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The Boston Phoenix Machine Dreams

Virtual unreality from Caligari to The Matrix

By Peter Keough

JUNE 7, 1999:  "Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream, Neo? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?"

So asks Laurence Fishburne's Morpheus of Keanu Reeves's hacker hero in The Matrix, just before unraveling the dream and sending Neo on the excellent adventure of restoring the real world. The irony, of course, is that it's precisely that kind of dream that viewers of The Matrix bought a ticket to experience in the first place, the kind of escape from reality the Dream Factory first started spinning out more than a hundred years ago.

Lately, though, with advances in computer and other technology, the product has gotten a lot more convincing, and the willing suspension of disbelief is accompanied by increasing anxiety. Along with The Matrix, a number of recent films have posed a paranoid premise not unlike Plato's Cave, suggesting that what we take for granted as the real world is itself a construct, a virtual unreality.

David Cronenberg's eXistenZ, the Spanish thriller Open Your Eyes, and such upcoming films as The Astronaut's Wife, Stigmata, Roman Polanski's The Ninth Game, and perhaps even Stanley Kubrick's mysterious last opus, Eyes Wide Shut (based on the Schnitzler novella Traumnovellen), play variations on this tantalizing, terrifying idea. Indeed, The Thirteenth Floor -- in which a team of computer entrepreneurs begin to suspect that the game they've been developing might be less illusory than they thought, and their own world more so -- displays its pretensions from the beginning, quoting as an epigraph Descartes's dictum "Cogito ergo sum." Small comfort if, as the philosopher speculates in his Meditations on First Philosophy, "an evil genius as clever and deceitful as he is powerful" has, like a crazed, omnipotent Hollywood director, spun out a grand illusion to deceive us.

Such an evil genius lay at the heart of the seminal horror film and perhaps the first to toy with the notion of virtual reality, the German Expressionist silent The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). Written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer and directed by Robert Wiene, it begins with the hero Francis telling his story, which flashes back to a provincial town composed of deranged, obviously painted backdrops. Francis's best friend is murdered, and Francis suspects the mountebank Dr. Caligari and Caligari's somnambulist Cesare of the crime. He pursues the doctor to the local insane asylum, where notions of sanity and insanity, reality and illusion, begin to tumble.

Originally, as Siegfried Kracauer points out in his classic book of film criticism From Caligari to Hitler, the screenwriters had intended their film as an indictment of insane authority. But the director, Wiene, attached a framing device that discredited the hero's point of view and vindicated the murderous tyrant. Believing that "the evolution of the films of a nation are fully understandable only in relation to the actual psychological pattern of [that] nation," Kracauer saw in the dream of Caligari a prefiguring of the historical nightmare to come -- Hitler and the Third Reich. (You can draw your own conclusions this weekend: Caligari plays at the Harvard Film Archive on Sunday.)

Back in America, everyone was more lighthearted -- the new medium of movies was seen not as a dark Rorschach test of the cultural psyche but as a grand amusement-park ride, a great escape. Buster Keaton took some of the same material as Dr. Caligari -- a romantic rivalry, a mysterious crime, blurred reality -- and made the comedy Sherlock, Jr. (1924), in which he plays a movie projectionist studying to become a detective. When he's forbidden to see his sweetheart after being falsely accused of theft, he applies his neophyte gumshoe skills to the case, but to no avail. Resigned to his fate, he returns to his day job, falling asleep in the booth and projecting a more heroic version of his own story.

Keaton's sleuth did not turn his detecting know-how to uncovering the source of his illusion -- and neither were audiences in the feel-good Jazz Age or the feel-bad Depression that followed likely to question the reality of their escapist fare. Not until The Wizard of Oz (1939) did the source and purpose of all the make-believe become an issue. Like Keaton in his projection booth, the great and powerful Oz proved to be not only a humbug but a dream himself. The technicolor hallucination collapses to reveal gray Kansas again, but this time Dorothy is wiser and stronger, ready, perhaps, to defend her home against the whirlwind of war to come.

A variation on this fantasy is Frank Borzage's Strange Cargo (1940), in which an Oz-like company of misfits, including Clark Gable's thief and Joan Crawford's woman of ill repute, sail off in a boat to escape a French prison island. Their wizard, though, proves to be an enigmatic Christ figure, and the trappings of a romantic adventure drop to reveal a Bunyan-esque allegory. The couple abandon their illusory desires and commit themselves to reforming their lives -- the kind of dedication that would resound more memorably in Casablanca.

