‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

Thoughts: Time Travel and Cinema

1: Embodiment

Movies embody ‘time’ materially and formally. They show the unfolding of events in motion across time, such that it's really not possible to talk about their movement without acknowledging the extent to which time is the key axis of their manifold visualities. We might be tempted to invoke the contrast between ‘static pictures’, like Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage, and moving pictures like Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. I suppose this seems straightforward enough. But of course as soon as we do that, we find ourselves tempted to blur this distinction by pointing to images that imply or suggest movement, like Turner’s Rain Steam and Speed (1844):

... or the photographs of Eadweard Muybridge from the later century—

... or perhaps Monet’s haystacks, painted at different times of day and (when exhibited together) marking a procession of light effects through dawn or dusk.

This makes a kind of sense, since motion pictures themselves are nothing more than a string of Muybridge static images—which is to say, they only imply or suggest movement, rather than actually embodying it. Our own eyes’ persistence of vision does the actual work. This in turn suggests that the temporality of movies is based on a kind of misalignment with respect to the time in which we actually live. As to whether this latter is a succession of distinct temporal quanta, linked together by a sort of existential persistence of perception, or a seamless plenum, is a difficult metaphysical question beyond the scope of these ponderings. But I’m wondering about a different perspective on this matter. [I don't want to bog down with lots of specific Deleuzian minutiae, but this is by way of me trying to think outside the conceptual frame of Deleuze's Cinema books.]

Take paintings, for starters. It seems to me that they actually do register the passage of time in their material form, just as a spool of film or sequence of digital data does. It’s just that they do so on a much, much longer timescale—a suprahuman scale, in fact. This kind of thing:

These cracks are one iteration the semiotic of time, signifiers of time's passage. We read them that way. Such pictures move, over the longue durée, not in terms of limbs flailing and smiles widening, but in terms of the picture itself shifting, darkening, cracking and complexifying its texture.

The parallel with cinema is less vulgarly textual (although faded colour prints, crackles and blotches and so on do of course record this mode of temporal passage) than it is formal in other ways. The most obvious case here is 'black and white'. When Spielberg shoots Schindler's List in B&W he's doing so in order to code ‘historicity’ into every shot of the movie. We could say: this is a pretty facile strategy (and Spielberg is of course far from the only director to do this kind of thing): films actually made in the 1940s were (mostly) shot in black and white; by shooting this 1990s film in black and white the process apes the decades in which it is set. The problem here, I suppose, is that Spielberg doesn't wholly inhabit this logic: shoot in small format rather than widescreen, shoot with grainier film, copy the stagier framing and editing strategies of 1940s cinema. But that's deliberate: the black-and-whiteness of the film is a kind of temporalising code. That this is true is made manifest by the ‘girl in the red coat’ sequence, where the colour cuts across our suspension of temporal disbelief. The otherwise unnamed girl is us, is modernity itself; the heritage that Nazism tried to eradicate; a fact echoed in the movie's (in colour) coda, when actual Schindlerjuden survivors place rocks on Schindler's grave in Jerusalem. Colour here equates with: our present, the film's futurity. Time travel happens on the level of form.

This connects with ideas of pastiche, of course. It's possible to ‘frame’ Georges Méliès (as Scorsese does in his rather dull Hugo, 2011) in a modern day movie that restages the past. But it is also possible to inhabit the idiom of Méliès, as this notable Smashing Pumpkins video does:

Colour here is the least of it: directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris use a colour palate that recalls the colourized early movie prints; but they do more with the jerky frame-rate and mannered acting and staging than with mere ‘black and white’-ness ever could. I like especially that the song's title and repeating lyric stresses a romantic intensity of ‘nowness’.

The point, I suppose, is that time is a formal code as much as it is an (as it might be) medium, Kantian mode of apperception, element in the equations of physicists and so on. Motion pictures present as still pictures put into motion, but time travel in movies means the devolution of motion as such back into the still picture. Let me try and explain what I mean.

2: Permamence and Impermanence

I appreciate this looks like a rather peculiar question, but I'm going to ask it anyway: would you say that ‘time travel’ has to do with permanence, or impermanence? We might say: the former, either because the very fact of being able to travel in time (‘fact’ in the thought-experiment we are conducting) speaks to some mode of subsisting architecture of temporality, permanent in the way that the house through which we walk is permanent. The permanence of the house is what enables the transience of the walk. Or else, perhaps, we might say: time travel shores up all the stuff that might otherwise be impermanent: if an object, an action, a person is doomed to transience, the existence of time travel would enable us to avert death, resurrect the fallen and so on.

But I wonder. ‘Time’, the necessary medium of any time travel, is the idiom of impermanence; and movies, which stage their narratives in motion across time, embody this impermanent logic. The static figures on the side of Keats's 'Grecian Urn' are in a different state (indeed, the whole point of the poem is to contrast this perfect but unconsummatable stasis with the fleeting joys of sorrowful life). It's this cusp, I think, that is the really important one: I mean the cusp between images in motion and images in stasis. The first give us the kinetic dynamism of the movies, a dynamism unrestrained by the actual arrow of time, and which can run its footage backwards or forwards, can slow down or speed up the passage of time and so on. The second, though, have an aura that film lacks, precisely because they stand outside of the entropic logic of movies. [I could say something more about that, if only to try and defend the use of so modish and oft-misused a word as ‘entropy’; but I don't really have time, here and now. In a nutshell, then: a film can be watched, and then can of course be re-watched, but the re-watch is lossy in ways that tend to overwhelm what is gained. Gains can be detail and the comfort of familiarity; but loss necessarily includes the initial immediacy and punch, the potency of visual surprise, the stuff that actually goes to the heart of the matter.]

I need to be careful that this post doesn't congeal into a series of notations towards a conceptual shorthand that will make sense only to me. So let me put it this way: the ‘time travel film’ (a large and varied body of texts) very often uses the still photograph as crucial visual rebus. In Back to the Future, for instance, a still photograph represents the authentic 'baseline' reality that jonbar-point-style mucking about threatens, with individuals literally fading out of the photographic artifact before our very eyes.

In the Terminator movie, it is a photograph of Sarah Connor that future-warrior Kyle has somehow obtained, that motivates his actions and so the narrative loop of the whole film—he falls in love with the image in the still, goes back in time to find her and impregnates her with the future world saviour.

