They Dream of Awakening: the Esoteric Urge behind the Matrix and other Films

[article by John Shirley, a slightly truncated version appeared in PARABOLA Magazine]

I was walking through “the yard” at San Quentin State Prison. The prisoners sunning themselves at tables near the worn baseball field would have pleased any casting director with their do-rags and the home-made prison tattoos on muscular bare arms. The man walking with me, though, was smallish, balding, middle aged, and pale, making me think of an accountant. He might once have been an accountant, I don’t know; I do know he’s a convicted murderer.

I was a volunteer, teaching writing to inmates. My companion had written a script, which, thematically, was about a man driven by his origins to do bad things, but with something higher struggling to emerge in him. I said, “You have sports, television, work, time to walk freely within the walls—and you’ve been here since 1978. Do you stay so busy you forget, for awhile, that you’re incarcerated, and just feel like this is normal life?”
He told me that if he keeps busy, he can “sort of” forget. But he added that he can never really forget he’s in prison. “You try not to think about it too much, but…” He looked at the armed guard strolling by. “There are constant reminders. It’s always there. You feel it.” Even at the best times, the defining negativity of his situation loomed in the background, casting barbed wire shadows.

Unsurprisingly, the group of inmates composing screenplays often wrote, indirectly, about people who were trapped, in some way. And it’s not surprising when screenwriters and authors, moving “freely” in the outside world, write about their own existential conditions, and spiritual conditions, even when they might suppose themselves writing about something else entirely.

Recently, seeing the trailer for a new film, The Invasion, I remembered that day volunteering in prison. Starring Nicole Kidman, The Invasion is the second remake of the classic science-fiction horror film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Based on a novel by Jack Finney, the Body Snatcher movies portray an isolated town in the grip of an invisible alien invasion. The invaders take over the bodies of locals, making them, one by one, cold-hearted players in an extraterrestrial conspiracy. Your wife or your father still look like your wife and father, and talk like them. But it’s not them anymore; they’ve become numb biological robots. Key to The Invasion—it’s even in the trailer—is the admonition: “Don’t fall asleep!” Because, the film warns, it’s when you’re asleep that your body is snatched. In his essay for Invasion of the Body Snatchers: A Tribute, Jeff Zaleski observes:

Invasion of the Body Snatchers poses a terror that is fundamentally spiritual: the lost of that special something that makes us human. . .Yet the story also offers a metaphor for a less obvious but more insidious threat. . .It’s well known but rarely discussed that the world’s five major religions teach another fundamental truth abut the human condition…that we spend our lives mostly in a dreamlike state—lost in our thoughts, so lost in our thoughts that we are cut off from the sensation of our bodies and full awareness of the real world. This teaching can be found in the esoteric branches of each major religion….”

Finney’s novel and the Body Snatcher movies may have been intended more as political than spiritual metaphor. Invasion of the Body Snatchers came out in an era charged with a fear of Communists supposedly bent on turning our world into a Godless dictatorship of the proletariat. But political themes may mask deeper insights. A look at The Invasion and other films suggests that many popular films are actually unconscious (or only partly conscious) expressions of esoteric truths. Metaphors for a spiritual condition are found in unlikely places—but they are found persistently because, like the man who “kept busy” in San Quentin, we all know, on some level, that we’re in prison. We know, too, that there’s a possibility of freedom just on the other side of a certain wall.

Despite our strait-jacketed condition, something in us senses that we’re asleep and struggles, at times, to wake up. Even when we haven’t encountered esoteric teachings, we know something’s wrong: that we are living in a twilight world, where the light is too dim; that we are driven by drivers we cannot see. This unconscious, uneasy half comprehension of our condition finds expression in popular art—especially in theater and film.
Consider the plays of Samuel Beckett. In his unnerving, austere productions, characters walk about in “purgatorial loops,” repeating nightmarish scenarios, seeming caught up in entrapping states of mind. They battle for dignity, for some eking out of individuality. In Beckett’s short play Catastrophe, two ruthlessly officious, controlling individuals, a “director” and his secretary, set about arranging, as if toying with a wire framework, a miserable-looking, ragged old man frozen on a stage. At the end, the old man, against directions, lifts his head, and looks up at the audience—a tiny act of defiance. It’s all he can manage, so controlled is he by outside forces. Beckett spoke of his plays as “objects”, and probably wasn’t consciously making a spiritual statement. But again and again he poignantly expressed man’s condition: trapped, mechanical, struggling to emerge from a puppet’s purgatory.

Television has its moments of inadvertent insight into our trapped, sleeping condition: going back a ways, one of the most popular television antagonists was The Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The Borg is all one being made up of lesser beings, a cyborgian fusion of man and machine that assimilates individuals, over riding their free will and turning them into mindless components of an artificial Archon. Besides dramatizing mindless subjection to automaticity, the Borg may be a parable of our fear that we’re becoming disastrously dependent on the electronic and digital superstructure of our cell phone, iPod-dominated culture.

