Monday, October 13, 2014

On Daily Intel and whether male feminists exist

In response to an article from Kat Stoeffel on the Daily Intel.

As an all-oppressor-classes human [cis, white, hetero, male, suburban, American, Yankee, upper-middle class, abled, neurotypical, etc], I've struggled with being an ally for some years. To all men, like me, who are reading this: the first step is, indeed, radical acceptance that you need to be secondary in this conversation; that if your views on gender issues remain forever conflicted, benign, and invisible, that's okay, it probably means you're doing it right. This disclaimer has been brought to you in the name of solidarity.

However, within that fuzzy gap where an oppressor-class human can talk about a movement he cares about, but isn't officially a member of (biologically speaking, and according to Kat, even in terms of identification) -- I want to note: Kat's article is fine in condemning a certain class of social-climber feminist men who rise in the movement's ranks by exercising their own chauvinist impulses. Clymer and Schweizer? Sure. Boorish, self-important, and definitely not good for the movement. However, along with that valid point, this article has a willful divisiveness riding side-saddle, and I doubt it's doing the larger feminist movement many favors.

Why? Because, at least for me, this article triggers some nasty anxieties about whether there is EVER a path to reconciliation for me, and for others like me, who want to contribute quietly and productively to the fashioning of a better world for all people stuck in the gender matrix. I know you (Kat, and other feminists) are not responsible for my "feels," and this isn't intended as a take-down. It just might be worth having on-hand as a data point -- one of many -- as you configure your strategy going forward.

It's this anxiety, triggered by articles like this, that occasionally threatens my interest in being an ally. It communicates, whether intentionally or not, the sense that I'm a permanent target of exclusionary rhetoric. In fact, this kind of wagon-circling is the only thing that gives me hang-ups about supporting feminism. Reading MRA rants and hearing misogynistic remarks? That actually makes me feel more feminism-aligned. I have no desire for solidarity with men who express their masculinity through disrespect and aggression.

Lots of men, some of them perhaps excellent allies, may want to identify as feminists, because  the term refers to a complex of ideas and commitments, a belief in certain values and a broad historical movement (and it's not a biologically-determined identity, like "disabled" or "American Indian"). Exclusionary rhetoric (and also snarky, dog-whistle defensive mechanisms of any kind) just make it seem like I'm not welcome to hold those values, or to adopt any position of support whatsoever vis-a-vis feminism.

Does feminism prefer an eventual reconciliation and mutual acknowledgment between the sexes, as the term "gender equality" would suggest? Or does it favor a permanent state of culture war, which would at least give women a place to fight for their autonomy and identity, even if it never leads to any kind of long-term equilibrium? It is an honest question, and I don't mean to load the answers with pre-judgment.

POSTSCRIPT:

In the spirit of this particular type of ally-ship, I'd like to recognize the good work of Matthew Inman in actually, earnestly apologizing when he writes jokes that offend people. This may be the best possible way to act as an ally... know when it's time to defer to the community. This is especially true if you accept the increasing feminist principles that: 1) silence in the face of injustice is bad, and 2) speaking out clearly enough to derail the movement's focus is bad.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

On the Passing of Something (Robin Williams, 1951-2014)

How do you love an actor through their work? A celebrity, a public personality you've never met, never seen in their private moments, never known as anything but what they choose to put on the screen? A lot of questions, all intellectually interesting. Also, all easier to think about than the instigating event. All effective diversions.

I mean, some celebrities don't feel like mere projections, assemblages dispensed by the entertainment industry for the sake of optimal charisma. Some celebrities... some advocates, politicians, comedians, and even comic actors... don't seem to put much of a wall up between their public lives and their private eccentricities and vulnerabilities. Maybe they're just not good at the fakery. Or maybe they're extremely good at it, and my senses haven't caught up. Who knows?

You can't fall in love with on-screen personas the way you do with someone whose hand you've shaken at their wedding reception. You can't fall in love with them the way you do a trusted mentor, or a great psychologist. You can't fall in love with them the way you do with your kids as you tuck them in at night, and you can't be connected to them the way you can to a soul-mate whose trials and troubles you've spent a life trying to shoulder. With an entertainer, there's a degree to which it's all pre-packaged, conducted for your benefit, and for the benefit of several billion others who share your unrequited love.

But in a mediated age like ours, where we're all managing different aspects of ourselves that are being peeled away in fragments and distributed according to the logic of production, I think it's valid... perhaps even necessary... that we can fall in love with projections, with the ideas that people choose to champion and represent. It's been happening for centuries, after all... people have loved saints and athletes and politicians, in moments of hardship they've loved prophets and revolutionaries, in times of prosperity they've loved artists and emperors. They've loved fictional characters and half-serious delusions. These kinds of love are real, and and their mourning warrants expression.

