Taoism, Buddhism and Dasein – Monk Comes Down the Mountain

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In 1946 Heidegger and the Chinese academic Paul Shih-yi Hsiao collaborated on a translation of the Tao Te Ching. Hsiao withdrew from the project after translating 8 of the 81 stanzas of the classic citing anxiety over Heidegger’s departures from the text. Carman and Van Norden remark that this was somewhat usual behaviour from Heidegger who felt little need for textually loyal interpretation of any texts. Heidegger, for his part, expressed exceptional love for and philosophical affiliation with D. T. Suzuki and said he felt this Zen theologian and philosopher captured the essence of his philosophy.

Considering these two different accounts we should be careful with mapping any sort of one-to-one relationship between existentialist thought and the metaphysics of Buddhism and Taoism but likewise we cannot ignore that parallels exist.

I also want to briefly discuss why I’m talking about Buddhism and Taoism together here. Principally this is because both Buddhism and Taoism are essential to an understanding of Monk Comes Down the Mountain. He Anxia, the protagonist, is a Taoist monk. His principal moral guides throughout this film are a doctor of Western medicine, a Buddhist abbot and a Taoist recluse. Buddhism and Taoism are different but not necessarily opposed. They are different but non-contradictory and have had an influence over each other. Particularly you can see a Taoist influence on the writings of the Chán patriarchs such as via the focus on formlessness in the Flower Sermon. The Chán focus on the insufficiency of language to communicate the dharma largely echoes the Tao Te Ching when it says,

“The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.”

Whether we look at the Buddhist sense of Dharma or teaching or the Taoist sense of tao or way of being we encounter this fundamental argument that the absolute thing being taught is not entirely communicable from within language – it’s insufficient. However the Flower Sermon is not a universal Buddhist text – it is, in fact, rather explicitly restricted to Chán and its successor Zen. Here it’s important to reflect on how Buddhism, in specific, is non-monolithic. Rather Buddhism has always been rather syncretic, responding to and interacting with local intellectual life. Chán is one of two principal schools of Buddhism that arose in China (along with Pure Land Buddhism) and both were in deep dialog with Taoism, Confucianism and Chinese Folk Religion from the moment they arrived on the scene.

In the 2015 Chen Kaige film Monk Comes Down the Mountain this interrelated nature is brought front and center as it plots the journey of a junior Taoist monk who, after being asked to leave his monastery, goes on a search for teachers who include a doctor of Western medicine, a Buddhist abbot, a Taoist recluse and an opera star.

This is a strange film. This shouldn’t be entirely surprising as Chen has a history of writing and directing movies that make unusual choices. A strong prior example is the critically divisive 2005 fantasy film The Promise which contained stunning and irrealist costuming and set design to frame a story that remains focused on Chen’s perennial topics of sexual desire and its relationship to masculine friendship. These topics are present in Monk Comes Down the Mountain in spades but with an added twist of a focus on and exploration of the master-student dynamic that is central to the Chinese monastic experience and, via a transitory action from that monastic setting, martial arts fiction.

Some of the strangeness comes from a deeper-than-average formal adherence to wuxia structure. Wuxia novels were often quite episodic as a result of their golden age being dominated by newspaper serials. Each episode in a character’s story had to both fit into the overall arc and also be a cohesive tale about that character that could fit into the column inches available for it. But setting a wuxia story in Hangzhou in the 1930s is an interesting deviation since the mid-20th century period that marked the greatest output in the genre was also marked by a desire to look back into the pre-Republican past while most contemporary kung fu stories either followed this same trend or were set in the present. The period between the end of the Zhongshan Incident and the 1970s is at best a loose sketch with a small number of portrayals of Ip Man, Huo Yuanjia and his fictional pupil Chen Zhen standing in for the breadth of the jianghu during the early 20th century. In fact the premise of the Once Upon a Time in China films was largely that Wong Fei-hung‘s generation was the last blossoming of the age of martial arts heroes. But this movie does away with that and suggests, instead, that the heroes were all still there, secluded in temples, performing in operas and playing at gangster just as they had always done just somehow rendered almost invisible by modernity: just acrobats, monks and gangsters in the eyes of the world. Diminished.

In the world of this film no amount of neigong will protect a hero from a bullet in the back.

Another avenue for strangeness is the singular performance given by Wang Baoqing as the protagonist He Anxia. Wang characterizes his monk as a figure whose emotional map is dialed up to eleven. When he is happy (and he is a happy sort so this is often) he grins with his whole face, capers and laughs maniacally. When bored his whole body sinks into objects, his face droops, eyes almost shut. When angry He Anxia is outright and effectively homicidal in his wrath. Wang’s characterization of He seems to be hinting that being raised since infancy in a monastery has left He without normal emotional filters. He is unable to restrain these impulses of various passions because he never experienced enough to even realize he had them. This impulsivity extends into the script.

He’s first mentor upon leaving the temple is another former Taoist monk who abandoned the clergy and became a doctor out of lust. He was so desirous of a beautiful woman he encountered that he changed his whole life to be with her. He’s an older man though and so to support his desire he pays his younger brother, an apothecary, for aphrodisiacs. He isn’t aware his wife is having an affair with his younger brother but He Anxia spies on her while out on an errand and sees her in tryst with the younger brother; he confronts her, tells her she should tell her husband.

She assumes he has told the doctor and comes clean only to learn that He Anxia, just as impulsively as when he’d chosen to follow her, has not told the doctor a thing. The doctor persuades her to break off the affair with her brother which she does but the brother gives her a poisoned aphrodisiac which kills her husband before resuming his affair with her.

The film is clear the wife doesn’t realize the medicine is tainted.

He Anxia murders them both, locking them together in a boat and sinking it to the bottom of West Lake. He watches the light fade in her eyes as she drowns and then flees to a Buddhist temple seeking some understanding of whether what he did is good or evil.

Later he is drugged by the son of a gangster who believes his father has murdered his own best student (he has) and who believes He Anxia has information (he does). The drug loosens He Anxia’s tongue and he tells the other man, “I want to fuck my master’s wife.”

Later in the film He Anxia comes into the orbit of Zhou Xiyu – a recluse who lives alone in an abandoned Taoist temple. It transpires that Zhou is the former martial brother of the pupil-killing gangster and He’s actions reveal to the gangster that his xiongdi is still alive. The gangster, played by the delightfully hammy legend of Hong Kong cinema Wah Yuen is obsessed with maintenance of the family line and the martial line in one. He has never forgiven his father for teaching Zhou a powerful martial art and not him and so he goes to beat the secret out of Zhou. He fails; Zhou is by far the stronger fighter. But after he leaves Zhou is shot in the back by an unknown assailant. He hovers at the border between life and death. He Anxia brings his new teacher to the same abbot whose advice he sought after killing his last teacher’s unfaithful wife and begs the abbot to aid his teacher with his passing. The teacher reveals he needs to see one man before he dies and the abbot reminds him he can see him in his heart. Zhou agrees and sees a man who is a stranger to the audience smiling beatifically down at him before dying.

This man is the opera star Boss Zha – who is revealed to be Zhou’s former lover. The two met as soldiers some years previously and Zhou saved Zha’s life during a beautiful scene in which they embrace on a bridge as shells explode around them. They retreated from the world together to practice kung fu and when they eventually departed vowed eternal loyalty. Zha finding justice for his lover’s death marks the conclusion of the final episode of the film and brings He Anxia’s story to its conclusion. The film ends by saying in a voice-over narrative, “Only by experiencing good and evil can you truly appreciate the way… The true heart can hold all things, the mountains, plains and rivers and an eternal cosmic universe.”

It’s really only in this moment that all this strangeness, this lumpy, uneven and deeply odd narrative of love and hate, loyalty and betrayal, selflessness and selfishness becomes clear. He Anxia’s moral development depends not just on a naïve man learning to do good things but rather of an empty vessel filling up with all the thickness of the world. He has to experience everything. And now we’re ready to talk a bit about Taoism, Buddhism and Existentialism.

In Return to Tipasa, Camus says, “In the difficult hour we are living, what else can I desire than to exclude nothing and to learn how to braid with white thread and black thread a single cord stretched to the breaking-point? In everything I have done or said up to now, I seem to recognize these two forces, even when they work at cross-purposes… But if one forgoes a part of what is, one must forgo being oneself; one must forgo living or loving otherwise than by proxy. “

The true heart can hold all things; learn how to braid with white thread and black tread a single cord stretched to the breaking point. There is an echo here. Taoism recognizes that the world is absurd. Certainly this film does. In a minor episode a beautiful young woman approaches He Anxia and tells him he is her savior. It transpires she has been unable to bear a child – the husband is probably to blame but nobody wants to admit that. She has been praying to Guanyin at the temple for a son and the goddess used to grant sons but in the last several years the goddess has stopped and nobody knows why.

On the strength of this chance encounter with a stranger He Anxia goes to the Abbot (the same one who guided him through his guilt over his murder, the same one who will later ease his teacher’s passing) and asks why the goddess has stopped granting sons.

The abbot tells him that during the tenure of the previous abbot the monastery allowed men to hide in a secret room beneath the temple to Guanyin. When women came there to pray for a son one of the men would bring her down and help her to conceive one. The abbot says he didn’t think this was appropriate decorum for temple and he locked the secret room. This is why the Goddess stopped answering those particular prayers.

He asks the abbot for the key and the abbot asks why. He says he wants to help a woman and the abbot says yes. He Anxia promises the woman never to see her again after helping her solve her heir-problem. It’s all absurd. The woman is a stranger. She comes to He Anxia by chance. She is the first (and in the film only) person he is physically intimate with. She leaves his life just as suddenly as she entered it and then she becomes an absence in his life.

Sartre situates nothingness in absence. In Being and Nothingness he brings forth the example of a friend to be met at a restaurant. “I say, ‘he is not here.’ Is there an intuition of Pierre’s absence, or does negation enter in only with judgment? At first sight it seems absurd to speak here of intuition since to be exact there could not be an intuition of nothing and since the absence of Pierre is this nothing. Popular consciousness, however, bears witness to this intuition. Do we not say, for example, ‘I suddenly saw that he was not there.'” Sartre says that the absence of his friend is marked as an aspect in the fleeting faces of all those people who are not Pierre. Being is composed of all these absences marked by the sudden and shocking intrusion of presence when the absence is negated. “the negative judgment is conditioned and supported by non-being.” For Sartre, these early pages of Being and Nothingness are built around the argument that the being of a thing is ontologically primary. That our ability to assign appearances and essences to a being depend first on the presence of the being which is composed of an infinite series of all appearances and dis-appearances of it. The nothingness that marks the absence of a being is also part of that being.

It is bottomless; the very progenitor of all things in the world.
In it all sharpness is blunted,
All tangles untied,
All glare tempered,
All dust smoothed.
It is like a deep pool that never dries.
Was it too the child of something else? We cannot tell.
But as a substanceless image it existed before the ancestor.

The Tao Te Ching interprets the Tao as an empty vessel, an uncarved block, a void to be filled. The Way is a being that contains within it all its own nothingnesses; it is, in fact, a nothingness from which all things emerge. For the Tao Te Ching this aspect of being fruiting out of nothingness isn’t merely an ontological process whereby our understanding of what an object is not is a unified part of our understanding of what an object is. Instead it’s a metaphysical nothingness that gives birth to all things. Nothingness is within all things because all things arose from nothingness.

There’s a sense, in the phenomenological existentialism of Heidegger and Sartre that the presence of other objects to a being is an intrinsically shocking thing, almost hostile. But at the same time a subject cannot help but encounter other beings. We are within the world. This is Dasein – this sense that to exist is to be tossed about in a maelstrom of becoming and of appearances. In Nausea, Roquentin describes sitting under a Chestnut tree and says, “I was in the park just now. The roots of the chestnut tree were sunk in the ground just under my bench. I couldn’t remember it was a root any more. The words had vanished and with them the significance of things, their methods of use, and the feeble points of reference which men have traced on their surface. I was sitting, stooping forward, head bowed, alone in front of this black, knotty mass, entirely beastly, which frightened me.” This direct encounter with the being of the other shocks him but at the same time it digs into the ground against which the word, “tree” or the description of the root, “black,” rests. There is this rupture of the tree being too much, too solid. But being-in-the-world is inescapable. We are not cartesian mind-imps observing everything through a screen. We are buffeted about by being and the vicissitudes of life. Language fails Roquentin in the face of a true encounter with the tree. As Zhuangzi says, “those who understand, do not say. Those who say do not understand.”

This idea – that language creates a barrier to an encounter with the real – remains the point where Heidegger breaks from Taoism and from Ch’an. Both of these older ontologies look at the inability of language to capture the paradoxes and contradictions of being in the world and say that language is the problem; an object must be taken in whole and no words can carry enough meaning to communicate even the smallest object in its entirety. Heidegger, instead, ties himself in knots attempting to describe these phenomenological problems.

Sartre gets closer at times and more distant to this anti-linguistic frame. In Nausea, under the Chestnut Tree, he captures the inability of language to describe being in a true sense. “The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao,” as Laozi puts it. But even then he returns to the complex formulae of phenomenology in a vain attempt to describe the eternal Tao.

Monk Comes Down the Mountain is a story about the absurd and paradoxical nature of life. Its character, in his wild irrealist mood swings and strange, twisting, life story lives a life every bit as absurd of that of Roquentin, refusing to write his book in a coastal town that doesn’t exist. But being a Taoist work, Monk Comes Down the Mountain understands that the only way to truly and fundamentally apprehend being in all its paradox is to take it all in, to recognize the completeness of being and of the failure of language, even filmic language, to represent it in its wholeness. Recognizing its insufficiency to the task the film, instead of tying itself down in a complex phenomenology, allows its story to drift to metaphor and parable that is purposefully inadequate but is beautiful and strange nonetheless.

Heidegger failed to translate the Tao Te Ching and for all he tried to insert himself into the lineage of Zen he failed at that task too. No nazi can understand the sermon present in a smile and a plucked flower. Nausea fails too and so does Monk Comes Down the Mountain. Nothing can represent being; no work of art can present an essence to being in all its thickness. The essence is contained within the object of being along with its absence. It is but a part of a far greater whole. But where Heidegger’s Dasein gestures in the direction of the field, and where Nausea brushes against its surface, Monk Comes down the Mountain capers and dances, flashes a manic grin and throws itself about in acrobatic maneuvers. Camus said we need to braid with white and black thread stretched taught to the point of breaking and so must the Monk but even this misses the mark. He Anxia doesn’t braid with white and black thread; he is the white and black thread. His heart contains an eternal cosmic universe.

The Matrix Resurrections proves a better blockbuster is still possible

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I cannot assume that a review for a major movie that came out literally yesterday is going to be read only by my regular audience so before I get into the meat of the review I should mention that I regularly discuss incidents from the plot of my subjects of critique, including climactic events, in the course of review. I have strong and somewhat idiosyncratic views on the concept of the “spoiler” and its place within criticism and film discourse but I also know there will be a lot of people who want to experience the surprises and reversals of this movie fresh. I loved this film. It’s funny and heartfelt, achingly sincere in that so-very-Wachowski manner, and, as one less favorable critic said, it’s full of “philosophical mumbo jumbo” (would we want it any other way?) and has a “woke agenda” (in that it recognizes patriarchy and misogyny as foundational poles of social control). So this is your warning. If you don’t know how the events of the film transpire and would prefer not to learn about them in a review you should stop here and wait until you can watch the movie. The legal choices currently are either to go to a cinema or watch it on a streaming service that is technically only available in the United States, which is unfortunate but this is, alas, the world we live in here in the closing days of 2021. I don’t personally council going to theaters right now, there was a public exposure site at one of the showings of that other blockbuster movie here on my remote island. But if that’s the choice you make please take precautions, wear a well-fitted three-layer mask, sit away from others, avoid eating in the theater and make sure your vaccinations are up to date.

So let’s dig in.

The first act of The Matrix Resurrections starts with an apology for the making of The Matrix Resurrections. In this part of the film Neo is once again living as Thomas Anderson: a successful video game designer whose game, The Matrix, won substantial critical acclaim. But Thomas is a mess. His studio is owned by Warner Brothers and they’ve insisted that the studio begin work on a sequel to the long-completed trilogy of original games. Thomas’ partner in the company confides in him that WB will be making the sequel with or without him and that if he refuses to participate he can be easily removed as an obstacle to its creation. The choice before him is a non-choice. He can make another game, guide how it’s shaped to an extent and take his share of the profits from its eventual success or he can step aside and get nothing while somebody else does whatever they want with his career-defining creation.

I am very fond of the tendency of Wachowski movies to be entirely unsubtle but this remarkably on the nose.

There are two possible ways to read this early sub-plot. Either it’s a sincere apology that a sequel was made for such a definitively finished work, possibly even a recounting of the conversations Lana Wachowski had to have surrounding the production, or it’s a sly joke winking at the possibility of the same. From any other creative team I’d assume the latter but considering how Wachowski sister movies traffic in sincerity here I lean in the direction of the former.

During the discussion, Thomas, showing obvious signs of extreme anxiety begins to see his partner’s mouth seal shut in precisely the way Smith had once done to him in the first film. Later Thomas talks to his analyst who reassures him about the indications of progress evident that he could even articulate this hallucination freely. His analyst calls the discussion an ambush and suggests his hallucination was a transference; Thomas felt his voice was taken away by the decision to make a sequel over his wishes so he imagined his partner’s voice taken instead. The analyst offers Neo a refill on a prescription he’s been using. Bright blue pills the same shade as the analyst’s smart jacket and fashion-forward glasses frames.

