Ep. 63: David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ + Essay: What Is Reality?

This Week’s Conceptual Thought Idea Of The Week Is: “Does reality actually exist? And if so, how should we be talking about it?”

Once we’ve figured out that whole reality thing, we’ll examine David Cronenberg’s EXISTENZ from 1999, in This Week’s Analytical Filmmaking Analysis of the Week. 

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Episode 63: eXistenz + Essay: What Is Reality?


Dale Lewis Needs A Mobility Scooter

David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ on BluRay

Anil Seth / Your Brain Hallucinates Your Conscious Reality

Donald Hoffman / Do We See Reality As It Is?

Steve Vai / And We Are One

Key & Peele / Texting Gone Wrong





I’m Carl King, and this is The Carl King Show, where EVERY WEEK, we learn about music, filmmaking, and creativity. If you like this show, head over to Patreon.com/carlking, and join for just $1 or $5 per month. 

Or send a tip through PayPal or Venmo to username CarlKingdom. Special thank you to my Illusionist $51 level patrons, both Hank Howard III and Chewbode. 

Quick shout-out to my music endorsements: Vienna Symphonic Library, Fractal Audio, Ernie Ball Strings, Toontrack, and Millennia Media. Now let’s get this episode Beginned! 


Just a few Carl King The Human Updates, and then we will officially get Beginned. First, an update on Dale Lewis Needs A Mobility Scooter. I want to say thank you to everyone who has donated. The GoFundMe is succeeding! 

Our goal is $2000, and we have so far received $1280. In the meantime, someone has donated a used motorized wheelchair, which is lower capability in terms of weight and battery range. 

We hope to order the higher-capability scooter and deliver it to Dale soon. If you can throw a few bucks into that GoFundMe, I’ll put a link to it in the show notes. 

Second, speaking of things with wheels, I put air in my bicycle’s tires and started riding again this week. I call my bike The Ramsey One, because it’s a decade-long tradition that I ride it while listening to The Dave Ramsey Show. 

Nearby, there’s a quiet community with a lake, little streams, and ducks and turtles, so I like to pedal around over there. I make a brief stop on the bench to appreciate the scenery, take a drink of water, and then head back home. 

It’s about 8 miles round trip. So that’s some good news in the department of Carl King’s health. So remember everybody, get out there and get some exercise. 

And now, let’s move on to This Week’s Conceptual Thought Idea of the Week. 


Have you ever wondered why I say, “In my own totally subjective opinion” All the time?

This Week’s Conceptual Thought Idea Of The Week Is: “Does reality actually exist? And if so, how should we be talking about it?”

We’re going to explore the topic of reality, both Objective, and Subjective. In other words, the concrete reality that is external to us, vs. our own internal, personal experiences of that reality. 

But first: Who cares? Why does this matter to me? Well, in trying to understand how films work, I want to go deeper than “this film was good” and “this film is bad.” That’s most of what you find out there in movie reviews. 

As someone who writes their own films, third-party opinions have no value to me. I’m here to learn — and to do that, I need to focus more accurately on the ELEMENTS of filmmaking, separating taste from technique. Objective measurement rather than subjective commentary. 

So that’s why this week, we are contractually obligated to back up, and first think about objective and subjective realities. Now, I subscribe to the belief that there IS an external, objective reality, but we can’t quite experience it directly or accurately. And here are TWO metaphors that can help explain it. 

1 – The first is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The story goes like this. Some people are chained up inside a cave and can’t see what’s happening outside. They can only see shadows cast on the wall, by things outside the cave. And they have to figure out what is happening based ONLY on the shadows. And that’s not easy to do. 

2 – The second is the metaphor of some blindfolded people trying to describe an elephant. One blindfolder person might be touching the elephant’s trunk, believing an elephant is long, flexible, and soft. 

Another might be touching the skin on an elephant’s side, believing an elephant is rough, solid, and heavy. So they aren’t aware of the other parts of its body, or that there is an entire elephant. 

The meaning of these ideas is… that we don’t have direct access to reality. It’s TOO BIG, outside of the bounds of our senses, and all of the sensory information is filtered by our brain. So our brain only alerts us to what aspects of reality it thinks are relevant to our survival from moment to moment. 

Since we can only see shadows or touch one part of the elephant, we will each experience a different subjective reality. In general, we all experience a close enough approximation of reality. But when we don’t, we have problems. 

In my teenage years, I got sucked into Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. Which basically says, Reality is Objective, and we should simply act in accordance with it. 

Well, that sounds easy enough, and it might sound like common sense. And it’s actually our default way of operating, because… we want to believe our eyes. I can see the grass is green. I can see there’s a truck coming towards me. 

So in that way, Ayn Rand’s Objectivism is kind of… the most obvious philosophy a human could invent. But it has several flaws. One is the assumption that our perceptions of the world — the information our senses detect about “Objective reality” — are accurate. And they are NOT. 

