Zizek, Barthes, and interpreting the Matrix

Yes, I’m still pondering The Matrix Resurrections, even after taking in all the insights that Tripp Fuller, Donna Bowman, and James McGrath offered. Slavoj Žižek wrote a review that I needed my friend Nate Bostain to help me interpret: “A Muddle Instead of a Movie”. Hopefully, Nate will write a blog post I can link, because he had good insights for someone like me who struggles to understand Žižek. Then Wisecrack made a video that looks at the film through Roland Barthes’ “death of the author” that’s worth viewing: “Matrix Resurrections Hates Itself!” So, if you’re still geeking out on the fourth installment of this franchise like I am, I hope this provides you with some enjoyable reading and viewing…even if Žižek’s last paragraph leaves you as confused as I am.


Tripp Fuller, James McGrath, & Donna Bowman explore The Matrix Resurrections

I’ve written about The Matrix Resurrections on this blog twice already: see “Lana Wachowski, The Matrix Resurrections, and our hypocrisy (?)” and “Trinity’s comment to the Analyst in ‘The Matrix Resurrections’ and how the sequels correct the original”. Well, Tripp Fuller’s podcast, Homebrewed Christianity, hosted a discussion of the movie with James McGrath and Donna Bowman in the most recent episode, so of course, I must link to it, especially since I’ve been happy to hear them making the positive connections to the sequels that I see as well. Go take a listen if you’re geeking out about the film as well: “Exploring the Matrix Resurrections!”

Trinity’s comment to the Analyst in “The Matrix Resurrections” and how the sequels correct the original (spoiler alert)

I’ve written about the new film The Matrix Resurrections already (see “Lana Wachowski, The Matrix Resurrections, and our hypocrisy?”). But I’ve been inspired to write more. My friend and former colleague, Nate Bostain, compiled an excellent series of thoughts about/insights into Resurrections: “Resurrecting the Matrix: An Ideological Review”. And while I agree with the bulk of what he wrote, I have one soft- contention. Nate writes about Resurrections, “I loved it almost as much as the first one. It is the true sequel to Matrix 1. Matrix 2 and 3 are largely non-necessary for the story arc (although I love them too in their own peculiar and awkward way).” I must respectfully disagree that The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions are unnecessary. In fact, it was rewatching the whole trilogy that made The Matrix Resurrections the film that it is for me. I don’t think it would’ve had the same impact without Reloaded and Revolutions. Let me see if I can explain my rationale.

While I wouldn’t say that Lana Wachowski has denounced the original film, I do see in the subsequent films a concern being expressed by her and her sister: a concern that people will take the original premise—that of freeing your mind and liberating yourself from the falsehoods of this reality in favor of the real “real”—too seriously. If you google something like “right-wing red pill meme,” you’ll see dozens on articles, including a recent one by Derek Robertson for Politico that attempts to explain how the new film is trying to undo some of the damage of the original: “‘The Matrix Resurrections’ Tries to Un-Red Pill America”. I won’t go down that rabbit hole but do check out some of those articles if this interpretation of the Matrix is new to you.

In Resurrections, Neo is skeptical of this concept of “the real”. He says, “‘Real.’ There’s that word again.” I sense that this is Wachowski talking to us. And this makes many viewers, especially those used to the clean-heroism of the Marvel Universe with its good v. bad binary, uneasy. (Note: that “binary” is a theme in this film, and I don’t think its message is limited to the fluidity of gender.) Bugs, an embodiment of Matrix-fandom, says, “That’s it, isn’t it? If we don’t know what’s real, we can’t resist.” And in Resurrections, the once clear enemy—the machines—aren’t clearly the enemy anymore. As Nate noted, even Agent Smith can have a heroic role now.