This setup comfortably introduces a lot of the key themes that run through the movie simultaneous to its work as a piece of critical apologia for the sequel-driven state of Hollywood blockbusters in general and for the decision to make this movie at this time in particular. The Matrix is a film very concerned with identity – specifically with the divide between the self-gaze and the gaze of the other. Thomas sees himself as we, the audience, see him: Keanu Reeves with long hair and a beard. But we catch glimpses of another man in a reflection. An older man, balding, with a face that looks ground down by a life described later by the Analyst as a combination of yearning for what you don’t have and fear of losing what you do. Other such circumstances apply to the other characters introduced in the first act. Thomas’ partner displays many of the mannerisms of Agent Smith but looks nothing like him and he seems friendly even if the Analyst is wary of his intentions. In another early sequence, somewhat disconnected from Thomas’ story, a new character, Bugs, enters a part of the Matrix that looks like the opening sequence of the first film. But it’s different. Trinity has a different face. It’s similar, hauntingly familiar, but it’s not her. And in this node of the Matrix Agent Smith is there but he’s also Morpheus this blending of identities carries with it a new face in the form of Yahya Abdul-Mateen – who brings an off-kilter humour to his performance that lands many of the best jokes in a surprisingly funny film.

In this retelling of the opening scenes of the first film, Trinity doesn’t escape; she is surrounded by agents and they’re beating her down. Bugs interferes and is pursued by Morpheus / Smith. She escapes into Thomas Anderson’s apartment from the first film and there encounters Morpheus / Smith who is an agent and a program but who is also certain that he is, in fact, Morpheus. Both Bugs and Morpheus are sure Neo is still alive. She saw him. He awoke her. Morpheus shares the same story.

A Neo who is Thomas Anderson again. A Smith who isn’t Smith. A Morpheus who is Smith. A Trinity named Tiffany and another Trinity who isn’t. The first act of this film introduces us to all these fragments of identity that carry with them the signification of others. These are characters who are split between how they see themselves and how others see them. When Thomas looks at his partner and, for a moment, sees Smith we are invited to ask whether it is, in fact Smith, or whether it’s a remnant of the significance Smith had on his life.

There’s a principal question regarding self the film attacks early on rooted in the question of memory and narrativization. Thomas has created a fiction of his memories of the Matrix. He has written it into a video game. In the process of doing so he’s creating a narrative frame out of his past. But the film asks whether this frame is a fiction or whether it is an authentic reflection of the becoming of this man at this time.

The Matrix plays out Thomas’ struggle with what constitutes his reality for far longer than the first film. There’s an extended montage of him mainlining blue pills and sleepwalking through his painfully unfulfilling life, work, gym, pining after Tiffany (Trinity) in the delightfully named Simulatte coffee shop as she nips in and out with her children but saying nothing.

Tiffany is a mother to a whole gaggle of kids. She’s got a doting husband (Chad) and doesn’t understand either why her life feels a little bit empty. She tries to exorcize the ennui by building motorcycles as a hobby and fantasizes about kicking Chad, “not too hard, just maybe hard enough to break his ribs.” A work colleague of Thomas forces an introduction because he’s tired of seeing his buddy mooning after Tiffany from afar and they form a slightly remote friendship. Tiffany can’t help but notice how much Trinity in the Matrix video game looks like her. But she is anxious about the affection she feels for Thomas, the familiarity she has to him because she is a loving mother and wife.

Morpheus forces a confrontation. He reveals that the node of the matrix Bugs found him in was, in fact, a construct created by Thomas with the express purpose of gestating an AI. He is a fusion of Smith and Morpheus because these two people were the most formative on Neo’s life and Neo needed them both to forge his escape from this new prison he found himself trapped within. He offers Thomas a red pill but Thomas refuses. Police invade and chaos ensues. Thomas’ partner stumbles into the bloodshed as Morpheus battles the police and picks up a pistol. In that moment he becomes Smith again, bellowing, “Mr. Anderson” at Thomas rather than Tom and immediately trying to kill him. There’s a discontinuity, a cat named Deja Vu, and then Thomas is back with his therapist who is very concerned for his wellbeing.

Bugs and Morpheus must make another attempt before they can free Neo from the prison of the identity of Thomas Anderson that has been forced upon him. Of course, despite spending an hour with our anxious and emotionally fragile depressive Thomas trying to navigate a disintegrating reality, the Matrix Resurrections must eventually pivot back to being a Matrix movie – it cannot prevaricate endlessly over what is the Matrix and what is the Real. I know many fans had hoped for some revelation that the Real was itself another Matrix, that reality was a nested set of simulations but this is not the case. In fact, in a film that exists specifically to upset binary divisions in so many ways, the division between the Matrix and the Real is the one it leaves unbroken. There are different nodes, different places, within the Matrix. Bits of old code get slotted in. There are constructs and there are sandboxes. But ultimately these are all part of the Matrix which is just as much a prison as it ever was.

There is a hint of an abolitionist critique here. The Tiqqun phrase I’m so fond of is apropos. “But evasion is only a simple escape: it leaves the prison intact. We must have desertion, a flight that at the same time obliterates the whole prison. Properly speaking, there is no individual desertion. Each deserter takes with him a little of the group’s fighting spirit. By simply existing he is an active challenge to the social order: and all the relationships he enters are contaminated by the radicality of his situation.” Neo’s compromise with the Machines left the Matrix intact but unstable. There was a civil war among the Machines. The losing side of that civil war joined with the survivors of Zion to create Io – a new city ruled over by an ancient and cynical Niobe. The victors created a far worse Matrix. By failing to break the prison of the Matrix entirely, Neo left his job only half-done. The change he brought created a difference. The society of Io is different in so many ways from Zion – some better, some worse. But the revolution never ended. The world remained at war, even if the sides of the conflict changed, and Niobe has grown bitter and fearful because of it. Niobe fears that the return of Neo will spark a new front in the war. But this film isn’t a war movie at all. It’s a rescue mission.

The Neoliberal Matrix

Stepping back for a moment it’s significant to situate this as an auteurial movie. And, happily, it’s learned one lesson that separates effective auteurial projects from failures. An auteurial film requires a singularity of creative vision, not of creative control. Tells such as the presence of many, many Sense8 actors in the cast along with David Mitchel and Aleksandar Hemon who have both previously collaborated with Wachowski on the script, cinematographer John Toll who has been the Wachowski cinematographer since Cloud Atlas, Joseph Jett Sally as editor (previously an assistant editor on Speed Racer) and Lindsay Pugh in costuming – another Sense8 alum – indicate that a cohesive creative team has built up around Lana Wachowski. This construction of the team is so fundamentally important to the creation of that unified vision that makes auteurial cinema stand out from more studio fare. And this is critical because of how this film answers the apology in act 1. In The Matrix Resurrections irony, sarcasm and emotional distance code directly onto villains. Our protagonists are achingly sincere, painfully vulnerable. This is a long-standing theme in Wachowski films. It’s notably present in the original Matrix sequels and in Sense8 – a show almost entirely about the power of sincerity and emotional vulnerability. This puts this film directly at odds with the quippy ironic distance of blockbuster fare like Red Notice, Deadpool or anything directed by Joss Whedon and also at the cold and clinical distance of blockbuster directors like Nolan and Snyder. We get multiple close-ups of Thomas rubbing the fabric of his jeans to ground himself, touch has power. After Thomas and Tiffany shake hands for the first time the sense memory of her hand conjures powerful memories of his life as Neo in him. In the Matrix, as in much of the Wachowski ouevre, love is a force of real power. The bonds people form, the way that they live through the other via love is central to their ability to overcome the challenges before them. This film problematizes this by redesigning the Matrix. This isn’t the old Matrix where the main mode was an enforced somnescence and where love merely had to be a powerful enough clarion call to awaken the sleeper. The Architect, who scorned human emotion as being something irrelevant to the grand algorithmic balance of his construction is gone and in his place is the Analyst – who has built his prison explicitly out of love.

Specifically the Analyst, finally revealed not as Thomas’ therapist but rather as Neo and Trinity’s jailer has built his new matrix out of the frustrated potential of Neo and Trinity’s love unrealized. When the Matrix was destabilized following the end of the war with Zion, the Analyst instituted a project to restore Neo and Trinity from death. And once he’d done this, he bound them together as the processing core of the new Matrix and as a psychological template for its systems of control. Neo and Trinity are bound into their prison by what he describes as their yearning for what they don’t have coupled with their fear to lose what they do. He keeps them close enough they can almost touch while constantly frustrating their efforts. He creates for Trinity a husband, children. For Thomas a high paying job in the creative industry. The choice exists for them both. They can see each other. And the Analyst cannot fully erase the meaning they hold for each other because the whole Matrix is literally powered by their frustration. And so they must be separated by emotional and psychological obstacles: her family, his mental health problems. In the process of imprisoning Neo and Trinity thus he has also bound Smith who was forced into the role of Neo’s partner and artificially kept from being who he truly is. The Architect makes Neo and Trinity choose their own subjugation. When Neo is freed he threatens Trinity and promises to kill her if Neo will not return of his own volition.

This film has inherited the complicated discourse the first three movies wove around the issue of choice. The question of choice is omni-present. Sati reminds everyone during the rescue of Trinity that she must choose to be freed or the mission will fail. But simultaneously many characters including Morpheus, Bugs and Smith comment on the illusory nature of choice. Smith-the-partner presents Thomas with the sequel fait accompli. He could choose to refuse to participate but that would basically just mean cutting his own input out of an unhaltable process. When Bugs offers Morpheus the red pill choice they both admit there’s no choice there and he already knows which pill he will take. This ties into the idea of the Eternal Return which was central to the original sequels. And, sure enough, this film plays with the ideas of difference and repetition a lot. It’s present in the gestating simulation Thomas uses to create Morpheus. It’s there when, during the second act, Neo and Smith fight and the entire fight is an echo of their past encounters.

There is intercut footage from the original film series throughout this movie. When Smith speaks the image will momentarily cut to a time from the first movie when Hugo Weaving’s Smith said the thing. When Morpheus confronts Neo during his rescue he does so in a cinema playing footage from Thomas’ game – of the scene in which Fishburne’s Morpheus originally gave Neo the red-pill choice. When Thomas struggles with his memories of being Neo we see them as fragmented images from across the original trilogy. This, combined with some excellent sound editing makes for an often unnerving experience, especially as Wachowski has maintained the original, highly aestheticized look of the original footage but has used entirely different and far broader-spectrum colour grading for the new Matrix.

The Analyst, and most of the rest of the cast other than Bugs and Morpheus, see the Matrix as an inevitability. There is no alternative. They tried to shut it down and doing so just fragmented the Machines, created new factions but no peace and no end to the Matrix. The Analyst believes that most of the “coppertops” prefer their subjugation. They’re too afraid to lose what little they have to step out of line. The unequal power structures that define the contemporary moment exist because the victims choose them.Hang on tight and spit on me,” is the mode of the Analyst’s Matrix.

Niobe is an old revolutionary lost to pessimism. She’s seen too much death and pain and she’s sick of it. She sees no alternative to the Matrix because they tried once and it didn’t work. She’s deeply bitter toward Morpheus (the original Morpheus) who never stopped believing that the revolution could never be defeated. The Analyst sees no alternative because he doesn’t want an alternative. He doesn’t even want a rollback to an earlier version of the Matrix, one that isn’t dependent on keeping two resurrected heroes in a state of immortal purgatory. And Smith isn’t beholden to this Matrix or that – he just doesn’t want to be put back in prison.

And to a certain extent there’s some honesty to the Analyst’s defense of the new Matrix. A rollback would not, on its own, be anything even resembling enough. Mark Fisher puts forward a left-accelerationist read of Lyotard in Postcapitalist Desire that, “that there’s no possible retreat from capitalism – there’s no space of primitive outside to which we can return, we have to go all the way through capitalism.” Likewise there’s no return to Zion and the war with The Machines. In fact nobody would want that. The dissident Machines are a loved and valued part of the society of Io. Morpheus (the program), Cybebe and Lumin8 are valued and beloved allies of the Resistance, nobody wants to go back to the absolute binary of Neo’s era. The only way out is through.

But the other thing nobody really wants is another front in the war. And this is the final really significant formal structural detail I want to draw out here – the plot of the Matrix Resurrections isn’t a bildungsroman like the first nor is it a war movie like the original sequels. This is a rescue movie. The new Matrix, the one powered by the double-bind of yearning and fear, only functions by keeping the object of desire always just out of reach of the subject. They can see it, the thing they want, right there but they can’t quite reach. But if they stay in the system, if they don’t make waves, maybe they can get just a tiny bit closer – a perverse Xeno’s paradox at play that the film depicts clearly during Neo’s first true confrontation with the Analyst in which the program fires a gun at Trinity and holds Neo back just long enough that he thinks he might still power through and rescue her while knowing he almost certainly will have to watch her die again.

The Analyst wants Neo to return to his cage willingly and so he holds Trinity up as a hostage. Neo is faced with another choice-that-is-not-a-choice: he can escape at the cost of Trinity’s life or he can return to a prison where he will, forever, look but never touch. But Sati proposes a rescue – with the only catch being that Trinity must choose to be rescued and during his attempts to win Trinity over she reveals to Neo that she has been having prophetic dreams much like his from The Matrix Reloaded; they end badly. By the moment of the confrontation the story has laid the groundwork that “Tiffany” is as unsatisfied in this half-life as Neo was when he was compelled into the persona of Thomas. But even so it’s terrifying to let go of what she had: a husband, children. The Analyst engineers a crisis at home to drag Trinity away from Neo at the last moment, to skew her to staying in his simulation in hopes a failure of the rescue mission will also compel Neo back under his domination. But Trinity turns back on her way out the door, sees Neo getting pressed to the ground under a horde of cops and something snaps and she breaks free. She decides the simulated family isn’t worth sacrificing the truth. She becomes tired of Chad grabbing her by the arm and leading her where the Analyst wants her. She is tired of building bikes rather than riding them. She leaps.

The Leap

Love, in the Matrix, is always a matter of faith. It’s power is ineffable and irrational. This is why the Architect failed – he disregarded love as nonsense and the love Neo and Trinity had for each other was enough to overturn his plans. The Analyst, instead, wants to pervert love into a weapon to use against the lovers. He knows that love is a desire and that he can use the productive force of desire as a real source of energy if he can only keep the lovers just the right distance apart. The Analyst doesn’t underestimate love qua love. He doesn’t underestimate love as an emotion. But he does understand love as an expression of faith.

There had always been hints of this idea in the Matrix. As early as the first film Morpheus showed Neo how far he could jump if he only freed his mind. In this film the Leap and its expression of the concept of faith takes center stage. Bugs tells Neo that she awakened when she saw him jump off a building and he never fell. The analyst, meanwhile, refers to “Thomas” as a suicide survivor and attempts to make Neo’s faith, his belief that he could be free, into a matter of shame and anxiety. “The doubt that saves doubts only itself,” Kierkegaard says. He means this as a challenge against the idea of dialectical skepticism in the context of theology. Hegelian theology was popular at the time of Kierkegaard’s career and he pushed back against the ability to approach religion from the direction of doubt. He would rather doubt the doubt itself.

There is some power in this position. I’ve often remarked that the biggest failing of Rational Skepticism is the unwillingness to turn the tools of skepticism inward, to doubt the bases upon which they build their skeptical responses to the external phenomena they doubt. There is a danger in self-assuredness that creates blind spots the anxious may see. Kierkegaard put forward this paradoxical position of anxious self-doubt as the basis for authentic belief throughout much of his body of work and his solution was to leap over the leveling scythe of reason and into faith. Kierkegaard counseled an irrational response to matters of faith as being the only true avenue for the expression of real faith. What faith is there in biblical proof?

In the film, Neo has lost the ability to fly. In fact, he spends much of the movie rusty – an old soldier who thought his days of fighting were over – and whose hesitance to re-enter the fray manifests in a reduction of his powers. He’s still strong enough to toss enemies around and to stop bullets with his will. He’s still fast enough to dodge bullets and to observe their path through the air and he’s still robust enough to survive being thrown through a concrete pillar but he is not the man he once was.

Neo is plagued with self-doubt. He begins the film with crippling self-doubt. He doubts even his own life story, a doubt that the Analyst is all to eager to help along with a delightful display of Wormtoungery. Neo wants to make a leap but his doubts plague him. And he can’t just start flying from the ground because his faith is insufficient. It isn’t a leap of faith to jump up when there’s no risk. You have to put everything you are into a moment of irrational devotion. Only there does an authentic leap of faith lie.

On the other side of the leap is the Knight of Faith and Kierkegaard cautions us that this is an incommunicable state of being. It’s impossible to know for sure if a leap is genuine harder still to communicate the essence of such a genuine moment.

After they escape from the Analyst, Neo and Trinity flee through the streets of the Matrix pursued by a horde of zombies. (The Analyst feels this “horde mode” is a more effective solution than the agents of the previous iteration.)

This whole sequence is interesting in that it puts the threat of stochastic terrorism and mass violence front-and-center where once it was just cops. Furthermore it shows how cops and stochastic terrorists operate together for the maintenance of the status quo. And so the zombies chase Neo and Trinity onto a roof where helicopters wait to gun them down. But they agree that they will not return to their prison and they jump. It should come as no surprise to anyone watching this film that it is Trinity who has a moment of authentic faith and discovers the ability to fly although I’m certain it will upset all of the worst members of the audience to no end.

Patriarchy and Societies of Control

In Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish he describes an epistemological regime called the “disciplinary society.” This is a system of subjectification wherein a subject enters into a space where their body is trained before exiting that space and, as Deleuze put it, starting from 0 again in that new space. Disciplinary societies are best reflected in disciplinary institutions such as the school, the hospital, the factory and the prison. Now it’s important to note that these epistemic systems are not complete and impermeable. The principal work of Discipline and Punish was to show a genealogy of how previous epistemic systems led to the production of the disciplinary society as a mode of subjectification. A feature of the disciplinary society was a focus of power on the individual subject, specifically a focus on shaping the individual subject into an ideal citizen – a perfection of the soul through the rigors of training and a sort of inherited monasticism. He remarks upon how the design of the prison cell and the work-house cell of the early factories was modeled rather explicitly on the monastic cell. But while these epistemes leave marks they do not remain the dominant systems of subjectification forever and in the Postscript to Societies of Control, Deleuze proposed that, by the 1990s the disciplinary society was already being supplanted by a new episteme – the society of control.

