The End of Humanism

The End of Humanism

Like a guest at a potlatch, laughing to see his host’s worldly goods go up in flames, I roared at The Matrix–roared and at the same time was humbled, knowing Warner Bros.


Like a guest at a potlatch, laughing to see his host’s worldly goods go up in flames, I roared at The Matrix–roared and at the same time was humbled, knowing Warner Bros. had such magnificence to burn. What I witnessed was not a movie but a ceremony of power, a celebration of waste, a demonstration that my daily cares loom over me only because I am like unto a beetle, and they are my dung.

So I was told, in plain words, by the gods and heroes who reign over The Matrix. But first, what is “the Matrix” (to quote the Web site: Here, words are meant to fail. According to a line in the screenplay–which by a curious coincidence also figures in the trailer–“No one can be told what The Matrix is. You have to see it.” Maybe you do. But in case your mother warned you not to jump off a bridge just because someone told you to, here is an explanation:

The world as we know it is merely a computer simulation, wired into our neurons by evil beings. All the world’s an Oakland; there’s no there anywhere. The motive for this deception, and the nature of the reality beyond the simulation known as the Matrix, need not concern us here. It is enough to know that the weavers of cyber-Maya are inhuman, and only half a dozen people have penetrated their secret. The other 6 or 8 billion of us are just dozing in the void. At best, we’re idiots; at worst, threats to the well-being of the half-dozen gods and heroes, who scarcely feel regret when they twist off our heads, kick our spleens into our throats or riddle our “illusory” bodies with “virtual” bullets.

Maybe I’m being too harsh. As one of the cyberheroes says, speaking to a virtual nonentity like me, “We know why you live alone and stay up all night at your computer.” This remark hints at sympathy, or at least pity, coming as it does from a woman in dark glasses and a slick black bodysuit that fits like a paint job. She calls herself Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and wears her hair short and wet, and you can tell that she’d feel superior to a guy who spends his days typing in a cubicle and his nights as she’s described. “You have no life” would be the readiest translation of her comment. In other circumstances–say, a Jonathan Demme movie–she would appear for the sake of rescuing her guy from white-collar servitude and sexless anomie. But Trinity does not drop in to redeem a drone from his daily round; for 6 or 8 billion of us, no redemption is possible. Her mission is to contact the one drone who is exceptional–who is, in fact, The One. He is destined to become the cyber-Jesus–and though you may once have known him as Keanu Reeves, he will henceforth be called Neo.

Whoosh! Bang! Off zooms Neo to meet his John the Baptist, otherwise known as Morpheus, though you might call him Laurence Fishburne. He, too, wears really cool shades–pince-nez!–and does something extreme with his hair (like, shave it all off), and his leather coat trails to the floor. Morpheus has dedicated his entire life to searching for Neo and proclaiming his coming reign. This entitles him to say things like “Free your mind,” and “The body cannot live without the mind,” and “There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path,” and (at the climax, to the singing of a heavenly choir) “He is The One.” But I’m getting ahead of myself. First Neo must get his own dark glasses and leather coat and train in kung fu.

If The Matrix did not originate as the tag line for a trailer, then it surely got its start as a video-game scenario. For half the film, Neo and Morpheus are not so much characters as figures in a computer graphic, who are made to rise from the floor, hang in space and rotate with a slight telltale jerkiness. Watch them, and you can already see millions of kids furiously pressing buttons in front of their monitors, while millions of parents pay credit-card bills. If The Nation kept a video-game reviewer on its masthead (some drone who would live alone and sit up all night at the computer, in exchange for Navaskyan wages), then we might dispense with the advertisement and go straight to the product. But since this magazine, like the entertainment industry, goes on pretending that films are primary and licensed merchandise merely the spinoff, I will continue. Besides, you ought to know about the guns.

“What do you need?” asks one of the lesser heroes, when Neo and Trinity prepare to re-enter the Matrix for a daring rescue attempt. “Guns,” replies Neo. “Lots of guns.” And there they are, appearing out of nowhere with the magic of computer graphics: racks and racks of automatic weapons. Cyber-Jesus packs; cyber-Buddha has compassion for all sentient beings and the firepower to back it up. Of course, since this world is an illusion, Neo should be able to rise above such methods. Even kung fu would ultimately be too crude. On the other hand, what’s a leather-coated god without his piece? The Matrix may ask us to think beyond the limits of our ordinary world, but it doesn’t venture that far into the unknown.

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.

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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