Robin Williams earned our love, and he deserved it. Through the roles he chose, through his commitments to particular characters at particular moments, he came to represent a very specific thing in our culture: the hapless sentimentalist. He was a comic actor -- even his most serious roles were cut with a certain therapeutic irreverence -- but his humor was always an interface with a certain soaring, hopeful, joyful sadness, the kind of heartfelt pathos that's come under siege in the age of smug self-consciousness and detachment.

And goddamn! From a young age, I've fallen in love, repeatedly, with what Robin Williams represented. I was in love with Daniel Hillard and Armand Goldman and Jack Powell and Sean Macguire. His roles all took on this fatherly tenderness... even the heroic roles (Alan Parrish in Jumanji) and even, weirdly enough, the twisted and unhinged antagonist roles (Seymour Parrish of One Hour Photo, Walter Finch of Insomnia). As with many kids (not all, I fully realize), I thought my dad was the most heroic human in the world, and in a way, I loved Robin Williams because his roles seemed to be paying tribute to my own dad (Kevin Costner is the only other actor who managed the same thing from time to time).

Maybe Williams was so good at this because he also knew how to play a kid, and he knew the power that a father-figure or an older mentor can have over a child. This came through most explicitly in Jack, a lovingly-acted role in a movie that I still think about at the most random times. It's also one of the central dimensions of Hook, which is an affectionate, reconstructed hero story built around the father figure rediscovering childhood. Hook is, incidentally, in a three-way tie for my favorite Robin Williams movie.

One of my other favorite Robin Williams characters is the genie in Aladdin. I can't help but see all the good, earnest, loving people I know in that genie... all the people who I've been grateful to have as my mentors and influences. It was a movie all about the relationship between power and dependence and vulnerability, right? About how the greatest power in the world suddenly becomes worthless without the existential sinew of vulnerability and honesty and self-acceptance?

My third favorite: Williams' role as Chris Nielsen in What Dreams May Come, one of the great epic journeys, a walk in the shadow of endless cosmic melancholy. Despite its joyful, almost saccharine ending, there's a profound sadness that permeates What Dreams May Come, a sense of futility and submission to the endless cycles and trials and rediscoveries of history. This is, of course, balanced by the redeeming forces of familial love and loyalty and free will, but one of the most beautiful things about the movie is that it finds a delicate balance... the darkness passes, but it remains on the horizon of the film, even unto its rosy final shot.

I loved Robin Williams, one of the great father figures of the modern age of cinema, and though his story will always be tinged with melancholy, I hope that for him, the darkness has passed. RIP RW.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Lone Survivor: compromised war film

I just saw Lone Survivor, and I formed what I felt was a pretty solid, informed opinion of the film. Then, as one does, I went on Rotten Tomatoes to see how it jives with the rest of the world’s reactions.

Imagine my surprise!

I thought Lone Survivor was astoundingly inept, a mass-produced clot of war film clich├ęs, with a hilariously limited narrative vocabulary. I’d call it "predictable," but that word suggests too much coherence… it was so predictable, it felt like a recitation, or perhaps even a stutter. It was odd, then, that I could read down a litany of positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and discover that other critics found it “grueling, tense, action-soaked” (Jim Schembri, News Talk), “visceral, exciting and thought-provoking” (Henry Fitzherbert, Daily and Sunday Express), and “morally complex” with a climax that was “tense and surprisingly moving” (Ashley Clark, Time Out London). Boy, I did not see the same film as these folks.

Before I jump into it, I have to answer my own ethical quibbles about movie reviewing (which are one of the main reasons I tend not to engage in this highly questionable activity). Because look… if you’re here wondering whether you’ll like the movie, I can give you at least one reliable answer: there’s a 75% chance that you will, because that’s the proportion of reviewers who really dug it. And if that’s what you’re looking for, I’m not sure I’ll be rendering you much of a service by elucidating my own opinions on the topic. At best, I’ll be giving you some starting-points for judging the film by your own standards, and at worst, I’ll be ruining something you might have really enjoyed.

Of course, maybe you're here for the same reason I was at Rotten Tomatoes in the first place… you've already seen the movie, and you're looking for another opinion to validate you (or contradict you, if you're that type of masochist). Or maybe you've got a bunch of indistinct feels about the film, and you're looking for something to help you sort them out. I guess those reasons – the less prescriptive, more reflective reasons – are the reasons I'm going to follow through with writing this mini-critique-review artifact.

