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May 25, 2003

The Matrix Demoted

Friedrich --

The Wife and I just got back from seeing the "Matrix" sequel. Good lord but it's awful. We went in with expectations duly suppressed (we'd heard), and even so were giving each other "shall we leave?" looks after only 15 minutes. We sat through the movie because, well, some pop culture things simply have to be sat through, but only because of that.

matrix03.jpg Bigger, louder, dumber -- and endless

It's hurried, joyless, and very loud. Plotwise, it's almost incomprehensible -- although the Wife tells me that I need to admit upfront that I have no gift for grasping the logic of video or computer game-esque plots. It's true. I stare at them thinking things like: I have to go where? And do what? Are you kidding? I found watching the movie like spending a couple of very long hours in a loud video-game arcade, none of whose games grabbed me.

The film has none -- zero -- of the erotic/poetic/emotional tonal qualities of the first movie. Instead, it kept making me think of that meatball John Travolta action movie "Swordfish." Why? Why? Then it came to me: "Swordfish" was produced by Joel Silver, as have been the "Matrix" movies. That was it: this "Matrix" felt more like a Joel Silver movie (pushy, gloating, prancing around the endzone) than a Wachowski Brothers movie. To the extent you can talk about the movie having any "feel" at all, it's this: it felt like the Wachowski Brothers would have preferred to be doing anything but making this movie.

Sad to say that, despite Keanu and Carrie-Anne, despite the leather and PVC, the movie didn't look seductive -- the cinematographer seemed to be amusing himself seeing how awful he could make everyone's facial and neck skin look. Even the divine Monica Bellucci (to whom I sing a hymn here), who's in all of about three scenes, looks terrible. She seems lumpy, even a bit disfigured, and she's trussed into an unamusing and unflattering outfit.

That's all the mental energy I can bear to give the movie. A few free-floating quasi-reflections did occur to me, though. And I'm not going to resist the temptation to inflict them.

  • I've been fumbling my way -- slowly and tediously, I'm afraid -- towards this particular thought for months, and now it's finally (ta-dah) come together. It's that, at the movies, traditional movie values have been overwhelmed by electronic media values. A balance has shifted. The "showbiz" used to be used (generally speaking) to help sell a movie's concept, story and performers. These days, as the showbiz has become more and more electronically based, everything is used to help keep the electronic media experience rolling along -- the strobing, the swooping, the kathumping. The swoosh-and-rumble is what's primary. The plots and performances serve that experience rather than vice versa.
  • I can't be the only movie fan these days who's thinking "enough already with the Asian baloney," can I? I'm very fond of a lot of Asian art and thought. I meditate; I enjoy my Asian-American friends; I take the occasional tai chi class; I plan one day, once I save some money (hah), to travel to Japan. But even so: puhleeze. The trailers before the "Matrix" movie began were for two American/Asian hybrids, Tom Cruise in "The Last Samurai" and Uma Thurman chopping, leaping and thwacking in the new Quentin Tarantino, "Kill Bill." I do my best to find it interesting that fly-through-the-air martial arts and long pauses for solemn Zen-esque babble have become standard parts of the Hollywood mainstream. But, in truth, I'm very tired of them already. I'm not a big action fan in the first place. And in the second, and to indulge a little film-buff snobbery, frantic Hong Kong action first started appearing in the art houses a very long time ago. The bloom is off that particular rose.
  • What fabulous sound systems theaters have these days -- yet what a limited palette of sounds they're being used for. I made a little catalogue of some of the Dolbyized standards as I watched the "Matrix" movie. Bzzt. Rumble. Fwoof. Slash. Ka-thump. Choppa-choppa-choppa. Creak. ZWING/zwing (sound of sword being pulled out of metal sheath). Glass shattering. Skree. Crrrrrack-thwoom (climactic explosion). Carl Orff-esque chorale chanting. And, over and over again, yet more glass shattering. Never in movie history has the potential for extraordinary sonic effects and environments been so available. Yet never, as far as I can tell, has the expressive use being made of sound been so narrow.

