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Jacking In: A Conversation with Matthew Kapell
Matthew Kapell holds an M.A. in anthropology, for which he specialized in human growth, discourse analysis and human genetics. He has published on a wide variety of topics in a diverse array of academic areas, including work on the genetics of human growth, the effects of poverty on growth, Holocaustal images in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and the monomythic structures of the computer game series Civilization. He is the Assistant Chair of the Science-Fiction/Fantasy Section of the Popular Culture Association. His most recent work is the just-released Jacking In To The Matrix Franchise, which he co-edited with William G. Doty.
The Matrix 101 is proud to present an exclusive conversation with Matthew on all things Matrix-related.
G: What led to your interest in the Matrix Trilogy, and subsequently to your desire to collect these essays into book form?
MK: I have two answers here. First, I really thought someone else would do this book - a book covering the entire franchise. And I looked around for that colleague quite a bit, but when it turned out no one else was doing it I decided to do it, myself. But, secondly, I saw the first Matrix film only because Harry Knowles of ain't-it-cool-news.com said to. My then-wife and I hadn't been able to see a film in, literally, months as we'd just had a baby and for my birthday my then mother-in-law offered to watch our daughter so we could get a regular "dinner and a movie". She even let us take her car. As we left the theater I found myself driving far too fast and my then-wife said, "you do know that you're going 95, don't you?" It just charged me. It made me feel very alive. I don't know how to respond with more than that.
Why did the films, etc., make you want to do this web site?
G: That same rush. Within about 5 minutes of The Matrix starting, I knew this wasn't just another cyber/sci-fi hollywood flick. I'd seen the trailers, and they were very good: incredibly exciting visuals and dialogue snippets that raised questions instead of providing answers. By the end of Trinity's introduction I was totally hooked. As the sequels were approaching, and my own anticipation was growing, I started looking for a website that would serve as a 'companion' to the movies, and found a number of good discussion and news sites, but nothing that took an organized film-by-film approach to dissecting them. So I thought I'd take a crack at it.
I know you and I aren't the only ones who were pumped coming out of The Matrix. And while it happens occasionally with other movies, none have had that kind of staying power for me, where I can recapture 90% of that feeling on repeated viewings. Why do you think The Matrix is different?
MK: I have a really silly answer to this. When I was about eleven my mother let me go to my first movie alone and I saw Rocky III. I had never seen the two previous films, at that point. I left the theater thinking the universe had changed; I still watch the films from time to time. I know that is sort of ridiculous for Rocky III, but I've never captured that same feeling as an adult - as a "grown-up" - until I saw the Matrix the first time. And I want to add something to that. "Race" is a very important concept to me, and I am very happy, though still critical, of the way "race" is depicted in the films. So, in the end, when all the African-American characters where still alive, I felt very good about that.
But that initial feeling, when leaving the first film: I'll be always happy for that.
G: Actually, Rocky III had that effect on me too, so maybe it's not so silly after all. In general, I've been fairly impressed with the way race is portrayed in the Matrix Trilogy - you mention you're both happy and critical. What bothers you about it?
MK: It is both a simple and complex relationship between the films. On one hand I was really happy to see a franchise (in the Matrix) where, at the end, all the "white" characters were dead while all the "black" characters were alive. It is just so unusual in modern American films. And, to a real extent, it also reminded me of Rocky III in that there were significant "black" characters. At the same time, however, it is very clear that people of color only choose other people of color as potential romantic partners. So, I'm very happy and pleased that women and people of color are portrayed as powerful and complex, but on another hand I'm upset that they can only end up with other people of color. What I'd really like is a person of color who ends up with a European and it isn't even noticed. Or, to be blunt, where we all (as Americans) don't even have a definition of the idea of "race" in film, or any other place.
G: It's nice to see films getting closer to the ideal of race just not mattering, of not even being noticed, but my pessimistic side keeps reminding me there's a long way to go to achieve what you describe in your last sentence. Like any journey, it begins with a few steps, and I do like to think the Matrix franchise has taken one of those steps.
Before we go much further, I want to talk about your brand new book, Jacking In To The Matrix Franchise. Can you tell our readers a little about the contributors and the topics covered?
