(What the hell is this about? See here for introduction. It assumes you’ve seen The Matrix and have read The Invisibles.)
“…I’m just sitting there watching The Matrix. And of course, it was like ‘Holy Shit! This is the exact same story!‘. It even looked the same. ‘They’re wearing the same clothes that I’m currently sitting, watching this thing, wearing.’ It was really weird but the first thing I remember about it was just how much I loved it, and thought, What a great movie.
…And then, kind of two days later, I was thinking, Fucking bastards! They got really rich doing my stuff! And then a little bit after that, I thought, This is what you wanted. This is the whole idea of doing The Invisibles as a hypersigil, so this would catch on and kind of weird gnostic ideas would get out into the general population and make them think different. So I thought, well, The Matrix has kind of opened people up to these ideas. And after that, I realised it opened people up to these ideas and they didn’t care. Y’know, it didn’t change anything. It didn’t create a world of Gnostic superheroes yet.”
-Grant Morrison, interview in Patrick Meaney’s, “Our Sentence Is Up“, p.351
A black screen. Sweeping music. Columns of falling green characters you can’t understand. Urgent voices.
A beautiful woman in tight black vinyl. A police raid. She turns, jumps… floats in the air, runs up walls. Cops downed in seconds.
Something is after her. Something even she fears. She runs.
Remember when The Matrix was cool?
Before the hyperreal religion of Matrixism, the pop-philosophy tomes, the disillusionment of the two awful sequels, the weak computer games, the thinly-populated MMORPG, the bullet-time tricks used in every ad and cheap spoof that came down the pipe… remember how great it was to have a hugely popular movie that pretty much everyone had seen and most of ’em had liked, that gave you a way in to talking about Gnosticism and perception and postmodern reality and awesome kung-fu flicks and anime to anyone?
Didn’t last long, did it?
But while it lasted, it was a powerful thing.
Of all the films I’m looking at from the Blank Badge perspective, The Matrix is undoubtedly the most popular and accessible – and, since it also drew a lot of its ideas directly from The Invisibles (and of course many other sources, from Lewis Carroll to Akira to Baudrillard), it makes sense to talk about it first.
The single key insight brought by all the films in this cluster is, let’s not forget, Your Reality Isn’t Real. It’s a lesson which is introduced to the unfeasible pretty and ridiculously over-paid hacker Thomas A. Anderson very quickly.
(Seriously, what the hell kind of software was he selling to moody SM clubbers at two grand a pop anyway? According to this early script draft, it’s a hack to remove the clubber’s parking violations from police records, in order to get the boot taken off his car. Radical, yes?)
It doesn’t take long for the lesson to hit home. In less than a day, he meets a representative of an infamous international terrorist, is hauled in by the Feds, has his mouth removed by a magic spell, wakes up at home with his mouth back on, meets up with and is given an unidentified drug by that same terrorist leader… and wakes up again (for the first real time in his life) in Biomechanical Hell.
Anderson hasn’t ‘fallen down the Rabbit Hole’ – he’s been dragged into Chapel Perilous.
The Chapel Perilous is a term drawn from Arthurian myth and refined by Robert Anton Wilson. It refers to the stage in a hero/shaman’s development where they are dropped into a terrifying world of paranoia, threats and horror, forced to face and overcome every single thing they fear. Shame, humiliation, failure, pain, loss… death. At the end of this travail, they emerge changed, enhanced – superhuman. But it costs.
And the worst thing about the Chapel? You never really know if you’ve actually left it.
On one level, Anderson chose to go there – he’s been pursuing Morpheus for some time, seeking the answer to what Trinity calls “the question that drives us” – What Is The Matrix? But, like in all true initiations, he has no idea just what he’s let himself in for.
The Wachowski brothers (one of whom is a sister now, which is in keeping nicely with the dualistic transformations key to this tale) are not terribly subtle when it comes to making their point. A list of Matrix quotes can read like an anthology of Newage homilies:
“You’ve been living in a dream world.”
“Everybody falls the first time.”
“I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it.”
“There’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.”
Morpheus even bluntly asks Neo, “What is ‘real’? How do you define ‘real’?”
…but that’s OK, as far as it goes. Because though the tale is unsubtle, it is so beautifully, energetically told. Between the (then) ground-breaking SFX, the design, Bill Pope’s cinematography and the stirring Don Davis score interspersed with smartly-chosen electronica, the whole thing looks and sounds So. Damn. Cool.
It pulls the wool over our eyes to a great degree – but at least it’s the finest Kashmir.
That coolness is half of the problem. The Matrix – as opposed to the Desert Of The Real which Anderson is forcibly awakened into – is so fucking cool, it hurts. In the Matrix, you dress exquisitely, you can kick all sorts of ass, you can even fly.