'Way back in prehistory, I took a class in electronic film editing. I didn't like it and had no gift for it, but taking the class did help me get a peek into the future. I remember saying to the Wife one evening something along the lines of: movies are going to stop being about using effects to enhance and heighten the human experience. Instead, they're going to start being all about the orchestration of the effects themselves. And the human experience is going to start to seem mighty square.

"The Matrix Reloaded" made me think that, for once, I called it right.



posted by Michael at May 25, 2003


Since I will never bother to see Matrix: A Load in the theatres, it doesn't much matter to me what the buzz is. However, I can assure you I will be in line on opening night or thereabouts for Kill Bill. Tarantino has not failed me yet, and I'll kindly thank you not to ruin the future experience by talking trash about the durn commercials for it.

[damn you...first DeLillo, now Tarantino. there's no room for a psuedo-culture-man to maneuver.]

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on April 15, 2002 12:15 AM

I just this minute got home from seeing "The Matrix Reloaded." Let's just say, I'm not surprised at your reaction. The movie, as a movie, is hardly there. (And was I the only one who wondered how somebody who hadn't seen "The Matrix" could follow the plot?)

I will admit I went because I wanted to see whether the W Bros. could beat what seemed an impossible problem: to wit, once a character in a Gnostic universe (or, to use Tim Hulsey's preferred analogy, in Plato's Parable of the Cave) wakes up, realizes that he's merely been trapped by a delusion, and then actually transcends this systematic delusion,how does one make drama out of what happens next? Perhaps I've been asleep at the switch, but I'm not aware of too many dramatizations of what happens after the Buddha says, "The pure life has been lived, the cycle of rebirth is ended, everything that must be done has been done, nothing remains to be done" and then dies.

Oh, well, it was a long shot. But it sure would have been worth the price of admission if the Brothers W had figured out what comes next! I guess there are just no shortcuts in this whole cosmic enlightment thing. Nuts!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on May 26, 2003 1:24 AM

Well, as much as I've posted about "Matrix: Reloaded," I have to confess that I truly enjoyed the film. (I could even follow the plot, too.)

But there are two other films in wide release that are very different from "Reloaded," and well worth seeing for those looking for narrative drive, fewer effects-laden sequences, and more varieties of sound: "Down With Love" and "Holes."

Both films feature the exhilarating workings of a fully-formed plot ("Holes" in particular is Dickensian in the way it strings several storylines into the same web), and neither seems calculated to overwhelm you with a simulacrum of epic greatness. If you don't want to see more films like "Reloaded," send your business to either of these two little gems.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on May 26, 2003 10:43 AM


Sorry to keep banging this drum, but the shift away from "traditional movie values" began with the break-up of the studio system, and is a condition of cinema's fragmented market. Just as traditional civic values requires a stable community to cultivate said values, the health of traditional movie values requires a stable production, distribution, and exhibition system. You continue to mistakenly assume that the current technology (digital, electronic) of making movies determines the values of the movies made by that technology. Rather, something closer to the exact opposite is true: the technology used to make movies today was developed in order to make the kinds of movies filmmakers once were able only to imagine (i.e. George Lucas waiting to make the latest Star Wars movies until he had the technology to make them exactly as he imagined they should be).

Also, while I understand that you're not, personally, a fan of action and spectacle, you underestimate the importance of "swoosh-and-rumble" in any picture of traditional movie values that bears resemblance to the realities of traditional movies: the spectacles of Griffith, Lang, Gance, the ritual action of Ford, Hawks, Peckinpah, the blunt sensory brutality of von Stroheim, Eisenstein, Fuller. You seem to want "traditional movie values" to mean something like "the values of European art cinema" or "the values of late 60s, early 70s American film." In other words, you seem to want it to mean "the values of the movies that I liked when I was most excited about movies." But, alas, all Golden Ages are mythical.

