19 May 2003

Matrix: Reloaded, directed by the Wachowski Brothers

Many people do not seem to have liked the start of Matrix: Reloaded, which does take some time to get going.  I’ve heard comments about the messianic-depiction of Neo at the start, and that the film is too much “Neo Christ Superstar”.  Not fair, in my view.  The film starts with his dream about Trinity dying, which lends a more fatalistic tone to everything which follows.  He seems burdened by his responsibility when he arrives home to find people seeking his help.  And it isn’t Neo who gives an uplifting speech to the people of Zion, it is Morpheus.  And the people seem to revere (worship?) Morpheus just as much.  As for the speech, it was pleasantly surprising.  After the drum-banging of The Two Towers (which Peter Jackson admittedly tries to tone down), the simple realism of Morpheus’ was like a breath of fresh air.  There was none of the glory-of-those-about-to-die about the speech, the main sentiment being that, although they had been at war with the machines for a century, they still hadn’t been defeated: they would survive as they always had. Give me that over the “we shall die in such a way as will be worthy of a song” rubbish of The Lord Of The Rings any day.

More important is the way in which the film resembles that of Peter Jackson.  Both films seem to be in the process of re-inventing what it means to write a sequel. The Empire Strikes Back, in which the good guys lose and the hero loses his hand in a fight, had an attempt at this in the early 1980’s, but no-one seemed to take up the gauntlet until recently (Terminator 2 almost did).  Both films treat the audience with some respect by implicitly saying, we know you’ve seen the first film and you understand what is going on; we’re not going to patronise you with background which you already know.  Neither film has any introductory sequences for the main characters or story.  If you haven’t seen the first film, you won’t have a clue what is going on in the second.  It might sound arrogant, but this is good.  The very nature of a sequel is to sell itself on the back of its predecessor’s success (a series is somewhat different, however).  Why should films with complex story-lines like The Lord Of The Rings or The Matrix recapitulate what took 2 or 3 hours to develop in the first part for the benefit of those who go to watch a second part of a trilogy without watching the first part?  Answer: they shouldn’t.  Nobody who went to see Matrix: Reloaded wanted a simple re-hash of the first film: they wanted a development.  They wanted to see how the story went on, what would happen next, not merely the same story retold with new special effects and different actors, as is all to often the case in sequels.  There is a kind of anti-populism in these films which is a good sign, in my opinion: they are not made for the ignorant fools who went to see The Fellowship Of The Ring and were disappointed that it didn’t have a proper ending.  It is an attitude which says “It’s a trilogy, stupid!” and which I find utterly refreshing.  It is anti-formulaic: repeating the formula is not enough.  It is brave: it risks alienating a section of the audience.  And for Hollywood at least, it is subversive: it shows how well it is possible to do a sequel, which will heighten the contrast with the populist pap that is usually churned out.

Matrix: Reloaded does this without changing the basic story of its predecessor, a common device of sequels (see Highlander 2 for a particularly bad application of this rule: it turns out that they’re aliens!).  The world of both films is the same: nothing had to be tweaked in order to introduce the new story.  The excellent Agent Smith was not replaced by a new and supposedly more dangerous Agent Smith character (who would have made short work of the hero of the last film) but with a re-invented Smith, whose own development is intertwined with Neo’s.  Old allies, such as The Oracle, are recast in a new but consistent light; new foes are introduced who would simply not have been interested in the events of the first film.  And because of the generally familiar cybernetics context, new concepts are able to be introduced which require no justification to the audience: “programs hacking programs” as Neo says at one point regarding the exiled programmes we meet at various stages of the film, or the idea of programmer ‘backdoors’ which require the correct key to be opened.  All this means that Matrix: Reloaded feels like a worthy extension of the original, and if its a little complicated at times, that just leaves you talking about it when you leave the cinema.

I have heard the suggestion that the film is really only commerce, trying to make you watch the third part when it comes out.  If you’ve read everything I’ve written so far, you’ll know that I don’t think that’s true.  Certainly, we have a multi-media bombardment, but that’s been true of much-hyped films for years.  And if the computer game (to take one example) is so well integrated into the story of the film as it is supposed to be then that is raising the stakes of tie-ins.  I have no problem with multi-media capitalism anyway, just with dumb multi-media capitalism.

