2.25.2007

Stealing and Poaching: The Matrix and Bound




With Bound and The Matrix, the Wachowskis proffer two modes of reckoning cinema, and perhaps all art and maybe even all identity: stealing and poaching.

The Matrix is a product of unabashed thievery, a pastiche of visual history, copping innumerable tropes from everything from the spaghetti western to video games. The Wachowskis take whatever they need to invent their universe, chewing up inherited images with abandon. This mastication is not interpretation. The Matrix is not a take on the video game, Street Fighter; it doesn’t interpret The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; we don’t view the work of Sergio Leone differently after seeing the movie. This is not homage to Katheryn Bigelow’s Point Break, even if she taught us that Keanu can run and the camera can follow—closely. No, The Matrix is not homage; it is not a deferential or humble film. It is an entirely new beast born from multiple and disparate parents—a bastard hybrid, if you will. And a virile one: this mule can foal (pace WS Burroughs).

This is filmmaking as all-consuming appetite: I’ll take that and that and that, thanks very much. Images are ripped and riffed, a shameless thievery. This is mixing at the limit, the strategy of MixMaster Mike and Christian Marclay, turning the found into sound, forging one’s own territory from the fodder of others. Thievery is beyond the pale of reference just as it is beyond the reach of diffĂ©rance; this intertextuality does not undermine the thief. On the contrary, the thief makes the things of the world so much his own that the terms of propriety shift; the deed is passed as a new world is forged. This is a repetition without memory, a consumption so thorough that while we can perhaps see traces of former identities we can by no means say that these images belong to anyone else, that they belong anywhere else than right there.

This is in fact the very plot of the movie. The Matrix is not, as it may seem, about questioning the line between lived and virtual reality. On the contrary, the film secures the line that separates dream from reality, the virtual from the real. We believe Morpheus; we believe that there is a difference between the real and the virtual and we want to make this distinction firm again. It is not until the second film in the series that we are introduced to radical doubt as Morpheus shifts from truth-teller to fanatic, Neo’s powers work against (or is it with?) the machines and even the Oracle herself becomes a questionable source. In the second film, we are sure of nothing.

But in the first film, we witness a story of theft just as we watch a theft in motion (that is to say, the film itself). The machines steal the electricity of the humans; the humans steal the machines’ “souls” as they render machines useful, always serving human ends. Competing thieves, then, each trying to steal the other, to consume the other, to turn the other’s mode into one’s own. Isn’t this precisely what the Wachowskis do—take the production of others and put it shamelessly, gleefully, to the production of themselves? Is film machine or human? Perhaps, the Wachowskis tell us, film is the very place where man and machine meet so as to mutually and productively steal from each other: a symbiotic theft forging a new being, a cinebeing.

If The Matrix is an exercise in thievery, Bound, the Wachowskis' first feature film, is an exercise in poaching. Unlike The Matrix which is sui generis, Bound is a genre film, a rendering of noir. Here, rather than stealing images, the Wachowskis enter the image economy of an existing genre, making do from within an existing space. For Michel de Certeau, to poach is to create one’s territory within the territory of another not by stealing but by operating, by doing, by moving. Hence, the Wachowskis situate the film at the precise juncture of the economy’s conduits, the passages along which the images circulate.

As the film poaches on noir’s familiar images—desire, greed, crime, the underworld—, the camera follows the diverse paths of their circulation: down pipes, through Doppler’s rippling effect on toilet water, through walls inflected with prejudice and assumption, carried along vibration, obscured by habit. The plot turns on the ability or inability to read these signs so as to make something happen—to get rich, to survive, to love. Caesar, the mobster, is utterly oblivious to his girlfriend’s lesbianism (until it is too late); after all, she’s so feminine. Hence the ex-con tomboy lesbian, Corky, also mis-reads Violet, the moll. After all, she’s so feminine.

But Violet, like the film itself, is a poacher, inhabiting the skin of the mobster moll in order to make her own way. She even whores, a sign that, to Corky, confirms Violet’s heterosexuality. But as de Certeau claims, poaching is the strategy of those without property, of the conquered, those stripped of space of their own place. Poachers appear to be acting in a familiar way; they exhibit all the “right” signs, like the worker who sits at his computer, ever dutiful, all the while writing his novel. Poachers make use of the signs of others but in their own way, to their own ends, for their own pleasure. Violet sleeps with men as a way of making money in order to one day slip away and forge her own property. In the meantime, she operates on the territory of the known, exhibiting all the right signs even as she creates her own world from within the world of others. But it is a world that only exists in the going, in the decisions; Violet cannot make a world that is strictly speaking her own. So she makes her way through the territory of others, poaching on their signs as she pleasures herself.

Bound, like Violet, poaches on the territory of the known, on the familiar signs of noir. The film crawls into noir and kicks around with a certain perverse delight, engaging the known signs only to send them astray (but not too far; take a sign too far astray from its home and you become a thief), extending noir’s images according to its own sapphic appetite, This is quite different from The Matrix which consumes images with another kind of delight, the delight of making the world one’s own, of no longer having to tread on someone else’s territory: the delight of stealing.

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