The Matrix

Because after watching Inception, I wanted a reminder of what I was missing. What hit me this time around was just how well this film was paced -- feeding you little bits of mystery as you go along. Every scene works off the one before. Particularly liked the steakhouse cut to protein goop transition. Also noted the less-subtle-now-that-my-beard-is-long green / blue tinge of the shots in the Matrix / the Real. Clever! Cause green is, like, sickly and computer-y? And blue is, like, cold and metallic? Props Mr. Cinematographer! Also: Hey! Do you like cybergoths and bullet-time and Japanese anime? Yeah? So does THE WORLD, thanks to The Matrix.

But enough with the gush. What we want to talk about is THEMES, because that's what we always talk about on The Hot-Doll Pages. Number one, and here Mr. Nolan of Inception fame has been paying particularly close attention: is reality preferable to fantasy. Cypher believes it is, and is willing to kill his friends in order to go back to ignorance is bliss. EVIL! But wait, what is interesting here is that Cypher rebels not just because he wants steak, but because he doesn't like being told what to do by Morpheus. And here we get to theme number two: defiance of authority. Thomas A. Anderson is a cog in the machine. Get a job, pay your taxes, die. He is a battery. We ALL are, in this world we live in. You wonder, what would it be like to fly? Neo finds out at the end of the film (SPOILERZZZ!). And how does he get there? Here we arrive at theme number three: whatever the hell that Oracle lady was talking about. A puzzle, when I was younger. But now I have beard-growth! Hear me speak wisdom! The Oracle cannot tell you the future (no determinism here, strictly free will). She points the way, by making you BELIEVE she knows the future. Because when you believe something hard enough, it becomes true. At least, it worked for Morpheus and Trinity and Neo. But does it work, like, always? Also: can you fly, like, in the real world? Also: isn't Morpheus's zealotry, like, a bit scary? Could have been interesting territory to explore in Reloaded or Revolutions or whatever. If only...

So, friends, here we have THEMES. Also the bullet-time, cybergoth, anime-like stuff mentioned in the first paragraph. We shall hereby add the two together and make for ourselves one of the greatest films of ALL MUTHAFUCKIN TIME. Defence. Rests.


Ode on a Grecian Urn

Thou still unravished bride of quietness!
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flow'ry tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal -yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoyed,
For ever panting and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea-shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of its folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou sayst,
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

Keats I did for my A-Levels, and I think the above was the first of his odes our class was asked to deal with. I remember that in the lesson we made SOME progress, but that our teacher kept pushing further. I can never know what it was she was trying to get us to find. Re-reading it now that I'm older and wiser, I've pushed my own way, and have arrived at an interpretation I'm happy with.

Although on the first lines of the poem... I'm stumped. What to make of "still unravish'd bride" and "foster-child", two familial bonds ("bride" and "child") given an unconventional twist? The urn is pure and unbroken (although it could break), and it has been adopted by "silence" (though wasn't always so). A very ponderable opener, I think. Well done, Mr. Keats!

The rest of the stanza is dominated by the word "what". The poet is looking for answers, and it looks like the urn is unforthcoming. Instead it teases endlessly. It is full of movement, energy, life: "pursuit", "escape", "mad", "wild". The pictures burst out of their borders, and a sweet and flowery tale is played to the poet's mind and imagination. All very well, but no answers.

Stanza two seems to have a thing for the words "not", "no", "nor" and "never". A pretty sad stanza, it would appear. There is no resolution to these scenes. It's all tension. But there is a perfection in such stasis. "Never" becomes "for ever". Love and beauty will eternally be encapsulated in the pictures painted on this urn.

"Happy" seems to be the winning word in stanza three. Eternal perfection is a joyous thing, is it not? But again, the last lines flip the script. All this enthusiasm has made the poet hot, sweaty, thirsty, uncomfortable. Not perfect. He is in the real world. And the real world sucks.

Not that the worlds evoked in art are always cozy. The whos, the whats and the whys return in stanza four, and here "mysterious" sounds sinister, and there's an air of oppression to "lowing at the skies". The town is "desolate", and no eye-witness can return to our own day to tell us why. Woe can be just as eternal as love.

The last stanza is full of mixed feelings: we have "branches" and we have "trodden weed". The word "attic" suggests irrelevance as well as age, the word "cold" implies aloofness -- an unfeeling attitude. The urn defies meditation and easy judgements. The whos, the whats and the whys cannot arrive at any truth. History is no friend of man, the poet finds only woe in it. Rather: "beauty is truth". Politics, religion, health, money, reality is unimportant. ART is the only truth we can be sure about, and the only one we really need.


