Thursday, April 4, 2013

Red Pill, Blue Pill

I re-watched The Matrix a few weeks ago (partially inspired by my buddy Erika, who posted her own thoughts about revisiting the films), and much to my delight, the first movie has aged relatively well. I remember the first time I saw it: I was about 16 years old, and I watched the whole thing open-mouthed and in awe. When it was over, I rewound the tape (yes, Virginia, there was a time before DVDs, and, parenthetically, I am old), and I watched it again, this time standing right beside the TV. Every moment with Trinity in her slick PVC outfits, Neo's newfound kung fu skills, and Agent Smith's deliberate, creepy drawl, made me want more.

I had been growing out of the Disney/Pixar stable for a long while, but the omnipresent Drew Barrymore movies that were coming out at that time didn't speak to me - something about the desire to settle down with a nice boy while working as like, a lady-reporter or an inept flower arranger set my teeth on edge. I was drawn to other types of movies, like Jawbreaker, a glossy paean to the dark side of teen girls that was set-designed to within an inch of its life, or Galaxy Quest, a winking, absurd take on sci-fi TV tropes with a perfect cast, or Requiem for a Dream, which is the most brutal anti-drug PSA ever made. Thanks but no thanks, Drew.

Of the dozens of movies that came out during the last couple years I was in high school, none could hold a candle to my dual obsessions of The Matrix and Fight Club. I had read the Chuck Palahniuk book in 1998, and watching Fight Club a few years later - again, on VHS, because my tiny town hadn't screened the flick - was an awakening. The movie was dark, funny, violent, sexy, and totally campy. Brad Pitt in a low-slung white suit, hand-fucking Helena Bonham Carter with black rubber gloves? Hello, lovers. I remember the boys I ran with at that time starting their own fight club, as many boys of that era did, and breaking the first rule of fight club when they bragged about their bruised knuckles. It was a sexual awakening that was inextricably twined with violence: before Fight Club, before The Matrix, I had never considered that violence could be sexualized. Now I did.

That realization has filtered through to unexpected places in my life: fashion, for instance, where I strive to look ass-kicking-slash-sexy. Or music, where a drum machine will always win in a fight against a guitar. I admire women who stand for themselves,, who can rip off a one-liner and ride a motorcycle. And while I don't think real-life violence is sexy, sometimes it's okay in the movies, especially when it's shot by the Wachowskis or David Fincher. I like art (and yeah, Hollywood movies are sometimes art) that investigates the edges of society and its expectations, as both The Matrix and Fight Club do. In fact, one of the sexiest things about those both those movies is that they explore what happens when you leave the confines of your cushy life and plunge into something else. I loved the way both those movies looked, and their own wholly developed aesthetic managed to underscore their contents. That was also sexy: being able to read movies on more than one level, which is a trip when you're 16.

 Most of all, those movies were exciting. They opened up new ways of telling stories, and new ways of talking about those stories. The Matrix spawned a couple sequels that decreased in quality with every installation (eschewing the sparer, highly stylized approach of the original, the third chapter was a brawny shoot-'em-up with laughably on-the-nose symbolism), but it also produced The Animatrix, a collage of short animated films, each with a different style and subject matter, that explored the worlds both in and out of the Matrix. It exists in this neat little uncategorized space that isn't quite film and isn't quite commercial; instead, it's just a thought experiment, another way of storytelling. Fight Club also existed in this weird meta-space: in creating their own clubs, those boys inserted themselves into that story. A lot of young men could identify with the characters in the movie; in some ways, they sort of became like them.

I loved going back and recapturing some of that energy. I'm older now, a little bit inured to the holy-shit factor of movies, but I can remember when I wasn't. I can remember when movies taught me something about myself, and my place in the world, and how I might want to change that place. That was genuinely exciting, and even if I can't live there anymore, it's always fun to visit.