The Matrix Rehashed

I just saw the first trailer for Matrix Resurrections, and I am excited. I thought the original three movies were a tight trilogy that wrapped everything up neatly, and they would have to do some serious contorting to squeeze another movie out of it. I was skeptical. But now I’m actually hopeful.

A lot of it has to do with the tone and sluggish pace of most of the trailer. It’s mostly Keanu Reeves as Thomas Anderson sleepwalking through life, and weird shit kind of happens, and then the action starts. I think this is a good sign because it might be about more than CGI and kicking.

The Matrix is my favorite movie. It’s not the best movie, but I’m in love with its questions about control and consciousness. It was a philosophical question with action and special effects grafted onto it. The Matrix Reloaded, however, was action and special effects with a philosophical question grafted onto it. The Matrix Revolutions was just action and special effects.

What I liked about The Matrix that was completely missed in the sequels were the people. The Matrix as a computer program was lived in. There were homeless people, dirty trains, sleazy hotels, stark office buildings, and a place where you can get “really good noodles.” When we find out that this world, so much like our own, isn’t real, we’re shocked. Of course, the movie breaks down in the end when the heroes just shoot everyone.

In the preview for Matrix Resurrections, we see Keanu living in the world, riding in elevators, taking antidepressants, going to coffee shops. It looks like it just might be grounded, like the first movie, and I, for one, can’t wait to find out if I’m right, or if this is another shameless cash grab like all of the other sequels made over twenty years after the last film. Will this succeed, like Bill & Ted Face the Music, or will it suck like all the Die Hards and Rambos that keep getting churned out? I guess we will find out in three months.

An Orange on a Toothpick

I watched this movie about a dozen times, maybe more, before I turned twenty. After I turned twenty, I’ve seen it twice, and the second time was last night. Watching it again, I understood what a formative role it had in the development of my identity as a social being, something I’ve fallen completely away from. The movie is So I Married an Ax Murderer.

Aside from the extreme nostalgia I feel for the movie, it doesn’t really hold up. It’s very nineties, seen mostly in the outfits Anthony LaPaglia wore, but also in locations like a beatnik coffee house and pre-tech-boom San Francisco, as well as oversized posters and Nancy Travis. This was before Mike Myers really solidified his brand, so he was looser here and a lot more charming, but you could still see, peeking through, cringeworthy habits that would ultimately lead to The Love Guru. I’ll be honest, I was DMing a friend about San Francisco the entire time the movie was on, and I didn’t miss a thing because I had the whole thing memorized, from all of the butcher-shop flirtations to my second-favorite rendition of “Do You Think I’m Sexy.” (My first will always be The Revolting Cocks. Sorry, Mike.)

I cannot overstate how much I wanted to be Mike Myers in this movie when I was young, specifically Charlie Stewart with his sentimental creativity and energetic sense of humor. I had his hair, coincidentally, for many years. I was trying to be my funniest at this point in my life, and this movie helped me develop that. (And no, I’m not talking about screaming out in a terrible Scottish accent, “Head! Pants! Now!”) I was never as funny as Mike Myers could be, but I held my own. I could never quite work out how to use humor as flirting, but again, I held my own. That was a long time ago. These days, when I’m relaxed, I can still be funny, but I don’t have the full-body gusto that I used to have. This movie made me really miss it.

I think, if you’re a certain age, it’s a pretty great little movie. Maybe you can remember the days when you and your peers pretended to be his Scottish father (also Mike Myers because, if there’s one thing he can never do wrong, it’s Scottish), shouting at each other, or maybe you’ll be amused by the love story, such as it was. It was an original story, not based on overexposed, underdeveloped Saturday Night Live characters, so it had that going for it. Mostly, it was a movie where they got this budding comedian to screw around on camera for ninety minutes, and you know what? It can be an absolute joy to watch. Next, I think I have a duty to write short essays about other movies I’ve seen over ten times and how they influenced my life. That means Face/Off and The Highlander.    

