Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Matrix: Revulsions

Caution: This post contains lots of "spoilers." For my initial review of Matrix: Reloaded (probably necessary if you want to understand this post), click here. For further discussion of its Chomsky-esque critique of liberal democracy, click here. Finally, for an intelligent left-liberal rebuttal, click here.

I saw the latest Matrix film last night, Revolutions. It's a sorry finish to the series, especially when compared to Reloaded. As many problems as I had with that second film, I'll concede that it possessed remarkable imagination, even a mad brilliance. But I was deeply disappointed to discover how earthbound, incoherent and repugnant the third film is.

The relationship between the last Matrix film and this one can be boiled down to a fairly simple call and response. Reloaded attempted to present the philosophical conundrum of postmodernism, especially as it translates into everyday human affairs. Revolutions is intended to provide a response to the problem. Perhaps it's a bit churlish of me to expect the response to be as compelling as the problem; after all, the nature of narrative has always made it better at posing questions than providing answers. Still, I think I had a right to expect something at least a little better than the Wachowski brothers have offered here.

Basically, Revolutions attempts to solve the basic problem of postmodernism by invoking a typical cult of death. Keanu Reeves's character Neo, having become a hero, now acts as a Saviour to his people. Now as anyone can tell you, this is a pretty lousy job: To provide salvation, you have to get killed, preferably in a manner that drips with sentimentality and mythic resonance. It's no coincidence that European fascists of the 1920s and '30s used these same ideas to "solve" what they saw as the problem of modernity. More about that later.

The film's only moment of cinematic inspiration comes at the very beginning, with Keanu Reeves's Neo imprisoned in a virtual subway station. The station is immaculately white; like the endless corridor of office doors in Reloaded, it's a marvelous visual correlative for a liminal space. Alas, the good stuff pretty much ends there. For those who wonder how Neo's consciousness could still remain in cyberspace after he has been physically unplugged from the computers, let's just say the man seems to have perfected the wireless Internet connection. (I suspect this violates the logic of the previous two films, but worse violations are to come.)

In the station, we learn that a number of "Matrices" exist, so that the matrix inhabited by Neo, Trinity, Morpheus and company, is just one possibility among many. Instead of The Matrix, we have A Matrix. That's postmodern enough, I suppose, and advances my suspicion that this matrix is meant to critique Western liberal democracy. The Matrix seems even to accept refugees from more overtly oppressive matrices, just like liberal democracies do. It appears that, as power structures go, our Matrix is just about the worst one imaginable -- except for all the others. In an especially adroit touch, the "programs" who inform us about this oppressive cyber-regime look like Middle Eastern refugees. Ouch.

Problem is, much of the emotional impact of The Matrix and Matrix: Reloaded depended on our assumption that the Matrix was an entire world within which the whole of humanity was trapped. Once The Matrix is revealed as merely a localized sector of a much larger, overall computer system, it's awfully difficult for us to care about what Neo does next. You can see why, in Reloaded, the character of the Architect was unfazed at the thought that this system might be annihilated. As much sturm und drang as the Wachowskis manage to pack into their wrap-up, it doesn't seem so important anymore.

Less postmodern is the idea that normal programs in the computer world reproduce heterosexually, creating cute little baby programs. This provides the film with an obligatory child in distress (always an easy way to ratchet up suspense), and gives an unsettling new meaning to the word "cybersex." However, as we saw in Reloaded, Hugo Weaving's new-and-improved Agent Smith requires no such procedure to replicate himself ad infinitum -- and it's ultimately the threat of Agent Smith that brings Revolutions to a baffling conclusion.

Agent Smith has become a powerful computer virus, one which endangers human and machine alike through infiltration and sabotage. The system can't purge this malignant presence on its own, and it seems unable or unwilling to reboot (in the future, no one knows about CTRL-ALT-DELETE). So oppressor machines and oppressed humans must unite to defeat the common enemy, lest this virus disable all machines everywhere. Representing the humans in this battle is our saviour Neo; representing the machines, a character whom the Wachowskis have wittily named "Deus ex Machina," and who serves as a single controlling intelligence behind not just the Matrix, but the entire machine world.

And just in case you've forgotten, the Matrix has been planning to destroy the latest incarnation of Zion since shortly before the second film began. When the drilling machines reach the underground city, the resulting battle is every bit as noisy and thrilling as one might expect. But like so many of the film's events, it has no real bearing on whether these "free humans" will actually survive. Everything rests on a single question: Do you believe in your Saviour? A character called "The Kid" offers the proper answer when he says, "Neo, I believe." The pilot-warrior Niobe makes a similar statement; she says that although she may not believe in the One, "I believe in Him [Neo]." This new metaphysics -- Neism, if you will -- allows Matrix: Revolutions to sidestep nearly every question Reloaded raised on the conflict between man and machine, in favor of a kung-fu showdown between good Neo and bad Agent Smith.

