Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Desert of the Real

I promise not to spout too much from Jean Baudrillard's text Simulacra and Simulation. Instead, I'll try to keep to the film The Matrix. While this was a popular film, I know of people who have not yet seen it. So if you don't want the film spoiled, stop reading about now.

In the magazine Dark Wisdom there is a regular feature titled The Film Vault. Typically this column brings together 3 people who offer opinions about a film -- however the 3 people do not communicate about it beforehand, so the opinions are somewhat isolated. I thought I'd try a variation of that here. I'd post an opinion, and welcome any others.

Instead of following the common path and discussing The Matrix as a metaphor for culture/society, I'm going to view it as a metaphor for identity. Throughout the film, Thomas Anderson/Neo is forced to confront his identity -- he has "two lives," and one of those "lives has a future." In the film, Mr. Anderson is a programmer by day and a hacker (rebel) by night -- and he has a fondness for things made by Panasonic. But in this filmic metaphor for identity, Anderson/Neo must confront who he really is, and not who society wants him to be.

So who does "society" (AKA authority) want him to be? It would seem: Thomas Anderson, a programmer for a respectable software firm, who has a social security number, pays his taxes, and who help's his landlady take out her garbage. Or is that the case? It seems like the right answer. But throughout the film, Mr. Anderson/Neo is followed by Morpheus, a rebel, a "dangerous individual" who knows the true identity of Mr. Anderson. That is, Thomas Anderson is Neo who is "the One." And "the One" is the one who will lead the other lost indiviuals to freedom. (And that is "the One" as living in room 101).

I'll cut through most of the film, and get to my point. The Oracle never tells "Neo" that he isn't the One; rather, Neo decides this himself. All the Oracle tells Neo is that he will have to make a choice (a central theme in the film -- choice) and that he "is not too bright." And on first glance, it appears that Neo is the one, and everyone but Neo knows it (including the audience). Here is where the trouble begins.

If Neo does not want to be Mr. Anderson, as Agent Smith always calls him, then we assume he wants to be "Neo," and realizes on his own what all of us have already known: He is the One. There is one scene in the film that exemplifies this argument quite well, and that is where Neo and Agent Smith fight in the subway. Smith says "Do you here that, Mr. Anderson? That is the sound of inevitability." The response to this is: "My name is Neo." But "Neo" isn't quite "the One" at this point. However, Morpheus points out that "he is beginning to believe."

Just as Mr. Anderson is told who is his throughout the film, and we assume throughout his life prior to the moment in the film, Morpheus and others nudge Neo toward being "the One." Even though Neo tells the rest of his friends that the Oracle said he wasn't "the One," she never did say that. Actually, she let Neo say that on his own because identity (or being the One) must be decided, selected, not told.

So what? We know Neo's "the One," what's the point? My point is that Neo believes what he is told, and comes to accept it. In fact, had not those around him been so persistent, Neo might not have become the One. This is important, because the film, intentionally or not, focuses upon identity, and while Neo fights not to be Mr. Anderson, he falls into the same "trap" by accepting his identity as "the One."

Yes, this is a minor point that perhaps deconstructs part of the plot. Or, maybe it is a "rabbit hole" that carries us deeper into the matrix. Those who have seen the film probably noticed that life in "the matrix" has a green tint (the film is tinted green), and life outside the matrix is tinted blue. If we follow this metaphor, then the artificial world is green -- a hint to the audience that something is wrong with the world. But why accept that the "real" world is tinted blue?

What if Morpheus' reality was another layer of the artificial world? This one, lucky for us, is color coded blue. Morpheus (also the god of dreams in mythology) plucks Neo into "his" world and convinces Mr. Anderson that he is the savior of those ready to be freed (also known as the people who cause problems in the 1st layer of the matrix). What better way to deal with rebellious members of society than to give them their own simulacrum -- a world that they can be rebels, but in reality are not a threat to anything. Such a world keeps them busy. And in the case of the film, they are busy producing energy (or, to put it in other terms: they are completely alienated from their labor). If we follow this path, then Neo becomes the leader of a group of rebels who are "AUTHORized" by society. And while Neo won't accept his "Mr. Anderson" identity, he becomes quite attached to his "Neo the One" identity. Likewise, he becomes an icon, a magnet for those troublemakers, pulling them from their hidden ranks in society. Soon they join-up with Neo in the "blue" reality, and they cause simulated havoc.

Okay, I'll go back to Baudrillard again, but just briefly. Here, the "real" rebellion is replaced by the simulated rebellion, and given enough time, "real rebellion" vanishes. What remains is a group of rebels, still connected to "the system" (the matrix), still alienated from their labor, but they are content because they believe they are "raging against the machine." Instead of being a threat, they are actually a filter for finding those who dislike society, straining them out, and giving them a new "prison for their mind" where they go about their business of working for the system. Maybe we are back to the metaphor for culture/society.


Anonymous said...

First off, I think this is a fantastic movie, one of the best science fiction films ever made, and I even think that the sequels are as good.

