On a Saturday afternoon about four years ago, Dave and I went to see a film about which I knew almost nothing. I went into The Matrix without having read a single review, with no idea of the plot, with no expectations at all. The excessive violence — especially the gratuitous lobby gun fight — grated, to be sure, but I was willing to forgive the gunplay because the rest of the film was so compelling. The first hour sucked me in like few films I can remember: I was enthralled as layers of reality peeled away, one after the other, until all that remained was a dark and horrible core. Amazing. This was science fiction at its strongest: innovative, engaging, sublime.
One of the strengths of The Matrix is, of course, its central metaphor. The film posits that the world in which we live is not real, that it is simply a fabricated reality, a shared illusion. A small group of people is able to discern this illusion, and the story tells their attempts to free the rest of the world from its thrall.
What is the matrix? Is it television? Is it the internet? Is it the entirety of the mass media? Or is it something much broader, perhaps the entire fabric of modern Western society? And, once we've identified the matrix, how do we escape from it? Do we want to escape from it?
This is one of the fundamental questions that I've wrestled with over the past five years.
It is convenient for me to think of the matrix as representing modern American consumerist culture. (Please note that I'm not saying that this is actually what the Wachowski brothers intend the matrix to represent; I'm saying that it is convenient for me to think of the matrix in this way. You might find it convenient to think the matrix represents something else. Weblogs, for example.)
If I view the matrix as representative of our modern society, I must ask myself, which will I take: the blue pill or the red pill?
Morpheus: You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill . . . and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.
I talk a lot about taking the red pill. I'm an advocate of simple living, alternative transportation, local organic farms, boycotting large corporations, etc. I talk a lot about taking the red pill, but the truth is I'm afraid to do so. And yet I haven't taken the blue pill, either. I'm not willing to close my eyes, to buy into our cultural mindset, but I'm not willing to remove myself from it.
I'm like Neo, after Morpheus has explained the truth to him, but before he's made his choice. I'm sitting in that red leather chair, clutching the armrests, staring at the pills. I'm looking for a third option. Actually, I'm living the third option: I'm condemning the society in which I live, even as I'm unable to tear myself from its grasp. I'm probably the biggest consumer I know (though, to be fair, the things I consume are, well, books and books and DVDs and books and photography equipment and books). I'm a mass of contradictions. I'm a hypocrite aware of his hypocrisy.
There are many out there just like me, able to see the matrix but unwilling to leave it. Some live in the matrix but have one foot in the real world, or an arm, or a head.
On Metafilter yesterday, Kaibutsu posted an item about the simplicity movement, "a loose, world-wide network dedicated to removing the extraneous from our lives". These are people who are at least nibbling on the red pill.
There are many elements to simple living, and not everyone chooses to (or is able to) adhere to each facet of simplicity. For some, financial simplicity is enough. For others, it's technological simplicity that's important.
The simplicity movement appeals to many of my friends, whether they overtly subscribe to the ideals or not. Michael and Laura, and Paul and Amy Jo are attracted to a simple life but, I think, like me they find it difficult to leave the Real World. Mac and Pam have taken some good first steps on their Farmamentarium, raising chickens (which Craig and Lisa want to do), growing fruits and vegetables. Pam has intentionally removed herself from exposure to mass media for years. I make fun of her remove from popular culture sometimes, but the truth is that I admire it. Can I give up my subscription to Entertainment Weekly? What!? And miss the news about the latest Star Wars sequel? I think not.
As Kaibutsu points out in his Metafilter post, the modern simplicity movement can, in part, trace its origins to Henry David Thoreau, and particularly to Walden, his treatise on living simply (quotes).
Thoreau's ideas are pure and noble, yet it is interesting to note that he, too, was a hypocrite. He was unable to live the lifestyle that he advocated (though he certainly tried). He was able to do it himself largely because he lived largess of his neighbors. He borrowed their tools to build his home and to plant his crops. When he was hungry, he went visiting and was given food and made to feel at home. Yet when Thoreau had company, he served the most meager of meals and there was no place for his guests to sit. Thoreau had noble ideas, sure, and, to an extent, he put into practice what he preached, but he was something of a mooch.
To my mind, a better example is set by the modern-day farmer philosopher Wendell Berry from Kentucky. Mr. Berry is not a proponent of simple living on an individual level, he's an outspoken proponent of sustainable local communities. In his writing, frequently featured in Orion Magazine and similar publications, Berry advocates a lifestyle in which each person is more connected with the earth, plays a greater role in the production of her food, is more connected with his friends and neighbors. You might think that this sounds like new age bunk, but you'd be wrong. Berry's beliefs are firmly rooted in Christian theology and a deep love of farming.
Berry, it seems, has taken the red pill, and he's trying to get others to join him in oustside the matrix, in a world of reduced consumption. I see him there, and I'd like to join him, but there are still books that I do not own.
The Matrix Reloaded opens tonight. It's the first of two sequels to be released this year. I've been looking forward to this film for some time; I've watched the original three times in the past three months (including once on the big screen). Can the sequel possibly be as revolutionary as the first film? Can it possibly live up to my expectations? Of course not.
The early reviews are mixed, though trending slightly positive. Roger Ebert likes it, but remember he's a sucker for gorgeous visuals, and sometimes this clouds his judgment). Harry Knowles is underwhelmed, but then you know what I think of Harry.
My favorite review so far is by Adam Gopnick, the film critic for The New Yorker. (Joel and Aimee have been recommending Gopnick for a while, but this is the first review I've read from him.) He's not keen on the film, but he doesn't hate it, but that's not really the point. The review is more a forum for Gopnick to show how erudite he is and, somehow, he manages to pull this off without seeming arrogant. In fact, it's a damn fine read.
Here’s where the first “Matrix” pushed beyond the fun of seeing a richly painted dystopia. Although the movie was made in 1999, its strength as a metaphor has only increased in the years since. The monopolization of information by vast corporations; the substitution of an agreed-on fiction, imposed from above, for anything that corresponds to our own reality; the sense that we have lost control not only of our fate but of our small sense of what’s real—all these things can seem part of ordinary life now. (“More Like ‘The Matrix’ Every Day” was the title of a recent political column by Farai Chideya.) In a mood of Dickian paranoia, one can even start to wonder whether the language we hear constantly on television and talk radio (“the war on terror,” “homeland security,” etc.) is a sort of vat-English—a language from which all earthly reference has been bled away.
I guess the only way to find out whether this is a good film is to go and see it. Anyone?
I think it's a bit quaint that Microsoft Word underlines weblogs as a misspelled word.
On this day at foldedspace.org
2004 — Allergic, and Worst-Case Scenario In which I explore our crawlspace. Also, today is one of the most important days of my life, yet I have no control over its outcome.
2002 — A Desultory Day Kris popped Alien into the VCR and woke me up so that I could watch it. It's one of my favorite movies.