My Unsolicited Dissertation on The Matrix, Part 4

19 05 2017

The Matrix Trilogy: Truth

“There is no spoon.”

Several years ago I started writing these long winded posts about The Matrix trilogy, because I like the movies a lot, and I’ve always felt they don’t get enough credit for the challenging questions they raise. My plan was to write four posts, one for each of four words that recur significantly in the movies’ clipped dialog, and which reflect the primary themes of each movie: Belief (The Matrix), Choice (The Matrix Reloaded), Purpose (The Matrix Revolutions) and Truth (the trilogy as a whole).

But after I got through recapping the films and analyzing the first three themes, I found I had nothing much to say about Truth. I tried a few times, but never got very far, and after awhile I quit trying.

That was in 2011. We are living in a different world now.

In the films, there is the Real World, the Truth; and there is the Matrix, a virtual reality, a fiction, an utterly convincing illusion. We human beings have always had our convincing illusions, but they have never been more powerful than they are today. We know this because different segments of the population live according to different, and incompatible, realities. Climate change, vaccines, gun violence, police violence, immigrants, gender, health care, the EU, Donald Trump, Hilary Clinton — people in different camps have polar opposite views of these things. Presumably only one viewpoint can line up with objective Truth. The other viewpoint must be a fiction. But for those who believe, it is true. The illusion on one side is just as much a guiding principle as the truth is on the other side. Whether it’s objectively true or fictional, the preferred belief is perceived and experienced as fact. We are embedded in our chosen realities as fully as any coppertop in the Matrix.

I’m not going to get into which of our competing realities is the most real. I’m just here to lay down the long-not-awaited conclusion to my unsolicited dissertation. I’m going to try to find the role and the meaning of Truth in the Matrix trilogy. You can decide how much bearing it has on real life.

In my post about The Matrix: Revolutions, I concluded that belief, choice, and purpose are intertwined. Each theme is a lens looking at the same thing: the exercise of free will. Humans make choices, informed by belief (itself a choice), according to and in search of purpose. The words “belief,” “choice,” and “purpose” crop up in all three films, but each occurs with emphatic weight and frequency in only one. The word “truth” has more or less equal emphasis throughout the trilogy. Truth exists separately from free will. One hopes and assumes that one’s Beliefs, Choices, and Purpose align with the Truth, but it is not necessarily the case.

As Morpheus says to Neo when he is first acclimating to the Real World, “What is real? How do you define ‘real’? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” Our senses are all we have to go on. If they can be manipulated — if we can’t trust them — then we can never be certain of what’s real. But second-guessing our senses is useless. There is no external frame of reference we can access. We have no choice but to accept what we sense and do our best.

Cipher embraces the concept of sensory reality. He is fed up with the misery of the Real World, and conspires with the Machines to betray his comrades in exchange for the chance to re-enter the Matrix. He knows his actions will cause his crew to die and humanity to remain in bondage. he also knows that once the Machines wipe his memory, nothing outside of the Matrix will be real anymore — not in any sense that will matter in his daily virtual life. His plan fails, but he raises a crucial question. Is there any meaningful difference between personal truth and objective Truth?

“Yes” is the strongly implicated answer. The Machines and their virtual slave engine are clearly the bad guys. The Resistance are clearly wiser and more powerful then the sleepers still plugged into the Matrix. But as we learn in The Matrix Reloaded, Truth is elusive, and illusions come in layers. The Resistance believe they know what’s true and what isn’t, because they’ve broken out of one imprisoning fiction. However, larger illusions still grip Morpheus, Neo and the others. The revelation that The One is another control mechanism create by the Machines almost shatters Morpheus. Discovering that he can hack into machines from the Real World, wirelessly, puts Neo in a coma. The Resistance may have peeled back one very powerful illusion, but can they claim to know the Truth any more than those still victimized by the Matrix?

The Matrix Reloaded ends with Neo breaking a cycle of control — the Machines’ narrative of the One — that has been in place for generations. The Matrix Revolutions deals with the fallout of breaking that cycle. The humans are more enlightened than they ever have been since the Machines took over. They finally have some leverage on the Machines. Neo and Trinity fight their way to the Mainframe, and Neo is able to negotiate for peace. To reach that point, Neo and the others had to break through layers of deception. But Truth is not invalidated just because more illusions remain. It is true that the Matrix is a lie, and a prison. Everyone in the Resistance has to absorb that truth before they can have any notion of resisting. Misconceptions about the One don’t change the relationship between the Matrix and the Real World.

