees and the people he meets in Interzone.
Most of the film takes place in Interzone, a city modeled on Tangier where Burroughs lived and where he wrote most of the material that would become Naked Lunch. Although Interzone may be modeled on a real place, in the film, Cronenberg seems to suggest that Interzone is a hallucination or an alternate reality, not unlike the fictional country Uqbar in the Borges story. When Lee’s friends Martin and Hank come to visit him, Lee says “I must be hallucinating,” to which Hank replies: “ this is probably the first time you haven’t been hallucinating in a long time.” Interzone is a kind of simulacrum, or a hyperreality, constructed by Lee. According to John Tiffin, a hyperreality “creates virtual reality to be an experience in the physical reality, so that virtual reality and physical reality react with one another. Virtual reality provides virtual worlds that seem more ‘convincing’ to those who experience it. However, hyperreality, provides ‘HyperWorlds’ that blurs the line between what is ‘real’ and what is virtual and make it appear ‘natural’” (Tiffin 2001, 31). Jean Baudrillard, in his essay “The Precession of Simulacra” says that:
The real is produced from miniaturized units, from matrices memory banks and command models—and with these it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times. It no longer has to be rational, since it is no longer measured against some ideal or negative instance. It is nothing more than operational. In fact, since it is no longer enveloped by an imaginary, it is no longer real at all. It is a hyperreal, the product of an irradiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere. (Baudrillard 1983, 3)
Interzone is a pastiche of memories, nightmares, fiction genres, and people both known and unknown, and to Lee it is very much a real place. But how was it created? In Videodrome, Max’s reality gets altered by the Videodrome meme, which is embedded within a television transmission, in other words: through media. In his book Understanding Media: The extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan describes media as being of two types: hot and cool. The distinction between the two is one of participation, “a hot medium is one where hot media do not leave so much to be filled in or completed by the audience. Hot media are therefore, low in participation and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience” (McLuhan 1964, 23). Relevant examples of hot media that McLuhan gives are books and printing. The typewriters in Naked Lunch could be seen as a hot medium, since throughout the film, Lee is seen writing what the Clark Nova typewriter dictates. However, McLuhan goes on to say that “no medium has its meaning or existence alone, but only in constant interplay with other media” (McLuhan 1964, 26). In Naked Lunch, that other medium is the Black Meat. The Black Meat is a very cool medium, very open to participation and completion by an audience, in the case of Naked Lunch, the audience is William Lee. The combination of the hot medium of the typewriter and the cool medium of the Black Meat produces Interzone, the simulacra within which Lee finds himself trapped. Trapped, but also protected. Lee remarks that “the zone takes care of its own.”
Interzone acts as a kind of protective shell for Lee that both shields him from the outside world and also keeps him from confronting the truth about the murder of his wife—that he alone was responsible for her death.
The Clark Nova typewriter tells Lee that “you were programmed to shoot your wife Joan Lee, it wasn’t an act of free will on your part.” Ultimately for Lee, in order to break out of the Interzone simulacrum, he must accept responsibility for killing his wife. In attempting to escape, Lee tries to save Joan Frost (Judy Davis) who is the exact image of his late wife. But before he can cross the border into Annexia, Lee must kill Joan Frost, and he does so in the exact way that he killed his wife. Thus, Lee accepts responsibility for his actions and is able to leave Interzone.
Cronenberg uses Burroughs’ novel as a starting point for exploring his own ideas about media, reality and control. William Lee lives in a simulated reality that he has inadvertently created. Within this reality is a scenario revolving around secret agents, double agents, reports made to shadowy organizations, and seductions and assassinations. Like Max in Videodrome, Lee sees himself as an “agent” of Interzone. This espionage fantasy exists as a means of controlling Lee and keeping him bound to the simulacrum he has created. Like Max in Videodrome, information has altered Lee’s mind and it has created a prison.