The image at the top of this post suggests where I'm going with this: Marker's La Jetée (composed almost entirely, of course, out of a string of ‘still photograph’ images) seems to me one of the most significant of all time travel movies, and not just because it has been so often imitated and remade: to the most obvious case of Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys (1995) we can add music videos by Bowie, Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Isis and Panda Bear; short films like La puppé (2003) or Lucy Benson's 2011 ‘homage to La Jetée’; and more broadly to works like The Time Traveler's Wife (2009), and if we stretch it a little to the whole genre of time loop and time paradox movies up to Looper, including let us not forget Back to the Future and Terminator.

This ‘time loop‘’ structure takes its cue from written science fiction, of course. By the 1950s and 60s hundreds of ‘time travel’ stories had been written, effectively codifying the parameters of the conceit. These cluster around two main varieties of temporal paradox that time travel, were it actually possible, might generate—what we might call the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ (or productive and destructive) archetype.
1: the ‘time loop’ paradox, whereby it might be possible for me to go back and become my own ancestor, or even my own parent.

2: the so-called ‘grandparent paradox’ (if I went back in time and killed my grandparents, my parents would never be born, so I would never be born; but then I wouldn’t exist to be able to go back in time and kill my grandparents, in which case they would exist and I would have been born able to go back in time and kill …’ And so on.
The key texts as far as this first paradox is concerned are two Robert Heinlein short stories; ‘By His Bootstraps’ (1941) and ‘—All You Zombies—’ (1958). In the latter the contortions of a temporally dislocated plot result in the main character impregnating a sex-change earlier version of himself who thus gives birth to himself. This is, we could say, a kind of limit case of ‘control’: the ultimate male fantasy of perfect self-reliance and self-containment, bare existence itself created out of the self unsullied by interaction with others. That there is something claustrophobic and even psychopathological about this fantasy hasn’t stopped it becoming a staple of the genre. Cinema has been particularly taken with the structural neatness of this loopy trope: Groundhog Day (1993), Donnie Darko (2001), Déjà Vu (2006), Source Code (2011) Edge of Tomorrow (2014) and the aptly named Looper (2012) all rehearse this structure.

A paradox naturally invites attempts at solution, and this one has most commonly been ‘solved’ in fiction with the possibility that travelling back in time results in an alternate reality or ‘time line’ branching off from the moment of one’s arrival. An influential and much-parodied version of this is Ray Bradbury’s ‘A Sound of Thunder’ (1952), where a time travelling big game hunter travelling back to on a licensed Tyrannosaurus Rex hunt accidentally steps on a butterfly, such that when he returns to his own time finds everything different. This is a premise that has informed thousands of SF stories and films, in various ways; but we can say, a little more precisely, that the trope almost always posits the 'alternate timeline' only in order to fit-in bridges, doorways, paths, connections—in a word, loops—between the 'baseline' reality and our own. The point is rarely simply to present a version of history in which things are variously different; the point is much more often to reflect upon our own course of history by gifting a hero the chance to 'change' the future in a practical sense.

You may feel I am overplaying the significance of La Jetée a little. It could be. I’d say there are good grounds for identifying two main vogues for ‘time travel cinema’ (despite the more or less continuous presence of time travel films and TV serials throughout the postwar period): one in the 1960s and the other in the 1980s. Let’s take the 60s first, and argue that La Jetée, which construes time travel as into the past (with one brief excursion into the future), embodies the loopy ‘negative’ pole; the other, much more commercially successful movie is George Pal’s adaptation of Wells’s cornerstone time-travel story, The Time Machine (1960), mostly concerned with the 'positive' journey into the future. Interestingly, though forward-looking in the content of its narrative, this film took as much pleasure in the fixtures and fittings of its (by the 60s) quaintly retro Edwardian clothes and props as in its sciencefictional future. BBC TV serials like Doctor Who (1963-present) and Adam Adamant Lives! (1966-68) also construed a fundamentally cosy, Edwardian text out of their SF conceits.

The 1980s resurgence in time-travel cinema was occasioned by a different sort of blockbuster: an exercise not in nostalgia but high-tech cyber terror: James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) connects time travel with a sense of the danger posed by mechanisation: both the alarming implacability of the Big Machines that have increasingly come to dominate life in the west, but also a nascent fear of the possibilities of what was in the 80s a new kind of technology: computers. Both, in other words, look back to the Wellsian logic of the Edwardian machine, although with different emphases.

The aspect that needs explanation, I think, is the reason the ‘loop’ and ‘paradox’ conceits of time travel as a genre are realised in these movies in ways that give a visual pride of place to still photography. To dwell on La Jetée (1963) is set after a devastating third world war. A prisoner (Davos Hanich) is sent decades back in time to pre-war Paris, where he uncovers the truth behind a memory he has been obsessively rehearsing from his own childhood—standing with a woman (Hélène Chatelain) on the observation pier or ‘jetty’ of Orly Airport and seeing a man die. The film is composed almost wholly out of black and white still-images, a mode that resists the ‘temporal’ fluidity of conventional cinema, and also invokes the memorious habit of consulting still photos of one’s own past—because this is a film about childhood memory and trauma working itself out, on a global scale, in adulthood. The key to the memory (the dying man the child saw is that same child as a time-travelling adult) is a surprisingly resonant semiotic knot. It speaks to the way our anticipation of our death folds back into our past; time travel figures as a kind of feedback loop.

Schwarzenegger in The Terminator (1984) plays the future-built humanoid robot of the movie’s title, sent back in time by a malign, intelligent computer system to kill a woman called Sarah Connor who, in 1980s LA, will give birth to the child John Connor who will grow up to defeat the computer system in its global war against humankind. Future humanity sends one of their own to protect Sarah Connor, and the movie strings together a series of exciting set-pieces in which this future-human fights the Schwarzenegger future-robot. The twist is that the future-human and Sarah Connor fall in love; he is John Connor’s by-his-bootstraps father, and by attempting to snuff-out the threat of Sarah Connor the wicked ‘Skynet’ computer system is actually guaranteeing the birth of the very man it was trying to prevent. His love was kindled by a photograph of the young Sarah that he carried with him through the future wastelands, and which he brings back. As with La Jetée the narrative loop has a pleasing symmetry to it, and it flatters our (human) sensibilities to think that ‘Chronology’, howsoever it is messed-about-with, will eventually shake down into a timeline in which human beings win. The first film is about implacability. Future-soldier Kyle Reese describes the Terminator to its target, Sarah Connor: ‘it can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.’ This draws its imaginative heft from the cultural traditions of momenti mori—the ‘true form’ of the Terminator, stripped of its ersatz human fleshly covering, is that of a chromium skeleton complete with grinning death’s head. The implacability of death used to figure in human culture as a feature of the natural world, through plague, famine and old age. Now it is embodied by a man-made device, as if we actually are terrified of the future because of what we will make of it. But as cinema the Terminator (and to an even greater degree in Terminator 2) construes motion—the characters must constantly move on, the film is one long chase sequence in which the implacable agent of time travel continually and relentlessly pursues the human characters. It has something of the same forceful kinetic momentum that made Speed such a hit. This, we might think, is at the very other end of the conceptual spectrum from the still photograph.

