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Charlie Kaufman’s Hollywood

July 30, 2012 Leave a comment

Screenwriting has always been a thick game. Despite the dalliances of Faulkner and the curiosity of Fitzgerald, major literary figures have – to some degree – distanced themselves from Hollywood business. Most of the active filmmakers who consider the medium capable of art both write and direct — P.T. Anderson, Ethan and Joel Coen, and Terrence Malick to name a few popular examples. So rarely is the cinema greeted by self-sufficient literary genius. Enter Charlie Kaufman. Now, I don’t want to suggest that he is a genius yet. He has written and made a few extraordinary films, but time is necessary to judge the type of thought and ambition that Kaufman has begun to practice. Charlie Kaufman is without comparison in contemporary popular filmmaking — a screenwriting auteur and an artist willing to confront literature and creativity as the object of his own literature and creativity. It is easy to get lost in a forest of postmodernist nonsense when considering his films and I’ll do my best to avoid most of that.

Kaufman is responsible for writing Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. With his script for Synecdoche, New York, he made his first attempt at directing. Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine are both clearly Kaufman’s scripts, but they are also his most juvenile. They are dense stories that attempt to assess how our memories shape personal relationships. They also use gimmicky business models as a way to justify their density. To be relative, though, either of these films has room close to the top of their respective years. Juvenile for Kaufman is 300 level philosophy for us. But it is in Adaptation. and Synecdoche that he lets go of those tricks. We’ll focus on those two pictures as examples of Kaufman’s importance in keeping the movies vital.

Adaptation. is, among other things, about the process of adapting a novel into a screenplay. Kaufman was tasked with turning “The Orchid Thief,” a book by Susan Orlean, into a movie. When he became blocked, he wrote himself, a fictional twin brother, and his own experience into the film. Nicholas Cage, in his finest screen appearance this side of Face/Off, plays both Charlie and Donald Kaufman. Charlie is trying to adapt “The Orchid Thief” and, in combatting his writers block, comes to terms with the demands of Hollywood and his twin brother. We can imagine that the film is really just a grand fictionalization of Kaufman’s own experience writing it. Adaptation. gives us immediate evidence towards Kaufman’s importance. Since he is actually willing to write himself and a make-believe brother into a screenplay, he brings the audience closer to the artifice of movies. This ties in with an even more critical point that I’ll get to with Synecdoche, but Adaptation. allows the audience an additional layer of awareness. He inserts Cage into behind-the-scenes footage on the set of Malkovich and constantly references previous events in the film (like the creation montage) as Cage’s character writes them into the fictional screenplay. The astonishing thing about this is that the film doesn’t lose mobility with this awareness. Kaufman isn’t asking us to just be aware that we’re watching a movie — he’s asking us to see how dirty the process can get, but still deliver an engrossing, beautiful product. That’s why, in the final image, we pass through a week of time on the L.A. street while watching a single bed of flowers stay the same. He’s drawing an important comparison between the creative process and natural process. And much of the film is really about his own adaptation to the “rules” and “principles” of Hollywood. Many critics claim that the final 30 minutes destroy the entire movie, but it seems like, shrewdly, Kaufman intended it as a sly send-up of the way so many Hollywood films jump off the ledge. Unlike others who have tried to reveal this extra awareness with cheeky nods to the camera, he uses it as a way to dissect creative experiences and capitalize on his own writers block.

With Adaptation., Kaufman first allowed himself to experiment with creativity as the actual subject of a narrative. He wasn’t trying to answer the existential questions people believe him to be obsessing over. I don’t believe it is fair to say that Kaufman is obsessed with a subject any more than any other writer. The difference is that he doesn’t stop himself where most writers decide to stop. What does it mean to “put it all on the page”? With Synecdoche, Kaufman still seeks truth in the creative process, but uses death instead of Hollywood as his “portal.” Phil Seymour Hoffman plays an aging theater director (Caden Cotard) who engages in a number of relationships and marriages during the second half of his life.