Bleak Production

I saw this TV show years ago, I can’t even remember what it’s called. It only lasted one season, and I think that was by design—the story had wrapped up quite neatly. The only thing I recall about it was the star, James Badge Dale, and the fact that it completely realigned my philosophy about the country, and it may have killed my sense of hope.

The plot of the show is simple: an intelligence contractor uncovers a conspiracy, including members of our government and several corporations. As he unravels the plot, lives are destroyed, betrayed, or ended, and he nearly loses everything, but he keeps going, because the truth is what’s important. In the finale, the conspiracy unfolds exactly as it’s supposed to, and the world is forever changed. The hero confronts his boss, who was in on it, and tells him he has the proof. He’ll tell the world. And his boss asks him if he thinks anyone would care. If the hero somehow convinced media outlets to run the story, what would change?

This resonated deeply within me because I witnessed the NSA get caught spying on American citizens under the tutelage of the Bush Administration, and no one cared. Sure there were those of us who do tend to care about this kind of thing, but to the general public, it was a non-issue. The Constitution was aggressively, flagrantly violated, and it was no big deal. No one lost their job over it. I don’t even recall the program being shut down.

This was one thing I witnessed. The American public, at large, didn’t care as our rights were struck down, those in power abused it unapologetically. This came to a head during the Trump Administration when the president and those working for him didn’t give a fuck. They behaved badly, they behaved incompetently, and the American public didn’t care. Most voters, when asked about Trump’s first impeachment, couldn’t figure out what the big deal was (the big deal was, he broke the law by offering a foreign country military aid if they helped him win an election). Yes, we elected Joe Biden, but 70 million people voted for Donald Trump, and not all of them were Qanon.

Right now we have people like Jeff Bezos actively and fundamentally screwing over his workers and the whole country in general, and simply consolidating all the money, and it’s well documented, and it’s no big deal. We still have children in cages at the border, and America is all, meh. What’s it going to take for people to get mad? What’s it going to take for something to change?

I may not remember the name of the show, but I can close my eyes and vividly picture the final scene, on top of the building where the main character worked, as the hero and his boss looked into the sunset, and his boss said those devastating words to him. I remember my stomach going cold and realizing, God help us, he’s right.

Pros and Conflict

Despite all of the press being focused on Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the fact is, Marvel is the dominant force in the entertainment industry, as they just proved with WandaVision. Some people (I can name several Facebook friends off the top of my head) absolutely loathe them. Some people can take them or leave them. Me, I love them. I’ve seen all 247 of them in the theater, and I will gladly shell out the $20.00 rental price on future movies until this whole pandemic is behind us, and I feel like going back into a theater. But, I don’t know if this is a result of me growing up or just me seeing something a lot and getting tired of it, I’m starting to get kind of bored with the usual conflict resolution in these movies.  

The whole point of a superhero fight is the annihilation of your opponent through violence. Even in Captain America: Winter Soldier, when Cap defeats his brainwashed best friend by refusing to fight and telling him he loved him, there was still a pretty huge battle scene before he took the path of peace. In The Avengers, Iron Man saves the world by sacrificing himself, but not before a full half-hour of the Avengers slaughtering aliens by the dozens. Avengers Endgame also involves a sacrifice by Iron Man, but not before every superhero in the world murders every alien in the galaxy. In WandaVision, a show about how to process grief and loss that ends in the heroine giving up that which she wanted most, the run-up to this is two witches throwing magical laser blasts at each other and two androids throwing each other through walls.  

I suppose I can get behind fights, as long as they end in non-violence of some sort, but what kind of world do we live in when the winner of moral battles is the one who can punch harder? That’s why I hated Zack Snyder’s Superman movies so much—Superman is an aspirational figure of hope, but he breaks a guy’s neck in Man of Steel to save the day. What is the point of taking a man we’ve been raised to believe uses his powers to help people and making him murder someone with his bare hands.  

I suppose I’m as guilty of this as anyone else. In my novel A Fae at the Race (available now at Amazon for $3.99 or free with Kindle Unlimited), the heroes win by casting a spell that releases the world from the glamor of a powerful, magical foe, but to get there, I do include a scene where one of the heroes has to physically battle one of these foes to the death. In Family Business (also available now on Amazon for $3.99 or free with Kindle Unlimited), the secret weapon is extortion, so that’s a step up. The thing is, I’m trying. Now, whenever I write a fantasy book, even one as action-heavy as mine tend to be, I actively try to come up with solutions that don’t involve violence.  

