19 May, 2013

Film - The Matrix

“I’ll be back.” (Terminator) The 1999, end of millennium, science fiction blockbuster film, The Matrix, goes a number of steps beyond, James Cameron’s Terminator. In Terminator to be human is not enough, Sarah Connor must become machinelike and ultimately align herself with the machine to defeat the enemy. In The Matrix, to be merely human or to be a machine is also not enough; but in the world of The Matrix, humanity, or at least one human, has the ability to grow beyond his/her present parameters and return to the rule bound world of personal limitation with a new freedom. Despite the cartoon look of The Matrix, Two-dimensional or even three-dimensional human beings are not enough; in The Matrix, a seemingly ordinary individual, Thomas Anderson/Neo, is required to embark on a journey of self-discovery, look deep within himself and enter a world of paradox. He must do this in order to see the lies about him so that he may grow into these other dimensions, beyond his own organic parameters and the machine’s virtual reality.

The Matrix reveals itself as a hypermodern, hypergeneric film, which is best defined as a science fiction melodrama with a preoccupation with digital images and a more than moderate interest in time and motion, reality and illusion. The Matrix blatantly appears as an amalgam of a cross cultural assortment of films. Unabashadly flaunting its sources such as Ghost in the Shell, Twelve Monkeys, La Jetee, Star Trek, Blade, Blade Runner, Terminator, Men in Black and numerous others. The Matrix proudly shows off these citations while skilfully retaining its own uniqueness and authenticity. There are also, references throughout the film to M.C. Escher, Harlan Ellison, George Orwell, James Cameron, Sergio Leone, and so forth with as well a number of visual and thematic references to The Wizard of Oz, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass. Most interestingly, The Matrix delicately draws on the films of Alfred Hitchcock, especially, it seems to me, Vertigo and North by Northwest. In doing this The Matrix, both visually and thematically takes some major Hitchcockian themes and proudly displays, expands, and reworks them.

The aim of The Matrix does not seem to be to recreate Hitchcock or Hitchcockian suspense, as such. Rather it seems to show off the film industry’s indebtedness not only to Hitchcock, but also a plethora of prominent filmmakers. In doing so, it introduces a number of what appear to be homage to Hitchcock moments and a number of interesting Hitchcockian strategies, worked together with Hitchcock’s trait of self-referencing. Or, maybe its just that Hitchcock is so ingrained into the cinema that his work surreptitiously invades all films without the filmmakers knowing. Either way the Wachowski brothers appear to have, maybe inadvertently, but I feel not, have created a typically Hitchcockian vertigo of Déjà vu with a spiral of filmic reference.

By referencing any Hitchcock films, you reference other Hitchcock films by proxy. The narrative, visual style and the dominant theme of deception within, for example, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Notorious and Psycho suggests that each of these films are themselves interrelated and that each is shaped by its predecessor. As suggested by the writings of Raymond Bellour, style and themes recur within these films such as melancholia, mania, and paranoia/schizophrenia. Melancholy, for example, is defined, as a mental condition characterized by extreme depression, bodily complaints, and often hallucinations and/or delusions is most evident in Vertigo and Psycho. Hitchcock’s style contains certain predictability enfolded in a world of the fantastic. Hitchcock’s films are set in a vague fantasy land that somehow resembles reality yet is estranged. The reference to fairy tales by Hitchcock can be seen in a number of his films including, Rebecca and Cinderella, The Birds and Goldie Locks, Notorious and North by Northwest both alluded to Carroll’s Alice adventures.

Like Hitchcock’s films, The Matrix works within the classic style of cinema, while simultaneously challenging it and taking it to its limits. Strategies and themes recognised as being typical to Hitchcock, by theorists like Wood, Modelski and Leitch, pop up throughout The Matrix. Included are such Hitchcockian strategies and themes, like the use of symmetry and doubles, claustrophobic corridors, shots of bits of body, ineffectual police officers, underlying anxiety, vertigo, necrophilia, playing with time, truth and illusion, attraction and repulsion, and the tension created by the conflict between self-determination and predestination. These are woven into a suspenseful and exciting melodrama within The Matrix.

