The Mirror – Annals Of History, Paddles Of Memory; Dreams

Thoughts On: The Mirror (1975)

A film we’ve covered before, but will be looking at in a different light today…

The Mirror 2

As with all of Tarkovsky’s films, The Mirror is not the easiest watch, but is clearly masterful, undeniably mesmerising, irrefutably beautiful, complex and immersive. The crux of all that makes this film so ambiguously hypnotic is the manner in which Tarkovsky uses dreams and memory to characterise his protagonist. The statement made by this formal approach is then that we are, in large part, the memories we hold of the experiences in our pasts. Tarkovsky introduces further complexity to this with his re-application of characters, like the protagonist’s son in place of himself and his wife in place of his mother. This suggests a cycle built into the fabric of humanity; we are not only our pasts, but are guided by our parent’s pasts and go on to dictate our children’s futures. Melancholia then seems to seep into this narrative because of an indescribable sensation of loss and a lack of a place. Stuck in the currents of history, paddling your way along the present with memory, the future only seems to be an endless body of water. It’s considering yourself as memory that this nihilistic paradigm threatens to surface, and this seems to be the core concept Tarkovsky explores across this narrative as we see our protagonist’s memories and dreams materialise.

What’s so interesting about this film’s approach to character and narrative is then the divide between who a character is and what they have been through. A question we’ve all heard and scoffed at, asked ourselves before biting our tongues, is, who am I? This existential gas bomb is something storytellers must ask themselves – or is at least something they inherently face when casting their story. After all, how do you represent and project a character without questioning that process?

It seems to be very evident that we are genetic factors interacting with experiences – all to varying degrees and across billions of seconds and millions of moments of being. However, there is an equally common assertion that there has to be something more to people and humanity. This ‘something more’ can be characterised through some idea of purpose, significance, religion or philosophy, and is generally resonant, but problematically (from banal to minor to extreme degrees) ambiguous. The relation of this to writing and cinema comes when you consider your favourite characters – or, at least, characters that you feel are powerful, great, such and so on. You do not see, say for instance, Indiana Jones or James Bond as genetic factors interacting with their pasts. Whilst you are given hints of back story and come to understand them, through their behaviours, in the present moment, this is not where you find the magic of characterisation – not in my view. What makes characters great seems to be their capacity to both draw upon our own memories and past experiences, but, more importantly, to draw upon our dreams. That is to say that Indiana Jones or James Bond resonate with you because you see yourself, in part, in them. And where you do not see yourself in them, you wish you could be them. To further clarify, you may have a fear of snakes…

Whether it be genetically written into the code of your personage or you had a terrible experience with a snake as a child, you hate snakes (or at least aren’t the biggest fan). And because of this, when you see Indiana freeze in fear, you feel closer to him. He becomes human because he is allowed to become a vessel for yourself – whom I’m sure you consider human. In fact, simply seeing fear humanises Indiana. It doesn’t have to be a specific fear of snakes that resonates with us, but fear itself – as we’ve all felt that.

Indiana Jones transcends this empathy-seeking and self-deprecating characterisation however by actually turning down that humanisation we’ve granted him. Indiana sucks it up and grabs the snakes or runs to safety. Screaming and fearful or not, Indiana remains a hero that we probably aren’t. This act of transcendence is so pivotal and is what makes a character like Indiana Jones so powerful because, as he stops being us (in a certain sense), we start becoming him; we become the hero. This is, at the least, what the mirror that Jones has become allows us to feel for a moment.

So, what we are seeing in this example of powerful characterisation is an appeal to, firstly, experience, and secondly, the dream. Indiana appeals to us on our terms, then acts as wish fulfilment for ourselves. This seems to be the magic belying the mysterious process of characterisation and it functions, seemingly so, because it is mysterious. In appealing to the dream, to our own wishes of being the hero and overcoming our fears, we are given light to peer down an avenue of pure unknown qualities. This aligns with our observation that people can see themselves as genetic factors interacting with experiences (a somewhat concrete assessment of the human condition), but, still believe there is room for more – that humanity holds a crucial ambiguity that makes it special; a soul, purpose, deity… something.

