E16 -

Cory Massimino & Emily VanDerWerff unplug from the Matrix with us to discuss the red pill, the nature of reality, and much more.

Hosts
Landry Ayres
Senior Producer
Guests

Cory Massimino studies philosophy at the University of Central Florida. He is a Fellow at the Center for a Stateless Society. His research focuses on virtue ethics, market process economics, and anarchist political theory. His writings have appeared in
outlets such as The Guardian, The Independent, and Playboy. Cory lives in Florida with his wife and four cats.

Emily VanDerWerff is the Critic at Large for Vox.

The Wachowski sisters directed one of the most famous science fiction films ever that has influenced the entire genre since its’ release in 1999. The Matrix is much more than a movie about a hacker who discovers the real nature of this reality.

Why do you think the Matrix has stuck around as part of our cultural vernacular for so long? How did the Matrix change the sci‐​fi genre forever?

Mentions:

How The Matrix universalized a trans experience — and helped me accept my own, written by Emily VanDerWerff

Intro music thanks to Karl Casey @ White Bat Audio.

Transcript

00:02 Landry Ayres: I know why you’re here, I know because I was once looking for the same thing, a podcast, it’s the thing that drives us, the thing that brought you here. Well, this is your last chance, after this there’s no turning back, you take the blue pill the episode ends and you go back to believing whatever you want to believe, but you take the red pill you stay in Pop & Locke land and I show you how deep the podcast hole goes.

[music]

00:41 Landry Ayres: Welcome to Pop & Locke. I’m Landry Ayres.

00:43 Natalie Dowzicky: And I’m Natalie Dowzicky.

00:45 Landry Ayres: Joining us today to discuss the Wachowskis’ cyberpunk breakthrough, the Matrix, our Mutual Exchange Coordinator at the Centre For a Stateless Society and the Senior Academic Programs Coordinator at Students for Liberty, Cory Massimo.

01:00 Cory Massimo: Hi, there.

01:01 Landry Ayres: And the Critic at Large for Vox, Emily VanDerWerff.

01:04 Emily VanDerWerff: Hi.

01:05 Natalie Dowzicky: So the movie came out in 1999, what I really wanna know is, do you remember the first time you saw the Matrix, and what was your initial reaction?

01:15 Cory Massimo: I guess I’ll go first since I think I’m the younger one. So my answer is no, but ’cause I was only four when it came out. I don’t remember exactly when I saw it but it left a lasting influence on me. I study philosophy in college now and I’m not sure I would’ve if I didn’t watch the Matrix when I was… At a very young age, and it impressed on me that way of thinking. So I can’t remember the time exactly but I definitely remember its influence.

01:45 Emily VanDerWerff: Yeah, I saw it in theatres when it came out which I guess makes me old, I…

01:52 Landry Ayres: Not at all.

01:53 Natalie Dowzicky: Not at all.

01:55 Emily VanDerWerff: Yeah, I was… My senior year of high school is when it came out and I saw it with my then girlfriend, and she could not have been more bored and I could not have been more taken with it. And it spoke to something deep in me that I didn’t fully understand for many years, but the Matrix was a really formative movie for me. I watched it many times, it was one of the first DVD’s I owned, so I’ve seen this movie probably 30 times.

02:26 Landry Ayres: Wow. Why do you think the Matrix has stuck around as part of our cultural vernacular for so long? For instance, and we’ll discuss this a little bit later, the metaphor of the red pill or being inside the Matrix is still a very prevalent oft cited and referenced illusion that has now become somewhat of a trope that people use. What is it about the Matrix that you think has allowed for that?

02:55 Emily VanDerWerff: As somebody who looks at the history of movies, I’m gonna hop in here and say, when it came out there was nothing else like it, it was so original and so ground‐​breaking. I recently was on a different discussion about the Matrix and someone brought up a quote, I think, from Joss Whedon, I don’t remember for sure, but it was… It said, “the Matrix was so far ahead that people had to run to fill in the ground between what had been there and what the Matrix was.” So you see that happen every so often, somebody makes a movie that’s so groundbreaking that everybody else has to figure out a way to compete with that or best that or whatever. And then Star Wars is an obvious example. I think a recent one that’s had that sort of impact is Spider‐​Man: Into the Spider‐​Verse, in the world of animated films. So what is really fascinating about this movie is the way that it broke that new ground but also the way that it felt very much within… In the line of everything that had come before it. It’s a pretty straightforward hero’s journey, it just introduces a bunch of new concepts. And there cut’s often your first intersection with those concepts, your first time hearing about some of these philosophical, theological, and honestly, science fiction ideas, they had been elsewhere but this was the first time that they entered the pop consciousness in a big way.

04:23 Natalie Dowzicky: Jumping off of that, so I had only seen… I know shocker, I had only seen the Matrix for the first time recently in order to do this show, partially because Landry knew I would love it, he was like, “Well, we have to do a show on this now.” But so as I was watching it that was so obvious to me, I was like, “Wow, for this movie to have come out in 1999, a lot of the themes are very prevalent still in pop culture today even though at the time, shows like The X‐​Files were very popular.” They pulled a lot of themes from that show, also the Matrix pulled a lot from the alien movies. So there are a lot of things they took from pop culture that were popular at that time, and I just think they just catapulted themselves into the future of pop culture in the sense that they definitely defined what sci‐​fi movies and the sci‐​fi genre in general… ‘Cause there is even a point during the movie that I was like, “Wow, Westworld really borrows heavily from the themes in the movie.” so I just thought… I thought that was super interesting, especially since I watched it for the first time more recently, it was even more apparent how groundbreaking the film was, and from a thematic standpoint.