MK: Actually, I can discuss both issues here: the book and "race". That's because one of the essays in the book discusses the issue of race very critically in the franchise. C. Richard King and David Leonard, both of Washington State University, wrote an essay for the book called "Is Neo White? Reading Race, Watching the Trilogy" that makes a number of wonderful points. The most important, and one that we see all over popular culture, is that no matter how "open" the films try to be about race, it is still a fact that only people of color have sexual relationships with people of color, and only "white" people with other "white" people, too. It is one of the essays in the book that I am most proud of, at least because it is, among a wonderful collection, just wonderfully argued and well written.
Jacking In also has chapters on gender (by a graduate student from Austria who did her M.A. thesis on the first film!), religion, the ethics of the idea of "the matrix" itself. Indeed, I think the thing that makes this book different is the breadth my co-editor, William G. Doty, and I were able to bring to it in the essays we collected. We've authors from Australia to Austria, from academics to professional writers, and from just about every perspective we could think of. And a lot of perspectives we didn't think of, but our authors did!
I have, of course, every book so-far published on the Matrix franchise, and the thing that sets this book apart, if anything, is the fact that we asked our authors to look at the Animatrix, at the comic, at the games, and not just the films. I think that makes this the only book that really sees the Matrix for what it is: a multi-media event and not just a trilogy of films.
G: That's one of the main reasons the staff of TM101 is really looking forward to your book! The Wachowskis constructed this story in such a way that the animes, the comics, and the games provide key pieces of the puzzle, and the Matrix world is that much richer for it. It's going to be great to actually see some analysis of the non-film components. Personally, I'm a big comic fan, so I'm really interested to see what your contributors have to say about the comics.
Did you write a piece yourself for the book, or was your role focused on the editorial aspect?
MK: I'm afraid I missed out on comics as a kid, much to my loss I know now. There are a few references to the Comic in the book, but not as many as I would have liked. Many reference the trial of B1-GGER and the Dred Scott case that is referenced there.
I did, indeed, write a chapter for the book with Stephanie J. Wilhelm. It is called "Visions of Hope, Freedom of Choice, and the Alleviation of Social Misery: A Pragmatic Reading of the Matrix." In it Ms. Wilhelm and myself use the "prophetic pragmatism" of philosopher Cornel West to argue that all of the people who've suggested that the Matrix films are either "Modern" or "postmodern" missed the point. (We thought it was cute, too, that West is in the final two films!) Pragmatic philosophy argues that when faced with complex and difficult issues we should only try to ask questions that actually can be answered, which most of the rest of philosophy does not do. We further suggest that those who read the films as Modern or postmodern miss the fact that in the end however you look at the machines and the humans, the final answer is that aspects of both Modernism (like science, technology, etc.) and postmodernism (which is a term I'm afraid to try to define!) are needed to make a society work; either that of the Matrix franchise or our own.
Boy, that was long winded, wasn't it!
I also wrote the book's conclusion, and a good chunk of a list of names and their real world referents. That's how I first found out about TheMatrix101! Your page was helpful to me in that you guys all captured a number of things I and William Doty missed!
G: Service is our middle name here @ TM101! Glad we could help.
Before we leave comics, I just have to stress again how much they add to the Matrix mythology. This is the world the Wachowskis come from, and several pieces were complete before the first movie was even released - so they're not afterthoughts. Obviously the B1-GGER piece is critical to the core story, but I really like the pieces that expand the mythology and show the diversity of the comic medium. There are two that couldn't be more different in execution, but both really capture central themes of The Matrix. Neil Gaiman's prose piece, Goliath, (with sporadic illustrations from Bill Sienkiewicz and Gregory Ruth) is really beautiful and sad, and for me it evokes that same sense of unreality I felt when watching the first movie. On the other hand, Dave Gibbons' Butterfly has virtually no words, but the pictures say so much. Don't get me started on the comics!!
