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May 16, 2003

Gloating over The Matrix

Friedrich --

On my morning walk to work this morning, I passed a couple of movie theaters showing the "Matrix" sequel. 9:30 a.m., and already there was a big line outside the box office window, which wasn't yet open. Lordy, how can any movie live up to such expectations? Quite a contrast with the first film. People seem to have forgotten that, before it opened, the first film was widely expected (to the extent anyone was paying much attention to it at all) to be a flop.

A second here while I break my arm patting myself on the back. I remember the low expectations with which the original was greeted because I went to an early press screening of the picture. Even before the lights went down, I picked up that the film was expected to be a bomb. Nothing bizarre or worth analyzing about this -- it just seemed like the film was on its way to becoming one of those pictures grumpy press people love jumping on.

I adored watching the film and was fizzing about it afterwards. But, to my surprise, nearly everyone who'd watched it with me disagreed. They came away from the screening convinced they'd been right -- the film was a bust. "But it's got certain qualities people may really respond to," I managed to say. (I'm crowing about this because my commercial-success prediction rate is generally so lousy that I have to prance around a bit when I do get it right.) To no avail, of course: I'm ignored in the mainstream, hence I blog.

The press, in fact, didn't manage to overcome their aversion to "The Matrix" for a couple of weeks. It took them that long to recognize that the public had found something in the movie that they (the press) hadn't, and was responding like crazy.

A couple of points that I don't think get made enough about the film:

1) Although the original "Matrix" was a big hit, it wasn't a big hit in the sense that something like "Independence Day" was a big hit. It was essentially a cult movie that connected with a mood and busted out of that category. (Which makes me worry about the sequels, which have been made and anticipated in the full glare of spotlights.) As a movie-biz phenom, in other words, it was more like "Blade Runner" (a resonant and influential pop-cult phenom) than a triumph of marketing like the recent "Star Wars" movies.

And 2) Part of what people responded to in the original was eroticism, poetry and art. Film geeks and critics may go on (and on) about the film's "philosophy" -- but what's making them do so? That strikes me as the more basic and interesting question. I'd argue that the film has wonderful erotic qualities, and not just in the way the stars looked good in leather. It's in the film's whole way of seeing things: the sense of fate, the anguished-but-exhilarating retro-futurism, the sense of a deeper mystery, of solemn and moving things far beyond our comprehension, of a tragic dimension to life. The film has a seductive and hypnotic solemnity -- in terms of look and feel, the film isn't all that different from the W brothers' erotic thriller "Bound." And art? Well, the Wachowskis are serious film and comic book buffs, and the movie is, among other things, an echo chamber of what's on their minds. The special effects that seemed so newfangled at the time didn't just make you say "Cool!" They had poetic qualities -- conceptual audacity crossed with visual beauty.

Let's enjoy movie eroticism, movie poetry, and movie art when and where we find them, sez I. And, when eroticism, poetry and art do spice up our lives a bit, let's give 'em some damn credit.

Here's hoping the sequels are fun. At the very least, it'll be interesting to see how the W brothers have contended with the success and attention, and the unavoidable self-consciousness. And, hey, the sequels co-star Monica Bellucci.

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at May 16, 2003




Comments

What are you saying? That the press went back after a couple of weeks and, under cover of darkness, changed all their reviews from negative to positive? 'Cos if you look at the reviews now, there are 93 positives to only 14 negatives: hardly the impression given from your reminiscences. I looked up what the NY Times had to say especially, and found Janet Maslin waxing poetic about how "the Wachowskis stylishly envision the ultimate in cyberescapism". So I'm not entirely convinced you've got all that much to gloat about.

Posted by: Felix on May 16, 2003 5:26 PM



Hey Felix, I'm saying that the movie press, as I experienced it from the inside, changed their tune over the couple of weeks after the film got released, sure. No one in the mainstream press was expecting the pic to have much of an impact, and very few people in the mainstream press were personally enthusiastic about the movie -- David Edelstein at Slate (on the outskirts of the mainstream) was one of the few exceptions. When the film hit with the public, the mainstream outlets turned around and did their best to catch that wave. They obviously couldn't change their reviews, so they went wild with features instead.