As far as media I consume, I’m not sure where this leaves me. Yes, I will watch The Falcon and the Winter Soldier this weekend, even though it seems to consist mostly of punching. I’ll watch Black Widow when it comes out in May, even though it is also mostly punching, but with Russian accents. I don’t hate violence, I just don’t like that it’s regarded as the only solution. I like fast-paced plots, and I like plucky protagonists who outsmart their foes. I don’t like a lot of comedies, and character-driven dramas don’t really interest me. This leaves me with not a lot of choice. I guess I’ll just keep looking.  

A Shining City on a Hill

I have lately been baffled by the eighties. I’m not baffled by the fact that they exist, or by shoulder pads. I’m baffled by the sheer reverence of that decade, and how it’s not going away. I remember people being nostalgic for the eighties in the nineties, and that was almost thirty years ago. The eighties are to the nineties, aughts, teens, and twenties what the fifties were to the sixties, seventies, and eighties.

Everything is the eighties now. Joker was set in the eighties for no real reason, Punky Brewster just came back, and let’s not forget Stranger Things and IT: Chapter One. We had a new She-Ra a couple of years ago, and a new He-Man is on its way. So is Beetlejuice 2. And those are just the examples I could think of off of the top of my head. Name an eighties band, and I’ll bet you a dollar they’re still touring. The eighties even gets all the credit for Saved by the Bell (which also just returned) when that show mostly aired in the nineties.

Like the fifties, they were far from idyllic. The Cold War, which had become less of a priority in the late seventies, got cranked up by a president so insane that we weren’t sure if we were all going to die in a nuclear war. AIDS and homophobia were pretty big back then. The hatred of government that Reagan fostered led to a lot of government services shutting down, especially mental health, leading to a lot of the visible homelessness we’ve seen since. Deregulation turned our beloved children’s entertainment into commercials for toys that my parents couldn’t afford to buy.

I don’t really get the fondness for the eighties because I missed that decade while it was going on. While my peers were watching John Hughes movies and listening to Duran Duran, I was watching Airplane and the Marx Brothers and listening to “Weird Al” Yankovic and the Beatles. I discovered culture in the nineties, so that’s my decade, a decade that gets no love whatsoever. My warm fuzzies come not from leg-warmers and big hair but from heavy layers, chokers, and Doc Martins. Imagine my delight when Captain Marvel took place in the nineties, and her secret identity was a NIN T-shirt.

I know why the eighties were so popular: they were a colorful time with catchy music, easily identifiable fashion, and memorable tropes that are easy to replicate. The nineties are really hard to sum up in an easy image. There was grunge and gangster rap, but there was also the rise of boy bands and Brittany Spears. There was the Real World—that was uniquely nineties. It was kind of a weird decade. If you tried to pinpoint something that was the aughts, for example, you have what? Low-rise jeans? A long series of economic recessions? I guess the eighties really was the last decade you could draw a caricature of and have it be on-the-nose.

Nostalgia just is. I’m not going to talk about the dark side of it because that’s not what this post is about. If neon leotards and “Tainted Love” are what make you happy, then enjoy it. There’s so much in the world that makes us feel awful that you should stick to the thing that causes you joy. For me, that means pulling on my flannel and listening to Nirvana. Just be happy.

Facing the Times

I was just thinking about Kuchisake-onna. Do you know who she is? She’s a Japanese urban legend. She’s either the ghost of a model who had some bad plastic surgery or abused wife, or she is a dark spirit that roams the country, or a demon. The official name for her kind is yokai, which could mean ghost, spirit, or demon, or all three. The folklore isn’t clear. Like most yokai, she follows a script, and only by knowing it can you expect to get out alive.