The other big ‘time travel’ franchise of 1980s cinema was Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future (1985). This movie played complexly satisfying plot games with the paradoxes of time travel; grounding its appeal in the opportunity to revisit ones family’s own past, back to that sinkhole is US collective nostalgia, the Happy Days 1950s of small town America. Its sequel attempted a minimally satirical vision of a commodified near-future, and is the less successful, a fact underscored by the much more successful final film in the trilogy, which reanimated the series’ nostalgia and moving back to a cleaned-up vision of ‘How The West Was Won’.

Yet despite tonal differences the through-line of this immensely popular series is not unlike that of The Terminator. ‘History’ in the larger sense must not be changed—the timeline registers such change slowly, and marks its occurrence by slowly rubbing out the hero Marty McFly from a photograph (shades again of La Jetée) to signify his existential un-becoming. Instead what must change is individual personality. In particular, Marty’s Dad must learn to stand up to bullies and not to be a coward, whilst Marty himself must learn something like the opposite—he must learn to control his temper, not to rise to taunts that he is ‘chicken’ and generally behave himself in a less belligerent, unconsidered manner. Both men learn these lessons, and are rewarded—not only does the ‘present’ of Marty’s Dad see him much more materially successful, but his childhood dream of becoming a writer of science fiction is realised. Marty gets the girl, and avoids existential annihilation, which outcomes are effectively presented as being the same thing.

There is in other words a kind of existential conservatism to the cinematic time-travel story, something that links back to its own form. Several critics have explored the analogues between the formal qualities of cinematic representation and time travel. Films can easily speed up or slow down the apparent passage of time; running film backwards gives a sense of how the exterior world might look like to somebody travelling against the vector of the arrow of time. Cutting between shots effortlessly disposes of intervening time (the most famous jump-cut in cinema—between the prehistoric monkey-man’s bone tossed into the air and the complex space ship falling through its earth orbital path in 2001—is a nicely extreme illustration of this). Whilst watching a film we do not, of course, literally travel forward in time hundreds of thousands of years; but the illusion of such time travel is more compelling for the viewer because it has been visually rendered.

We can see this if we step back to the early history of the mode, and watch a film like René Clair’s Paris Qui Dort (1925), a 35-minute silent picture released in anglophone countries under the title The Crazy Ray. A man wakes one morning, at the top of the Eiffel tower, to discover that most (though not all) of the population of Paris have been frozen in place. Though not specifically a time travel narrative, its ludic exploitation of the possibilities of the camera’s eye: the same machine that creates the illusion of movement can stop it, slow it down, speed it up and reverse it. The relationship between the La Jetée-esque still photograph and the kinetic always-in-motion of the Terminator films is embodied in the interaction of moving and frozen Parisians in this delightful film. It is, of course, a movie about movies, as all the best time travel films are. We start the history of time-travel in the 1890s with H G Wells; but it is no co-incidence that this is also the decade when motion pictures themselves begin as a serious form of art. There are metaphorical, as well as actual, points of comparison between photons and tachyons.

Which brings me back to the initial question. The 'loop' that I posited might guarantee permanence turns out to be a short-circuit pathway leading only to death. This seems to be because the loop is a backward-looking topography, linking the 'present' (whenever that is, for the movie) with the past. The loop is always a tangle, and the nature of the motion of these moving pictures always draws that tangle into a tight knot. Time travel into the future is different, but rather less popular. I suppose this is because 'time travel to the future' tropes prophecy (itself notoriously unreliable), prediction, planning and so on; variously arid and intellectual exercises, in most cases. But 'time travel into the past' tropes memory, and memory, in its tyranny as well as its pliability and intermittency, always haunts the now. Is constitutive of the now. All stories are the story of the man, or woman, marked by the frozen moment of his/her childhood; and the secret truth of time travel is the this mark, this static visualisation of the deep past, is actually our own death.

The momento mori is as much a memorious as morbid, after all.

Now I'm willing to concede that this style of lucubration tempts the writer into the cod-profundity of flat paradox. We can't actually remember our own death, and the images that haunt us from our youth are not of our own dying. But they are, by their very nature, of our own passing, and passage is the grammar of the motion picture. ‘Passage’ in this sense of moving on, moving through, of time passing and actors passing and the film passing through the gate (or the digitally coiled line of data passes beneath its reader) is what film is, in one sense. We love film because it passes, and we recognise as Keats did before us the pathological element in our urge to hold on to moment as stasis. Man is in love and loves what vanishes, as Yeats once said; and his own gloss on this assertion (What more is there to say?) implies that understanding this horizons other understandings. Back in the fourteenth century Yoshida Kenko expressed this sense that without the pathos of passage the world would be powerful to move us. In his Essays in Idleness he wrote: ‘if man were to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never to vanish like the smoke over Toribeyama, but lingered on forever in the world, how things would lose their power to move us! The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.’ Kenko saw loopishness (he would never have deployed so ungainly a word of course) as the veritable reality: ‘truth is the beginning of anything and its end are alike touching.’ But what the loop guarantees is not permanence, but rather a kind of saving transience.

I suppose that's what the still photograph ‘means’. It reifies memory, and therefore visualises precisely the impermanence of things, the impossibility of fully recapturing the past and therefore of time travel. The photo in Back to the Future fades; the photograph in Terminator burns; the photographs in La Jetée draw the protagonist only back to his death.