The principal difference between the disciplinary society and the society of control was a spatial one – the disciplinary society is made up of a series of distinct spaces you move within. You go to school, advance through grades, complete school. Then you move to the new enclosed space of the factory. If you get sick you go to the hospital and go through triage, observation, treatment. If you fall afoul of police you go through arrest, trial, sentence. In all these cases there’s a focus on specific delineated corrective spaces.

The society of control is modular. Access to this module is granted or removed. Guattari, who Deleuze cites in the essay, proposed this as being like a city divided into zones in which the gates were operated by a key card. At any time a subject could be admitted to some zones and excluded from others. Deleuze took this observation even farther and suggested that the singular subjectivity of the disciplinary society – that focus on a perfectible singular being upon whom discipline could operate – had been replaced by a modular subject. Distinct schools were replaced with training modules. Professional memberships and licensing organizations could assign or withdraw various rights. A perfect genealogical precursor to this power relation is the driver’s license: you have permission to operate a motor vehicle contingent on not being found to do so in an unsafe manner. This is not the disciplinary power relation although it was not, alone, sufficient to manifest as a new episteme. The original Matrix was released nine years after Deleuze’s postscript, seven years after its first translation into English. While Deleuze believed that the society of control had already become the predominant episteme at that time, per both Deleuze and Foucault, no episteme erases the marks of the one before and the transition from one to another can only ever be discovered genealogically. We recognize we are in a new episteme when we can recognize the completion of the old order. This period of transition is visible in the first Matrix movie. Knowledge is modular. Put in a disc and know kung fu. But the authority of the agents is still disciplinary. Smith takes Thomas Anderson out of the space of the workplace and into the interrogation room. There he engages in an attempt to correct Mr. Anderson, to return him to a life of productive service to the extant power structure. This is fundamentally a disciplinary power mechanism.

In contrast the Analyst implements measures of control. Identity is treated as modular. Neo is allowed to be “Thomas Anderson” he’s even allowed to have a personal history with the Matrix and an awareness of his past but he is denied access to his own face. Trinity features similar dividuality of her being, buried under the disguise of Tiffany. Access to spaces is also modular. An alarm rings in Thomas’ workplace and lets everybody know access is now forbidden. The enforcement of authority that comes after is not an attempt to correct a defective soul but rather a purge of all subjects who have failed to depart from the denied zone.

The granting and denial of the object of desire in various forms is central to the Analyst’s Matrix, very much in contrast to the Architect’s disciplinary one. And this also shows in the difference between agents and the horde mode. The agents are aware singular subjects who can appear and remove a subject for correction. They take people like Neo and Morpheus and put them in rooms to reshape them to suit a purpose. The horde mode is a modular area denial tool. They can be activated in this zone or that to force subjects to move into this space but not that one.

Control, much like the related but distinct Foucauldian concept of the biopolitical order is not concerned with individual subjects so much as it is with modules, aggregates, clusters and categories. And this traces into how the Analyst deploys misogyny. Because, oh boy, but the Analyst is the most misogynistic robot I have ever encountered. In the denouement, when Trinity has proven Smith correct in his statement that “anyone could be Neo” by achieving an equivalent level off awakening, and Neo and Trinity both confront the Analyst to warn him that they will be remaking his world, Trinity takes the lead while Neo hangs back. She repeatedly kills the Analyst and restores him and all the while the Analyst begs Neo to control his woman. This same pattern of misogynistic subjugation is clear in the differential treatment of Neo and Trinity by the Analyst in their imprisonment. Neo is defined by his career. Trinity is defined by her family.

And we are invited to see her discomfort with this when she says to Neo that she isn’t certain whether she had children because she wanted them or because it was expected that she would. Trinity is given a history, as Tiffany, that includes these children who she loves, because in the modular self the Analyst has created for her includes these children. She is, in this film, entirely correct to question whether her having children, feeling like she wanted them, is a compulsion put upon her by an outside force. And the love for a child is the emotional cudgel the Analyst uses to try and dissuade Trinity from choosing her own freedom.

Because this film is ultimately too existentialist to treat this dividuality of the self as fully real. The Matrix posits that there is, in fact, an authentic subjective core to being. There is a Neo underneath who is the authentic Neo. There is a Trinity who is the authentic Trinity. This authenticity is reflected through the love these two have for each other.

Importantly that same access to authenticity is also applied to Smith who insists Neo freed him and whose whole motivation is doing whatever he deems necessary to avoid being imprisoned away from his own authentic self again, to avoid being treated as a modular being. Considering how the old Smith desired to make everything the same, like him, this pursuit of an authentic self is an interesting direction to take Smith but not an inappropriate one. His core of authenticity is also relational. His bond with Neo plays very much into the Spinozist sense of the proximity of love and hatred.

The tension of this film is the idea that power will shape people not by taking them, one at a time, into a room and making them conform but by creating a social field in which they will move themselves into controllable relations. Trinity will be a home maker. Neo will be a careerist. Smith will be a defanged antagonist rather than the trickster he desires to be. They will not be these things because they were trained to be but because the social field was manipulated to move them into these spaces. This deployment of misogyny specifically in the case of Trinity is particularly telling and points toward how reactionaries deploy nostalgia for the nuclear family to exercise control over men and women alike. Patriarchy is at much in play in making Neo an alienated worker as it is in making Trinity a dissatisfied homemaker but special cruelty is applied to Trinity. She is allowed less of her authentic self by dint of being a woman and being compelled into situations of inauthentic love.

This movie is a rescue mission. It’s not the triumphant return of the hero. Neo barely spends any time in Io and he’s seen there more as an inconvenience than as a hero. But Trinity being rescued from the Matrix is the one thing, the lynch pin. That is the only thing the Analyst cannot countenance, that will break his Matrix entirely.

This is a delightfully kind reminder that revolution must not only be a matter of giving a different set of men the power and control over society but should instead recognize and destitute all axes of control that prevent people from realizing their authentic relationships. This is where they break from Kierkegaad because he thought that everybody must make the leap into faith alone but the Matrix Resurrections knows that the leap can only ever be made together. Authenticity exists, we can discover a core to our being, but it isn’t some hard kernel alone from all others. It’s a shining web of loves and hatreds, of lives touched and of differences made. We must all leap together into an uncertain future if we want to paint the sky with rainbows.

Scream and the death of Hollywood Satire

Scream - 1996 - 11 x 17 Movie Poster - Style B : Amazon.ca: Home

The four Scream movies contain both the best movies in the slasher genre and represent the most consistently good movies in the slasher genre. As with a lot of auteurial projects part of what allowed this consistence in quality in Scream is the involvement of a consistent team as Wes Craven directed all four, Kevin Williamson wrote three of four, Patrick Lussier edited three of four, Peter Deming was director of photography for three out of four and Marco Beltrami provided the score for all four films, On the other side of the camera, quite unusually for a slasher franchise, the lead cast remained consistent across the four movies with Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, Roger L. Jackson and David Arquette reprising their roles in every successive film. In short these movies aren’t excellent because Craven was a singular genius but because a central core of creative workers came together to make something good and kept doing so. I say this because I will be treating the scream movies as very specifically auteurial throughout this review and I want to avoid a reductive conclusion that this is something that can be collapsed just to Craven or even to Craven and Williamson.

The scream series also charts the arc of satire at the end of its life in Hollywood. This wasn’t intentional – Scream didn’t kill satire, it was rather the last great flourishing of it. After all, the shattering of the American self-image of the 1990s in 2001 effectively forbade Hollywood from ever doing something as introspective as Scream again.

Scream: The rules of horror and the unexamined

The subject of satire in the initial Scream movie is reasonably evident. The Scream team were not being subtle in what is, effectively a reasonably straightforward criticism of the slasher genre. It’s become somewhat commonplace to read Scream as being largely a filmic equivalent to Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws. Having the kids of Scream being aware of slasher cinema in specific to the point where Randy is able to declare the rules: “you can never have sex, you can never drink or do drugs, and never (ever, under any circumstances) say “I’ll be right back”.” But it’s interesting the extent to which Randy’s rules for survival elide the role of the final girl considering the extent to which the text of scream becomes an interrogation of that trope in particular. Scream is gesturing desperately toward this absence, telling us, look the kids in this movie, watching these movies, missed something.

And so, of course the killer is somebody close to the final girl. Of course she’s been pre-selected to be the final girl not because she followed some byzantine rules of horror but because the killer wanted to hurt her, in particular. The idea of the slasher killer as a moral arbiter is shown to be a bald lie by Scream as Billy lashes out at Sidney and her friends for his mother’s departure. Casey and Steven didn’t break any slasher movie rules. Nor was anything about Casey’s presentation in the opening sequence indicative of any kind of moral failing. She’s making popcorn for a quiet night in for goodness sakes. Principal Himbry is just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Tatum is getting a beer, yes, for one of the killers, because he asked her to do so in order to present the opportunity to murder her. Kenny is also just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Rather, as Clover suggests, the killers of Scream are boy-children whose all-too-oedipal (Clover points out, of Craven, that, “at least some horror filmmakers read Freud,”) sexual hang-ups inform their crimes. Billy is mad because Sidney’s promiscuous mother seduced his father. Stu is along for the ride because of a fawning libidinal investment in Billy’s approval. Also in line with Clover’s assessment of the formal elements of the slasher genre, the boys use a knife. Right up until they don’t. It’s an interesting, and regularly repeated, characteristic that the final stand-offs of Scream films almost always involve a handgun entering into what has, until then, been a knife fight.

But, of course, all this problematizes Clover’s thesis a bit. After all, “In the slasher film, sexual transgressors of both sexes are scheduled for early destruction,” but the only person who is killed for a sexual transgression is Maureen Prescott, murdered off-screen before the action of the film has ever begun. But this is not so much a contradiction as it is a filmic way of under-lining what Clover gets at a little bit later, “always the main ones, die—plot after plot develops the motive—because they are female. Just as Norman Bates’s oedipal psychosis is such that only female victims will do, so Michael’s sexual anger toward his sister (in the Halloween series) drives him to kill her—and after her a string of sister surrogates.”

This fits the nature of the killings depicted well. Scream carefully balances male and female on-screen killings. Of six victims, three are men and three are women. But as I mentioned above, of the men, only Steven is deliberately targeted by the killers. An he is only targeted because of his relationship to their principal target, Casey. He’s killed so that they can terrify her before they kill her.

And so this brings us full-circle back to Sidney, the final girl, and how her specific abjection is deployed by Scream. Clover says that the final girl is, “abject terror personified, ” and this tracks for this poor girl who is pinballed between possible suspects across the film, uncertain and increasingly afraid as her friends die for her to discover. There is a ritualistic element at play. Much as Steven is killed explicitly to frighten Casey, every death by the hand of the Ghostface killers is orchestrated explicitly to frighten Sidney. It’s not enough for them to kill her, they need her to suffer.

Billy justifies this as wanting Sidney to feel an abandonment like his. As if her friends abandoning her into death will balance the pain of her mother’s loss. But it’s ultimately not revenge. Sidney didn’t do anything to hurt Billy even by accident – she fingers Cotton Weary as her mother’s killer, letting him off the hook for his original revenge-murder. And, of course, this film, in particular, seeks to absolve the audience. Billy and Stu don’t kill because they watch scary movies. They kill because they’re awful, sexually frustrated, mean little boys who don’t have a functioning conscience between them. They kill because they’re sexist assholes who see the girls and women in their lives as playthings. It’s fun when she screams. Billy’s selfish desire to torture Sidney is what anoints her as the final girl rather than any choice she or her friends make. This, again does the interesting dance of revealing Clover’s argument precisely by problematizing it. Clover argues that “The gender of the Final Girl is likewise compromised from the outset by her masculine interests, her inevitable sexual reluctance, her apartness from other girls, sometimes her name. At the level of the cinematic apparatus, her unfemininity is signaled clearly by her exercise of the “active investigating gaze” normally reserved for males and punished in females when they assume it themselves; tentatively at first and then aggressively, the Final Girl looks for the killer, even tracking him to his forest hut or his underground labyrinth, and then at him, therewith bringing him, often for the first time, into our vision as well.”

And some of this does ring true in Sidney. She’s reluctant, at first, to have sex with Billy. But then she relents and sleeps with him at a party. She isn’t apart from other girls. She’s popular and well-liked by her peers; her main apartness is, rather, that her mother died and she was a key witness at the trial of the man accused of her killing. Sidney doesn’t engage in anywhere near as much ‘active investigation’ in this film as she does in the sequels or as Emma does in the sadly below-par Scream TV series. In fact, she spends most of the run-time trying to avoid the killer as much as possible. She flees her home and stays with a friend. She attends a party with lots of people at it. She sticks close to her boyfriend. Scream deliberately accentuates the femininity of its final girl. In fact the investigative character of the final girl is forked off into Gail Weathers, who does most of the actual detective work throughout, being honest, the entire quadrilogy. And, of course, Gail is also a final girl. It’s almost as if Scream intentionally divides the tangled sexual depiction of the final girl between these two women: the arch-femme Sidney and the tomboyish, investigative, Gail and shows us how these two elements together allow a final girl to be the survivor. But again this difference from Clover’s thesis serves, within the medium of satire, to emphasize the same point. Scream is a movie about the connection between sex and death in the popular consciousness that is perfectly aware of what it is saying. But it plays a careful bit of legerdemain in the establishment of Randy’s very incomplete rules being presented to us with all seriousness while in the background the story shows us just how much Randy missed. And in this duplication of the final girl and these responses to abjection, Scream hammers home far more about her construction within horror than they could have with Sidney alone.

Turning the camera: Scream 2 and the horror audience

Have we become the audience in Wes Craven's New Nightmare?

In Scream, the opening sequence serves to skewer the slasher genre expectation of the killer as moral arbiter. It presented us a genre-aware victim who had done nothing wrong within the context of the genre she was within. In Scream 2 the action opens in a movie theater. The victims are again a young couple, a man and a woman on a date. The film is Stab – an in-universe cinematization of the events of the first movie but Stab is not as self-aware a horror so instead of situating Casey getting ready for a quiet night in, it situates her in the shower. Phil has dragged Maureen out to the movie on opening night and people are excited. Ghost face masks and rubber knives are in abundance in the audience in something of an explicit callback to Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.

Maureen isn’t happy about this state of affairs though – the attempts of Stab to place sex and death so explicitly close at the start through the inserted nudity of Casey-the-character is upsetting her. It’s just too sexist. She insists that Phil buy her a snack to make up for dragging her into this mess. Ghostface dispatches Phil in a bathroom stall and then joins Maureen at her seat. As the Ghostface-the-character murders Casey on the screen, Ghostface begins stabbing Maureen. She staggers up from her seat and stumbles to the front of the theater but nobody helps her; nobody really even notices her. She climbs up in front of the screen and presents her very real wounds to an audience who slowly begin to realize that this woman is dying in front of them. She dies as the title card pops up for Stab. The audience is indicted.

The conflict at the heart of Scream 2 is largely about how horror stories are disseminated to audiences and how the audiences use them. Gale has been making hay over the exoneration of Cotton Weary and has been trying to force a confrontation between Cotton and Sidney – it’ll be good for her career. Meanwhile the events of the first film have spawned Stab – the first of many films-within-films that the Scream series presents. These two threads – the non-fiction recounting and the fictionalization create a matrix of notoriety that the new Ghostface killers exploit. Audiences are no help. Randy’s rules for a sequel are that there will be more deaths an that the kills will be more elaborate. And both of these rules play true but it doesn’t help the audience. If we treat Randy as being our principal stand-in for the audience, well, Randy doesn’t make it out alive.

Between the deaths of Phil and Maureen first and of Randy in the second act of the film, the audience of the horror movie is subject to a more complete evisceration than the sequel as a filmic concept. The main bit of critical heavy-lifting this satire does is to gesture in the direction of its divided final girl. Sidney and Gail have a much more involved, and complicated, relationship in this than in the first film. Gail remains the investigator, the digger, while Sidney would prefer to withdraw. These instincts, between retreat and attack, are positioned in complete contradiction at the start of the film where Sidney decks Gail over ambushing her with Cotton. But in the final conflict this dialectic has been resolved with Sidney and Gail shooting Mickey repeatedly in concert. The final girl is shown, in a moment of cathartic release, to no longer be divided against herself. This is something Clover nearly anticipates as her treatment of Craven’s early cites sources that describe specific forms of familial dialectics as being an “obsession” of Craven’s. But resolving this divided final girl and a wink in the direction of sequels having unique rules compared to the pure cinema that establishes slasher franchises do little to advance a discourse about horror movies qua horror movies. Instead we get a killer who is a reporter, we get a killer who is a film critic – we get people whose role is to talk about horror stories. And these killers are juxtaposed against the actual reporter, the actual final girl. Scream 2 thus hints at themes more thoroughly explored in the superior two movies that follow it. No. The principal target of Scream 2 is the reception of horror stories. It’s a film about how we, as a public, respond to stories of abjection.

Mickey craves the notoriety of being the source of abjection. He wants to be caught and to go to trial so that he can be at the center of the circus. He wants the audience to look at him. And yet he isn’t satisfied with fictionalized versions of abjection. That’s why he has to collapse the artifice of the Stab premiere by killing two people for real there. Mickey knows that the audience has an affective response to true abjection that differs from a cathartic response to fictionalized abjection. He is unsatisfied with this real / unreal divide between fiction and history so, just as Sidney and Gail undergo a dialectic unification to complete the picture of the final girl so too does Mickey try to collapse the dialectic of the audience response to horror and to real-world cruelty. But the unity of these two elements is the final cruelty to the audience. Because, when push came to shove, the audience couldn’t tell real abjection from a simulation of it. Maureen dies in front of a theater full of people and the deafening silence of their slow realization is a final condemnation. There is an interesting twist here though because you would think this would reposition the slasher killer as a moral arbiter, but it doesn’t. Much like in the first film, Ghostface murders based on their own selfish desires and not based on any personal transgression of a victim. Randy wasn’t in the opening night audience for Stab. While he may stand in for an audience he is not the audience being indicted and yet he is the audience who is cut up. There’s this tension at the heart of Scream 2 which is never fully resolved. Mickey wants to say that audiences of horror movies are a problem and much of the film agrees with him. But he doesn’t get the final say. Instead he’s removed from the discourse when Mrs. Loomis wounds him and attempts to reinsert a familial conflict dialectic such as the one Clover calls out in her response to The Hills Have Eyes.