Another thing that I was pleased wasn’t missing was the humour.  The first Matrix was near-spoof at some points, and the stylish tongue-in-cheek nature of the film was what made it so superior to many other ‘action’ movies.  There is perhaps not as much in the second film, although some of the humour will become apparent after several viewings, I’m sure (like the Morpheus’ explanation that within the Matrix, your physical form is “the mental projection of your digital self” - er, really? Like, I have a digital self?).  But a couple of points stood out.  “He’s doing his Superman thing again” says the new operator Link as he watches Neo flying off into the blue.  And as Neo leaves The Architect and the building explodes behind him we get a old fashioned fist-clenched outstretched-arm flying routine straight out of DC Comics. Übercool.  When Smith leaps on a unsuspecting rebel who cries “Oh, God!”, Smith replies “Smith will suffice.” Or when Neo meets The Architect, who tells him that “the most obvious question is also the most irrelevant”; Neo, not having much in the way of grey matter, asks “Why am I here?”  And to cap it all, when The Architect, who likes the sound of his own voice, pauses for breath, Neo, in a flash of insight observes that “You still haven’t answered my question”; The Architect replies “Quite right. Interesting: you noticed faster than your predecessors” and proceeds to talk about something else entirely.  When Trinity lies dead in his arms, Neo resolves to try and bring her back to life on the basis that “I just love you too damn much”; her first words are “Now we’re even”.  Side splitting it isn’t, but this kind of almost-corny self-awareness saves both films from disappearing up their own behinds, which given the amount of stylised violence and neo-mystical pseudo-science is absolutely crucial.  “There is no spoon” from the original film is still one of my favourite cinematic lines ever.  And even if other people think that the films are true, the saving grace of the films is that they don’t take themselves so seriously.  After all: its a film, stupid!

Matrix: Reloaded - Speculations

Impressed I am.  Saw the film on Friday (well, actually I saw the film twice on Friday).  It is what I had hoped the second film would be and more.  The basic conceptual problem which the Wachowski Brothers would have to deal with in this film was the fact that at the end of the original Matrix , Neo overcomes his archenemy and becomes pretty much invincible.  During the last sequence he even seems able to freeze the Matrix.  So how, with such a powerful lead character, do you write a second and third film?  So far the Wachowskis have succeeded brilliantly.

During the first fight in the film Neo is confronted with three Agents and when they appear clearly faster than before he observes wryly, “Upgrades.”  They don’t last long, however, and its also the last time in the film that Neo will fight Agents.  Much more interesting is that his archenemy has become his nemesis.  No full explanation is given, but good old Agent Smith is back.  Having been destroyed by Neo, he has instead been “set free” and is no longer an Agent of the system.  The suggestion is that “perhaps some code was copied or overwritten”: in other words, when Neo destroyed the original Agent Smith some of the base computer code which comprises everyone in the Matrix was altered and Agent Smith acquired some part of Neo’s uniqueness.  And this uniqueness has transformed into multiplicity: his freedom from the system has given him the ability to overwrite the code of others himself, be they ordinary civilians, rebels or indeed other Agents.  He tries to pull the same trick on Neo, but nothing is ever that simple: Neo, after all, is The One.  But the impression is that, if Smith could defeat Neo and “overwrite his code” he would assimilate much (if not all) of Neo’s power and become an Anti-One.  The net result is that Agent Smith, at this point, is invincible.  We are treated to a fight scene in which increasing numbers of Smiths arrive, eventually numbering a hundred or so.  Echoes of the Hydra myth of Greek mythology, maybe, where when one head is cut off, two grow back to replace it.  In the myth, you had to quickly cauterise the wound with fire before the heads can regenerate; Neo needs some such fire but lacks it at the moment.  In the end he does what Cypher advised in the first film and runs.  We bump into Smith again a couple of times in the film, but if you stayed and watched the credits to the end, you’ll have seen the trailer for the third film and know that Smith is being set up to be the big baddie there (“If you can’t defeat him tonight, tomorrow it will be too late”).

