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Beta Breakers: Jennifer Jason Leigh plays a game designer whose latest creation takes on a life of its own.

A philosopher goes to the movies--and gets real excited

By David Templeton


Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This column is not a review but a freewheeling, tangential discussion of life, alternative ideas, and popular culture.

Professor Larry Fike is a little wound up. He gets this way. I've seen it before. Mention anything related to philosophy, theology, psychology--virtually any subject in which the nature of thought or the workings of the mind play a starring role--and you will witness a marked increase in Fike's already considerable intensity, wit, and enthusiasm. Ask him to contrast the theories of Descartes, Spinoza, and Sartre, or to explain the socio-political significance of performance art (maybe even pursuade him to recite a poetic riff from his current one-man-show "In This Space: 45 Minutes in Dream Time") and Fike is likely to become, well, kind of jacked.

Like right now.

The charismatic philosopher, poet, and educator--he's the author of On Obstinate Air: Poems on Beating the Wind (Plowman Press, 1996) and Unheard Tick of Time: Poems in the Healing Mode (Zabigabee, 1999), and teaches philosophy at Long Beach City College and Cypress College, in Southern California--has called up this afternoon to swap opinions on the science-fiction mind-bender The Matrix, in which Keannu Reeves discovers that "reality" is a sham, a fantasy created by computers to keep our brains amused while our bodies float in icky slime pits providing battery-like energy to all the machines.

Though Fike enjoyed the "is-this-real-or-isn't-it?" mindgames of The Matrix, he's mainly interested in comparing it to David Cronenberg's harder-to-find futuristic creepshow eXistenZ. This one, now in limited release, is about a brilliant game designer, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, targeted for death by radical "Realists" in a world where "the real thing" has taken a backseat to fantasy games that plug into "bio-ports" intalled in most folks' spinal column. By the end of the movie, the lines that separate reality and fantasy have become disturbingly murky--much to Fike's obvious delight.

"I see it all the time in my students," he eagerly admits. "That first big blurring of lines, that weird space where you find yourself wondering about what you really know to be true--it gives you a kind of queasy rush, doesn't it?"

Queasy is right, though it may have as much to do with the blood-and-gutsy slime factor in both films, especially eXistenZ, in which the presence of guts--as in entrails, organs, innards and gristle, most of it spilling from the dissected remains of mutant amphibians--is so pronounced you wonder why "Guts" isn't listed among the cast members. This may spring from Jean Paul Sartre's "On Being and Nothingness," in which the renowned existentialist devoted numerous pages to the subject of Slime.

"Sartre believed that things like slime and orifices were important," Fike summarizes, "because what we are always doing, as humans, is permeating and ingesting, permeating and ingesting--filling up voids, imprinting ourself on the world, leaving traces.

"Now, in contrasting The Matrix with eXistenZ," he happilly suggests, "if we are mainly interested in special effects, then The Matrix wins. it's no contest. But I think eXistenZ wins, and wins big, when it comes to philosophical significance. Here's why."

He's warming up now.

"At the end of Cronenberg's movie," Fike expounds, "we, the audience, have become acutely aware of the central problem, which is, 'What do we know? And what do we just think we know?' That's a huge philosophical problem. In The Matrix you've merely got these chosen few people who know and all the other people who don't know. But that's not a very interesting philosophical point. The deeper philosophical point is made by eXistenZ, where it's clear that you will never know what's real and unreal."

Fike makes a list of movies that, in the last year or two, have arisen to grapple with similar issues. "The Truman Show, Pleasantville, EdTV; they all deal in some way with the this thing of perspecitivism." To that shortlist list we could add The Game, in which Michael Douglas loses his perspective and everything else--and the ultra-independent films Pi and The Cube.

"I just went through all this with my students," Fike remarks. "We've been studying René Descartes, who looked at this problem and attempted to solve it by offering his proofs of the existence of God. It's an old problem. It's quite obvious that all of these movies are drawing on the philosophical problem that we've inherited from the early 17th century.

"Fundamentally, it's a problem of us questioning our cognitive capacities. That's what these films are about--the limits of creativity, the limits of what it is we can use our mind to understand. They're not really about 'What exists and what doesn't'. I don't think people walk out of The Matrix or eXistenZ and think, 'Woah. This is really all a dream!'

"Though maybe I'm wrong," he laughs.

"I do think these films reflect something happening in our culture," Fike goes on, "but I definitely don't think it reflects something bleak. In many quarters, especially among the, shall we say, 'technologically literate' segment of our culture, there's an extraordinary amount of fascination over the uses, the limitations, and certainly the lack of limitations that exist around the technologies we're developing. Especially communicative technologies; virtual reality, computer generated images, all that.

"I think we're really fascinated by all of this, and so now we're exploring the deeper meanings of it all. I think it's very positive."

"The truth," he concludes (if one can know the truth), "is that I'm loving these movies. Philosphically, they're a blast."

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Web extra to the April 29-May 5, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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