Imagine you’re walking down the dark streets of Tokyo in 2019 or earlier, and a woman approaches you wearing a surgical mask. She will ask you, “Am I beautiful?” Being polite, you answer that yes, she is. She removes her mask to reveal that her mouth has been split open from ear to ear. She will ask again, “Do you still think I’m beautiful?” If your answer is to be brutally honest and say no, or if you’re too busy screaming in terror, she will slit your mouth open to match hers, and in recent tellings, she will do it with a pair of comically large scissors. If you continue to be polite and say that she is beautiful, she will leave you alone without a word. And then, while you sleep that night, she will murder you in your bed. If you think you can get out of it by saying she isn’t beautiful up front, she will decapitate you right away, probably with those scissors.

The thing is, once Kuchisake-onna spots you, you’re in it for the long haul, so you need to be prepared. At any point, before or after she shows her face, you throw a handful of hard candies at her, she will be distracted by those, and you can get away safely. The best way to get away without having to stock up on Jolly Ranchers or Werther’s Originals is to answer her, either time when she asks if she’s beautiful, with, “You’re average.” This is such a departure from the script that she’ll just wander away, the encounter forgotten.

Kuchisake-onna is a bit of a celebrity in Japan. They’ve made her the subject of a number of horror movies. As far as I know, she never made it into an episode of Supernatural, but she did appear in the short-lived CW show Constantine as a minor villain. Honestly, she’s got a lot of potential as visual horror, but you probably couldn’t make an entire movie about her.

I was thinking about her today, as I was in the supermarket, and I saw a woman walk by with stunning eyes. That’s all of her I could see because it’s 2020, and it led me to wonder what she could be hiding under that mask. And then I remembered that Japan has been asking that question for centuries. I wonder if Kuchisake-onna has been getting around a little more in Japan, if she’s feeling less conspicuous and a little more relaxed. It’s hard to be suspicious of the woman in the mask when everybody’s got one.

Deconstruction Zone

Superhero deconstruction is big business. From Watchmen to The Boys and including the odious Man of Steel, creators are thinking seriously about what superheroes are, and they’ve concluded that they’re assholes.  

The genre was created to be one of hope for the little guy. When Superman was created, he didn’t take his power and use it to take over the country. He took on corrupt politicians and their goons. When The Bat-Man was created, he wasn’t beating economically disadvantaged muggers into hamburger on the streets, he was taking on evil capitalists like the kind who’d caused the Great Depression. They quickly fell into fighting costumed villains who wanted to overturn the status quo, but Superman’s optimism and Batman’s good-natured two-fisted justice brought the kids back for more.   

But deconstruction took a dark turn in the eighties. Thanks to The Dark Knight Returns, the fun-loving, straight-laced Batman of the fifties and sixties (and the globetrotting adventurer of the seventies) was turned into a fascist, sadistic psychopath, and he’s pretty much remained this way ever since. The image of Superman was forever tarnished because Frank Miller couldn’t imagine the US government not turning the Man of Steel into a mindless weapon for Reagan-era politics. DC’s top two heroes were turned into the worst versions of themselves.  

Now we have Zack Snyder’s Superman destroying a trucker’s entire livelihood because he hurt his feelings, and the audience cheers. We have Batman turned into a middle-aged, murderous fogey. Snyder was inspired by The Dark Knight Returns, and it shows. Superman v. Batman took away all of the heroism of their characters and turned them into empty punching machines.  

Meanwhile, in The Boys, we have Homelander, the Superman analog, and he is the answer to the question, “What does a 900-pound gorilla do?” Specifically, an indestructible 900-pound with laser vision and a great publicist. Garth Ennis, creator of The Boys, hates superheroes. He loathes them. He wants to do everything in his power to destroy them, so he turned the Justice League into murderous, drug-addled, Nazi rapists. (Ironically, in an issue of Hitman, Mr. Ennis told a Superman story with warmth and heart and positivity not seen in the character in some time.) 

Even Quentin Tarantino got in on the action. He’ll never lower himself to make a comic book movie because he makes Art(tm), but in a monologue in Kill Bill: Volume 2, the titular Bill breaks down the meaning behind Superman in a way that makes his whole character pretty unsavory.  

