At the Grand Lake in Oakland there is still one large theater that has not been chopped down to postage stamp size. Painted on the ceiling above the huge screen is a medallion, tarnished with the breath of decades of expectant audiences. On it is depicted a seated woman wearing a toga. She was a woman with no arms. Or so it seemed to my daughter’s friend, who tells us that as a child she would stare up at the ceiling, searching in the gloom for the missing appendages.
To entertain us while we waited for “Matrix Reloaded” to begin, management provided an elderly organist who plays 1940’s show tunes. His practiced feet glided over the pedals, and the mighty Wurlitzer’s hidden pipes resonated from curtained balconies on either side of the stage. Then the lights dimmed. The organist continued to play as the platform on which he sat descended into the orchestra pit. The audience applauded. The curtain rose.
The slow descent of the organist evokes nostalgia for a time when imagination filled in the suggestions of life. Now there is no room for the imagination—either in film or in life. We do not know what happened in Iraq, but the media efficiently foreclosed imagination of what is missing. We do not wonder about the missing arms.
After the organist it was all down hill. “Matrix Reloaded” been absorbed into the Matrix. “Matrix” could be read as an allegory of what the United States has become in the 21st century—a dream machine producing an illusion which conceals reality and forecloses imagination of alternatives. The movie was a product of that machine. It was, so to speak, the machine tattling on itself. It’s subversive messages were like renegade fortunes baked into fortune cookies by disaffected bakers. But I always suspected that those subversive messages were in fact engineered into the product to make it more palatable. The subversives and the system they subverted were pretty well fused. As Agent Smith said in the first movie, when we made the matrix too perfect, no one believed it. It needed the condiment of truth to make it palatable to jaded appetites.
“Reloaded” dispenses with that condiment. It substitutes car crashes and murky musings. It’s full of portentous talk about the puzzling coexistence of freedom of choice and the domination of causes over their effects. The talk is an esoteric game. Adolescent boys go through a period where they like to embroil themselves in esoteric games. They escape into them. They’re better at them than adults. They know the passwords, the secret codes. “Reloaded” is an esoteric game for adolescents. The puzzle is not meant to be solved.
The movie muddles its own metaphors and doesn’t care. Within the matrix and without are no longer clearly differentiated. They are both special effects. Nether are believable. Zion is a Hollywood back lot, left over from some heart-of-darkness epic in which explorers in pith helmets chop their way through the creeping vines to a clearing in the jungle where a heathen ceremony is in progress. Morpheus stands on a ledge above his tribe. He raises his arms. Commands that the revelry begin. Jungle fever. Drums of passion swell. Glimpses of bare breasts, sweaty garments, glistening thighs. The natives prostrate themselves before Neo. They bring him their sick children to heal. He makes love to their drumming. His rail-thin Trinity, all cheek bones and the minimum of flesh lies beneath him. It’s okay again to exoticize the colored masses. Multiculturalism for the era of Bush the 2nd. The Agents can save their strength. Zion will die of embarrassment.
The original “Matrix” was a movie for the waning days of the Clinton era, when we still struggled to discern inklings of humanity in an administration presided over by a smarmy con man, persecuted for his immoderate lusts, who could feel our pain, while he sold us down the river. His administration was breathtakingly cynical. It was an utterly dispiriting spectacle. Could it get worse? It could. Now all traces of liberalism have vanished. A counter-revolution is in progress. Bomb Iraq. Bomb the electorate. Bomb the audience.
Oh, the cost of staging these stunts, of manufacturing the illusion—the war on Iraq and “Matrix Reloaded.” Dreary gibberish alternating with paroxysms of violence. Promises of salvation. Reality of hopelessness. Language debased. Total control—“Matrix Reloaded” and the Bush administration. Neo has his Morpheus —Laurence Fishburn, mouthing his lines like he learned them the night before. Bush has his Colin and his Condoleeza, pretending to believe in their great white hope.
Iraq was a snuff film. We could savor the slogan, but the gory details were expurgated. Instead of reality we get special effects. Now we get “Reloaded,” a terrible movie for terrible times. There’s nothing mystical about the working of the Zeitgeist. The creators of our collective dreams are finely tuned to the vibrations of that spirit that emanate from the humming pitchforks of Washington and its satellites.
But we are not convinced. Bigger car crashes, bigger bombs, more shock, more awe—it stops working. The failure of the film is instructive. We long for the quiet real, the slender reed, the sound of small waters, the rustle of leaves, night flight, gulls landing in meadows, lizards doing push ups on the hot rocks, the finite, the effect that is special because it is not special, because it is an appearance intimately linked to reality. They cannot make us believe in their confections. In that there is still hope