This is the great contribution of Reloaded and Revolutions: the sequels took us out of the seat of the hero and implicated us. They humbled anyone who thought they were enlightened, who thought they had escaped Plato’s cave, who thought they achieved special gnosis, and made us recognize that the story may be more complicated. We’re all a part of the Matrix, even Neo. Whether that Matrix is rogue-capitalism, the military-industrial complex, or something else that can be interpreted as dehumanizing, we’re not free from it, even if we criticize it, or fight against it. But that means that if old rivalries between Neo and Agent Smith can become tentative alliances, and if the humans and the machines can find peace, then any of us can be the hero given the context (and any of us can become a villain, I presume). And it means our best path forward might be a bit of epistemological skepticism. The definite non-solution seems to be having a savior complex (unless like Neo in Revolutions there’s some “cruciformity” and self-sacrifice involved.)

There’s a sense in Resurrections that something has gone wrong in the reception history of the Matrix franchise. What went wrong is that the corrective that the sequels attempted has failed—and part of this is because many people, myself included for a time, brushed aside the second and third films because they didn’t shock our brains like the original. People still ooh-and-aah at the “originality” of the first film. During what I found to be a brilliant several minutes of Resurrections, where Neo begins to have an existential crisis as “Matix IV” is being planned, one character says of the original “video game,” i.e. the original film, “What made Matrix different? It F’d with your head!” This is what we missed. I remember, after watching The Matrix for the first time, spending several days in a philosophical spiral trying to understand what “reality” was. This is what many wanted from Resurrections, and they’ve been disappointed. As the now humbled Merovingian says, meta-critiquing the critics by being their frazzled voice: “Art, films, books were all better! Originally mattered!” But the Wachowskis didn’t want the message to end with the original. They didn’t want to just “F” with our brains. They didn’t want us to see ourselves as the Neo of the original film. That’s why they spent two films deconstructing the first and why Resurrections continues this project, even if it irritates much of their fanbase.

These are the reasons why in Reloaded and Revolutions we discover that Neo isn’t “the One,” at least in the sense that the original implied. There’s no outside-the-system messiah to save us. We learn in the sequels that the Matrix had gone through several renditions already, each with “the One,” planned by the Architect as a way of managing an anomaly. Neo is necessary, as “the One,” to keep the system functioning. The system planned for him. And Resurrections even hints that the Matrix gains even more power from his angst and frustration.

We’ve learned from the past three films that the messianism of the original isn’t enlightening at all. Instead, these forms of messianism are fed to us as a way of, paradoxically, maintaining the status quo. When Neo escapes the Matrix in the original it’s just a matter of time until he realizes he’s still under its control and always will be. Likewise, many self-proclaimed messiahs, and even basic fans who see themselves as Neo in some way, are just as much a part of the system that they hope to overthrow.

So, if Wachowski has deconstructed our romantic visions of heroes and enlightenment, where do we go next? Are we being told to just be satisfied with our own individual matrixes because “escape” isn’t really an option? Maybe all we have are the stories we tell ourselves to make us feel better. As Agent Smith says, “That’s the thing about stories. They never really end, do they? We’re still telling the same stories we’ve always told, just with different names, different faces.” I don’t know where this franchise goes from here. I imagine Lana Wachowski would enjoy mic dropping at this point, letting the series end here (though Warner Bros won’t allow that, guaranteed). But if it continues, as it likely will, the ending of Resurrections opened the door for a new and more expansive interpretation, though it comes from a cryptic statement toward the end.

At the end, when Trinity and Neo are talking to the Analyst, something caught my attention. The Analyst says to Trinity and Neo:

“Here’s the thing: the ‘sheeple’ aren’t going anywhere. They like my world. They don’t want this sentimentality. They don’t want freedom or empowerment. They want to be controlled. They crave the comfort of certainty.”

Neo and Trinity respond in a way that shows that they accept this premise but then they tell the Analyst that they’re in the Matrix to “remake your world”. So, they concede that they may not be able to “free” everyone from the Matrix but maybe that isn’t the goal. Maybe the red pill isn’t as important as Morpheus made it to be. Maybe Trinity and Neo will stay in the Matrix themselves, reshaping it. What’s the subtext here? I don’t know. Maybe Lana Wachowski doesn’t know either. But one thing we do know is this: the past three films have partially renounced the first, so if we’re to appreciate the genius of these stories we must accept that the first film got us in the door to hear the message that the Wachowskis really wanted to deliver—a message you can’t understand without the sequels.