3: Memories

Thinking about the relationship between still photographs and motion pictures, with particular reference to time travel cinema, I had turned Vivian Sobchack's argument in The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience (1992) concerning the peculiar existential potency of the still image. This is where I had got to before consulting Sobchack:

1. Cinema is itself not only a time-defined but a time-travel-ish idiom. As its inherent obviousness implies, this is an observation very far from being original to me. Films can easily speed up or slow down the apparent passage of time; running film backwards gives a sense of how the exterior world might look like to somebody travelling against the vector of the arrow of time. Cutting between shots effortlessly disposes of intervening time (the most famous jump-cut in cinema—between the prehistoric monkey-man’s bone tossed into the air and the complex space ship falling through its earth orbital path in 2001—is a nicely extreme illustration of this). Whilst watching a film we do not, of course, literally travel forward in time hundreds of thousands of years; but the illusion of such time travel is more compelling for the viewer because it has been visually rendered. Film can realise a counter-clock world. Film also has at least two methods of slowing time down: one by filming at a much higher rate, such that the footage projected back at the normal rate creates a sense of fluid and graceful slowness which in turn can bring to light things (the bumblebee's wing action, the bullet emerging from the muzzle amongst pleats and folds of smoke like a white paper rose) hidden from the normally observant eye. But another way of slowing film is simply to slow it down, a jerkier process which eventually reveals the constituent images out of which the original footage is composed. The end-point for this strategy might indeed be a movie like La Jetée; which we can read, if we choose, not as a string of still photographs so much as a monstrously slowed-down, temporally retarded motion picture.

2. Accordingly, it should not surprise us that there have been so many and such popular examples of time travel cinema. A thumbnail history of this form brings out two main phases. Despite the popularity of H G Wells' 1895 novella, it is not until 1960 that a film text is made that resonates in a broader sense. This is George Pal's technicolour film of The Time Machine, There are, of course, earlier examples of time travel cinema: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was filmed twice (dir Emmett J Flynn, 1921 and Tay Garnett 1949); and there are such movies as Time Flies (Walter Forde, 1944) in which an actor uses a professor's time machine to travel back to Elizabethan England, and Fiddlers Three (Harry Watt, 1944) in which two sailors and a WREN visit Stonehenge and find themselves back in Ancient Rome. But these are all very minor film texts; I'd be amazed if you've heard of, et alone seen, them. Pal's Time Machine was a different matter: not only was it a hit in its own time, and an enduring film with a broad cultural penetration, it also inaugurated a particular mode of 1960s time travel story. . BBC TV serials like Doctor Who (1963-present) and Adam Adamant Lives! (1966-68) also construed a fundamentally cosy, Edwardian text out of their SF conceits. The US production The Time Travelers (dir Ib Melchior, 1964) though little known inspired the short-running but much syndicated US TV Show The Time Tunnel (1966-67). More enduring were the various Planet of the Apes movies from 1968 to 1971. What these texts share is a strange construal of the future (often the far future) in the habiliments of the past.

The mode went rather out of fashion in the 1970s, but came back in a big way in the 1980s, occasioned by a different sort of blockbuster: an exercise not in future-set nostalgia but instead high-tech cyber terror: James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) connects time travel with a sense of the danger posed by mechanisation: both the alarming implacability of the Big Machines that have increasingly come to dominate life in the west, but also a nascent fear of the possibilities of what was in the 80s a new kind of technology: computers.

The other big ‘time travel’ franchise of 1980s cinema was Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future (1985). This movie played complexly satisfying plot games with the paradoxes of time travel; grounding its appeal in the opportunity to revisit ones family’s own past, back to that sinkhole is US collective nostalgia, the Happy Days 1950s of small town America. Its sequel attempted a minimally satirical vision of a commodified near-future, and is the less successful, a fact underscored by the much more successful final film in the trilogy, which reanimated the series’ nostalgia and moving back to a cleaned-up vision of ‘How The West Was Won’.

Yet despite tonal differences the through-line of this immensely popular series is not unlike that of The Terminator. ‘History’ in the larger sense must not be changed—the timeline registers such change slowly, and marks its occurrence by slowly rubbing out the hero Marty McFly from a photograph (shades again of La Jetée) to signify his existential un-becoming. Instead what must change is individual personality. In particular, Marty’s Dad must learn to stand up to bullies and not to be a coward, whilst Marty himself must learn something like the opposite—he must learn to control his temper, not to rise to taunts that he is ‘chicken’ and generally behave himself in a less belligerent, unconsidered manner. Both men learn these lessons, and are rewarded—not only does the ‘present’ of Marty’s Dad see him much more materially successful, but his childhood dream of becoming a writer of science fiction is realised. Marty gets the girl, and avoids existential annihilation, which outcomes are effectively presented as being the same thing.

3. Since the 80s there have been a number of often interesting time travel movies, but I don't think there has been a text or franchise with quiet the cultural impact of resonance of these. A few—let's say Groundhog Day (1993); Bill and Ted (1989); Donnie Darko (2001); Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)—made a splash. Others have cult followings: the goofily ribald Hot Tub Time Machine (2010) or the clever but ultimately over-intricate thriller Looper (2012). But none of these titles have the cultural importance of those 1980s blockbusters. It would be only mildly distorting to see these twin peaks in the conceptual landscape of the Time Travel movie as expressing broader cultural concerns in concentrated form. Of many things that occur to me, a couple: these are films that construe the future in terms of the past, either by travelling to a future that is in some sense a version of the past (back to an ancient Greek idyll with the Eloi, or back to an alt-evolutionary deep past where the apes speak), or else by conceiving the future in terms of its threat to the present, as with the Terminator franchise. A commitment to the past, as with (say) the Beatles dressing in Edwardian clobber to front up Sgt Pepper, or Rod Sterling's splendid three piece suit, or Doctor Who's old world English eccentricity and dress -- this is the antithesis to the thesis of futurism, modernism, concrete, the white heat of technology. That's the dialectic these films work out, and the interesting this is how many of them go into the future in order to the return to the past. Which is precisely the arc of La Jetée. Funny how I keep coming back to that movie.

4. Finally, for now (and following on from 3., obviously enough) is the way the still photograph is so crucial an icon of this mode of film.