The Agent is fundamentally rootless, a free radical with the will to remake the world in his image. Divorced from any higher purpose or function, his entire being is devoted solely to power and material acquisition (in particular, the assimilation of human bodies and virtual programs). Smith is nihilistic and degenerate; he aims to destroy the matrix that humans and machines have created together. In short, he embodies all the tropes of classic anti-Semitism without appearing even slightly Semitic. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that the Agent embodies that dependable hobgoblin, postmodern consumerism -- which, coincidentally, is the foundation of much left-wing anti-Semitic rhetoric.

The most obvious cinematic precedent for the Neo-Smith conflict in Revolutions is Fritz Lang's Metropolis, with the Agent running amuck just like Brigitte Helm's Robot. The post-Romantic socialism of Metropolis provided an aesthetic template for Nazism; Revolutions follows this template uncannily to the end. Like Lang's blond, blue-eyed Frederic, the physically ideal Neo provides the "heart" that unites mind and body. Neo's love for leather-clad girlfriend Trinity translates into a general love for humankind, and gives him the inner strength to perform his great act of reconciliation -- though unlike Frederic, he will not live to see the world he has helped create. This reconciliation will involve annihilation.

Revolutions claims repeatedly that the rootless Smith and the metaphysically gifted Neo are antipodes; the Christlike self-realization of Neo must be counterbalanced by the Satanic, grasping greed of Smith. For these forces to cancel each other out, Neo must willingly offer himself to Smith -- which, after a fairly hard (and needless) fistfight, he does. But Smith's latest acquisition seems to stretch him too far; after he "kills" the Neo-Christ, Smith explodes in a flash of blinding white light, as do all his copies. By neutralizing his antithesis, Smith has himself been neutralized; Neo's superior self-awareness triumphs over virtual materialism.

The denouement is a perfect example of the Fascist "cult of death." Neo's sacrifice vanquishes the evil Other, making possible a new world order. Machine and Man are all appropriately grateful. The dead body assumes an artificial, iconic pose which we recognize as that of the crucified Christ: He is recumbent, with feet together and arms outstretched. The machines bear this sanctified corpse on something like a funeral barge or bier, though we never learn just where they're taking it, or what they intend to do with it.

Meanwhile, the machines in the city of Zion suddenly abandon their attack and withdraw, a development which confirms Neo's status as Saviour to his people. As if to emphasize the messianic overtones, The Kid reiterates his earlier profession of faith: "Neo, I believe." In an echo of Jesus's last words on the cross, the "deus ex machina" agrees that "It is done." Now that he's dead, Neo is more Christlike than ever.

Yet Neo's revolution appears to have changed little in the Matrix itself. The urban cyberscape generally is grungy and grimy as ever, though for the first time we see trees and parklands, with golden sunshine falling on the buildings. A final dialogue between the Oracle and the Architect lets us know that the humans who wish to escape this Matrix and join the terrorists of Zion will be freed, so that presumably the revolution has benefitted those who live within this particular matrix. Other than that, the machines are still in control, though they have promised to be gentler masters from now on.

Now, if my earlier claim that the Matrix represents a postmodern understanding of liberal democracy still holds (as I think it does), then the "revolution" posited here is designed to countermand democratic politics by invoking otherworldly realms of aesthetics and metaphysics. In short, this affair can't possibly be about basic human freedoms to choose; the general trajectory -- in particular, Neo's gradual ascent from man to hero to Christ -- is all wrong for that. Instead, as a remedy for the democratic discontent that arises from apparent human freedoms, the Wachowskis have proposed something predicated on a quasi-religious death-cult, a collectively organized commune, and an antipodal Other that everyone can unite against. Sound familiar, gentle reader?

Inasmuch as Neo's sacrificed body seems to have brought about a few urban-renewal measures rather than a full-blown new world order, the "cult of death" and the sainthood he represents seem harmless enough. But it forms a clear ideological basis for totalitarian oppression. Consider: A revolution to expand basic human liberty doesn't require its leaders to be messiahs as well. Since the basic struggle is for an individual's freedom to determine his or her own affairs, classical-liberal revolutionaries need only be human like everyone else. Totalitarian revolutions, on the other hand, require martyrs, blood relics and saviours -- all of which must be effectively worshipped as icons of the new state. Such icons lend sacred legitimacy to state authority; they exert influence over the masses who must submit to official myth, helping them accept a government that controls every aspect of their lives.

Nor does the film's offense stop here. The title "Revolutions" indicates that something more radical than tort reform, public parklands or religious liberty is at stake. I suspect that a fundamental social change has occurred: Zion has finally been recognized as viable -- and even, in its way, more genuinely free than the consumerist, liberal democratic machine. (Naturally, Noam Chomsky would be delighted at this conclusion.) The central message of Matrix: Revolutions, if it can be said to have one at all, is that there's nothing wrong with American-style democracy that can't be solved by encouraging everyone to run off and join al-Qaeda.


Monday, November 10, 2003

Civics Lesson

Teenagers in Goose Creek, South Carolina, got an unexpected civics lesson when police conducted a drug raid on Stratford High School last Wednesday. Policemen entered the building with guns drawn, forcing students to lie prone on the ground. Several students were handcuffed while dogs sniffed them for drugs and weapons.