Let’s talk a little bit about this TED Video called “Your Brain Hallucinates Your Conscious Reality” by Anil Seth.

Anil Seth / Your Brain Hallucinates Your Conscious Reality

He’s Professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex, and he says The Brain is a Prediction Engine:

“Perception […] has to be a process of informed guesswork in which the brain combines these sensory signals with its prior expectations or beliefs about the way the world is to form its best guess of what caused those signals. The brain doesn’t hear sound or see light. What we perceive is its best guess of what’s out there in the world.”

He then demonstrates various perceptual illusions, surprising the audience. And he continues:

“Instead of perception depending largely on signals coming into the brain from the outside world, it depends as much, if not more, on perceptual predictions flowing in the opposite direction. We don’t just passively perceive the world, we actively generate it. 

The world we experience comes as much, if not more, from the inside out as from the outside in. We’re all hallucinating all the time, including right now. It’s just that when we agree about our hallucinations, we call that reality.”

And there’s another TED video from Donald Hoffman, Cognitive Sciences Professor at the University of California Irvine. Called “Do We See Reality As It Is?” 

Donald Hoffman / Do We See Reality As It Is?

And he says: “We think of our vision as like a camera. It just takes a picture of objective reality as it is. Now, there IS a part of vision that’s like a camera: the eye has a lens that focuses an image on the back of the eye where there are 130 million photoreceptors, so the eye is like a 130-megapixel camera. 

But that doesn’t explain the billions of neurons and trillions of synapses that are engaged in vision. What are these neurons up to? Well, neuroscientists tell us that they are creating, in real-time, all the shapes, objects, colors, and motions that we see. It FEELS like we’re just taking a snapshot of this room the way it is, but in fact, we’re constructing everything that we see.”

The third witness I call to the stand is Steve Vai. For those of you with Carl King Bingo Cards, you can mark that one down. 

While Steve Vai isn’t exactly a scientist, he has a video called “And We Are One.” In which he addresses what he calls The Most Important Question: “How do you feel?” At 39:03, he says this: “What you perceive in the outside world is a reflection of how you feel. No exceptions.” 

Steve Vai / And We Are One

So he’s making the argument that our emotional state influences our perceptions. Here’s an example. Have you ever read a text message or email you thought was rude or offensive, and then reread it later and discovered the words and meaning changed, before your eyes? I have. 

I’ve realized when this happens, it’s likely I was already in a bad mood when I read the message, which affected my interpretation of the message. 

By the way, there’s a funny Key & Peele sketch about texting gone wrong. I’ll put a link to that in the show notes. 

Key & Peele / Texting Gone Wrong

Now even when we’re in a great mood, our minds are plagued by Logical Fallacies and Cognitive Biases. It doesn’t matter how objective we try to be, or how many Ayn Rand books we read. Our brains will STILL do those things. Constantly. 

It’s just like looking at an Optical Illusion, in that we can’t NOT see it even if we know how the illusion works. 

So even though we know, through science, that we’re all living in our own subjective realities, we still operate and treat each other as if we ARE sharing a single, unfiltered, objective reality.

So here are my suggestions for dealing with that:

1 – Be careful of the word “Is.” D. David Borland Jr. invented a form of the English language called E-Prime, designed to eliminate the words IS and ARE, along with OTHER forms of “To Be.” Here are a few examples:

The cat is lost (becomes) I can’t find the cat

The movie was good (becomes) I enjoyed the movie

Steve Vai is the best guitarist (becomes) of all the guitarists, I enjoy Steve Vai the most

You’re basically transforming objective statements into subjective statements… and that helps you distinguish fact from opinion. This E-prime structure gives the “actor” in the sentence clear ownership of the “action.” Not that anyone cares.  

There are arguments against E-prime, but I find it “TO BE” a helpful tool. 

2 – We can use more HEDGING in our statements. For instance: “It seems like” or “I suspect” or my personal favorite: “In my own totally subjective opinion.” You can even throw in a “Maybe.” 

This can cause the problem of inflating our language, and Grammarly will tell you it sounds less confident, but in the end, it’s more intellectually honest. 

3 – We should have some reasonable amount of humility and expect to be wrong. Often. If you don’t feel you were wrong about something today, I recommend going back and looking at your day more closely. 

If you’ve got other suggestions on navigating objective and subjective realities, go ahead and share them as a comment. 

Other links:



And now that we know ALL ABOUT reality, let’s move on to This Week’s Analytical Filmmaking Analysis of The Week. 


This Week’s Analytical Filmmaking Analysis of the Week is Existenz, written and directed by David Cronenberg. 