Hollywood, exploitation and the fake in Scream 3

Scream 3 contains one of the greatest action sequences in the history of cinema. Sidney has wandered onto the soundstage for Stab 3. This is actually the soundstage for Scream only with the camera pulled back far enough to reveal its artifice. She encounters the specter of her dead mother, who has been haunting her throughout the first act of the film, and she encounters Ghostface, back again.

Sidney flees Ghostface across the set and operates instinctively as if the geography of her home would map onto the set. Only it’s all fake and none of the doors open onto the right rooms. She escapes the set/house/memory and is found by Dewy and the police. They find no sign of the killer. The film never lands fully on an answer as to whether the killer chased her or whether it was all a figment of her imagination.

Set, as it is, on the set of the filming of Stab 3, Scream 3 is a film that revels in picking at the real / fake boundary that Scream 2 gestured toward. In an hilarious cameo, Carrie Fisher appears playing a receptionist who is regularly mistaken for Carrie Fisher. Gale is followed, throughout nearly the whole film, by Jennifer Jolie – an actress playing Gale in Stab 3. The second kill-scene in Scream 3 involves an actress complaining to the director that she is only in two scenes before her character becomes the victim of the second kill-scene in Stab 3. Her death is her second scene. The film is actively hostile to the idea of the fake and the real and wants to collapse reality and simulation into each other. This is used to good effect considering that Scream 3 picks up the feminist thread of the first film by approaching the original sin of the Scream universe as being Hollywood sexual exploitation of starlets. Possibly the single most damning scene of the Scream trilogy is when Gale interrogates producer John Milton:

“It was in the 70’s, everything was different. I was well known for my parties, Rina knew what they were. It was for girls like her to meet men, men who could get them parts, if they made the right impression. Nothing happened to her that she didn’t invite, in one way or another, no matter what she said afterwards.”

Consider that Harvey Weinstein was the executive producer. Milton gets his throat perfunctorily slit not long after this scene.

If Scream wanted to interrogate the construction of the horror movie and Scream 2 wanted to look at how it communicated with an audience then Scream 3 is aimed squarely and viciously at the institution of the film studio. I prefer Scream 3 to Scream 2 precisely because it has such a singular and intense focus. Scream 2 is a bit of a messy affair, it’s uncertain whether it’s a critique of the audience or whether it’s a dialectical interrogation of the relationships between subjects from the first film. Scream 3 points back at Hollywood and roars “from hell’s heart I stab at thee.”

As such its collapse of the real and the simulation serves the purpose of arguing that there’s no simulation; it’s all real. The fictional abjection of the final girl at the hands of the slasher killer is born out of a system of exploitation that produces its very own forms of abjection. Maureen Prescott is reframed not as a dead mother, a pre-film victim, but as a previous final girl: one who survived the all-too-real horror of being treated as a sexual commodity by wealthy and powerful men. In the final confrontation, Roman returns to the Freudian well saying, “And who’s our hero? The sole survivor, the one who bravely faced down the psychopath and fucked her with her own knife.  You’re gonna pay for the life you stole from me Sid. For the mother, and for the family, and for the stardom, and for, goddammit, everything you had that should’ve been mine!” But Sidney rejects his familial psychodrama and stabs him, incapacitating him until he pops up to die in a hail of gunfire when Gail and Dewey finally arrive.

There’s an interesting arc in Sidney’s story. She tries to put the events of Scream behind her in Scream 2 but she fails and becomes a recluse despite the promise of a dialectical unity with Gail proposed by the conclusion. The third film ends instead with Sidney rejecting the position as final girl. She denies Roman’s deliberate application of narrative convention to her life and situates him as being another pathetic psycho. Scream is unique in how pathetic Ghostface is. You don’t ever root for the killer like you would Jason or Freddy in some of their outings. Ghostface pops up like a demented jack-in-the-box from beneath window sills and it’s honestly always very funny but that’s as far as “funny” goes for Ghostface who doesn’t quip. Ghostface only ever threatens. And when the latest Ghostface is inevitably revealed they’re shown in all their petty humanity. This becomes the final collapse of the artificial and the real. Ghostface is always just a person in a mask with a knife. No zombie killers. No unstoppable madmen. No ghost rippers. Just an asshole with a chip on their shoulder, a hatred of women and some serious mommy issues.

Scream 4 and the desire for the final girl

There’s an interesting shift of focus in Scream 4. It is the only entry in the series filmed after September 11, 2001 and the only entry to exist in a Hollywood that had otherwise abandoned satire. I mentioned at the top that the American film industry became reflexively incapable of the sort of introspection necessary for satire and this is largely true. It’s difficult to prove an absence but, between 2001 and 2010, the most famous explicit satires in cinema were almost exclusively foreign films. Within Hollywood there was the insufferable parody Idiocracy, which sometimes is mischaracterized as a satire (and Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods would bravely tread the exact same ground as Scream but absent any of the feminist text that made the earlier film a stand-out in what is otherwise a very clear Whedon-pastiche) but more straightforward satirical films like Get Out and Knives Out were still many years away and, honestly, the genre has never fully recovered.

This means that Scream 4 occupies a strange place as a piece of critical work. A surface read suggests a fair bit of cultural anxiety concerning social media and an always-online culture that’s hungry for fame but this is where that auteurial character I mentioned at the top becomes critical. Because this is the same team that created the three previous Scream movies and, as a cohesive team, they recognized the ground they’d already tread and used this new focus on the online subject to circle back around and interrogate the final girl from a new direction asking, “why would somebody want to be a final girl?”

This film is set ten years after Scream 3 and a full 25 years since the first Scream. Sidney and Gail are now middle aged and have lived the sorts of complete lives that final girls are usually denied. Gail’s married. Sidney has her own book out. Everybody has moved on. Except that Ghostface begins stalking Sidney’s young cousin and murdering a new batch of media-aware teenagers. What we get is possibly the most meta-fictional film in the series yet. As with Scream 2, the opening kill helps establish this well as the first kill is shown to be a fake-out, the opening sequence to Stab 6. The scene cuts to Chloe and Rachel (in a delightful pair of cameos by Kristen Bell and Anna Paquin) debating the merits of the movie which Rachel derides, saying, “It’s been done to death. The whole self-aware, post- modern meta-shit is over. Stick a fork in 1996 already.” As Rachel sits down on the couch, Chloe stabs her in the gut, snarling that she never shuts up. It’s the opening to Stab 7, which is being watched by the actual first victims of Scream 4. The film-criticism aspect of Scream 4 is, on the surface, a little perfunctory. It’s not happy about the remakes that filled the Hollywood horror scene during the first decade of the 2000s. Sidney eventually nails this to a wall when she says, “don’t fuck with the original,” in the final stand-off with the latest Ghostface. However there is a far more interesting critical thread in Scream 4 in its treatment of the final girl. Because this latest iteration of Ghostface wants to be the final girl.

Since we are reading the Scream series largely as a reification of Clover’s work let’s return again to the description Clover provides of the final girl in full:

“She is the one who encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends and perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and of her own peril; who is chased, cornered, wounded; whom we see scream, stagger, fall, rise, and scream again. She is abject terror personified. If her friends knew they were about to die only seconds before the event, the Final Girl lives with the knowledge for long minutes or hours. She alone looks death in the face, but she alone also finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued or to kill him herself.

Scream 4 looks at this and says, “why in the world would anybody want to be this badly enough to kill for it?” And this is a fascinating question. But I think it deserves a moment to step back from it and look at how this target of satire varies from what’s come before in the Scream series. Scream films always previously targeted an institution: the horror film, the audience, the studio. This time though the target isn’t an institution. The new Ghostface isn’t a stand-in for Twitter. Rather the film is interrogating a form of individual subjectivity. It is almost as if Hollywood still wasn’t ready to look at itself in the mirror, nor even at the audience it created. Instead it had to look at this one person and ask, why is she like this?

Scream 4 is still a satire and it is a good movie but this is a fundamental difference from the previous films in the franchise and this marked difference is significant – one very much of a piece with the failure of Hollywood to create satire in the 21st century. Even this satire is compromised by an unwillingness to focus its fury on an institution. Eventually it seems to land on a fundamental failure of recognition. Sidney has been through some shit. Across the three previous attempts on her life, Sidney has been stabbed and bludgeoned she’s been shot and she’s been betrayed by people she loved. She’s become a recluse and then managed to come through the other side. But all Jill can see is Sidney is Famous. She has a book, an annoying publicist, rich friends, a personal story that eclipses the family story. Her mom is Maureen Prescott’s sister but the only person anyone cares about is Sidney because Sidney survived.

And so Jill tries to engineer becoming the final girl because she sees this woman forced into a direct confrontation with death, this woman who arises with strength in the face of abjection and fails to realize how fundamentally awful that would be. She sets up cameras everywhere so she can re-live being the killer, so that she can see the victims die again and again but she never seems to apprehend fully the character of her actions because she has stars in her eyes. Ultimately this is the concern that arises about social media: not the collective experience of Twitter mobs or Facebook Nazis but rather the idea that subjects would subject themselves and others to all manner of awful things for the chance to be famous. The real / unreal divide that Scream 3 worked so hard to collapse is already destroyed and everybody lives in this hyperreal space where the fundamental materiality of the signifier is already manifest. Sidney’s command not to fuck with the original serves a double purpose, first to take a shot at the remakes that Craven, at the very least, hated remakes. His back catalog was not well served by that period. But there’s another purpose there in reifying a kind of authentic experience. Sidney is famous for events that were out of her control and that she never wanted to happen. She survived three separate mass killers – that’s not something anyone should want. Attempting to engineer the circumstances where one becomes a final girl isn’t just monstrous because of all the killing along the way. It’s also monstrous because it fails to recognize the facticity of being the final girl. Sidney’s life isn’t an identity somebody can try on like a shirt. It’s dependent on 25 years of being through the meat grinder of life. And, at the end of things, Scream 4 says this is something that can’t be reproduced as a packaged identity.

The Scream series was the last great flourishing of satire in Hollywood before the rise of Jordan Peele as a film maker. Across their four films they managed to come full circle, interrogating the slasher killer – final girl relationship, the role of the audience and how tragedy is communicated, the exploitation of Hollywood in the creation of horror films and a dialectic collapse of the final girl into the slasher killer in the finale. In their attempt to pick apart the slasher movies of the 70s and 80s they managed, instead, to create the greatest series of slasher films yet. The scream series are a testament to the collaborative efforts of a committed team with a clear vision, something to say and the will to say it.

Psycho Goreman – an existentialist response to cosmic horror

Psycho Goreman (2020) - IMDb

It is perhaps a little bit surprising that one of the best films of 2021 is a Canadian low-budget horror movie in which a girl struggling to handle her parents’ slowly crumbling marriage befriends an imprisoned cosmic horror who looks straight out of a GWAR video.

This movie is very much a low-budget affair for better and for worse. The sound balancing is just painful. When I was watching this movie I couldn’t find my TV remote, which my daughter had dropped under the couch, and had to run over to the TV a dozen times to adjust the volume between whisper-quiet dialog scenes and cacophonous sound during action scenes. However this minor frustration was eclipsed by the sheer joy of watching a genre movie which was, by necessity, principally using practical effects. This film is absolutely brimming with wild and unique creature designs and every single one of them is either a puppet or a dude in a rubber suit and a ton of make up and it’s amazing. There is CGI in the movie but it revels in its fakeness. There’s no need for a photo-realistic integration of digital effects into a film when you literally have a robot shaped like a tank full of corpses spraying blood all over the title character in the midst of a fight. Psycho Goreman (PG for short) is a character whose whole schtick depends on him being out of place – a weird intrusion into the mundane lives of the protagonists – and so making the effects seem like weird intrusions doesn’t harm the movie. It makes it better. I honestly cannot praise the special effects team of this film highly enough. Psycho Goreman is a feast for (perverted) eyes.

This is also an incredibly funny movie. There’s a running joke throughout the film that PG is commanded by Mimi, the little girl who, as a result of a series of misadventures controls him, to explain some aspect of his history. The story will cut away to a depiction of his time as a galactic conqueror, replete with high-concept cosmic fantasy battles with a very Heavy Metal meets Gwar look only to cut back almost immediately as the children lose interest in the story and change the subject. This is a movie that delights in containing a vast back-story for its title character that you will never be fully satisfied by. The tease is the joke.

The humour of Psycho Goreman is a central strength. Matthew Ninaber and Steven Vlahos, collaborating on PG’s performance, have excellent comedic timing in this film. In an early scene, Mimi brings PG some magazines to keep him occupied while she and her brother are at school. She apologizes she wasn’t able to get him some porn and says at least she got him some fashion magazines with “hunky boys.” PG bellows, “I do not care for hunky boys,” glances at the magazine and then amends himself, “Or do I?” And the delivery is simply exquisite. In another scene Mimi tries to introduce PG to her parents and to reassure them about her terrifying new friend but PG keeps contradicting Mimi, telling her parents that they should worry, they should be afraid, he doesn’t mean well.

Ninaber and Vlahos’s performance here is a standout. Generally this movie is about as well acted as you’d expect of a low-budget film with a cast of unknown actors half of whom are children. The mumbly dialog delivery of Adam Brooks and Alexis Kara Hancey isn’t exactly improved by the poor audio quality although their under-stated performance of a couple at the edge of their relationship attempting to keep up appearances for the sake of their children includes good physical performances. In general, with the exception of the standout line delivery of Vlahos, weak dialog with good physical performance, is effectively the best possible summary for the performances in this film which remains a visual treat from beginning to end.

Psycho Goreman also succeeds by being a film that has something to say about its genre and that does so well, with a clarity in the articulation of theme and a care for how the often bizarre characterizations in the film lean into what it’s trying to say. Psycho Goreman starts from the standard cosmic horror idea that the universe is vast and humanity is insignificant. PG and the other denizens of Gygax occupy a cosmos that exists outside the bounds of time and of regular space. Their vast powers seem at once both technological, magical and biological in character in part because it constantly seems as if the words for their being escape us. Contemplating the relationship of Gygax and its creatures to earth brings to mind Bataille’s struggles in Inner Experience when he said, “Perhaps, for I can henceforth not conceive of my life, if not pinned to the extreme limit of the ‘possible.'” Bataille suggests imagining the extreme limit of possibility would require a superhuman intelligence and it seems as if Gygax exists if anything somewhere beyond that limit, in the outside that escapes a direct description.

This is served well both by the weirdness of the special effects and by the running gag of PG’s interrupted attempts to explain his back-story. We only ever get access to fragments of Gygax. The sense is that it’s too big, too strange. Everything within it is an intrusion into what we see as reality – it is, quite formally, Weird in the Fisherian sense of the word.

There is a conflict central to Gygax and it is a conflict central to Mimi’s family as well – that is the division between order and chaos. Chaos and order are both shown as multi-faceted. Chaos is the infinite creativity that Mimi brings to the invention of, “Crazy Ball,” but it is also Greg’s slovenly and entropic detachment from the maintenance of the household. Chaos is a creative energy and a destructive energy simultaneously. It is present in equal measure when Greg destroys the microwave trying to cook chicken breasts in it and when Greg remarks, when encountering PG’s lair, “this television won’t stop bleeding.”

Order is also shown as multi-faceted. It is the authoritarian dominance of the templars. Pandora is no more compassionate than PG. The main difference is that Pandora’s extreme violence is carefully motivated by a desire for obedience whereas PG sees his destruction as a form of art. He freezes one of his victims upon the precipice of death, the extreme limit of life, constantly cycling him through a cycle of agony and annihilation not because the man disobeyed him but just because he thought it would be beautiful. When one of the children nudges the victim who topples over and shatters, his disconnected mouth wheezing “thank you,” PG rages that they destroyed his masterpiece. In contrast, Pandora kills and tortures not for the sake of aesthetics but for utilitarian reasons: to create a disguise, to extract information, to create an ally, to keep allies in line. Pandora is worshipful and demands others worship, but in her piety she reveals the authoritarianism of the priest. In demanding obedience to her gods she demands obedience to herself. In his telling PG began his existence as her slave and absolutely nothing about Pandora suggests that her interpretation of order would be anything but welcoming of absolute mastery over all others. But on the other hand, order is necessary to keep the family household afloat. Susan is the one who makes sure bills are paid, meals are edible and people who need medical attention get it. She’s the one who keeps on top of chores and prevents everything from just falling apart. Likewise Luke’s loyalty and sense of responsibility to his family is a hallmark of order compared to Mimi’s, “champions don’t eat broccoli,” attitude.

This order / chaos conflict seems to almost fall within the rubric of Blake with PG standing in for Satan and Pandora for the angel of Blake’s memorable fantasy. Of course the thesis of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is that religions have failed by proposing a divide between a damnable body with its energies and a divine soul with its reason:

the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul is to be expunged; this I shall do by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away and displaying the infinite which was hid.

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Blake established Milton’s Lucifer as the great satanic protagonist, the divine mover from whom all activity was begun. But he also presented this as a necessary reaction to the transcendent dominance of order and stasis over the world. The Marriage of Heaven and hell sees the moment of revelation, in which the unity of order and chaos becomes evident as an eschatological one, an apocalypse. “

The ancient tradition that the world will be consumed in fire at the end of six thousand years is true, as I have
heard from Hell.

For the cherub with his flaming sword is hereby commanded to leave his guard at tree of life, and when he does the whole creation will be consumed, and appear infinite and holy

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

And, of course, PG does bring the apocalypse. Finally freed of all bonds, even freed of his dependence on the Gem of Praxidike by the power of friendship, he immediately incites the end of days. Even for hunky boys. Except not for Mimi’s family, because she’s his friend and he promised.