According to principal George McCrackin, video surveillance of the high school seemed to indicate a serious drug problem. However, police found no illegal drugs or weapons, and made no arrests. State agencies are currently investigating into possible misconduct.

Click here to view the actual raid, courtesy of MSNBC.com.

Tom Tomorrow can't stand the competition

Tom Tomorrow, author of the uber-leftist comic This Modern World, has decided to take on conservative bloggers with this week's strip, "Chicken Hawk Down." He depicts warbloggers as fat computer geeks who have no personal life, still live with Mommy, and -- gasp! -- even read the Wall Street Journal!

Tell that to the US soldier who writes Boots on the Ground, one of the most remarkable documents I've ever had the privilege to read. (He will be missed.) Tell that to the brave Iraqis who buck the biased coverage of Al-Jazeera to write warblogs like Messopotamian, Healing Iraq, and Iraq at a Glance.

Of course, Tom Tomorrow has a weblog of his own, though alas, it's not as interesting as the ones I've cited above. Four of his past five entries (as of today) attack US efforts in Iraq. Wouldn't this make Tomorrow ... well, an anti-warblogger? What's his military record like, I wonder? Why does Tomorrow always get his information from the New York Times? And while we're at it, aren't comic strippers also rumored to be losers and geeks with no lives of their own?

As Tomorrow himself might say, "Hey, Ma -- are we outta Cheetos?"

Sunday, November 09, 2003

ClarkWatch: Mail Call

If you're a blogger, you want friends like Alan Sullivan, the keen and witty mind behind Seablogger. Alan may be an atheist, but God bless 'im anyway. This time, as is his wont, he both congratulates me and takes me ever so gently to task:

Hello, Tim. It certainly looks as though Clark is politically dead. And you helped kill him off! Reading your latest post, I think you missed a point: when Clark announces that Saddam wasn't an “imminent threat,” he’s trying to imply that Bush said otherwise, which isn't true.

Watch, though. For Clark and others, the next tactic will be to blame Bush for further attacks (like the latest in Riyadh), and to suggest that the world would have suddenly become an Eden of peace if Bush had only “worked with the U.N.” instead of “unilaterally” toppling governments in Afghanistan and Iraq.

First, thank you. Frankly, I wish Clark were politically defunct. But at the moment, he's in a statistical dead heat with Howard Dean for the Democratic nomination, despite the fact that Dean has raised a much larger war chest and hasn't committed any of Clark's weird campaign blunders. Check out the latest poll from Newsweek.

In my last ClarkWatch post (immediately below), I didn't mention the larger context of the "imminent threat" remark. Mea culpa. Alan is absolutely correct: For about the past six months, we've heard that Bush viewed Iraq as an "imminent threat." The problem is, no one in the Bush administration ever said anything of the sort. In fact, Bush himself stated that Iraq was not an imminent threat, though he added that it might well become one if we didn't act promptly to remove Hussein. Maybe this was too nuanced for our media to understand; maybe they just don't care.

The mother of all war-bloggers, Andrew Sullivan (no relation to the redoubtable Alan), has exposed this particular deception more thoroughly than I can. That's why I took a different approach, asking what an "imminent threat" would mean within the context of Clark's own speech. It doesn't hurt that, as a former grad student in English, I'm trained to perform precisely this type of "close reading."

As for the "next" tactic of blaming Bush for recent terrorist attacks, I think we've heard it already. I would even say we've heard it for quite some time. Dennis Kuchinich seems to have started this particular bandwagon, and the other Democratic candidates are following like lemmings into the sea. From Kuchinich's on-line chat with the Washington Post last Tuesday:

Kuchinich: My exit strategy ... would enable the UN to gain support from member nations who would then commit troops to enable the rotation of UN troops into Iraq and the rotation of U.S. troops out of Iraq. My plan, if immediately brought to the UN would enable our troops to be home by the beginning of the New Year. Unless this country makes a shift in policy, we will end up with more deaths of U.S. servicemen and servicewomen, more chaos in Iraq and more separation from the world community.

Clark's Iraq speech offers a slightly modified version of the Kuchinich plan, and I've already given it a thorough examination. If you hold any hope whatsoever for Iraq's becoming a democracy, you'll have to admit that a UN takeover -- led by Syria, Libya and roughly half a dozen known terrorist states -- would be an incredibly bad idea.

I created ClarkWatch and the "Wit and Wisdom" series as a response to what I saw as a liberal-media love feast for the Generalissimo. The climate has changed little since I started. Occasional bits of criticism may surface from the media, but fawning celebrity coverage is still the norm. If mainstream media outlets would offer a few well-researched reports on Clark's role in the Kosovo disaster (yes, disaster), along with his attempt to profit from the Pentagon's proposed "Total Information Awareness" program, they might put a dent in supporters' resolve.

Thus far, Clark hasn't received the close examination he richly deserves as a presidential candidate. So I suspect you'll be reading "ClarkWatch" for quite some time.

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