eXistenZ (David Cronenberg, 1999)

A Book Review by Thomas Puhr.

While the author certainly won’t win over any Luddites…his intriguing, if stiflingly dense, analysis offers much for the adventurous reader to chew on.”

It’s tempting to think of a film as an external, discrete object – one passively observed and, more often than not, quickly forgotten. Roger F. Cook’s Postcinematic Vision: The Coevolution of Moving-Image Media and the Spectator (University of Minnesota Press, 2020) challenges this oversimplified dichotomy between humans and technology. “[H]uman evolution is not exclusively biological,” he asserts in the introduction, “but rather is first and foremost a coevolution of humankind with the technology it has created” (11). While the author certainly won’t win over any Luddites – in an early metaphor that smacks of Cronenbergian body horror, he even defines cinema as a “prosthetic extension” (11) of consciousness – his intriguing, if stiflingly dense, analysis offers much for the adventurous reader to chew on.

Cook traces a bold (albeit sweeping) line from prehistoric cave drawings to modern digital imagery (39) in his opening chapter, “Film and the Embodied Mind.” Both of these tools – not to mention the myriad scientific developments separating them – have similarly shaped our mental faculties (39). In other words, the data stream flows both ways, our tools recursively shaping us in an endless loop of coevolution (68). While such observations may elicit unease in some (it doesn’t help that The Matrix’s apocalyptic narrative features prominently in his analysis), Cook is no portender of doom. Where would we be, after all, without the tools our hominid ancestors used to produce fire? Or without the printing press?    

Given that his conclusion emphasizes how digital media helps prepare us for what is an increasingly digitized world, it’s odd that Cook doesn’t push beyond 1999’s turning point.

After these initial broad strokes – which span no less than tens of thousands of years – it’s a relief when Cook takes a deep breath and settles into his area of focus: cinema’s advent in the late 19th century and leap to digital imagery in the late 20th. To consider the latter’s emergence as equally tectonic as the former’s, however, feels like an overstatement. The 20-year gap separating rudimentary “‘peep-show’ machines” (107) and, say, Metropolis (1927) appears far more substantial than that separating The Matrix (1999) and Avengers: Endgame (2019). Even so, this timeframe proves far easier to digest, especially for a book which barely cracks 200 pages.

“1900: Film Transforms the Media Landscape,” far and away the strongest chapter, explores how this developing technology prepared audiences for a faster-paced, industrialized world “in a detached, protected setting and in a way that would help train the body’s neural networks to process the increased load of stimuli” (102-103). Most stimulating is Cook’s comparative analysis of the medium’s complicated relationship with narrative literature. Although it emerged as a possible “threat” to the written word, cinema eventually adopted a literary framework – one which still dominates the big screen today – in terms of its narrative structures and formal features (118). By the same token, it had a profound impact on some key authors from the early 20th century.

The chapter ends with a masterful deep dive into how Franz Kafka – who had something of a love-hate relationship with this new technology – developed a “cinematic visual style” (144). This claim may raise eyebrows – The Metamorphosis, after all, is still considered an “unfilmable” novel – but Cook persuasively outlines such traces in the writer’s later work. One film-like scene from The Trial finds poor K. observing – through a window, a “frame” in itself – a couple in the apartment building across from his: “[T]he characters’ movements, gestures, and postures recall those commonly seen in early movies…Also, K. watching the neighbors talking without being able to hear them mirrors the visual scenes of silent film” (144). Despite these influences, Kafka apparently disliked the medium’s rapid movements, which prevented (perhaps even discouraged) sustained contemplation (147). I can’t help but imagine that he would have approved of Béla Tarr’s so-called slow cinema (it’s also amusing to imagine Kafka watching Sátántangó [1994] in a dingy arthouse).

For Cook, the medium’s next tectonic shift arrived in the late ‘90s, with the ascent of digital effects in popular film. His analysis in the final (and shortest) chapter, “2000: Cinema and the Digital Image,” yields far less intriguing observations, perhaps because the film on which he must inevitably focus has been analyzed to death. I’m referring, of course, to The Matrix. Though he offers a fresh take on its overall message – that “we must embrace technological innovation as an integral part of the evolving human race” (195) – he can’t quite justify yet another analysis of the infamous “Bullet Time” sequence. On the other hand, it is nice to see Cronenberg’s unfairly-neglected eXistenZ (1999) – which has aged much better, I think, than the Wachowskis’ breakthrough hit – get some attention.

Given that his conclusion emphasizes how digital media helps prepare us for what is an increasingly digitized world, it’s odd that Cook doesn’t push beyond 1999’s turning point. He concedes that The Matrix – despite its pseudo-philosophical musings – ultimately “resorts to a contrived Hollywood superhero narrative to counter the anxieties associated with digital technologies” (192), yet doesn’t explore how this reversion to age-old tropes has only intensified in the intervening 20 years. What does he make, for example, of James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), which reduced the most advanced CGI to little more than window dressing for a conventional narrative? The brave new world that turn-of-the-century megahits anticipated has not come to fruition. One need look no further than Endgame to see that filmmakers are still playing in the same sandbox. They just have shinier toys.

And how does all of this relate to alphabetical writing, human consciousness, robotics, or any of the other subfields Cook tackles? These are fascinating threads (I would have happily read a book-length version of the Kafka section), but I’m not quite sure if – or how – they all come together. I suspect Cook knows (the sheer depth of his research implies as much), but it likely won’t be clear to any but the most specialized of readers. 

Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy BeastBirth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.

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