We are also introduced to another group of programmes (?people?) with more autonomy than your average Agent.  We learn that The Oracle of the first film is one such programme, along with her bodyguard ?Seriph? (who seems to play a part in the third film) and a strange character called The Merovingian.  He has kidnapped The Keymaker, who our intrepid heroes need in order to fulfill the prophecy that, when The One reaches the Core (of the computer system), the war will be over.  Thus ensues a great deal of fighting, the good guys eventually winning.

What is interesting here is that, in contrast to the first film where there are simply good guys and bad guys, in the second film there are at least four groups of antagonists: the rebels, the Agents, Smith(s) and independents like The Merovingian.  While some are clearly good and some bad, others are ambiguous and others may simply stand for chaos and fight everyone.  The result is a much more complex set of motivations and relations which does the film no end of good, and I’m sure will be further developed in the third part of the trilogy.

At the end of the film (which was more conclusive than I’d imagined it would be) Neo does reach the Core and meets a perhaps rather too god-like chap called The Architect.  They have an extraordinarily complex conversation which throws more than one spanner in the works.  The story moves to a meta-level, where the rebellion against the machines is actually part of the programme, and has indeed been run five times before.  The One is an integral part of the programme, basically allowing it to be rebooted (which, I take it, is what was meant by “the war will be over”).  As far as I understand it, the idea is this: as Agent Smith said in the original film, the human mind rejected the first Matrix because it was too perfect, and ever since the machines have been updating and refining the programme until it reaches a tolerable level of efficiency.  If The Architect is the father of the Matrix, The Oracle is its Mother: she (the programme) realised that at about 99% of the time the human mind would accept the Matrix if it was given a choice at even a sub-conscious level.  However, the 1% that did not would become increasingly dangerous as their numbers expanded.  So the machines introduced The One, who would be able to lead the rebels onwards with hope, until the reached the point of directly challenging the core of the system, whereupon they would unwittingly reboot the system and restart the whole (now refined process) from the beginning.  Next time, however, only 0.5% would reject the Matrix, then 0.25% and so on.  This is, as I said, the sixth time the programme has been run, which explains why The Oracle knows what will happen in the future: because it already has five times.  It also casts her role in the in the first film in a somewhat different light: she is doing research into all the “potentials” which we see in her flat, such as the boy with the spoon, in order to improve the Matrix programme so that these anomalies do not arise next time.  And don’t forget that Morpheus said that The Oracle freed the first of the rebels; to facilitate the research, it seems.  Hence the entire underground uprising is anticipated and planned by the machines, more or less like keeping a database of software bugs.

At the end of meeting with The Architect, Neo is given a choice: go through the door on the left and save the entire human population (by rebooting the programme), or go through the door on the left and save the life of Trinity (who has just been shot by an Agent).  Love-struck as he is, Neo chooses to save Trinity, but by this stage in the game we’ve no idea whether that was indeed what he was meant to do. Trinity dies (as was prophesied, but since she dies within the Matrix, Neo is able to give her code a little tweak and in effect give her the kiss of life.  They return to the Nebuchcadnezzar and Neo tells Morpheus some of what happened (I think he left out the bit about the sixth run, though) and Morpheus, understandably, has a crisis of faith.  He has lived by the Prophecy all his life and now it has not come true: the war is not over even though The One reached the Core.  Then we are treated to yet another twist: Sentinels turn up and ambush the ship and it is destroyed by a bomb (looked more like a missile to me, though).  The crew escape, are about to be killed by the Sentinels when Neo stops, saying that “something has changed”, turns round to face the Sentinels and, rather as he does with bullets, stops them dead in their tracks.  The Sentinels short-circuit and crash to the ground; Neo follows them, the physical exertion being too much. And that, pretty much, is the end of the film (I’m purposefully leaving out the odd spoiler).