eXistenZ: Death to Realism
In 1999, Cronenberg released eXistenZ, a film that, as de Laurentis says “is a reflection on the new technologies of postmodernity—information, communication, and biotechnologies and new interactive media—a reflection in the twofold sense of speculation (theory) and specularization (techne) of the effects they produce in human reality, the social imagery, and individual fantasies” (de Laurentis 2003, 547). eXistenZ is the story of a game designer, Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) whose games are so lifelike that and addictive that underground organizations (called Realists) have targeted her for assassination. During a test run of her newest game, “eXistenZ,” Geller and her security guard Ted Pikul (Jude Law) find themselves on the run and surrounded by people they cannot trust. While hiding out, Geller and Pikul both “port” into the “eXistenZ” game to see if it has been damaged in all of the chaos, and find themselves enmeshed in another reality, again surrounded by people they cannot trust and on the run, unsure as to whether they are agents working for or against the Realists. A series of twists and turns in the storyline follow that threaten to spiral out of control, with the film descending into chaos until the end, when it is shown that the world of eXistenZ is itself, a game and Pikul, Geller and all of the other people encountered throughout the film are players testing out a new game called TransCendenZ, which, unlike eXistenZ does not plug into the body, but instead rests upon the head and is spider-like in appearance.
eXistenZ presents three distinct levels of reality: “the story world (level 1), the world inside TransCendenZ inside that story world (level 2), and the world of eXistenZ inside TransCendenZ (level 3)” (Mathijs 206). These levels bleed into each other, producing a kind of hyperreality, much the same way that the Black Meat together with the typewriters create the simulacrum of Interzone in Naked Lunch. The world of TransCendenZ has within it a whole other level of reality, the world of eXistenZ. Much of the film takes place within in the world of eXistenZ, yet a significant portion of the film takes place within the world that exists within the eXistenZ game. With eXistenZ, Cronenberg presents a simulacrum within a simulacrum and a complete distortion of reality. The last words spoken in the film by the man who played the character of the Chinese waiter, “are we still in the game?” reflect this distortion. At one point in the film, Pikul wants to pause the game and go back to his ‘real’ life. Once out of the game, Geller asks “How does it feel, your real life?” To which Pikul replies, “it feels completely unreal.” Of course Pikul’s ‘real’ life is not real at all, it is his life in the TransCendenZ game. With eXistenZ, Cronenberg presents an idea very similar to the idea of eternal life separate from the body, the mind becoming in a sense, pure information, existing within machines.
For Videodrome, the machines are televisions and video equipment. In eXistenZ, the machines are game pods. One of the players comments at the end that “if you could stay your whole life in the game world, you could live for about 500 years.” Regardless of the kind of machine, the idea is still the same: the mind becomes pure information, a meme that can be transmitted through mechanical devices and spread to anyone who watches a video or plays a game. When Allegra is trying to coax Pikul into playing the eXistenZ game, she says, referring to his physical form, “this is the cage of your own making which keeps you trapped and pacing about in the smallest possible space forever.”
Like the simulacrum of Interzone in Naked Lunch, the world of eXistenZ, or rather “TransCendenZ,” is one of paranoia, espionage, and duplicitousness. Everyone is an agent, either with the Realists—those who see the hyperreality escape provided by the games as a detriment to society, or the competing game companies Antenna Research and Cortical Systematics, who have a vested interest in developing newer and better escapes from reality. The espionage elements in Naked Lunch seem reminiscent of Cold War-era thrillers befitting both the years in which the original novel was written as well as the setting of the film. In eXistenZ, the paranoia comes from elements of both corporate espionage and religious fundamentalism, which reflects the events like the ongoing turmoil in the Middle-East as well as the Dot-Com bubble, all taking place in the years leading up to the film’s release. Similar themes are also present in Videodrome as well. Although Videodrome was released in 1983—eight years before Naked Lunch and sixteen years before eXistenZ—it has within it the elements of both cold war and corporate paranoia. Unlike Naked Lunch, where the spy scenarios function as a kind of trap for Lee, the espionage elements in eXistenZ exist simply as part of the game, but at the same time, they point to real concerns outside of the game.