Many of the positive reviews cited by RottenTomatoes in the poll you're referring to came from offbeat and cultish places: Film Freak Central, Flick Filosopher -- I've never heard of these places, and suspect that many of them came out with their "reviews" well after the film opened. Look through the list for the mainstream, day-of-release reviewers (Ebert, Carr, Schickel, Rolling Stone, etc), and you'll see that most of them are negative or lukewarm at best. The Janet Maslin review you link to, by the way, strikes me as considerably less glowing than it seems to strike you: "as likely to transfix fans of computer gamesmanship as to baffle anyone with quaintly humanistic notions of life on earth"; "anyone bored with the notably pretentious plotting can keep busy toting up this film's debts to other futuristic science fiction"; "the kind of film in which sunglasses are an integral part of sleekly staged fight scenes" -- not the review I suspect Joel Silver was hoping for, and not one that expresses much in the way of personal enthusiasm either.

Have you read any pieces about what made "The Matrix" work, and what people loved about it, that you can recommend?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 16, 2003 5:58 PM



Michael:

I think you really hit on the differences between the success of "The Matrix" and the over-promoted blockbuster monstrosities. I recall seeing very few ads for "The Matrix" at all, and nothing in them gave me any idea of what I was in store for. Part of me worried that it would turn out be something like "Johnny Mnemonic".

I, too, remember the lukewarm reception "The Matrix" got from the mainstream press on its release. Entertainment Weekly, for example, gave it a C- (upgraded to an A by the time it was released on DVD).

Felix:

The press did seem to change their minds: not by retracting earlier reviews, but by starting to compare every new hi-tech action movie that came along unfavorably to "The Matrix".

Posted by: JW on May 16, 2003 7:01 PM



Well, like I say, the only reason I remember this so clearly is that it's so rare for me to correctly semi-predict a surprise hit. Most of the time, I've got a reverse Midas touch.

My own fear about the sequels is that they'll have the energy, the inventiveness, the effects, and the tight leather of the first film, and none of its erotic qualities.

Anyone have any good theories about how/why the original "Matrix" meant so much to people? Or why it was such a phenom on DVD?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 16, 2003 7:29 PM



I'm sure Joel Silver couldn't give a flying fuck what Janet Maslin said about The Matrix in the New York Times. As far as I can tell, there's absolutely zero correlation between the enthusiasm with which an action film is greeted in the mainstream press on the one hand, and its box office gross on the other. The reason I thought that the Maslin review was pretty positive is just because it's a lot better than you'd expect an action film to get: most action-film reviews in places like the NYT are sneering put-downs. (Although Maslin, of course, was famous for rarely being nasty to anything: as I understand it, the straw which broke the camel's back and led to her ultimately being replaced by the present troika was her glowing review of Titanic: "Mr. Cameron's magnificent ''Titanic'' is the first spectacle in decades that honestly invites comparison to ''Gone With the Wind.''".)

I've read a lot of pieces about the Matrix, a lot of them good, but the main thing I'd do is point you away from Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker, who's dreadful. Basically, though, I'd put the popularity of The Matrix down to

1) Really cool fight scenes -- all that kung-fu wire-based stuff was brand-new.

2) "Bullet time" and the 360-degree high-tech cinematography.

3) A cool cyberfuturistic dystopian vision which is also intelligent enough to repay multiple viewings.

4) Prada.

But maybe that's just me...

Posted by: Felix on May 16, 2003 10:15 PM



Hey, Prada counts.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 16, 2003 10:28 PM



Matrix - schmatrix! Let's hear it for 'Dark City' guys. A deep, dark, smouldering, erotic feast of existential fears and terrors. A film noir sci-fi nightmare classic. You don't need high fashion shades and oily leather slithers: they come built in. Its in the mood, all the pushy shadows and those graphics that rise up from the floor and turn the world around along with all your concepts of it. Hah!
Beat that all you 'Matrix' junkies - I dare you!

Posted by: Andre on May 17, 2003 11:33 PM



Hey, Andre, I agree with you! I never would have even heard of Dark City, but my son brought a tape home from college and insisted that my wife and I watch it. Images from that film still linger in my personal image-bank. He also had us watch the first Matrix film and I found that, for me, the cleverness of the premise and the cinematic novelties were obscured by the gratuitous violence.

Posted by: Larry Ayers on May 18, 2003 11:20 PM






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