The White Tiger

Might just be the first Booker Prize winner I have read (I've forgotten which McEwan won). Modern literature is pretty foreign territory for me, being crowded out by pulp (comics and prose) and the occasional classic. Read this one very quickly (it is readable), but come out with mixed feelings.

The aim of the novel is straightforward: to provide an inescapably bleak vision of India through the eyes of a smiling psychopath, who understands a thing or two about irony, and who has escaped the 'Darkness' through murder and theft. Sounds more exciting than it is, unfortunately. Most of the novel deals with the narrator as servant -- not just a job but a state of mind. One that keeps the majority of Indians inside the 'chicken coop' -- exploited and powerless. Only when all his illusions about his master are destroyed does Balram Halwai get ruthless, and the White Tiger, a rare beast, get unleashed.

The murder and theft mentioned above is actually one incident. No epic noir criminal spree here (mind fondly recollects The Moor's Last Sigh). And we are told about Balram's betrayal and emancipation at the very beginning, which I think was a mistake, as it robs the novel of any kind of tension. I knew exactly where the story was going, and I wasn't in any way disappointed.

But I think my problems with the book run deeper than that. Two weeks ago I finished Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. I haven't posted about it because I don't have the capacity to say anything particularly worthwhile. The book has similar themes: pulling yourself up by your bootstraps (or in McCarthy-speak, "whether the stuff of creation may be shaped to man's will or whether his own heart is not another kind of clay"). Also man's essentially mercenary nature question mark. Poetically and cognitively, Blood Meridian is a giant that crushes everything in its path. By comparison, the narrator in The White Tiger is no poet, neither is he much of a philosopher. His descriptions of India's barbarism never inspired true horror, nor much reflection.

Until the very end, that is. Balram describes his business, the way he works corrupt policemen, how he dodges punishment for the people who die under the wheels of his drivers. But the scales are balanced the other way as well. He treats his employees fairly, and not in a disingenuous paternalistic fashion. He pays weregild for the deaths he causes. Most importantly, he is free of hypocrisy. Most powerful people, he says, politicians and entrepreneurs, have buried bodies on their way to the top. For him, it was the only way out of the miserable poverty he was born in. Can you blame me? he asks, and it becomes difficult to. An extraordinary position to be put in, as a reader.

The final chapter can almost stand on its own. The rest of the novel is flawed, I think, but it is worth ploughing through to reach that carefully balanced finish. Or if that is not enough of a recommendation, trade India for the Wild West and go read Blood Meridian. And good luck to you.



So. All of Chris Nolan's mind-fuckery aside, what is this film actually about anyways? I was left with the following thoughts: how dangerously seductive fantasy can be, and how we can never be entirely sure if what we experience is really there or not. Interesting parallels can be drawn with Nolan's other films (that I have seen). In The Dark Knight and Memento the heroes both end up with fantasies, thrust upon them or freely chosen respectively. With Inception, reality seems to be preferred. Ahh yes, that word 'seems'. For me, the ending felt less like a final twist of the knife and more like a wry, throwaway parting shot. Two theories. One: we never actually SEE Saito and Cobb shoot themselves (although it is heavily implied) so Cobb's happy ending may still be in limbo. Two (my preference): Cobb's happy ending is real, and Nolan's teasing is a tongue-in-cheek way of breaking the fourth wall -- films are also dreams. And if he's very lucky, Nolan may have performed some inception of his own.

I ask myself: why so disappointed? Nolan's ideas, as ever, are simple, powerful and interesting. The film stuns, visually and sonically. And isn't that amazingly convoluted plot impressive? Yes, I guess, but all that stuff left very little time for character, and almost no time at all for... fun? I think back to The Dark Knight, where the fantastic set-pieces were given extra spice by the inherent silliness of the superhero genre, and which emanate from Heath Ledger's fascinating, magical, mythic Joker. The Joker creates his Gotham, and Batman tries to create an alternative. With Inception, we only have Leo earnest and guilty, with a side order of son stepping out of father's shadow. Neither held my interest that much. Neither were at all fun.

