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Altman, The Matrix, The Mod Squad
What Was The Question?

by Gary Gordon
(published in the L.A. Free Press, June '99)


     Life is filled with questions. So it should not be surprising that fine storytelling raises questions, and lame storytelling doesn't.
     What about these movies? Are they the kind of stories that raise questions?
     On the face of it, all three are conventional movies: Cookie's Fortune is a murder mystery in a small southern town, The Mod Squad is about undercover cops going after the bad guys, and The Matrix is about freeing humankind from slavery.
     So what makes The Matrix cool, Cookie's Fortune fun, and the Mod Squad a virtual waste of time? As Mark Twain or Joseph Goebbels would say, it's all in the telling, and storytelling goes way beyond Spin.
     Robert Altman is fun. Whether it's with M*A*S*H, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville, Brewster McCloud, The Long Goodbye, the overlooked Buffalo Bill (with Paul Newman, Burt Lancaster and the usual ensemble cast), the really overlooked Quintet, Thieves Like Us, the misfire of Health, and the movies many current movie-goers are more familiar with: The Player, Short Cuts, Pret A Porter (Ready To Wear), Altman is always pushing the boundaries of storytelling, challenging the viewer to think, to interact with an internal dialogue, to get involved, to put yourself in the story, all as he masterfully puts you in the place of his story and proceeds to target and attack our flawed and often corrupt institutional representations of our cherished ideals.
     M*A*S*H (the movie that introduced Altman to most Americans) asked us to look at war through the eyes of some very skilled, very humorous surgeons, whose mix of cynicism, idealism, integrity, and imagination seemed to suggest that it was only that mix that was going to get us through that dark period in our history when our Lone Ranger foreign policy in Vietnam contributed to new extremes in the use of Napalm, cluster bombs, and events like the My Lai massacre. (It is from this high moral ground we now preach.)      McCabe & Mrs. Miller deconstructed the Western as settlers build a western town. Nashville raised questions about our relationship and fascination with celebrity and, perhaps more importantly, with our attitude about assassination. The Long Goodbye gave us one of the most brutally penetrating portraits into the life and ethics of the pop-icon private detective (and contains one of the most brutal scenes in film history, totally outdoing and undermining with typical Altman wit and elegance what passes for violence and gore in most overblown films); Buffalo Bill re-examines the potent mix of reality, celebrity and show business (you really oughta rent this one if you've never seen it) explored recently and with less insight in Wag The Dog, and Brewster McCloud-- well, is it a retelling of the Wizard of Oz? An essay on race and class in America? Or...? Suffice it to say it continued his tradition of turning convention upside down.
     Altman specializes in asking the follow-up question to Jefferson's declaration: what other truths do we hold to be self-evident, and should we?
     Cookie's Fortune, although a more light, more fun, and more conventional movie than some of his really challenging 70s work, continues his examination of American values, conventions and icons, challenging our grasp on truths.
     Set in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and starring Glen Close, Charles S. Dutton, Ned Beatty, Julianne Moore, Liv Tyler, Chris O'Donnell, and many more fine actors, and written by Anne Rapp, Cookie's Fortune is at it's heart an interrogation of our justice system. It is a story about people who know each other and their response to the apparent murder of one of the beloved members of their community. It's about suspicion and the dismissal of suspicion. It's about friendship, love, domination and submissiveness, expectations, and, especially relevant these days, circumstantial evidence. It asks how do we know what we know, and how do we know who we know, and aren't these questions fundamental when we decide to discover truth and achieve justice?
     And for those looking for which institution Altman turns upside down, you have the choice of two: Cookie's Fortune is a fish story. And it's a blues song. And like any good fish story, it's got its measure of exaggeration and a whopper of an ending; and like any blues song, it's got its tragedy, lowdown mean-ness, unrequited love, irony, humor, and some twisted, clever rhymes.
     In addition, it's southern, it's literary, it's gothic- all of which is to say it moves at its own pace, sets it own terms, unfolds its own way, and the more you bring to it, the more you'll get out of it. It's inventive, amusing, whimsical, and not without moments of the trademark dark humor present in any Altman film.