Lana Wachowski, The Matrix Resurrections, and our hypocrisy (?)

Image source: Just Jared

I respect what Lana Wachowski did with The Matrix Resurrections. She has reminded us that almost every story we tell ourselves (in this era of film) that is about being liberated, bringing change, and envisioning a new world are funded by the people with the money and the power, like Warner Bros. The tools we use to communicate and critique culture are made available to us by Meta, Twitter, Apple, and Google. There’s a tension here.

For this reason, San Francisco was the perfect setting (note that Mayor London Breed, who just announced she’ll be using more police force in San Francisco, cameoed as liberator!). A bastion of progressive politics, a city hated by the right-wing, is not really liberating. It’s just as dominated by power and money as anywhere in the world. It’s just as exploitive of the poor as anywhere. It’s just as much a police state as any other city. We may hear more hopeful, tolerant, kind stories from that part of the world—maybe via Netflix!—but again, ultimately, the stories we’re telling are brought to us by people, institutions, and corporations who must not fear that they’ll cause any real shifts in the status quo, because they’re the status quo. And we’re the status quo.

Am I saying this as if enlightened? No. I typed it on my iPhone. Is my interpretation of Wachowski requesting that we accept Biden-style—no, Pelosi-style—incrementalism? Not really. But I do think this film can be harsh because it undermines our messianism and self-identity. It reminds us that maybe the Matrix is more like a Matryoshka Doll than Plato’s cave. And it argues that we don’t really want revolution because revolution and social overhaul usually come only through violence, through war. As Niobe says to Neo: the only thing as loud as the noise of the Matrix is war. And nobody wants that. So, I’m looking forward to the fifth movie and I’ll probably give Sony, or Disney, or whoever my money when I go watch the new Spider-Man soon.

Students reviewing The Prince of Egypt

Last night I had my students watch the 1998 DreamWorks’ animation The Prince of Egypt. I asked them to ‘review’ this film pretending to be a YouTube star who is known for their movie reviews. (In other words, they recorded their review.) While not every student got into character as I’d hope, their reviews were insightful.

I asked them to answer these questions:

  1. What’s your name?
  2. What’s your opinion on ‘cartooning’ the Bible? Do you like learning Bible stories this way? If so, why? If not, why not?
  3. Do you think that this format takes away from the ‘seriousness’ of the story? Does it soften the harsh parts (e.g., the plagues) too much? (Make sure to explain your answer!)
  4. How does a cartoon version of a Bible story impact your emotional engagement with the story? (For example, does the music and dancing impact you differently than if you just read the story?)

I’m grading their reviews now and they’re fascinating. Most have enjoyed the cartooning of the Bible. Most felt that it took away from the seriousness of the Exodus a little bit but they would comment on how this was appropriate for a younger audience. (For context, we did go over the Exodus in ‘class’ [our Google Meet] earlier in the day, including the plagues on Egypt.) As regards the emotions associated with the singing and dancing characters, most seemed to have enjoyed it, even though they’d qualify they realize it’s for a younger audience. Frequently, I heard that this was a good way to teach the Bible to children.

While the diversity of responses has been interesting, what I found fascinating were these two responses:

  1. I heard a couple of students reflect on how they appreciated the way cartooning softened the violence of the Bible. They’re definitely realizing the Bible has a lot of violence, including divine violence. They’ve watched the 2014 film Noah, which is gritty and dark. They have watched and are watching episodes from The History Channel’s ‘The Bible’ miniseries, which does have some bloodshed. And we’ve read stories from the Bible that contain violence.
  2. Students who are completely new to the Bible seemed to like the cartooning. It made it easier to understand. One student reflected on the complexity of the Bible and how difficult it can be to understand these texts when you’re new to them.

Now, some students preferred Noah or reading the texts themselves. They appreciated the grit and realness of these stories. In other words, they wanted to seriousness of the Exodus and they didn’t care for how a cartoon could soften things like the plagues and the death of the firstborns.