05:42 Landry Ayres: And you have no nostalgic connection to the movie. And so I was really interested to see what your reaction was because you came to it with fresh eyes, Natalie. It warms my heart to hear that you enjoyed it and found it as groundbreaking as the rest of us did when we saw it at the time. This movie was the first R‐​rated movie I ever saw, I believe, the R‐​rated cut. I believe honestly, that another Keanu Reeves movie was actually the first one I had seen, and it was Speed, but it was made‐​for‐​TV cut for it. So when I finally saw the unedited version I was like, “This is dirty.”

06:22 Cory Massimo: I think there’s a couple other vantage points, too, from which to look at its popularity. I agree with everything you all said, especially Emily’s points about it being in the history of film. The first is that, if you look at the other popular movies around that time from 1999, you have Office Space and American Beauty and Fight Club, and there’s a very distinct trend the Matrix was a part of, which was movies that seemed to be responding to the mundanity of the ‘90s and the boring drudgery of corporate office jobs. And all of those movies is very much examined and illustrated and attacking that from different angles. And then the other vantage point is that… I think one reason it became such a fixture in pop culture and how it became incorporated into our vernacular even by people who’ve never seen it. Natalie, I’m sure you recognised all the tropes and quotes and gimmicks that have been parodied and mentioned many times, watching for the first time this week.

07:26 Cory Massimo: But a part of what made it so lasting I think is that it’s not talking about fundamentally new ideas. Nowadays, we call it the Matrix, but 2000 years ago, you might have called it Plato’s Cave, or 500 years ago, Descartes’ thought experiment about the demon tricking us. It’s not believing in reality. And it’s just fascinating to me that I was able to make these really abstract ideas so accessible with these single terms and easy‐​to‐​understand concepts that those philosophical ideas have percolated into the mainstream, even when people don’t realise exactly where they started from.

08:07 Emily VanDerWerff: Yeah, I think I wanna piggyback of Cory’s point about those 1999 movies, some of the ones he listed, and then also being John Malkovich, Fight Club, and there’s a bunch of them that I have called End of History movies, after the famous Francis Fukuyama quote about how history had come to an end and capitalism had won, and we were just in for a glorious millennium or whatever. These movies are all about the fundamental emptiness of that idea, the fundamental emptiness of the idea that you can find meaning in consumerism and capitalism in like material gain for its own end. And I think that was a really fascinating trend, but it’s also interesting that the Matrix and Fight Club, the two movies that have the most of a genre gloss to put over that sort of idea are the two that seem to have lasted.

09:06 Natalie Dowzicky: Right. And 1999 was also just like… I wanna do a side note, a stellar year for movies.

09:12 Cory Massimo: Phenomenal!

09:12 Landry Ayres: Yeah.

09:12 Cory Massimo: I had looked up recently what’s been the best year for movies in the last 45 years, and 1999 was, I think number two or number three on the list. [chuckle] So when we say phenomenal, it’s been quite the impression over the years.

09:30 Cory Massimo: Yeah, you also in 1999 have the deeply philosophical Toy Story 2.

09:34 Emily VanDerWerff: Yeah.

09:34 Natalie Dowzicky: Oh, of course. [chuckle]

09:35 Cory Massimo: Classic film.

09:37 Emily VanDerWerff: Yeah. Oh my gosh.

09:37 Landry Ayres: I need the Toy Stories.

09:40 Emily VanDerWerff: It’s an intersection of a whole bunch of old masters who have some of their best films in that year, and then a whole bunch of new directors who are just starting out, like the Wachowskis, and it’s a really fascinating film year for that reason.

09:54 Landry Ayres: Right. It’s an interesting tipping point, not just from one millennium to the other, but it really is a gap that is bridged by these films that have had so much influence, but we’re still borrowing heavily from successful ideas as far back as Plato and as near as films like Alien, that I happen to notice the imagery very akin to Alien for the first time, actually watching it, this play‐​through, because it’d been a few years since I’d seen it, and the last time, I don’t think I had paid as much care in my viewing. And a lot of things popped out at me in that way, whether it be the generally pretty good and groundbreaking visual effects for the time, except for that shot when Trinity jumps through the window at the very beginning, and those horizontal… I was like, “Okay, I know the rest of them are very good, but this, it just looks bad.”

11:00 Landry Ayres: Emily, you have actually written an article for Vox, that we can link to in the show notes so that our audience can go and read it. But you call the Matrix by a very interesting title. You call the Matrix the eggiest movie ever made. Would you be able to explain this for our audience?

11:22 Emily VanDerWerff: Yeah, I’ve discovered that when I use the term egg, the cis don’t always know what I mean.

[laughter]

11:31 Emily VanDerWerff: I’m a trans woman, and one of the reasons that I was so drawn to the Matrix was because it was exploring a lot of these ideas that’s also led me to come out, and both of its directors, Lana and Lilly Wachowski, have come out as trans women since the Matrix was released. So when I say “eggiest movie ever made,” the term egg is used within trans circles to refer to a trans person who has not yet realized they’re trans, maybe suspects they’re trans, but is trying not to think about it too hard. The idea is that you’re trapped inside of a shell, like Neo and his battery container when he wakes up in the real world, and to break through that shell is to become your real self, is to be born or reborn, or however you wanna think about it, but also there’s a lot of struggle, there’s a lot of pain, there’s a lot of work that goes into that.

12:22 Emily VanDerWerff: But once you’re out, you could embrace the reality of who you are and what you need to do to live a happy, fulfilling life. And in that regard, the Matrix is so tapped into that idea. There’s a new documentary on Netflix called Disclosure, about trans representation in movies and TV. And I don’t think it’s very good, but there’s a section where Lilly Wachowski talks about the Matrix, and she’s like, “I wasn’t really sure. I didn’t really know I was trans at the time, I knew there was something up.” And now she goes back and looks at the Matrix, and is like, “Oh, okay, sure, of course, all these ideas were filtering into this movie.” And when you view this as a story about a trans person coming to terms with themselves, there are so many marks of that, like Agent Smith [13:09] ____ naming Neo, in essence by calling him Mr. Anderson, and then Neo says, “My name is Neo,” is such a trans moment. And when Trinity comes up to Neo at the very start of the movie, and it’s like he says, “I was expecting a guy.” And she says, “Most people are.” Again, extremely… You can imagine where the Wachowskis were drawing that from, even if they couldn’t. And the Matrix is a landmark of trans cinema because it’s probably the movie made by a trans director that the most people have seen. I can’t imagine there’s a point that’s more than this. And that has introduced a lot of these fundamentally trans ideas of how we conceptualise the universe to a huge audience.