Synecdoche, Kaufman’s directorial debut, is full of more visceral and emotional moments than Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry were ever able to pull from his scripts. For instance, Caden watches his estranged, grown-up, tattooed daughter dance naked in a glass box — he screams her name but she can’t or won’t listen. Much of Synecdoche works on a simply cinematic level, ignoring intellectual pursuits for a moment. It functions as a moving portrait of parenthood with Caden’s relationship with Olive. It does not ignore the way men float through marriages, often choosing very similar women. And the finale is a gripping abstraction of a moment in life that no viewer can have experienced. Just recognizing it as a movie reveals some decade-defining performances from Hoffman and Morton and a dynamite make-up job as well.

But the magic of Synecdoche is derived from its astonishing intellectual ambition. No words can relay the gravity of what Synecdoche attempts to accomplish. With death as its obsessive motif, the film is more clearly an illustration of all life and the way we try to process it. After his wife and daughter leave him, Caden receives a MacArthur “Genius” grant and decides to make a “truly uncompromising” theater piece that shares the same ambition as the film. In a massive warehouse, Caden and his enormous team slowly erect a life-size facsimile of New York City — ultimately, it even contains the warehouse in which the facsimile is built. Caden’s theater piece functions in the same way that the script does in Adaptation. Both are attempting to discover larger connections while deconstructing creativity. Synecdoche does make some progress in demonstrating how we compartmentalize all the people in our lives. It’s really a window into the narcissism of which we are all guilty. We all build our own warehouses and store our relationships in them. We expect certain things from certain people. But we don’t stop to understand that they have built their own warehouse, too. We can’t share that space.

Caden’s theater venture does reveal the greatest strength in Synecdoche and Kaufman’s most profound cinematic revelation — the binding intimacy between art and life. We watch Caden search for the meaning of his life through art. His wife’s work becomes infinitely smaller as his becomes infinitely larger. Most potently, Caden casts a man who has been following him for 20 years to play himself in the play. Some scenes are acted out, only to eventually be revealed as a rehearsal for the play. Ultimately, there is no difference between Caden’s art and his life. We can easily quote Shakespeare here, but Synecdoche is something else.

As the film relates to Kaufman himself, it is really a continuation of the subject he began to pursue in Adaptation. – creativity. The film sometimes reads as a criticism of the very questions it seems to be asking, balanced so confidently between pretense and unintelligibility. Synecdoche is what happens when a writer “puts it all on the page.” It doesn’t solve any of the riddles that Caden sets out to understand. In fact, it’s as much of a movie about the limits of genius as it is about the capabilities of one. Kaufman is saying that rabbit holes exist. Endless loops exist. Dead ends exist. He is beginning to understand that some of these questions we all want to ask are really just too much. There’s no answer.

And it’s Kaufman’s audacity to confront his own creativity and its limits in clear sight that makes him vital to Hollywood’s literary climate. Instead of just settling for sly self-reference or fleeting moments of meta-textuality, he fights the creative battle on the page and for everyone to see. His grace reminds me of David Foster Wallace, a martyr of 21st Century literature who was able to transcend “postmodernism” by confronting it without an attempt at irony or wit. Kaufman, likewise, is capable of great literary accomplishments. Thankfully, he makes movies.

Who Turned Out The Dark?: Visual Shrinkage in the Digital Age

April 24, 2012 2 comments

George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, good buddies in their student days, are frequently cited as the first Computer Boys of the film industry. Both have claimed that film itself is a technology.

Maybe they’re still saying it, but times have changed. We live in a time where film is becoming data. Digitalization of movies has been discussed at length, especially the presumed effect on preservation, fidelity, and economics. But what about us? How does it change the moviegoing experience? For decades, shooting 24 frames across the screen in one second was a miracle. Should we be bothered by all the Ones and Zeros?