What is going on here?  When Neo faces the Sentinels, it is not in the Matrix but in the “real” world, although he appears to have Matrix-like powers, even if their physical toll is extremely great.  I see two possibilities here, which have quite different implications. One is that this supposedly “real” world of the Sentinels, the hovercraft and Zion is all in fact part of a deeper meta-programme. What we have previously know as the Matrix is in truth a Matrix-within-a-Matrix, rather like a Russian doll, and everything we have seen so far in the films has been within this meta-programme: we have not yet seen the “real” world.  People living wiithin the Matrix believe it is real; those who have escaped the Matrix believe that they have escaped to reality, but that would be seen to be just as false, if only they could escape to the next level, and it could be that Neo is beginning that escape.  The story of meta-Matrixes, however, could go on to infinity.  Alternatively, it could be that the borders between the Matrix and the non-Matrix worlds is becoming blurred; there is a “strange loop” (to use Douglas Hofstadter’s phrase from Gödel, Escher, Bach) between the worlds, such that Neo will be increasingly able to use Matrix-like powers within the world of the machines and that the conclusion of the trilogy will involve these powers.  This does not have to be a contradiction in the logic of the film.  One explanation is that it occurs as a by-product of the increasing refinement of the Matrix.  In The Architect’s constant striving for efficiency in the system, The One will become correspondingly efficient, perhaps in ways unforeseen.  And it could be do do with the bond with Smith: Smith has become free from the bounds of the machines and is able to inhabit human minds from his encounter with Neo, and in a parallel way Neo has become able to “feel” (his word) and control the machines.  I’m tempted to go this way: we’re not watching the third incarnation of The One, because that went according to plan (from the machines’ point of view), but the sixth, because in the end it doesn’t go according to plan.  And the bond with Smith seems the most likely source of that at this point.

06 May 2003

A Passion Play, by Jethro Tull

At last! Finally my favourite Jethro Tull album has been re-mastered and re-issued! This may seem unworthy of comment, but, having released the ‘classic’ Tull albums of Aqualung (1971) and Thick As A Brick (1972) some time ago, EMI recently set about re-issuing all the Tull albums starting with the first album This Was (1968), followed by the second album Stand Up (1969) and the third album Benefit (1970). Then for some reason they leapfrogged A Passion Play and released the next three albums, War Child (1974), Minstrel In The Gallery (1975) and Too Old To Rock And Roll, Too Young To Die (1976). I was beginning to despair. Then last weekend I found it, re-issued out of sequence with Songs From The Wood (1977) and Heavy Horses (1978). I still don’t see the logic of this, but at least the CD (and naturally the other two) has finally made its way into my record collection.

My relationship to Jethro Tull’s music has been complex. They have passed through so many styles and phases during their career that I have found myself liking different records or series of records at different times. This is to some extent natural for anyone who listens to a lot of music, but Tull seem to have experimented with directions more than most and I’ve found myself growing into their various developments. I began with the late 80's rock phase of Crest Of A Knave (1987), for which Tull somewhat farcically won a Heavy Metal award (over Metallica!), and Rock Island (1989). Then progressed backwards to the greatest hits of the early 70’s. Then rocketed forward to the early 80’s electronics of The Broadsword And The Beast (1982). Then backward again to the late '70s folk-based albums. The two albums I would not part with now are are A Passion Play and Minstrel In The Gallery. The point is really that at each time I thought I knew Tull and knew what I liked, only to rediscover them again later (A Passion Play became a foil for my increasingly electronic-dance orientated musical tastes), so I’ve been spared the nostalgia of ‘I used to listen to this’ but have instead found that Tull have remained relevant to my musical environment, from the beginning on, in a way that no other band have.

A Passion Play is the most complicated album Tull recorded, and, following Thick As A Brick, the second and last album to be 45 minutes of continuous music. And 45 minutes it is, rather than two sections of 23-ish minutes. In that comment lies my first criticism of every CD release. On both Thick As A Brick and A Passion Play, there is a sense of trying to overcome the physical constraints of the medium of a vinyl record. The end of the first side of Thick As A Brick fades out and the second side fades in from the same point. On A Passion Play there is an interval song, 'The Story of the Hare who Lost his Spectacles', and the bridge occurs in the middle of the story, during a natural pause after the main characters have been introduced. In fact the album anticipates the CD medium with its single side, and it was not until being issued on CD that this endeavour was truly fulfilled. However, every CD I’ve seen begins the second part of the album from the beginning of 'The Story…' . It would be more appropriate to begin from the middle, as the vinyl did, or to dispense with such divisions altogether, in acknowledgement of what the album was trying to do.