What's this about? It has something to do with memory, I'd say (obviously enough); and something to do with an implicit connection with an ideal baseline and an extra-temporal baseline. And so to Sobchack, whose Merleau-Ponty inspired phenomenological readings of film seemed so startling and original back in the 80s and 90s after decades of deconstructive and post-Freudian heterodox orthodoxies of interpretation. This is what The Address of the Eye has to say about the still photograph.
In the still photograph time and space are abstractions. Although the image still has a presence, it neither partakes of nor describes the present. Indeed, the photograph’s fascination is that it is a figure of transcendental time made available against the ground of a lived and finite temporality. Although included in our experience of the present, the photograph transcends both our immediate present and our lived experience of temporality because it exists for us as never engaged in the activity of becoming. Although it announces the possibility of becoming, it never presents itself as the coming into being of being. It is a presence without past, present future. Thus, when we experience the “timelessness” that a photograph confers on its subject matter, we are experiencing the photograph’s compelling emptiness; it exists as the possibility of temporality, but is a vacancy within it. This temporal vacancy, this lack of finitude, affects the space of the still photograph. It is peculiarly flattened. … The lack of depth and dimension in the still photograph seems less a function of the phenomenal thickness of the subjects and objects that it displays than of the temporal hole it opens within the world in which we gaze at it. [59-60]
She goes on to discuss La Jetée specifically:
On the other hand, although necessarily dependent upon the possibility of temporality that the still photograph announces but does not fulfil, the motion picture is not a transcendental structure. If the photograph is a “hole” in temporality and announces a vacancy, then the motion picture in its motion sufficiently fills up that vacancy and inaugurates a fullness. The images of a film exist in the world as a temporal flow, within finitude and situation. Indeed, the fascination of the film is that it does not transcend out lived-experience of temporality, but rather than it seems to partake of it, to share it. Unlike the still photograph, the film exists for us as always the act of becoming. Thus, although made almost entirely using still photographs rather than live action, a film such as La Jetée (1962) nonetheless projects temporality and an existential becoming, even as it foregrounds the transcendental and atemporal potentiality of the photograph and its non-becoming. It is this explicit dialectic between the transcendental moment and existence as momentum that gives La Jetée its power and peculiar significance, providing both its structure and its theme and explicitly representing the dialectical impulse of all film. [60-61]
I don't want to make too facile a point, but this ‘transcendence’ from time is what time travel actualises as a narrative shift or imaginative conceit. We ought not to be surprised that still photos have this special place in such stories. I'm on the edge of declaring that Keats's Ode on a Grecian Urn is the first true time travel story—which it sort-of is, I suppose.

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Being Questions

I've struggled with Heidegger, if I'm honest, despite several attempts to plumb him over the years. Maybe there's nothing there; or maybe, given his real-life involvement in actual fascism, there's Less Than Zero. Then again, maybe he's a major 20th-C thinker. Hard to tell. Anyway: recently, in Michael Gillespie's Hegel, Heidegger and the Ground of History (Chicago 1984) I came across a way of conceptualising his Being/being distinction that makes sense to me, or at least makes more sense than I had previously been able to wrangle out of the distinction. Better late than never I suppose. From Jack Chapin's review:
Gillespie presents Heidegger's account of the source of this condition which may be said to be modernity's extreme forgetfulness of Being. Only under the sway of this forgetfulness could humanity be driven so incessantly and totally to the endeavor to master and subdue all beings. Note the difference between "Being" and "beings"; this is the "ontological difference" that Heidegger made his one and only thought. And it is of this difference that Gillespie offers an interpretation that almost combines opposites by being both provocative and clear enough to summarize in a few lines. The forgetfulness, first, is in fact quite old and occurred at the latest shortly after phil­osophy arose among the Greeks. This point, however, is easy enough to gather from Heideg­ger's published work. What really distinguishes Gillespie's interpretation is the conceptual scheme that he superimposes on the ontological difference and that effectively brings it into the light. The difference between Being and beings, Gillespie repeatedly insists, is precisely analogous to the relation between questions and answers. Being is the question. Its original coming-to-light, among the ancient Greeks, was the appearance of the primordial question that has animated, so to speak, all philosophical thinking since. And since a question as question indicates a want or a lack, one could say that in its presence Being is also absent. On the other hand, Being's subsequent withdrawal, at a little later point, was what redirected philosophy. Henceforth it gave priority to answers over questions. For Heidegger, the absence of absence yields presence, beings or answers alone. This withdrawal of Being, Gilles­pie shows, has finally reached a point where beings or answers alone appear. Hence we have modernity and its preoccupation with present answers and ultimately the endeavor to master and subdue all things.
This is intriguing, and strikes me as a neat way into H.'s thought on this matter (I hadn't thought of it that way before) although I do wonder if it's, you know, true.

Anyway, I've been thinking around this a little, to no very concrete end. To what extent does the answer ‘4’ exhaust the question ‘what is 2 + 2?’ We can still ponder the question, explore it, even though the answer is manifest; we may even be able to extract different but equally valid answers from it (to do, let's say, with the nature of addition, or quantity, numeracy and so on). What about those questions so phrased that there is, in a strict sense, no answer? I mean questions of the ‘What is it like to handle at object that has been frozen to -1000°C?’ or ‘what would one see from the bridge of a starship travelling at a million times the speed of light?’ Can a question exist without an answer, actual or potential?

Those examples are fanciful, I suppose, in the sense that they are deliberately pitched to worry the edges of definition, and have little real-life relevance. Or do they? What if the great metaphysical conundrums facing us in our real-life endeavours, follow such a model? We might presume that ‘is there a God?’ is a question with an answer, either a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ depending on whether we are asking a believer or an infidel. But what if ‘is there a God’ is much more a ‘what is it like to handle at object that has been frozen to -1000°C?’ kind of question than it is an ‘is the milk past its sell-by date?’ kind of question? And what about the agnostic answer, the ‘I don't know’? Does ‘I don't know’ even count as an answer to a question? Surely it it is rather a placeholder, always implicitly an ‘I don't know yet’? It may imply an ‘I may never know’, of course, and often does; but even ‘I may never know’ is predicated upon the possibility somebody, sometime, might. Questions such as ‘how should I live my life?’, in their great variety, perhaps belong here.