The function of a dream, whether it be in an audience member wishing they could overcome fears, get a girl, or become successful, is then a hole or a dark spot which humans constantly look for in life. Whilst we have science, whilst we have progression, revolution, evolution, we are constantly striving into a void. The scientist wants to know what is beyond the atom, what is beyond the universe. The progressive wants to know how society can change, how it can continually move to some ambiguous somewhere. We find this in all aspects of life; there never seems to be a true end manufactured into the most enjoyable and fascinating of human endeavors. And in such, science, philosophy, art and construction will never seem to end. This relates to cinema as that infinite void is the catalyst for dreams – we use dreams to push further into this void, to explore ourselves and the world around us. Cinema is thus a form of pure human procrastination – just as any other art, science or form of philosophy seems to be.

The relationship between past, present and future in reality is contextualised within the human mind as memory (past), experience or sensation (present) and dreams (future). In recognising this, we are starting to come full circle and back to Tarkovsky’s, The Mirror. To ask who am I? is, basically, to further ask whatwhenwhere and how? This is to suggest that to ask any of these existential questions, we are asking of our place in the world – we are asking of context. Context, or reality, is past, present and future. For humans to be put in context to this, you’d have to appeal to memory, experience and dreams. So, to answer who am I?, to characterise a figure, you must seemingly give them these three things – you must define them in relation to the world around them (that including the viewer and his/her world). This is the cinematic lesson we can draw from Tarkovsky’s formal approach to characterisation in The Mirror. This film is so profound, in part, because of the manner in which it handles and projects memory, experience and dreams. The particular focus on memory and dreams is what gives this narrative a magical and ambiguous quality – and is what also further suggests profundity.

Before concluding, if we were to take a quick step back and look to Indiana Jones again, we see a great character – but one that would not fit into a film by Tarkovsky. For a plethora of pretty obvious reasons, there is a mismatch here. But, there is an underlying idea of memory, experience and dreams that is projected, in differing ways, through both of these figures. The reliance on experience and dreams in a present context within Indiana Jones is what makes his narrative an action film and so entertaining. There is this lack of time and presence in The Mirror, which, as said, gives it a sense of profundity, but also makes the film very difficult. What we are thus seeing when we compare these characters are two approaches to our subject, one that is entertaining and one that is intellectually stimulating. Having hopefully demonstrated this clearly enough, I’ll leave you to consider your opinion on these two representatives of a spectrum in characterisation between a film like The Mirror and Indiana Jones.

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The Matrix – We, The One

Thoughts On: The Matrix (1999)

The world has been ensnared in a digital reality by sentient robots, and Morpheus thinks he has humanity’s key to freedom.

The Matrix 2

A captivating aspect of all art and entertainment is its capacity to not only provide insight into an individual or ourselves, but, all people. This can be intentional, subjective, accidental or objective, but in all cases this seems to be an inevitability. This is because of an inherent self-centric quality to the act of storytelling. We tell stories for many reasons; to fill time, to teach, to garner attention, to connect with people, to communicate things we otherwise couldn’t. What belies each and very single one of these reasons is a channel of exchange between to people, one put there to essentially transcend the solipsistic idea that we are all minds trapped in heads, unable to know if one another exists. Storytelling, in all shapes and forms, is thus a self-centric means of creating an illusion of oneness, community, society or togetherness.

This observation goes on to explain something of a trembling anxiety beneath art and entertainment; a fear of being alone, isolated and ignored. There are many consequences of this anxiety that can be best summed up by the idea of genre – which we will delve into with a specific look at cinematic storytelling.

Action and adventure movies tell us of our invincibility.

Romance films tell us of our sexual and spiritual prowess.

Comedies tell us of our bumbling wit, dumb luck and arbitrary intelligence.

Horror films tell us of our resilience and power.