It feels weird to enumerate a series of negatives, as if they were positives. It feels like an attempt to quantify an absence, or prove a bunch of counterfactuals. Nonetheless, it’s all I have to go on, and it can be summed up thusly… first, the film was trite and sophistic about its subject matter. Second, its selection of plot developments – what I would call its “narrative vocabulary” – was tragicomically limited. Third, it balked on the basic duty of characterization, which was one of its few promising opportunities to redeem its other shortcomings.

We have to start, of course, with critique number 1: "trite and sophistic about its subject matter." I'm alluding, generally, to the subject matter of battlefield combat and loyalty, all the expectations that are drawn from its genre ("war film" as envisioned in the post-9/11 age). The war film generally has several merits, aside from its basic objective of dramatizing violence. A war film also has to engage with the theme of brotherhood, whether by romanticizing it (Thin Red Line) or subverting it (Platoon) or both (Full Metal Jacket, Forrest Gump). It also has to face larger questions about the morality of war, and its effects on its participants (Apocalypse Now, The Hurt Locker). These questions are always latent in any dramatization of war… if you don’t make some gesture toward them in your narrative, the absence is going to be conspicuous.

Of all the war films I've seen… going all the way back to David Lean, Ivan’s Childhood, and The Last Command… Lone Survivor is the most myopic in these areas, bordering on frank propaganda. Any consideration of motives, or ethics, or moral compromise is replaced by a general sense of righteousness and martyrdom, a sharp line through the middle of the movie that places every character in one of two camps: either they're good people on our side, or they're bad people on the other side. This dynamic governs all the attempted "complexities" of the film: the debate over whether to break the rules of engagement, and the third-act willingness of a local tribe to oppose the Taliban.

This sharp, high-contrast us-versus-them frame has some visual repercussions… the Marines are a quartet of bearded white guys surrounded in a sea of middle eastern hostiles, and they kill dozens with impunity, but never hurt or endanger anyone except their intended targets, the mooks who are firing at them. The primary antagonist, the "target," has no crime and no motivations except for killing Americans… in particular, sending a horde of terrorists after the protagonists. Oddly, the Hollywood terrorists seem fond of wearing eyeliner.

Also, it seems the only “mistake” the SEALs make is following the rules of engagement, and the story is built around this mistake costing the lives of a dozen or more Americans.

The second criticism I noted, above, is the limited narrative vocabulary. The film's defenders will justify this by pointing to the non-fiction basis of the story (the book "Lone Survivor" by Marcus Luttrell, played in the film by Mark Wahlberg). Indeed, from my limited reading (i.e. some related Wikipedia pages), Lone Survivor made a valiant attempt to adhere to the reality of the situation, as it was portrayed in the written account. If this was your sole criteria, the film is probably really excellent. But I need to judge it on its merits as an actual film, and my ultimate impression is that the filmmakers left themselves with very few dramatic devices to leverage.

The movie really had three acts. The first one entailed the following standard scenes: SEALs sitting around making crass jokes and being melancholy about their families back home; SEALs in a briefing room, going over mission details; SEALs in helicopters. This was humanizing, and it showed some promise for the characters (the most interesting of whom isn't included as an active combatant in the mission), but it's really just a montage of generic war-movie deployment scenes.

Approximately the same thing happened in the second act. There were SEALs hiding and looking through their scopes, reliably cycled with sequences of frantic shooting and hiding behind rocks. If this doesn't sound generic enough, I'll break it down further: there were close-ups of SEALs aiming, grunting in pain, and exchanging sentimentalities; medium-shots of terrorists dropping like video game targets; SEALs falling down mountains in brutal detail (this “everyone falling down the rocks” event happened three times); and a few slow, gauzy, backlit heroic death scenes. The pattern was so consistent and so drawn out, it became numbing.

I'll admit that there was one welcome interlude where the four protagonists debated the value of a non-combatant enemy’s life, but this was governed entirely by the above-referenced dynamics: us versus them, mercy as a form of heroic martyrdom, a stimulating American debate about moral compromise carried out over the secure, helpless bodies of primitive locals. If this is all I have left to praise, there's definitely something missing from this 80-minute action centerpiece.

Finally, in the third act, the last remaining SEAL finds some friends among the horde of Others that make up the indigenous population of Afghanistan. This act might have been fascinating, in a stronger movie, but it was left with nothing to stand on. All anybody could do was posture with guns, fire the guns at each other across the dirt, and make serious, suspicious, vaguely sympathetic faces at Mark Wahlberg. Incidentally, this is the part of the film that was least accurate with respect to the events in the book.