13:50 Natalie Dowzicky: Now, Emily, that piece that you wrote came out with the 20th anniversary of the Matrix coming out. The first time you saw the Matrix, is that ultimately how you digest the film or did that not come until a few times after watching it and further introspection in that kinda stuff, that the film was very heavily speaking to the trans audience?

14:12 Emily VanDerWerff: I don’t know that I… I saw this movie when it came out in 1999, and I didn’t really start to have serious thoughts about my gender until 2003. I obviously had been having them, I just didn’t understand them in those terms because it was the ’90’s and trans stuff was so far off the centre of the radar, so I just had these vague notions of what was happening. And in 2003, I did some internet searches, and then it took me 15 years to come out. So that’s the Emily VanDerWerff story in a nutshell.

[laughter]

14:47 Emily VanDerWerff: But yeah, and I didn’t really start thinking about the Matrix as a trans narrative until after Lana Wachowski had come out. Now, there were rumours about her gender transition as early as the first Matrix sequel in 2003, and if you want a sign of how trans unfriendly mainstream discourse was in 2003, go look up some of those rumours because they are horrifying from the press at that time. But then, by 2012, when the Wachowskis made a really excellent movie called Cloud Atlas, she had come out publicly, and there was this move to revisit their work and think about it in terms of trans identities. And that was when the Matrix, for me, became a film that was explicitly about trans issues. Now, academic scholars had been saying that for over a decade at that point, especially people who are in the field of queer studies in some regard. But yeah, for me, that was when I had that breakthrough. And that was when I started to think, maybe there was a reason I watched this movie so many times when it came out. I so often realise that the movies I most loved when I was a teenager were about gender issues in some way that I didn’t fully understand, but completely tapped into on a subconscious level. And the Matrix is probably the biggest of those outside of maybe The Exorcist.

16:12 Landry Ayres: It’s an interesting idea and it becomes obvious upon viewing it, I think, in retrospect, that those ideas are embedded in the movie, and knowing about Lilly and Lana Wachowski as well. But I think what really makes it such an interesting idea is the fact that the red pill metaphor has been co‐​opted by men’s rights activists in general. I can’t even… Do either of you know when… For instance, I know the red pill subreddit has been around for several years, but I don’t know exactly when it started. So was there a moment that you think people latched on to that idea for that specific end? And how does the tension between these two competing ideas of what the movie represents complicate how you view the movie?

17:15 Emily VanDerWerff: So, I covered the Gamergate movement in 2014, and that was my first exposure to the red pill. And it was a lot of people’s first exposure to it, and from what I could find, it was relatively new. I’m sure that it had floated around 4chan and some of the other image boards that were propagators of the early alt‐​right. I’m sure it had been there before, but 2013, 2014 seems to be ground zero for it in terms of it becoming more of a mainstream meme on the internet. I do think that there is a connection between these two ideas, which I’m sure we’ll continue speaking about, of trans liberation and then also white men overcoming the strictures of capitalism to be their best selves, I guess. And I think it is this idea that something about society is false, something about society doesn’t seem to make sense, and you can place that target wherever you want. For a trans person, it is very much inwardly oriented, “I have to overcome the self in order to become myself.” But for someone who is a video gamer who feels this fundamental disconnect from societal meaning, you might look and say, “Oh, it’s the forces of neo‐​liberal capitalism that have a lean in feminist bent or promote social justice causes in terms of like, “ ‘If you will buy our product, that will make us happy.’ ”

18:45 Emily VanDerWerff: As a trans‐​woman, there are so many… We’re in Pride Month right now. There are so many people who release trans flag pride like beer cans, and that’s supposed to make me feel good about myself. So I think that there is that element of, those two ideas are connected in that way but they take vastly different ideas of what the target should be.

19:02 Cory Massimo: Yeah, I think, I think it’s part of a broader change in culture, too, the widespread use of the term “red pill.” ‘Cause at first, I don’t know exactly when it started popping up, but it was clearly appropriated by folks whose ideology, certainly the Wackowskis may not be particularly partial to, and I don’t think the Matrix is really speaking to at all, but it was appropriated by them. But now it’s become… It’s still used most prominently in those circles, but you also see it sometimes just in normal discussion on social media to refer to shorthand for opening your mind or reading a bunch of new literature that totally changed the way you view the world. And I think part of that is because the popularity that Matrix has gone hand‐​in‐​hand with the general decline and American institutions and government and media and academia and business, and it seems like the red pill thing latched on to that declining trust. And obviously, that declining trust can be channelled in more or less positive ways as we’ve seen in the last few years.

20:17 Cory Massimo: But I think the reason it’s caught on is part of that really real cultural change that the Matrix speaks to, which like Emily said… But it can be a metaphor for so many things, that’s part of why, like Emily said, the trans metaphor is beautiful, and there’s also neoliberal capitalism. So the Matrix to me is the most quintessentially anti‐​authoritarian film probably ever. Everything from the Rage Against the Machine soundtrack to the basic plot to the agents to everything. It’s probably responsible for me being interested in philosophy, but also me eventually being drawn to anarchism. It can certainly be interpreted in anarchist ways or anti‐​capitalist ways or just a million different ways to interpret authoritarianism of the state, or the gender binary, or whatever you want. So I think that’s part of why it’s latched on.