It seems like every time a creator wants to look under the hood of what makes a costumed hero run, and all they can find is grit and grime. Why? Because these creators look at all of that power, and they try to imagine what they’d do with it, and this is what they come up with. It seems like the modern concept of deconstructionism is basically: Superhero, but with nasty character flaw. It doesn’t have to be this way.  

In the sixties, Marvel came along with their own version of deconstruction. Stan Lee asked questions like, “What does a superhero do when their costume gets dirty?” The answer, you take it to the laundromat, where the bright red and blue colors turn your underwear purple. This is the kind of thing I love. The Flash has a super-high metabolism, so he needs to eat all the time. Spider-Man tries to make money as a superhero, which is the logical thing for a broke college student to do, but the checks are made out to Spider-Man, and he has no way of proving who he is when he goes to cash them. This kind of thing still goes on (see Ms. Marvel), but it’s eclipsed by the horrific violence and perversion that these dark deconstructionists want to inflict. 

As someone who owns a leather-bound copy of The Dark Knight Returns and prizes his twenty-two-year-old paperback of Watchmen (and who enjoys The Boys whenever it comes out), I certainly don’t dismiss deconstruction out of hand. But it would be nice if our heroes were heroes, you know? Instead of making them out to be inhuman monsters, make them human beings. Wouldn’t a little positivity be nice? 

Are Women From Venus, Though?

So, there is this cliché in culture where men find it cute and hot when women eat a lot. They don’t like it when she puts on extra pounds, though. It’s a lot like the way that men will brag about how they love a woman without makeup, but they are pretty horrified by what women do look like without makeup. Men want their women to look beautiful, but they don’t want their women to go through the work of looking beautiful. It’s inconceivable to us, the gender that can look conventionally attractive being kind of out of shape and taking a ten-minute shower that it might take a carefully monitored diet and up to an hour in the bathroom to be conventionally attractive.

Some of it might also be because we’re, as men, taught to devalue the girly, and what could be more girly than caring about the way you look?

So I’m making a female superhero a main character in my next novel (which won’t be a superhero novel per se, but will have superheroes in it), and I’m trying to think of the practicalities of her powers, and I briefly flirted with her having to eat 6,000 calories a day to function, so she was always shoving food in her face. But then I thought, do I want to be that cliché? So I’m going to pass on that. It would have made for a fun gag, but it’s also really misogynistic. I can give her a personality that’s not just a male wish-fulfillment quirk.

I know I’m not going to be a bestselling author, and my impact on the cultural zeitgeist will be that of a light cough, but it’s still important that I do the right thing.

Which Way the Wind Blows

I was watching a teen movie last night, and the class pariah and the literal prom queen got thrown into a situation together, and by end of the movie, they were besties, spending their summer together. I asked the closing credits, “Yeah, but what happens when the school year begins?” I asked because I had gone through this.

Halfway through my tour of high school, I was an undiagnosed bipolar going through a hypomanic phase. Things were good. My friends were good, my life goals were good, my job was good (well, not the work part, but the cash for movies, comics, and coffee was good), my prospects were good. Things were good. I went into that summer prepared to hang out with my merry band of misfits and just being good.

But there was suddenly a new kid in the group, and no one had consulted me about him. I knew who he was, and he was kind of a douchebag. He was reasonably popular—not the prom king, but he had his own clique and minions. His clothes were too neat, his hair had too much product in it, and his confidence was just a little too high for my tastes. But a prominent member of our gang vouched for him, and we let him in.

He quickly ingratiated himself into the group. He laughed at all of our jokes. He made his own jokes. He seemed to get us when we were sure that we were the only people who got us. I started to look up to him, as he seemed, despite being my age, older. He had a lot more experiences under his belt, some of which was girls. He helped me refine my music palate, he introduced me to horror movies, and he occasionally found us some beer. He had gone, in a handful of weeks, from being someone I would never associate with to a really close friend.

And then school started again, and he was gone. He didn’t return our calls, he didn’t acknowledge us in the hallways, he completely disappeared from our lives, like he was never there to begin with. The friend who’d vouched for him in the beginning of the summer would get really angry if his name were even uttered, so our entire summer became this taboo thing that had never happened. I had a brief conversation with our missing friend a few weeks after this had happened, and he acted like there was nothing to be done about it. Like he wasn’t in control of the loss of our relationship.