Regardless of whether you have a simple crush on Jude Law or an incurable obsession with film, it’s almost guaranteed that you have seen at least a clip of something online and done so illegally. According to the NPD Group, for every legally downloaded movie in the US there are twelve pictures obtained illegally. The MPAA claims that this trend costs the industry over 20 billion dollars annually. A Nielson study states that 73% of adults avoid movie theaters because they believe the cost to be too high. But can we really blame Hollywood? The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings have accounted for a dominating share of 21st Century Hollywood income, not to mention the numerous superhero releases. Some blockbusters manage to maintain decent critical opinion, but the majority are met with disdain — even by the millions of people willing to shell out $8 to see them. Even those of us who need to constantly satiate our film addiction know that The Digital Age has changed the game. Cinephilia has always been a wild race, but now it’s a stationary sprint. Elaborate home theaters and tiny computers have replaced the Silver Screen. It used to be a global scavenger hunt for the newest restoration of Napoleon, now the adventure hardly takes us further than the laundry room. Instead of chasing down that elusive screening of Fig Leaves with our friends, we wait for a torrent or, in the worst case, Criterion to publish a $30 special edition Blu-Ray. The data and our own habits have taught us that convenience trumps quality. The Digital Age has brought history’s theater to our laps. Read more…

Match Point (Allen, 2005)

April 24, 2012 1 comment

Allen breaks a miserable dry spell with Match Point. Since Deconstructing Harry, of 1997, he very much earned the popular criticism of material regurgitation. He stepped outside of his comfort zone and outside of the United States, creating a crafty homage to Hitchcock and Chabrol.

First of all, it was nice to see Allen working in London. Among working directors, he is the most capable of capturing the truth in a town. It would eventually come to full fruition in the recent Midnight in Paris, but his love for orgiastic civilization translates to film just as well in London as it does in Manhattan.

It was in stepping outside of his modus operandi that he pulls out of the rut, but so many of the trademarks are there. The usual preoccupation with fatalism and truth are pinned onto an amiable troupe of Upper Crust Brits. That is, except our protagonist. While Allen is not the only writer capable of successfully building a main character of such loathsome quality, he is the most fancy about it. Chris is played remarkably by Jonathan Rhys Meyers – a casting decision that quite possibly vaulted the picture from mediocrity to definition. His glib manipulation is, at first, difficult to understand. But by the end of Match Point, we are the audience to his every thought. The deposition with the detectives is a fascinating example of filming the thoughts, not the words. We see into his self-loathing and it looks great.

So much cannot be said for Johansson, whose struggling actress character was probably looked at with some irony by Allen. She is the archetypal Allen Sexy Nymphette. In a performance that begins with such intrigue and fantasy, it rapidly devolves into a schizomaniacal tour of her body and methods of anger. I don’t blame this on Allen. I’ve yet to be impressed by her, and I am beginning to think that Hollywood feels the same way.

Finally, it is worth noting how Match Point is so much of a charming tip-of-the-hat in Hitchcock’s direction. A witty use of Checkhov’s Gun. A wedding ring MacGuffin. Allen succeeds admirably in imitating the shapes and structures of an inimitable force. Match Point ends up being like a sissy twisted up version of Frenzy with much more wit and character. Certainly not Allen’s most monumental effort. And not one that demands much rewatching. But it broke perhaps the worst cycle of work by a respectable director. Too bad he didn’t sustain the tradition of avoiding expectation.

68.2

[Review] Black Swan (Aronofsky, 2010)

April 24, 2012 Leave a comment

Oh, the melodrama! Oh, the self-indulgence! Oh, the decadence! Oh, the bare assumptions!

Black Swan tells us little more than we already know — art is difficult, (absolute) perfection isn’t possible, and pressure can kill you. Despite these cliché’s and the indulgent, Romantic segments, Black Swan is intense. It harnesses a type of psychological depth which Aronofsky is particularly capable of achieving. First of all, he makes anxiety palpable. In scenes where Nina is among all of the dancers warming up, the editing shifts in rhythm; not too quickly, not too slowly. It is like our brain switching direction. We are changing our minds with her. We are seeing our competition and knowing we are inferior. Aronofsky has a unique gift to pass stress on to the audience, especially when they’re in the dark. This transferred anxiety is the price of creation. The price of beauty. In fact, what is Black Swan aside from the question — how much does perfection cost? It isn’t an indictment of eating disorders and aggressive teachers, but it is an intimate document, albeit fictional, of creativity and hard work — and what that combination is capable of. Is it in opposition to all creativity? Is Aronofsky telling people to stop working so hard? Those are all the wrong questions. The real question is: are you willing? How far are you ready to go? Black Swan is ultimately a celebration, in bright white bliss, of creation and having a fatal devotion to it. The mirror. Her vanity. Her incessant desire kills her. Not work.