Popular film resonates with themes that speak of our tendency to lapse into sleep when we think we’re awake—one of the most obvious, striking examples in recent times is The Matrix. Starring Keanu Reeves, The Matrix is about a man who discovers that the entire human world is asleep and dreaming, kept that way by enslaving artificial intelligences. Human beings are so controlled by computers they become seamlessly blended into the digital world. A rebel leader has liberated a cadre of revolutionaries one of whom makes a secret deal with the artificial intelligence—he will betray the rebels if he can be allowed a fabricated dream-life of his own choosing. The traitor may represent the inner resistance a seeker feels when presented with the possibility of awakening.

Numerous films point to the same truths with a timeliness and convergence of intent that somehow make them part of an inadvertent “movement” in cinema. I’m thinking particularly of American Beauty, Fight Club, Dark City, eXistenZ, Mulholland Drive, The Truman Show, Vanilla Sky, Waking Life, Simone, The Island, and now The Invasion.

Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, written by Alan Ball, is the story of a dysfunctional family lost in the centerless maze of modern life. Kevin Spacey’s character can’t touch his wife in any way that matters; he can’t reach his daughter though she’s right in the same house with him. He has an encounter with a pot-dealing young bohemian who moves in next door—whose obsession with the innate visual beauty of the ordinary world seems an adventure in perception—and is inspired to wrestle his way free of his middle class funk. The overall impression is of a man recognizing that he’s been asleep, dreaming his way through an air conditioned, wall-to-wall-carpeted misery—who had forgotten the choices, the almost infinite ways out, that life offers to the wakeful in every single second of existence. As a side note, Ball’s television series Six Feet Under, about a family of morticians– each episode’s prologue dramatizing the death of a client– might be regarded as an oblique reminder of the importance of living consciously in the moment, with death always in the offing.

In David Fincher’s visceral Fight Club, characters desperate for connection to something real go to 12-step groups for problems they don’t have, just to feel emotions by proxy; they are so desperate to rid themselves of existential numbness that they start a Fight Club, where ordinary people meet in secret to beat each other bloody. It isn’t the violence they want—it’s the return to realness in the moment brought about by powerful, unavoidable living contact. They allude to a society caught up in consumerism and corporate striving, dumbfounded by masks and media-star worship and empty recreation—and they recognize that it’s all a kind of sleepwalking, a hypnotic state that must be struggled with, even battered with bare fists.

Alex Proyas’ Dark City is a stylish noir fantasy, a Gnostic fable, about a man who finds himself on a search for truth and identity in a shape-shifting city that turns out to be a living urban stage designed for sinister, arcane purposes by malignant entities—all may be a dream, or may not.

David Cronenberg’s ‘eXistenZ‘ involves a virtual-reality videogame that –like so many Philip Dick-influenced tales—makes us wonder where reality ends and the game begins. Fantasy and reality inevitably overlap in this film. There are anti-game revolutionaries in the background, and the game’s player wonders what’s real, and if the game could be a game within a game…

In David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, a young actress seems to have her soul, or identity, stolen by evil forces embedded in the city of Los Angeles (no one who’s worked in The Business there needs much convincing), as she goes through an enigmatic quest to find her real nature— in what turns out to be, apparently, a dream.

In Peter Weir’s The Truman Show, Jim Carrey discovers he’s in a false reality, literally staged by people who are using him as an entertainment and have done so for a generation. He must find the confines of the staging area and break out into the real world, to find actual love, an unscripted destiny.

Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky was inspired by a European film; this Tom Cruise vehicle once again gives us a hero who by degrees realizes that his nightmarish reality is fabricated, is intricately computer-animated and transmitted into his brain which is in modified cryogenic freeze. He chooses to wake up, and face the real world of a dark future, rather than the comforting dreams the cryogenics company offers him.

Richard Linklater’s Waking Life—an intriguing innovation perfectly fusing conventional movie-photography and animation—gives us a hero who keeps waking up from a complex dream that seems to push him into profound social and philosophical dialogues with the sundry intellectual outlaws he encounters; only, each time he’s sure he’s awakened, he finds, once more, he’s only dreaming.

Andrew Niccol’s Simone is a comedy about a movie director who’s so disgusted with actors that he computer-generates Simone, a beautiful actress programmed with the best of all the great female movie stars. The audience falls in love with her and people refuse to accept she’s not real, even when he tries to tell them so. Simone sends up the public’s willingness to collaborate with illusion on a global scale.

In Michael Bay’s The Island, the hero discovers that his world, which seems to be the only refuge in a world supposedly ravaged by catastrophe is actually a factory for creating clones used by the rich for spare parts, and the free, living world is hidden but intact and waiting for him beyond the walls of social illusion.

And now we have The Invasion, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. Said to be less effective than the Don Siegel original, the film nevertheless dramatizes (probably unconsciously) the central dark fact of the human condition: when we allow consciousness to lapse, we surrender our ability to make choices, deferring to lower sub-selves and their mindless agenda.

