On Toontown and Smashing Brick Walls

So, I just caught up with everybody else’s childhood by seeing ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit.’

It’s a film I find more fascinating than entertaining.   In large part my reaction is due to how incredibly grating it is — compared to the relative subtlety and restrained cleverness of Zemeckis’ ‘Back to the Future’ trilogy, ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit,’ while brilliantly constructed and occasionally hilarious, practically pulverizes the audience with cartoon tropes.  The fact that the cartoon characters — and the title character in particular — are extremely obnoxious and insane is, interestingly, a diegetic element.  Oddly, the villainous Judge Doom (the best part of the movie, because Christopher Lloyd), a toon disguised as a human, is evil because his cartoon insanity has been turned toward the very human pursuit of power.  Other characters, Roger in particular, are batshit crazy, but they’re let off the hook because the only thing they care about is making people laugh.

That’s where it gets interesting.

The toons willingly break any rule of human society in the name of laughter — except murder, and presumably any other seriously harmful crime, and the idea of a toon committing such a crime is unthinkable to them.  The toons represent the collective creative imagination of their time (the film is set in 1947).  Toontown, their inexplicable mecca, exists somewhere inside Los Angeles, a bubble dimension that alters the humans that enter it to allow them to endure cartoon physics.  Toontown is dreamland, an idealized Hollywood of pure Keatonesque slapstick insanity whose only goal is joy, no matter how perverse.  It is the reckless playfulness of childhood incarnate.

Judge Doom, the quasi-toon, threatens to destroy Toontown and replace it with a modern freeway, cheap motels and restaurants, and billboards as far as the eye can see.  He threatens the town of unbridled creation — of a child’s obnoxious-but-carefree notion of play — with raw Capitalism, launching his attack on Toontown from a factory… which exists right next to Toontown, the two worlds separated only by a brick wall.  The image of reckless, generous creativity and calculated, greedy creativity being separated by such a thin line is just delicious.

The film’s chief thematic function, however, is to play to an adult audience that knows that Toontown was, in a metaphorical sense, already bulldozed to make way for the Freeway Future.  Judge Doom won in our world.  Hollywood was built as an industry, manufacturing products rather than simply sharing dreams; Toontown, with its fidelity to pure imagination, simply wouldn’t fit the business model.  For as obnoxious and grating and insane as the toons get in ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit,’ they embody the creative act, the simple transaction of performance for joy.  And, like creativity, Toontown must be an end to itself.  The plot doesn’t resolve until ownership of Toontown is returned to the toons.

An alchemical theory of film sees cartoons as symbols capable of altering the real world in a magical way.  ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ agrees — the filmmakers portray toons as products of human imagination that take on a life of their own, even changing the course of history.  Through cinema, the images we create populate the collective unconscious, living just outside the rules and walls of society, capable of bursting through at any moment to bring insanity — or joy.

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An Exorcism for The Conjuring

James Wan’s horror film ‘The Conjuring’ is a superbly crafted thrill-ride, packed to the gills with brilliant sequences of terror and populated by three-dimensional characters.

But the real horror comes from its claim to a basis in true historical events.

Not for the reasons you might think, however — not because this story of ghosts, demons and possession convinces us to believe in the terrifying reality of the same. Rather that the explanation provided for these events fits all too well with the dominant rhetoric supplied to us in American mythology; namely, that the Salem Witch Trials were somehow legitimate, and that the women murdered under Puritanism were actually Satan-worshipping witches.

The reason why you shouldn’t believe this ghost story is that it is, oddly enough, a comforting lie told to protect us from the real haunting truth, substituting a superstitious fear of demons (giving a strange amount of power to the Devil for a story purportedly siding with God) for the horrifying knowledge of our culture’s historical tendency to dominate women at any cost, including their lives.

What’s really demonic here is actually all-too human: we want to believe in sensational, scary stories of murder and darkness, but only insofar as they reinforce our beliefs. We ought to be haunted by what lies buried in our collective memories — that what we have as the descendants of European Christian colonists, we received at a terrible price, and while we don’t share the guilt of our ancestors, we do have a responsibility to let the sun in on their crimes.

The demons of ‘The Conjuring’ are fictional. They were fictional before they appeared onscreen. Once depicted, however, they take on the power of obfuscation, distracting us with the primal fear of the Other from the terrifying potential we all share to do unspeakable evil — even in the name of God.

Cinema has the alchemical power to let symbols alter our reality, but this power applies to our belief systems, and from thence our actions. The films we make and consume eventually create our future. If the mythology accepted and promoted by ‘The Conjuring’ goes unchallenged, we will allow history to repeat itself, with the tragedy of Salem repeated by a new generation. We have nothing to fear from fictional phantoms — except the mournful ghosts they hide.

On Pacific Rim and the Neural Handshake

There are many, many reasons why Pacific Rim is an astonishingly well-crafted blockbuster.

Chief of which are its characters and the mechanisms, literal and figurative, that bring them together.