Existenz was released on April 19, 1999, and spoiler alert: it’s a film about nested virtual reality. There are people inside a video game, playing a video game… but it turns out, that even THAT was all inside ANOTHER video game. It’s video games all the way down. Coincidentally, Existenz came out only about two and a half weeks AFTER The Matrix. 

The film starts with 3.5 minutes of abstract Type 2 opening titles. And then we get the extreme opposite: an opening scene containing HEAVY Type 1 Exposition. 

A guy is up on a stage introducing a new game called EXISTENZ. And here’s a narrative device: Cronenberg uses the audience in the film, as the proxy for the audience WATCHING the film. That’s an efficient method of delivering information to the viewer. The guy tells us who the main characters are, what the film is about, and how Existenz works. 

To drill the information into our heads, not only is the word Existenz printed on promotional banners, the guy writes it on a CHALKBOARD. He even TELLS us how to spell it, and which letters are capitalized. But there’s no reason he would need to do that for an actual audience. That’s the first Implausibility. 

In the commentary track, David Cronenberg called this opening scene “anti-CINEMATIC,” which I think is a valuable concept. I wonder if he meant Anti-Cinematic as having a different meaning from Non-Cinematic. Sort of like Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s term, “Anti-Fragile.” 

Jude Law ALSO serves as a stand-in for the viewer. We go through the entire Existenz initiation process with him, AS he is introduced to the game. He is a total outsider to this world, because he doesn’t have a bio-port. 

And that’s convenient because much of the film is Jennifer Jason Leigh explaining things to him. So it’s a lot of factual statements, rather than humans relating to each other. Very Type 1. 

After that first scene, alarms went off in my mind. I began to wonder: what the HECK is happening here with the acting and writing? Why does this film feel so… low-budget, like a porno? 

I think it’s a combination of two elements:

1 – a physical “acting behaviors” style and 
2 – on-the-nose dialogue

So regarding the first element, when I say physical “acting behaviors,” I mean, it’s a type of acting that is external. It isn’t rooted in genuine human behavior and doesn’t flow out of action, and reaction, with the other actors in the scene. 

Rather than the actor embodying and believing their character, it’s more like “doing acting things” or “acting like an actor” instead of being a human. I’m tempted to call it Type 1 Acting. The sort of thing you’d see in 80s TV shows, like, “Say these words and look like you’re mad.” 

I’m not familiar enough with Jennifer Jason Leigh’s filmography and what else might have contributed to this. But making a film is hard. I don’t know know what was going on that day. There could have been any number of technical issues. 

Maybe there were better takes but the shots were out of focus. Everything that is not the acting can conspire to affect the acting. We don’t know. 

But we do know she’s an accomplished professional, with decades of experience, and she’s even a nominee for multiple Golden Globes. Still, her performance in several scenes didn’t seem to be based on organic causality. Her facial expressions and reactions appeared conspicuous and abrupt and disconnected.

And regarding the second element, the on-the-nose Type 1 dialogue: that’s when characters make literal, descriptive statements that don’t need to be said. 

Type 1 movies and TV shows are full of talking that could be saved for audio description tracks. Since film is, first and foremost, a visual medium, we don’t need the characters telling us what we already see on the screen. 

I suspect this dialogue style was carried over from theater and radio dramas, where characters were expected to describe what they were seeing. In a theater play, elements of the story are imaginary. A character might interact with an invisible cat by saying, “Oh, look. It’s a cat.” 

The same with radio dramas, like War of the World. Everything had to be described, either by the actors or a narrator to help the audience follow along. But we no longer need that type of dialogue, because film is a direct visual medium. 

That means dialogue can now be more subtle. The actors can be more naturalistic, speaking in sentence fragments, or even NOT speaking. What they say can HINT at their meaning or reveal character psychology. They don’t need to state facts. They can even lie to others and themselves. 

With close-ups, a thought can be conveyed through a microexpression or a gesture. It doesn’t need to be spoken clearly and loudly so everyone in the back of the theater can hear. 

But since writing the old way is the norm, it’s a tough tradition to break. The more Type 1 dialogue that writers experience on the screen, the more they include it in their own writing. 

So in Existenz, the characters speak many descriptive facts at each other. I was puzzled by that, because the last two Cronenberg films I watched, Videodrome and Crimes of the Future, made decades apart, weren’t in that Type 1 Dialogue style. 

I also listened to this film’s full-length Cronenberg commentary track, and he did not mention that Type 1 dialogue. So I suspect he wasn’t doing it on purpose. 

For the specific examples of Type 1 Dialogue and Acting, I recommend looking closely at 3 scenes: The Jeep Scene, The Tooth Scene, and The Motel Room Scene. Those are scenes 2, 3, and 4 of the film. 



