Friday, July 10, 2009
Through the Mirror
Top "Into the Glass" by John Tenniel; Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871)
Middle Orpheus (Orphee, dir. Jean Cocteau, France, 1949): Jean Marais as Orpheus passes through a mirror to enter the Underworld.
Bottom The Matrix (dir. Wachowski Brothers, USA, 1999): The hero Neo (Keanu Reeves) begins what is described as his descent down the rabbit hole by penetrating a mirror.
I watched The Matrix for the first time last night. (I don't know how I missed it in 1999, and since--the clerk at the video store was incredulous.)
Wow--what a smashing mishmash! It's like a wonderful game: Name That Reference.
The movie draws on a wide range of cultural, philosophical, and political images and ideas, sometimes blatantly --characters mention Alice in Wonderland; the child who talks Zen sports robes and a shaved head--often not.
I'm sure there must be books about The Matrix, but it's fun to line up as many references as I can. Besides drawing on old influences (Kung Fu, Brother from Another Planet, etc. etc.), the movie created a whole bunch of new ones too, of course, so you can work forward as well as backward.
I posted a couple here, above, that occurred to me (though, as I say, they do mention Alice.)
What interests me most after watching the movie, though, isn't the enormously creative weave of references but how disturbing I find the image of a savior, even a Zen one. The hero, Neo (Keanu Reeves), is a regular guy who turns out to be the promised messiah--The One--who is going to save humanity from Wage-Slavery. In a really creative twist on slavery (new to me, anyway), intelligent machines have wired humans floating suspended in gel-pods, to serve as batteries for them. The machines stream computer simulations (the matrix) into the human minds, so they think they are leading regular lives.
This messianic figure turns up a lot in comic books, yes? I'm not very familiar with this world, but Superman is Nietzsche's Uberman, right? And Batman is his darker side. (Some real historical people like Che Guevara have almost become a comic-book figure to a certain kind of American too.)
While Neo and his salvific kind are obviously religious figures, often the people who like them are profoundly anti-religion.
These heroes seem like fascistic fantasies to me, created by and designed to appeal to a particular kind of mind that sees itself as beleaguered... hemmed in by social restrictions and the little minds of other people.
I felt this way myself when I was younger and I would have adored The Matrix when I was twenty instead of being mildly bored and mildly disturbed---(as well as totally admiring its creativity!).
What changed for me was that at some point I realized I had far more freedom than I was even using, and what was stopping me wasn't other people but my own mind, which is pretty much like everyone else's: full of self-limitations.
Whether you call those limitations by psychological, physics, or religious terms-- ego or pride, inertia or sloth--we pretty much all come with a full set of them, in varying degrees, and it's not an external savior who is going to rescue us from them.
Anyway, when you see that kind of Hero at work in the real world, you realize the human ego can't really bear the weight of being The One, and people who think they are up for it, or who get that role thrust upon them, turn into monsters. Stalin, Jim Jones, Tom Cruise?
I have a feeling I've stumbled onto something everybody already knows. But since I have paid so little attention to comic culture and its critics, I'm just working it through for myself.
This is a half-baked post, and now I have to go meet my dad, who's in town this weekend, but I wanted to start to record my tangled thoughts. I'll just end with a couple more images that I though were fun line-ups of ideas.
Below, top The Matrix (dir. Wachowski Brothers, USA, 1999): Neo (Keanu Reeves) sees his lifelong "reality" for what it is: the strings of code of a computer simulation. I love this visual representation of "reality" as a construct.
(I find parts of the hero myth disturbing, but this movie does an amazing job making ideas visual, and I like that a lot.)
Below, bottom "Belshazzar's Feast," by Rembrandt, (1635): Belshazzar sees the writing on the wall. Belshazzar was the son of Nebuchadnezzar, and I thought maybe the brothers intended this reference to him when they named the humans' ship Nebuchadnezzar, but turns out they named it after another meaning of the word: a huge bottle of champagne that holds 15 liters! Still, I see a connection between these images of magic words/code being the deeper reality behind what we experience as "real."