Use Your Illusions

Dancers in the Dark, From Zion to Transylvania

What if the prophecy is true? The Matrix Reloaded, the Wachowski brothers' long-awaited follow-up to their mega cult smash of 1999, begins by predicting its own penultimate scene and ends, after some impressively lengthy credits, with a trailer for the last panel of the altarpiece, The Matrix Revolutions. (The movie itself is perhaps a trailer for the video game Enter the Matrix.)

In between, just about everything that happened before happens again. What was novel in The Matrix is now comfortably familiar as the saga encourages further participation by elaborating the rules and geography of its various realms. Much time is spent in the somewhat multiculti People's Republic of Zion. Perhaps in mocking reference to critical theorist Slavoj Zizek's celebrated prophecy that Zion, or at least the Desert of the Real, would turn out to be another computer-induced illusion, this funnel-like settlement resembles nothing so much as a steel-girder matrix. Meanwhile, the Matrix proper is riddled with mysterious doors, corridors, and backstage areas. Reloaded, it appears as less a sinister virtual reality than a video game arena swarming with rogue programs, rival computer codes, and systemic anomalies—which is to say, as a vast elaboration of a conceit put forth by the DOS-era Disney relic Tron.

The unconvincing nostalgia for "reality" that characterized The Matrix has been unsentimentally dropped. Live with it. Dispensing with the red-pill question, despite the introduction of a half-dozen new characters—not counting the madly multiplying Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving, hissy as ever), Reloadedflirts with an excess of drama. As hacker Thomas Anderson turned possible messiah Neo (Keanu Reeves) and his grim-faced, vinyl-clad guardian angel Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) lock lips at every opportunity, Reloadedis sexier, or at least sweatier, than its precursor. Even the solemn rebel-rebel Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) gets to make eyes and flash his chrome-dome at spunky Captain Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith). Further romantic complications arise when unwilling Neo is compelled to bestow the Kiss of Passion on the agent moll played by Monica Bellucci (some hardship!) in order to find the Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim)—a concept imported from Ghostbusters.

Multiple choice: Reeves in Matrix Reloaded
photo: Warner Bros. Pictures
Multiple choice: Reeves in Matrix Reloaded

Details

The Matrix Reloaded
Written and directed by the Wachowski brothers
Warner Bros.
Opens May 15

Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary
Directed by Guy Maddin,
from Mark Godden's ballet Dracula
Zeitgeist
May 14 through 27, at Film Forum

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Love has scarcely rendered Neo expressive—or susceptible to the usual verbal abuse offered by the now replicated Smith: "Missster Anderson . . . still using all your muscles except the one that matters?" (nyaaah-nyaaah). No less impervious to opinion than Neo's bullet-proof Gardol shield, Reloadedwill likely make enough money to balance George Bush's budget. But I suspect it may also divide its fan base. Even more than Blade Runner (a commercial flop in its day), The Matrix captivated multiplex hoi polloi, dark-planet true believers, and ivory-tower mandarins alike. But where The Matrix was a heady cocktail of gnostic Zen Philip K. Dick cyberpunk '60s psychedelic bull, well spiked with high-octane digitally driven Hong Kong action pyrotechnics, those elements reloaded soon separate out. The refreshing draft of effervescent movie magic leaves a sludgy sediment of metaphysics.

The latter may be less than brain-buzzing; the former is something else, thanks largely to genius fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping. The scene wherein the luau drums begin calling all Zion to get down and party—a word that scarcely does justice to the world's biggest rave—pales before the array of skyscraper swan dives, midair moon walks, tabletop two-steps, nunchuck cha-chas, perpendicular push-offs, sidelong cartwheels, and trampoline freezies that Master Yuen has contrived for the film's human stars. But for pure video game shock and awe, the most exciting sequence is a prolonged freeway chase with helmetless Trinity riding her motorcycle against traffic as cars pile up and scatter all around like autumn leaves.

Still, Reloaded aspires to more than mindless sensation. As the writer-directors of a high-tech, computer-spawned movie with a technophobic cyber-dystopian premise, the Wachowski brothers feel obliged to acknowledge the obvious paradox by hinting that machines are neither wholly good nor entirely bad—thus setting up the revelatory cyborg symbiosis perhaps to arrive before Christmas with The Matrix Revolutions. As Neo wonders if he is indeed the One and what it is that One is supposed to do, the Wachowskis rehearse the ever gnarly conundrum of free will and determinism. An obnoxiously rational French program (Lambert Wilson) holds forth on the implacable relationship of cause and effect—but as an intuitive Kantian, Neo suspects that causal relations only appear to be causal. While these notions never get sufficient screen time to induce a Philosophy 101 migraine, faithful Morpheus can always be counted on to explicate the basic narrative. Like the gigolo in Top Hat, he believes that chance is but the fool's name for fate.