The ‘what is 2 + 2?’ question has, I suppose we might think, only limited practical relevance. Consider the question ‘how should I vote in the next general election?’ There are various answers to such a question and all are ‘correct’ to one degree or another; I may vote Labour but I cannot tell someone who voted Conservative that they are wrong in an absolute sense, only in the colloquial sense by which the phrasing actually means ‘I disagree with you’. But disagreement is an index of plurality, and without plurality there can be no election, no democracy (and no social and cultural variety) in the first place. The point about the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four is that any question is permitted since all questions lead to the same answer: the Party. The Party is the ‘5’ that transcends the merely factitious answer of ‘what is 2 + 2?’, since the Party is a synonym for Power and Power is the only salient of totalitarianism. It could, perhaps, be argued, contra Gilles­pie's thesis that modernity is characterised by a withdrawal of Being in favour of beings—that is, in other words, that modernity is characterised by a disappearance of questioning in favour of answers—that the varieties of contemporary totalitarianism, from actual North Korea-style practical dictatorships to the permeation of commodification into every crevice of life, are all predicated, counter-intuitively, on the total liberty of questioning because the answer is always the same. ‘Coke or Pepsi?’, qua question, possesses the same valence as ‘Republican or Democrat?’ ,‘Star Trek or Star Wars?’, ‘Male or Female?’, ‘United or City?’, ‘Hegel or Lacan?’ We're quite welcome to ask the question because the answers are so overdeterminedly constrained. Contemporaneity has made a fetish of choice, and choice is always the posing of a question; but the fetish of choice is not designed actually to enclose, not to disclose, us.

That's probably too pessimistic of me. We might counter that a statement is always a disguised question (‘2 + 2 = 4’ is actually a way of asking ‘does 2 + 2 = 4?’; swap the first two words in the assertion ‘God is Love’ and the implicit cosmic question rears up once again); and only entropy prevents us from neatly reversing that polarity and insisting that every question is actually a disguised answer. Some questions are disguised answers, I suppose, and in such cases the process of deriving the answer is akin to removing the disguise (all that Heideggerian ‘unveiling’ gubbins), but some questions are not, and those might actually be the most important ones.

What if we move from politics to its overlapping magisterium, art? ‘The best stories provoke questions,’ says Dean Francis Alfar somewhere. ‘Some may offer answers; others only signposts and clues.’ Well alright: we certainly wouldn't want to ‘reduce’ Hamlet to the sticky stockpot glue of ‘vengeance is mine, I will repay, sayeth the Lord’; or Othello to ‘try not to let your jealousy get the better of you, alright?’ or anything like that. (Q: Howard's End? A: Only Connect). Alfar doesn't consider a third option: that some stories constitute questions to which there are no answers, questions for which even any attempt to cram the art into one or other procrustean figurations of critical answer will diminish and uglify. Conceivably the point of a question like ‘Is there a God’ is not to answer yes or no, not even to answer ‘I don't know’, but to apprehend how beautiful the question itself is, how beautful it is that we can frame such a question. I daresay it's something a fideist would be better placed to answer than me.

Tuesday, 11 February 2020

The Matrix Reloaded (2003): Anticlimactic Re-Runs and Eternal Returns

[Note: this is an old, we might say antique, piece I wrote on commission for a volume of essays that, in the event, never saw the light of day. You can tell, if you read it, that it was written before the final film in the original trilogy had been released, which dates it quite precisely to early, but not late, 2003. At any rate, I came across it on my hard drive and figured I might as well blog it.]

1: “Good, but not as good as the first film …”

This is perhaps the typical response to The Matrix Reloaded—after all the release-year hype and expectation fans found themselves saying: “it is good, but not as good as the first film.” Apart, that is, from those people who think less of the movie than this: “it is not good, I expected it to be better.” Nobody, to my knowledge, has asserted that the film is better than they expected it to be.

This is not merely a commentary upon the withering power of hype to stack the stakes so high that disappointment becomes almost inevitable. It is in fact a central insight into the film itself. The Matrix Reloaded is, in an important way, about disappointment, about anticlimax—or to be more precise, it is about the intimate dialectic between climax (personal, sexual, spiritual) and anticlimax. In this sense, although it is paradoxical to assert it, the film is indeed better than the original movie.

I'm enough of a fan to consider the first Matrix movie a tough act to follow—an astonishing piece of cinema, really. But it was cinema is only one mode: high-powered kinetic drama, big exciting actions set-pieces layered with a big exciting premise and intoxicating cod-philosophising. Its glory is that it is so intensely exhilarating a film. The Matrix Reloaded is not exhilarating in the same way, which is one of the reasons for the tinge of disappointment recorded many fans. Accordingly it is worth asserting that the sequel is not setting to exhilarate in the same way, or perhaps it more accurate to say, the film is not ‘about’ exhilaration in the same way. It is a designedly slower, or at least gappier piece of work, creating a pervasive mood of difficult-to-pin-down sadness. This mood must be explained as more than simply the plot device of Trinity’s ever-impending death—more than this because the film is about more than death (although it is also about that): it is about what happens after we get what we strive for.

More, the mood of the second film is melancholic where the first was thrilling, precisely because it is dramatises this dilemma. We can put this several ways. One is to compare the trajectories of the two films. In the first picture an ordinary man, unhappy and stuck in a life he does not enjoy, who finds out first that the world is not what he thought it was: the boredom of his existence is replaced by adventure and excitement; then he discovers that he is much more important than he thought; then he performs acts of unimaginable heroism; then he discovers that he is more than just important, that he is indeed the ‘One’ the saviour of the world, and gets the girl.

The second movie picks up the story from this point. But this point is exactly the moment at which, in the western tradition, stories traditionally stop: the saviour has come; all lived happily ever after. What else? The unimagined pleasures of paradise?—these sorts of pleasure must remain unimagined, or else they will start to seem necessarily anticlimactic (what if the pleasures of heaven become a bit monotonous? A bit boring? What if existence in paradise is in fact a type of blissful depression?). The Matrix Reloaded takes the bold step of taking Neo’s apotheosis simply in its stride. He is now the messiah, but life goes on—indeed, it goes on in a lower key than it did in the first film. Life in Zion, for all the frenetic dancing of the central party scene, is grim and carceral. As messiah Neo can do little for the misery of the ordinary people who throng around him. Neo’s return from life in the first movie was a powerful and transcendent moment: his existence after that moment of transcendence is, it seems, characterised by forms of impotence and anxiety, most acutely the anxiety that the woman he loves is doomed to die. The first film was about the build up to the revelation of the messiah; the second film is the come-down afterward.

Take the form of the two movies. The Matrix builds expertly through a complex plot and a number of increasingly exciting set-pieces to a magnificent cinematic climax: Neo and Trinity rescue Morpheus from the custody of the agents through hails of bullets, Neo fights Agent Smith, is killed and comes back to life as the One. This is where the film ends; which is to say, the form of the piece expresses a well-modulated crescendo of excitement building continually to a final climax. The shape of The Matrix Reloaded is different. In the second movie the big climax occurs two thirds of the way through the film: the marvellous chase sequence on the Freeway. But after this detailed and thrilling set-piece the film’s actual conclusion inevitably feels a little underpowered.