Pure Truth may be unattainable, ever receding like a mirage (how’s that for irony?). Still, there is value in piercing each illusion, even if another one waits beyond it. New discoveries and baffling new questions arise in all the sciences, but only through the use of ever more advanced tools and practices, built on previously unearthed truths. We may not understand all the building blocks of the universe, but that’s no reason to abandon what we do know. The Earth is still round. Opposite charges still attract.

The pursuit of  Truth — the endless, arduous struggle to understand — makes us human. If we passively accept received truth, we give up our free will. We make ourselves tools. We become machines.





Star Wars: The Force Progresses

8 01 2016

I’ve got a spoilery feeling about this…

The major complaint I’m hearing about Star Wars Episode VII is how closely it mirrors Episode IV, beat for beat, motif for motif. That’s accurate, but it doesn’t bother me, for two reasons.

Reason 1: there’s a line in the movie about fighting the only fight, the eternal fight between good and evil. This could be taken to imply an Incal-style cyclical nature of the Star Wars universe; the same events played out by more or less reincarnated spirits in the endless ebb and flow of light and dark. I realize this is a stretch, and far too wooby-wooby for most. And it doesn’t change the simple fact that rehashing a successful original is the lifeblood of Hollywood. Many fans who both love Star Wars and hunger for fresh, rich stories are wishing The Force Awakens had taken more risks.

Which brings me to reason 2: the movie did take two very large risks. It is an action blockbuster starring a woman and a black guy. It shouldn’t be risky to put someone besides a white dude in the spotlight, but again, we all know how Hollywood works. Now, for the first time ever, a woman and a man of color are leading the biggest entertainment franchise in the western world. If the rest of the movie had to be overly familiar to make that happen, I’m okay with it.

Episode VII had to do one thing (besides making boatloads of money, which it could hardly fail to do): it had to redeem the Star Wars universe from Episodes I-III. It had to bring back the magic. I admit, when the music started and the words “Episode VII” appeared on the screen, my reaction was less plunging into a beloved imaginary world and more “holy wamprats, the grip this thing has had on my entire life.” But soon after that, I was hooked. The magic is absolutely back. With that mission accomplished, I’m hoping the movies to come will push the narrative boundaries and strive for real cinematic greatness. But if they end up being more of the same, I’ve still got my Incal-y half-assed karma theory.





Just Bozos in Tights

19 11 2015

Alan Moore recently said of superheroes: “this embracing of what were unambiguously children’s characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence … it is, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times.”

I also saw this from Jeet Heer: “Superheroes work best as all ages entertainment because the roots of the genre are in the children’s daydreams: to be able to fly like Superman, to wield a lasso like Wonder Woman, to run like the Flash, or to leap from building to building like Spider-Man.”

Moore’s comment expresses a nagging doubt I have every time I read and re-read superhero comics. But, I think what he’s talking about is a symptom of a larger cultural stagnation (see this article again). We are awash in reboots, remakes, and rehashes, from the upcoming Star Wars Episode 7 to the exploitative cash-grab of Go Set a Watchman.

Heer piling on forced me to walk back a bit from my view of superheroes as urban fantasy, with veins of cultural ore akin to classical folklore (I have a tendency to– guess what– take these things too seriously). Together these articles had me scrambling to defend my enjoyment of the superhero genre. But that’s a pointless exercise. I like what I like, that’s enough. But maybe I’ll try harder, in my own little way, to inject some originality into our stagnating culture.

 





Comcast blows

24 06 2015

We dropped our cable TV. The savings will be negligible since we’re keeping our high speed internet. Comcast is the only game in town as far as that goes. We dumped the tv out frustration with their service. 

We’ve had to keep a close eye on our cable bill, because apparently Comcast policy is to gradually raise it and hope we don’t notice. We’ve had technical problems with our cable box, and had to fight through layers of bureaucracy to get to an ultimately simple solution. Then, for the last couple of weeks, our picture has been flickering every few seconds. The idea of wrestling with Comcast’s technical support seemed no better than developing type 2 epilepsy*, so we switched to internet only.

With an antenna and digital converter we get dozens of channels. Aside from the local stuff it’s mostly vintage movies and shows, but those are fine for a little mindless distraction, which is what we mostly used cable for. Netflix and Hulu stream plenty of stuff to watch, on the increasingly rare occasion we can actually pay attention for an hour or two. If we were sports fans it might be a different story. But we’re not. I don’t think we’ll miss cable at all.

Rumor has it than in a year or two, Century Link or the city of Minneapolis will offer high speed internet in our neighborhood. The second that happens we’ll ditch Comcast for good.

