Film: Does this man think he's God? - Arts and Entertainment - The Independent

Film: Does this man think he's God?

Fundamentalists are unlikely to enjoy David Cronenberg's eXistenZ but he can't see why. He thinks he and they have a lot in common. 'I understand Rushdie: "The Satanic Verses" was Imax and "Crash" was Super-8'

There are many memorable moments in the new David Cronenberg film, but there is one that will endure for ever in the annals of homosexual panic. The improbably handsome Brit-pack poster-boy Jude Law is preparing to have a "bio-port" fitted. The bio-port is a human power-socket at the base of the spinal column, which can be connected via a fleshy umbilical chord to a mutated amphibian pod. This pod directs the strange game called eXistenZ - fusing its own intelligence with those of the game-players, it delivers them to another level of reality. Law's character, Ted Pikul, is apprehensive about the port-fitting procedure.

"I have this phobia," he admits," about having my body penetrated surgically."

Observing Willem Dafoe approaching the base of Law's spine with a gigantic hole-punch, the audience cannot help but share his anxiety. The frisson that results - a beguiling hybrid of fascination and repulsion - is the archetypal Cronenberg effect.

The Canadian writer-director has been patrolling the border country between arousal and nausea for more than 30 years now (his hour-long debut, Stereo, was first screened in his homeland in 1969). The single-mindedness with which he has done this is the subject of much speculation.

Some call him a prophet. Cronenberg's films certainly seem to anticipate many of the most unforeseeable developments in modern life - from the Aids virus in Shivers and Rabid, to Noel's House Party in Videodrome and the career of Eileen Drewery in Scanners. However, the director himself has "too much respect for the element of the unknown" to believe prophecy to be either possible or worthwhile.

Biographical determinists bring up the early death of his father from a horrible wasting disease that meant his bones lost the ability to process calcium. Cronenberg admits to the inevitably dramatic impact of that event, but points out that his film career was already well under way by the time it happened.

"In terms of portrait of the artist, forget it," he says firmly. "I was born knowing this stuff."

In person, David Cronenberg is a cerebral but far from geeky presence. Now 56 years old, the man who once observed: "Decay might as well be what you want, because it's what you're going to get" shows no outward sign of physical deterioration. In fact he looks downright chipper. Perhaps he is enjoying the contrast with his last promotional visit to Britain, when the Daily Mail was camped on his doorstep, proclaiming Crash to be the end of civilisation. This time round, things are looking much more propitious.

You might say eXistenZ was the David Cronenberg film for people who don't normally like David Cronenberg films, if that didn't risk alienating his fan base, who will undoubtedly love it too. Either way, it feels like the most complete piece of entertainment he has ever made. Did he know when he was making it how appealing it was going to be?

"I knew it was maybe a little more accessible than some of my other movies, but the film I started to write was not the one I ended up making."

Early drafts of eXistenZ's script did not, in fact, contain the game that ended up supplying the main body of the film. The original plan - which was inspired by a conversation with Salman Rushdie - was to focus on the central conceit of a female game-designer being pursued, using the game itself as "an elegant tease" and concentrating on "how an artist on the run dealt with being condemned to death".

What changed his mind?

"By page two I was desperate to find out what the game was, and I thought: 'If I feel that way, the audience will. How can I deny them?'"

This spirit of enquiry, of wanting to show things that would otherwise remain unseen, has always been fundamental to Cronenberg's idea of film- making, from the vertical slit that opened up in James Woods's stomach in Videodrome to Jeremy Irons's selection of gynaecological instruments in Dead Ringers.

"If I think of this amazing animal that seems to exist for playing games," Cronenberg enthuses, "I'm very interested immediately in how it works - what musculature does it have? What is the size, the colour, the texture of it? Does it move? Does it make sounds?"

As befits a man more interested in building things than in taking them apart, Cronenberg proclaims himself "not a big fan" of what he calls "the deconstructional approach to film - whether that be Scream or Shakespeare in Love". Yet in eXistenZ, his familiar blurring of the line between flesh and machine is combined with a - for him - uniquely playful attitude to narrative form. Arguably the film's most impressive achievement is the way it builds up games within games without ever losing its narrative grip.

In fact, the scenes in eXistenZ where Jennifer Jason Leigh fears for the safety of her gamepod creation are some of the most emotionally affecting Cronenberg has ever filmed. The touching parental love she exhibits towards her artistic creation suggests a personal echo in the director's own experiences.

Although the bulk of the screenplay was written before Crash came out, the film carries the clear imprint of Cronenberg's own small-scale version of the Rushdie affair.

"The Satanic Verses was Imax," Cronenberg smiles wanly, "and Crash was Super-8. My life was not threatened, but I can still understand the hopelessness of Rushdie trying to explain to the Ayatollah that he was not being literal: that these were characters... I have children, and a movie is not exactly like a child, but the pain you feel at the thought of your movie being cut - let's say chopped - by censors, is very real.

"They are responding to an idea of the film which is often created by people who haven't seen it, but even though they're essentially trying to destroy their own version of your film, it's your version that actually gets killed. What you have in situations such as this is a clash of incompatible realities. On one level, it's a very abstract thing, but at some point - in Rushdie's case when people start trying to kill you - that abstract becomes physical."

In dramatising the point at which the abstract becomes physical (and vice versa), eXistenZ builds its house of games on philosophical foundations that Jean Paul Sartre would have approved of.

In a moment of great animation, Cronenberg describes the thrill of film- making as "like being involved in the evolution of a new species".

The Islamic fundamentalist perspective on this would presumably be that this is the writer-director playing god.

"Yes, but my answer to that would be that God is a human creation. So the fundamentalists and I are doing the same thing. I'm just being a little more direct."

'eXistenZ' opens on 30 April

Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week