In the Real, all you get is grey knitwear, killer robots and lumpy porridge.
But at least the lumpy porridge is educational. I’m still strongly of the opinion that the single most important speech in the whole trilogy is this bit from the short-lived digital pimp Mouse:
Mouse: Do you know what it really reminds me of? Tasty Wheat. Did you ever eat Tasty Wheat?
Mouse: That’s exactly my point. Exactly! Because you have to wonder: how do the machines know what Tasty Wheat tasted like? Maybe they got it wrong. Maybe what I think Tasty Wheat tasted like actually tasted like oatmeal, or tuna fish. That makes you wonder about a lot of things. You take chicken, for example: maybe they couldn’t figure out what to make chicken taste like, which is why chicken tastes like everything!
(And let us not forget just who/what Mouse is pimping – an exquisite, perfectly controllable sex slave dressed all in red – a Scarlet Woman.)
Even with that reminder of the subjective flexibility of the Real, Anderson/Neo is still swept along. And, frankly, who can blame him? As Chapel Perilous experiences go, there’s far worse. At least in this one, you can shoot a bunch of people with an endless supply of guns, guns, guns! Unlike King Mob, his most obvious inspiration from The Invisibles, Neo never does “question the moral fucking justification” of his actions. He just kills. (I would’ve loved to see the death of one of the lobby guards cut to his naked, wet body thrashing in his pod as his never-used eyes open for the first, last time… a Matrix version of Best Man Fall.)
The awful dualism of it all… the battlefield of the Matrix is explicitly Us vs Them, where any member of Not-Us, every potential rescue from that awful negation of Self, has to be killed in case they suddenly become a demon (for what else are the Agents but – ahem – software daemons?). No negotiation (until the weak, out-of-nowhere détente at the end of Matrix Revolutions). No compromise, no compassion. And if there’s one thing I think is vital for surviving the Chapel Perilous, it’s compassion.
That dualism is one of the many ways the film is a lesser version of key ideas in The Invisibles. I’m not going to go on about the considerable evidence that much of The Matrix was taken directly fromThe Invisibles – as Morrison himself notes in the quote at the top, it doesn’t much matter at this point. What does matter is that The Invisibles is pretty much telling the opposite story from The Matrix – that the dualistic good-vs-evil game is only one possibility, the ending has to be a dynamic balance not a static one, that the Real Game is to arrange things so that “everyone gets to win, even the bad guys” – that everyone wakes up and “gets to believe… what they want to believe”. Maybe the Blue Pill would have been a better decision… Maybe instead of all those dualistic choices – in or out the office window, Red or Blue Pill, Smith’s declaration that “one of these lives has a future, the other does not“, Switch’s “Our way or the highway” – it would have perhaps been better to emphasise a (ahem) trinity.
Otherwise, The Matrix as a manual for surviving the realisation of Your Reality Isn’t Real, of getting in and out of the Chapel intact, is effective… if pretty damn blunt. Morpheus gives simple instructions:
“You have to let it all go, Neo. Fear, doubt, and disbelief. Free your mind.”
…and that bald Zen brat, the Spoon Boy, makes it even clearer. Everyone remembers “There is no spoon” – few recall the whole exchange:
Spoon Boy: Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead… only try to realize the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Spoon Boy: There is no spoon.
Neo: There is no spoon?
Spoon Boy: Then you’ll see, that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.
That ability to bend oneself, to flex and alter one’s own perceptions and assumptions, is a skeleton key for your mind. For all its’ faults, The Matrix provides a reasonably robust version of that key.
The one other thing you absolutely need to survive the Chapel is love. The Oracle, as bluntly as every other message in the film, says, “Being the One is just like being in love…” Love which, in this case, can literally bring back the dead. At the end of the film, Neo is, in both the Matrix and the Real, unquestionably, bloodily dead… until his beloved Trinity revives him with a kiss, a kiss which not only restores his life but brings a higher level of enlightenment.
But it’s a limited, rather shoddy kind of enlightenment. Seeing the full answer to What Is The Matrix? is really just a way of perceiving the bars of your cage more clearly – even if you can fly around inside your cell. His bold promise over the telephone at the end is never fulfilled. He doesn’t free the people from the Matrix at all. And, by the end, his beloved and he are just as dead.
But at least there are some useful truths, additions to the toolbox of the Tribe of the Strange, along the way.
By the end of the Matrix trilogy, there’s one big question that’s just left hanging:
What if the Real World, the world of Zion and the Tesla hovercraft and the giant-machine-gun-
Around the same time The Matrix was released, another SF film came out which specifically looked at this question of nested realities. It was barely noticed, considered a flop… but it’s more than earned its status as a far deeper exploration of the idea that Your Reality Isn’t Real.
Join me next time as I head up to… The Thirteenth Floor.