I know some reviewers found this relentless barrage of gunfire to be consistently exciting and visually stimulating. For me, it was an exercise in simplicity so basic, it almost crossed the line into minimalism. Unfortunately, there was nothing provocative or experimental about it, nothing to challenge any preconceptions I had, or even to evoke some emotional connection to the violence and its consequences. It was a piecing-together of gun fetish footage and romantic war propaganda, captured by a photographer and stitched together by an editor, decently crafted, but totally bereft of any creativity. As I said above: its visual and narrative vocabulary was limited.

Finally, there's my third point: there was no meaningful characterization in this film. At least one reviewer thought this might be a smart choice (they're supposed to function as a single cohesive unit! Get it?) but with four excellent actors, they might have really capitalized on this angle. So where's the sensitivity, the intimacy, the individuality? Maybe the book was the problem, but really... Did these four guys seem blank, anonymous, and undifferentiated in the book? Did they seem like a countdown, like each SEAL was another life to lose in a Mega Man game?

It wasn't a virtue, and even if it was intentional, it was a bad call. You can do great things with four characters -- give them different motivations (everybody was fighting for America and their spouse back home) and give them a semblance of back-story that might explain their battlefield behavior. Give them time to change... come to some realization, follow some kind of arc. Even the one survivor -- Marcus Luttrell, played by Wahlberg -- had no sense of differentiation, no development, except for maybe the fact that he ordered everyone to follow the rules of engagement. If there was supposed to be some sort of karmic significance in this decision and the subsequent tragedy, the film didn't give any indication of it.

I am not a cinematic pacifist, and I have nothing against the war film as a genre. I think you can romanticize our armed forces, and you can dramatize the pain and tragedy of war, without necessarily committing an offense against taste. But I think Lone Survivor failed to do those things, and its most redeeming contribution, at this point in Hollywood history, is to provide a template for the failed war film: a catalog of predictability, a conspicuous dearth of sophistication, that future war films should see as their lowest common denominator.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Twitter reviews 2013

I was going to post these around the New Year, but apparently I got hung up on a sort of micro-procrastination. Now seems like as good a time as any. I've been doing these for three years now, and it seems I watch fewer movies each year. This sounds like a narrative of decline, but I prefer to think of it as a temporary shift.

As always: all reviews, including the movie title and date, are exactly 140 characters. I give myself some flexibility on words like AND (vs &) and on ending punctuation.

1-10

Gravity (2013) - A film of silences & oscillations: warm to cold, expansive to claustrophobic. Beautifully shot; simply & effectively acted.

Spring Breakers (2013) - Exploitation's compulsive sexuality and violence, unhinged, channeled into an acid gonzo bubblegum pop fever dream.

Conan the Destroyer (1984) - Maybe deserves an award for clumsiest, awkwardest, most creepy and uncomfortable big-budget fantasy movie ever.

Night Tide (1961) - A calm meditation on being an outsider, ripe with shy obsessions and repressed sexuality; almost magical-realist in tone

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) - Alternately whispering & soaring, delivering on the promise of its vast landscapes & eccentric characters.

The Road (2009) -  A decent take on the hopelessness in the novel, and "Son" has a vibrant and evolving emotional life; but maybe too polite?

Black Death (2010) - A grimy, mean-spirited anti-morality tale, blessed with compelling characters & jarring shifts in attitude & credulity.

The Europa Report (2013) - Quiet, wide-eyed & enigmatic, endearing for how sweeping & hypnotic a story it assembles from such a limited palette.

(NOTE: Realize I somehow used the adjective "ballistic" in both of the next two reviews. For the record, I think it applies better to Elysium.)

Elysium (2013) - A ballistic, richly textured journey of heroes and anti-heroes, humane and hard-working, hampered by some tone-deaf writing

Thor: The Dark World (2013) - A ballistic romp of a movie, whose charming asides successfully mediate the (intentionally) overpowering pomp.

11-20

The Hobbit (2013) - A Disneyesque need for broad emotional cues doesn't entirely ruin Tolkien's love of majesty and archaic language

Deadly Blessing (1981) - A weird, shuttered, otherworldly ballet of messed up characters: some shamelessly, and others who barely conceal it

Grandmaster (2013) - Full Wong Kar Wai atmosphere, plus killer fight scenes -- some done the same way "In the Mood for Love" did sex scenes.

