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September 1999
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Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
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Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
Kathi Maio
Lucius Shepard
Gregory Benford
Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
Jerry Oltion
Coming Attractions
F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
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by Kathi Maio

Beyond the Magpie Impulse

Artists are thieves. Okay, maybe that's a bit harsh. They are magpies that snatch, store, and reproduce glittering cultural fragments that they collect from the four corners of their lives. A writer is particularly adept at this type of scavenging. The neuroses of parents and siblings, brilliant phrases from favorite authors, bizarre scenarios from the evening news, and even overheard conversations from laundromats and diners, are all source material for them.

And if the writer is also a filmmaker? Well then, the tendency to extract is even more apparent, since it's not just words but also images that inform their art. A particular "school" of painting, print ads, comic books, familiar locales, and, of course, the works of earlier filmmakers all get requisitioned and absorbed into the job at hand.

There's no crime in doing this. . . . Well, sometimes there is, but that's the concern of lawyers, judges, and juries. More often, it merely gives film scholars and fan[atic]s something to hash over during seminars and newsgroup exchanges.

Call it homage or call it unintentional plagiarism. Either way, I truly believe that the magpie impulse is unavoidable in movie-making. Yet it is nonetheless increasingly problematic in the movies we see. For most of today's directors and screenwriters just don't know what to do with the oddments they manage to gather. While a good film is able to meld scores of elements into a cinematic experience that seems unique and deeply satisfying, most contemporary movies are just a jumble of elements that never coalesce into a whole.

These ruminations came to me while I watched the recent SF hit, The Matrix. The film never quite comes together, but it's not for want of some fascinating elements. The Wachowski brothers, Andy and Larry (Bound), have obviously read a lot of books and seen a lot of television and movies. They ransack them all to make The Matrix. I can't name everything they "sample" in this, their second feature, but a few obvious influences are Blade Runner, the Bible, Alice in Wonderland, Japanese manga and anime, Men in Black, Hong Kong chopsocky flicks, classic SF fiction from authors like Dick, Ellison, and William Gibson, Alien/s, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, Greek mythology, Terminator and T2, the Millennium Falcon set from Star Wars, and the old "Kung Fu" TV show.

I certainly wouldn't have minded the movie's use of so many disparate elements had the sibling writer-directors managed to cook up a cohesive and original film from them. Unfortunately, they do not.

Keanu Reeves (who has never looked lovelier) stars in The Matrix as a software programmer named Thomas Anderson. By day, he is a corporate drone. By night, he is a hacker called Neo who deals in contraband. When he starts getting messages from mysterious figures named Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), he also sparks the malevolent interest of black-suited enforcement officers, including the brutal Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving).

Smith wants to use Neo as bait to capture Morpheus, whom the authorities consider "the most dangerous man alive." But Neo is drawn to the dignified and courageous Morpheus---especially since he wears cool threads and serious shades, and seems to think that Mr. Anderson is "the One" Morpheus has been seeking all his life. How flattering! And undoubtedly true. Anyone with half a brain for anagrams can tell that Neo is the One. So, young Thomas's self-doubts, and the misinformation that the film throws out from time to time to challenge Neo's role as the chosen one, are obvious red herrings.

Neo is real deal, born to fight humankind's holy war against the AI machine oppressors that view people as nothing more than a handful of copper-top batteries.

My question is, why is Neo the One? Admittedly, Keanu played Siddhartha in Little Buddha a few years back, and he looks very sexy (if not at all spiritual) in a long black coat and jack-boots. He says "Whoaah!" with such dumbfounded elan, too! But does that a messiah make? Trinity seems to have the same physical prowess as Neo, and by movie's end, she's even displayed a singular talent for raising the dead---Neo, no less---through the power of a kiss she delivers in another dimension.

How come she can't be the Messiah? Oh, that's right, she's just a girl. There to kiss the boy, and look really good in a rubber dominatrix catsuit, but not to Save the World.

Saving mankind is men's work, I guess. So why not give the brave and brilliant Morpheus the job? As I watched Laurence Fishburne go through his paces as Neo's guru cum John the Baptist, I was repeatedly disheartened. Fishburne is so good, and so charismatic. He gives the impression of a man of unlimited power who keeps the full extent of his wizardry in check so as not to scare the horses, and the ordinary humans around him. And the Wachowskis make full use of this actor's underplayed might.

Like some superfly superman, Morpheus leaps from building to building in a single bound. He is ever calm, and seemingly omniscient. Morpheus is the pirate Master, and Neo is but his callow acolyte. When Fishburne imparts wisdom like "[t]here is a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path" to his student, you almost expect him to add the endearment "grasshopper" to each pronouncement. He da man! So why can't he be the messiah?