     Would that any of that were the case with The Mod Squad. At a time when some were fondly recalling the patriotic hymn of Barry Sadler and others were gleefully celebrating Altman's M*A*S*H, there were those who were embracing a television series about three wayward youth who looked cool and spoke the youth vernacular who agreed to become undercover police operatives-- The Mod Squad. (Fanfare music in.)
     For those who recall the reality of the late 60s and early 70s, the years of FBI agents infiltrating legal dissident citizen organizations (like the Vietnam Veterans Against The War), the years of COINTELPRO; the years of cops growing long hair, becoming narcs and busting people who smoked and dealt marijuana, the idea that three young people working for the cops could be anything but Pigs was farfetched.
     Now that we have all grown up to realize that our opposition to the Vietnam War was wrong, that Spiro Agnew and John Mitchell were right, that Michael Milk'em and not the Furry Freak Brothers was the appropriate role model, we realize that Pete, Linc and Judy were indeed heroic.
     Ooops. Was that a bad trip? Did I just slip into Bizarro World for a moment?
     Meanwhile, some studio executive decided to resurrect this ridiculous premise, then proceeded to miscast the movie, ignore the need for a story, overlook character depth or development, and hope that Claire Danes' looks, Omar Epps' emotionless visage (a la Wesley Snipes when he phones it in), and Giovanni Ribisi's humor would be enough. Not far out. Not right on. Not solid.
     To top it all off, this movie can't even avoid the most basic cliché: the bad guys are corrupt cops. No, not cops who shoot innocent Black people in Riverside and New York City and elsewhere. It's the movie version of bad cops: cops who get in bed with drug dealers. This story is not about truth, not about justice. It's not engaging. And except for a couple of moments, it's not entertaining. The only question it asks is: how many more 60s TV shows will be made into bad movies?
     At the opposite end of the storytelling spectrum, through the looking glass, is The Matrix, which raises the question: what if all this, what we call life, is really just a computer program? Further, it asks: what is real? And suggests the answer: not this. Not what appears to be life. In reality we, humankind, are a food source for-- No, not aliens. But I don't want to give the whole thing away.
     "You have the look of a man who believes what he sees because he's expecting to wake up," says Morpheus to Neo after Neo has followed the woman with the rabbit tattoo, and from the opening frames we are thrown into a world where the reality of everything, the meaning of everything, the cause & effect of everything and the relationship of everything to everything else is thrown into question.
     This film is imaginative, witty, clever, entertaining, amusing, suspenseful, exciting, visually breathtaking-- it combines elements of ancient religions, eastern religions, Greek mythology, Christianity, science, science fiction, Bladerunner, Brazil (the movie, not the country), Bruce Lee, Buckaroo Banzai, GQ & Details, Alice In Wonderland, Brother From Another Planet, Kung Fu, and it does it intelligently. It doesn't make hip references to these themes and philosophies and visual icons, it incorporates them in a compelling story about life, the meaning of life, faith, fate, love, devotion, strength, tyranny and freedom.
     In essence, it declares: don't be a sandwich for the Corporation. Take your journey.
     Frankly, it does everything Star Wars pretends to do, but better, with more resilience, with more guts, with more depth, with more finesse.
     And for those of you who wonder at the casting of Keanu Reeves (as I did), it works. Reeves is Neo, the young adventurer, bewildered, challenged; he is perfect as the defiant lad who, like those lads from the great Greek epics to The Three Musketeers to Star Wars (and like Alice), must set out on a journey, influenced by teachers, targeted and sought by villains.
     With Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus, the leader, sensei, guru, trainer and pirate ship captain who has the ability to discover the chosen one, and a strong supporting cast that includes the enticing Carrie-Ann Moss (is she the Mary Magdalene character, or Annie Oakley?), the sneering Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith (one of the sentient programs), and the always engaging Joe Pantoliano (guess which Biblical character he plays); written and directed by the Wachowski Brothers (Andy & Larry), this film has the makings of redefining science fiction film as Bladerunner did, and as Die Hard did for action movies, and as There's Something About Mary has done for comedies.
     Don't settle for bullshit explosions from countless second-rate directors, and second-rate Joseph Campbell hooey from George Lucas. The Matrix is the real deal.
     (And speaking of Star Wars, what about that Star Wars trailer? Does anyone else feel a chill watching those armies and hearing that rhetoric as Serbia commits genocide and as we bomb civilians from the sky? Or, to paraphrase Pogo, are we all the Empire?)      
     


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