November 29, 2000

Outside The Matrix

The Matrix This is not so much about places as it is about places in film, on video, TV, in photographs, print, books and magazines. It is about the vast difference between the places in which we live, can live and do live, and the places, sometimes the same places, that are represented to us in Hollywood mass media.

The difference is self-evident, if not immediately explainable, if you look up and around you right now, this moment, and compare the place you are in to every place you can recall from the incessant flow of media images and descriptions that make up nearly all the reality we carry in our heads. I'm betting you see and feel something akin to what I do, a strange sense of halting, a peculiar calm and clarity regardless the emotions and thoughts that coincidentally preoccupy you, and a fluttering away into nothingness of everything that a moment before seemed so defining of who, what and where you are. The real that was last night's evening news, a sitcom, a prime-time hospital or law office filled with then all-so-intense human drama, slips way, vanishes like it had never been there, not even the tangible thinness of a piece of paper left to feel between your fingers. Look around you long enough and maybe you wonder as I do, what is this cage that I've been carrying in and around my head? And how seldom have I been outside it!

This difference is not just a matter of full dimensional, multi-sensory reality compared to some inherent poverty of representations, of pictures and words that, of course, cannot really represent the real thing. You can open a photo album of pictures from your life and experience the same vast difference in recalling all that is daily forced upon us by commercial media.

The difference is systematic and, although not created by central committee, it has a design and a purpose, which is to keep us "headed"-in more than one sense--someplace other than where we are or might be going, to keep us headed toward the mythical noplace where every problem can be solved by one final, right purchase at the right price, by repeating therapeutic phrases from books and TV to friends and enemies, bosses and loved ones, by leaving "big" political issues to others because politics is hopeless complex, hopelessly corrupt, and in so many other ways hopelessly beyond reasonable reach. The difference keeps us separate from the places where we are and, therefore, separate from each other, except in ways it regulates, informing us endlessly who we are, individually and in aggregate, and how we are to interact or not interact.

The difference is and is the product of "The Matrix." Like all genuine science fiction, the film The Matrix is, at bottom, not about some horrifying possible future in which machines rule the world but an allegory of the present in which mere mortals much like ourselves do. And however much The Matrix, because it is part of the present matrix that governs and adjusts our lives to the purposes of others, bumbles into passive fantasies of salvation by "the One," the Buddha, the Christ, the voodoo lotha, the single superman or supernerd who inexplicably arrives with the innate ability to play the game better than the game makers themselves, it necessarily reveals a fragment of the truth, that fragment which is necessary to move us to enthusiasm for its fiction: that already we are living and dying in The Matrix.

But how do we wake up? How do we unplug? How do we recover our real selves and the real places in which we live, when no conspiratorial strangers are to arrive after long watching and studying us to leave cryptic personal messages on our terminals; or phone us in the middle of our sleep, in bed or in our wage-slave cubicles, with sudden life and death instructions; or kidnap us from deserted, rain-swept streets and forcibly deprogram us with drug and futuristic electro-shock treatments? And it seems to require that much, because the problem, which the film The Matrix also truthfully touches upon, is that we like The Matrix, or have been raised and taught to like it as if there were nothing else. The Matrix is good, better, the best of everything we can imagine or even want to imagine.

I suspect we never wake up until we first reconsider carefully what we "like": why do we like it? what don't we like? what else do we like? and, in sum, what have we become like in becoming people who like it? This applies especially to media we consume, to our sense of entertainment and enjoyment.

Take, for example, the streaming videos on this site. The sound is awful. The pictures are blurry. The camera jiggles and focuses frequently without purpose. There's no plot, no story, no purpose, no heroes, no villains, no violence, no nudity, no readily discernable meaning, no eye-candy. They're terrible. Yet these days I've become more at ease with myself watching them and whatever other "amateur" productions like them that I can find on the web, than I am paying for the latest Hollywood fodder at theaters or on video and DVD. They have something of the same appeal that draws audiences to such "reality" shows as COPS, RealTV, America's Funniest Home Videos, and the endlessly spawning infotainment video-magazine shows serving up much the same raw camcorder footage.

In contrast to perfectly shot, cut and re-mastered Hollywood productions, these shows and the videos on this site have in common that they represent not only people but places differently. For in them it is evident, as is not the case even with on-the-scene newscasts, that here is a place in which both camera operator and camera subject were actually situated, a specific place at a specific juncture in time. The place is real. It exists in the same world and same flow of time, the same point in history, as you do. You could go there and see and experience much the same thing, because it is the place, not a scenario-writer, director, editor, that dictated what could be shown, moment by moment, in the footage you watched. This is not to say that COPS and RealTV segments are not carefully selected and edited, that there isn't an agenda in what is being aired, any more than it is to say that selection, editing, and agenda are missing from the videos on this site. It's just that their common reality effect is different, fundamentally different than the reality illusions of polished Hollywood productions, including commercials, and the millions of dollars required to produce them.

Of course, COPS and RealTV are just as much a part and product of The Matrix as Hollywood productions such as The Matrix. They serve the common purpose of keeping us "headed" no place. So called reality TV accomplishes this by allowing us to glimpse real places and real people that lie outside the Hollywood matrix, but only in their most nightmarish, fearful, freak-show aspect. Reality TV represents us, flawed people that we are, only so that we might more firmly turn away toward the perfect Good and Bad served up elsewhere by the same mass media industry. We do indeed get to see ourselves and our places--our neighbors, our families, our strangers; our neighborhoods, our homes, our streets--but only as dark, chaotic places through which cops crash, guns drawn, police dogs barking, toward disheveled perpetrators befuddled with drugs, alcohol or sleep, or as utterly insipid places in which someone much like ourselves is about to do something incredibly stupid and degrading. We are invited by such shows to fear, hate, and laugh at ourselves, nothing more, nothing less. It is made attractive, exciting, with the host's or narrator's calm, neutered voice assuring us that we are safe, sufficiently distant from ourselves to feel the fear, the hatred, the laughter. And what a sense of overwhelming relief it is, afterwards, to switch the channel and settle into the comparatively stabile and meaningful lives of even the most distressed sitcom or primetime drama characters. Maybe we should buy something after all....

No conspiratorial strangers will leave messages on our terminals, phone us with instructions, or kidnap and deprogram us from the streets, but perhaps we could take at least a small step toward waking each other up by filling the net with our own images of ourselves and our places. For surely we have more to show to each other than our naked bodies--the "real" images that currently dominate the web. And surely we don't need to surf the web to find more of what we can readily find just by turning on the tube, going to the movie theater, or down to the local rental superchain. Life will not be complete because now we have a TV tuner in our PC, because now we can pipe the same Hollywood sounds and images back and forth between tube and monitor, DVD, VCR, stereo, RAM, and hard disk.

We cannot hope to play the game of making movies better than our Hollywood masters, the game makers themselves, but we just might be able to find it in ourselves to "like" ourselves, to develop a taste for those realities we can live and represent to each other. And perhaps if we can do that, if enough of us can do that and do it for long enough, The Matrix that now surrounds us might at least start to flutter its way off into the nothingness it really is.

Posted by Raoul

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