THE ‘YOUR REALITY ISN’T REAL’ BOOM OF 1999
“I see this weird stuff every time I watch a movie…”
Ever had that thing where a fictional character describes something about how they see the world, something most people consider strange or unusual, and they say it so aptly that you could have been saying that line yourself?
That’s exactly what happened when I read the above lines from the character Mason Lang, in Grant Morrison’s apocalyptic game-changer of a comic book The Invisibles. Because I’ve had that same problem for years.
OK – not every movie… But often enough, films affect me in a deep and profound way, in what seems to me the exact way people describe being moved by an encounter with some form of Gnosis, some spiritual input – and the insights I gleaned in the process seem to have been useful when applied to my own rather odd approach to magic and other practical spiritual endeavours.
I’ve talked a bit before about The Tribe of the Strange – my semi-mythical bunch of people born randomly into each generation whose worldview and experience differs so profoundly from the status quo that they effectively have to build their minds’ own user manual from whatever they can scrounge, be it from scholarly tomes or pop culture. People who, at an instinctive level, realise that their culture’s world-view is only one of countless possibilities – and try to hack the habits and falsehoods they were raised on, using any tools they can find.
A remarkable number of people I’d class as Tribe of the Strange members have found such tools in popular fiction. In sci-fi, fantasy and horror, in comics and TV shows… and movies.
So when I decided to take a closer look at the films which have became part of my metaphor-toolkit, I thought of Mason Lang as the patron saint of seeing movies in this way. Hence, The Mason Lang Film Club.
For those who haven’t yet read The Invisibles…
Firstly, Go read it.
Second, Mason Lang is basically what Bruce Wayne would have been like if, instead of having his parents killed in front of him when he was seven years old, he’d been abducted by aliens.
Mason’s thesis was this:
“…it means, basically, that some movies are clearly being made by Invisibles and they contain messages for other Invisibles. Invisibles talking to each other in their own secret language… the movies are signals, they let us know that others are out there… “
It’s been my experience that a movie can provide as potent a transformational vehicle as any other artistic medium – and I’m not alone in finding it one that works especially well. Whether it’s something intrinsic in certain works, or just how some of us are neurologically wired, I dunno. Mason’s idea appeals to me in that it’s not every film (despite that slightly misleading quote) that has this profound effect, but that certain films seem heavily tilted to do so.
I don’t necessarily believe that teams of chaos mages have infiltrated Hollywood (though Grant’s making a fair stab at it…) but the idea that maybe some of those directors and writers truly intend their works to be used as consciousness-altering tools, aside from the familiar emotional rush we expect from entertainment, is a handy one for my purpose. Besides, there are plenty of film-makers (Anger, Jodorowsky, etc) who explicitly do this… so maybe there are a few members of the Tribe of the Strange out there, sending us updates through the silver screen, patches for our skills and souls.
And if not, pretending there are can be useful too.
For this first season of The Mason Lang Film Club, I’m going to look at a remarkably potent and influential group of films which all have, in some way, the theme of a protagonist discovering that the reality they have previously never questioned is, simply, unreal. What’s even more odd about this cluster of films is their timing. All were made in 1998-99 by different studios and creators.
Here’s the list of those films. I’ll bet you’ve seen some of them. If you want to play along, go see ‘em:
Dark City (1998)
The Truman Show (1998)
Being John Malkovich (1999)
The Thirteenth Floor (1999)
The Matrix (1999)
(And when I get to Dark City, it’ll be handy if you’ve seen Altered States (1980) too.)
(I’ll happily accept suggestions for other films in this time period that fit the theme – except for Open Your Eyes and its remake Vanilla Sky. Why? Because they’re shit.)
Now a cynic could say, “oh, studios pass ideas around all the time”. Fair point – but it’s not as though all these films are just rehashes of one idea. Outside of that single trope of ‘your reality ISN’T,’ the approaches (from light-hearted romantic comedy to existential horror to kung-fu flick to… well, to Being John Malkovich) and differing angles of attack at that idea cover quite a range.
There’s also a bunch of (at least amusing, possibly instructive) synchronicity going around these films, too – such as The Matrix filming on a lot of Sydney-based sets that were built for Dark City. And the element of synchronicity itself, always a fascinating one, crops up again and again in these films, and those who find themselves obsessed with them and their ilk.
(My approach to these films is influenced by the ‘Synchromystical’ technique taken on such critic / mystic blogs as The Secret Sun and The Stygian Port.)
So, just for fun and to see where it takes us… let’s treat the Mason Lang proposition seriously for a while. Let’s assume certain films – call them Blank Badge Films, after the identifying mark of members of the Invisibles – have messages in them designed to either provide hints for the inquiring mind to follow, or to jolt them entirely out of one reality and into another. If this is so, what does this particular group of films have to say? What does it mean to tell a movie-goer that their consensus reality is (as I’ve said elsewhere) not much of a consensus and not all that real, either?
For a start, as mystical insights go, it’s a good one to discover first. From that single question, a lot of other useful questions and experiments can follow. Not always successful, and certainly not always safe… as this core idea by definition takes you away from the comfort of quotidian reality into a much less certain universe – or, as these films take pains to emphasise, multiverse.
It’s also granting those who make the realisation a great freedom – to doubt the reality they grew up in. Even if we put the definition of Reality aside, it’s clear that whatever culture you were raised in, the language, the religion, the habits and assumptions vary quite drastically from one group to another, even within a seeming homogeneous mass such as ‘people who see Hollywood movies.’ The set of filters every culture provides are a definition of local reality. And their gatekeepers rarely take kindly to those who express doubts about it.
And that’s exactly what these films and I are going to do.
Nice and smooth…
We start with the big one and work backwards. Time to re-enter The Matrix.
(The Invisibles and Mason Lang are created by Grant Morrison and published by Vertigo Comics. No infringement meant, much respect given.)
(Tips, brickbats and propositions to firstname.lastname@example.org)