Keanu’s Neo-Classical Cool Lightens Overloaded Matrix

Andy and Larry Wachowski’s The Matrix Reloaded has opened with so much cult-driven advance fervor online that a reviewer who presumes to evaluate the film would seem to require degrees in philosophy, theology, cosmology, computer science and metaphysical cybernetics-or is it cybernetical metaphysics? I’m tempted to dismiss what some of my esteemed colleagues regard as drivel with a remark that Alfred Hitchcock delivered to a sobbing Ingrid Bergman on the set: “It’s only a movie, Ingrid.”

Still, I must give the Wachowski Brothers more than a little credit for expanding an innovative sci-fi conceit into a three-film franchise bonanza that somehow resonates more strongly in 2003 than it did in 1999. Back then, their commercially untested film crept into our consciousness, as well as into the hallowed halls of academe, though no one at the time anticipated how provocative and how profitable a venture it would turn out to be.

As it happens, I haven’t the time, space or inclination to follow all the speculations unleashed by the two Matrix movies, from Plato’s Cave to the Book of Daniel and beyond. To begin on a less cosmic plane, one of the more miraculous achievements of The Matrix Reloaded is the critical resurrection of Keanu Reeves, playing the Christ-like figure of the computer programmer Neo. Since his admirably stoic performance in Speed (1994), Mr. Reeves has constantly been ridiculed for his perceived underacting and gawking lack of expression. I belong to the tiny minority of critical opinion who sees in Mr. Reeves some of the potent minimalism once deplored in Robert Mitchum (by James Agee, no less) as unacceptable somnolence-and reinforced, of course, by Mitchum’s 1948 arrest for marijuana possession. Clint Eastwood was similarly dismissed by Pauline Kael for not being juicily and Methodically ethnic enough. How times have changed: One of Mitchum’s most admired roles is once more on view in the revived Jacques Tourneur classic, Out of the Past (1947), and Mr. Eastwood has likewise been revisited in Sergio Leone’s recently restored and re-released The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). This is not to say that a Keanu Reeves retrospective is looming anywhere on the horizon.

The point is that there are so many potentially embarrassing traps for a less restrained actor in The Matrix Reloaded that I was happy Mr. Reeves was on the premises. For example, there’s a grotesquely pseudo-biblical tableau of primitively costumed extras delivering assorted goodies to Neo’s doorstep-Neo being the “chosen one” that Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) has designated as the savior of humanity from the life-sapping embrace of the Matrix and its nonhuman creators. Mr. Reeves turns away from this unwanted worship with a slight but not excessive expression of embarrassment. It is just right for this level of shameless allegory.

And it’s all that Mr. Reeves can do to keep a straight face when the marvelously malignant Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) materializes again and again to perform duels of balletic levitation. The Wachowskis are not the subtlest satirists around, and if it wasn’t for their rowdy but sound instinct for pacing, one could say that they were hopelessly out of their depth in illustrating their ideas. What good pacing does in this movie is to keep the audience from thinking too much about all the gaps-what we don’t see of the two worlds at war with each other.

Curiously, what seems to be the biggest influence upon the Matrix movies has seldom been remarked upon: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), with its dreamy urban skylines, though the Matrix movies lack Lang’s class-conscious dialectics pitting capital against labor. Marxist critics at the time blamed Lang’s second wife and co-scenarist, Thea von Harbou, for the “silly” resolution of the conflict through the power of Love. The Wachowski Brothers never quite explain what the heroically unprogrammed inhabitants of Zion are doing with their “freedom” besides indulging in the occasional rock-concert-like mass orgy-a scene more appropriate to Cecil B. DeMille’s cautionary depiction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Neo’s passion for Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss) is a union of martial equals, though one not lacking in erotic consummation. Yet it isn’t Love that can save Neo, Trinity, Morpheus and the rest of Zion, but essentially terroristic acts against the Matrix, the reigning superpower on the face of the earth. The Matrix Reloaded even includes a fleeting picture of George Bush to hammer the point home.

Ultimately, there can be no reconciliation between Zion and the Matrix: Humankind must choose between living in freedom or in a program of artificial reality provided by its masters. At the moment, as much as it may feel like we’re being programmed by our ever-more-intrusive media, we are still confronted with the more problematic chasm between life and death-a chasm the Wachowski Brothers sidestep by making their lead characters seemingly indestructible and thereby immortal. This is what makes the Matrix continuum a minor entertainment, despite its arresting images and conceits. I liked this movie and can recommend it with a clear critical conscience, but it never moved me even half as much as Steven Spielberg’s A.I. (2001), a film in roughly the same genre.

Melodious Weepie

Chen Kaige’s Together is the kind of full-bodied, emotional entertainment that used to come out of Hollywood long ago, but usually without the degree of political and social acuity one finds in Together . Mr. Chen’s opus may bring an adult viewer to the verge of tears, but without suffering a post-credulity hangover for having cried about something that was transparently sentimental and manipulative.