21:12 Natalie Dowzicky: So Cory had brought up this idea of trust, and I actually had written down a question earlier thinking about how mistrust is essential to the movie. And I was wondering if you guys could come up with some examples of how mistrust really defines and guides the movie.

21:31 Cory Massimo: Well, I think it’s important to… I think a lot of people see the movie, and they’re drawn into very conspiratorial thinking when they try to somehow apply insights to the real world. And that seems mistaken to me, but it also seems mistaken to me to go too far in the other direction and just say, “Well, the world is fine. There’s no one with competing nefarious interests trying to harm other people.” So it seems to me somewhere in the middle, you gotta find this [22:01] ____. I think the movie itself doesn’t really promote a conspiracy, [22:11] ____ much as this broad sci‐​fi fictional narrative, but you can apply those insights to real‐​world power struggles, I think, in an interesting way.

22:20 Natalie Dowzicky: Of course. Yeah, I wasn’t trying to suggest that the movie is a conspiracy theory in any way. I think part of it was I had… Before I watched the movie, we obviously did an episode on X‐​Files recently. And then I heard about how X‐​Files influenced… Had some influences in the Matrix. So then I was looking at it through that lens. ‘Cause I’m one of those people that watched The X‐​Files and thought it was a bunch of conspiracy theories, [chuckle] episode after episode, so I think I went in with a little lens of that. But I think the use of mistrust in the Matrix, in terms of when you question reality and you question who’s right and who’s wrong, and obviously who you can trust, I think is a central theme, but it’s not necessarily to… It’s not unrealistic is what I’m hinting at. It doesn’t lean conspiracy theory is all I’m saying.

23:20 Cory Massimo: Oh, no. I didn’t mean to suggest necessarily that you were implying it was a… But I see that a lot, I think, and I worry… And I think conspiracy theorising has become much more than popular than it used to be. And I think that’s part of this broader cultural shift that the Matrix has been a part of, even if I wouldn’t say it’s really responsible for.

23:37 Natalie Dowzicky: Oh, absolutely.

23:38 Landry Ayres: But yeah, I completely agree with the mistrust thing. It goes all the way from mistrust of the senses, that goes back to Plato. We can’t trust reality itself to more modern and then post‐​modern political and socioeconomic commentary about trusting establishment institutions. It’s really amazing how it explores all these things up and down.

24:01 Emily VanDerWerff: I actually… I wanted to talk about that, that X‐​Files connection, Natalie, because this is gonna sound like a tangent, but I promise it’s not. I wrote a book about The X‐​Files, and I interviewed Chris Carter extensively for that book, the creator of The X‐​Files. And he talked a lot about how in the ‘90s, there was this idea that… Again, because we had reached “the end of history,” we could trust government institutions, we could trust all of these things. But there was also this undercurrent of people who were like, “Wait, but can we?” Watergate was at that point 20 years ago. So there was this tension between the idea of placing trust in institutions and also doubting them, that the X‐​Files stepped right into the middle of. And by the time it came back in 2016, he was already troubled by the way that it had influenced real‐​life conspiracy theories and made conspiracy theorising so much more popular.

25:01 Emily VanDerWerff: So I think that the Matrix lives in that space in a way that is really instructive because it is about a conspiracy theory… Within the fiction of the film, it is a conspiracy theory that everyone is being made to believe that they live in this world that is not real. But it is also like a symbol of every conspiracy theory ever, which is, if you can just find the people in charge, you can defeat evil and make a better world. And we all know that’s not true, but on some level, we all want to believe the solution is that easy, and the Matrix really does present that. And I think one of the reasons people don’t like the sequels is because they complicate that idea, and I don’t wanna get in too far into the sequels, but I do think that’s interesting.

25:50 Cory Massimo: I think that’s a great point, Emily. ‘Cause I was wondering if we were gonna get into sequels, which I love anyway. I don’t care what anyone thinks, and they’re also… ‘Cause they’re totally…

26:00 Emily VanDerWerff: Me, too. Me, too.

26:01 Cory Massimo: Yeah, yeah, right. And Cloud Atlas is awesome, too. We should do another podcast about that, that’s the best movie [26:03] ____, and Sense8, that’s the best show. Just anything with the Wachowskis. But yeah, the sequels, without spoiling anything, the solution at the end of the day is not gonna be some very overt, like Emily said, us versus them revolutionary activity, but something a lot more peace and compromise. And I think it’s a shame because they’re even… Even some… The X‐​Files has been incorporated pretty explicitly into inspired conspiracy theorising. And the Matrix, too, people interpret… I think the problem is interpreting, like Emily said, the fiction itself is a conspiracy theory. People are literally being brainwashed in a way, and people want to apply that literally to the real world. You have total weirdos like Davidic, I’ve heard of him. Don’t look him up if you haven’t, there’s no point.

[laughter]

26:57 Cory Massimo: But he’s a very popular new age right‐​wing conspiracy theorist. And he has a whole thing about using the literal term “the Matrix.” And I think he even uses the coding green imagery from the movie to go off his popularity. And he has some weird story about… We’re all being fed false illusions and false reality from these lizard aliens on the moon, controlling us. And I guess that’s possible, I never really considered it, but it’s probably… It seems a little outlandish, and trying to apply the Matrix literally to the real world is where people go wrong, instead of just understanding it as a metaphor for sociocultural processes without prevailing narratives and ideologies dominate society and ultimately change. That’s the way it should be understood.

27:42 Landry Ayres: Right, I think it could very easily. And obviously has, I think as we talk more and more about conspiracy theories, you see how they all link back to similar ideas of mainly racist or anti‐​feminist hegemonic ideas that heavily lean towards anti‐​Semitic ideas. And all of these people that tend to view it from literal perspectives, they all follow and trace themselves back to very, very problematic and prejudiced ideas. But there’s also the way of viewing it that I think has gotten… They tried to get away from that, and there’s the view from a mythic analysis perspective, like a role in bards would suggest viewing not just the… Like if you’re looking at the world in a car, the power isn’t necessarily in what’s outside your windshield, but it’s looking at the windshield and the filter that creates the picture of what you’re seeing and frames it and primes you in certain ways.