Posted by: J.W. on May 26, 2003 11:02 PM

Hey Tim, Thanks for the recommendations. The Wife enjoyed "Down With Love" too, though neither of us has seen "Holes." Has anyone seen "Blue Car," by the way? Sounds provocative. Sounds also like a born DVD rental...

Hey J.W., I confess I'm not sure what you're getting at, or where you think we disagree, though I'll let myself quibble a bit with your assertion that "the technology used to make movies today was developed in order to make the kinds of movies filmmakers once were able only to imagine." You can't possibly mean that someone in the late '60s, as the studios were falling apart, said, Hey, I want to make "The Matrix Reloaded," and that some computer person then said, Hold on just a few years and I'll get back to you!

If that is something like what you mean, why not trace that expressive need back to Melies? Or back long before the existence of movies? Because of course it would be absurd to claim that digital technology was developed "in order to" make the kinds of movies Melies envisioned.

But it seems just as absurd to claim that digital technology was developed "in order to" do anything at all for the movie business. The computer biz developed quite independent of the movie business, and certainly not in order to suit the expressive needs of a bunch of post-studio-breakup filmmakers. I do know that Francis Coppola and George Lucas said "I want" a couple of decades ago, but so did a ton of sci-fi writers too. People have been wanting groovy computers forever. Nonetheless, these people who said "I want" didn't create, let alone summon forth, digital technology; you won't find mention of Lucas of Coppola or such-and-such a second-tier sci-fi writer in too many histories of the computer business. As people in many fields did, Coppola and Lucas consulted a bit, then pounced when the computer biz got the technology got to the point where they started to find it plausibly useful.

Which I guess is why I'm a bit confused by what you're saying. You seem to have a rather elaborate theory about how the breakup of the studio system led (inevitably?) to the kinds of electronic-media entertainment values that are being sold in many of today's blockbusters. I guess I can imagine some point in that argument, though it offhand strikes me as a bit of a stretch. I mean, yeah, sure: but how interesting is it to say that the American Revolution led to my freedom to eat my favorite breakfast cereal this morning? A line can certainly be drawn, but what point is being made? But I'm almost certainly not grasping your point here, and would be interested in seeing you elaborate this argument.

Incidentally, you'll never catch me saying that electronic tools in any way "determine" entertainment values. Tools dictate nothing; people choose how to use them. At the same time, it would be absurd not to recognize that the introduction of new tools often has an impact on what gets produced, and how it gets produced. They make some things possible that weren't possible before. Why not take note of this?

What we have on the screen today is what the movie business has seen fit to do with digital technology. Out of the thousands of things movie people might be doing with digital technology, this, bizarrely enough, is what they've chosen to do. Fun, at least for me, to take a few snapshots of this, and to try to make a little sense of it in terms of what I know of movie history, as well as of current technological and financial practices.

Care to connect a few more of the dots between the breakdown of the studio system and "The Matrix Reloaded"? And to try explaining again what it is that irks you in my view of the current movie scene?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 27, 2003 12:02 AM


I guess I just find your views suspiciously like those of those earlier Blowhards who bemoaned the advent of talking pictures and who argued that sound degraded the "traditional values" of the films of Griffith, Chaplin, or Murnau. Hollywood gets sound and what does it do? Out of the thousand things it could have done, it chooses to make a bunch of silly musicals and melodramas, instead of exploring the possibilities of the new technology opened up by someone like Rene Clair. But, by this logic, almost any technological advance moves away from traditional values. Take Cinemascope, for example, which emphasizes landscape and spectacle over "the human experience." Out of everything filmmakers could have chosen to do with this, they make big westerns and Biblical epics!

I believe the opposite to be true: that these new technologies have allowed movies to be more like movies than ever before. Melies tried to make what was on the screen as close to what he imagined as he could, given the technology he had to work with. The drive to develop better technology, to better render what the filmmaker imagines, is implicit in Melies' movies. Likewise, I would argue that the drive to project imagined images precedes the development of film technology itself.