Dredd (2012) - Fun, sloppy action film, highly preoccupied with hypersubjective experiences, despite the title character's robotic blankness

Blue is the Warmest Color (2013) - Vivid, tactile, & intimate; a compelling portrait of young love. An achievement of craft, if not concept.

Lovers on the Bridge (1991) - Stormy, vivid, impetuous; an irreducibly beautiful chronicle of love surviving cycles of abuse and abandonment

Unforgiven (1992) - Eastwood's stern meta-Western, a pinpoint-precise portrayal of the insecurity of manhood trapped in a cultural narrative

Dangerous Game (1993) - A bold, semi-successful attempt at gritty experimentalism from Abel Ferrara, seething with barely-contained violence

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) - Serene, meditative... also frigid & tense. The visuals add a studied richness to a desolate narrative.

Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976) - A twisted, unsettling little creeper with some of the most vivid characters I've met in cinema.

21-30

Bleeding House (2011) - This tale of psychos colliding is tense and restrained, but sometimes a bit too rushed for its slow-burn aspirations

Dead Presidents (1995) - If 90's reviewers had forseen today's banal pseudo-edginess, they would have welcomed DP's hard-nosed eccentricity.

Only God Forgivess (2013) - Nicolas Winding Refn's deconstruction of the white savior trope, wrapped in a bilious torture chamber of a movie.

Before Sunrise (1995) - Proof that in the absence of suspense, a whole story can coast on earnestness and still feel gratifying and complete

Sabrina (1954) - Props to Wilder for this classic black & white charmer, starring two of the most attractive people in the history of people

Holy Motors (2012) - A wild, sexy tantrum of a movie, seething with all those violent emotions that we keep so buried in our everyday lives.

Everything Must Go (2010) - An anxious indie film with a sort of lukewarm realism. Not a masterpiece, but endearing in its humor and wisdom.

The Eclipse (2009) - A melancholy movie with a tenuous mood, like a creepy old photograph where the shutter stayed open just a bit too long.

Red (2010) - A fun, insubstantial pop collision of Hollywood personalities relieved of their dignity & allowed to wallow in cartoon violence

Eve's Bayou (1997) - Steamy, enigmatic, and twisted, a smart and heartfelt film that weaves us into a vivid setting and emotional ecosystem.

31-40

Upstream Color (2013) - Dreamy, abstract, and surprisingly tense tribute to the power of love and unseen forces; best for patient audiences.

Magnolia (1999) - Ambitious omnibus, suffering mildly from lack of focus, but elevated by its brave performances, both intimate & expansive.

30 Days of Night (2007) - Vicious, terrifying neo-vampire survival horror, perhaps held back because it doesn't push its extremes far enough

Irreversible (2002) - Depraved postmodern trash, redeemed by an amazing formal unity and thematic cohesion, and four courageous performances

Cold Mountain (2003) - Sometimes overwrought, but touched with flashes of brilliance in its depictions of war, hardship, & human connection.

Secret of Kells (2009) - Vivid and enchanting, handcrafted with a soft touch, like a Miyazaki movie smoothed over by a calligrapher's hands.

A Town Called Panic (2009) - A hilarious, flippant manic stop motion buddy movie for the ages. The polar opposite of the last one I reviewed

Valhalla Rising (2009) - An abstraction of grit & violence, brutal and glacially paced that toes the line between hypnotic and mind-numbing.

Hidden Blade (2004) - A wise and intimate cinematic sonata, rich in relationships; one of the most patient & tender samurai films I've seen.

Ashura (2005) - A wildly melodramatic kabuki-style kaidan, whose bad special effects give it a sort of charm, if you're in a forgiving mood.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

The ol' Spontaneous Hiatus

Hello, if there are any readers left out there. I haven't written anything in a while. I had a video project I was working on for like a year, which self-destructed recently (hard drive, bed-shit). I've been working on a personal project that I've been keeping a bit closer to my chest than usual, but if the right time ever comes, I'll post something about it on here.

I'm still an occasional photographer, but I haven't been taken with my most recent work in that area.

I'm working very hard on a critical piece on Dark Souls 2, for the ol' Berfrois, who have published some of my work before. That should be emerging pretty soon. I'll put an update up here.

The closest thing I have to a BotD-exclusive piece is a long review I've written of Lone Survivor (2013), which I found kind of off-putting. I'll post that pretty soon, I think.

I might start thinking in blogging-terms again, if possible... I've gotten a couple actual real comments recently, and if something else goes up in Berfrois, it will be very embarrassing to have an empty blog at the end of the link in my profile.