But, it has be said that a question mark must be held over each of these assertions. Humans are not invincible, we are not all Mila Kunis or Ryan Gosling, just as we are not all Charlie Chaplin or Ellen Ripley. Genre movies will often play with this idea with conflict, holding this question mark of our place in the world and in relation to one another over our heads. However, with the resolution of most genre films comes a reassertion of our initial observations. As John McClain embraces his wife with a demolished tower in the backdrop, we are told that we are in fact basically invincible.

As The Beast sweeps Belle off of her feet, we are told that anyone can love and be loved by remarkable human specimens (both personality-wise and aesthetically).

As Buster Keaton imitates movies with his girl in his arms, we are told that the witty and tragicomic see lights at the end of their tunnels.

And as Laurie Strode cowers having seen her boogeyman destroyed, we are told that the good, no matter the odds, always prevail.

I certainly don’t need to tell you this, but, these fantasies are nonsense. As many satirical, alternative or darker forms of storytelling will make obvious, the world is not a book, movie or play; things rarely turn out the way people want them to. But, because this is a given, there is little need to analyse this. So, instead, we’ll return to the realm of self-fulfilling fantasy by concentrating on The Matrix.

Whilst I’ve just depicted the third film in the trilogy, what we’ll be discussing today is primarily the original film in respect to this idea of self-fulfilling centricity in people making and watching movies. We are using The Matrix to discuss this for pretty blatant reasons. Like few other films, The Matrix implores the significance, power and preciousness of the human species. On a surface level, this film is just a cool, high concept movie that made some innovation in the action film genre (with bullet time and so on). Pushing deeper, many will see The Matrix as an abundance of questions about humanity, reality and freedom. I, whilst I love this movie, don’t hold it so highly however. This is because I can’t help but recognise the fringe that the Wachowskis are skating in the creation of this movie; a fringe between The Matrix and The Matrix Reloaded, between a great movie and a pretty mediocre one. The terrible dialogue, stiff, bland characterisation, pretentious, anime-esuque elements and piss-poor writing splattered throughout the later Matrix films is juuuuuust about being suppressed in the original film. Make no mistake, I think the original Matrix is a masterpiece, but, equally so something tantamount to a blind smash one-hit-wonder – especially in regard to the live action Matrix series.

With this more cool-tempered and reserved look at The Matrix, I’ve stopped seeing the abundance of abstract questions. In place of them has risen a lot of assertions put forth by the Wachowskis and a lot less ambiguity. We discussed this the last time we talked about The Matrix trilogy, but, I think the biggest set of faults in this series are the dispositions you are presumed to be taking into this film. The major disposition that you must bring is a belief in one concrete reality, one that is precious and that humans shouldn’t give up.

The idea of The Matrix as a positive or negative entity or experience is somewhat explored through Cypher.

But, the vast majority of The Matrix plays out with a very religious tone. Reality seems to be some kind of God or Eden and Neo, Jesus. One of the most frustrating and condemning aspects of religion is certainly the lack of, or arbitrary nature of, answers provided. You see this in The Matrix because of its similar approach to storytelling that religious texts take. This movie means to probe, question and provide some sense of moral-intellectual structure that further gives emotional and existential support. However, there is an infinitely ambiguous singularity to the crux of all of these stories because of their refusal to be self-reflexive instead of simply assertive. With religion, this singularity is some kind of deity. There are no answers as to who, what, when, where, how and certainly why (in respect to a deity) that are in any way intellectually satisfying. There are only faith-based and emotional assumptions that may resonate with you. We see this also in The Matrix. With reality as a deity, there is no questioning of what this reality is, how it came to be, how it functions or why it is significant.

You can argue that these questions are probed – not only with Cypher, but with the end of the trilogy. With Neo ‘dead’, we are left with the implication that the peace is only momentary; that humans will re-build civilisation and end up ensnared in some other version of the Matrix. This gives a cyclic element to the plot of the trilogy and leaves it as an exploration of faith and a need to control in conscious beings (human or A.I). However, does it really take 3 movies to say this? Both Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and 500 Days Of Summer say very similar things in respect to the human mind and emotions – and in one movie.