I don't think my theory is that elaborate, but I'll try to clarify. You're arguing that movies today no longer have "traditional movie values." I'm not saying that the break-up of the studio system inevitably led to anything, just that without the kind of stability the studio system provided movies would inevitably shift away from these traditional values. As much as I admire the craft of the movies made under the studio system, I don't think this shift is necessarily a bad thing: sure, the loss of "traditional movie values" gives us crap like Petulia, but it also gives us Nashville. Today, we get stinkers like Daredevil, but we also get Mission to Mars--and The Matrix: Reloaded. (Admittedly, my idea of "traditional movie values" has more to do with crafting a coherent, spatially-integrated narrative, than it does with "story and character," which I don't think have ever been that important in film).

To return to Melies, for a second: his movies value, above all else, illusion and spectacle. Doesn't a film like The Matrix: Reloaded embody these "traditonal movie values" far more than something like The Godfather, whose values are closer to those of the traditional, 19th Century novel? You seem to be inducing a set of "traditional movie values" from the movies you like, and, in the process, essentializing yourself into a dead end.

Posted by: J.W. on May 27, 2003 8:27 AM

Ah, it seems to boil down to you like what's becoming of big-budget action movies and I don't. Fair enough, and I'm eager to read you on the virtues of the new computer-enhanced (if not computer-generated) spectacles. They're certainly nothing I can get excited about, let alone be eloquent about, not that this should matter to the world.

As for the movie-history end of the conversation, we may end up disagreeing here too, but at least we're taking note of the same things. I'd argue that the move into cyberville is much more than just one new enhancement, like sound or color. I'd argue that it's changing the very nature of the medium, which used to be based on traditional photography -- ie., what you photographed was what you were stuck working with. Bazin's discussions are all about this. These days, the computer makes the image itself -- let alone all the other aspects of film production -- manipulable. For the first time you can reach into the image or the scene and move it around.

That's quite a change. I'd also argue that traditional film language evolved out of a variety of factors, one of which was the photographic (ie., unyielding) nature of the image. Now that basic equation has changed, movie language itself is being left behind, and we're being propelled into some new sphere where the building blocks have rather little to do with movie history and quite a lot to do with videogames and TV ads.

You're obviously perfectly free to argue that this is simply the latest direction movies are going in, and you'd obviously be right to say that. Nonetheless, some major something is in the process of happening, and why not take note of it? If it strikes me as a drag, and you as exciting -- well, heck, you're younger. It strikes me as a deep and fundamental change in the nature of the medium. It seems to strike you as something somewhat less. Fair enough.

I wonder if we're bumping into some confusion over the word "values" though. I'm not discussing moral values, I'm doing my sad best to discuss entertainment values -- ie., the question, What's being sold here? And yes, obviously, "The Matrix Reloaded" is selling spectacle, and yes, spectacle has a long tradition in movie history. But two things -- one is that computer spectacle is of a different nature than Melies spectacle (where part of what we enjoy is the shabby cleverness of it), or "Lawrence of Arabia" spectacle (where part of what we enjoy is knowing that all these people really did assemble in that desert). Watching a computer spectacle, you don't really know much of anything -- it might have happened, or maybe you're just watching a blizzard of expensive pixels. That puts you in a very different state of mind. You look at that cave-religious-service-orgy scene in "Reloaded" and it doesn't create in you the same feeing as the burning of Atlanta scene in "Gone With the Wind." You just don't know what you're watching. (Which is fine, but let's also take note of the difference.)