I’m talking about what the film calls “the drift” — the science-as-magic method of joining two characters together to pilot a skyscraper-sized battle mech (“Jaeger”).  In the drift, the joined pilots share memories and emotions, becoming truly intimate in a way that all of us crave, but rarely, if ever, experience.

But the genius of it, the alchemy, is when we see how the film subtly acknowledges that cinema and the drift are analogous to one another.   In a pivotal moment, Raleigh, the protagonist, enters the mind of his traumatized co-pilot, Mako, and sees the tragedy that has defined her life unfold before him.  He can walk around the scene of the memory, but not interact — the memory, like the film, cannot be changed by our desires.  We are powerless before the film as Raleigh is powerless to change Mako’s tragedy.  It does, however, give him the power to communicate with her on an intimate level — it gives him a level of empathy that could not have existed without this visceral recreation of the traumatic event.  It connects Raleigh’s emotional imagination to a symbol, and that symbol becomes as real for him as it was to Mako.

In the same way, cinema is a symbolic mirror of real internal lives.  A good film gives us enough information to leap from imagination to intimacy — but, strangely, not usually intimacy with a specific person, but with humanity in general.  We see how someone fictional deals with tragedy, how they pursue their dreams, how they fall in love — and we experience those things along with them.  They become real to us.

Yes, cinema is symbolic — but it is also sacramental, nourishing us spiritually, deepening empathy, connecting us with other people.  It’s not just imagination.  Emotionally, it’s real.  Through movies, we, like the Jaeger pilots, drift together as a species.

Not-So-Classic Review: The Matrix Sequels

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Summary: Not awful, but confusing and disappointing.

Review: On the same grounds that James used to write one review for the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy — that the individual films were all made together and were intended to complete a story — I am going to review the ‘Matrix’ sequels, ‘Reloaded’ and ‘Revolutions’, as one movie.  That and I’m just too lazy to write two separate reviews for each film, especially when I have the same to say for both.  ‘The Matrix Reloaded’ and ‘The Matrix Revolutions’ were both released in 2003, about six months apart from each other, and while not particularly awful as far as Hollywood blockbusters go, they are very disappointing follow-ups to the awesomeness that was the original Matrix.

Awesome though it was, ‘The Matrix’ at its core is not a particularly original or complex story. Yeah, the whole mankind-trapped-in-the-computer-thing was an original enough premise for the late 90’s, and the obvious references to genre films (martial arts, western, 80’s action) were cool and all, as was its Eastern philosophical bent.  But the actual narrative itself is just the classic Hero’s Journey/Noble Rogues story-type.  I don’t say that to be negative; it’s the basis for many a good movie, including the original ‘Star Wars’.  Hmmm, come to think of it, ‘Star Wars’ also uses science fiction, genre tributes, and Eastern philosophy to flesh out its simple yet effective tale, making it the most obvious and direct stylistic predecessor to this film.  And while they are not up to par with George Lucas, the Wachowski brothers do a good job with it in their first picture.
Good, yes, but perhaps too thorough and complete. You see, they wrap things up rather nicely at the end of the first movie.  The main character Neo (Keanu Reeves) fulfills the prophecy of being The One, a person who has infinite power within the Matrix; The main villain Agent Smith, a personification of the Evil Machines who control mankind, is destroyed; and while the machines themselves have not yet been defeated, Neo’s closing words and new Godlike powers guarantee that their days are numbered.  The reality is that this is a movie that didn’t need a sequel.  It tells a classic tale to a fulfilling end, we as the audience have a sense of completion and catharsis, and that should be all, folks.  Right?  Well, no, as it turns out.  These two sequels came along, and did much to undo everything that made the first film so cool.

Let’s make one more comparison between ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Matrix’. The classic ‘Star Wars’ trilogy is an example of how to do sequels the right way.  The ‘Matrix’ trilogy is not. Quite simply, George Lucas planned for sequels when he made his first entry.  The Wachowski brothers clearly didn’t.  At the end of Star Wars, even as the Rebel Alliance celebrates a great victory and Luke Skywalker has learned something of The Force, Darth Vader still lives (and therefore the Empire is still an urgent threat in our minds) and Luke is not yet a Jedi.  (Much to learn, he still has.)  My point is that there was an obvious-somewhere for Star Wars to go in its sequels.  With the Matrix, it’s a bit harder to find an obvious thread to follow.  When we already know that Neo is digital Jesus and has already defeated the machine’s most powerful program in the form of Smith, there’s simply doesn’t look to be any real conflict anymore.  If they had wanted to make sequels the Wachowski’s should have saved those two plot points for later.  So what is there, exactly, to expect from ‘Reloaded’ and ‘Revolutions’?  Confusion.