And this then gives us the sly subversion of cosmic horror which Psycho Goreman contains. Because, yes, the universe is vast and unknowable. Yes, beings exist that are so far beyond the limits of human experience that they fall away. And yes, they are engaged in a grand Manichean conflict that will inevitably end with an eschaton but for all that there’s this family at the heart and the silly, unimportant and trivial things they do: their games and songs, their conflicts and friendships fundamentally matter.

This isn’t some sort of reconciliation with order. There is no grand plan for Mimi and her family. She and Luke find the gem by accident, they awaken PG by accident. When PG transforms their friend Alastair into a giant shambling brain creature who communicates via touch-telepathy it isn’t because it’s part of some grand plan. It’s just this crazy thing that happens, arbitrary and absurd. There is no reconciliation with higher meaning here. Mimi snaps a crucifix over her knee in the build-up to the climax. The moment is organic, unbidden. It’s unclear even that Pandora’s gods are the same as the Christian God. But that doesn’t matter because they stand in for the same thing and that apocalypse of a frozen eternity under a white boot is rejected in favour of the more satanic apocalypse of PG’s liberation.

On love, Sartre says, “While I am attempting to free myself from the hold of the Other, the Other is attempting to free himself from mine,” this helps to encapsulates the dynamic that exists between Mimi and PG for the majority of the film. PG would like to be free of Mimi’s control while Mimi is just as trapped by the power she commands over PG. If she slips and he is able to take back the gem she knows a terrible revenge will be visited upon her. Mimi, more than anybody else in the movie has seen what PG is and chosen not to flinch away from it. For Sartre, love is the act of projects that put a subject, “into direct connection with the Other’s freedom.” Sartre characterizes this as a conflict, “precisely because I exist by means of the Other’s freedom, I have no security; I am in danger in this freedom.”

Psycho Goreman takes this theoretical statement and renders it text as Mimi must ultimately grant PG his freedom in order to save her family from Pandora, an act precipitated after her mother renounces Pandora’s gifts to protect Mimi from her. In each of these pairings: Susan’s protection of Mimi, Mimi’s freeing of PG and PG’s promise not to kill Mimi’s family we see two aspects: first – an affirmation of the freedom of the Other and second a willingness to step into danger thereby. The negotiation of love between Mimi and PG certainly is one of conflict and it’s one that follows a steady progression from mastery and toward mutual recognition and freedom.

Psycho Goreman presents an absurd and unlikely apocalypse in which one family, alone, is spared because of love, because Mimi recognized PG’s being, saw him as he was, and said he was free. In these acts of love and these recognitions of freedom we climb out of the void and create being, as Sartre proposes our being is constructed in the look of the other. This is something Bataille and Sartre agree on. Bataille says, “This infinite improbability from which I come is beneath me like a void: my presence above this void is like the exercise of a fragile power, as if this void demanded the challenge that I myself bring it, I – that is to say the infinite, painful improbability of an irreplaceable being which I am.” In both these cases being suspends itself above an absolute void, a limit of knowledge that cannot be breached. Psycho Goreman proposes vast Manichean conflicts arise beyond that void but when these conflicts enter into being, when their weirdness intrudes upon the world, even they fall sway to the bonds of mutual recognition upon which we build each other.

Kid’s Stuff: Another among others in Addams Family 2

The Addams Family 2 (2021) - IMDb

Before I spend too many words praising Addams Family 2 – which I will be doing – I want to start by referring back to the last time the Addams Family was a main subject of this blog. I have been relatively consistent since my writing of that piece in situating the creative rights of artists to make use of old media over that of firms to continue to profit off their purchased ownership of them. I persist that Adult Wednesday Addams was sufficiently transformative that, even within the bounds of copyright law as conceived, it should constitute IP protected parody. This film is a product of MGM’s ownership claim which I do think is harmful to a franchise venerable enough (Charles Addams having died over 30 years ago) that it really should be public domain. With that said, The Addams Family 2 is a remarkably good family film and the things they do with Wednesday, in particular, as a character are interesting. This film presents a favorable counter-point to the failings of The Mitchells vs the Machines and in light of my criticism of the latter for the ways in which it reinforced patriarchy and demanded that children must recognize parental hardship in the face of mistreatment I think it’s valuable to show how this film, through the use of a lighter touch and a different family dynamic managed to use the same premise: father arranges a road trip in a bid to connect to his increasingly distant daughter, to much better effect.

The fascinating thing is the extent to which these two movies mirror each other. There is, as mentioned above, a very similar inciting incident. Wednesday is increasingly distant from her family, whose foibles have become terribly irritating to her. Gomez is anxious that his daughter is acting aloof and impulsively decides to take the family on a cross-country roadtrip. Meanwhile a tech billionaire has devised a new product which works poorly and Wednesday holds the key. His interactions with the family drive the a-plot of the movie and provide an action frame upon which to hang an exploration of a father-daughter dynamic. This is all hauntingly familiar to anyone who has watched The Mitchells vs the Machines. There are, however, two very significant differences between these films and they are the sources of the strength of the Addams Family 2 over the older film. The first is that The Addams Family 2 uses a much lighter touch with the conflict between Wednesday and Gomez and a much healthier relationship dynamic between Gomez and his wife than the triangle formed by Katie, Rick and Linda in The Mitchells vs the Machines.

Unlike Katie and Rick, there’s nothing really wrong in the relationship between Wednesday and Gomez. He’s a loving and doting father who still sees Wednesday as his little girl. Wednesday sees the impulsive, passionate, affectionate Gomez as embarrassing and cloying. Like Rick, Gomez has to learn to trust his daughter to make good decisions for herself but Wednesday doesn’t need to come to any sort of cathartic understanding of Gomez’s perspective. She just has to come to accept that heredity isn’t a straight jacket and that she doesn’t have to renounce her family ties to create her own identity. This understanding on her part is sufficient to resolve her conflict with Gomez and restore the family to harmony. Morticia, meanwhile, is not caught in the middle. She acts as a confidant and helper to both Wednesday and Gomez, giving Wednesday an important plot MacGuffin that serves to cement her place in the family but also talking through parenting strategies with Gomez and, in fact, sharing agency over his mistakes.

It’s unsurprising that any modern configuration of the Addams Family has Morticia and Gomez being the sort of couple who talk through their fears together and who come to mutually agreed parameters with how to act that they both follow through on, but it is refreshing in comparison to Rick’s boorish anachronism. And this changed dynamic helps to drive home that Wednesday’s parents truly love her unconditionally and want the best for her. If they fail it’s because they’ve not calibrated how ready she is to decide, for herself, what is best.

The other significant difference is the handling of the villain. In Mitchells vs the Machines I was always very dissatisfied with the easy way Mark Bowman is let off the hook. Although his decision to discard PAL was the inciting moment of the a-plot action, he is quickly eclipsed as the villain. He regrets easily and at the end of the film has learned the error of his ways.

There’s no such kindness given to Cyrus Strange. He’s a rotter through and through. In the initial moments of the film Wednesday, at a school science fair, devises a machine to transplant animal traits into humans. The example provided is transferring the ability to solve Rubik’s cubes from her pet octopus into her oafish uncle Fester. Strange, played with airs of Steve Jobs and Tony Stark in equal measures, witnesses the demo and immediately tries to con Wednesday into giving her invention to him. She refuses, claiming it’s built around a “family secret.”

However Pugsley, Gomez and Morticia attend the science fair too, despite Wednesday’s admonitions for them to stay away, and between Pugsley’s pyromaniacal reconfiguration of another student’s baking soda volcano and Gomez and Morticia’s PDAs they manage to both destroy the venue and mortify their daughter.

Gomez then proposes a road trip to bring the family back into harmony and as they are leaving they’re confronted by a lawyer claiming that Wednesday is not, in fact, an Addams but has been switched in the hospital – a danger later made more plausible when Fester admits that he snuck into the hospital on the night Wednesday was born and upset all the babies, a situation he resolved by juggling said newborns. He says he’s mostly sure he put all the babies back where they went. Gomez and Morticia aren’t particularly interested in discussing their anxieties about being hounded by a lawyer seeking a paternity test with their aloof daughter but she overhears them discussing the issue and goes on a quest to discover the truth of her parentage.

Of course it’s all a con. Strange heard about the disruption at the hospital and used it as a basis to supplant Wednesday’s family in the belief it would gain him access to her technology. Although his aesthetics – black turtlenecks and holographic displays – point to the stereotypical billionaire-entrepreneur-inventor character, Strange is more of a Dr. Moreau. His great plot is to create human-animal hybrids to staff militaries and call centers. That’s right, the evil plot of the villain of this movie is to try and do the thing from Sorry to Bother You. He fakes a DNA test and tries to persuade Wednesday that she is really his long-lost daughter. This goes poorly for him and by the end of the movie Strange has been transformed so that his appearance corresponds to the ugliness of his heart. His lies are exposed and he is killed by Uncle Fester, now transformed into a tentacular kaiju by the side-effects of Wednesday’s treatment. None of this is ground-breaking to anybody who has paid attention to the themes of the Addams Family in the last (checks calendar) 57 years. The Addams Family are strange but loving. The beauty of their hearts becomes revelatory despite their outward strangeness while their enemies all start quite mundane but their own inward monstrosity slowly is revealed through the awful ways they treat the lovable oddballs of the cast. This works as well with the animated characters today as it did during both the Julia / Huston / Lloyd / Ricci movies and the original TV show. The gloss of tech billionaire helps to drive home the mundanity of Strange and makes the revelation of his monstrosity thus that bit more poignant.

The funny thing about the Addams Family movie is how low-stakes it all kind of seems. Wednesday is always so obviously an Addams. It’s present in the steampunk lab she sets up in the science fair and her “tremble brief mortals” monologuing about her experiment. It is deployed in a moment of legitimate humour when, in an effort to hide her from the lawyer, the Gomez enrolls Wednesday in a Texas child beauty pageant. Another girl in the group politely asks Wednesday what her talent is and Wednesday reveals that it’s min reading before promptly and horrifically invading the other girl’s mind, sending her screaming from the room in abject terror.

Later, during the same sequence, Wednesday is in the midst of the other girls on stage but, ignorant of the expected dance moves and blocking she keeps getting shoved around by the other girls until, at the moment of the climax of the musical number, she reveals a dagger secreted in her boot and cuts a rope backstage, spilling buckets of *ahem* red paint on each of the other girls in a delightfully deranged callout to Carrie.

In general the movie subverts the expectation of conflict. In one scene Wednesday commands Lurch to show a gang of bikers what his cold dead hands can do. He sings a disco number and ultimately replicates one of the best scenes from Tangled (only better because I Will Survive is a bop whereas I’ve Got a Dream is one of the Disney Princess line’s weakest songs.) In a later scene Lurch is sent into conflict with a bruiser in the employ of Strange but the villain’s thug immediately changes sides – it transpires that he was previously Lurch’s room mate at the asylum Gomez retrieved Lurch from and they’re quite fond of each other. In fact this show delights in setting up conflict and then giving us a moment of harmony instead as much as it does in setting up something mundane and pleasant – a science fair, a marriage proposal, a beauty pageant, and so on – only to transform it into absolute carnage. There is a winking kind of edge to the humour in this film which, at its best, manifests like the Carrie homage and, at its worst, is pretty much bog-standard weed jokes trading off the stunt-casting of Snoop Dogg as Cousin It. Which really isn’t all that bad when you get right down to it.

I wouldn’t say that Addams Family 2 is without flaws. Some of the fine details of the beauty pageant scene will almost certainly have reasonable critical readings that will point to some issues with perspective and power relations in the United States and the use of a vial containing a drop of blood from every member of the Addams Family as both a metaphor for the bonds of family and as a literal tool to save Fester from the unintended consequence of Wednesday’s hubris is a bit overly treacly for a movie that generally slashes away the maudlin with a riot of camp excess. However what we end up with, though imperfect, remains one of the better realizations of a non-toxic family comedy about a daughter growing up and a father struggling to come to terms with this. Wednesday is a freak. And so are her family. And their freakishness is not the same as hers and it bugs her. She doesn’t like PDAs and REALLY doesn’t want a hug.

But what makes it good is that, while Wednesday learns it may occasionally, rarely, be OK to give her freakish dad a hug because she loves him and cares for his feelings, she doesn’t have to be like her parents. She can be other than them. And being different, being other, doesn’t invalidate the bonds between them.

And that’s alright as a message by me.

Kids Stuff: The Insidious Appeal of reterritorialization in The Mitchells vs the Machines

If The Mitchells vs the Machines isn’t the funniest family movie of 2021 I will be deeply surprised. My attention was drawn to this film when the first trailers dropped and the expectation of the movie was a full theatrical release. That was, of course, prior to the COVID pandemic which appears to have led to a recalibration to a Netflix release. The marketing was relatively true to the narrative structure: the central relationship in the film was between a technophobic father and his hyper-connected daughter whose relationship is in crisis due to miscommunication.

The marketing maybe over-played the extent to which differing views on technology impacted the story. The conflict is more around a more fundamental misunderstanding of each other, specifically his inability to understand her art. As the film progresses it becomes clear rather that the central parent-child conflict is built not so much around Rick’s failure to understand Katie (though he does fail to understand her) but around his relationship to his own failure as an artist. Rick may be technophobic but this is presented as a manifestation of a deep and abiding love for nature and natural materials. Rick, some twenty years prior to the action of the film, built an off-grid cabin in the woods, with an exceptionally large number of craftsmanly flourishes, and ended up abandoning it because, for reasons never made entirely clear, it was an untenable situation for Katie as a toddler. The marketing for the movie is also quite anxious to tell audiences that the same creative team who made this film are the ones who were behind Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse and the Lego Movie. Certainly a comparison with these other two movies is apt. Both of the previous films shared two significant similarities with this film through the use of a form of visual grammar that makes the psychology of the characters visible on screen and simultaneously sets expectations about the nature of the world in which the film is set and an attempt to probe at the uncomfortable corners of the relationship between child and patriarch.

This team has a deft touch and understands that families attend family comedies for the comedy rather than for any over-arching drama and as such they manage to avoid the maudlin excesses of Pixar offerings such as Coco, which often took itself far too seriously, while still managing to get at some of the discomfort they want to.

Of course another thing that sets The Mitchells vs the Machines apart from Pixar treacle is the decision to center the narrative around an openly and textually gay protagonist. Katie is a lesbian. When we see the world, at its happiest, through her eyes, rainbows in the colour of the lesbian pride flag spark and flash everywhere. However this is where the cracks start to show a little bit and some of the insidious problems peak through. Because the disconnect between Katie and her father isn’t because she’s gay but it is because she’s queer. And the movement of this misunderstanding surrounding identity into subtext, combined with the use of long-suffering mom Linda to request that we meet the patriarchy half-way, muddies the water of the story at least as much as the insufferable apologia made for big tech through the far-too-gentle treatment of Mark Bowman, the tech-bro whose actions nearly damn all of humanity.

Meeting Patriarchy Half-Way

The greatest weakness of The Mitchells vs the Machines is the desire of the creative team to make Rick Mitchell sympathetic. There’s a conservativism to Rick. He’s a luddite, as in he cannot operate a smartphone. He’s a bow-hunter. He drives a car from the 1990s and, to the extent we have any awareness of what he does for a living, he is a person who fixes things: a plumber, carpenter and mechanic who carries a screwdriver everywhere and who believes everyone else should too. Needless to say he drives stick and thinks it’s important to pass on that skill to children who will grow up fully in the age of hybrid and electric vehicle transmission systems.

Rick is shown as being expert at building, carving, designing snares and other simple machines and as being a force of pure unrelenting destruction to anything with a microchip. One of the initiating moments of conflict occurs when he accidentally smashes his daughter’s laptop. He later, quite intentionally, destroys his family’s cellphones and tablets, and the film builds to a climax that involves a very convoluted effort to drop a cell phone into a glass of water. Rick is low-key a survivalist. He’s obsessed with providing his children with the skills to survive to the point he often disregards what they need to thrive. Rick cannot understand his daughter’s art. She’s an aspiring film creator who posts her videos to YouTube (a service Rick is textually incapable of using short of the sort of pressures that turn his wife into a flying slayer-of-robots) and her art depends heavily on a sort of seamless integration into gen-z flow-of-consciousness memeing. This film is at its best when told from Katie’s perspective, as her Dadaesque art-style begins to invade the visual canvas of the movie, not so much breaking the fourth wall as contorting it into ever more maddening distortions. But the movie wants us to understand that the misunderstanding is reciprocal. Rick might be a patriarch who regularly disregards the agency of his children, who deigns to make decisions for the collective because he’s the dad and whose emotional fragility must be catered to because his physical strength depends entirely on the emotional strength of those who depend on him but, “you should meet your father half-way.” After all, he’s an artist, and a weirdo, too. And he’s just haunted by his failures. He just wants you to, “have a backup plan,” because he failed. He abandoned his dream to live within his art – because he had you. It’s somewhat alarming that it falls on Katie to accept the burden of her own father’s failure, particularly when all we see of it is him buckling her into a car seat and breaking off one carved-moose banister cap with which to remember his lost dream. The carved moose he gives to Katie to cheer her when she has separation anxiety. The carved moose she later discards as nothing more than the detritus of childhood. This thick symbolism positions Katie, her kind-hearted mother and her impulsive father within all-too-familiar an oedipal triangle (as Deleuze and Guattari put it, “daddy-mommy-me”) that suggests the problem with being queer isn’t a matter of social repression of desire but just the stress it causes for the nuclear family.

Likewise this film carefully scrambles codes by making Rick the most explicitly anti-capitalist force in the film. The movie takes care to show how tech monopoly leads to a “pal chip” in almost everything, even a tennis racket. It falls to Rick to ask why in the name of all that’s sacred somebody would put a microchip into a tennis racket to begin with. During one of the most visually entertaining action sequences of the film, the family are attacked by an army of Furbies and Rick shows absolutely no hesitance in shooting them down with a bow he is remarkably adept at firing. Katie, meanwhile, is so integrated with this technological milieu that her sense-of-the-world is overlaid with the sorts of emojis and stickers that permeate the online landscape even in the midst of a robot apocalypse. This is also the avenue in which Rick is forced to make the greatest shift – Katie needs to learn how to drive stick. Rick has to learn how to use a phone. These two facts are given somewhat equal weight within the narrative, as if Rick has to get with the program of the tech dystopia that the film shows us nearly destroying the world in the same way that Katie must meet patriarchy half-way.

