Did you understand the 1999 film, “The Matrix?” Millions of people left the theaters confused by its premise, its execution, and its implications. Many of its fundamental philosophical questions have been dismissed over the last fourteen years in a haze of fascination with its technical brilliance and scholarly debate about the appropriateness of the form for its discursive engagement. In other words, should most people consider questions of the meaning of their lives in popular movies?
The Wachowskis pushed the question more directly in “V for Vendetta.” The 2006 film channeled the global rage at the Iraq War and the horror of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina into persistent forms of digital activism like Wikileaks and Anonymous. Unlike “The Matrix,” “V for Vendetta” energized its challenge for political introspection with conclusions about the relationships between individuals and their governments. As deeply as “The Matrix” engaged philosophy,“V for Vendetta” reimagined politics. It was a Declaration of Independence for the twenty-first century.
In 2012,“Cloud Atlas” extended this conversation between the film industry (inspired by interdisciplinary academics) and the global public. If you haven’t seen this independent film, it is worth your time and repeated viewing even more than other lengthy engagements like the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and the “Harry Potter” series. “Cloud Atlas” presents the story of life on Earth across five centuries through the perspectives of several souls, reincarnated generation by generation. Showing how life inspires resilience through innovations in memoir, music, journalism, film, religion, and language, this movie attempts to cure people of the disease that the daily media has become.
Since the peak of cable television in late 1990s with the celebration of Michael Jordan’s power on ESPN, Monica Lewinsky’s influence on CNN, and Tony Soprano’s authority on HBO, world audiences, especially Americans, have become increasingly consumed by a fragmented, virtual world of crisis and catastrophe. Neil Postman’s important book, “Entertaining Ourselves to Death” diagnoses the problem, but misses the consequence. It is not death that perpetual panic creates; it is psychological slavery and spiritual dissolution. The Wachowskis, better than most artists, continually fight the confusing dissonance people imbibe every day. Janelle Monae and Erykah Badu have connected a new generation to these efforts through the song “Q.U.E.E.N.” Families, schools, and churches need to follow the examples of creative intellectuals and determined artists to revitalize the promise of democracy around the world for the next generation.
This summer, groups ranging from the Oxbridge Academic Programs to the Art Sanctuary in Philadelphia to the Center for Multicultural Affairs at Villanova University will host programs to achieve this goal. Will the Norristown area community join these efforts?
Dr. Walter Greason is the author of Suburban Erasure: How the Suburbs Ended the Civil Rights Movement in New Jersey.