*I know there’s no such thing, just making a poor joke.





Universe Fatigue

8 04 2015

Mere days after my last post about the upcoming shake-up at Marvel Comics, DC has announced that they will make another round of big changes this summer. The plan is to bring more diversity to creators and characters, and de-emphasize universal continuity in favor of letting stories and characters breathe. Hooray DC!

As for Marvel…I keep searching the internet for some indication that they’re not really moving everything to a patchwork planet where everyone will just duke it out all the time, but I have not found any such indication. Of course, nothing is really permanent in superhero comics, and when everyone gets sick of Battleworld in a few years they will surely return to Earth. Battleworld would make a fun miniseries, but as a master plan, it’s just so aggressively dumb. I guess one way to maintain universal continuity is to throw out those pesky plot points altogether.

I’ve read comics pretty much my whole life. I’ve never tried too hard to get to know the whole universes of either Marvel or DC, until the recent reboots gave me a chance to follow along from the beginning. Marvel’s Ultimate Universe was great for several years, but a pile-up of crossover events and mini-relaunches eventually made it impossible to follow.

(At least, impossible to follow in the trade paperbacks, which are published a year or more after the comic magazines and are generally not shelved in any sensible order in the stores. But I’m sorry, I’m not paying $3-$4 for a 22 page pamphlet that is only a fragment of a story.)

DC’s New 52 was more uneven, and much more short lived than the Ultimate Universe. (For an excellent breakdown of the New 52 launch, and the market forces driving both Marvel and DC, read this.) But over the next couple of years, I’m guessing DC will put the smack down on Marvel. At least in their paper publications.

Marvel Studios still seems to have the lock on the movies and tv series, with several popular, interlocking franchises, and DC/Warner Brothers struggling to get a decent movie out since The Dark Knight. I should be thrilled at the mess of Marvel movies coming out over the next 4 years. (I am super excited about Daredevil hitting Netflix on Friday, despite all my complaining.) But part of me is just tired. It’s great that all these characters live in the same universe, it’s great when they interact with each other, but does every movie, episode, and comic have to be true to a universal canon? Can’t we all just relax a little bit, and accept that different authors will tell different, sometimes contradictory stories?

I read an article recently– and my apologies, the article and it’s author are lost to the mists of the internet– that talked about the difference between keeping an archive and telling a story. I think actually it was a review of The Battle of Five Armies. And the critic felt that instead of telling a story, Jackson was obsessively archiving Middle Earth. And that there is this impulse among nerds to archive all the background and history of fictional worlds, which can be a fine hobby, or (and here I may be mixing the article with my own opinions) an unhealthy variety of escapism that deadens the story by reducing it to a set of statistics.

All that energy spent archiving would be better spent seeking out new authors and new stories, or better yet, creating one’s own. In a worst case scenario, the marketplace gets flooded with remakes, reboots, and tweaks, by people who are better researchers than creators.

Is that where we are? It kinda looks like it. Between the lack of originality and the clear cash-grabbiness of multiple interlocking properties, I wish I could turn my back on the whole thing.

But I can’t. Not yet. Daredevil on Friday!!





Jodorosky’s Dune: Flawed Prophecy

16 09 2014
noxSquare

One of Moebius’ costume designs for Dune. Wings don’t make an angel.

Jodorowsky’s Dune is a documentary about a movie that was never made. Cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, having had great success in Europe with his 1973 surreal western The Holy Mountain, was given free reign by producer Michel Seydoux to make a new movie. He wanted to make Dune. Despite extensive pre-production work, including a complete storyboard of 3,000 images by the legendary Moebius, the film was never made. I watched the documentary. I’ve seen one Jodorowsky film (1970’s El Topo, another surreal western) and I’ve read many volumes of his comics, and I think the failure of his Dune was the best case scenario.

I discovered French artist Moebius as a teenager, when Marvel’s Epic imprint started publishing English translations of his comics. They are pure magic and I devoured all I could find. He collaborated with Jodorowsky to create The Incal, a sprawling esoteric space opera. I picked up The Incal for Moebius’ art, but I was also transported by Jodorowsky’s story, which builds an accessible science fiction world around colossal, reality-plumbing, spirit-bending themes.

As an adult, I find more and more to appreciate in Moebius’ art, but I find Jodorowsky lacking as an author. I still enjoy the wildly cosmic drama of The Incal, but the characterization is thin at best, and the dialog is pretty ham-fisted. The concepts are big and daring, but don’t add up to much in the end. It feels like it was written in a breathless rush of late-night, youthful, mystic self-righteousness… the mental state you get in college before you have to actually get a job.