Having furnished a probably-irrelevant update, I shall sign off. Cheerio the Internet!

Monday, September 30, 2013

Horse_ebooks as a Free Will Fetish

"It seems we cannot get enough of our mechanical mirror stage."

- Peggy Nelson, Not a Bot (HiLowBrow.com)

Things like "whimsy" and "dada" (and even the basic human capacity for "spontaneity") all happen at the intersection of meaning and randomness. They fascinate us because, by cross-referencing our symbol systems with the universe's inscrutable patterns of noise and happenstance, we get some sense that the universe itself is actually conscious, or purposeful, or whatever.

@horse_ebooks was a token of that always-captivating emergent significance. My Twitter feed filled up with tearful farewells when it was outed as a human "conceptual art project," and I felt disposed to join them. At least for me, the dismay results from losing that sense of whimsy and emergent meaning. Knowing it's a human, contriving the meaning and simulating the random factor, somehow steals away that elusive magic.

Of course, this illuminates one of the dialectical dissociations that underwrites human consciousness: we are fascinated by randomness, because we cannot entirely come to terms with it. Fortune tellers seeks out the most chaotic, meaningless systems possible (cards shuffling, tea leaves tossed about by convection) and insist on ascribing symbolic significance to the outcomes.

Pure purposefulness (corresponding to a deterministic universe) is boringly predictable. Pure randomness (quantum and non-deterministic) is boringly nihilistic. But somewhere at the threshold between them, we sense free will as a glimmer of purposeful indeterminacy. So we seek out things like @horse_ebooks and divination rituals, which seem to draw a connection between those two causal universes. Maybe this is one of the human mind's integral background processes: to search for evidence of our own agency in the framework of the universe.

For whatever reason, @horse_ebooks is much less interesting as an intentional art project than it was as an algorithmic gesture toward cosmic agency. Some psychological need was obviously being filled, and now it's not, so we're going to have to go back to our tarot cards.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Crypticism 2: Clinically Obscure Language in The Matrix and Cyclonopedia

I shall begin this post with a confession: I loved The Matrix Reloaded. I was shaken by its wild ambition, and being an adolescent, I was a sucker for the absurd fight scenes and the renegade cyber-floozy cyberpunk angle. But looking back on it, what now especially surprises me about the film -- one of the things I find most striking about its structure -- is how bold that climax was, the moment of heightened clinical stillness in the Source, where the Architect confronted Neo with a mind-contorting explanation of the Matrix's edifice of dissimulation.

The first time I watched Reloaded in the theaters, I just struggled to figure out what the Architect was talking about. There was something there about a cycle of Eternal Return, a feedback loop that required a few humans to be liberated so that an anomalous quantity could be vented. Underneath that carnival of abstractions, there were higher issues at stake... Neo as a messiah-sacrifice, guided to this moment by his own inevitable resistance instinct, now being called upon to destroy himself out of love for the larger human race. Somewhere in that dilemma, there was a slave's paradox: survival of the species meant recommitting it to subjugation; the pursuit of freedom was the spill-over that was presently threatening to destroy the Matrix and the species being held there.

I love the first line.
"You have many questions, and though the process has altered your consciousness you remain irrevocably human, ergo some of my answers you will understand and some of them you will not."
In one rather long sentence, the Architect triggers a whole bunch of responses we often have to overwritten prose: the feeling of being lost in a bombardment of phrases, the sense that the author has some kind of contempt for the reader, and the knee-jerk ambivalence (or even disgust) many casual readers feel as a result. Postmodern theorists, with Derrida leading the pack, have made sort of an art out of dragging the reader through dense and twisted prose, and his critics have reacted spitefully. In the process, both Derrida and his critics have provided us with landmarks of cryptic language: Derrida's deconstructionist texts, and Alan Sokal's intentionally meaningless essay Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.

What these writers highlight is the dialectical function of cryptic language to simultaneously reveal and obscure meaning. Arguably (and in my opinion, it's an argument with merit), opaque language is sometimes justified by the complexity and ambition of the concepts behind it... people like Derrida and Heidegger have to make up words and torture their prose because their thought is plumbing depths that common, non-academic language can't yet capture. However, it's hard -- nigh impossible -- to separate this revelatory function from mere self-indulgence, language made artificially incomprehensible in order to obscure an absence of rigor, or a dearth of ideas. This is what's generally referred to "being pretentious" or "trying too hard"... and it's one of the hobgoblins, whether intentional or not, of Alan Sokal's prank paper submitted to Social Text.