After they escape the assassins in his jeep, Jennifer Jason Leigh says, “Seems like I have some enemies I didn’t know I had. Death To Allegra Gellar.” But she says it in a nonchalant tone that doesn’t fit the story. She was almost assassinated, and she’s behaving as if that’s no big deal. Then, Jude Law gets a phone call on what is basically a cell phone. She hears it ring and asks, “What’s that?” Which makes no sense, coming from one of the top tech people in the world. Then he answers it. She grabs it from him and throws it out the window, and yells at him, “That was a RANGE FINDER! As long as you have that, they know where we are.” But a moment ago, she didn’t even know what it was. Why the sudden change of knowledge and mood? 

Immediately after that, when she discovers Jude Law is just a Marketing guy, not a bodyguard, she says, with a beaming, amused smile: “F-ing H. I’m marked for death, and they send me on the road with a P.R. Nerd.” Then, out of nowhere, she acts frustrated and bangs her hand on the window. None of that behavior connects with her scene partner, Jude Law. It’s free-floating and non-sequitur. Now this scene was shot from bizarre angles with mostly only one actor on screen at a time. So those close-ups might have been filmed without Jude Law even being there for her to play off of. 


When they pull the Jeep over, and Jude Law cuts the “bullet” out of Jennifer’s shoulder, there’s unnecessary exposition. He says: “It’s a tooth. A Human tooth.” Fair enough. But they could have instead shown the closeup of the tooth, and then cut back to the two characters looking puzzled. Most of the dialogue in this scene could have been cut. She says, “Lemme see that weirdo pistol.” She pulls the ammunition cartridge out, and it’s a bunch of teeth. Instead of being more confused, she smiles and chuckles. And then she says, “Yep, the bullets are human teeth.” And she looks amused again. She says, “This one’s got a cavity.” 

Granted, this is a surreal Cronenberg film. But the surrealism isn’t consistent. There’s no base reality for the “surreality” to push against.  The problem it creates is this: the characters aren’t in SHOCK. If they were real people, their reality would be crumbling at that moment. Like, “This shouldn’t be possible. How can a GUN be made out of bones and teeth?” Their minds should be blown. But nope. They pretty quickly ACCEPT IT and keep moving through the scene. Jude Law delivers more exposition: “That thing was designed to get past any kind of metal or synthetics detector. It’s all flesh and bone.” How he seems to know that already, instead of realizing it in the moment, is a mystery. 

But it also makes no sense that he would have brought the slimy bone gun with him, after fleeing the assassination. Why did he grab it as they were escaping? No one would do that. So that’s another implausibility. It seems the only purpose was to write it into this scene. 

Later, it’s revealed that this portion of the film is another recursive level of a virtual reality game. So an argument could be made that these are video game characters, and that’s why the acting and dialogue are bizarre. But my argument is, that it doesn’t seem purposeful, and I suspect it’s more about the writing technique. In the end, within the context of a Cronenberg film, most viewers won’t care. To them, it’s part of the overall weirdness, and it might help them enjoy it even more. 


The two of them get a motel room. Jennifer is connected to her pod and logged into the Existenz game. He sits and watches. Eating some French fries. She returns from the game and seems super happy and relaxed, as if she just had sex. But it kind of makes no sense, because they’re running for their lives from assassins, and she has ZERO concern about that. Appropriately, Jude Law DOES say: “You can’t SERIOUSLY want to play games NOW. Not here, not while we’re being hunted down by crazy people.” I would have cut the second sentence.

In response to that, she behaves erratically again. She goes from happy to angry to SAD, but her mood changes aren’t connected to the scene and the situation. It’s choppy, from one emotion to the next. If I were Jude Law, I’d wonder what the heck is wrong with her. And from a psychological standpoint, instead of dealing with the MAIN problem, the threats against her life, she decides the most important thing is for Jude Law to port into the video game with her. So the film’s plot abruptly changes to: getting a bio-port installed in Jude Law, and playing her virtual reality game. 

From then on, the story morphs into a deeper level of surrealism, where the multiple levels of virtual reality collide and intertwine. 

And The film wraps up with a kind of Twilight Zone ending. It was all a game within a game within a game. But instead of letting the audience figure that out, and ENDING the film, Cronenberg draws it out and delivers a heavy dose of Type 1 Dialogue. 

Since David Cronenberg can do no wrong, and he should direct every film ever made, I gave this film 5/5 stars on Letterboxd.


OK, that’s the end of this Episode of the Carl King Show. Remember to subscribe on Spotify, Apple, YouTube, or anywhere else you consume to these dang episodes. 

And if you like this show, support the creation of more episodes by joining my Patreon for $1 or $5 a month. That’s Patreon Dot Com Slash Carl King. Or send a tip through PayPal or Venmo to username CarlKingdom.

Special thank you to my $51 a month Patrons, at the special Illusionist level, Chewbode and Hank Howard III. And thank you to ALL of the Very Good Friends of Carl King for joining me, and as I always say, “I need to kill our waiter.”

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