Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 04, 2021 1:40 pm 
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Maybe wait for another glitch

Rodney Ascher is known for his cultish-obsessive 2012 doc Room 237, described by Todd McCarthy of Hollywood Reporter as "a wacky, sometimes hilariously esoteric deconstruction of the subliminal messages and hidden meanings in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining." In short, it had fun fan appeal for Kubrick cultists. This one appeals to another set of nuts; but it doesn't do as good a job of finding its niche.

"What if we are living in a simulation, and the world as we know it is not real?" Well, the "Matrix" idea can be an intriguing one, as not only the Watchowskis' films and Philip K. Dick's cinema-genic stories show, but also the analyses of modern French philosophers. As I wrote in March 2003 in a short essay called "The Matrix, a French Philosopher, and the Events of September 11," the ideas in the Matrix movies can be more stimulatingly encountered by spending your time reading Friedrich Nietzsche and the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. My implication was that while Keanu Reeves may look seductive walking around in a long black raincoat and tall boots in the Matrix movies, reading Baudrillard and Nietzsche, from whose ideas the movies drew, will take you closer to the source of the Matrix idea - and make you a lot smarter along the way.

Baudrillard's thrilling and bold analysis of the September 11 attacks in his Nov. 3, 2001 essay in Le Monde called "The Spirit of Terrorism" was an eye opener, marked by many fresh insights and a total lack of cant. He described 9/11 as a vast symbolic blow against both globalization and the world dominance of liberal democracy. His breakdown of terrorism and the multiple psychological advantages the al-Qaida conspirators had over their western opponents was exceptionally shrewd. The essay was a quick swim in an icy stream of quirky French reason. Encounters with the alternate realities of such fresh points of view can make you smarter. It is definitely true that people as opposed as Islamic terrorists and western capitalists live in alternate realities.

Watching this new documentary doesn't offer the same prospect of stimulating the intelligence or providing new perspectives on the world. It keeps coming back to to its base hypothesis: suppose there are realities within realities? Suppose, then, this world we think we're living in isn't "real" at all. To bolster this idea, unconvincingly and I think self-defeatingly, the film keeps coming back to video game addicts who have become so obsessed with their games they began to think they were real and their lives not. How does that prove anything other than that video games can be a dangerous addiction that makes one unable to function in the world? True, video games are addictive and often draw on Matrix-like plotlines and imagery. But chronicling dysfunctional game behavior will not enlighten us about the nature of reality or conundrums of physics.

Those who turn out to believe passionately in the Matrix - that they're living in an "alternate reality" and this one isn't really all that "real" - are chiefly represented here by a handful of rather uninteresting young men dressed up in futuristic mechanical robot suits. This is a documentary dressed up for Halloween. As a palate-cleanser, certainly much-needed, the film keeps coming back to snatches of a filmed lecture by Philip K. Dick given to an apparently francophone audience in the 1970's. (And yes, we also hear from Elon Musk, though not enough to bother you. It seemed to me, by the way, that Herzog's 2016 Lo and Behold..., on related but broader topics, and in which Musk also appeared, had better visuals).

The climax of Ascher's film, its only sustained narrative, is the voiceover narration by Joshua Cooke of how his obsessive watching of the Watchowski film led him to become so deranged that he took a shotgun and murdered his adoptive parents, then called 911 and was taken away. The film at this point shows texts about cases where obsessions with the Matrix films and other sci-fi tales have been adopted with mixed success as forms of insanity defense. So, then, believing in the Matrix idea means you're potentially insane? The irony of this goes unnoted.

A Glitch in the Matrix has some nice visuals, though not enough, and no doubt the team that worked on it had fun. But it fails to take account sufficiently of the fact that this is fundamentally a complicated philosophical and scientific subject; also a matter of highly spun ideas whose treatment will benefit most from a blending of intellectual clarity and humor. As even Leslie Felperin's less critical Guardian review points out, Ascher isn't sufficiently critical or analytical of his "sources." And frankly, it's hard to come up with something new on this topic - or get to the bottom of it, and there's no sense that something previously unseen is on offer here.

I think that the reason Baudrillard notably referred to reality as a simulation in his writings was primarily that was so useful for him to consider it that way. It serves a purpose; it stimulates the imagination. His analysis of Islamic terrorism still is astute and practical enough to show he takes that "simulation" very seriously. It would likewise have been well to see Ascher & Co. applying the ideas of virtual reality to more specific examples. The only one that makes a lasting impression is the sad case of Joshua Cooke, this lonely, narrow, and obsessive young man whose immersion in a numbing fan game robbed him of hope and took away his moral sense. His alternate reality came crashing down. It was merely a delusion. He seems to have been lacking in wide reading and knowledge, immersed in the fantasy of becoming Neo without deeply understanding the complicated tropes of Lily and Lana's screenplay.

Philip K. Dick, especially toward the end of his life, became rather deranged too. But he gave us a wealth of stories that fed into movies such as A Scanner Darkly, Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049, Minority Report, Total Recall, and more. Brief clips from these are freely blended into this movie's soup, reminding us that watching any one of them would be more fun than watching this colorful-looking but uninspired documentary. Would that Acsher had delved into them in more detail and shown how they make the idea of alternate realities resonant. But he and the various talking heads just keep harping on their basic question, "What if we are living in a simulation, and the world as we know it is not real?" Yes, well, what if we are? What then? A Glitch in the Matrix doesn't provide much of an answer. Nor, more importantly, does it reply to those rational and well-informed individuals who argue that the idea we could be living in a software-constructed world is quite absurd.*

A Glitch in the Matrix, 108 mins., debuted Jan. 30, 2021 at Sundance and opens Feb. 5, 2021 both in theaters (limited) and streaming (Magnolia release). For information about Magnolia's release schedule for the movie, go HERE.
*See citizen IMDb commenter Caractacus23's "Occam's Butterknife."

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