Against The Hype

movies, criticism and their pleasures

Guns and Poses: All That The Matrix Allows

November 01, 2010 By: Colin Low Category: Full Essays

The Matrix’s obsession with binaries of costume, group size, violence, sets and props seems to establish it as a rudimentary us-versus-them fantasy of anti-authoritarianism. But unsettling visual parallels linger between its ostensible heroes and villains, driving us to ask if the rebels might not be shackled to enacting a violence as fascistic as the system they are fighting.

The movie aligns us early to both Neo and Trinity by pitting them separately against similar groups of uniformed pursuers. Cornered respectively in a fleabag hotel and in a maze of sterile office cubicles, Trinity and Neo each find themselves approached by policemen and Agents, who enter these scenes sharing space in shots with at least one similarly uniformed colleague (be it police uniform or Agent’s Secret Service suit). Through this visual grouping and their uniforms’ associations with legal authority, the policemen and Agents lose much of their individuality, seeming to hail from a vast conspiratorial network further implied in the Agents’ earpieces. We thus identify with the outnumbered individual in these scenes as they attempt to escape their omnipresent foes and unappealing environs.

As if to confirm our suspicions, the Agents and rebels proceed to subject Neo’s body to dichotomous extremes of physical violence, with contrasting resources at their disposal. When Agent Smith’s deal with Neo falls through, Neo’s mouth magically seals upon a cutaway from the smirking Smith, suggesting the Agent’s gleeful, inexplicable power to silence Neo. His colleagues pinning Neo down, Smith then activates a metal capsule that grows into a spindly, leg-splaying metallic virus that clambers into Neo’s navel as he struggles. By contrast, the rebels’ equipment is relatively low-tech, and their violence harmless: the device Trinity uses to extract the virus is ramshackle and ungainly, and the interior of Morpheus’ ship looks like an industrial basement with old barber’s chairs. Furthermore, the weapons-free fight between Morpheus and Neo, involving parries and near-miss fists, is benignly instructional, while Neo’s failure to leap across buildings is met merely with a rippling asphalt trampoline upon first impact, even as the blunt second impact reiterates the stakes of failure against their enemies. We are thus conditioned to continue seeing the rebels as underdogs and enablers against the oppressive Matrix and its Agents.

However, multiple images within Neo and Trinity’s subsequent rescue of Morpheus invite a troubling comparison between the Agents and themselves. “Dodge this,” says Trinity before shooting an Agent in the head, adopting the very pose taken by a simulacrum of Agent Smith earlier in Neo’s training.  (more…)

First Night at Doc Films: Stan Brakhage’s Murder Psalm

September 29, 2010 By: Colin Low Category: Capsuled Thoughts

If you want an auspicious start with Doc Films, which screens movies every night of the academic year at the University of Chicago, you wouldn’t find it with late-era Stan Brakhage. No offense to the master, but these apparently random film collages failed to make a case against the urgency of my reading assignments. I did make it through Murder Psalm, Brakhage’s 16-minute short that intercuts “found” clips of Mickey Mouse barraging down a city street, trotting warhorses in negative, a corpse being slit, a girl assaulted by the splash of a beach ball on a fountain, another girl driven to an epileptic fit by a flash of lightning, yet another girl staring at her unchanging reflection in the mirror—or is it, etc. There are interpretations to be made here about the multiplicity of violence, identity and horror, though such interpretations may find it harder to justify the interpolating frames of damaged nitrate (one wonders if they were part of the original). To be charitable, I’m clearly still unprepared for the avant-garde, and I’m not yet willing to cede all worth in the movies to the strength of their coherence and readability. But so it goes.

Nonetheless, I am now the proud owner of a Doc Films quarterly pass, which lets you into every. single. movie. that Doc is showing this quarter, a veritable list that includes (in screening order) Gilda, Pather Panchali, McCabe & Mrs Miller, Dr Strangelove, The Kids Are All Right,  The Birth of a Nation, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Intolerance, Back to the Future, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Winter’s Bone, Eyes Wide Shut and I Am Love. So I’m not at all shaken that I dropped down $30 earlier for a slip of paper into 16 minutes of disjointment; it’ll pay itself back. I’m more concerned about the two acquaintances I met earlier who paid $5 each for their regular admission tickets, then came over to ask me what tonight’s film was about. I had to suppress my mirth at their facial expressions when I mentioned the words “avant-garde director”. But, again, so it goes.

Off to College! A Viewing List of Films that Made History

September 15, 2010 By: Colin Low Category: One-Liner Reviews

Perhaps it is inappropriate that G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box will be the last movie I watch before flying 18 hours to the University of Chicago, and into a new chapter of my life. After all, the movie depicts characters who can barely understand or avoid the impulses they chase, even though this inevitably leads them into situations ever more dire. Indeed, in the shot above, Lulu (Louise Brooks) thinks she’s just ensured that things will go back to the way they were. Spoiler alert: they will not.

But I would like to think that I have a better grasp on my future than Lulu does, and the movie also works as fitting emblem for some of my hopes and resolutions. Take this very shot: as she gets dressed for her stage debut, assistants decked out-of-focus around her, you might think the reasons for Lulu’s glee are entirely professional. In truth, she’s just netted a very personal triumph, but you wouldn’t know this if I hadn’t said it (unless you’ve watched the film, of course). Take it from me too, then, that this blog is going to get a lot more personal from now on, since its pegging to my ups and downs as a film-studying undergrad means that my relationship to the movies will advance beyond the occasional rental and formal critique.

Then again, I don’t mean to understate just how far my pre-college cinephilia extends, since I bought Bordwell and Thompson’s magisterial Film History: An Introduction for a bit of enjoyable reading more than two months ago. Thus I can’t see how Pandora’s Box is anything but appropriate for this moment: not only did Nathaniel R fortuitously delay its episode in his inspiring Hit Me with Your Best Shot series so it coincided nicely with my departure; not only does it belong to the silent era, an area of expertise for my university’s film studies department; it also fits into one of the biggest gaps in my movie knowledge that I’m already most eager to fill.

What follows, then, is a list of movies that I’m hoping to catch for the first time (or would like a proper new look at) while in college. They’re divided into the sections of Film History that I’ve read in which they turn up, and Pandora’s Box lies crossed out among them, giving you a glimpse of the kind of tweet-length response that follows when I’ve watched one of them. And of course I’m expecting this list to grow—not least because you might have some to recommend!


A Toast to Chicago!

December 17, 2009 By: Colin Low Category: Announcements

I haven’t posted in a month, and a lot of things have happened to me since then: among others, I’ve joined a film writing team, started learning Japanese, and programmed cherished movies for my friends. I’ll get to some of these as the days roll by, but none, none of them can top…


… not understanding why Sally said the story of her life hadn’t started yet…


… because mine feels like it’s already begun.


Thirty-three years later, here I come!


“God save Illinois.”