By 1944, though, the virtues of service and sacrifice were beginning to surrender to selfishness and resentment. In The Woman in the Window (1944), Nazi exile Fritz Lang revived the "And then I woke up" plot device with ingenious effect. Edward G. Robinson plays a dowdy professor of psychology, a domesticated Caligari frustrated with his regimented conformity. After one too many glasses of port at his club, he falls for a woman whose portrait he spots in a store window. Romantic comedy fades to film noir as the professor pays for his fling by becoming the target of, and one of the participants in, a murder investigation. A similar scenario ensues in The Big Clock (1948, remade with a Reagan-era, Evil Empire twist in 1987 as No Way Out), in which workaholic magazine editor Ray Milland indulges in a lost weekend and must solve a murder he might have committed.

The lesson here, of course, is to behave oneself, but also not to examine things too closely. Freudianism was fashionable in the '40s and '50s, and central to that mythology is the story of Oedipus, who not only had family problems but also asked too many questions. In the diabolically clever Dead of Night (1945), a quartet of ghost stories is topped by an archly terrifying frame tale. An architect drives up to a country manor for a gathering. As he meets those within (each, of course, with his or her own story to tell), he tells them that it all vaguely reminds him of a dream. A sense of impending doom compels him to leave, but a skeptical psychiatrist in the group dissuades him, insisting that he needs to confront his fear. The poor man's resolve to learn the truth ends in a nightmare that is recurrent, inescapable, and wickedly funny.

Neither will the distance of centuries and light years be enough to escape the chaos of the psyche, as the astronauts who set foot on Forbidden Planet (1956) will discover. Based loosely on Shakespeare's The Tempest, this stars Walter Pidgeon as a Prospero-like scientist who, along with his Miranda-like daughter and a mechanical Ariel, is the sole colonist on a planet where what is imagined becomes real through the agency of a giant ancient alien machine. The only serpent in this Eden is a dormant monster who revives when Leslie Nielsen and his lusty starship crew arrive to ogle the scientist's daughter. The scientist learns to his regret that the ravaging beast is, in fact, his own id.

Oppression as well as repression loomed as a theme in the films featuring illusory realities that recurred throughout the Cold War, providing, in the Kracauer tradition, a secret history of our country's politics and psychology. The normality of suburban life conceals a plague of conformity in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), in which to sleep is to bring on the dream of an alien mass identity. In John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate (1962), patriotic virtues prove to be delusions cooked up by brainwashing techniques and a bad case of Oedipal attachment.

In Planet of the Apes (1968), errant astronaut Charlton Heston scorns the neo-primitive, environmentally sound civilization of our fellow primates but finds that the human version is no place like home either. The Caligari-like specter of authority, invoked by the generation gap of the '60s and the Vietnam War, proves grotesque indeed when portrayed on the naked body of Rod Steiger in The Illustrated Man (1969). And deceptions of the Watergate era are mirrored in Francis Coppola's The Conversation (1974), as a surveillance expert's life, upon examination, proves not worth living (or worth reliving, as last year's flawed Enemy of the State demonstrated).

With the advent of the Great Communicator in the '80s and the development of computer and other technology, the theme of deceptive realities in films became less political and more gimmicky and self-involved, even solipsistic. The new video-game fad got off to a false start with Tron (1982), which starred Jeff Bridges as a software designer who, like Keaton before him, gets drawn too deeply into his work. Like the time-traveling The Terminator (1984), not to mention The Matrix nearly two decades later, the bad guys prove to be the machines themselves. But Tron's graphics were too dinky, its resolution as bland as Bill Gates.

For a while, at any rate, the fancy new hardware and software couldn't beat the old stand-bys of concupiscence and guilt, the splatter of slasher violence, and the queasy vertigo of the recurrent dream. Hence the success of the franchise begun by Wes Craven with A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and its sequels. But increasingly in the '90s the participation required of dreaming, unconscious though it may be, has been supplanted by the complete passivity of the consumer. In Paul Verhoeven's underrated Total Recall (1990), Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a construction worker in a future fascist society who tries to escape the meaningless drudgery of his life by having the fake memory of a secret agent implanted in his brain. In Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days (1995), Ralph Fiennes plays a sleazy black-market purveyor of memory implants who gets in over his head on the eve of the millennium. And proving that surrogate lives are not the exclusive domain of the lower classes is The Game, in which billionaire Michael Douglas finds himself the client/victim of a company that transforms one's life into a blockbuster movie.

At least in The Game the hero has a life to call his own, unlike the figments that inhabit the synthesized universe of Dark City (1998), or the media-synthesized everyman played by Jim Carrey, whose life is sham watched by millions in The Truman Show (1998). In these films, as in The Matrix, eXistenZ, and the other recent virtual-reality romps, the alternative to the dream is either a reality too bleak to contemplate or nothing at all. As Puck assures us at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream, that hoary classic of airy nothing recently given a new habitation on the screen, "Think but this, and all is mended,/That you have but slumbered here/While these visions did appear." In other words, don't worry, it's only a movie. And that might be the scariest reality of all.

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