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Adjacency Matrix

I can't say that I enjoyed the first Matrix movie all that much. The premise of false reality was okay, but the backstory of "scarring the sky" and using humans as batteries was just hokey. It didn't obey the second law of thermodynamics or the law of the food chain: how did the robots get the energy to feed those humans and keep them alive? Why couldn't the robots use that energy directly? Are humans a source of some kind of special psychic energy upon which the robots depended? That aspect of the premise didn't make sense at all.

Although the computer generated effects and leathery-goth costumes were pretty cool, I wasn't that impressed by the plot. In the end it boiled down to blowing stuff up and becoming more powerful than the enemy, and who needs more of that?

The premise of the movie worked best when it took the Matrix-world seriously, playing it against the dreary grim scarred-earth world. Several of the shorts in The Animatrix played with this duality fairly well, but the second full-length movie threw it away entirely, and it suffered as a result. Neo can fly and is virtually invincible. Agent Smith can replicate and take over people's minds, with hardly a thought given to what happened to those minds afterwards. The tension between the worlds disappeared, and it was all sufficiently boring that I did not bother with the third film.

Having said all that, I am often surprised at the impact this movie has had on my life. For one thing, I can't talk to people about matrices without somebody making a crack about red pills and blue pills. On a deeper level, the premise of false realities reintroduced me to Gnostic thought, which (from what I can tell) asserts that our physical bodies -- and the physical universe -- are diversions (created by some evil force) to hide us from our true spiritual relationships with God. It's an interesting school of thought, and even though it had supposedly died out early in the history of Christianity, it keeps popping up in our culture. For example, a reader of this website recommended that I read A Voyage to Arcturus, by David Lindsay. This is an old science fiction story (available on Project Gutenberg) with definite Gnostic influences -- the protagonist's physical appearance keeps changing, and the motivations of characters are never what they seem. People remain interested in Gnostic thought today; there is a group in our area who puts on Gnostic talks at the public library. I find Gnosticism interesting because it has managed to survive all these years despite losing its status as a mainstream religion, and because it illustrates some of the diverse religious thought that competed for the souls of early Christians.

Some of the music on The Matrix soundtrack has resonated in my life as well. I got my first taste of Rage Against the Machine from the track "Wake Up" on that album. I find it fascinating that such a militantly subversive band's tunes were embraced by the commercial music and movie industries, to the point where RATM could criticise the Godzilla movie on its own soundtrack. I have mixed feelings about the band's politics and their effectiveness, but there is no question that their message reached some ears and woke some people up. It did not surprise me at all that ClearChannel blacklisted all the band's music after the September 11 attacks; somebody was worried about that band's message. And yet, if I had not signed out the wholly commercial Matrix soundtrack, I might never have heard the band's music or marvelled at their politics. Go figure.

In a similar way, The Matrix soundtrack led me to Shirley Bassey, whose Birthday Album I enjoyed very much. Of course, Bassey did not have a track on the Matrix soundtrack, but the Propellerheads did -- in fact, the use of their tune "Spybreak!" during the movie's climactic hotel-scene battle both heightened the excitement of the movie and made the Propellerheads quite famous. Certainly, I became enamoured with "Spybreak!", and eventually I chased that love to two distinct albums: a Tibet benefit album called Mantra Mix and the Propellerheads album Decksanddrumsandrockandroll. Both of these albums (and at least one other I have listened to since) feature the track "History Repeating", which features Ms. Bassey's delicious voice in addition to the Propellerheads danceable mixes. If it had not been for The Matrix, I would never have thought to investigate either Decksanddrumsandrockandroll or the Birthday Album, and I would have missed out on two excellent albums.

So what's the moral of this story? I'm not sure. As always, my feelings are mixed. On the one hand, it's kind of neat to see the connections -- how a mediocre movie led me to other life experiences that did educate and entertain me. On the other hand, most of these connections are kind of gross. I read the Gnostic interpretation of the movie on some independent website, but all of the musical connections were the result of corporate marketing: somebody figured out that people who were interested in the Matrix would also fall for Rage Against the Machine and the Propellerheads (and KMFDM and Rob Zombie and the other recording artists on the soundtrack), and I fell for the ploy. That makes me feel dirty. It doesn't help that I followed more marketing connections to find Shirley Bassey's album. Somebody is manipulating my wants and desires to their own ends.

The entire consumer entertainment industry makes me queasy, even though I avidly consume its products. Movie soundtracks aren't intended to be soundtracks; they are supposed to draw our attention to up-and-coming bands, or to manipulate our emotions via music we have heard a long time ago. By signing out these soundtracks I am voting that this practice is acceptable. Similarly, by chooosing to watch mediocre movies like the Matrix sequels, I give Hollywood permission to spend millions and millions of dollars to produce mediocre movies.