28:52 Landry Ayres: And the Matrix also acts that way, as something like how Cypher, when he’s looking at the code and the Matrix, and Keanu asks him if that’s what it is, he says like, “Oh yeah, but I don’t even see it any more, I just see blonde, brunette, redhead, etcetera.” But even today, that trying to view and look at the lens rather than what’s beyond it can lead to the same ends with people that are viewing QAnon covid plandemic‐​related 5G conspiracy theories. They’re trying to see the lens, but it still leads back to the same sort of ideas. So I think, thinking about it in a conspiratorially‐​minded way makes me a little bit pessimistic about the effect that the movie has had, but I also know that that is not really what the film is about, it’s, I think, more of a product of the climate that has grown out around the movie.

29:55 Emily VanDerWerff: Yeah, I actually wanna turn to that from a film theory point of view, which is, there is this real dispiriting trend, I think, especially in the internet era, this has always existed, but the internet has made it easier to propagate, which is, “I want to know definitively what this movie means, I want to have all the symbols laid out, I want to have a concrete theory of the centre of this movie.” I often call it fundamentalist criticism because it is just this idea that there is a single answer that will explain the Matrix or Mulholland Drive, or a really recent example is the Jordan Peele movie, Us, which I think is a beautiful, brilliant series of symbols about what it’s like to be alive in America and be one of the upper classes right now.

30:38 Natalie Dowzicky: Great movie.

30:41 Emily VanDerWerff: And that is so often reduced to a single meaning for what it means. And there’s a famous film theorist named Siegfried Kracauer, who was born in Germany and emigrated to the US right before World War II. And he wrote a book called From Caligari to Hitler, which examines the German film industry from the era of FW Murnau in the late teens, early ‘20s to the rise of the Nazis. And his theory is that movies especially provide a window into a culture subconscious because so many people are making them and so many people have input on them. So our attempts to look for literal meanings in movies is just like… It’s self‐​defeating because in some sense they’re dreams that a country is having. So the Matrix is a dream the United States had, just like Us is, and they’re telling us things about how we see ourselves filtered through a number of people who live and work here. And I think that is a much more useful frame to apply to these movies than the idea that you can figure out the single meaning behind them, that I know nobody here is talking about, but is a really pernicious idea in film culture.

31:57 Cory Massimo: That’s really fascinating of a term, I think it’s really useful, Emily, fundamentalist criticism. It’s a shame ’cause I can’t think of a movie that should be interpreted less that way, that has a more open‐​ended, ongoing grappling with what the movie is saying. Like we touched on earlier, I’m a cis dude. The trans metaphor had to be explained to me a few years ago, I don’t remember when, but obviously, the light went off as soon as it did. And I was like, “Wow, this movie is about everything in the whole world, isn’t it?” It’s just a beautiful metaphor for everything you can imagine, and that was never apparent to me. So it’s a shame that such an open‐​to‐​interpretation film has created or contributed to that.

32:45 Natalie Dowzicky: Well, I think also what makes films like this so beautiful is the ambiguity of how you watch it or the lens through which you see and watch the film, because as I was watching it, I was also thinking about how the whole story was a metaphor for how we view social media now, too. So this idea of what is real and what isn’t? Like the life you live on the internet, like Emily was saying earlier, our internet culture has changed certainly how we consume a lot of things, and how people sometimes live separate lives online than they are in person, and that’s what… I saw the same thing while I was watching Westworld, and obviously, these have two very similar narratives in terms of what is and what isn’t real. And then another thing that struck out to me as well was that this idea that techno panic was so heightened at the time that this movie came out, so the Y2K and the fear of what the internet would bring.

33:50 Natalie Dowzicky: And I just think it’s interesting that that was the panic that was happening at the time period, and then I viewed it from a way that technology is allowing people to have these separate lives and not even recognise it. And there was another film that came out much later, and when I first watched the first, gosh, 20 minutes of the Matrix, I was like, “This is like I, Robot, they created machines that are gonna take over the planet.” And then it’s like, “Our technology has led to our own demise.” But again, going back to that idea that this movie was so ahead of its time, even when I was watching, I was thinking about the metaphors the movie had for social media’s role in our life.

34:33 Cory Massimo: That’s a really fascinating interpretation I’ve never thought of. I am excited to watch the movie at some point in the future. But I usually watch it like once a year, I’d say, and watch it with that mind.

34:42 Natalie Dowzicky: Yeah.

34:43 Cory Massimo: Yeah, and it really… It goes to… ‘Cause there’s a little interest… The movie is filled with these illusions and references, explicit or implicit, to history of philosophy concepts like we discussed. But one of the ones we didn’t touch on yet was, in the movie early on, Neo is in his apartment, and these people come over to his house to buy a code, and he, to give it to them, he takes a book off a shelf and opens it, and it’s empty, and it just has the code in there. And so the book, you see it briefly, is Simulacra and Simulation by a philosopher named Baudrillard, I think is how you pronounce his name. Forgive me if I messed that up. But now it’s really funny because I recently was able to do… Anyone who’s not familiar with a sociologist named Fabio Rojas, definitely look into his work, he’s a huge Matrix fan, he’s really thought about these movies a lot, and he also does a lot of work on the history of civil rights struggles and things like that. And I did a reading group with him for Students for Liberty, the organisation I work with, where we watched the Matrix movies and also read some literature associated with them, one of them being excerpts from Simulacra and Simulation, that book that’s in the movie.

