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Posts Tagged ‘The Matrix’

(Part 33 of an ongoing series)

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There’s no excuses, Paul. No one has ever, ever paid admission to see an excuse. No one has ever faced a black screen that says: “Well, if we had these set of circumstances, we would’ve shot this scene… so please forgive us and use your imagination.” I’ve been to the movies hundreds of times. That’s never occurred.

Mark Borchardt

I can’t stress enough how thrilling it was to be a freshman film student in the fall of 1999. In the spring of that year, most of us aspiring movie-makers had been terrified and delighted by The Matrix: terrified by the idea that we might be unwittingly imprisoned in an artificial reality controlled by hostile machines, and delighted by the idea that we could shatter the boundaries of cinema just like the Wachowskis  (at least if we were lucky enough to get our paws on some big-studio blockbuster money). Then in the summer of ’99, most of us aspiring movie-makers had been terrified and delighted by The Blair Witch Project: terrified by the idea that America’s Middle-Of-Nowhere was truly haunted by devious demonic forces, and delighted by the idea that hey, maybe we could make our own boffo blockbusters with little more than chump change and a few brilliant ideas, just like Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick.

Then there was Chris Smith’s documentary American Movie, which delighted and terrified us aspiring movie-makers in a different way: delighted us with the addled antics of aspiring movie-maker Mark Borchardt, and terrified us with the implication that for most of us, our cinematic endeavors would actually go a little something like this.

Granted, movie-making has become considerably easier since the late ’90s, with the proliferation of digital cameras and the internet, but the message still rings true: you’ve gotta be a fool to try and make it in this business- or any artistic field, for that matter. 

One of the most insightful things about American Movie is its subtitle, “The Making Of Northwestern.” Northwestern is a feature film that Borchardt sets out to make, a personal, dramatic film based on the experiences of his young adulthood. Yet very early on, the documentary’s focus shifts away from that passion project and toward the making of Coven, a short horror film that Borchardt decides he must finish in order to do Northwestern. After all, aren’t most of us with artsy-fartsy dreams perpetually making a Coven in order to make a Northwestern? Or, as Borchardt’s girlfriend Joan puts it: “He wants to be somewhere where he’s not. But then, don’t most people want to be somewhere where they’re not?”

Yes, American Movie milks a lot of laughter from Borchardt’s foibles and failures, but it doesn’t come off as mean-spirited or condescending. The film not only has deep affection for Borchardt, it seems to have great admiration for him too. So what if after 15-plus years, Northwestern is still “in production” (according to Wikipedia)? By the end of American Movie, the dude finished Coven and eventually outsold his goal of 3,000 copies at $14.95, even if he had to literally clean up other people’s shit to do it. In a way, that’s more inspiring than The Matrix and The Blair Witch Project combined.

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(Part 28 of an Ongoing Series)

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You have to play the game to find out why you’re playing the game. It’s the future, Pikul. You’ll see how natural it feels.

Allegra  Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh)

Maybe The Matrix is King Shit of ’99 Mountain, but in some ways, eXistenZ totally out-1999’s it. Where The Matrix has a little Cronenberg in its human embryo battery baths, eXistenZ actually is Cronenberg, so its hardware throbs and squishes so intensely you can taste its disease. And while The Matrix is Philip K. Dick for the multiplex masses, drawing a stark new boundary between “reality” and reality?, eXistenZ is way more Ubik (perhaps the Dickiest of all Dick’s 438 novels), glitching the “reality”/reality? border so often the word “mindfuck” practically loses all meaning.

In one of its myriad meta-moments, a character claims to detect a strong “anti-game theme” within the movie’s virtual reality world. Yet although eXistenZ quivers with its own marrow-deep paranoia about virtual reality, ultimately it’s not above having fun with it. Instead of ending with a Matrix-like triumphant call to action, eXistenZ ends with a scream, a shrug, and a cackling middle finger.

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(Part 12 of an ongoing series)

What you know, you can’t explain.  But you feel it.  You’ve felt it your entire life. That there’s something wrong with the world.  You don’t know what it is, but it’s there.  Like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.

Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne)

Here was 1999’s most primal fears and profoundest hopes, blown up to mythic, millennial proportions.  Philip K. Dick’s “How real is this?” existentialism for the multiplex masses, jacked up a few levels from Blade Runner and Total Recall.

A summer blockbuster so horny to mindfuck the world, it couldn’t even wait for April to shoot its load.  Arguably, the most tech-savvy action that cinema’s ever seen.  (And to think, it “only” cost 63 million bucks.)  Sci-fi that feels soaked in sex appeal (despite the fact that no one ever gets past first base.  Must be all the black leather and late-90s electronica).

The dreaded sense that Big Brother’s already sucking our souls from within a digital fortress of illusion- but also the galvanizing faith that we can turn this very same fortress into our own sandbox of the gods.

There may be a select few movies from this year that I “like better,” but the truth remains: The Matrix is King Shit of ’99 Mountain.

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(Part 3 of an ongoing series)

…it’s not that I’m lazy.  It’s that I just don’t care.

Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston)

If I wasn’t so convinced by the idea that we’re essentially helpless against the eternal, spirit-crushing march of industry, I’d shudder to think of how unimpressed- if not outright embarrassed- that 1999 would be by 2012.  Surely the future will see its share of dingbat preachers predicting apocalypses that won’t come, but 2012 is basically the last “official” apocalyptic year.  And while most people think of the apocalypse as the end of the world, the word “apocalypse,” as Alan Moore demonstrated in his millennial comic Promethea, actually comes from the Greek for “revelation.”  As our previous apocalyptic year, 1999 gave us a cornucopia of revelations for us to learn from, but so far 2012 hasn’t really applied those lessons very well.

The idea of corporate America as a heartless, soul-sucking behemoth wasn’t exactly novel in 1999, but the movies of 1999 did their best to bludgeon us in the face with more warnings and helpful tips.  When doing battle against The Man, 1999 protagonists often started by retreating into adolescent rebellion.  But where American Beauty, Fight Club, and The Matrix advanced into bleaker, more dramatic theaters of war, Office Space channeled its cubicle-fury into lighter, wackier, more optimistic wish-fulfillment.

There’s truth, for instance, in Mike Judge’s barb that those who are invited to climb the office ladder are often the least deserving.  Yet we need a powerful suspension of disbelief to buy that Ron Livingston’s Peter would get promoted after weeks of aggressive, devil-may-care slacking.  Try doing that at a job you hate in the real world and watch how quickly the axe falls.

Still, there’s a good lesson there: one of the first steps toward enlightenment is to stop giving fucks you shouldn’t be giving, while still giving the necessary fucks.  As they say in Richard Linklater’s Slacker– a 1991 film that’s one of 1999’s cool older brothers- “Withdrawing in disgust is not the same as apathy.”  In Office Space, Peter’s biggest mistake is that his withdrawal goes so far he becomes petty and criminal.  And though he eventually sees the error of his ways, he only gets off the hook because he’s lucky enough to have Milton torch all evidence of his misdeeds.

Milton’s deus ex machina may not be terribly satisfying in a narrative sense, but if Office Space is a fable, the resolution feels like a good moral.  As in, the cognitively-dissonant upper-management Lumberghs kept swiping our staplers and telling us yeah, I’m going to need you to go ahead and come to work on Saturday, and we the Peters didn’t do nearly enough to subvert the system. So inevitably, the Miltons will just burn the Initechs to the ground.  (Not saying I condone arson, necessarily, but seriously, the Lumberghs are totally begging for it.)  And in the end, maybe the best we can do is shovel up the rubble and construct another office building.

But hey, we’ve still got a whole quarter left in the year, and that whole Mayan calendar mythology says our apocalypse/revelation isn’t due til late December.  Maybe there’s still time for us to make 1999 proud.

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Part 2 Of An Ongoing Series

There is truth, and there are lies. And art always tells the truth. Even when it’s lying.

John Malkovich as John Cusack as Craig Schwartz as John Malkovich, Being John Malkovich

John Cusack’s Craig Schwartz has plenty of sick desperation in his laugh during the first act of Being John Malkovich.  We hear it when he flirts with Catherine Keener’s Maxine, the out-of-his-league co-worker he wants to have an affair with.  She’ll rip his pathetic ass down like it’s her favorite hobby, and he’ll often respond with that sick, desperate, 1999 laughter.

It’s not just because Craig’s intimidated by Maxine.  It’s also because Craig’s a lot like so many other notable 1999 protagonists: dispirited, frustrated, adrift, unfulfilled.  (See also Fight Club, American Beauty, Office Space, The Matrix, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Election, the ensemble of Magnolia.)  Like his own puppet, he’s stuck in a “Dance of Despair and Disillusionment.”

Funny thing is, Craig’s the protagonist in the most humorous of all those other movies- maybe the most hilarious 1999 movie that isn’t South Park– and yet he suffers the most tragic fate.  And that sums up why, if I were forced to choose the best 1999 movie, Being John Malkovich would barely edge out Three Kings and Fight Club.  Being John Malkovich is so great it baffled me with its greatness the first time I saw it, and its greatness still baffles me to this day.

It’s the type of movie you’d think would spawn a decade’s worth of imitators, like Pulp Fiction or There’s Something About Mary.  Only it didn’t, really.  Its fine balance of surrealism and poignancy is so perfect, it’s like the world’s filmmakers simply stood back in awe of Being John Malkovich and were like, “We’re just gonna let Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze handle this shit from now on.”

If the movie has spearheaded one trend of the past few years, it’s the one where actors play comically unflattering caricatures of themselves.  (Jean-Claude Van Damme, Kirstie Alley, Matt LeBlanc, James Van Der Beek, half the people who’ve appeared on Curb Your Enthusiasm.)  Of course, none of those actors went nearly as far down the rabbit hole as John Horatio Malkovich.

Then again, maybe other filmmakers will eventually get around to imitating the rest of Malkovich once they’ve finally finished processing it.  There’s a galaxy of ideas in this movie, all zipping by at madcap speed, and a lot of those ideas really started to mushroom in the new millennium.  It’s not merely about “celebrity,” it’s about the desire to attain celebrity, the emptiness of celebrity, the misguided sense of entitlement we often feel we have over celebrities.  It’s not merely about the quest for immortality, it’s about how the quest for immortality is not necessarily a bad thing- although it can definitely be a very bad thing.  It’s not just about the search for identity, it’s about fucking identity until identity forgets what gender it used to be.

Most of all, though, Being John Malkovich is about Craig Schwartz, and how not to end up like him. That means doing your damnedest never to drive yourself crazy from unrequited love.  It’s very bad for the skin.

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