Have you ever noticed how people will go to watch a movie they know beforehand will be bad? We spend money on movie tickets or video rentals. Then we sit in a dark room and spend two or three hours of our lives staring at a dark screen. I guess lusty adolescents use this opportunity to feel each other's body parts, but the rest of us just stare. Then we complain how the movie was so bad, and then we get suckered into going to the next bad blockbuster. And then we complain that Hollywood produces so many bad movies. Of course it does! Hollywood has no incentive to produce good movies because for some reason we are not making good choices about how to spend our money.

Why do we get suckered in? Do we have nothing better to do? Do we have so much surplus money and time we feel obligated to waste it on bad movies? Do we seek distraction that badly? Are we so receptive to the marketing machines (TV ads, newspaper ads, movie "reviewers" who praise all sorts of lousy movies) that the marketing bypasses our better sense? Is moviegoing so entrenched in our culture that we subconsciously feel obligated to participate in the ritual? What's wrong with us?

Personally, I think we're caught in The Matrix. Entertainment is not "just entertainment". The price is huge -- we spend a lot of money to make movies and music and books and Internet sites and video games and all of our other distractions. More importantly, we spend a lot of our energy and attention consuming these products. In the world, people are fighting wars, going hungry, facing loneliness, committing suicide, facing despair. How much better off would we all be if we cut our entertainment budgets in half and used the resulting money, time and energy working to improve the world however we saw fit? It would mean that the entertainment infrastructures would be weaker, and maybe some good books and movies and music wouldn't reach people the way they do now. Maybe we wouldn't know about Fight Club or Ursula K. Le Guin's books or Rage Against the Machine's music. But maybe if we were stingier about our dollars and our time, the consumer entertainment industries would have to work harder for our money, and would have incentive to produce worthwhile music and books and movies. Or maybe a reduction in our entertainment consumption would result in moviemakers and music producers taking even fewer risks than they do now, resulting in yet more rehashed cliches. Regardless of the effects to commercial entertainment, overall I suspect we would be better off reducing the resources we devote to our diversions.

We're so plugged into the consumer entertainment industry that we don't know what's going on in the world. We know all about Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie and U2 and The Family Guy, but we don't know the laws that are being passed in our countries. We don't know about the injustices of our social systems. We don't know where our food comes from, or the suffering required to get food onto our table. We don't know about the people in our neighbourhoods who are writing books and making movies and putting on plays and singing in choirs and running garage bands. Just like the citizens of The Matrix, we are mostly oblivious to reality, in part because somebody has convinced us that consuming entertainment is a worthwhile pursuit.

And yet, the entertainment is enjoyable and sometimes exceptional. I have read books and watched movies and visited Internet sites that have changed my life. I regularly consume entertainment that transports me imaginary worlds. I do think that some of the entertainment we consume has merit, and I firmly believe that music and story and play are essential in our lives. Commercial music and movies and novels and video games and spectator sports are common and possibly effective ways to get music and story and play into our lives, but they aren't the only ways, they are not that cheap, and they are probably not as effective as other forms of entertainment. I do not advocate banning commercial mass entertainment because people are starving in the Third World. My complaint is that money and time are scarce resources, and that in devoting so much of our money and time to watching movies and buying CDs and playing video games we do great harm in the world.

No doubt you believe you are free, that we are not ensnared in this trap of commercial entertainment that obscures reality and drains our pocketbooks and attentions. To all of you I offer a challenge: develop your awareness. Awareness is the red pill that sets us free.

Developing awareness requires some attention, but it is not difficult. One excellent exercise is to log your consumption. Monitor the number of hours each week you spend consuming entertainment. Record the books you read and the websites you visit and the movies you watch, and determine whether you found these entertainments worth your time and energy. Tally up the amount of money you spend on entertainment each week. These logs take only a few minutes a day to complete, but they can blow your mind. I used to be smug about my entertainment consumption because I don't own a televison, and because I have not watched TV for several years. Then I recorded my entertainment hours, and discovered that I spend over two hours every day surfing the Internet and playing with my e-mail. I listen to music regularly and watch movies more than occasionally. I see few reasons to be smug now.

In addition to logs, you might look at the ways you are marketed to. When you feel an urge to read a particular book or purchase a particular album or watch a particular movie, pause for a moment. Where did that urge come from? What made you want to consume that entertainment? Did you see an advertisement? Did you see somebody else consuming the product? Did you read a review? Did a friend or associate recommend the product? What created that desire? Whose interests does it serve? These are not easy questions, and the answers are often unpleasant. I have learned that I am susceptable to positive reviews: when entertainment gets good reviews and/or is recommended by others, my cravings to consume that entertainment grow -- especially when I think that this consumption will enhance my intellectual enlightened hippie image. I have not enjoyed learning how gullible I am, but this awareness makes me stronger. What are your triggers?

That's the challenge. You can take the blue pill and wake up in your bed tomorrow, believing whatever you want to believe. Or you can choose awareness, and see for yourself just how deep the rabbit hole goes. It's a free choice, and it's yours to make.