36:00 Cory Massimo: And so the basic, just from the Baudrillard’s ideas, as I understand them, and they’re particularly complex or hard to understand, depending on who you ask, so certainly there’s room for interpretation. But the basic just is exactly what you were saying, Natalie, which is, at some point it becomes impossible to distinguish the real from the unreal. And when Morpheus is explaining the real to Neo later on, he said… He uses the term, “the desert of the real,” and that’s straight from the book, I believe. And the idea is that… To me, a very useful example to illustrate Baudrillard’s point is Disney World, when you’re there, what is artificial and what isn’t? Even your interactions with the cast members, there’s this artificiality that’s just standing in the way. And I’m not really shitting…

36:46 Cory Massimo: I live in Orlando, I like Disney World. I actually got engaged at Disney World, I love Disney world, but it’s useful to understand this idea. And it’s funny because I believe Baudrillard complained and said the Wachowskis didn’t understand his book, and then the Wachowskis shot back and said, “He didn’t understand their reference.” ‘Cause in the movie, the book is empty, so they were actually criticising him for offering another artificially constructed empty theory that doesn’t actually get us anywhere or explain anything. I don’t know, you can get to the weeds of what all this actually means.

37:14 Landry Ayres: Right.

37:14 Cory Massimo: And you can probably write a thesis on it. But it’s really fascinating, I think, for you to bring up social media in particular. It’s very cool that movie can, long before social media was a thing, can help us understand it now.

37:26 Landry Ayres: Right, and it’s… Especially what Baudrillard, I think, really emphasises in that book is he uses terms like “real,” and even instead of unreal, I think he uses the term “hyperreal and hyperreality.” So like you said, when you go to Disney World, there’s a layer of artificiality, but it’s so well constructed and maintained that people still get swept up in it. And while I’m sure there’s people that see through the disingenuous nature of it and are looking for the cast members, as they’re known, to be acting like real people, or to yell, “Andy’s here,” and watch them fall to the ground in the Toy Story World, like people do. There’s a lot of people, and it’s a lot of people that I know, buy into it completely, and they love it because they can lose the other reality and feel as though they are home in the hyperreal.

38:26 Landry Ayres: And there was another example that Baudrillard really, really used to explain this, that we studied back in… Many, many years ago, in my wise days of graduate school, where he talked about specifically the television depictions of the Gulf War and how the… Even more than the war in Vietnam, the constant, daily bombardment of images of what it was like in the Gulf War constructed a hyperreal picture of what that conflict was actually like, which had very real repercussions on the later war on terror, and what it could represent.

39:09 Landry Ayres: And even if it’s not necessarily conspiratorial, it certainly has that tone, and like we said, it traces itself back to racist and very, very problematic ideas that are anti‐​globalist and nationalistic, that I think have influenced these foreign policy and leaning on defence and war as a means of establishing power in a global economy. So I think it’s really, really interesting to bring up hyperreality in relation to this movie, especially when you can read it in so many different ways, which for some movies I would get really, really frustrated with, ’cause I would see it as lazy. But for the Matrix, being able to read whatever you like and slot in different lenses of seeing it actually, I think, makes it even more enjoyable and interesting.

40:11 Natalie Dowzicky: Well, Landry, I think it’s actually pretty interesting that you bring up this idea of hyperreality and its effects on not only our culture but how we view things like war or suffering or misery, ’cause one of my favourite quotes from this movie is Agent Smith is talking, and I had written it down, so hopefully I don’t butcher the quote, but he’s explaining how they made the Matrix and the first one failed, and that no one would take to it, but he goes on later to say, “But I believe that as a species, human beings define their reality through misery and suffering, so the perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from, which is why the matrix was redesigned to this, the peak of your civilisation.”

40:57 Natalie Dowzicky: “I say ‘your civilisation’ because when we started thinking of you, it became our civilisation, which is of course, what is all about evolution, Morpheus, like the dinosaur. Look out that window. You had your time, the future is our world, the future is our time. I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here, it came to me when I tried to classify your species, and I realise that you’re not actually mammals, every mammal on this planet instinctively develops an equilibrium with the surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and you multiply until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There’s another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what this is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet, you are a plague and we are the cure.”

41:47 Natalie Dowzicky: I just thought that whole scene, when he’s talking to Morpheus, Agent Smith is talking to Morpheus, was just excellent. Do I believe that human beings are a cancer? No, but I just thought the metaphor is going on throughout this paragraph, and this whole idea that we define our reality through misery and suffering, which is interesting why you brought up the hyperrealism that we used to show on TV of war, I think is not wrong. I don’t think a lot of these points are necessarily incorrect, but I think they’re also heightened for entertainment, but I just loved that part of the movie, and I thought that quote was just really beautiful in terms of its elegance and its negativity at the same time. [chuckle]

42:34 Cory Massimo: Yeah, I think part of the brilliance of that scene is… I think it’s the first time it really shows us that the machines, and in particular, Smith, has his own thought‐​out perspective on the world, and it’s not just some sort of robotic, automatic reaction to things. And it’s even a perspective that when he puts it that way, he can sound very compelling, and humans can even participate in that perspective if they were persuaded by it, and in a way it humanises this non‐​human robot.

43:10 Natalie Dowzicky: Oh, absolutely.

43:10 Cory Massimo: It’s really, really a fascinating scene by expanding the character of Smith and giving him more depth, too.

43:16 Emily VanDerWerff: I wanna just mention two points, the first of which is, it is very strange that this movie has become a calling card of, I would say, the alt‐​right, because the Wachowskis themselves are very famously, extremely leftist socialists, and occasionally we’ll see a news story about some protest against capitalism or Donald Trump or something, and Lana Wachowski will be quoted because she’s there, joining in the protest, and they have certainly given money to those causes and things like that. So it is interesting to me the degree to which this movie has been interpreted by so many different people as being about their cause and about their fight, even to the literal opposite of its director’s intentions. I’ve always found that a fascinating thing that happened with this movie because I think you can project whatever you want to onto it.

