The Animatrix (2003)


­ In 1999, The Matrix (Dir. Andy and Larry Wachowski, now Lily and Lana Wachowski) was “the thing.” Before the heavy dominance of the superhero world, action and sci-fi reigned supreme at the mainstream box offices. And for a time, The Matrix series was a big part of the zeitgeist. Its impact spanned both the Western and Eastern hemispheres, and the disciples of this film spirit are legion (something producer Joel Silver actually predicted during its production). So now, after fifteen years since its final instalment, I thought it might be nice to do a retrospective of the series.

Regardless of your opinions on The Matrix series, the ethos of The Animatrix is one I wished existed more in film. The Wachowski’s, riding high off of the cult of long trench coats they had established with the series first instalment, set their sights higher for the rest of their stories. In the creation of its’ second and third instalments, they managed to birth this surreal side project. To create an anthology of tales to do with the world of The Matrix, but not specifically relating to its main canon of Neo. Oh, and they would all be animated, each done in a different style by exceptional animation directors from the Eastern and Western hemispheres. Shinchirō Watanabe, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Koji Morimoto, Peter Cheung, Mahiro Maeda, Takeshi Koike and Andrew R. Jones all contributed to the project.

It’s interesting when looking back at it, to see the path the Wachowski’s carved out with this series. Because honestly projects like these in cinema, especially today are practically non-existent. The genuine example of vision here is so bold I’m kind of awed by it. Ideas in film today are so psychotically and irrationally guarded, it’s amazing to see the wildly different directors continually chewed up by the Marvel Cinematic Universe into a rainbow coloured sludge. For the Wachowski’s to offer up their baby so to speak, to the whims of other visionaries and not just through contractual obligations, but through active enthusiasm and engagement (they collaborated on each film and wrote four of the nine total scripts, one being a two-parter) is fiercely brilliant, even if it had been a colossal failure.

Fortunately, the films themselves are not colossal failures. What really gets me is the range shown, the range of ideas and the range of how much they engage with the world of The Matrix. While all are connected in some way, some are much looser than others. In particular Beyond (Koji Morimoto) about a girl looking for her cat in a house where the physics of reality (read: computer simulation of reality) stop working, is not interested in “waking up from the conspiracy”. In fact if you didn’t know it was officially part of The Matrix canon, it could very well exist without that connection, and that goes for a few of these short films. But they don’t just stand on their own; they fly.

To start, the animation styles on display here are a brilliant showcase to the world of animation. Everything from 3D CGI of western animations, to classic anime styles, to stylised pastiches of film genres, to experimental and wild animation that tears and drips out of the screen. Honestly, the project deserves to be seen just for that. It’s just wild that a project like this contains so much aesthetic variation, even if that was the intended emphasis. The animation style in a film like Matriculated (Peter Cheung) is just one I don’t have any reference point to compare to, beyond the extremes of The Holy Mountain (1973, Dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky). What an insane but cool comparison point to have! Animation has always been able to transcend the limitations of reality, and this anthology is a testament to just how far animation has been able to do that.

And the films themselves take the material of The Matrix, something they’re all fans of, and pull the ideas and themes they’re interested in and mould them into their own films. Like comic book writers taking a long-standing character, and putting their own mark on them, the world of The Matrix becomes fertile soil for these films to grow from. While I appreciate some more than others, all of them contribute a unique spin on what makes them tick when they connect with The Matrix. Program (Yoshiaki Kawajiri) is a special example of this. One only connected through the concepts involved (i.e plugging into a simulated reality), it shows what clicked in Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s mind when he built his own personal relationship to The Matrix series and ideas.

Ultimately, The Animatrix is not essential viewing in regards to The Matrix series. Besides some limited promotional screenings, it never showed in cinemas and was released direct to video/DVD. While it provides context (some of it definitely important) to the main films, those main films still function without The Animatrix. But to skip by it is a mistake for every other reason not regarding to The Matrix. Short stories are underappreciated, and anthology tales like these have the opportunity to add texture to that world, but more importantly they are original, arresting at times and beautiful to look at. They are the work of some fine animation directors experimenting in a world under the supervision of its’ original creators, a working environment unheard of in cinema. This series of films is a beacon, and one you’d do well to pay attention to. Just make sure you’ve seen The Matrix first to really get the juice out of this one.


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The Animatrix (2003)

The Holy Mountain – ???


I mean…I don’t really…

How do I even start this one?

Words don’t do this film justice, so here’s the trailer. Which doesn’t do it justice either.