What complicates the critique applied by Sokal is the fact that cryptic language has an aesthetic and rhetorical effect, even in its opacity. Derrida was a smart guy, and he was most certainly conscious of his stylistic choices... and once we acknowledge that he was being purposeful and intentional, we can see him less as a fraud and more as a pioneer of the cryptic mode, which the writers of The Matrix Reloaded used to such memorable effect.

The scene with the Architect is fairly long, and the dialogue is brisk, academic, polysyllabic, and witheringly precise. It is also a prime example of intentionally cryptic prose, a sort of dispersed substrate of psychocybernetic jargon that Neo sinks into with his first dignified question to the Architect.

This particular speech, which can be read in its entirety here, is not flat-out incomprehensible (unlike, for instance, Sokal's essay). If you read it over a couple times, and maybe look up a couple terms in cybernetics, you shouldn't have trouble making sense of the Architect's explanations. However, within the conditions of an actual cinematic experience, it's obviously not meant to be simple exposition. For anyone seeing it for the first time, it seems to move at a blinding speed, and those viewers will be lucky to pick up even a few broad ideas from the coleslaw of technical terms.

Most action films hit a plateau of suspense at the climax, cap it off with a violent resolution, and then let out a breath of relief, turning sharply into the denouement. The Matrix jerks this progression off-course when Neo enters the Source, interrupting the intensity of the action with a sudden shock of stillness. In this stillness, the physical intuition that governs the action sequences gives way to a sort of incomplete, elliptical cerebral ambivalence, defined by the Architect's chilling clarity riddled with entropic gaps: the viewer is suddenly pushed to absorb information, to grapple with a conceptual model of the Matrix, but is denied easy access to that big picture, because it’s obscured in this cryptic language.

I see this as a bold decision in The Matrix Reloaded: the decision to hinge the climax on stillness and opacity, the decontextualized clarity at the eye of a storm. Visually, the scene is sterilized, like various other “inner sanctums” of the absolute mind, and the Architect's performance is impassive and lawyerly. Beyond this sense of irrecoverable alienness, though, what are the emotional tones of this scene? In particular, what’s the emotional and narrative resonance of that cryptic language?

First of all, there’s a sense of disorientation and lack of control within a rigidly-controlled text. That voice will continue droning on, it can’t be stopped, and your capacity to process that information can scarcely keep up with the exposition. However, there’s also a sense of overriding order, suggesting the presence of an inaccessible intelligence: either superior, or simply absolutely alien.

The Matrix Reloaded uses this incomprehensibility to project, via implication, an unknowable Other, a superintelligence that has remained obscured behind the Matrix until now. It also suggests, via an array of cues (tone of voice, posture, dismissive attitude) an absolute superiority, an awareness that's much larger than Neo or the audience, with a more complete picture. At this particular moment, the possibility that this entity is simply creating an illusion of superiority is left in the background. It becomes more important in The Matrix Revolutions; it’s also a relevant factor in our own discussion of cryptic language itself, complicated by Sokal's skepticism toward crypticism. For now, though, such caveats are left unacknowledged.

Stuart Hall, a prominent cultural theorist, has talked a lot about how information is encoded for transmission. One of the noteworthy points he makes is that the production end needs to encode information, and then the recipient needs to decode it. Each of these moments in the chain of communication has its own code, its own rules of meaning and grammar and interpretation, and if the message is to maintain its integrity, both codes (the producer's code and the audience's code) need to support it. Hall points out that misunderstanding is generally the result of asymmetrical codes, which are, for that reason, a bad thing.

Encoding/decoding systems give us one way to look at cryptic communication. In cases like The Matrix Reloaded, the dense, over-processed language is used to invoke an asymmetry of code systems: the entity producing the information (the Architect) has much more control over the encoding process than the person trying to consume the information (the audience, and Neo, its surrogate). The decoding process is deficient, and this suggests both the superiority of the encoder, and also the presence of unassimilated meaning, gaps in the final product of the communication due to the failure to decode some of the information and implications.

In fact, The Architect makes a point of this asymmetry. After Neo initially asks, “Why am I here?” the Architect offers a dump of words that sum up Neo’s function in the Matrix. Neo realizes that this sudden rush of information contained a lot of important background, but intentionally left out the key point, so he says, “You haven’t answered my question.” This is apparently an admirable feat of decoding, because the Architect responds, "Quite right. Interesting. That was faster than the others."