Like the “ordinary men,” in the Hitchcock films Vertigo and North by Northwest, Neo the protagonist in The Matrix, experiences the extraordinary in his life, making him acutely aware of his own isolation, hollowness, and lack, which mirror the fabricated world in which he exists. Neo is propelled into a journey of search for inner identity, a rite of passage. As it is for Roger Thornhill/George Kaplan, in North by Northwest and John Ferguson/Scottie in Vertigo, this is a journey of paradox contained within the film narrative, which results in crossing boundaries and new and bizarre beginnings/endings. Roger Thornhill/George Kaplan, in North by Northwest, like many of Hitchcock’s heroes, seems to have escaped from a “Boys Own Adventure” story and like John Ferguson/Scottie in Vertigo, exists only in the fractured fairytale of the film narrative. Like Thornhill and Scottie, Neo appears to be not quite content, not quite fitting into his shallow adventures in the façade world in which he exists. Neo, also like Thornhill and Scottie has multiple identities. He lives a “double life,” one of which fits neatly into the rules of “the matrix” system in which he believes he exists, the other as a hacker or dissenter. But Thomas Anderson/Neo, like Roger Thornhill and John Ferguson is about to have “a most unusual day. ”

“Only Human.”
The Matrix represents a bounded system, which is constraining, precarious and threatening to any flaws or opposition within the system, yet once the system is breached, boundaries can change. In The Matrix, “the matrix” programme represents a “neural interactive simulation” that creates a mass illusion, in which each individual exists. Each individual that exists in, and experiences the matrix’s virtual reality is trapped into believing that he/she exists in actual reality. Thus, “the matrix” virtual reality is a sort of counter actualisation, a cybernetic tranquillisation of humanity. The technological colonization of the body by pacifying the mind, mirrors forms of dissolution and subjectivity through mass socialisation and media-isation , similar to that broached in North by Northwest. In The Matrix, techno-science advances its own goals at the cost of human concerns disempowering most of the humanity contained within the system. Technological advances lead to the destruction and dependency of the human body and its subsequent re-formation through non-human extensions spiralling out of technology, “the vicious prosthesis.” Humanity becomes crippled in this alien world, where the technological form re-presents and simulates an image of our former independence and mobility. In The Matrix, this develops into a virtual form, which both sustains and advances a deterministic world system, mediating humanity’s relationship with progressive technology.

As in many science fiction films, the machine-intelligence in The Matrix, developed by humanity, grows beyond its parameters, into a self-serving oppressor that opposes the individual and collective spirit of humanity. Yet, this renegade AI can still be seen to be serving humanity, in a paradoxical way. By opposing humanity, the machines are challenging and forcing individuals within the system to evolve and develop towards a new potential. Certain individuals, who could be classified by what Baudrillard refers to as terrorists, develop and come to a new reality, further developing the hubristic human need to reinvent our consciousness and reinvent our selves.

Science fiction film, despite its futuristic façade is rooted in the archaic symbolism of mythology and religion, through its use of archetypes. However, it is also a product of humanity’s hubristic love affair with technology, resulting in technology birthing a creation as a product of its own historical narrative. Technology, in The Matrix, becomes inter-dimensional with an ability to move between the organic and the cybernetic confines of “the matrix” system. To free itself, humanity must do more than breach “the matrix” system. It must mirror and improve on the traits of the cention programmes before it can gain the freedom to move freely both outside and within “the matrix.” The cention programmes, or agents, are digital computer programmes that have the ability to “move in and out of any software plugged into the system,” a concept that seems to make humans not only batteries but also software within this self-serving system. Interestingly this programme animates itself with only male personas, yet seems to remain sexually ambivalent.

“Ironically, it is science fiction film – our hoariest and seemingly most sexless genre- that alone remains capable of supplying the configurations of sexual difference required by the classical cinema.”The obvious pun on the word whore, coupled with the true meaning of the word, being old or ancient, gives added punch to the irony in this statement. The main basis for the truth in this is the interaction between human and machine in science fiction film, with the machine, usually taking the role of other, in the Lacanian sense. Often, the machine’s intent is war with, or suppression of humanity and it often becomes a struggle to tell the difference between human and machine. Machines become the enemy, yet humans become more machinelike and the machines humanlike. In The Matrix, through their classification and use, as batteries and software, humanity, is integrated into and serves the cyber-technology inverting the norm. The technology has attempted to “other” humanity, in the Lacanian sense. At least one agent, however, begins to display emotion that exposes a trait bordering on the human.

A chronicle on humanity’s love/hate relationship with technology, The Matrix, looks at a possible future technology, that has, through the advances in AI evolved into a vengeful, parody of humankind. This evolution continues through The Matrix, as can be seen in the development of Hugo Weaving’s character, Agent Smith, as he takes on hateful human traits because of his revulsion of humanity its displays of emotion that he sees as weaknesses. “The matrix” is simultaneously a multi faceted image of the body social; a sort of statement on reality and illusion and in this may be read as a film about cinema. The Matrix, ventures into many areas of mythology where Neo represents an anarchist, the antichrist or even Christ, or Dionysus crossing boundaries into Eastern philosophy such as Buddhism, New Age dogma, post-modern thinking and even Shamanism. Some of these are manifest through such things as Neo’s resurrection, the presence of an embryonic monster mother figure, the interaction of yin and yang forces and sexual ambivalence. On the other hand, through direct references to Wonderland and its white rabbit, The Matrix, presents itself as another interpretation of Alice’s fall into Wonderland, a personal rite of passage for the protagonist, who struggles with the different logic of a new world. Nevertheless, in all this The Matrix, is a film that deals with borders, the paradoxical turning point of between worlds.