The Matrix is the comparison to make here. It contains the same ideas, but it also contains many more (the most important for me being the human being reduced to a battery -- not something we escape in our real world). Action wise, it still stuns, 14 years on. And it is fun. Neo knows kung-fu! He needs guns, lots of guns! COME ON! That is a film to love and cherish for now and for forever. The Dark Knight can go in that pile too, with its genial Alfred and histrionic Joker. Inception... well... it just doesn't make me glow inside. Sorry Mr. Nolan. So anyways, are you going to make that Dark Knight Returns movie or what?

Cat's Eye

[Notes written whilst reading, so have the double misfortune of being first impressions without the benefit of hindsight. Probably sheds less light on the novel than on the beautiful shape of my brain. Actually... all Hot-Doll material is like this.]

Also a book about oppressor and oppressed, but here it is not political but personal -- the bully and the bullied. I worried that like Handmaid's Tale I would get too little insight into the 'villain'. However, around the middle of the novel there is a beautiful moment of realization, where Elaine walks away from her abusive friends. She discovers their weakness: they need to bully her, their self-confidence is built on destroying someone else's: I am better than you.

The novel isn't just about the psychology of bully and victim, but also about the effect of the relationship on both. Elaine's cat's eye marble becomes her safety talisman; she carries this perfect, hard, round ball everywhere. And with it she learns to see differently -- to become detached from emotion, feeling, her body, to perceive only shapes, colours, puppets. An abstract vision to one side of reality. Elaine finds security in art.

High school Elaine is harder, colder. The bullying she endured has been willfully forgotten. Her interest in boys isn't emotional but aesthetic. She wants them to strike silent poses, not to talk. Cordelia, meanwhile, is much weaker. Having been deprived of someone to put down for so long, her self-confidence crumbles. We learn that the torment Cordelia inflicted on Elaine mimics and is caused by the torment inflicted on her by her father. Cordelia wants to be perfect, but can't. So she has to make someone else LESS perfect.

Elaine realizes this. What is puzzling is that she feels guilty about her relationship with her best friend. Why? Cordelia almost killed her. Elaine had every right to walk away. But she is still, unwittingly, the cause of Cordelia's deterioration. Worse, roles have been reversed. Now Elaine has been bullying Cordelia, for the same reasons. Thus: guilt, which she runs away from.

The paths of both characters crisscross twice more, and when one is on the up, the other is in the doldrums: emotionally, professionally, artistically. They are locked in a bind, where one's fortune is the other's misfortune. The present day Elaine constantly wonders where Cordelia is, how she's doing. The competition for supremacy has continued consciously and subconsciously throughout her life. Cordelia doesn't even have to be there anymore. She returns as a voice in a dark room, urging death and nothingness. One of the creepiest things I have read ever. Seriously terrifying.

Elaine wants to end the bind when returning to Toronto. Break down the walls that contain your own version of yourself, of others (by now we know the two are interlinked) and instead offer true reflection. The sharing of stories. But Cordelia doesn't turn up. She's dead, and the bind remains. So where does that leave Elaine? Victory, yes, but also emptiness. Elaine is Cordelia. So much of herself is tied up in her idea of her tormentor and friend. Cordelia's death is also her own.

The last image but two is beautifully oblique. Elaine sends her own Virgin Mary into Cordelia's past in order to save her before it is too late. Guilt, compassion, forgiveness. You wonder whether the Mary that saves Elaine suggests Cordelia felt the same feelings when she was older. But the very final image of the novel underlines the impossibility of such time-travel. The past informs the present, not the other way around. There is an acceptance, a finality, a letting go, in Elaine's parting thought that those echoes of the past are 'enough to see by'.


The Handmaid's Tale

A dystopian novel in the vein of 1984 and Brave New World, both big books during Margaret Atwood's adolescence. Here we have deadening domestic boredom punctuated by flashes of brilliant insight. A pretty good sense of life in a twenty-first century religious fundamentalist state is evoked. But for some reason, the book did not shock and scare me in the way 1984 did. I think this is because I got a lot of insight into the lives of the oppressed, but very little into the lives of the oppressor. The Commander is seen only through Offred's eyes, and all her conclusions about his personality and motivations are tentative, uncertain, subjective. Atwood leaves the reader to draw their own explanation for why this extraordinary society has come about. For me this wasn't enough. I wanted HER explanation. I wanted to be confronted with the monster direct, to understand him intimately. Basically, I wanted O'Brien's brutally candid lectures in 1984.

For the effects of evil are not as fascinating as its source.