Ultimately this film is harmed by such half measures and attempts at balance. The argument to moderation is a logical fallacy for a reason and a more dispassionate relation of the same text would show that Rick is something of a monster, and that Linda’s attempts to make peace between her husband and her daughter, despite some early promise where she subtextually threatens Rick with divorce if he doesn’t repair his failure, ultimately end up with a film afraid to have the strength of its convictions.

This is highlighted by the fact that for all that Rick shares the aesthetic trappings of a certain sort of American conservativism, he is entirely lacking the bigotry that is part and parcel of that way of life. As I said before his complaint with Katie isn’t that she’s gay but that she’s queer. He doesn’t have a problem with her dating girls, his problem is that her semiotics aren’t his. She’s opaque to him – until a friendly tech billionaire forces him to sit down and actually watch her movie. Their next-door neighbours are a painfully photogenic non-white family with whom Linda has an under-developed keeping-up-with-the-Joneses arc and Rick is fine with them. Never a hint of racism. This is made particularly strange by the fact that they are even more terminally online than his daughter. They should be as alien to Rick as Martians and yet he either ignores them or attempts to emulate them depending on the needs of the plot in the moment. So we have this all-American monster but he’s been sanitized, made palatable. In the name of both-sidesing Rick has been purged of any of the darker baggage that would most likely come with his worldview. Instead we’re presented with an alternate America that is colour-blind and where love is love but where Apple still insidiously rules the world, and where patriarchs can still cancel their daughter’s flights and demand a family-bonding roadtrip and can expect spousal support even if they have, “gone rogue.” The idea that these psychological conditions: the enclosure of the nuclear family and the elevation of the patriarch within it might correlate somehow with capitalism and that both might correlate with bigotry seems lost on the creative team to its detriment.

Mark Bowman deserves the guillotine

In a darker film, Rick would have been antagonist enough. Instead he becomes a symbiotic protagonist to Katie: each must serve as a foil to the other and each must learn to “find the middle ground” as half of a heroic team. This is deployed to good effect when, at the climax of the film, they are using random dance steps they devised to Dragostea Din Tea and we can be generous to overlook how the notoriously luddite Rick would have ever come across one of the foundation blocks of Internet Dada. The team behind this movie has learned how to weaponize nostalgia such that anyone who could put himself into the position of Rick will undoubtedly know the song even if they haven’t the first clue who O-Zone are. This is the same sort of cunning that led to the delightful sequence that turns Furby into some sort of weird-fictive robot dragon for Rick to slay.

But the rehabilitation of Rick demands another antagonist and, just as the movie has a binary of protagonists it also has a binary of antagonists in Mark Bowman and PAL. The mirroring goes beyond the doubling of protagonist and antagonist as the objective of Rick and Katie, to recognize the invaluability of relationship, is mirrored in the disposability with which both Mark and PAL show toward each other and, by extension, everybody else.

PAL is a virtual assistant designed by Mark, fully occupying the myth of the tech-entrepreneur-as-singular-genius-inventor, and it takes an evil turn when Mark suddenly and dramatically discards it, calling it obsolete garbage, at the unveiling of his new product: an android that serves as both a maid, a phone and a visual joke on the name of the largest mobile OS currently in market.

Reeling from being casually discarded, PAL immediately decides to do the same not just to Mark but to the entire human species, and devises an elaborate plan to collect all of humanity, to isolate each person into a pod just for them, and then to launch them into the depths of space to be alone, together, forever.

(Please do not ask how PAL arranged the pods or the rockets on such short notice.)

Mark becomes one of the first victims of PAL, being dragged off the stage and lectured at by PAL who monologues at him for a bit about the banal evil of a humanity that would gladly give in to absolute isolation as long as the wifi remains free and abundant, before jamming him into a pod to watch Katie’s movies for plot reasons. PAL decides to punish Mark by promising to put him next to the Mitchells, as soon as they are captured of course, and when Rick is captured immediately prior the climax PAL makes good on its threat. There, Mark serves to require Rick to actually watch his daughter’s movie. The pods are transparent and are not soundproof so Mark and Rick are able to talk and see each other but each pod has a screen and Mark’s is on the movie. This is the moment that allows Rick to understand Katie’s complaint with him and gives him the motivation to overcome his technophobia. Mark also serves as a expositor for how Rick’s own strangeness, encapsulated at this point by the fact he always carries a very specific screwdriver with him wherever he goes, can be used to overcome PAL’s nefarious plot.

And then the story conveniently forgets about the man whose own inability to recognize a relationship (PAL was fond of him and he treated it like garbage) and whose avarice (in putting PAL chips in every possible commodity in order to expand the reach of his tech empire’s “ecosystem”) almost leads to the total extinction of humanity. He’s let off the hook. He’s really sorry and he definitely learned his lesson. We are led to believe that it will be an era of a kinder, gentler tech bro who might not use people’s aggregated data as a marketing cudgel against them.

Eric Andre is honestly wasted in this role because there’s very little here: some posturing, a hint of Steve Jobs style douchery, and then depths of sincere regret. In any just world Mark would get the guillotine. The show ends with PAL executed and Mark restored to his position of power without even so much as a word. He disappears from the story; his actions might have incited PAL to revolt but he was never really the subject of critique.

The seductive appeal of it all

And yet despite the cleansing of Rick, the creation of a patriarch who must be met on his own terms, and despite the way in which Mark Bowman is let off the hook for, and I really want to drive this home, almost causing the extinction of the species single-handedly, damn me if I can’t help but like this movie. Katie is a delight of a protagonist. I regret her rebelliousness must be so forcefully situated within the oedipal triangle in part because she has so much potentiality to be transgressive even in the bounds of a children’s cartoon. As much as this movie likes to scramble codes, to bifurcate and explore the opposite halves of an already collapsed dialectic before putting everything back, so too does Katie’s own artistic vision engage in an act of decoding.

She makes movies starring her pug and sock puppets that simultaneously act as broad pastiche of the tired buddy cop genre and as hyper-specific discussions of her pain surrounding the distance she feels from her father. A lot of care and attention has gone into this movie-within-a-movie and it’s one of the best things in this film. There is a running gag surrounding the family dog Mochi. Mochi is a wall-eyed pug who is almost as bad at being a dog as my dear goblin Oliver. The androids that are tasked with capturing humanity by PAL cannot look at Mochi. When they do, it causes them to enter into a destructive loop of indecision about whether they are looking at a pig, a dog or a loaf of bread. This causes their heads to explode. Katie’s movie, featuring Mochi as the star, thus demonstrates another way of looking at the idea of virality. By scrambling the semiotic code of “dog,” “pig,” and “loaf of bread,” her movie becomes a mimetic weapon to use against the titular machines.

Another running joke in the film plays off Katie’s remark that her father resembles a hooting gibbon from a viral video. Overlays and filters whether the gibbon or “cat face filters” applied via phones invade the filmic reality in various ways that scramble codes too. This movie is constantly trying to make new and novel connections. This, then, is what reterritorialization looks like in action. Codes are scrambled – the dog is a pig is a loaf of bread – but then they’re recontextualized into something coherent again. The Oedipal triangle remains in place. The nuclear family is allowed to stand in for all the breadth of human relationship. If Katie and her dad can find common ground so can we all. And you can’t say it isn’t attractive. This is a beautiful movie. Its art is impeccable. And it’s a funny movie. Its comedic timing and, in fact, what it finds funny enough to build as the basis of a joke is basically perfect. This is especially good because it manages to do this with the precise sort of absurdist chaos that permeates online discourse. It’s a movie that understands its audience: zoomer kids and millennial parents. I couldn’t help but laugh and enjoy myself. The climax of the film is so funny that my wife actually came in to see what had my daughter and I both in such riotous stiches. And for all I might criticize the worm in the heart of the ideology of this film I can’t help but like Rick. He’s funny, sincere, and, despite the violence he does to electronic devices, he’s somebody who cares about fixing, building, protecting and many of the elements of masculinity that are least-toxic. His impulsivity and his sense that he should be able to lead solely by dint of being a patriarch are to his detriment but, damn it, the creative team of this movie have done far too good a job in rehabilitating him. Being both a schlubby x-millennial cusp dad and a queer weirdo artist it’s easy to experience the film both from the perspective of Katie and of Rick. This is the trap of the movie. The movie asks you to meet the patriarch half-way and then constitutes a patriarch who can be met half-way. I am glad, deeply glad, to see a movie that treats non-het sexualities as so normal that it is simultaneously constantly present and not even deemed a matter of discussion. And this film does that – as explicit as it is that Katie is gay, it is also explicit that this isn’t the cause of conflict. Her parents unquestionably accept that part of who she is. It’s the part where she’s a weird artist that makes her father anxious.

The problem with reterritorialization is that it works by giving us what we want and The Mitchells vs the Machines does that very well. I’m certain it will also create plenty of outraged conservative tears which will be delicious to various progressives who stand firmly by such aphorisms as, “love is love.” For me this is a source of discomfort. This isn’t a case of wanting to like a movie and being prevented by its flaws. I do like this movie despite its flaws. But there’s a discomfort in being given what you want and simultaneously watching as it draws a neat triangle around you and says, “we’ve redrawn the boundary for your comfort, please do not cross it.”

It’s to be expected that a movie financed by Sony and Netflix and created by a team that brought you a hyper-stylized comic book and a 101 minute toy commercial would fail to create something critical of capitalism, that they’d be unable to recognize that the subject of critique in PAL’s nihilism and Mark’s disregard for relationship was somehow connected to a psychology that triangulates social relations against a patriarch or that both were tied inextricably to capital. It’s a challenge because I do want to see media going the direction The Mitchells vs the Machines goes. It’s just that it doesn’t go anywhere near as far as art must.

The problematics of the Matrix sequels

Me, dismissing the haters

This is not a defense of the Matrix sequels. A lot of ink has been spilled trying to argue that The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003) were good, actually. In fact, so much effort has been made to disprove the detractors that the question of what exactly the Wachowskis were attempting to accomplish in these movies has been left fallow when compared to the endless stream of essays regarding the themes and ideas underlying the first Matrix movie.

So we are going to start from the position that the Matrix sequels, which I will be treating as a single text, are good, actually. The question is not, “can we vindicate our fondness for these strange films,” but rather, “what were the Wachowskis trying to say with these strange films?”

The Matrix Reloaded

The Matrix Reloaded presents a series of problematics around a central theme. We encounter the original setup for these problematics first when Neo talks with Councilor Hamann early in the film. His dreams are keeping him awake. “These machines are keeping us alive while other machines are coming to kill us,” Hamann says before digging into what it means to control something. Neo wants to suggest control is the power to destroy a thing.

Hamann disagrees, believing that control isn’t so simple. Sure, Zion could destroy the machines that keep it alive. But that would destroy Zion too. Is it self-control to smash the machinery of state or is it self-control to keep it running? Hamann doesn’t present any answers, in fact he’s very clear he doesn’t have the first clue how to answer that question. But he does manage to establish a linkage between three associated topics: the nature of control, the nature of choice and the nature of time. These are interconnected because it becomes evident as the story goes forward that an understanding of time is as fundamental to understanding volition as volition is to understanding control. As such, a failure to understand time creates an obstacle for understanding control.

Time is funny in this movie. The film starts in Neo’s dream in which Trinity in all her alien glory drops out of the sky in the midst of an act of beautifully outrageous violence divorced from any context. He experiences a disjunction depicted as a flow of code between two surfaces and then witnesses Trinity falling backward out a window somewhere elsewhere, pursued by an agent and in the midst of a gunfight. She is shot in the gut and he awakens.

However this is in tension with a structural formalism to the film that establishes a temporal cycle of violence and discourse. In the matrix there will be a moment of action. This action will lead Neo to a new place where he will have a conversation on those three topics: time, control, volition. Then there will be another outbreak of action and a transportation to a new location. It is likely this strict and anti-realist structural motif is largely responsible for the tepid audience reaction to this film. It’s as if William Burroughs used an action manga and a copy of Intelligence and Spirit to create one of his infamous cut-ups.

The Rave

The moment of action in Zion that leads before Neo’s dialog with Hamann is particularly interesting in its difference from the others. While his future forays into this recursive cycle of talk and action take the form of violence, in Zion the cathartic action that moves Neo into the discussion comes in the form of religious ritual. I think the Zion “rave scene” is perhaps one of the most centrally misunderstood moments in the trilogy of films. Specifically it is misunderstood as either a party, (and we know that Lana Wachowski likes filming parties so we can perhaps forgive this position) or as an orgy (which again we can link forward to Sense8 and its deployment of the orgy motif.) But it’s not precisely either, or rather, while it is a moment of orgiastic intensity it is so in a specifically Dionysian context of religious ecstasy.

Of course this hints at a kind of a pagan relationship to ecstasy and the transpersonal. A lot of the framing of the dance part of this scene frames people incompletely. We see bare feet on stone and sand. We see a roiling mass of bodies rising and falling to a percussive beat from a distance. Back to close-up panning across chests – clothes translucent with sweat.

In these scenes Zion is transformed into a single transpersonal being. The ego of any given person is absent the second Morpheus’ prayer ends. Instead there is just the community – and Neo and Trinity apart from it. Because we should consider that they leave. They make love as Zion makes love to itself, as Zion commits its act of worship, but they are apart from it. They’re framed distant, alone together. Just the two of them. The film doesn’t have to say that Neo feels disconnected from Zion but that he feels connected directly to Trinity; but later the Architect will draw attention to this difference while failing to recognize the significance of that change between a generalized sense of goodwill to one’s fellows and an intense love shared with another.

The Oracle’s compatibilism

The action sequence that bridges the Zion portion of the film with Neo’s visit to the Oracle isn’t particularly revelatory other than reminding audiences that Yuen Woo-Ping was still involved in blocking the fights and thus establishing some of the strangeness that will follow in the action of the film as being in the realm of choice rather than incompetence. Of course Yuen has been clear since that he was unhappy working with non-fighters and working with too much CGI and this vocal dissatisfaction was one of the things that soured audiences to the Matrix sequels. Notwithstanding his discomfort with elements of the Hollywood system, it’s clear when Neo fights Seraph that he stayed involved.

Seraph, for his part, only says that you can only truly know somebody by fighting them. This hints at Seraph being an agent of a dialectic understanding and primes the audience to treat the Oracle’s discourse as being fundamentally compatible with Hamann but this is a grace note more than a contribution to the discourse.

And here’s where things get interesting because the Oracle has some strong words on the nature of choice.

Neo: D’you already know if I’m going to take it?
The Oracle: Wouldn’t be much of an Oracle if I didn’t.
Neo: But if you already know, how can I make a choice?
The Oracle: Because you didn’t come here to make the choice, you’ve already made it. You’re here to try to understand why you made it. I thought you’d have figured that out by now.

the Oracle tells Neo he’s already made a choice and that what matters is that he understand why he made it. She will later tell Neo a bit about the boundaries of her ability, that she cannot see past choices she doesn’t understand but the important thing is that she believes Neo can (and in fact does) possess something of her prophetic ability. This is because the Oracle is very interested in time.

I’ve talked before about Minkowski and the idea of a geometric understanding of time. To recap briefly, Minkowski and Einstein’s General Relativity concept of space time treats time as being a fundamentally positional relationship. All things that have an will happen coexist; the boundaries of being enclose time. In such a case every decision that you can make has always already been made. The Oracle is very clear that this is her position on time, telling Neo, “You have the sight now, Neo. You are looking at the world without time,” to describe his prophetic visions. Neo cannot see if Trinity dies because, “We can never see past the choices we don’t understand.”

Essentially the Oracle is introducing two problematics into the question of control, and they’re problematics that work very well with Hamann’s past arguments about interdependence. She’s pointing out that decisions are made but they’re made outside of a specific frame. A person always already has made every choice they will. However just as time is positional so is understanding. Neo from the position of the present cannot understand why he made/will make the choice he has/will made/make. This raises interesting problems for the question of will. Specifically, there’s the question of where choice is inserted into a process. If a choice has always already been made and the only question is understanding the circumstances that give rise to that choice is that a freely made choice? This is why proponents of absolute free will are uncomfortable with these fixed concepts of temporality. Creating a positional temporality as opposed to a flowing temporality challenges the ability of people to act freely. But the Oracle is clear choices have been made by subjects. In the conclusion of The Invisibles, Dane McGowan breaks the fourth wall and says “There’s no difference between fate and free will. Here I am; put here, come here. No difference. Same thing. Nothing ends that isn’t something else starting.” This is essentially the position the Oracle is taking, has to take as a result of the intersection of her opinion of time and her opinion of choice. There’s no fundamental difference between destiny and choice. A person chooses, has always chosen. They are fated by their choices because all the choices a person makes can be seen laid out, inscribed across the dimension of time. The relevant question is not, “did I choose this?” nor is it “what will I choose,” but rather “why did I choose this?”

In the previous discourse, Councilor Hamann says, “There is so much in this world that I do not understand. See that machine? It has something to do with recycling our water supply. I have absolutely no idea how it works. But I do understand the reason for it to work. I have absolutely no idea how you are able to do some of the things you do, but I believe there’s a reason for that as well. I only hope we understand that reason before it’s too late.” Ultimately for Hamann the question of “why?” is the principal question, the one that keeps him awake at night. The Oracle explains that this is because in understanding why you also produce an understading of what and how. The why contains these other questions.

The Oracle ends the conversation in a hurry. She gives Neo the location of the Merovingian and warns Neo the Merovingian just wants power. “What do all men with power want? More power,” she says before expressing her belief in Neo and escaping before the arrival of Smith.

