Plaid shirts and existential reassurance

17.23, Monday 12 Jul 2021

I pulled on an actual collared shirt last week because I was meeting a friend for lunch, a plaid shirt, and I happened to have a call first before going out.

As I started the video before the meeting, I caught sight of myself in the webcam preview and the chequer pattern on my shirt. “Aha,” I thought automatically, “I’m not in a simulation.”

David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999) is about a virtual reality video game, and you see some of the movie in-game and some out of the game. (It’s aesthetically unlike anything else – the game pods are pulsating meat objects, connecting is, um, highly charged, and the setting lacks the usual tech signifiers. It’s low key rural.)

There’s some confusion about what reality is (a kinda pre-Inception Inception thing going on) but it turns out that the in-game scenes are subtly visually signposted. Here’s Cronenberg:

… we were replicating some of the style of some video games. If you want a character to wear a plaid shirt, it takes up a lot of memory, so it’s much easier if he has a solid beige shirt. So I was trying to replicate the blandness or blocking’s of the polygon structure of some games.

Incidentally that is a FANTASTIC article and you should totally read it. Cronenberg expounds on the nature of reality and also dips into cyborg ideas. And Chris Rodney, the author of the piece, produces turns of phrase that you just know you’d be looking at the screen and quietly nodding in satisfaction if you managed to pull off something like that yourself:

Although the “reality bleeds” continually signalled throughout the movie are not an original device, they presage a massive narrative haemorrhage at the end, so much so that it’s impossible to give an in-depth synopsis of the film without literally giving the game away.

Narrative haemorrhage!

I don’t remember reading that interview at the time but I must have done, or one very similar, because Cronenberg’s costume design trick is a thought that lives in my head now for, yes, 20 years and more and emerges from time to time: oh yes, that’s a shirt texture that would cost a bunch of clock cycles to render, I must be in reality right now, good to know.

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