Jodorowsky tells us that his ambition with Dune was to make a movie that would change the world, provide the effects of drugs without drugs, explode young minds: “…a movie that is a prophet.” I can see similar motives at work in El Topo and The Incal. But like The Incal, El Topo falls short. I found it to be a movie that creates the sensation of expanding your mind, without actually doing it. Which I suspect (I can’t speak from experience) is the same thing hallucinogenic drugs do. It’s a thrilling experience, but ultimately empty.

Can a work of art function as an expander of the consciousness? Absolutely. One might argue that all great art does precisely that. I have to admire Jodorowsky’s audacity, but I feel like while he’s lobbing cinematic missiles at the walls that bind the spirit, he’s neglecting his art. In the end it comes off as self-aggrandizing; he wants to be the guy that brings enlightenment more than he wants everyone to be enlightened. He also clearly has an attachment to violence, which is fine for an artist, but a deal-breaker for a guru (in my humble opinion as an unstudied humanist).

I’m probably coming off as a terrible old stick in the mud. Won’t do drugs, dismissive of youthful optimism, blah blah blah. The thing is, what Jodorowsky wants for his works, I want for them too. I would love to have my mind legitimately exploded. I crave it as much as he craves granting it. As an audience I’m dying to hurl my disbelief into the fire. Sometimes a work of art lets me do it, and I’m thrilled. But many works of art don’t, and life’s too short to pretend they do.

After his Dune movie fell apart, Jodorowsky started writing comics. It seems clear that he poured everything he wasn’t able to say with Dune into The Incal, and a few spin-off series including La Caste Des Meta-Barons, beautifully illustrated by Juan Gimenez. (I found a volume of Meta-Barons on a trip to France in 1995, and have since collected all 8 volumes in French. I have to struggle a bit to read French, but it makes the writing more palatable.) Meta-barons has some mystic elements, but it is more of a straight space-opera than the Incal. Still, it is the most operatic of space-operas, steeped in bloody tragedy and impossible stakes.

My biggest complaint with many film adaptations is that they are so different from the source material, they’d work better as wholly original stories. Jodorowsky’s Dune describes a movie like that, straying far away from Frank Herbert’s book. Jodorowsky, unable to adapt Dune, went out and authored many original stories. And they are aggressively, flamboyantly original, and thus destined to be classics.

I met Alejandro Jodorowsky at the San Diego Comic Con in the early 2000s. His attendance was not well publicized, and I was surprised to find him there. He was humble, eminently friendly, happy to sign a book and to take a copy of the ridiculous zine I was handing out. That encounter is one of the most enduring treasures I took away from Comic Con. It’s lucky– for me certainly, for the world I believe– that Jodorowsky’s Dune never materialized. His comics are a far better legacy.





Seriously – Godzilla

27 05 2014
fanart by vladgheneli

fanart by vladgheneli

Warning: giant radioactive spoilers

I figured I’d better chime in on the new Godzilla movie. He’s kind of the mascot of this blog. I want to take him seriously, even though his movies tend to be aggressively ridiculous. Thankfully, Godzilla (2014) is not. At no time does the movie wink at itself with campy meta humor. For that feat alone, I can forgive the movie’s flaws. Bottom line: the story makes sense, the characters act like people, the effects are convincing, and the monsters are glorious.

Some of my favorite people online were disappointed that it wasn’t more of a horror/disaster movie, that instead Godzilla becomes a heroic figure. I do agree that there should have been room in the film for a more catastrophic, force-of-nature aspect of Godzilla. However, when I realized that there was more than one monster in the movie, I was absolutely elated. The film essentially jumps into sequel territory right away, which is a bold choice by Hollywood standards. But honestly, do we really need an origin story for Godzilla? Do we really need a whole movie of throwing ineffective planes and tanks his way? I was thrilled that this movie went straight to kaiju-wrasslin and Godzilla as both threat and protector.

Some of the plot was awkward. Some promising background elements were undeveloped. My biggest complaint is that the monster scenes were often cut short for no good reason. Individuals generally made rational decisions, while institutions made terrible ones, which to me feels true to life.

I’ve heard that a sequel has been green lit. They will have to bring in another classic monster. My favorite was always Gidorah, but it’s hard to imagine Legendary Pictures finding a workable rationale for a deeply weird monster from space. I predict Godzilla and Mothra teaming up against a new adversary.

What would be really cool is for a rival studio to make a Gamera movie. Warner Brothers? How about it?