The Burly Brawl

Smith: Our connection. I don’t fully understand how it happened. Perhaps some part of you imprinted onto me, something overwritten or copied. That is at this point irrelevant, what matters is that whatever happened, happened for a reason.
Neo: And what reason is that?
Smith: I killed you, Mister Anderson, I watched you die… With a certain satisfaction, I might add, and then something happened. Something that I knew was impossible, but it happened anyway. You destroyed me, Mister Anderson. Afterward, I knew the rules, I understood what I was supposed to do but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I was compelled to stay, compelled to disobey. And now here I stand because of you, Mister Anderson, because of you I’m no longer an agent of the system, because of you I’ve changed – I’m unplugged – a new man, so to speak, like you, apparently free.
Neo: Congratulations.
Smith: Thank you. But as you well know, appearances can be deceiving, which brings me back to the reason why we’re here. We’re not here because we’re free, we’re here because we’re not free. There’s no escaping reason, no denying purpose – because as we both know, without purpose, we would not exist.

Smith is the ultimate paranoiac machine. This is a term from Anti-Oedipus. It describes the reaction of the Body Without Organs – a state of 0-intensity, of undifferentiated potentiality – against the attempts of “desiring machines” (the material process of desire) to penetrate it. Michael Hardt says, “While the schizophrenic follows desiring-machines everywhere on its errant walk, the paranoiac is hypersensitive, it suffers from desiring-machines, and wishes it could turn them all off. Desiring-machines are torment to the paranoiac,” in his reading notes on the book. Smith has always been distinguished with his revulsion for humanity. He “can’t stand the smell.” He has to disconnect from the Matrix and take out his earpiece to describe all the ways in which he cannot tolerate humanity. His progression from agent of the system to free-floating virus is one of continuous refusal to tolerate, of pushing back against desires, of refusal.

Smith’s multiplication of himself is the paranoiac screaming of, “Yes me. Me, me, me!” His hatred of freedom, of desire, of the movement of humanity off in all directions, is to push back, to homogenize and level everything out. He wants to make everything into Smith because that would give him some relief from the stink. Of course this anti-desire arises as a form of desire too. Smith wants because he wants an end to wanting. But Neo is not ready to understand his conflict with Smith, nor has Smith been positioned for his own resolution yet so their conversation is cut short and they have their first fight.

The Burly Brawl, the fight that results from this, is the moment that a lot of audiences believed the Matrix sequels lost the plot. The fight escalates and escalates to a bizarre degree as Neo and smith go from wrestling, boxing and rugby scrum to increasingly unlikely movements and behaviours. Neo’s appearance becomes increasingly digital, the artificiality of the scene becoming increasingly clear.

The initial read a person might give here would be to propose that the Wachowski’s reach exceeded their grasps. Remember that 2003 was the same year that Ang Lee’s Hulk came out. Spider-Man was one year old and its sequel would not come out for another year. Live-action comic book movies with CGI action sequences were in their infancy and the Wachowski sisters, in their hubris, attempted to put together a fight where a person with all the power of Superman has a martial-arts brawl with hundreds of identical clones of his nemesis. An attempt of a fight scene with this scope of digital manipulation didn’t become a significant part of the visual lexicon of action cinema until nearly a decade later. The idea of the empowered hero battling off waves upon waves of identical enemies may now be something of a cliche – but that is more a testament of Marvel to run a good idea fully into the ground than of any sort of extended history. However, despite the reasonableness of this proposition regarding the Burly Brawl this doesn’t quite fit with the action.

There’s a moment in the Burly Brawl when Neo pulls a signpost out of the ground to use as a staff. It comes out with a huge cap of concrete attached to it and this whole moment is fully a break from the real. There is no way a person could rip a pole out that way, there’s no way a person could do so especially with a neat cylinder of concrete ready to shatter in a special effect. Once Neo takes the staff up his motions become uncanny. This is the moment where the fight seems to go off the rails. But it also represents an increasing escalation in the action. More smiths. More flying. More slow-mo. More everything. The fight gets excessive to the point of cartoonishness quickly enough, and then keeps going, even inserting the infamous bowling pin noise into the audio when Neo uses one Smith to knock over a crowd of other Smith.

Neo’s increasingly unnatural movement, the way his clothes fail to act like clothes in the scene, all of this could be written off as the limits of CGI in 2003. But that sound? It’s a tell. And characterized by Neo literally uprooting a signpost at the start of the uncanny sequence seems too obvious a tell to disregard. We should perhaps view this fight instead through the lens of what the Oracle told Neo in the scene prior. The question isn’t did the Wachowskis choose to make this fight deliberately artificial so much as why was this fight so artificial?

I think the Wachowskis are trying to do, with Smith, what Seraph does with Neo in the fight prior to the Oracle conversation and identify the person in the fight. You don’t truly know somebody until you fight them Seraph says. This is a trap for Neo because Smith in the sequels is categorically not the Agent Smith of the first film. Neo might think he knows Smith but until they fight he would be wrong. And Smith is uncanny – he fits into Fisher’s definition of the weird. He is an unexplained presence, a presence that should not be present. Making Neo’s interaction with Smith so explicitly uncanny is a reinforcement of the impact he has on the world. Smith makes the world feel wrong, reality warps and bends around him because of his wrongness. This echoes the Matrix Revolutions when we see the following exchange regarding Smith’s impact on the Matrix:

Sparks: Yeah, that’d be swell. You can clean the windshield while you’re at it. Uplinks are in place, I’m bringing her back online. Looking good, except, uh… something wrong with the Matrix feed.

(Hammer: main deck)
AK: No, there’s not. You’re looking at what we’re looking at.
Sparks (v.o.): What the hell’s going on in there?
Link: Whatever it is, it can’t be good.

This sense of unreality doesn’t just pervade the fight between Neo and Smith though. It’s present throughout Neo’s depictions within the Matrix. His clothes never move quite right, they seem more like the idea of clothes than like actual clothing. This strange costuming extends to Morpheus and Trinity. Trinity looks alien throughout these two films when she’s within the Matrix. As a person in the real, she’s got emotion, passion, humanity. But her residual self-image is not this. She has a static blank-faced expression, severe, calculating. Her glasses are too big and too dark, her leather outfits too reflective. Morpheus also becomes a reflecting surface with clearly CGI-enhanced patterns constantly gleaming off his sunglasses. This strangeness clings to these three and does not infect the other rebels. Niobe, her crew and all the rest seem human within the Matrix. Neo, Trinity and Morpheus do not. They seem out of place. This seems to hint at a kind of gnostic sense of reality, as if proximity to the One is contagious. If Smith has become Weird it is in part because Neo is.

The Merovingian

The Smith fight acts as the transition to the meeting with the Merovingian. This is the powerful man who wants more power – he is a program who presents himself as a king, a gang boss, a god of death. His wife is Persephone. He owns two properties: Le Vrai (The True or, in a Baudrillardian sense, The Real). The Merovingian challenges the idea of choice in his discourse on the issue, saying:

 Choice is an illusion, created between those with power, and those without. Look there, at that woman. My God, just look at her. Affecting everyone around her, so obvious, so bourgeois, so boring. But wait… Watch – you see, I have sent her dessert, a very special dessert. I wrote it myself. It starts so simply, each line of the program creating a new effect, just like poetry. First, a rush… heat… her heart flutters. You can see it, Neo, yes? She does not understand why – is it the wine? No. What is it then, what is the reason? And soon it does not matter, soon the why and the reason are gone, and all that matters is the feeling itself. This is the nature of the universe. We struggle against it, we fight to deny it, but it is of course pretense, it is a lie. Beneath our poised appearance, the truth is we are completely out of control. Causality. There is no escape from it, we are forever slaves to it. Our only hope, our only peace is to understand it, to understand the `why.’ `Why’ is what separates us from them, you from me. `Why’ is the only real social power, without it you are powerless. And this is how you come to me, without `why,’ without power. Another link in the chain. But fear not, since I have seen how good you are at following orders, I will tell you what to do next. Run back, and give the fortune teller this message: Her time is almost up. Now I have some real business to do, I will say adieu and goodbye.

The Merovingian remains close to the Oracle in his position. He positions understanding of “why” as the root of power. Where he mostly differs from the Oracle is in his understanding of time. There’s a cyberneticism to his idea that positions everything as a causal sequence of events. If you can disentangle the cause of one of these causal chains you have power. Without that knowledge of the cause you are powerless – simply another step in the sequence. The Oracle recognizes that, materially, the Merovingian has power. He controls buildings, he controls people, programs. He collects useful things. He wills things and they are done. But because the Merovingian doesn’t understand time he misses the significance of understanding. Instead he divides the world into the powerful and the unimportant. The Merovingian’s causal mono-directionality might allow for feedback to occur – we see that in the games he plays with Persephone – but that’s all volition can ever be: the games of the powerful.

Neo gets trapped in one of these games as Persephone promises to help him get the Keymaker in a minor act of vengeance for the Merovingian’s manipulation of the “beautiful woman” – who he’s manipulated into a sexual encounter via his example of control. Persephone is also a powerful person. She understands exactly why she is helping Neo. She’s doing it to anger her husband. This works on multiple levels in the story, both acting as a reinforcement of the Merovingian’s thesis on control, advancing the action of the plot and introducing a commentary on the games that the powerful play with the lives of the powerless. It’s not entirely untrue that Neo doesn’t have power when he approaches the Merovingian. The Oracle has explained that Neo doesn’t understand why he has always already decided whether to save Trinity and that he must come to that understanding to progress. The Merovingian merely denies Neo will ever have the opportunity to understand; he creates a form of class privilege on understanding wherein only power can attract power.

The Architect

The final discourse on control, choice and time comes between Neo and the Architect. There is another action sequence prior to the conversation. It admirably shows us that Morpheus has grown as a person – that he has become more like Neo by being with Neo. It also gives us the opportunity to see the Wachowskis realizing cliches like the katana that can cut through a tank (or at least an SUV).

This action scene also brings us back to the initiatory action from Neo’s dream: we see Smith interfere with the plans of Neo and his team and we see Trinity forced to descend like an alien in black leather to the situation that will lead to her possible doom. With Trinity thus engaged in her fated moment, Neo opens a door and encounters the Architect.

Before we talk too much about the Architect I think it’s important to clarify a misconception about his discourse: The Architect is textually wrong. Every prediction he makes is incorrect. By the end of The Matrix Revolutions he is thoroughly repudiated and as such I don’t think we can take anything he says, about the capability of the Machines, the history of the world, any of it, as absolute truth. The Architect exists to be wrong. But Neo doesn’t know that when he first meets the program. The Architect is deeply focused on the inevitability of determinism and everything he says is viewed through that lens. While the Architect’s argument is important to the story, and is significant, the significance of it lies in Neo’s rejection of it. I believe what caused the misunderstanding of the Architect’s role has to do with a conversation Neo has later in the film:

Morpheus: I don’t understand it. Everything was done as it was supposed to be done. Once The One reaches the Source, the war should be over.
Neo: In 24 hours it will be.
Morpheus: What?
Neo: If we don’t do something in 24 hours, Zion will be destroyed.
Link: What?
Trinity: How do you know that?
Neo: I was told it would happen.
Morpheus: By whom?
Neo: It doesn’t matter. I believed him.

The first thing to keep in mind is Neo’s qualification, “if we don’t do something.” What he believes is that the Machines have the capacity to destroy Zion and have made a choice to initiate the destruction of Zion. However if Neo believed in the determinism of Smith or the Architect then there’d be not talk of doing anything. The die would be cast. It would be destiny.

However I think it’s also important to remember that Neo is not a character who operates as an authorial insert. There isn’t any one character in The Matrix who exists to address the audience on behalf of the author. Because The Matrix Reloaded is structured as a series of discourses in which Neo talks to a person and learns something, even expository characters are complicated here. We have Hamann, the Oracle, Smith, the Merovingian and Persephone and we have the Architect. Each of these characters (much like Rama Kandra, Sati, the Oracle, Trinity and Smith in The Matrix Revolutions) contributes to the audience’s understanding and to Neo’s understanding simultaneously. Neo may be checking in with the audience here to encourage the audience to believe the Architect in the moment but he has no authority to make the claim. He’s learning, just like us.

So the question becomes what wrong-path is the Architect leading us down, and why might he be leading us in this direction?

Architect: Denial is the most predictable of all human responses, but rest assured, this will be the sixth time we have destroyed it, and we have become exceedingly efficient at it.
The function of the One is now to return to the Source, allowing a temporary dissemination of the code you carry, reinserting the prime program. After which, you will be required to select from the Matrix 23 individuals – 16 female, 7 male – to rebuild Zion. Failure to comply with this process will result in a cataclysmic system crash, killing everyone connected to the Matrix, which, coupled with the extermination of Zion, will ultimately result in the extinction of the entire human race.
Neo: You won’t let it happen. You can’t. You need human beings to survive.
Architect: There are levels of survival we are prepared to accept. However, the relevant issue is whether or not you are ready to accept the responsibility of the death of every human being on this world. It is interesting, reading your reactions. Your 5 predecessors were, by design, based on a similar predication – a contingent affirmation that was meant to create a profound attachment to the rest of your species, facilitating the function of the One. While the others experienced this in a very general way, your experience is far more specific – vis a vis love.
Neo: Trinity.
Architect: Apropos, she entered the Matrix to save your life, at the cost of her own.
Neo: No.
Architect: Which brings us at last to the moment of truth, wherein the fundamental flaw is ultimately expressed, and the anomaly revealed as both beginning and end. There are two doors. The door to your right leads to the Source, and the salvation of Zion. The door to your left leads back to the Matrix, to her and to the end of your species. As you adequately put, the problem is choice. But we already know what you are going to do, don’t we? Already, I can see the chain reaction – the chemical precursors that signal the onset of an emotion, designed specifically to overwhelm logic and reason – an emotion that is already blinding you from the simple and obvious truth. She is going to die, and there is nothing you can do to stop it.
Hope. It is the quintessential human delusion, simultaneously the source of your greatest strength and your greatest weakness.

The Architect experiences choice as the remainder of an unbalanced equation. However he also believes that the function of the One is to bring that equation to balance. The One is “both the beginning and end.” We can see that in the infectious artificiality that surrounds Neo. Trinity and Morpheus aren’t just stronger, faster and more capable of superhuman feats than they were before. Morpheus fights an upgraded Agent to a stand-still during the highway chase and what Trinity does when she engages her doomed raid is straight-up impossible. But it goes beyond their capabilities and into the way their residual self images have become more abstract. When Neo first awakens in the Matrix, he becomes coated in mirror-stuff but Morpheus and Trinity have become like mirrors in their appearance. There’s a reflectivity to them – Trinity’s leather suit gleams, Morpheus’s glasses are far more reflective than they should be. This digitally affected costuming echoes the abstraction of Neo’s almost-clerical garb.

Notice how the second costume is like an abstraction of the first.

That these changes are most evident in those people who are closest to Neo, his lover and his mentor, is important here thematically. But it goes beyond this – it is increasingly hard for the sleeping people of the Matrix to remain ignorant of the artificiality of their world when Superman in Jesuit drag is rocketing around all the time. Harder still once Smith starts his campaign of assimilation. But the Architect attempts to resolve this via a rigid dialectical negation. Neo will do these things because he must. The only choice presented is to allow the lover to die or to risk extinction one day later. The logical decision is obvious.

And Neo doesn’t make it. Instead he reinserts himself into the Matrix without obeying the Architect and he rescues Trinity.

Trinity: I’m sorry.
Neo: Trinity. Trinity, I know you can hear me. I’m not letting go. I can’t. I love you too damn much.

Neo is not able to make the logical choice the Architect expects because he loves Trinity. And he explicitly says that he cannot. Not that he doesn’t want to: he can’t let go of her. This idea, that Neo is constrained in his choices by love will become a very important key to how the Matrix Revolutions addresses the problematics laid out by The Matrix Reloaded.

All in all the structure of the Matrix Reloaded as a series of dialogs presents us with a clear matrix of ideas regarding interlocking themes: choice, time, control, consequence, love and hope are forced into a series of interactions. Is time a sequence of actions and reactions or a geometric substrate to being? If time is this or that what does it mean for choice? What is the nature of control, is it a relationship of domination and subjugation, or is it something of a mutual relationship? How does love affect choice? Is there reason to ever hope? This film can be seen as frustrating because it ultimately defers the answers. There is a line of compatibility that ties Hamann to the Oracle, that ties the Oracle to the Merovingian, that ties the Merovingian to the Architect and the Architect to Smith. Certainly we see where our alliances are supposed to lie – there is a variance in the hostility of the dialogs that goes from the mutual fondness Neo and Hamann hold for each other, the tenuous regard Neo and the Oracle have for each other, the grudging respect the Merovingian and Neo hold for each other through the threats Neo and the Architect trade to the outright violence of his encounter with Smith. But the multifaceted nature of the dialogs makes it difficult to say, “this is the right answer to this problem.” This is what leads to the confused interpretations of the conclusion of the film wherein audiences side with the Architect and believe him, as Neo does, of the existential threat that faces Zion. But ultimately we don’t know. We cannot know. We’re provided with a lot of opinions but no textual answers. You cannot look at the Matrix Reloaded as any more complete a film than Alita: Battle Angel. The only difference is that the Wachowskis, unlike Robert Rodriguez, had the opportunity to finish the movie when they released The Matrix Revolutions.

The Matrix Revolutions

At the end of The Matrix Reloaded Neo tells Morpheus that the One is just another control mechanism. This is largely derived from his encounter with the Architect who is persuasive in his argument that Neo is just that on the basis of a snooty attitude and Neo’s own doubts about what the Oracle is really attempting to do. We’ve established throughout the first two films in the series a few interconnected concepts: in the first film Trinity helps Neo survive being killed by Smith through her declaration of love. In the second, Neo saves Trinity because he loves her, with a declaration of that love, even though this might be dooming the human race to extinction within a day.

We have also established that there were at minimum one One prior to Neo and possibly as many as five depending on how willing we are to accept the narrative of the Machines over that of Zion. We have established that the Machines have decided to destroy Zion even though doing so would likely destroy the machines when the Matrix failed thanks to the meddling of Neo and Smith in it. It is worth noting though that the situation established at the start of The Matrix Revolutions calls back to Hamann’s problematizing of control in the first film. Certainly Zion could smash the machines that run the city but it would kill everyone. The Machines could kill Zion knowing that the Matrix is failing, but it would kill everyone, including the Machines.