Aside from the thick thesis of Black Swan, it is right to commend so many components. The camera motion is some of the best in recent history. It is as choreographed as the dancers, moving with precision and beauty. It is also a psychological unit. The camera is always on the fringe of Nina’s head, a bird of prey ready to abduct her sanity.

Natalie Portman performs with humble brilliance. The role is an impossible one. A child. A genius. A masochist. So sheltered. The scene in which she masturbates on her bed only to see her mom sleeping close by is a nugget of gold. It shows such profound loneliness. It illuminates her sexual need for her mother because her father is gone. Was she imagining her father? It is a cinematic moment that makes movies the thing that they are. It says a million words in thirty seconds. In addition to Portman’s career best, we have an encouraging performance from Mila Kunis, real or not.

Black Swan and Aronofsky understand how much we need to understand ourselves. And how destructive that can be. Nina meets fate in the form of a mirror. It is nothing but her own vanity and obsession that kill her. Not hard work. Not looking for perfection. Nina dies for her inability to be both black and white.

83.8

[Review] Moneyball (Miller, 2011)

April 24, 2012 Leave a comment

It’s all true. Everything you’ve heard. Moneyball is “not just another baseball movie.” But, Lord, give me Field of Dreams, give me Little Big League, even give me Angels in the Outfield. But keep MONEYBALL away.

I will concede that the film looks wonderful. It has rich darks and infinite blacks, excellent shadows, and pale whites. The shots down long bending stadium corridors are magnificently focused and clean. The film even has an incredibly underrated script. It is full of natural dialogue with organic pauses, repetitions, and idiosyncrasies. The words have such strong rhythm.

Why doesn’t the story? Moneyball is the story of a great film that was murdered in the editing room. At least 15 minutes could have been edited out of the second and third acts. The analytic neatness embedded in the theme is destroyed by disjunct editing that recklessly jumps from scenario to scenario with wobbly confidence. It’s as if the editor was just following the script and putting in the first take he or she could find then letting it play until another switch was necessary. It results in a very sloppy picture. I feel smug complaining about this, but the movie is about numbers, analysis, and math.

Also, Moneyball frequently attempts to employ the inspirational music device while talking about using players who have been numerically overlooked by other franchises. First of all, it is cheap emotion. Second, it is cheap metaphor. Third, it is a bad metaphor. The underdog theory and the BPitt/JHill vs. Everyone bout becomes exhausting. The real problem is that there are no stakes.

No stakes. No personal relationships. No attachments. We are even told that the GM isn’t supposed to have close relationships with players. The audience is not full of players. We are never given access to anything interesting or sympathetic about these characters. We see a touch of Billy’s past and his failure. In fact, Brad Pitt does a fairly good piece of work in this role. It is understated and precise, a much more difficult character than he might generally see. Either way, as the pressure and focus turns onto the players and the game during the final act, the audience is left with nothing on which to hold. Moneyball fails to establish any kind of emotional pivot and, as a result, a great adaptation and a great story lose popular sympathy even in a brilliantly shot, lit, scripted, and acted work.

54.9

[Review] Easy A (Gluck, 2010)

April 24, 2012 1 comment

I’m disappointed in the critical nonchalance. This picture deserves enthusiasm.

Everyone is talking about Emma Stone’s undeniable brilliance, but that isn’t the only thing driving this movie toward multiple viewings. First of all, Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson turn in giddy performances (as usual; Tucci is one of our best in Hollywood) that revel in Royal’s insistent and repetitive script. They are the source of some of Easy A‘s funniest moments. Indeed, it is structured so that the first half is a LOLian misadventure and the second is a more solemn exploration of the truth it is trying to expose. The camera work is commendable, with several exciting tracking shots that swerve in and out of slow and fast motion.

Contempt for faith is becoming old. Films attempting to convert (or more commonly, dissuade) are insufferable. Easy A uses religion, but avoids that trap. The scene where Olive gives confession and no one is there to listen. The overzealous and hypocritical youngsters. Most of this is a nibble or gnaw on the state-of-affairs while still asserting that having values is possible — even in a world like this one.