I don’t think there’s an inherent value in pushing limits for the sake of pushing limits. Call me crazy but I’m not a fan usually of extreme cinema, cinema which pushes visuals to such an overpowering degree that its messages and themes beyond the visuals have to be explained externally through directorial interviews. We watch cinema through a frame, and cinema which frames the illegible only transmits the illegible, or since the act of interpreting is done by both a director who makes the film, and the audience who sees the film, the audience interprets something completely different or unintended. The famous example of people starting their own fighting clubs after watching  Fight Club Dir. David Fincher, 1999) can show how even when transmitting an idea, it’s other parts, namely its irony at the whole premise of the clubs themselves can be lost.

The benefit of extreme cinema though, in all its forms some I like more than others, can show us how much power the image still holds over us, more so than the word which can only conjure up images in our head, but when actually seeing images beyond anything you ever imagined at the time, it reminds you just how visceral the cinema experience can be, removed from its usual standard gloss. Finally, its other benefit is that it again works as a transaction for the alternatives in the audiences, the more open you are in mind and spirit, the more you get out of these abstract, unconventional pieces of art. But that’s a rabbit hole that one can fall too far down into, one that leads to cinema I can’t stand (read this for my thoughts on an example).

I didn’t know what I expected when I went into this film, and I still don’t quite know what I saw as I sit here writing this. Nevertheless, this film needs to be seen to even be believed, let alone understood. It’s made me question some of those tenets I expanded on above. It’s also, fucking genius.

I have a post it note stuck above my computer that says “write something timeless or something radical of the time”. The Holy Mountain (Dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1973) is both and more. It is a film of genuine astonishment, a testament to the power of cinema in its most abstract, most peculiar and most visceral form. A film which contains the images of a true surrealist, someone who takes the real world and inverts it into itself in profound and weird and bizarre contortions and distortions. It is also a a film made by someone who has faith, in what that’s for you to find out and interpret and for Jodorowsky to know, and its definitely made by someone who’s spent a lot of the time on a drug induced spectral plane. To be able to create a cinematic capsule which can help truly transmit those visuals and those impressions, requires someone to have first experienced them, and then to be far more than competent (and just the right amount of crazy) at imagining them into the real world to be captured by a cinema camera.

It’s hard to talk about the film in non-mystical terms, as obscure as my language may appear. It’s just a work which exists on the symbolic level, and the reason why I love this film as opposed why I would dislike a work like this is because the visuals contained are not exploitative of the body. Usually when we watch films we might term extreme cinema, it is usually due to the nature of exploiting the body, either through graphic sex or graphic violence or graphic acts. It uses the body as a vessel to convey ideas, and as a result, the impressions are so strong of what we’re seeing directly done to a body that at least for me, it becomes a moot point as to what the images represent because that’s not the primary intention of the scene.

To bring it back down to Earth, imagine a film (or watch a film) like The Human Centipede (Dir. Tom Six, 2009) which the director himself said to be partially a reflection on fascism. Now regardless of how genuine that claim was, by having a concept which is so alien to the discussion of fascism (read: the entire concept of the human centipede), and one which is explored so graphically through the body, I just can’t help but shake my head ruefully. Everything can be art I’m a firm believer, but what makes good art is an understanding of the tools you’re working with. Graphic exploitation with indirect thematic links behind it will never properly transmit any other than graphic exploitation images.

But what makes The Holy Mountain different then, is that while there are certainly some strange and overpowering visuals throughout, they are visuals which on their own are overpowering through their composition, not through the exploitation of the actor’s bodies. The meeting of the alchemist in the rainbow room (what a sentence) is such an overpowering visual because of its aspects which inspire awe, not voyeurism. The bold colours, the thief moving forward knife in hand, the alchemist in one of the most amazing costumes I’ve ever seen. All those aspects and more help to build a cinematic experience, not sink us lower into the mud. Most of those who watch The Human Centipede or Salo are the morbidly curious, rather than the insane or genuinely mentally imbalanced, but morbid curiosity imbalanced against other things is depressingly empty.

And beyond that, beyond the pure immediate visual language, lays a film which is so rich in its themes and ideas that I just can’t help but get enraptured by it. It’s a film which I feel can be enjoyed how you want, whether just for the sheer absurdity of its visuals, or for the strong metaphysical backbone behind it. It certainly requires you to approach it with an open mind, and I can’t say how much you’ll get out of it, but at the very least I can say you’ll see some of the most interesting images ever put on the silver screen, just for their sheer imagination.And if cinema is the land of dreams, then what a dream this one is. And like all dreams, we need to do as the alchemist (played by Jodorowsky himself) says and wake up, “real life awaits us.” One can only dream for so long.


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The Holy Mountain – ???