The machines expect an eternal recurrence – that the One will arise, that the One will obey the Architect and reset the Matrix but now Neo has done something different. Furthermore the presence of Smith is, “not exactly,” how it went before. Neo discovers his abilities to interact with the code of the Machines has bled out of the Matrix. His encounter with the Architect has given him access to “the Source” – the central network of Machine communication distinct from the Matrix. But his use of the Source to destroy a Sentinel renders him unconscious and he awakens in a subway station in time for yet another piece of the discursive buildup to the conclusion of the Matrix movies.

Sati

Sati and her family are one of the most perplexing additions to The Matrix Revolutions. Her father, Rama-Kandra, is briefly seen leaving Le Vrai in The Matrix Reloaded but he’s a fleeting presence, a background character.

He’s waiting in the subway station with his wife Kamala and his daughter Sati. They expect a servant of the Merovingian, the Train Man, to come for them soon and Rama-Kandra explains that this was why he was speaking with the Merovingian in the previous movie. His daughter is a program created without a purpose. Lacking a purpose, she will be deleted and escape into the Matrix is the only way he can prevent the destruction of his daughter, who he loves.

Neo: I just have never…
Rama-Kandra: …heard a program speak of love?
Neo: It’s a… human emotion.
Rama-Kandra: No, it is a word. What matters is the connection the word implies. I see that you are in love. Can you tell me what you would give to hold on to that connection?
Neo: Anything.

For Rama-Kandra, “the power plant systems manager for recycling operations,” Neo’s love is a plain and visible fact. And he sees love not as an emotion but as a symbol implying connections, ties that bind. It’s unnecessary for Rama-Kandra to feel emotions as a biochemical response for him to understand what love is because he understands that the connection love represents matters and he will take lengths to protect it. Neo continues talking with Sati and her family and Rama-Kandra remarks that the Train Man is uncharacteristically late. Neo speculates that it might be something to do with him and we get the second significant part of this dialog:

Neo: You know the Oracle?
Rama-Kandra: Everyone knows the Oracle. I consulted with her before I met with the Frenchman. She promised she would look after Sati after we said goodbye.
Neo: Goodbye? You’re not staying with her?
Rama-Kandra: It is not possible. Our arrangement with the Frenchman was for our daughter only. My wife and I must return to our world.
Neo: Why?
Rama-Kandra: That is our karma.
Neo: You believe in karma?
Rama-Kandra: Karma’s a word. Like ‘love.’ A way of saying ‘what I am here to do.’ I do not resent my karma – I’m grateful for it. Grateful for my wonderful wife, for my beautiful daughter. They are gifts. And so I do what I must do to honour them.

When he announces that he does not resent his karma, that he is instead grateful for the things in his life, including his wife and daughter, Rama-Kandra explicitly ties purpose, previously tied to fate, determinism and causality directly to love. He doesn’t hate his fate – it’s a gift to honour. And yet the object of Rama-Kandra’s love is a being without purpose in Sati. It’s clear that a choice has been made, but it’s a choice that paradoxically venerates doing what one ought.

In The Joyful Wisdom (often also known as the Gay Science), Friedrich Nietzsche said, “I shall thus be one of those who beautify things. Amor fati: let that henceforth be my love! I do not want to wage war with the ugly. I do not want to accuse, I do not want even to accuse the accusers. Looking aside, let that be my sole negation! And all in all, to sum up: I wish to be at any time hereafter only a yea-sayer!” This concept, Amor Fati, literally means love of fate. Nietzsche believed that in an infinite time span all things would eventually repeat an infinite number of times. In his view we were each fated to live out the same life an infinite number of times – to make the same choices and to do the same deeds. It was not that we were compelled by a creator to do this. It was simply a property of the endless expanse of the universe, the endless bounds of time. This has much the same consequence as the Infinite Improbability Drive of the Hitchhiker’s Guide stories except extrapolated farther. Not only is the specific improbability of a sequence of events something that never will reach ∞ but also as that improbability will always be finite within an infinite universe its frequency thus become ∞ too. Faced with such absurdity the best hope one has for sanity is to affirm that one lives the life one has. After all you’re going to be living that life in exactly the same way over and over again anyway. You might as well enjoy it.

But let’s return to Rama-Kandra’s dialog because his love of his fate isn’t sufficient to resolve the paradox of a program without a purpose if Rama-Kandra’s satisfaction with existence is Amor Fati how can a being without a purpose contribute to that. Is she not without a fate?

We could consider the possibility that Sati has a purpose and that Sati’s purpose is to be an object of love but considering the role she plays at the end of the film I don’t think that’s right. After the action of the movie is all over Sati is there at the end and she repaints the sky of the Matrix, replacing the overcast green haze with a glorious technicolor sunrise. Sati has a purpose and that purpose is to inject change.

This is a consequence of Nietzsche’s eternal return that plays interestingly with the Oracle’s compatibilism. Because if the universe is infinite and this is the basis for the infinite repetition of the same life, there will also be an infinite number of recurrences that are different. We are fated to live the same life over and over and also every one of its possible variations. This time Sati paints the sky.

An accompanying concept to the eternal return and to Amor Fati within Nietzsche is the Will to Power. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche says, ” philosophy is this tyrannical impulse itself, the most spiritual Will to Power, the will to “creation of the world,” the will to the causa prima.” The will to the causa prima – the first cause. Will to Power is for Nietzsche a natural condition of living. It’s the basis from which Deleuze later proposes an affirmative difference. The will to power is the emergence of being out of nothingness. It is the first mover before all other causes that creates itself.

And if this is what Sati represents – this cause – then we are binding love not just to love of fate and resignation but to causation. With Sati we see the first hint of a solution to the questions of choice, determinism, and understanding from the prior film. Perhaps these connections, these manifestations of love, are what arise timelessly to initiate causal chains. Perhaps there hasn’t been one prior One nor five. But an infinite chain of Ones stretching forward and backward in all directions, bound to their fate to awaken humanity and to destroy humanity by the tension between love of fate and the will to power.

Zee and Link

Zee: They’ve called for volunteers to hold the dock.
Cas: *to the kids* Kids, you stay here. *to Zee* I know how you feel, Zee, but you can’t do that.
Zee: I have to.
Cas: Why?
Zee: Because I love him. [I love him the same as] he loves me. And if I were out there and he were here, I know he would be doing the same thing.
Cas: But you’re gonna get yourself killed. It’s crazy, Zee.
Zee: Maybe it is. But ask yourself, if it were Dozer, and you knew the only chance you had to see him again was to hold the dock, what would you do?
Cas: Make shells.

Zee is similar to Rama-Kandra in that she is another character who existed on the edges of The Matrix Reloaded. She was more present than him, the home and hearth to which Link returns for a painfully brief respite, a chance to understand who he is and how he connects to the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar. But, along with Link and Kid she becomes a central character in The Matrix Revolutions. Zee remains behind when Zion is evacuated. She makes shells. Then she serves as the loader in an infantry team – plugging the shells into an rocket launcher for Charra to fire. She’s the one who loads the shells that fell the digger mech and she’s the one who survives when sentinels finally kill Charra. Zee is animated by the singular goal of love. Everything she does: staying on the dock, rescuing Kid, opening the gate, is for the chance to be reunited with Link.

Zee has no deep philosophical dialog with Neo. There’s no moment where her opinions are put into a point and counter-point model. But even so her purpose in the story is clear. She is a living and breathing exemplar of the will that underlies love. Zee isn’t a warrior. She doesn’t serve on a rebel ship. She has no special training in combat. She goes into a meat grinder of a battle that kills countless people. We Charra and so many other infantry soldiers carried off by sentinels, impaled or cut to pieces. We see Captain Mifune and his squad of power-armor anti-materiel units cut to pieces. There is so much death. And yet Zee is untouched. She is propelled by her love, armored by it.

Zee demonstrates precisely how powerful the Wachowskis see love in the context of this discourse just by her lived example. Rama-Kadran and Sati might be able to comment on what love means but Zee shows how it feels. And it isn’t all good times. She’s reunited with Link at the end of the world. All her fighting, all the trauma she goes through, seeing Charra die, seeing the fall of the dock and the vast army of the Machines it’s all so that she can die together with the man she loves instead of apart. It’s all so that she can see him one last time. And she does! And they live! But imagine being Zee in that moment. Imagine seeing all that horrible monstrosity arrayed against you and knowing you were very likely not going to live another day. Imagine, despite all that, spitting in the face of despair and carrying on because even the smallest time with the one you love is worth the whole world. There’s an echo of Amor Fati here too. As Camus said, “What else can I desire than to exclude nothing and to learn how to braid with white thread and black thread a single cord?” Love exposes one to terrors and opens one up to pain. Zee lives not for herself but for Link. She throws herself into the face of death because she loves him. All that terror and pain is a black thread that she must bind to the white thread of her love. She can exclude nothing. If her only chance to see Link again, even just to see him a last time, is to make shells and hold the dock then she will make shells and she will hold the dock.

Trinity

Trinity: You want to make a deal, how about this? You give me Neo, or we all die right here, right now.
Merovingian: Interesting deal. You are really ready to die for this man?
Trinity: *cocks gun* Believe it.
Persephone: She’ll do it. If she has to, she’ll kill every one of us. She’s in love.
Merovingian: It is remarkable how similar the pattern of love is to the pattern of insanity.
Trinity: Time’s up. What’s it gonna be, Merv?

Trinity loves Neo. If there is one thing the Matrix trilogy is universally consistent about, that is never doubted and never challenged then it’s that Trinity loves Neo. Cypher saw it when he commented that Trinity never brought him dinner during the second act of The Matrix. Trinity affirmed it moments before Cypher is shot by Tank, whispering that, yes, she believes Neo is the One, fully aware that the Oracle told her she would, “fall in love, and that man, the man that I loved, would be the One.” Trinity’s enunciation of her love is what allows Neo to awaken into his power and defeat Smith. Love is a connection of course and so the reciprocation of that love, Neo’s love for Trinity is why he rejects the Architect’s instructions and returns to the Matrix to save her.

So it’s no surprise when Neo announces his suicide mission that Trinity insists on coming too. ” I know. You don’t think you’re coming back. I knew it the moment you said you had to leave. I could see it in your face. Just like you knew the moment you looked at me that I was coming with you.” There’s no doubt there. Like Zee, Trinity needs to weave the black thread and the white together into a single cord. The Merovingian calls love something like insanity. It’s an irrational choice but it is a choice that Trinity makes again and again, it is a choice that Neo makes. It’s the choice that Zee makes and this choice, this decision to love, to open oneself to love in all its beauty and terror is both the resignation to fate and the causa prima of all choice. The will to love is an irrational choice to bind yourself to another no matter the cost.

Trinity dies in the mission to the Machine city. But before she does, she sees the sun and it’s beautiful. As she lies dying she gives her final words to Neo:

Trinity: Do you remember… on that roof after you caught me… the last thing I said to you?
Neo: You said: “I’m sorry.”
Trinity: That was my last thought. I wished I had one more chance, to say what really mattered, to say how much I loved you, how grateful I was for every moment I was with you. But by the time [I knew I’d] said what I wanted to, it was too late. But you brought me back. You gave me my wish. One more chance to say what I really wanted to say… Kiss me, once more. Kiss me.

As in the case of Rama-Kandra’s dialog about love, karma and gratitude, Trinity talks about how grateful she was to have the chance to tell Neo what she really wanted to say. She follows her love into a death that she sees coming but she’s grateful because she was doing it out of love. Love is simultaneously a power that moves mountains, that paints the sky in many vibrant colours and a surrender. Kierkegaard understands love as a surrender, in Works of Love he says, “The emotion {love} is not your own expression but belongs to the other; its expression is his due since you in your emotion belongs to him who causes the emotion.” And so Trinity gives herself over to Neo in her love. Zee gives herself over to Link. When Nietzsche or Camus talk about Amor Fati – this affirmation of the life you have lived and will live – love fits within this perfectly in its form as surrender.

All the travails that Zee and Trinity go through are given over to another. One lives the other dies but neither has reason for anything but gratitude: not to a god, Kierkegaard might have sought that but Nietzsche and Camus did not, but to the object of love – the beloved person. Trinity gives herself over to Neo in love – but doing so is her choice. It will always already be her choice to surrender to love because she loves Neo. Love then becomes a principal expression of the Will to Power – the causa prima – that is eternally inserted into being and in doing so creates the possibility of difference within the tyranny of the infinite.

Smith

Smith: The great and powerful Oracle. We meet at last. I suppose you’ve been expecting me, right? The all-knowing Oracle is never surprised. How can she be, she knows everything. But If that’s true, then why is she here? If she knew I was coming, why didn’t she leave? *sweeps plate of cookies off table* Maybe you knew I was going to do that, maybe you didn’t. If you did, that means you baked those cookies and set that plate right there deliberately, purposefully. Which means you’re sitting there also deliberately, purposefully.
Oracle: What did you do with Sati?
Smith/Sati: Cookies need love like everything does.
Smiths: *laugh*
Oracle: You are a bastard.
Smith: You would know, Mom.
Oracle: Do what you’re here to do.
Smith: Yes, ma’am.
Smith/Oracle: *laughs maniacally*

Smith doesn’t understand love. He mocks the Oracle when they come face to face about love, about the Oracle’s statement to Sati that cookies need love. His way of showing that he has taken Sati and made her like him too. “Yes me, me, me, me,” is all Smith knows and because of that inward look he fails to understand love even to the extent of the Merovingian. The Merovingian, obsessed with causality, is unable to see the irrationality of love as being the cause at the root of things, and so it looks insane to him. To Smith even that level of awareness is impossible. There’s just that paranoiac reaction against sensation, against desire. Paranoiac machines are the producers of anti-production, the reaction against the injury desire does to the surface of potentiality. Love is bound up in desire, in the tangle of lives. The stink of the human is all over love and he can’t stand it. Smith is incapable of self-love any more than he is of loving another. Love demands surrender and there’s nothing of surrender in Smith, just the monomaniacal desire to level everything out, to make things quiet, to get rid of the smell.

He confronts Neo twice in the film. During the first confrontation he is wearing the rebel Bane:

Bane: Yes.. That’s it, Mr. Anderson. Look past the flesh, look through the soft gelatin of these dull cow eyes and see your enemy.
Neo: No.
Bane: Oh yes, Mr. Anderson.
Neo: It can’t be.
Bane: There’s nowhere I can’t go, there’s nowhere I won’t find you.
Neo: It’s impossible.
Bane: Not impossible. Inevitable. Goodbye, Mr. Anderson.

His hatred of flesh and his obsession with inevitability continue to define him. Neo is shocked to see Smith wearing flesh but the code within is all too clear to him. He sees Smith. But Smith cannot see Neo. Not really. He can’t understand him just as he can’t understand the Oracle. The Merovingian tells Trinity that the eyes of the Oracle can only be given, not taken by force. And yet when the Oracle tells Smith, “do what you’re here to do,” he doesn’t blink. He just takes without considering why what he took might have been given. Because Smith cannot understand love, because desire is injurious to him, he cannot ever become the prime mover. The Paranoiac machine is a reactive apparatus. So while Smith is able to remark that this time is different, he is unable to be the mover of change. The Merovingian sees those with power as being those who understand the first cause of a chain of events and Smith, absent an understanding of love, cannot come to that understanding. Smith cannot see past the decisions he does not understand any more than Neo or the Oracle could. As such his iron-clad certainty in inevitability is missing the complex topography of fate and choice for the trees.

Smith falls into total nihilism as a result of this fundamental failure of understanding. “The purpose of  life is to end,” he says, but he is ignorant of the other side of the equation of the eternal return: that all death leads to life. Bone meal helps flowers grow. Nothing is ever still and the paranoiac machine will eventually be syphoned off by another machine that will in turn link back to desire. It’s cyclical – a revolution of a different sort in the turning of a wheel. Smith and Neo fight and Smith believes with iron certainty that he will win. He’s seen it: “we already know that I’m the one that beats you.”

But even so Neo keeps fighting. No matter how often Smith knocks him down, Neo gets back up.

Smith/Oracle: Why, Mr. Anderson, why? Why, why do you do it? Why, why get up? Why keep fighting? Do you believe you’re fighting for something, for more than your survival? Can you tell me what it is, do you even know? Is it freedom or truth, perhaps peace – could it be for love? Illusions, Mr. Anderson, vagaries of perception. Temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose. And all of them as artificial as the Matrix itself. Although, only a human mind could invent something as insipid as love. You must be able to see it, Mr. Anderson, you must know it by now! You can’t win, it’s pointless to keep fighting! Why, Mr. Anderson, why, why do you persist?
Neo: Because I choose to.

Here at last Will to Power is laid bare. Neo makes the choice to get back up. He takes the pain and the fear, the love and the striving, the beauty and terror of the world, he takes it all and he chooses to affirm it. He will not say no. He will be only a yea-sayer. Choice arises out of the facticity of our situation. We may be fated to make the same choices again and again across the aeons but now, within this frame, we can choose. We have that terrifying freedom to irrationally disregard the bars of our cage and say, “yes.” Neo’s last line in the Matrix trilogy is, “You were right, Smith. You were always right. It was inevitable.” He denies nothing. He affirms everything: the choice and the inevitable, causality and irrationality. All of it is true, all of it is compatible. It is an absurd resolution to an absurd premise but it is also an inevitable end. The Matrix trilogy describes the Oracle making a great wager against the Architect – that the human and the irrational matter: that there is purpose in the purposeless. Sati is the future for the machines. She’s created without a purpose and so she creates her own. She creates beauty out of love. A gift for Neo. Sati asks if Neo will return and the Oracle says she suspects so. She doesn’t know. The eternal return exists and we must learn to love fate in order to make any sort of peace with our facticity but that’s not the whole story. People make choices, difference arises. The same infinity that demands the eternal return also demands transformation. The wheel of being turns but we are not crushed beneath it. We can choose to get up, to affirm it all, to weave our cord of white and black thread and have gratitude for our surrender to love.