It also seems to me obvious that what's primarily being sold is impact -- the whack/shazamm/wowee/twinkle. I'd go so far as to say that "impact" is what movies like "Reloaded" are all about. Over and over again the movie is doing its best to startle you, thwack you around, blind you -- ie., graphics, dazzle and Dolby. That's what I mean by electronic media values. Even the mindfuck, loopy-loop story construction has more to do with videogames than it does with traditional movie writing. Yes, it's a 2 hour narrative with some closeups that you watch at a theater, so let's call it a movie. But -- and happy to admit that this is arguable -- it seems to exist in some new sphere, and quite independent of movie history.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 27, 2003 10:01 AM

Years ago, Pauline Kael criticized a Barbra Streisand musical for the "big numbers" because she said they seemed calculated to "make the audience yell without feeling a thing."

Sounds like that's Michael's criticism of "Matrix Reloaded" and its special effects.

Posted by: annette on May 27, 2003 12:50 PM

I kinda liked it. I did get tired of the swat-fu, as I am not a fan of it. The fight in the stairwell is more gratuitous than Jane Fonda's plastic space-suit in "Barbarella". The sex scene skated along the cheeseball porn barrier, especially the music. We cut from stylized shots of bodies writhing in dance to rather straight-on shots of the pre-orgasmic faces, which was jarring. Why didn't they shoot the sex in the same stylized style they shot the inter-cut scenes with? It was like Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt in "Fight Club") had edited random porn into an otherwise well-done sequence. Outside of that, it was fun. Three and a half breasts (in the dance scenes), swat-fu, computer-fu, motorcycle-fu, heads roll, gratuitous use of rubber costumes, enforced voyeur kissing. Joe Yahmdallah Bob says check it out.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on May 27, 2003 4:39 PM

Lisa Germano has been quoted as saying her music isn't for people ... it's for a person. She says she's trying to create a closed personal space with her music. I recently saw the film "Rain" on DVD and it features a good deal of her music ... the film, like the soundtrack, is a private conversation about a New Zealand family disintegrating. Beautiful, still, and personal.

Lisa's words made me realize I only go to the theater these days to see the spectacle films ... like a modern colosseum event ... and Reloaded does not disappoint to this end (in fact, it goes well beyond anything I've ever seen on film before). However, it is a "people" movie ... I'd compare to a football game. The audience I was with was even applauding and screaming like it was a sports event. Some people were busy trying to shush the roaring members of the audience ... "didn't they know what film was? These barbarians!" ... actually, I don't think the polite knew what this film was. An event. The geek superbowl. I was cheering right along with them.

The personal conversation pieces of film arrive to me in the form of DVD. They are well suited for this ... and I wouldn't want to see them with a crowd, anyway. Likewise, I wouldn't much care to see Lisa in concert, but her haunting music is usually close at hand when it's dark and nobody else is awake in the house. Meanwhile, in the day, I'm fine with my wife letting the radio blast "I'm a Slave" by Britney Spears. The kids rock out, the house is alive, and we have a blast.

So, I will watch X-men at the theater this weekend while checking out "In the Bedroom" for later. Sometimes the meal follows desert in our culture.


Posted by: pinky on May 28, 2003 12:20 PM

Hey Pinky, Fascinating, and what a great topic you raise -- the way the new tech seems for many people to split moviegoing possibilities into two -- the big spectacle films it may be worth going to a theater to see, and the more personal pix it may make more sense to wait for the DVD of.

I got a vivid sense of that a year or two ago when I saw "U-571" in a theater and then on DVD just a few months later. In the theater I found it freakily terrific -- the industrial scale of it, the pinging Dolby sound, the deliberate pacing: a fab, quasi-'40s-melodrama experience. On DVD, even with a decent TV with decent sound, it came across as pretty good. Fine, OK, solid, but a little slow and not nearly as intense. Rent it and enjoy, but it was a lot better watched in the cineplex.

("U-571," come to think of it, strikes me as a fine example of a film that put the new tech to work in the service of traditional dramatic-entertainment, rather than the new electronic-media, values.)