But what is the movie about? For me it is a metaphor that we all live our lives believing that we are constrained. "I can't get a job that will make lots of money", "There is nothing that I can do about the government's policies", "I have to breathe air".

Watch "What the Bleep Do We Know?" and then come back to "The Matrix", there are lots of similarities. What if our world is a creation of our mind, that we are all quantum observers affecting the reality around us, but we are constrained but what we think is possible? What if we came first, as minds, and we created the Big Bang, Inflation, the Universe and everything in it, shaping it this way because this is all we know?

Mr Anderson didn't just change his identity to Neo, he expanded his identity and his mind. First to be able to manipulate the Matrix (a metaphor for our world), and then in later films his belief is so strong that he manipulates the 'real' world. He keeps expanding is mind, hence he becomes 'the one' achieving what no one else has achieved before him.

Of course he goes through a journey, discovering himself, coming into conflict about his beliefs as he does. Until we understand our own flaws and false beliefs, how can be become anything more?

David Conyers

Stewart Sternberg said...

This movie is a problem for me at different levels, but not as much a problem for me as its sequels. So, let's isolate it from those and instead focus on the issue at hand: choice or the illusion of choice.

I think framing the question as you have framed it puts it in a "Schroedinger's Cat" perspective. Choice changes reality. No absolutes here, folks. The smoke and mirrors are ever changing.

Of course, The One would be an absolute, wouldn't he? So if reality changes, then The One can also change and therefore not be an absolute. Not be THE ONE. If Neo can choose his path, then is he really The One? No. The choice must be an illusion.

I have a headache.

Chuck Zaglanis said...

Playing the devil's advocate here, perhaps it's better to languish in ignorance considering the stark reality of the situation.

If everyone in the matrix represents a human battery, who will rescue all these billions of people once they are released? We've seen how much effort goes into physically and mentally reconditioning one person-and he knew there was something odd going on. Where will the rescuers get food for the rescued, or clothes, or housing? The surface is uninhabitable and I didn't see animal one running about. The outbreak of insanity is going to be incredible. Imagine a complete paradigm shift in your schema of reality. There'll be a lot of people longing for the days of steak, mark my words.

Then again, perhaps "reality" is merely another layer of the matrix and the real world is once again green and lush.

Deborah said...

Which is covered in the movie... some people just aren't ready to be unplugged. It always comes down to a choice. Me, I'd rather take the red pill than to live in ignorant happiness, though that ignorance does sound tempting... :)

William Jones said...

Stewart Wrote:
I think framing the question as you have framed it puts it in a "Schroedinger's Cat" perspective. Choice changes reality. No absolutes here, folks. The smoke and mirrors are ever changing.

This is a sticky area with "reading the film." I tend to view it in more abstract terms: "Power is granted by those who accept being powerless." This line appears in a similar form in the 2nd film. But, if we extract all of the SFX and metaphors, we are left with the belief in choice. Some argue that choice is agreement with Power (authority), while others say choice is an illusion. In order to connect the metaphor of "reality" to this, we could say that people "see" the world as those in Power give those without power choices, and in most cases, those without power fear of "not belonging" or long to "be a valuable member of society, " and agree to being "controlled."

That is to say, Power only works on those who agree to it. The film plays with this “Yes” agrees, and “No” negates Power concept – Neo uses “No” quite a bit. Outside the film, the task of those with Power (be it political, social , financial, etc.) is to make those without power believe they have a choice, but the best choice is to agree with those in Power (works well for those in Power). This is perhaps a metaphor in the film.

What this does is create a worldview where many people think they have no choice but to "go along with the flow." "What's the point in fighting it?" "That's the way things are done." "There's too much to lose if we protest." (A Matrix-like world where people are oblivious to the "reality" that has been created for them. To enforce this concept outside them film, there is an endless litany of why Power (with a capital "P") should be left in control, while the powerless (lowercase "p") believe they have a choice.

As for my original post, Neo seems to think he had a choice about becoming the "One," but according to Morpheus, it was predestined (not much choice there). Does Neo "become," or does he "agree" is the question had I raised. Even his name indicates he was predestined: NEO = ONE. Everyone seems to expect his arrival, except Neo (the former Mr. Anderson) -- and he dislikes the notion of "Fate" because it means he's not in control of his life (is that irony?). Eventually, he too accepts his "identity." Is that how identity is formed? Enough people inform someone and eventually that "reality" is believed? Or is that Power at work? -- "Every member of this corporation works as a whole... either you agree to obey the rules in the future Mr. Anderson, or you'll find yourself unemployed." (Is there choice there? It seems so, so long as the answer is "yes.")

For those who have seen the film, its plot revolves around “Power.” Humans power a machine, a system that alienates humans fromm the work they do (feeding the machine to keep humans under control and beforing the labor that powers the machine). So the use of “Power” cuts many ways in the film.

Anonymous said...

This is a fantastic movie. What's cool is Jones showed us how to go down the rabbit hole, and movies have changed for me every since. This is now one of my favs.