44:18 Emily VanDerWerff: And I also wanted to mention the character of Trinity, who was a real groundbreaking character in terms of female action heroes, and she is this badass who kicks people in the face and can float around in the sky and do all these amazing things. And she ultimately ends up an adjunct to Neo’s story, and that created this whole other type of character who is the badass lady hero who ends up playing a subordinate role to the guy who is ultimately the chosen one. And that, in and of itself, became a pernicious trope, but this is the first example of it, and you can see why everybody wanted to copy it because she’s so cool. She’s so cool.

45:02 Landry Ayres: Yeah.

45:03 Cory Massimo: Yeah. Also, I don’t know. Since like Cory already told you all, I watched this movie for the first time this week. I think I loved the Trinity character before the love story element came in, because I was like, “Oh, they were doing so good with her character, she’s strong, she’s a badass.” And then I was like, “Oh, they just fell into such a common movie trope. I was upset that the love element even came in.” I understand why I did ’cause of the Oracle and all that stuff, but I was just… I don’t know, I guess I was hoping for more ’cause I just thought I just saw her in a different light before that, and then with a love element and then she becoming a subordinate character, I was like, “Dang. She’s so cool, she almost had it, but… ”

45:49 Landry Ayres: Yeah, and it’s not even like she falls in love with Neo in addition to having some other goal, ’cause you could see how if she was a little bit more of a three‐​dimensional… Not that she’s two‐​dimensional I would say. There’s definitely dimensions that… There’s been progress in the depiction of women, and she is a step in that, but that becomes the totality of her story art. And the oracles, even destiny that she provides her is centred around Neo, so it’s like, “You really got so close. And it just makes me sad.”

46:24 Natalie Dowzicky: Yeah, I agree.

46:29 Cory Massimo: I don’t really disagree with what any of you all are saying, but I just wanna say that scene and the penultimate fight when the camera zooms in on Trinity and then she’s holding the gun to the agent’s head and she says, “Dodge this,” and it zooms out and it’s slow motion, that seems awesome, just so you know.

46:41 Landry Ayres: Oh, I agree. I agree.

46:43 Cory Massimo: I love that, I love that moment. I love it, it’s great. [46:45] ____.

46:46 Landry Ayres: And I think that’s something that I forget, and when I watched it, I was like, “Oh, that was a great moment,” is at one point, she really does save him at some point. So it’s not like she is… She doesn’t serve a purpose. It’s that the purpose is to save the man who ultimately is the one that is viewed as the, not wrongly, the white saviour of the story line.

47:11 Natalie Dowzicky: I think, like Landry said, there has certainly come a long way in progress in terms of how the roles that females play in movies, and I think this one was certainly still groundbreaking, it wasn’t necessarily that she was the damsel in distress, right? So we’ve come a long way from that common movie trend, especially for female characters, but I just wanted to see a little bit more from her.

47:38 Landry Ayres: And now for the time in the show where we share all of the other media that we are consuming during this time, this is Locked In. So, Natalie, Emily, Cory, what else are you locked into?

47:52 Cory Massimo: Well, during this locked‐​in period, my wife and I have spent a lot of time watching, rewatching old amazing shows, not really old, like Lost and Mad Men. If you all haven’t seen those, those are just the best shows ever.

48:05 Landry Ayres: Lost, it’s so good.

48:05 Cory Massimo: In terms of… Oh yeah, Lost is great. But in terms of new stuff, we’ve been watching this Netflix original called Dead to Me, with Linda Cardellini from Freaks and Geeks. I don’t know if y’all heard of that. It’s really good. It’s two seasons in. It’s a dramedy and it’s just full of weird twists and turns and hilarious dark comedy. It’s genuinely one of the most unique shows I’ve seen, like nothing… I usually see something’s coming in shows, but this show always catches me off‐​guard.

48:38 Cory Massimo: And then in terms of non‐​media projects, I wanna… It’s just everyone check out the Centre for Sales Society. We’re publishing this month at a mutual exchange symposium, I didn’t organise it but my colleague Emmy did. And that’s just a discussion with a bunch of anarchist thinkers writing essays and back and forth, and it’ll eventually be put into a physical book for everyone to have.

49:02 Natalie Dowzicky: Very cool.

49:02 Cory Massimo: And this topic is on economic calculation and markets and prices and communal economic calculation and all that good stuff, not really relevant to this issue.

49:14 Cory Massimo: And then, what I’ve been working on personally, if people are interested in my work, like I said, I do philosophy and I do a lot with anarchist political theory, virtue ethics, risk‐​healing philosophy, that kinda stuff. And I’m actually working on a book chapter and hopefully, a full‐​on book about Murray Rothbard, who is a controversial, rightly so figure, but who I see some value in, and it’s called Two Cheers for Our Party, [49:41] ____ that helps explain our perspective. So be on the look‐​out, that’ll be in the Rutledge Anarchist Handbook and forthcoming in the next few years. So yeah, that’s what I’m working on.

49:52 Emily VanDerWerff: I have so many things I’ve been consuming recently. I wanna shout out a couple of things that you can watch right now on streaming if you have Hulu. Actually, you can rent this anywhere, but it’s free on Hulu. The movie, Shirley, is fantastic. It’s about Shirley Jackson played by Elisabeth Moss, who I genuinely believe to be the best actor of my generation, just across the board, she’s a brilliant performer, and this movie gets at what she’s so good at, which are these tiny micro expressions that indicate the little emotions that are flitting through her brain at any given time. It is just… It’s part of one of my favourite subgenres of film, which is mid‐​20th century white people yelling at each other in a big house. I just love those movies.

50:39 Natalie Dowzicky: Yes.