And here we arrive at the thesis. Does Easy A have one? The final line, “It’s none of your damn business” is quite telling. It’s some kind of a plea for kids to stop living in other people’s worlds. With Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, we all think that our thoughts are Gospel and everyone needs to understand them. Even in movies like Avatar, they inspire the thought that living in a world other than our own might somehow be better. Easy A urges people to be honest, be personable, and get off the computer sometimes. Is the film cruel? A bit. Is the film unsure of its own point? A bit. Is the film worth understanding for yourself? A bit. It is proof that Hollywood can periodically hit the mark, or get an A, by building a foundation of comedy without resorting to crudeness and leading (potentially impressionable) viewers to a valuable idea. I’m not saying that the film is a piece of art rivaling its great-grandmother, The Scarlet Letter, but it is the best adaption and it does relate the fundamental plea for compassion to a generation that (unfortunately) needs to laugh and see gaping cleavage to understand.

Easy A is a successful film. Emma Stone is young and raw, capable of great comedy and asking for the hesitant, sarcastic sympathy my generation responds to. There is a bright, relentless script and a slew of notable supporting performances. It was one of the best surprises in 2010, proof that you can still sprinkle vitamins into cereal like sugar.

72.1

[99 Problems] Dürer, Godfathers, Velvet Underground

April 24, 2012 Leave a comment

Originally published 5 June 2010

Woodcut prints don’t quite demand the respect of the digital age. Up until we figured out easier ways to make color copies of masterpieces, woodcuts were the best way to get an artist international recognition. This was no different in the case of Albrecht Dürer and his Apocalypse works. This was a sequence of 15 woodcuts, all based on John’s Revelation. The most famous of which is The Four Horsemen.

There is so much detail in this picture that you can hardly discern its’ subjects in a reproduction this small. Using only black and white, light and dark, Dürer makes some of Western art’s most expressive shapes just by slicing up some wood. The linear agitation is startling. The woodcut has extraordinary motion, moving from left to right just as fast as the horses. While most other artists would rely on tone and shading to accomplish this task, Dürer revolutionizes the art of woodcuts, proving that expression is not limited to painting or sculpture. The way in which the artist details the fluttering saddle-cloths and other garments is alive and exciting. Same with the way he distinguishes background from foreground. If you have good eyes, look at the faces of the four horsemen. They are all focused on a distant target, probably the subject along with the rest of humanity, and they show no concern for the mass of humans they are trampling. In the bottom left corner is a terrifying image of a clergyman being devoured by a monster resembling a dragon. This has historical implications, as the cut was printed in 1498, only 19 years before the beginning of the Protestant Reformation (Revolution). Dürer survived this Revolution and kept bearing great art during it. As legions formed both for and against the Catholic Church, the world wondered wether the apocalypse or end of Christianity was actually at hand.

As it turns out, watching the first two parts of The Godfather is almost 6 hours of viewing. This explains why I didn’t post anything yesterday and why my neck is killing me. No regrets, though. The film is claimed by many to be one of the best ever made, and I wouldn’t try too hard to disagree with them. (I refer to both parts as one film, as they both cover events from the same book.) It features the best cast yet assembled, a slow but never dry screenplay, masterful lighting and camerawork, and at least three hearty combinations of murder and church. I speak specifically of the christening scene at the end of Part I, a unique, trendsetting accomplishment of climax in film. The murders in that scene are cold-blooded and reveal Michael’s focus on only the long term. (Horseman, anyone?) It would take a larger-than-normal wiki page to document the references that Coppola’s movies have had in other pop-culture avenues.

The Godfather is easily the most black and white color movie ever made. Private scenes are usually cast in unusually dark lighting with characters dressed in contrasting colors. One of Coppola’s favorite shots, showing up first on Vito Corleone and continuing at every family meeting for the remaining 480 minutes, is the half-dark, half-light face. The final scene of Part II is a fading look at Michael’s scarred psychology. A close up of his face, half of it hidden in oblivion. Just before that, in a flashback to before the whole thing started, light bathes a room full of Corleone family, most of whom would end up dead. Part Two contains much darker lighting than Part One, also including Winter, a season not experienced in the First. The two stories of Part Two further the dark/light duality and continue the revolution that takes place in Vito and Michael.