At the climax of the film, when it is revealed that everyone has been playing the TransCendenZ game, the game’s designer, Yevgeny Nourish (Don McKellar) remarks that the game they all just played was very disturbing, that “it had a very strong, very real anti-game theme. It began with the attempted assassination of a designer.” Nourish’s assistant Merle (Sarah Polley) asks, “do you think this must’ve come from one of our game players?” At the end it is revealed that both Pikul and Geller are agents for the Realist movement, and assassinate Nourish, with guns that they have concealed on their dog. This is hinted at, earlier in the game where several times a dog is seen carrying one of the bone guns used in the eXistenZ world to get around metal detection devices. The game takes information from the people playing and weaves it into their collective hyperreality, creating what Tiffin refers to as a “HyperWorld.” A HyperWorld, according to Tiffin, “is not only one where what is real and what is virtual interact, it is where human intelligence meets artificial intelligence” (Tiffin 2001, 33). Within the reality that exists inside of eXistenZ, there is a plot by the Realists to infect all game pods with black spores, killing them. The game pods in the eXistenZ world are bio-mechanical in nature and the spores work like a virus on them. When the spores are released, Geller and Pikul port out of the game, only to discover that the spores followed them back into the next level of reality, infecting and killing Allegra’s game pod. Cronenberg says, regarding this bleed into realities that, “I had an idea…of doing a movie…that would connect somewhat to Naked Lunch and the Burroughsian concept of the things that you create becoming living things that can come back to hurt you, or haunt you, or things you have to deal with” (Cronenberg 2006, 163). Concerning the realist movement, not very much is known. At the climax of the film, when Pikul and Allegra confront Yevgeny Nourish and reveal themselves to be Realists, Pikul says, “don’t you think the world’s greatest game artist ought to be punished for the most effective deforming of reality?” Earlier, when Pikul and Allegra are in the TransCendenZ game, they take refuge in a ski lodge where some game-developer friends of Allegra live and work. Pikul, whose character has supposedly never played games and seems oblivious to their impact asks, “what happens if someone comes here and really wants to ski?” to which Allegra replies, “nobody actually physically skis anymore.” It appears that the games have become so life-like, indeed much more than life-like to the point that people prefer to do traditionally physical activities through the games. Baudrillard says that “[i]t is always a question of proving the real by the imaginary” (Baudrillard 1983, 36), and if that is the case then in the world of TransCendenZ, reality is being tossed-out in favor of hyperreality.
Like Videodrome, eXistenZ examines the use of memes by corporations as a means of control. The opening scenes of eXistenZ show a group of people gathered together as a kind of focus group or test audience for a new game system. Throughout the presentation, the group leader (Christopher Eccleston) constantly pairs the name of the game, eXistenZ with the name of the company that makes it, Antenna Research. This same pairing of product with company also occurs at the end of the film, once it has been revealed that eXistenZ was actually part of another game called TransCendenZ, the seminar leader, Merle always carefully pairs the name of the game with its company, PilgrImage. This “using the rhetoric of advertising with carefully weighted repetition,” according to Browning, “emphasizes the commercialization of language and the commodification of the spiritual (Browning 2007, 168). Brodie goes on to say, concerning repetition that, “[r]epeating a meme until it becomes familiar and part of your programming is one method of mind-virus penetration” (Brodie 1996, 143). Whether machine code housed in a bio-mechanical game pod or an advertising slogan, Cronenberg uses eXistenZ as a means of exploring the impact of information upon the human psyche. The information from the games creates a separate and often preferable reality in the minds of the players while the near-constant pairing of product with company inspires loyalty among the people who have become addicted to these hyperrealities.
Considering the character-driven nature of the films Cronenberg has released since 1999, it seems that Cronenberg has, for the time being, decided to shift his focus away from technology and its impact on the human body and mind. Perhaps this is because with Videodrome, Naked Lunch, and eXistenZ, Cronenberg feels that he has taken the subject as far as it can go. After all, it is a subject he has worked on since 1979, when he first began exploring the impact of information, in the form of psychotherapy, on the body with The Brood. In the subsequent films, Cronenberg focuses his attentions on technology through media and its impact on humanity. With Videodrome he examines television and video, with Naked Lunch it is a combination of the written word and drugs, and with eXistenZ it is the world of immersive electronic games. In each of these films, Cronenberg metaphorically shows that information can cause change in the human body and mind, with the physical mutations that lead to alterations in perceptions of reality. Yet, with the way that technology is growing and the way that media is becoming more immersive, and more a part of daily (and sometimes hourly ) life, it is possible that the metaphorical worlds presented in these films by Cronenberg might soon become real. As O’Blivion says in Videodrome, “you’ll have to learn to live in a very strange new world.”
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Bio: David Faust is an assistant professor in the Liberal Arts Department of Dongguk University in Gyeongju, Republic of Korea. He is originally from Alabama and has lived and worked in South Korea since 1999. His primary research interests include comics, science fiction and horror films, and pop culture in general.