The End of Humanism | The Nation


The End of Humanism

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In fact, The Matrix hardly ventures at all. It's one part techno-Brahmanism, one part holodeck from the Starship Enterprise, a little Alice in Wonderland, a bit of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and a whole lot of spaghetti western. (Note the jumps in space, between a face shown in close-up in the foreground and the action happening in back. It's the one directorial trick known to the auteurs of The Matrix, Andy and Larry Wachowski, who ought to have called Neo "The Computer Nerd with No Name.") But if the sources are familiar, the effect of mixing them is not.

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Stuart Klawans
The Nation's film critic Stuart Klawans is author of the books Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order (a finalist for...

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Here is the moment we've been hearing so much about: the end of humanism. Forget the poststructuralist pronouncements, the postmodernist blather, the double-talk statements handed out at 10,000 contemporary art installations. While intellectuals have labored in vain, trying to will out of existence the human subject, the Wachowski brothers and producer Joel Silver have gone out and done the job. They have seen that you and I are mere blips in a system: binary switches, for which "on" means "buy" and "off" means "not buying yet." They have now told us as much--explicitly, loudly. You might even say that our belief in our inherent worth as humans is the biggest item to burn at their potlatch--which might be why I laughed out loud.

It's not just that The Matrix is to overblown silliness as Mount Rushmore is to big stone heads. To demonstrate their power, the makers of this trailer/video game/theatrical come-on have taken something precious to me, something that felt (dare I say it) essential, and tossed it onto the fire. No one could stop them. No one wanted to. And so I watched the flames dance and shook with glee, liberated to insignificance.

And yet: Evidence of human life may still be found in theaters--small ones, perhaps, which perhaps operate in the shadows. But here are three of them, in New York City alone:

Anthology Film Archives is holding a "Save Our Films" benefit concert series on April 13 and April 23. The performers include Yo La Tengo, Palace, Alan Licht and John Zorn. The tickets (priced modestly, under the circumstances) cost $20. The proceeds will help keep Anthology's doors open, and its important collection of films from rotting. For information, phone (212) 505-5181.

Filmmaker and still photographer William Klein will appear at the American Museum of the Moving Image on April 17 to show and discuss a fresh print of his extraordinary documentary Muhammad Ali, the Greatest. The screening is being held as part of a series that includes William Greaves's Ali, the Fighter, Leon Gast's When We Were Kings and Tom Gries's The Greatest (screenplay by Ring Lardner Jr., with James Earl Jones as Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali as Muhammad Ali). For information, phone (718) 784-0077.

Finally, in celebration of the centennial of Alfred Hitchcock's birth, the Museum of Modern Art is presenting the most comprehensive retrospective of his films ever mounted in the United States. For various reasons--his technician's talk of "pure cinema," his often-quoted remark that actors ought to be treated like cattle, his manipulation of his own image for profit--Hitchcock might seem to qualify as another prophet of the end of humanism. But to me, an act of discretion, respect and quiet sorrow summarizes the best of Hitchcock's art. It happens in a late film, Frenzy, at a moment when Hitchcock refrains from following a woman to her certain doom. Instead, he has his camera retreat from the scene, backing away from an event that feels all the more terrible because it recedes into silence, while the bustle on the street continues as always. Not bad, for a filmmaker who is said to be cold, making a picture that some call brutal.

MoMA's Hitchcock retrospective is on view from April 16 to June 15 (with screenings of a new print of Rear Window scheduled for later in 1999). For information, phone (212) 708-9480.

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