On the surface, The Godfather is about the corruption of a man – Michael. Underneath that and driving his destruction is the conflict between family responsibility and business responsibility. Like the black/white features of the film, family and business are revealed to be irreconcilable terms. The two parts show a slow but defined shift in importance from one to the other. In the very beginning, at the wedding, Michael makes the claim that “That’s my family, not me,” when asked about his participation in the mafia. After his father is shot and his other two brothers prove to be incapable of handling the work, Michael begins his journey to corruption and dishonesty, climaxing in his ruthless treatment of his wife and murder of two partners, one being his own brother. In the end, his vengeance does not prove to end his struggle (surprise?), mirroring the revelation of his fathers’ vengeance in Sicily. Along with the revolution in both Michael and Vito, the film also tracks two important movements in history. One being Vito’s arrival in America along with the thousands and thousands of other immigrants. Vito proves to be one of many and becomes a highly respected man. The American dream. Another is Michael’s experience with the revolution in Cuba, marking a failure in his judgment. Not the first failure in his judgment, Michael also allowed the Corleone family to begin dealing in narcotics, something his father never did.

If the Velvet Underground did as much heroin as they claimed, it wouldn’t be too surprising if they managed to buy drugs from the fictional Corleone family. In their 1967 album The Velvet Underground and Nico, they explore the counterculture and predict trends that wouldn’t hit rock and roll for another 20-30 years. With a little help from Andy Warhol, the band made a silent revolution in rock, left unappreciated for decades.

The album is full of tripped out instrumental tricks and sprechstimme-esque vocals, often out of tune but usually expressive. They utilized an electric viola and celeste in certain tunes, audible especially at the climax of “Heroin.” Some songs, like the one previously mentioned, contain static harmonic sequences, only involving the rotation of two or three chords. This brought the numb opiate subject matter to life as well as integrated minimalist trends into rock. The drums in “I’m Waiting For The Man” numb the listener with ceaseless snare-drum eighth notes. The two previously noted songs as well as others on the album contain shameless references to drug abuse and counterculture. A surviving document of the ’60′s social revolution, Velvet Underground doesn’t hold back. “All Tomorrow’s Parties” is a stoned drone against a banging syncopated piano and vocals reaching the bottom of Nico’s vocal range. Also, the band made frequent use of a guitar tuning system where all notes would be tuned to the same note, only in different octaves. From there, and noting the use of viola drones and trance-inducing rhythms, the band accessed a revolutionary sound, predicting sonorities that would lay dormant until Sonic Youth, Pavement, and Radiohead.

[99 Problems] The Matrix, The Magic Flute, Gates of Hell

April 24, 2012 Leave a comment

Originally published 4 June 2010.

I can still remember the first time I watched The Matrix. I was probably 13 or so and saw a hokey edited version on TV. When it was over, I picked my jaw up off the floor and continued to leap around my room, making serious attempts at defying gravity and space-time. Nothing was safe, I would run and kick, pretending Agent Smith was in my dresser. The action sequences of the film changed the face of movie violence. The shots where time slows down to “bullet time” have become etched in pop culture through parodies on virtually every comedy show that aired in this decade. While the influence on action films was obvious, The Matrix also played a huge part in developing fantasy and mythology in combination with action. The complex philosophies, while often flawed, and the deft use of cliffhanger went on to influence a new generation of television and film. Dwelling amongst the fantasy and violence is the important role of theology. The Matrixreads at times like a Spaghetti Western and at times like the Gospel of John. As troublesome as the mixture proved to be in the later films, the first one made good use of them both and created captivating science fiction.