The story is centered on a gifted 13-year-old provincial violinist named Xiaochun, who is played by real-life violin prodigy Tang Yun, thus justifying the enormous amount of music on the soundtrack-no dubbed play-acting here. Xiaochun is taken to Beijing by his father, Liu Cheng (Liu Peiqi), who wants his son to become a famous concert violinist. Their first encounter with the mercenary musical world of the big city does not bode well: Xiaochun is denied admission to the music school because his father does not have a Beijing residence permit. In desperation, Liu Cheng seeks out a reputable but eccentrically reclusive violin teacher named Professor Jiang (Wang Zhiwen) to give his son violin lessons for the great challenge facing him.

In a few short scenes, the director establishes a pattern of corrupt privilege in contemporary China. We are accustomed here in the United States to hail the growth of capitalism in China as a positive virtue without a serious downside. Mr. Chen begs to differ in Together , a celebration of endangered communal feelings of the “old” China. Professor Jiang comes to embody these feelings when he warns the boy that he can teach him to play with feeling, but that it’s no guarantee of worldly success. This is not good enough for the boy’s father, who abruptly changes violin teachers to speed up the boy’s concert career. This leads to a temporary rupture between father and son, but in the end Xiaochun takes up residence with the well-connected and power-savvy Professor Yu (played with sweetly self-flagellating irony by Mr. Chen himself).

In the meantime, the boy has been nurturing a remarkably steadfast crush on a slightly older girl named Lili (played by the director’s actress-wife, Chen Hong). This creates additional complications for father, son and the two dialectically opposed music teachers-at which point the film takes a wildly Dickensian turn, with long-buried secrets coming to the surface. Xiaochun’s father becomes the ultimate emotional linchpin of the narrative; the initially clownish country bumpkin gradually escalates into a majestic manifestation of paternal devotion such as I have not seen on the screen since Ermanno Olmi’s The Tree of the Wooden Clogs (1978). As the French would say, it is to cry and to cheer. Together is nothing short of a melodious masterpiece.

Family Secrets

Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans was rapturously received at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and one can see why. As much as you may deplore, in principle and in the abstract, the practice of invading a family’s privacy with a camera, searching relentlessly for their deepest, darkest secrets, you will probably still find yourself unable to turn away from this cruel spectacle: a family twisting and turning in the foul wind of a tabloid scandal, where one or both of the Friedmans may be guilty of the dreadful charges filed against them-or perhaps somewhat less guilty than charged.

Mr. Jarecki doesn’t give us any final, conclusive answers, but it certainly isn’t because the Friedman family is at all camera-shy. Indeed, much of the footage in this devastating piece of reportage was provided by the Friedmans themselves, both before and after that fateful Thanksgiving in 1987 when the police charged into their Great Neck, Long Island, home to arrest Arnold Friedman, a respected teacher in the community, and his youngest son, Jesse, on charges of abusing some of the local children who took private computer lessons in the Friedman family’s basement.

The raid and subsequent judicial details appeared in all the New York papers, but I can’t remember ever having read about it, though several of my Long Island acquaintances say they remember the case. One reason that the story may have been muffled is that both Arnold and Jesse Friedman accepted a plea-bargain deal that avoided a public trial where the allegedly abused children would have been called to testify in lurid detail, during a period when aggressively suggestive questioning of children by law-enforcement officers and psychiatrists created a witch-hunting atmosphere and widespread paranoia across the land.

Leaks to the press suggested unusually abusive, seemingly satanic rituals that were not supported by any physical evidence, parental complaints or hospital visits. Still, the groundwork for the case was established earlier, in a postal sting operation that brought to light Arnold Friedman’s trafficking via the mail in international child pornography. The children involved were all boys.

The disintegration of the family followed, with Elaine Friedman, the completely disenchanted wife and mother, turned against her husband and their three sons, who were always much closer to their father than their mother. For her part, Elaine refused to attend either trial, and even said publicly that she didn’t know if either her husband or her youngest son was innocent or guilty of the crimes charged against him.

I gathered from some random comments that the Friedmans weren’t very prominent in this affluent community. Arnold Friedman was a public-school teacher, after all, not a banker or a stockbroker, and his house was very modest by Great Neck standards. Arnold seems to have been bisexual all through his marriage; but he managed to stay in the closet until all hell broke loose, and then he acted as if he were guilty of something, though of what we may never know-Arnold died an apparent suicide while in prison, leaving a $250,000 insurance policy to his son Jesse, who was paroled in 2001.

Elaine remarried, and the other sons went on with their own lives. We are left with the wreckage of a marriage and a family, but it’s not a tragedy, because there is no catharsis and no flaw is ever acknowledged. Still, this film is not to be missed, because it is so painfully and profoundly human.