Anyways, so ‘Reloaded’ opens up and the first big shock is that Smith is back… somehow.  What? I’m pretty sure that at the end of ‘The Matrix’, when Neo jumps inside him and literally blows him apart, that Smith has been killed for good.  Wiped out.  Deleted.  Terminated.  Whatever, the point is he should be gone.  But here he’s back. What’s the explanation?  Well there’s some techno-philosophical babble about something called A Source where deleted programs go… blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.  The long and short of it is that he didn’t die because he didn’t want to.  That’s not even a mean-spirited generalization.  Smith literally says that he was “compelled to stay” even after he was destroyed.  This is what I mean when I say the Wachowski’s screwed up. Smith was clearly too awesome a bad guy to keep out of any possible sequels, but, oops, they didn’t think that there’d be any and they went ahead and killed him in the first movie.  That was a mistake, plain and simple, and they were going to have to undo it somehow, but did they really have to be so lazy about it?
So, okay, Smith has returned of his own accord and is now determined to destroy Neo, but this time he’s no longer working for the machines.  He’s some kind of rogue program, infecting every human he sees as well as other agents of the system.  Oh, we need to talk about the programs here.  So, even though the entire Matrix is run by machines, actual programs within it appear able to choose sides too.  It’s interesting, sure, but definitely confusing.  Basically it brings a third party into this conflict.  I mean yeah, that makes it arbitrarily more complex, but we lose the nice simplicity of man vs. machine from the original.

So Neo spends his time going around finding different programs in the Matrix while in the real world returning to Zion, the last remaining human city.  And boy, what a strange place that is.  Everyone in Zion dresses and acts like the worst possible mixture of 80’s techno and some insane fashion show.  Their hair styles in particular are atrocious and bizarre.  They hold weird dancing parties where they bang drums and jump around and spray each other with all manner of bodily fluids.  Again I say, what? Between that and the Matrix, I’m a little tempted to just stay in the confines of virtual reality.

But back to the main story, so amidst all the crazy martial arts battles (why would Neo ever fight anybody anymore if he can just jump inside them and blow them up?) and the erotic dances and the random computer programs with weird accents and the Zion inhabitants who arguably seem less human than said programs and Smith occasionally showing up, Neo finds The Architect, the program who supposedly made the Matrix.  He tells Neo that, basically, The One is nothing new.  It’s a systemic anomaly inherent to the programming of the Matrix that the machines have dealt with before in previous incarnations.  Or some crap like that.  I don’t know.  So wait, what?  All that buildup from the first film about Neo being digital Jesus and some weirdo tells him, “Oh yeah, you still can’t stop the machines.”  What a rip-off!  Did the Wachowski’s really sink so low as to go back on their whole “The One” premise.  Really?  This is how they’re making up for not waiting until the sequels to reveal that Neo is The One — by saying that there is no One?

After this point, I basically lost track of the story in my frustration, and that bleeds over into ‘Revolutions’, which gets even more confusing.  So much so that I’m not sure how much of it is even worth explaining.  But hey!  Let’s take a stab at it…
Well, no, actually.  Sorry folks, but if I tried explaining it I’d have to go all the way for it to make any sense, and this is already the longest review I’ve ever written, so let’s just get to the point here.

Of all of what happens in these sequels (and there is a LOT), the only thing of particular interest is Smith’s saga.  Though I don’t like his clumsy return, I am partial to his development in the sequels.  Smith, who has turned viral, keeps expanding within the Matrix, assimilating it bit by bit, eventually growing beyond the control of the machines.  The true significance of this is that it shows that the machines are as fallible as human beings.  Just as man lost control of his artificially intelligent creations, so too do the machines lose control of a creation of their own.  It’s a nice little piece of irony. Unfortunately, Smith never actually takes over any machines or does anything interesting like that.  And so, it just feels unfulfilling.  And besides all that, there’s too much other stuff going on to really appreciate that thread for all of its possible depth.
Simply put, there is an unacceptable degree of incomprehensibility when it comes to the ‘Matrix’ sequels.  They are too convoluted, too strange, and just not fun enough.  In the midst of listening to a bunch of self-important characters spouting phrases like “It is inevitable”, “systemic anomaly”, “he is your negative” and “I didn’t know, but I believed”, you realize how tedious this whole thing feels compared to the original’s simplicity.  ‘The Matrix’ was about one thing: Good vs. Evil.  You can throw in whatever philosophy, spirituality, or religious undertones that you want in there, but that’s the bottom line.  These two sequels don’t want to be that simple about it, which would’ve been fine if it didn’t mean compromising the first film in the process.  I’ll repeat that the Wachowski brothers were obviously uncertain if the first film would be a success, and so, not knowing if they could continue, they decided to try and tie up as much as possible in it.

Had they been willing to gamble, they might have been able to craft a nice enough trilogy, over the course of which Neo could discover that he is the One, much in the way that the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy follows Luke’s becoming a Jedi, and Vader’s redemption.  Instead we have a messy trilogy whose punch-line was delivered in the first film and then spends the length of two films trying to stretch that out.  The result is disappointing.

All that being said, if you happen to like a lot of action and special effects, these aren’t bad movies as far as Hollywood blockbusters go.  I can’t say they’re fun, but for the right people I’d imagine that it’s worth it to see these two.  But again, I just wouldn’t expect anything spectacular.  Personally I just pretend that ‘Reloaded’ and ‘Revolutions’ simply don’t exist.  There is only the one, ‘The Matrix’.  And it ends with Neo flying off to save the day and kick some machine-ass.  I don’t need anymore, nor do I want anymore.