The Matrix is packed with common theological concerns and questions. Neo is initially intrigued by the question “What is the Matrix?”, but the moment that question is answered, another pops up – “What is Reality?” This is an integral part of the theological and philosophical mindset. One question just leads to another. In fact, Neo and Morpheus both display intense faith and trust in not only each other, but in the synchronicity of their situations. There is the famous appearance of the red pill and the blue pill. The red containing truth and the blue containing ignorance. This is the choice we face when moving to accept a religious doctrine. When that doctrine reveals truth to us, we take the red pill, committing ourselves to that truth and leaving behind ignorance. Morpheus shares his belief with Neo that he is the reincarnation of a messianic figure who was born inside the Matrix and who was promised to save the humans. This Eastern notion is coupled with a scene of resurrection, Neo breaking out of a womb-like shell and being told, “Welcome to the real world.” A difficult question is raised in the struggle that the “real world” presents. Is it better to know the truth and be miserable or to live in ignorance and be happy? In the Matrix, ignorance is the tool of evil, just like in our world. The Machines made the Matrix only so that humans will give their energy to them without knowing it. This is the place where I mention the Brain In a Vat concept.

This complex philosophy lends itself to our easy slip into the Matrix fantasy universe. You can usually judge how good the fantasy is by counting the number of comic books and video games that spawn off of a fiction. In The Matrix the Wachowski brothers play with the advancement of the internet to integrate fiction and reality. Since the internet was and still is widely misunderstood in technical terms, it easily a creates a rabbit hole where we can accept a number of possibilities resulting from it. It takes most people, including me, a couple viewings to fully comprehend the labyrinth of dreams and reality that construct The Matrix. That is part of the genius of it. The writers gave the universe a vaguely believable shading which was brought to life by the filming. The camera work never abandons realism even in the most gravity-breaking circumstances. While action sequences didn’t abandon realism, they sometimes abandoned the greater mythology of the trilogy. Especially in the latter two films.

The number 3 comes in handy when looking at Mozart’s second to last opera Die Zauberflöte or The Magic Flute. Just as one of the characters in The Matrix is named Trinity, there are just about 3 of everything in The Magic Flute. Three ladies. Three boys. Three slaves. Three priests. Usually sets employ three of everything. Mozart engraved 3′s into the music. Rhythms and key signatures. Many sequences in the opera take place in Eb, or 3 flats. Eb happens to be Mozart’s most sublime key along with A (3 sharps). (Beethoven did a lot of digging on C minor, also 3 flats…) You get the point. This opera took the concept of artistic symbolism and fantasy to new heights.

It’s pretty convincing that Magic Flute was widely influenced by Mozart’s dabbling in Freemasonry. You can’t really have a discussion of it without mentioning the Masons. This is evident in the first rhythms of the opera, thought by many to be a secret knock to the Masonic temple. The Masonic theology makes significant appearances as well. The morals of the opera are based around transitioning from religious superstition to enlightened rationalism by way of trial and education. The Queen of the Night, who sings the famous aria that will bust your wine glass, embodies obscurantism and reflects problems with 18th Century Catholicism while Sarastro, her nemesis, rules according to nature and reason. The ultimate message of the work becomes one of making Earth like Heaven and the mortals like gods.(“Dann ist die Erd’ ein Himmelreich, und Sterbliche den Göttern gleich.”) The opera is full of deliciousness, including some of the first trombone usage in opera, and would make for a good first trip to the opera house if you have never been.

Rodin’s The Gates of Hell were never actually used as gates, thank goodness. I would not walk through those. The artist spent 37 years on the project, never finishing it. Modeled after Ghiberti’s gates at the Florence Baptistery, the work mainly details images from Dante’s Inferno, but looks into the nature of evil and sin as a whole. Like The Matrix it abounds in religious fervor and is charged with intellectualism. I point you to just above the doors for evidence – the famous Thinker. One of the most reproduced men in art, he is said to be the image of Dante as well as Rodin, himself. The Thinkerconveys human creativity and his slouchy posture seems to reference incomplete philosophy or creation – like the gates.

Unlike Mozart in his final years, Rodin didn’t seem to be concerned with finishing The Gates. Pointing to the Gothic cathedrals, he asked, “Were they ever finished?” Instead, this work functioned almost like a notebook for Rodin, an infinite canvas on which he could dispose of demons. The work is an orgy of fantastical images – twisting bodies, terror, and anguish. The three figures on the top are shame incarnate. And toward the bottom left is an ogre believed to feed on children – clearly “damned.” Directly below him is a woman sprawled out over a rock, still, after what could have been an eternity of suffering, looks out and up for help only to see a wash of sin and pain.

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