The Matrix’s Architect scene is succinct and imbued with grave implications: it is the climax to an ambitiously intense film, and it changes the trajectory of the series in preparation for Revolutions. The use of cryptic language is important, giving a new dimension to the formerly-anonymous AI antagonist, but it’s also deployed carefully. Now it’s time to consider, as a contrast, certain works that have taken the paradox of opaque communication and cryptic language much further.

I’m just finishing a book right now called Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials, by Reza Negarestani. Maybe you can tell, just from the title, what kind of pretension this book is operating under? From the blurbs on the cover, the book sounds like a deconstructed horror story, a la House of Leaves. It’s really not, though… it’s actually a book of deranged, highly speculative theory with a lack of supporting evidence, framed as fiction: theory that stops just sort of truth-claim, and only goes so far as to say, “Here is an unsubstantiated, but subversive, interesting, and frightening way to look at the geopolitical universe!”

I can tell you straight away, it would be hard to read Cyclonopedia without some experience reading other kinds of theorists: deconstructionists, continental philosophers, and occultists, especially. It would also help a lot to understand some of Middle Eastern and Islamic culture, which I did not, going into the book. It’s speckled with terms like Wahhabism, Taqiyya, Gog-Magogism, and various other concepts drawn from fields of knowledge that would strike average American readers as esoteric and specialized.

The resulting prose is dense, half-serious, and half-deranged, spilling out of intelligibility and becoming a kind of tortured poetry of abstraction. I liked it at times, although I also found it mind-numbing at other times (your mileage may vary, of course). Some striking ideas echo through the verbal edifice, as well: that the Middle East is a sentient entity, that war is a self-sufficient force that drives politics, that oil is the Earth’s way of resisting the cosmic hegemony of the sun. These ideas are ripe insects, entombed in an amber grave of cryptic theoretical language. If that’s your thing, then give Cyclonopedia a try.

If The Matrix Reloaded used crypticism to establish a character -- or, more properly speaking, an intellect -- then Cyclonopedia took it a step further. The Architect was the encoding party at the other end of a line, but everyone was still in the same place, which was the topic of the shared communication: the Matrix itself, complete with its relationship to humanity and Zion. The language of Cyclonopedia, on the other hand, does not simply reveal/obscure a character... it reveals/obscures an entire world, a mysterious semantic domain, defined largely by its vocabulary, structured by its operative concepts.

This act of world-building through language is part of what connects Cyclonopedia with science fiction as a narrative genre. This is why it's often called "speculative" theory: in order to appreciate it, you have to let yourself sink into its self-contained world, the same way you have to sink into the language in A Clockwork Orange. There are a few anchors to connect Cyclonopedia to our own world -- the Middle East, terrorism, HP Lovecraft -- but it's largely a semantic field unto itself. The cryptic code gives us a dizzy, tightly-constrained glimpse into this world, but it's only enough to suggest that there's a lot more going on in there than we can apprehend.

The Otherness of these works -- the "Other" as an ineffable intellect in The Matrix, or as an impenetrable web of scholarship and mysticism in Cyclonopedia -- should be recognized for its peculiar quality: the fact that it's characterized as intelligent and detached, rather than primitive and violent. This is, after all, the usual issue with portrayals of the Other, whether in Heart of Darkness or in Tolkien's hordes of Orcs and Haradrim (Southmen): the Other, as an object of both fascination and fear, is, at best, romanticized as an innocent child of nature... and more often, as a horde of faceless, undifferentiated, animalistic, hyper-sexualized foes.

These kinds of "Others" are generally described visually, or depicted in images, as Conrad does with the "Africans" (Congolese) he sees from his steamboat: "But suddenly, as we struggled round a bend, there would be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grass-roofs, a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling, under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage." Or, in a film like 300, the Other depicted as a sea of masks, never speaking (except perhaps through a translator), an overwhelming visual presence, distanced and detached from the viewer by the objectivity of the optic brain.

So though the Other of cryptic language is still an exotic, unknowable presence (or a dim, half-rendered world), it's an intelligent Other, because language is inherently interior and cerebral. You can mark this as one of the unique features of the cryptic mode of writing, that's difficult to replicate in almost any other medium: the ability to create an Other that is more sophisticated than the POV, more abstract and advanced, and that bears the unique qualities of detachment, artificiality, and absolute self-control.

In an age of accelerating complexity, technology that seems to take on a supervisory role in our lives, and emergence that seems to be overwhelming our traditional mechanisms of control, maybe the runaway intelligence of a cryptic passage is becoming more threatening than the cartoonish tantrums of an Orientalist horde. Welcome to the horror of a new millennium.