The Oracle (Gloria Foster) may be the mother of the Matrix, but the Matrix—defined in the original movie as "a computer-generated dream world built to keep us under control"—is clearly the mother of all metaphors. Can it be read as the Society of the Spectacle? Capital? An improved version of Socialist Realism? An updated Parallax Corporation? The National Entertainment State? Zizek's Big Other? Hardt and Negri's Empire? Baudrillard's Precession of Simulacra? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. The matrix allegorizes the new totality of the media world. Who is free not to participate? (As the movie tells us, "Everything begins with choice." As in, I choose to breathe; therefore I am.)

Much was made of the copy of Baudrillard strategically placed in Neo's humble room. Here, serious intent is signified by the presence of celebrity professor Cornel West as a Zion elder. He's in the Matrix simulating resistance to . . . the matrix. Another version of the matrix condition would be the cover flaunted by Warner's corporate sib Time the week Reloaded press-screened: "We're the FIRST to see the movie and play the video game!" As Morpheus might say, the newest illusion is the illusion of news.


Another action invitation to the dance, Guy Maddin's Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diarytakes one of the oldest stories in movies and very nearly reinvents it. Maddin refracts Bram Stoker's musty gothic novel through Mark Godden's newly minted ballet, which itself appropriates excerpts from Gustav Mahler's first and second symphonies, and presents this doubly choreographed piece as a kind of exhumed silent film—more digitally deteriorated than digitally enhanced.

The performances, too, are doubly abstract. Throughout, the dancers mouth unheard dialogue and the not inconsiderable action is interspersed with excited intertitles: "When I'm Dead Will You Drive a Stake Through My Heart and Cut Off My Head?" ("Yes, My Child I Shall.") This defamiliarized Dracula is itself a kind of vampire object. Feasting on stage makeup and extravagant gestures, the movie not only reanimates a dead form and cannibalizes its own footage—it also steals Mahler's soul, ravishes the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and embalms the pale beauty of prima ballerinas Tara Birtwhistle and CindyMarie Small. Not surprisingly, Zhang Wei-Qiang's Dracula is the hero.

The movie's first half belongs to the possessed Lucy Westernra (Birtwhistle), her three human suitors, and the unwholesome presence she summons into her boudoir. Explicitly arriving from the mysterious East, Zhang is a robust and lithe Count Dracula, as well as the taloned personification of Otherness. "I see Dracula as not even existing," Maddin told Cinema Scope. "He's just a big, pleasurable lust fluttering around from woman to woman." Dracula and the willing Lucy perform a lengthy pas de deux amid the icy glitter of a wintry graveyard. Indeed, containing female sexuality is the main issue—as evidenced by the scene in which the suitors and vampire hunter Van Helsing pry open Lucy's coffin and engage in a long struggle with the wanton feral creature within. The male posse sets off in search of Dracula in the second half for a danced confrontation that is surprisingly violent.

Filmed on 16mm and Super 8, then refilmed and otherwise reworked, the haloed, matted images might have been shot through an anamorphic snow globe. The movie is black-and-white, with strategic drops of red. (It ends with a door opening on a delicate orange-and-purple dawn.) The light flickers seductively. The images pile up as super-impositions. The action erupts with surreal pirouettes and dips, sometimes in slow motion. The camera placement is irrationally analytical—Maddin breaks down individual scenes into often inexplicable signifying close-ups. As the ballet itself is periodically disrupted by offstage cutaways to Dracula's fly-eating lacky Renfield, the montage is often as frenzied as in Maddin's six-minute masterpiece The Heart of the World, also edited by deco dawson.

Dracula isn't campy, but it is funny—in one of Maddin's inventions, Van Helsing has Lucy's bed wreathed in garlands of garlic. It's also overtly erotic, willfully archaic, often inspired, uncannily affecting, and beautifully convulsive. Even more than Aki Kaurismäki, who managed to make the last silent feature of the 20th century in his underappreciated Juha, Maddin has created a fascinating hybrid—this enraptured composition in mist, gauze, and Vaseline is more rhapsody than narrative, less motion picture than shadow play.


Related Article:
"Reloaded Questions: Hacking the Matrix Master Code" by Jane Dark

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