'The Story of the Hare who Lost his Spectacles' is an oddity amongst Jethro Tull songs in that it is narrated, and indeed not even by Ian Anderson, but by Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond. Musically it is a psychedelic mutation of Peter And The Wolf filtered through Winnie-The-Pooh and only flirts with what we would recognise as Rock in the last few bars. But the words are the key for me: the punning makes you cringe in delight. On the newly re-mastered release, we are treated to a 7-minute promotional video of 'The Story…', complete with ballerinas, the dancing of oversized animals and frantic editing. As you watch this or listen to the music, it’s worth bearing in mind that only two years previously Tull had been bracketed in much the same category as Led Zeppelin, and yet this is about as far from Heavy Metal or Hard Rock as it’s possible to get.

The words and lyrical plays are part of what makes the album so impressive. Perhaps the best line is on the second side: 'I’d give up my halo for a horn and the horn for the hat I once had'. Overall, the album is about death and possibly life afterwards, beginning as it does with a funeral. Yet, 30 years after its original release, it is not only the lyrics which make the album rewarding. Released in the same year as the ‘definitive’ concept album, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon, A Passion Play is for me the better recording, and a major part of the reason is the music. A Passion Play is more unified musically than The Dark Side Of The Moon; the latter is really just songs which cross-fade, whereas the former has an ‘approach’ and a sense of continuous development. The music often is among Jethro Tull's most playfully eccentric, flowing in and out of seeming incoherence. The opening instrumental, for example, has an inverted 'Teddy-bear's Picnic' quality (which reminds me of the truly disturbing start of Faust’s eponymous 1971 album) before turning to the apparent gravity of funeral described in the lyrics. Regular song structures are rare, while repeated motifs tie the various sections together. There’s still a lot of acoustic guitar in there, but there’s also a lot of jazz-based rhythm and extreme contrasts of electric to acoustic and wild to ethereal.

The strange thing is that this album marked the turn of critical acclaim for Tull. The critics hated it, and for some reason have never recovered. Maybe part of the problem was that Ian Anderson seemed to resent being put into a category. Or maybe that he gave the impression of not caring whether they liked him and his music or not. Maybe the swing between introspective albums (A Passion Play and Minstrel…) and extroverted albums (War Child and Too Old…) meant that Tull were hard to get a grip on. And maybe it was simply a bandwagon that everyone got onto, and a guy playing a flute whilst standing on one leg is an easy target. But whatever the reason, Jethro Tull remain unpopular amongst critics and are for some reason considered to highlight the excesses of the 1970’s prog-rock scene, even though their music has dated better than much of Pink Floyd’s, never had the classical bombast of Yes, ELO or even Deep Purple, and Martin Barre’s guitar playing never degenerated into widdling and 40-minute solos.

And if you want more, then the 1993 compilation Nightcap is essential. The double CD set contains the original session for A Passion Play, recorded in France and labelled under The Chateaux D'Isater Tapes. Although much of the material was simply abandoned, some of the pieces, especially instrumentals, crop up again on A Passion Play, sometimes with alternative lyrics. For the full 'Passion Play Sessions', of course, you need to have War Child too, since 'Skating Away On The Thin Ice Of The New Day' and 'Bungle In The Jungle' were also recorded at the ‘Chateaux D'Isaster', along with Solitaire, which appears in its original form on Nightcap. The compilation makes it easier to tie up various threads in this period of Anderson's writing, as for example with the animal metaphors and 'Law Of The Bungle'.

All in all, a work of eccentric genius, in my opinion, closer to avant-garde than Rock. The critical headlines of 'Play without Passion' could not be further from the truth. Certainly a difficult album to listen to, but well worth the effort of trying. Still vibrant and inspiring 30 years after the original release.