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."


Nancy said...

Fresca, I don't know how much analysis has been done of "The Matrix" but it is always fascinating to me to "watch" through these blog posts the workings of your remarkable mind on the subject of just about anything. Please don't let that comment make you self-conscious, let it empower you.

Re the "Matrix": I saw it, as I did all too many similar movies, with young boys when it first came out. It was HUGE with them -- somehow struck a emotional chord about physical power (all the acrobatics) and mystery. I came out of it immediately seeing the Christian tale of a supernatural Savior couched in imagery boys , in particular, would respond to. I viewed it as subversive and dangerous as a result, since I feel about Christianity somewhat the same as people who fear "Devil worship" feel about that. (ok, there's some serious cards on the table)

Regarding "writing on the wall" I never thought about where it might originate -- thanks for the reference. Like so much in our culture, Bible or Christian based. Interesting to know.

Love, Nancy

Manfred Allseasons said...

Its just as well Philip K Dick is dead, or the producers of The Matrix would owe him an awful lot of money...

(makes old man scowly face)


momo said...

When I first saw the film, a friend of mine said, "It made me want to drive really fast after I got out of the theater!"
Even though many of the story elements are recycled Joseph Campbell "journey of the hero" narrative bits, as with so many other sci-fi/fantasy stories, the visual impact the movie had just ten years ago when a lot of this CGI was still new was really something. And for people who had NOT spend their youth devouring th entire sciencce fiction sections of several libraries, some of the story elements probably were novel. the whole "jacked-in" cyberpunk thing, for example, and the earlier versions of it (Phillip K Dick, indeed) that were fantastical elements are closer to being realities.
Paranoia and conspiracy theories are often companions of speculative fiction. what if they are lying to us about everything? It's not so hard to imagine.

Even though I know he is not the most talented actor on the screen, I have always been fond of Keano Reeves.

Fresca said...

Thanks, I actually get a kick out of watching my brain at work too! I picture my brain as being like Wall-E, gathering all sorts of quirky things--rubber ducks, Zippo lighters, lightbulbs, and hauling them back home... It makes for interesting conjunctions.

It was good to read that you immediately saw the scariness in the Savior myth in that movie too--I'd wondered if I was just seeing mirages.

I don't think "The Matrix" is specifically Christian-- the references seem to be to the Hebrew Bible, not the New Testament-- the city of free, unplugged humans is named Zion, for instance-- though of course Christians incorporate the Hebrew Bible too.
The directors, the Wachowki brothers, are private about themselves, but the online buzz says their ancestry is Polish Jewish. This is unofficial, but matches the vibe I got from the movie. (Well, not the Polish part.)

Compare to "The Poseidon Adventure," which I just watched for the first time--there's a movie loaded with specific Christian references.

Of course it's not just religions that promote the idea of a savior, it seems to be something humans long for and fall for too easily--that's why I mentioned Che and Stalin too.

You and Momo both mention PK Dick, and "The Matrix" did remind me of "Blade Runner," but that's not strictly PKD, I gather, and actually I haven't read PKC... Are there any of his stories in particular you recommend?

(I'm not actually a hardcore sci-fi fan, I just like stories with imaginative philosophical content AND characters, and some sci-fi has that.)

I think some literary genres are much pickier about borrowing than others--academics are big on originality and citations for references, for instance;
but I get the feeling the fanworld (comics, sci-fi stuff) is much freer about cutting and pasting? I'm not sure, but Star Trek is, anyway.
It seems to be a fun game among friends to play the Name That Reference game.

Fresca said...

I think the visual impact of this movie is still stunning, even after 10 years and much imitation:
The black-clad Trinity running up the walls and Neo cartwheeling in his black duster, in the lobby fight scene--wow--still make you want to drive fast! (Your friend's description is perfect!)

A lot of the story's elements were novel to me too (who have never read all that much sci-fi). And I sure didn't mean to say re-using the Hero Myth is a negative--it's one of the classic story arcs, and this movie does it well.
I was simply a little bored the same way I'm a little bored with reading T.S. Eliot--stuff that blew my mind at twenty has become familiar, and I start to look past it to other things--like, gee, how did they film that?

I'm not personally very attracted to conspiracy theories. My psychology is such that I'm more interested to how I lie to myself than in how politicians lie to us--I mean, I find self-deception more insidious and harder to uncover--and the "pay off" of liberation more compelling.
Of course, that's easy for me to say as a citizen of a country with a lot of freedoms, relatively speaking.

But of course I highly value people who do the work of uncovering institutional lies--brave and honest journalists, for instance. I came of age during Watergate, so I know how much this matters! I don't discount it, it just isn't my personal calling to do it.

I have a soft spot for Keanu Reeves, ever since I saw "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" when it first came out. He's drop-dead-gorgeous. Too bad his acting is a bit "dead" too. His Neo seems to have about two expressions, and I think that's one reason the movie doesn't transcend its "genre" limitations and become great art.
And the actress who plays Trinity is no better. The people who can act make those two central characters look even more wooden, unfortunately.
Hugo Weaving... he makes the movie as much as anything! Reminded me of the wonderfully unsettling Men in Black (John Sayles and David Strathairn) in "Brother From Another Planet."

Much, much to say about this movie, and that in iteself is a treat.

Manfred Allseasons said...

I honestly couldnt recommend a Dick novel, as I havent read them since he was alive...but the idea of the 'lie universe' was a really strong one...I remember one of his stories where a character is buying a coke from a coke machine. Suddenly, the machine dissapears with a zap, and on the floor is left a piece of paper with the words 'Coke Machine' written on it. The character realises the world is a sham, and an intentional hoodwinking of himself, which turns him into a person who begins to display classic paranoia symptoms...who can he trust? Superb stuff.

I can recommend a couple of classic scary sci-fi books though:

Swastika Night by Katherine Burdekin (writing as Murray Constantine) and The Purple Cloud by M P Shiel (the latter is a bit John Wyndham, but scarier!). But you probably have these!

Fresca said...

Thanks for the recommendations, Manfred--I will look them up. Nope, I haven't read them--I'm serious when I say I've read little sci-fi.

"Coke Machine"--that's good.
Reminds me, tangentially, that I watched "28 Days Later) for the first time last night and thought it was very funny that at first the survivors of the rage infection are living on vending machine junk. A nice realistic touch.