The plot coalesces around the need to get Neo into a certain room at a certain time: but this can only be accomplished by the destruction of two power stations in the city, with various other obstacles to be overcome. But, when compared with the climax of the first movie, this adventure, its vicissitudes (the deaths of key figures in the plan, Trinity’s desperate riding to rescue) appear on the screen in an almost desultory fashion. The whole action sequence is then interrupted by a lengthy, slow-paced dialogue between Neo and the Architect in which concepts and language of rebarbative difficulty are exchanged, draining away narrative momentum further. But this, I think, is a deliberate device: by shifting the climax of this movie back towards the narrative midpoint the Wachowski brothers articulate in cinematic terms the experience of existing post-climactically.

Other features in the film reinforce this sense. At the film’s conclusion we learn that the machines have fought a great battle with the defenders of Zion; but we are not shown this apparently climactic conflict (despite the fact that the film has spared no expense in realising massive set-piece scenes when it wants to). Instead we are shown only the despondent bedraggled remnants of the defence force, icons of postconflict disappointment.

On a smaller scale we see a similar pattern all through the film. At the beginning of the picture Morpheus disobeys a direct order: it seems he will face court martial, a term in the brig; but these consequences are simply elided. The ‘burly brawl’ in which Neo fights a hundred copies of ‘Agent Smith’ is an exciting set-piece with its own anxieties (can even the super-capable Neo deal with so many ‘agents’?): but the fight is so lengthily extended as to pass the point of local excitement and become, whilst still arresting and weirdly beautiful, rather monotonous: and it ends not with a resolution, but with Neo simply flying away leaving the rather nonplussed-looking Smiths to wander away. My response on first seeing this sequence was one of excitement, but as the fight persisted on the screen, went on and went on, I found myself thinking that it was going on too long. Only afterwards did it occur to me that this going-on-too-long, this dwelling on the moment after the peak of excitement was passed, could be the whole point of the film.

In another scene Neo, Morpheus and Trinity must get past some powerful guardians to find a ‘keymaker’: these guardians are, it seems, hangovers from a previous version of the Matrix, and cannot be persuaded or overpowered: until, in a strangely oblique move, one of them (played by Monica Belucci) decides to give away the keymaker in return for—one kiss from Neo himself. This scene plays oddly, partly because it makes little sense in narrative terms, but also because the price Neo pays for the crucial ‘keymaker’ is so much less than we were expecting. Because, in other words, there is an element of anticlimax about the encounter. These hangover programmes live as languid, decadent aristocrats; bored and unimpressed with existence. Their being is the very locus of disillusionment.

So frequently repeated is this trope of expectation-excitement-disillusionment that is dominates the form and mood of the whole picture. In other words disillusionment is precisely what The Matrix dramatises: Neo lives inside the Matrix; Morpheus comes to reveal that this life is an illusion—which is to say, he dis-illusions him. Of course this disillusionment is a mournful as well as a truthful condition (hence the ascetic, pared-down, miserable life inside the Nebuchadnezzar, as also in Zion). Indeed, the Wachowski’s boldest aesthetic experiment is to try and represent disillusionment, anti-climax, in the idiom of the climax-addicted form of Hollywood action-blockbuster.

After all, in its purest form the Hollywood Blockbuster—take for example Speed—finds a format that keeps the anxiety-excitement as high-pitched and increasing for as long as possible (in that movie when the bus is successfully stopped the film scrabbles with an addicts desperation for more chase-thrills, hurrying into the subway). The Matrix Reloaded is too canny to do this. It is a text that knows that after climax (becoming the messiah! Connecting with the woman you love!) comes after-climax. What happens after you transcend? What if, instead of ascending to even higher levels of bliss and thrill, you return to the level of the ordinary, the unexciting, the melancholic?

A theological shorthand for this might be to characterise The Matrix as a Jewish and The Matrix Reloaded as a Christian film. For Jews the messiah is yet to come, and can be looked forward to as the moment when all injustice, misery and dissatisfaction will be overcome. Christianity is based on a radical revision of this powerful human yearning—so radical and unsettling, in fact, that it may be the case that many Christians prefer not to think it through: what if the messiah comes and nothing much changes as a result? Judaism, theologically, operates in the space of moving-towards-climax; Christianity operates necessarily in the space of post-climax, which is to say, of anticlimax. The common Christian story of the second coming of Christ is a desperate attempt to fill the psychic gap left by this radically anticlimactic theology, by co-opting Jewish theology to its own ends: but it is deeply flawed. If the messiah comes more than once, why only twice? Why not a hundred, a million, or an infinite number of times? And if that is the case, then doesn’t it fatally dilute the actual appearance and sacrifice of Christ?

I’m framing these questions in a theological idiom partly because so many interpreters of The Matrix Reloaded have chosen to read the film as religious allegory. There’s little point in rehearsing all the minutiae of this interpretations (the seemingly-significant names, the messianic storyline and so on), because I want to suggest a different context for reading the movie, philosophical rather than religious. The Matrix Reloaded is a much more thoroughly Nietzschean text than the first film; and more particularly this second film is fascinated—to the point of obsession—with two of Nietzsche’s central concerns: free will and Eternal Recurrence.

These two topics are perhaps not the first Nietzsechean concepts that come to mind when we think of the Matrix franchise, but they seem to me absolutely central to an understanding of the movie. Indeed, it struck me that the second film seems relatively uninterested in another (more famous) Nietzschean concept, the figure of the ‘overman’ or ‘superman’, so eloquently described in Also Sprach Zarathustra (1883-5). What is so puzzling about this circumstance is the fact that the first Matrix film was so very interested in precisely this Nietzschean archetype. Indeed, the first film can be seen as the narrative of how Neo joins the overmen (and overwomen) of the Real World. But The Matrix Reloaded takes this state for granted, and instead frets away at these two other Nietzschean worries.