I think about it as an adult who has since learned that popular kids are people too, and I wonder how much control he did have over his relationships. Social castes are real. Even I, who didn’t have a lot of regard for what people thought of him, had immense regard for what people thought of him. Later, as a senior, I had branched out and made friends and acquaintances with representatives of different social strata, but I was successful in doing that because I knew my place.

A long time ago I forgave my temporary friend for abandoning me because he didn’t belong with us. I had three short months to get to be his friend, and I value that time. Each life that has touched mine is precious, even if it was only for a little bit.

My mind is on that movie again. Will the prom queen abandon her friends when school begins? Or will she throw her hard-earned class status out the window for new relationships? She’s got a lot of thinking to do, which is, I guarantee, more thinking than the writers put into this screenplay.

Blinded with Science

I’m a skeptic. I don’t really believe anything unless it’s been peer-reviewed and analyzed to death. I don’t have a lot of faith. A lot of people look down on me for this. They say I’m closeminded, that I’m disconnected from the wonders of the universe. To the latter, I say, the universe, as science sees it, is incredible. I don’t need ghosts, which can be explained through hundreds of possibilities that don’t involve dead people, when I have fire—the fundamental deconstruction and rearranging of matter, and it’s pretty; or water, which has a molecular composition so unusual that our entire planet is built around it.

As far as being closeminded, I can assure you that just about every skeptic I’ve met or read would like nothing more than to find Bigfoot. A primitive hominid wandering around the Pacific Northwest for hundreds of years, just out of sight of civilization? How cool would that be? But it’s 2020, and everyone has a camera in their pockets, and the best we can come up with is blurry images and inconclusive footprints? No scat? No carcasses? When we meet Bigfoot, we want to meet him, not just anecdotes and conjecture, and we are lining up around the block for it.

Skeptics and science-based thinkers love ideas that challenge their own—provided those ideas are credible. The Theory of Evolution is one of those scientific principles that faith-based thinkers believe that we’re so married to that we won’t accept alternatives. What they don’t understand is that Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is almost unrecognizable from the Theory of Evolution as it exists today. The theories have been challenged, and they have been amended. That’s why the story of how COVID-19 and coronavirus works has changed so much in the past ten months. We keep getting new information, and the doctors incorporate it into what they know. They’re learning. If you govern from unyielding faith, you get our current government, and is that really what you want to aspire to?

I’m afraid to bring this up because most everyone I know is a believer in something I don’t believe in. Mostly God, but ghosts and other supernatural phenomena, as well. The fact that I say I don’t believe as they do is considered an attack, like maybe I think I’m better than them or something. Trust me, I’ve Facebook unfriended all the people I think I’m better than. And I get it, most public atheists are arrogant assholes, and they don’t make it easy to be me. Or my friends will try to talk me out of my skepticism, which has been honed for years and won’t go easily, or explain to me that I can be faithful and scientific. It was easier to tell the world that I’m not into sex, even though that’s weird and unnatural, than it was to tell people that I’m a non-believer.

Why am I taking a chance with alienating you? Because of TV. I have been watching this Netflix show (I won’t say the title because spoilers), and it has blown my mind. It’s about three investigators, a skeptic, a believer, and someone on the fence. What we’ve learned from pop culture so far is that, in these cases, the skeptic is due for a very hard lesson in the power of the supernatural. The non-believers are always taught that they need to believe. Not in this show, though. Four episodes in, and the miracles and demon possessions have all been roundly debunked. Science wins! (It’s obvious that this show has a supernatural undercurrent that is going to show its face in the metanarrative, but on an episode-by-episode, the skeptic is right!) Science never wins over the supernatural, unless it’s the Ghostbusters. I think the show is a one-season wonder, so it didn’t make it, but for a little while, at least, I can cheer as the scientific method conquers evil.

And honestly, in day of QAnon and cries of fake news, a little skepticism is probably a good thing.