I actually have a question about Cornell West that I wonder if you'd like to take a crack at. I read a Times story soon after Reloaded was released saying something along these lines: "the two sentences the Wachowskis had written for West's character ("Comprehension is not requisite for cooperation" is the one he remembers) run counter to West's body of work, which champions progressive socialism and the power of diversity in society". Do you think that's a fair statement, that they run counter? It's stuck with me, like a splinter in my mind since I read it, and you're the first victim-oops, I mean person I've had the opportunity to ask, who has knowledge of his body of work.
MK: I agree with you about the comics, too. I do wish a comic or anime scholar had come forward with a proposal, because I would have really liked to see that. I think what the comic also brings home is how carefully the brothers set up their shots. You can see moments in all three films that you just know was set up like a page from a comic, and I think it is just great that we are seeing a blending of all these forms of media, with respect given to all of them.
Yes, the lines of West's are wholly antithetical to his work, which espouses what he has called a "prophetic pragmatism" that is, to me, very closely related to Marxian ideas with a large amount of religion. And, by Marxian, I mean the kind Marx called for, not the kind as practiced in the 20th century. In fact, my own chapter in the book, as I mentioned, is based on that. But we don't really harp on West playing a character that doesn't say things West himself would. He already got in enough trouble when he cut that rap album after all!
Check back next week for part 2 of TM101's Conversation with Matthew Kapell where we discuss ETM, MxO, Star Wars, The Matrix Triogy's legacy, and just what we'd do with the franchise if we were a Wachowski Brother!
MK: I'm curious if you all at TM101 thought, in the way you expressed about the comic, that the game Enter the Matrix also brought anything extra home with it? There are a couple of good quotes in there, though otherwise it merely felt like a game to me in many ways. But I have to confess, I'm not much of a gamer.
G: Couldn't agree more on the comic-inspired shots (see Part 1 for more): the close-ups, the changes in perspective, the scenes that make you want to freeze the frame so you can admire the composition. You can really see that inspiration in the storyboards in The Art of The Matrix, too. It's one of the many reasons we love that book. Can't wait for the sequels!
For us, Enter The Matrix was a necessary piece, but it didn't expand the mythology really. It provided you with some plot info absent from the movies, though once Revolutions came out, it became obvious that much of the info in the game wasn't as important as you may have thought. The gameplay wasn't groundbreaking, once you got over the novelty of "focus" and doing all those wonderful Matrixy combination moves.
The thing I liked most about the game was the development of Ghost's character, and to a lesser extent, Sparks. I finished the game really liking both of their characters, and I didn't get that from the films - they just didn't have enough screen time. The thing I liked least was the missed opportunity: ETM is an extremely unique game. It's the first game written, directed, and shot as an integral part of the original movies that it is based on. The game developers had access to the cast for motion capture and voice work, the stunt/fight crew for choreography, and the directors for just about everything else. The Wachowskis wrote the game script as part of the overall story of Reloaded and Revolutions, and collaborated closely to ensure the game fit into the Matrix Trilogy as an essential piece. Given this level of planning, design, and Hollywood level talent, you'd think the game would be revolutionary...and it's not. I had high hopes that the 'convergence' people have been talking about for 10 years now would finally happen, and ETM would usher in a new age of interactive entertainment. But ETM missed its mark on too many levels, and now it's up to some other game.
The question is, will The Matrix Online bring anything new to the franchise? Have you been watching its development, and if so, do you have any thoughts on what it may contribute?
MK: I feel the same way about ETM, too. I've occasionally enjoyed playing computer games, but mostly strategy ones like Civilization. But also the time comes when you've got to just go play Doom, you know? And, so I felt ETM just failed on a number of levels. I never found it, well, fun. I do hope the multi-player game changes that.
Considering the popularity of the on-line game Star Wars Galaxies, I think any Matrix game will have a lot to live up to. A number of my friends play the SW game and say it is the best on-line game they've ever seen, so, when I consider the Matrix game I think "will they be able to hook my friends who play 'Galaxies'?" and my answer is pretty unsure.
Speaking of which, one of the contributors to Jacking In, in his co-authored book, The Myth of the American Superhero, has a lot of interesting things to say about the mythological structure of Star Wars. That's why he and I are currently working on a book proposal to a book similar to Jacking In for (hopeful) publication after that last SW film comes out next year.