My appetite for spectacle is pretty limited -- I'm curious and willing, but enough's enough pretty quickly. Which may be why as a moviewatcher I'm often happier at home these days with the Wife and DVD player.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 28, 2003 12:30 PM

It doesn't surprise me that after a wave of new technology into an art form, there's disproportionate emphasis on showing off the new technology in work that is flashy rather than good. One could probably find parallel events in architecture, music, painting, fashion, and cookery.

Let's wait a few years, till the creators have had time to play with the new technologies and are no longer infatuated by them. By 2010 or so, there will be film works of utter genius coming out that will use these technologies from start to finish.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on May 28, 2003 3:02 PM

Interesting story about your experience with U-571 ... now you've highlighted another rental on my list to check out.

Regarding your last sentence: Yes, curled up with the wife ... at home ... with the dvd player ... is sometimes the best movie going experience around. This may be the primary benefit of marriage = a cheap date you're comfortable sharing popcorn with (and whatever else that follows).

It might also be worth noting ... the ratio of DVD to movie theater expeditions is about 20 to 1 in favor of DVDs, in my house. This futhers the gap between the "event" movie going experience and the personal touch of DVDs. By association I'm going to see something that contrasts my home viewing.

Posted by: pinky on May 28, 2003 4:37 PM

Hey Rick, Excellent point and I'll bet that you're right. It always seems to take a while for filmmakers to get used to new technologies and to figure out how to incorporate them back into filmmaking, so to speak. Sound, color, widescreen, small cameras, etc.

I'd add only one small hunch or thought, which is that with digital tech I wouldn't be surprised to see the nature of movies change. Sound and color were really additions to the same template, and most of what happened as filmmakers got used to them was that they were incorporated back into the usual 90-minute dramatic narratives. Digital tech may be a little something more to digest (such is my best, anyway). Because of the way digital tech turns everything into little infopackets, I wouldn't be surprised to see all kinds of weird things happening: tiny short webcasts, variations on reality programming, Flash experiments -- hey, we're seeing most of this already... What's the business term: "disaggregating"? The studio business will incorporate the tech into what they're selling (or adapt what they're selling to the tech). But other people will take the opposite approach, and go with a more lowdown, cheaper, blow-it-to-smithereens approach. I get rather more excited (from an artistic point of view, believe it or not) by those porn web pages that offer up five or six video clips than I do by "Matrix Reloaded," because they (without meaning to, but what the heck) ask the question, Why does a movie have to be a linear, once-it-starts-it-doesn't-stop thing? Why can't a "movie" be a web collection of clips, there to be gone through as the surfer sees fit?

So I wouldn't guess that the only result once the dust settles (if it ever does) will be conventional movies, digitally enhanced. I think it'll be a much broader panorama of things we think of as movies, only some of which will be 90 minute dramatic narratives.

What's your bet on this?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 28, 2003 6:46 PM


You asked about "Blue Car". I saw it at midnight at Harvard Square last weekend and am still figuring out how I feel about it. The film has more emotional honesty than even most indie films. Further, the actors who play out the darkening relationship between beaten-down-by-life English teacher and young and troubled poetess are first rate. I mean they'll make your skin crawl.
Yet, it's a bit over the top too. It shows a kind of worst case emotional scenario of abuse of trust, and follows up with a great and just revenge scene. I'd definately recommend this to a younger audience as it shows a side of sex and relationships that's harsher and more real than what they usually get to see in American Pie. But, for the grown ups it's a well done movie but missable and will work equally fine as DVD material.

As for the Matrix:Reloaded. I've been known to stand behind someone at a video arcade for 30 minutes watching them. On that basis, I enjoyed the movie. I also loved the diction of the Architect after sitting through all those George W Iraq speeches.

One philosophical point: does the fact that Reeves "The One" waved his hand and stopped a ship while in *reality* at the end of the movie mean that that *too* is a matrix? It seems the only plausible explanation for this power.

Otherwise, I'm agreed that the tone and the sense of mystery are diminished in this movie.

Posted by: Robert Holzbach on May 29, 2003 1:27 PM

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