2: Free Will and Eternal Recurrence in the The Matrix Reloaded

The conceptual centre of The Matrix Reloaded is the encounter between Neo and the Architect. In this weirdly staged but oddly powerful encounter we learn that Neo is not the first manifestation of the One. In fact he is one of we don’t know how many to have come to existence inside the Matrix, and the sixth to have developed so far as to be able to infiltrate the television-crammed room of the Architect himself. There is, it seems, a radical instability inside the Matrix, one that inevitably throws up fatal flaws in the programming and which also, inevitably, creates the One as a control mechanism for dealing with those flaws. The Architect tells Neo that he must accept the destruction of Zion, and choose a small group of men and women from the Matrix to be freed and sent to the earth’s core to rebuild it, starting the whole process over again. He, or his previous incarnations, have already done this many times. In other words, the events of the first two films have, it seems, happened before several times; and will, we can imagine, happen again.

This is a dramatisation in popular-cultural terms of a concept Nietzsche called ‘the Eternal Recurrence’ or ‘the Eternal Return’. Of all Nietzsche’s major ideas this is surely the least widely understood, and yet it is crucial to his philosophy. It goes like this: if the universe has have existed for an infinite amount of time (which Nietzsche believed), then all possible permutations of forces and matter must have occurred not once, but many times, and indeed an infinite number of times—this, after all, is the nature of infinity. This means, Nietzsche tells us, that you have lived your life before, down to every minute detail, an infinite number of times; and you will live it again an infinite number of times.
What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “this life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession or sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!” [Nietzsche, The Gay Science, p. 273]
This prospect is, in the first place, a profoundly depressing one: there’s nothing we can do, we are all trapped on this wheel of being (“would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?”). When Zarathrustra, Nietzsche’s prophet-philosopher character, first learns that this is the nature of things he is so shattered with despair that he falls into a coma for seven days. But, according to Nietzsche, once we grasp this fundamental truth, it will be the cause of deep joy. It frees us from the illusion of ‘free will’.

Free will, of course, is one of the recurring concerns of the Matrix movies. In the first film it is embodied in Morpheus’s iconic pills, one blue and one red, offered to Neo: one will return him to the Matrix to continue his life none-the-wiser, the other will free from him his illusions. He ‘chooses’ one, but was it in any meaningful sense a ‘free choice’? The existence of the Oracle, who knows the future, emphasises the fact that (from our perspective at the end of the film) we know Neo chooses the red pill. Had he not chosen it there would have been no film. In the second movie this drama of choice is staged by the Architect with two doors: one leading to the possibility of rebuilding Zion after its inevitable destruction, the other leading back to the Matrix where Neo can save the otherwise doomed Trinity but by doing so condemn humanity to extinction. We know, of course, which door Neo will choose. In an important sense he has no choice.

This ‘drama of choice’ informs almost all aspects of the films’ construction: the slightly tired plot device at the beginning of The Matrix Reloaded whereby Morpheus is faced with a conflict between his orders (‘necessity’) and his personal inclination (‘choice’) is a miniature version of the same problematic. In The Matrix the Oracle tells Neo he has a choice between Morpheus’ death or his own, and he makes this choice, although it is inconceivable he could have chosen a different path (‘without Morpheus we are lost’). At every point characters have seeming choices placed before them, but they choose as they must.

Nietzsche says that although this determinism may seem depressing and disempowering in fact it is liberation. Lee Spinks puts it well when he says that although we tend ‘to establish the concept of an ‘I’ upon which all notions of subjective autonomy are based’ in fact this “‘I’, Nietzsche complains, is just a retrospective synthesis of the series of conflicts that bring it into being … in this sense, ‘free will’ is not the ultimate subjective ground of human identity; it is merely the way we view actions after the event” [Spinks, Friedrich Nietzsche (2003), p.50]. This, of course, is precisely what the Oracle tells Neo: the point is not to live under the illusion that one has a free choice (you have already made the choice); the point is to come to understand why you made the choice you made. This is in an important sense the moral of the trilogy.

Spinks uses the example of the movie Groundhog Day to illustrate the Nietzschean Eternal Return. In that film, when the character Phil Connors finds himself doomed to live out the same day over and over again, his first reaction is depression, and attempts to kill himself. But, unable to free himself from his predicament even with so extreme an action, he later learns to accept and even relish his state. “All things become possible because instead of being confined within a differentiated personal life, we could live each day as one more moment in an eternal and impersonal becoming … Connors’s life begins comically to express this radical potential: he becomes a jazz pianist, a virtuoso ice-sculptor and an expert in French symbolist poetry” [Spinks, p. 131]

The Matrix Reloaded is, clearly, no Groundhog Day. But it dramatises precisely the melancholia that first attends the realisation of the illusion of Free Will and the inevitability of Eternal Return. This explains not only the pervasive mood of anti-climax (and how could the film possibly have built on or extended the supreme climactic excitement of its predecessor?); it also explains the sense of deja-vu with which we, as audience, witness yet another brilliantly choreographed kung-fu display, yet another team blowing up a city building, yet another attack upon a Zion ship by the arachnoid Sentinels . This is not a failing in the Wachowskis’ abilities as film-makers: this is an inevitable and central aspect of the whole project. And it suggests ways of appreciating the movie in ways that move beyond first disappointment: to—for instance—dwell on the present beauties of motion and grace in every moment of the burly brawl rather than asking vulgarly ‘but who will win this fight?’ (you always already know how this fight will end). The specificity of this film is extraordinary: the attention to detail minute and appealing, the design and form harmonious and beautiful. Watching the film a second time, and watching it again and again, means we can see these beauties as if for the first time.

In The Will to Power Nietzsche observes the world, under the aegis of eternal recurrence, as beauty and ugliness:
The world exists; it is not something that becomes, not something that passes away. Or rather: it becomes, it passes away, but it has never begun to become, and never ceased from passing away—it maintains itself in both. It lives on itself: its excrements are its food. [Nietzsche, The Will to Power, p.548]
As Morpheus says in The Matrix “I have seen the remains of the living liquefied to be fed intravenously to the living”. But, when you think about it, isn’t this merely a statement of a larger truth, of the relationship between all older and all newer generations? The Matrix Reloaded may put off some fans because it has replaced the Platonism of the first movie (“…there is a truer world beyond this seeming world of shadows, and you must choose this truer reality…”) with a pervasive melancholia of consummation, a sense of the mechanistic determinism of existence. But both moods are integral to the vision of the whole. “The two most extreme modes of thought,” Nietzsche argues, “—the mechanistic and the Platonic—are reconciled in the eternal recurrence: both as ideals” [The Will to Power, p.546].