Which leads me to my question for you. How do you think the Matrix franchise stacks up against other science-fiction film series like SW, Alien, Terminator and the lot? Is it something new and different, or merely an extension of old ideas already presented? Or, to put it a different way, a number of people have suggested that is the same "wolf" in new "sheep's' clothing"? Would you agree with that?
G: It may sound odd coming from the editor of a fan site, but I do agree with that sentiment...to a certain extent. The Matrix movies offer a lot of familiar themes that we've seen before in sci-fi movies and cyberpunk fiction. The people who have picked it apart can select just about any plot point or idea and find a precursor somewhere. It may be valid, but I don't know how relevant it truly is. I'm one of those people who believes that pretty much any new art cribs from previous art. There's nothing original anymore. But the way the Wachowskis put it together, now that is original. The mystery, the visual flair, and the serious subtextual ideas and themes make the Matrix franchise more than the same old "wolf", IMHO.
I think over time the trilogy's reputation will grow, not diminish, but it will never grow to (original trilogy) Star Wars levels. The Matrix will live on as a revolutionary classic of Sci-fi moviemaking, inspiring future filmakers, but I think too many people still dismiss the sequels for the trilogy as a whole to maintain the power and influence of the first film. And unfortunately, the dismissal of the sequels reduces the original in some people's eyes, which really isn't fair at all.
Where do you think the franchise falls with regard to the others you mentioned? Do you think it will live on as a classic trilogy or be forgotten?
MK: I have to agree with you completely, over time the reputation of the series will, indeed, grow. I think the reason why is many-fold. Not merely the story lines will do that, but also the innovative cinematic techniques, the way in which so many types of media were used to advance the story, and, also, I think the fan communities will, after a lull, begin to think about it in different ways. I wouldn't presume to figure out in what ways they will do that, but I think the way in which the first film got even more popular on DVD over time, so will the final films as well. That is because the films are so rich that every time a fan says to her or his partner at home in the evening "no, I really don't' feel like going to the video store tonight. Why don't we just watch Revolutions?" they will find something new there, and the popularity will slowing increase.
However, I don't know if the films will enter a Canon of sci-fi films the way, say, Star Wars has. But, then, one can never know that, after all. Only time will tell.
And, also on your point about all the various film references, I agree with you there, too. Nothing can be wholly new. The American scholar, Frederic Jameson calls this a "pastiche of styles" and is rather dismissive (he wasn't specifically talking about the Matrix films, but it fits). I like references to other styles and other specific films very much, and object to his point a lot. I think it is a good point when considering what used to be called B-movies, but the Matrix films are certainly not that. I think what I would say about it comes down to this: The Matrix films are new and unique, even if no specific idea, concept, scene or plot point is new and unique. It is the fusion of different styles/ideas/concepts that make them unique. It isn't the parts that are new, is is the way the parts are put together. Artists are allowed to have "influences" after all, and obviously the brothers have that.
Finally, I think ten years from now a new generation of film watchers will be told "oh, just see the first one," and I don't very much like that at all. No one would say that you only have to see Van Gogh's "Starry night" to understand his work. In fact, as much as I love the films if someone were to ask me which of the brother's films to see if they only were to see one, I'd most likely tell them to see Bound in that case. Because I think if you are not going to invest the time to see all three films (and the Animatrix, too, for that matter) you shouldn't waste your time.
Would you agree with that at all? Or do you think the first film could stand alone well enough to a future generation that they could merely see that and ignore the rest?
G: I think one of the reasons the first film really personally affected so many people is because the parts aren't new. These are themes familiar to all of us, put together in a wholly new and exciting way. It makes for a compelling package when the composition is so energetic and original, and many of the underlying ideas are familiar.
I think my fear is the same as yours: the first film will be separated from the rest of the franchise. It bothers me because I think the power of the Wachowski's story rests in the overall experience, and the more the first film is put on the pedestal, the more the other films/animes/etc will end up suffering in comparison. Time will tell.
Here's one out of left field: if you could change one thing about Reloaded and/or Revolutions, what would it be? And I'm talking anything: script, direction, editing, actors, marketing, anything at all.