The way I see The Matrix is a dumping ground of philosophical implications that provide no cohesive whole, nor allow you to truthfully pick out a defining theme or message from the heap. So, zooming back to the first film in the trilogy, we can see this to be the fault of a, retrospectively, horrible set-up. I’ll repeat, by itself, the original Matrix is a masterpiece, but, in respect to the later two films, the plot and themes are pretty weak. This is primarily because this scene…

… is resolved far too easily. I think the Wachowskis could have explored much deeper thematic avenues if Neo took the blue pill and didn’t join Morpheus’ clan. The reason why I think this is because of what Morpheus says as he offers the pills:

You take the blue pill, the story ends; you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.

By taking the blue pill, Neo would have been left to discover the truth of reality on his own and if he wishes. He knows the rabbit hole exists and so should be able to go down it by himself without Morpheus holding his hand as some kind of prophet. In such, we could have seen Neo wake up and see his reality with questioning eyes. This could lead to him ‘seeing’ the spoon bend…

This would allow Neo to opt out of the Matrix voluntarily – just as the annoying kid from the later films does. Getting to this sequence would allow us to experience what it means to see your reality and perspective shift entirely, but whilst questioning it all. Having learned the truth of human-robot-A.I history, Neo would be able to choose how, and if, he rebels against the enslaving overlords. In such, he could choose to construct his own unbounded, more liberated Matrix, defeat Smith, other programmes and even join Morpheus’ cause as an independent person.

Considering this blue pill plot in respect to the red pill plot we’re given, I think the latter pales as, as Morpheus describes, Neo is going to be shown how deep the rabbit hole goes – he will have his hand held and shit explained to him. With our blue pill plot, we wouldn’t just be closer to Neo as a character, but possibly see him struggle harder in more action scenes – all of which have a greater sense of meaning, self-discovery and questioning. So, to the Hollywood morons out there that maybe want to reboot The Matrix, hit me up and maybe we can make it better.

Jokes aside, I raise all of this critique and revision to ask why the Wachowskis decided on this plot. The answer seemingly comes back to the structure and approach to story that many filmmakers will take. They want to tell us that we, as people and a species, are great, invincible, faulted but unbeatable and, ultimately, The One. You may sneer at this when put into words in such a way, but, I don’t think this trope of storytelling can necessarily be entirely reversed – or even should be. There is this human self-centricty in stories as filmmakers need an anchor-point theme. An anchor-point theme is simply the assumption(s) you make as you go into a movie. For example, when going into Titanic, you may believe or assume that true love exists and that this is what the narrative will explore. A key strength of Titanic, however, is that it doesn’t explain or affirm that true love exists. It is somewhat implied between Jack and Rose, but as we see Rose as an old woman with a family she loves, there is an ambiguity and twist given to this love story.

You will see this kind of use of an anchor-point theme in most movies – as alluded to in the beginning. Conflict of varying sorts, subtle, physical or emotional, is often used to budge and tug at presumptions brought into a movie – presumptions of true love, God or even reality. I’ve critiqued The Matrix because I don’t think it handles this conflict very well as there isn’t enough questioning which ultimately leaves a presumption of reality that you may bring into this film pointlessly ambiguous. That is to say that The Matrix relies on, and leaves you with, just faith. This is weak writing in my opinion as the narrative of the film fails to truly communicate with its audience. Yes, The Matrix may be a source of a lot of conversation and debate, but it certainly doesn’t speak to you on a conceptual and emotional level like a film such as The Bicycle Thieves may.

With this narrative, De Sica not only raises questions on poverty, responsibility and social status, but punches you in the gut and mind with them. The Matrix is a fun movie to talk about because reality itself is a fun thing to question. However, the narrative of this film only acts as a facade for these questions, never a cohesive piece of communication.

The ultimate let down of original The Matrix is then that power is too simply put into the hands of a person (Neo, the audience) so that they can manipulate reality and overcome all of their conflicts with mind, heart, body and soul. Whilst we as movie goers and consumers of stories inherently seek out this self-centric exploration of ourselves, when this is done in a manner that is so explicitly servient to the audience’s biases, the story becomes un-challenging and mere entertainment. So, the question I’ll then end on is, how much should an audience be fed and how much should they be challenged?

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