Featuring a technology that evolves beyond its human creators, The Matrix questions the very nature of humanness. This technology is portrayed through brilliant, state-of-the-art graphics and exquisitely choreographed cinematography and combat scenes. The timing, tracking, editing and interpolation of the multiple cameras to create sfx together with the use of luminosity and colour creates sensuousness brutalised with pure sensations, which makes a bold statement in itself. The choreographed bodies and cinematography combined with the use of light and colour, create a surface texture throughout the film that stimulates raw nerve endings adding to the film’s definitive look, reflexivity, and narrative ambiguity. Affirming the paradoxical discord created by what Rascaroli describes as “the film’s body - with the camera as its perceptive organ” generating an amorphous spectorial position. The camera’s POV moves between that of subjective POV of both the individual characters and the POV of “the matrix” programme to the objective eye of omniscient other. The excess in technology and visual effects presented in The Matrix creates an extravagant visual banquet of filmic surface texture melding the actor’s bodies with the visual texture of the medium, making them inseparable from the visual imagery of the film. The use of the actor’s bodies add to and enhance visual effects, so that the body becomes a part of the mise-en-scene and inseparable from the physicality of the film itself.

“Did you see that?” (Neo, The Matrix)

Cinema is recognised as a medium of visual and aural images, and signs, with perceptual codes enhanced by but not primarily driven by the verbal. The psychoanalytic theorists, like Metz, would argue that the nature of the cinematic signifier makes it primarily a visual rather than a verbal or linguistic communication system. Christian Metz is interested in the role of the visual language of film as well as the Lacanian psychoanalytic approach to film theory. He describes cinema as looking into a mirror without seeing your own reflection. Metz’s writings emphasise the “language” of film, is not a language of words, he sees it not even as a language, despite the fact that dialogue is a fundamental element of narrative film. It is primarily in the qualities of its images and sounds that the expressivity of the cinema must be sought. The eye of the camera, like the eye of humanity sees not objectively but is subject to a systematic violence of philosophy, ideology, and a provisional knowledge that is constantly being re-evaluated. The eye both sees and looks; it is capable of receiving and delivering acts of violence, truth, or lies. No matter how passive or neutral it tries to be, the eye culpably interacts with what is happening on the screen sometimes without actually seeing.

Throughout The Matrix, it becomes evident that like the Hitchcock films, North by Northwest and especially Vertigo, one of its themes is about watching. In the Matrix, everyone is watching, many different groups and individuals look and subjectify others, in a similar way to the viewers, who made complicit through their watching. The crew of the Nebuchadnezzar watch “The Matrix” patterns, they watch each other as they enter and leave “The Matrix” and they watch individuals within “The Matrix.” They watch Neo, everyone watches Neo. “The Matrix” watches everyone and everything within the programme, as well as searching for those apart from the system. The cention programmes, the agents are fed this information through “The Matrix” programme, they can also tap into the programme to be able to watch individuals and place focus on them.

“In classical narrative cinema, to see is to desire” and what we choose to look at gives us access and power over that object or person. Both the psychoanalytic and the cognitive film theories revolve about viewer identification and POVS. The psychoanalytic theory circumnavigates character and directorial/camera POV, identification, while the cognitive theory revolves about editorial manipulation and omniscient camera POV. “We only see what we look at. To look at is an act of choice. As a result of this act, what we see is brought within our reach.” The “definitively masculine implications” recurring in classical cinema, position the male as spectator giving him power and pleasure through his voyeurism, which in turn defines his masculinity. Yet, the body as spectacle has the ability to stimulate the spectator and emotionally transcend the medium. Passing through its own physical limitations, this excess points to the incongruous nature of cinema enhancing the paradoxical emotional viewer response created by the film itself.

It is generally agreed that film has an identity in and of itself, which travels and changes through space and time. The complexity of film as an aural, visual, sensual, kinetic medium is an acknowledgment of its unique character . However, it is also important to realise that in the oscillations of our interactions we can never fully grasp the whole meaning of cinema. Film viewing is about looking, viewing, observing an imaginary world in which the spectator feels in control, but is being controlled. The tussle between the so-called primitive cinema and classic cinema has created many debates and varying theories, which ultimately show the one cannot survive without the other. Tom Gunning’s concept of the “cinema of attractions” has tried to reinvest the primitive cinema with a new status by relating the development of cinema to other forces than storytelling, such as new experiences of space and time in modernity, and an emerging modern visual culture with its ongoing love of spectacle.