MK: I have to agree with you completely on that. The re-use of ideas and concepts doesn't make something "new", but at the same time it isn't "stealing" but "referencing". I think the best parts of the first film were intentioned as such references, and it was all the better for it.
As for your "out of left field" query, I have to say that the one thing I'd change is just to have a single person-of-color be romantically involved with a, um, "person-of-not-color" or white person, if you will. I would add to that, I guess, that more obviously "out" gay characters would be nice, too. But then, I am a bit of a liberal on such issues.
I do wish they (the brothers) had a bit more time to do re-takes and get the acting a little better in Revolutions, but upon re-watching it a few times I'm enjoying it more and more.
How about you? What would you change?
G: You know, in Enter The Matrix, if you played as Ghost the overall storyline was the same, but the details were different. One of the differing details you learn is that Ghost has had a "thing" for Trinity for quite a while. The Oracle tells him that she'll only ever think of him as a brother, and he makes peace with it. So there *is* an Asian character with a romantic interest in a Caucasian character. Mind you, he has to accept that it's not going to happen, and never makes his feelings known, so maybe that just further proves your point ;)
I think the one thing I'd change is the editing in the last third of Reloaded, where Morpheus lays out his plan for the assault on the building that houses the Door-to-the-Source. You've got a complex movie, with many new characters and ideas, and you've got an audience whose heads are spinning with all this information...and whammo, the editing style changes. You go from a fairly sequential narrative to scenes of The Keymaker talking about the building, to Morpheus describing his plan, intercut with scenes of the various crews carrying out the plan, followed by scenes of the plan going wrong, all still intercut with Morpheus explaining the plan to the crews.
Numerous people I've talked to were doing fine up until this point, then they got a little confused with the editing, then came The Architect and whew, you'd lost a lot of people. Don't get me wrong, I love the scene now, and I love the pace, but I don't know if it's the best device to clearly explain what's going on. But maybe that's why I'm not a director...
One more softie: If you were a Brother Wachowski what would the next step in the Matrix franchise be? Assuming The Matrix Online is out and successful, would you do another film, more comics, Animatrix 2, a novel series, TV, something else entirely, nothing at all?
MK: You are right on the last third of Reloaded. I've seen is so many times that I think I had forgotten that I got confused at the first watching of that. Especially so in that they never do that non sequential thing, again. Here's a completely sexist response, too: I would have given Monica Bellucci as Persephone a lot more to do or say in the third film. I enjoyed the character, and she just has one line!
And, if I were the brothers W, hmmm... I'd try to do something totally different and really keep the promise that there will be no more Matrix films. But, if there had to be something I really wouldn't mind novelizations telling the story of the Second Renaissance in more detail - but only if they could get some good authors to do them.
If it were up to you, which tack would you take on that same question?
G: More Monica is never a bad thing!
I agree - no more movies. It was a trilogy and the story's been told, so leave it at that. I'd like to see more exploration of the surrounding mythology: the backstory, other characters, previous Ones, maybe? If it was up to me, I'd do an Animatrix 2, and more comics. Short, segmented pieces that can explore just about any aspect, without a lot of restrictions.
I think we've taken up enough of your time, so I want to thank you on behalf of our readers and the crew @ TM101 - I had a ball chatting with you, and please consider this an open invitation to come by anytime! A reminder to our readers that Matthew's book, Jacking In To The Matrix Franchise, is available now, and is a highly recommended read.
Any parting thoughts, comments, words of wisdom before we let you get back to work?
MK: The idea of an Animatrix 2 does sound interesting! Yes, perhaps that would be the way to go.
In parting, let me just say thank you for a wonderful conversation and a great web site.
Our sincere thanks to Matthew for taking time out of his busy schedule to chat with us and share his thoughts with our readers!
Did You Know?
The Animatrix film The Second Renaissance Part I alludes to the story of a robot named B1-66ER who ends up in a pivotal court case after killing his human master. It's been suggested the robot's name came from 'Bigger Thomas', the main character of Native Son, a novel about a black man in 1930's Chicago who commits a murder he believes he has no choice but to commit.