He's the right gender. So it must be his color. By decree of the conventional Hollywood script, black actors are guaranteed roles as sidekicks and spiritguides in Hollywood movies, but the messianic roles are off limits. Since the Wachowski brothers claim to be breaking new ground in their movie, part of me wishes the filmmakers had had the foresight and courage to Do the Right Thing and make Fishburne's Morpheus the Savior he was so clearly meant to play. But another part of me wonders why we need some Judeo-Christian messiah in the first place.

Significant social change requires collective action, and not just some demigod dude who decides that he's going to apply his newfound magnificence to the problem at hand. And, in The Matrix, what does deific dynamism actually consist of, anyway? That's the saddest part of all! In the case of Neo, his higher power is nothing more than superior firepower. "Guns, lots of guns," is what our cyber-christ orders up for the final showdown with the 'droid agents of the machine-controlled world. And when Neo starts shooting, he doesn't want to stop.

As I watched Keanu run through lobbies and hallways in his long black coat spraying thousands of bullets upon other humans, I couldn't help but be haunted by the concurrent news story of the latest school massacre, perpetrated by two young lads in long black coats who decided to solve their adolescent angst with bullets and bombs.

I'm not saying that The Matrix caused those boys in Littleton to slaughter their own kind. But I am saying that it's a pathetic cop-out for this film---one its filmmakers claim as "intellectual" fare with "deeper meaning" and religious overtones---to end up with the same old blood-n-guts bang-bang young people get from every other action film, comic, and video game they absorb. Forget about pushing lofty ideas, The Matrix ends up pushing the envelope the same way every other actioner tries to, by making new strides in state-of-the-art bloodletting.

To this end, John Gaeta and his crews developed some really spiffy "flow-mo" shots for the film; much more extensive and elaborate than the brief examples we've gotten in the past from ads like those for Gap khakis. The Wachowskis call this FX breakthrough technique "bullet-time photography" since it allows characters to move at the same speed as fired ammo. Cool! (And creepy.)

If The Matrix was going to degrade into standard action, I wish that it would, at least, have spent more time on the balletic martial arts scenes choreographed by the great Hong Kong fight designer, Yuen Wo Ping. The wire-stunt work and Kung Fu routines he created---and which the cast spent four months perfecting---are truly beautiful to watch. Here, a power greater than metal ordnance is glimpsed. As characters flip, leap, and run up walls, they seem to have brought the force of their minds and spirits to a place where their bodies can defy the (artificially imposed) laws of physics.

If the Wachowskis explored the mind-body connection of martial arts a bit more, and de-emphasized the bullet-body connection of the standard shoot-em-up a bit less, they might have convinced me that their movie was of "intellectual" value. But, probably not. For when you take the blood spatters and the exploding helicopter away from The Matrix, nothing of substance remains. The flying bodies hold your interest while you watch them, but if you try to make some sense of mumbo-jumbo the characters spout, you'll only end up confused and frustrated.

In the end, the Wachowski boys have "borrowed" bits from here, there, and everywhere, and they have ended up creating a two hour and fifteen minute jumble of cultural and philosophical references with violence to spare, but precious little clarity or logic.

I found the hodgepodge of The Matrix, its box office success, and the self-proclaimed visionary nature of its plot and themes, especially maddening because it isn't half as good as a very similar film released a year earlier. That film was called Dark City, and it was directed by Alex Proyas (The Crow) and written by Proyas, with Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer.

In Dark City, too, humanity shares a collective delusion, orchestrated by an alien force. Here, the aliens are called Strangers, and they are a dying race from another corner of the universe. Disguised in the cadavers of human dead, the Strangers (with the help of an enslaved human scientist, played by Kiefer Sutherland) seek to understand and capture the vital force of the human soul. They think that remembrance is the key, and so they erase and remix human memories (and hence, human lives) each night.

The populace of this nameless Noir city are nothing more than lab animals. And yet, their essential spirit remains a sacred mystery that the Strangers cannot control. Worse, the aliens soon learn of man who has seen through the illusion of their society, by remaining wide awake during their nightly ("tuning") experiments. His name is John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), and he has somehow acquired the Strangers' telepathic powers.

Armed with the oppressor's skills, John Murdoch wants, at first, only to comprehend and escape the Orwellian horrors of his night-locked city, and find an elusive lost paradise called Shell Beach. He is, like Neo, a reluctant messiah, who eventually uses his mind and heart (instead of a small arsenal) to defend himself and all of humankind.

Real artistic vision fills every frame of Dark City. Yes, Alex Proyas was influenced by his cultural precursors. Everything from Fritz Lang's Metropolis to 1950's Hollywood film noir to French graphic novels to Terry Gilliam's Brazil bear upon his film. But Proyas is more than a petty thief. He is an alchemist who has taken countless cultural fragments and the fruits of his own imagination and created something rare and very valuable from them.

If, for some reason, you have yet to see Dark City, do not hesitate to rent, tune in, or purchase it. It is one of the finest science fiction films of recent memory. The Matrix isn't even worth wasting a free rental coupon on. It is a cluttered and coarse ragbag of a movie made by magpies . . . and studio executives.

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