As noted by Sobchack and Gunning, from the beginning, film has pushed its limits. As if the characters themselves want to jump out of the screen, and the viewer into it. This is seen in Porter’s The Great Train Robbery when the boundaries of cinema pushed toward its limits as a gun was pointed directly at the viewers and fired towards the camera and thus psychologically into their faces. The power of the gun’s gaze back at the camera alluded to the “shadows dancing across a screen” as an act of assault on the senses of the viewers. However, this may have roused the emotions of an audience in 1903, but would barely stir a present day audience as can be testified in The Matrix, when Neo shoots countless rounds from a machinegun into the camera with shells falling like rain while saving Morpheus. The cinema of attractions is bound up with this ability to create the illusion that characters can survive accidents, perform superhuman feats, dodge flying bullets and emerge unscathed, combined with an ability to affront a viewer by assaulting the parameters of the screen and the senses and thus stirring primal emotions.

Yet, another incident from the early days of cinema, both confirms the change in audience expectations and their love of the affront of spectacle. A film called The Wreck, which included a specially staged train crash, was so successful with viewers that film companies made a number of train crash films. There are also the famous stories of the Lumiere brothers train episode, when people were said to have left the theatre in fear of the approaching train. These early train incidences have continued to be acknowledged and referenced in film to the present day, examples being, the train episode in North by Northwest, and the scene in the underground station in The Matrix. Both scenes appear to have been used by their respective directors to further push the parameters of film. During his interview with Truffaut, Hitchcock explains his use of multiple cameras attached to the Twentieth Century to give the viewer the feeling of being on the train, while showing the train from the outside. The train scene in The Matrix features digitally enhanced multiple camerawork, putting on view the most recent innovative sfx, looking forward, to the Twenty First Century. Affirming the self-conscious narration with a juxtaposition of camera styles, startling POVS and extravagant use of sfx that is representative of the “cinema of attractions.”

The symbolism of the Mt Rushmore metaphor, in North by Northwest, places the characters at the edge of the void at a border or turning point, at that place where the viewer and the characters meet at the edge of the screen. The initial Mt. Rushmore scene occurs at the lookout site immediately after the scene at the airport, which concludes with the pivotal moment, in which the camera zooms in onto a MCU shot of Roger Thornhill’s concerned countenance. The illumination of his face and the sound of the engines of the passing plane, emphasise his concern for Eve and new understanding. The shot fades, and for a moment superimposes onto the next shot of the stone faces of the Mt Rushmore monument, which eerily appear to look back at him. The superimposition of Cary Grant’s face into the shot of the monuments melds him with the national icons acknowledging his status and star persona. Thornhill is looking through a telescope at the monument; the camera self-consciously focuses, with the help of a circular mask onto the stone faces, mimicking and amplifying the action of the previous shot. Thus, the Stony faces reflect the steeling of Thornhill’s emotional energy for the task ahead and Thornhill/Grant’s comment, “I don’t like the way Teddy Roosevelt is looking at me,” comments on the paradoxical simultaneous looking forwards, looking back nature of cinema and Hitchcock’s narratives. The method of telescoping onto an object is a recurring element of Hitchcock’s filmmaking. Whether, a camera lens as in Rear Window or a rolled up newspaper as in Suspicion is used, this iris effect as an extension of the eye by mechanical means is used by Hitchcock to focus the viewer’s attention both visually and narratively. Hitchcock uses it to draw attention to an aspect of the plot, to highlight a sense of foreboding, and as an element of the self-reflexivity, that steeps his films.

There are times when The Matrix violently pushes these boundaries, like when Trinity smashes into the skyscraper as if for an instant she is going to fly through the screen, but at other times the pushing of parameters is more subtle and remains within the narrative, like when Neo takes the red pill. As he reaches for the pill, the camera cuts to a CU of Morpheus and two images of Neo reflect back at the viewer in Morpheus’ glasses. Neo looks at his reflection in the mirror, which appears to be breaking up. At a point during this short SRS between the mirror and Neo sequence, Neo’s face disappears in the mirror and Neo looks into the camera to ask, “did you see that?” The question in the narrative directed at the others in the room but the look at the camera appears to be directly asking the viewer the question. “They are everyone and they are no-one; they are the gatekeepers.”(Morpheus, The Matrix)