[laughter]

50:39 Emily VanDerWerff: And I also would like to shout out the HBO series, I May Destroy You, which is a British show that HBO is a co‐​production, I believe. It’s from the writer/​actor, Michaela Coel, and it is about the aftermath of a sexual assault, and it is somehow so much less grim than that sounds. I don’t wanna say it’s life‐​affirming because it’s not, but it is about the ways that women can move through that and try to find a way to cope in that situation. And finally, I wanna shout out the Netflix show, Babylon Berlin, which consumed most of my time in quarantine. It is a German series about Berlin in 1929.

51:29 Natalie Dowzicky: Interesting.

51:30 Emily VanDerWerff: And it’s a police trauma, but not really. It has musical numbers. It has one of the best will-they-or-won’t-they romances I’ve seen in ages. And it is a really brilliant, symbolic story about the rise to power of the Nazis and how blinded other people in Germany were to what was happening until it was well too late. The third season came out early this year, the fourth season supposedly goes into production later this year. Though, who knows? With all the covid of it all, but it’s such a brilliant show. Oh, I’m reading War and Peace. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, good book.

52:08 Natalie Dowzicky: Oh, yeah.

52:10 Emily VanDerWerff: As to what I’m working on, there’s way too much but I will plug my work at Vox, at vox​.com. You can find me on Twitter @emilyvdw, and my scripted fiction podcast, Arden’s second season drops July 6th. So I have been working on that endlessly. I think I’m really proud of it and I’m really hopeful that people will check it out.

52:35 Natalie Dowzicky: Oh, that’s very exciting. We’ll have to check that out for sure.

52:39 Landry Ayres: It’s very good. Everyone will enjoy it.

52:40 Natalie Dowzicky: Yeah. So, things I’ve been consuming while literally locked inside have been… So at lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org, we’ve been working on an extensive website redesign, and we have finally gotten into the last stages of that. We’re just doing the normal bug hunting, so while I hunt for bugs, I had Outer Banks on in the background. It’s just a new Netflix show. I enjoyed it partially because there was little thinking that had to go into watching it. I could enjoy it while not Googling like, “Did I understand this episode correctly? Like I had to do for Westworld.”

53:20 Natalie Dowzicky: And then other things I’ve been watching, I did watch Just Mercy, because Amazon Prime had it for… Amazon Prime still has it for free, I believe. And the other thing, I started reading, Little Fires Everywhere. I told myself I have to read the book before I watched any of the shows on Hulu with Reese Witherspoon and… Oh gosh, I’m gonna blank on her name. The woman from Scandal. What is her name?

53:49 Emily VanDerWerff: Kerry Washington. Kerry Washington.

53:51 Natalie Dowzicky: Kerry Washington. There it is, there it is, Kerry Washington. I’m only about 100 pages into the book, and it’s pretty good so far. And I have taken a break from my World War II fiction novels, and Little Fires Everywhere is a nice break from that, so.

54:06 Landry Ayres: I just recently finished my first ever complete watch‐​through, I’d seen the first season, I think, once before, but I actually took the time to sit down and finish Avatar, The Last Airbender last week. It was great. We’re gonna start Legend of Korra soon. It has been very, very interesting. For those of you who may not be familiar, it is a anime‐​inspired show, a cartoon, though, created by Nickelodeon that is…

54:35 Natalie Dowzicky: Really?

54:37 Landry Ayres: Yeah, it was on Nickelodeon.

54:37 Natalie Dowzicky: How did I not know that?

54:39 Natalie Dowzicky: I don’t know, because you’re missing out. And it’s in a shockingly complex and nuanced children’s television show that tackles issues such as war, genocide, mastering the elements, and bending fire, earth, water and air, refugees, all types of very, very interesting topics, it has an awesome redemption art for a character that I think is very well done. And for a children’s show is just really great. So if you have kids and you wanna give them a great show to watch or you just like animated shows in general, where there’s awesome fight scenes and interesting soft magic, I would highly recommend it.

55:24 Landry Ayres: And then there is a second series, The Legend of Korra, that I have not started yet, but is set in the same universe. I have also just started reading a book called How to Wreck a Nice Beach by Dave Tompkins, and it is a history of the vocoder, which you might recognise from music by people like Afrika Bambaataa or a lot of electronic and funk music starting in the ‘70s, and was a progenitor to the sounds that autotune became. In fact, a lot of people thought Believe, Cher’s song, it was actually the first to be released with the autotune software, a lot of people thought it was a vocoder, originally. But it was actually developed by Bell Labs in the 1930s as a way to compress and then send and reset the size, speech over the transatlantic cable that was then funded by the US military and used by people like FDR and JFK to speak in covert lines and was used by the military, and then was reconstituted as a musical instrument.

56:43 Landry Ayres: And so it’s a really, really fascinating history book about this device that is… It’s not super technical, and it’s written by Dave Tompkins, who writes for Slate and a lot of other different outlets. But I highly recommend it if you are interested in production, music, war history, or technology or anything like that.

57:02 Cory Massimo: I just wanted to piggyback, Landry, ’cause I also finished, for the first time, Avatar last week, that’s a really weird coincidence. I forgot to mention it ’cause I wasn’t watching it the last few days. But yeah, that show is amazing, totally second everything you said, it’s very philosophical, with Buddhist themes and Eastern religion themes, and I love shockingly complex children’s programming, of course, who doesn’t? Yeah, and it’s also one of… It probably has some of the best politics of a lot of cartoons I’ve seen. There’s an episode where we’re meant to root for a prison riot against an imperialist government. It’s awesome. It’s awesome stuff.

57:38 Landry Ayres: Thanks for listening. If you wish we were all in the 1999 Matrix style simulation and not the malfunctioning 2021, make sure to let us know on Twitter @popnlockepod. Make sure to subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. We look forward to unravelling your favourite show or movie next time. Pop N Locke is produced by me, Landry Ayres, as a project of lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org. To learn more, visit us on our newly redesigned website www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.