Whether these are great works of art is not important. What matters is the emergence of a remarkable number of films questioning reality itself– each suggesting a sinister puppeteer, pointing to a kind of dreamy disorientation prevailing in the median consciousness of the industrialized world—seems a defined cultural current, however unplanned, emerging from a consensus about our condition. What is it we’re trying to tell ourselves, with The Matrix, and all these other films on the same theme?

These filmmakers are not deliberately making reference to esoteric ideas–but on some level they seem to confirm insights basic to Vipassana Buddhism, certain forms of Sufism, Esoteric Christianity, and G.I. Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way. Artists express their perception, however murky, of the human condition. And a perceptual consensus is beginning to emerge: mankind is asleep, mechanical, strictured, fragmentary.

Most everyone has had a dark dream that they struggled to wake from. A few nights ago I had a chance encounter on the street with an unbalanced stranger who claimed to have a concealed pistol–he threatened to shoot me if I got too close to his new truck. I doubted he had a gun at all, and took it in stride, shrugging it off, but deep down the encounter disturbed me. That night I dreamt I was in a public crowded public square, where a belligerent man argued with me, then ran and got a large automatic pistol from his friends. The crowd watched in vague amusement as I ducked behind a car to avoid getting shot. On some level—this often happens when I have nightmares—I knew I was asleep. It took a few moments, but I somehow deliberately wrested myself out of sleep, so that I wouldn’t have to dream of being shot.

My anxiety about the threatening man on the street was not unfounded, in our gun-burdened society, and my dream was a way to process that anxiety. Films are like dreams; they extol the social subconscious. The films in our incomplete list are roughly along the same lines. They are cinematic dreams mulling over real dilemmas our so-called “conscious” minds are only dimly aware of. These films are external representations of inner processes: the higher part of us struggling to awaken, to warn us we’re in danger of losing our birthright.

Some of us drift through our lives like pollen; others bounce energetically from one interaction to another like the reflective silver sphere in a pinball machine. Sometimes, spurred by inner compulsions and external conditions, we imagine that we are doing great things in the world; we become reformers, or master criminals. We run for President.

But on some level, no matter what we seem to accomplish, we know that the whole time, we were asleep. Like the people in comas who are often seen to struggle to awaken, we make feeble, indirect efforts to protest our numbness, to acknowledge that transcendence is tantalizingly near. We go to amusement parks for rocket-fast rides that thrill us into momentary contact with our bodies and the present moment; we try sky diving, bungee jumping, extreme sports. Some people go in for drugs and speak portentously of their fitful, veering experiences with altered consciousness. And film makers protest their sleep through movies like The Matrix, an adrenaline-pumping action movie which seeks to combine thrill seeking with the notion of our subjectivity to mechanicality and the possibility of awakening to real freedom.

These films rarely offer straightforward solutions to the dilemmas they pose. Although “fight clubs” do exist, the novel (by Chuck Palahniuk) and film Fight Club are actually presenting only satirical solutions. Questioning the status quo –and a willingness to use desperate means for escape–

Still, The Matrix seems to symbolically suggest something like the Buddhist and Fourth Way process of “self observation”: the hero takes steps to wake up, only to find he’s connected to machinery that has kept him drugged, fed and subjected to a false digital “reality.” Waking enough to see this machinery, he’s able to unplug himself from it and escape to liberation. That is, when a man really looks, really observes for himself that he is mechanical, he has the possibility of freedom from the machine.

The Invasion offers us only an alert willingness to question the apparent, and a feverish determination to find a way out of the trap at all costs. The Island’s implicit advice is essentially the same. Vanilla Sky’s hero chooses to face a harsh reality as it is—to look it square in the eye, acknowledging the painfulness of seeing what is, and intimating that in the end the discomfort is freeing.

The young actress in Mulholland Drive seems to be on a search for some lasting, essential self—something beyond the ephemeral, and Lynch hints that there’s an essence to be found, eventually. In Waking Life and eXistenZ we’re directed to questioning the status quo, and our own assumed reality; we’re called to interrogate existence with an active mind.

In The Truman Show, Peter Weir goes farther. Question the status quo—then go on a journey, regardless of the difficulties and your own resistance, to the other side of the façade, where you’d better be willing to see not only the falseness of the staging, but your own.

There are, of course, films like the heavy handed but charming classic The Razor’s Edge, Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day and Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King, that address spiritual themes more directly. In what seems a play on ideas of recurrence from Nietzsche and PD Ouspensky, Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day is condemned to live the same life over and over again till he sees himself, finally, as he truly is–and sees the consequences of real choices. In The Fisher King the scripter uses Hermetic symbols like the grail to symbolize the path to redemption through renunciation of the ego. Jeff Bridges plays a vain talk radio host who inadvertently causes a tragedy. Tormented by guilt, he has to risk all, in an act of selfish love, to escape the suffering brought on by identification.

But films that express the human dilemma unconsciously, like a poignant cry from a child with night terrors, somehow strike more honestly to the heart of our condition. The sudden outpouring of films that show their heroes struggling to escape confinement by the walls of sleep makes us wonder.

We wonder if the human world is becoming restless in its sleep.

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