Celebrating One Year of the Criterion Channel

The Criterion Channel is like the bible of streaming services for people who give a damn about movies. For the sheer variety, history and global diversity they offer they are truly the crown jewel among the lot. When they rose out of the ashes of FilmStruck’s demise they picked up the torch for serious movie lovers and obsessives and for the past year they have proudly showcased a wide array of films and an almost limitless back catalogue of over one thousand movies, much of which will be there for the foreseeable future. When the streaming service began in 2019 they offered up a free movie every week that anyone could watch. It didn’t matter if you had a subscription. It gave audiences a little taste of what to expect from the channel. For cinephiles these choices were very “movies-101”, with the likes of Chungking Express (1994)and Stalker (1979)being so entrenched in the canon that I can remember them being mentioned among the all time greats when I first started getting into movies in 2004 at the perilous age of thirteen years old. But in addition to those movies they introduced viewers to Elaine May with her film Mikey and Nicky (1976), Karel Zamen’s delirious animation in The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1961)and there was even room for wuxia with John Woo’s Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979). As a lead-in for the channel you couldn’t ask for much more than what Criterion presented, and I had a wonderful time writing about each of these films as they aired to both highlight the channel and what I’d be doing with my patreon. I’m particularly proud of a prose based piece of writing that was published in conjunction with Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970). To this day I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, and in the process I fell in love with Loden as not just a filmmaker and an artist, but as a woman, as I explored her life and dreams in I am Wanda (1980).

Wanda (1970)

When the channel officially launched they did so while highlighting a set of noir films from Columbia Pictures and on the one year anniversary of the Channel they have brought those films back, along with some sister films to expand on the initial mission statement of what the Criterion Channel would offer. One year out, what I remember about the experience of watching most of these films is slipping away into the shadows and haze they offered in the deep dark of quiet nights while being snuggled next to my husband. I fell asleep for brief moments during almost all of these films, but I subscribe to the notion that falling asleep during a movie is a gracenote of a sort: a gift of comfort. But I was taken with some of these films and in particular I strongly remember the proto-Fargo-ness of Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall (1957), and the way Kim Novak announced herself in her debut performance as Lona MacLane in Pushover (1954). At the time I wrote about Novak’s performance:

She’s seductive, like a drug, and coils around the viewer until you find yourself nodding along to every last thing she’d request or demand, and as a woman, that power is tantalizing. I’d love to be as beautiful as Kim Novak, with an aura around me that was enviable in the way truly beautiful people are. Watching Kim Novak gives one the same feeling of perfectly applying a smokey eye-shadow and the intoxication that comes with artistic femininity.”

Of everything that I’ve watched on the Criterion Channel in the past year the most significant of these viewings had to be when I dove into the collaborations between director Nicola Roeg and actress Theresa Russell. In particular, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Bad Timing (1980) and Insignificance (1985), both of which had an effect on me that could be described as life-changing. Art offers a subjectivity that allows me to wrap myself around certain scenarios and characters with the context of my own life, and as a result film can sometimes act as a model of communicative therapy for myself. In these two films Theresa Russel plays a stylized version of Marilyn Monroe (Insignificance) and the self-destructive Milena (Bad Timing). In both she’s playing these characters that audiences will recognize as corpses before they can be anything else. In Bad Timing, Milena’s cold, grey flesh is shown before any other part of her story and the film works backwards to show how we arrive at the image of death. It’s a familiar one of bad men, and external forces trying to control someone who is doomed to this world. In Bad Timing Theresa Russell’s performance echoes that of Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks. In my essay on Bad Timing I wrote that Russell plays Milena as if she is old before her time and that she’s so very tired of everything. She lights the flame at both ends while drowning in whisky amid all the frustrations of the prodding, shitty men she’s been surrounded by her entire life. I found companionship in the way this character saw the world and the way that Theresa Russell brought her to the screen. I don’t believe I’ll stop thinking about her anytime soon. These films aren’t currently available on the Channel at this time, but they’re both available on DVD through the Criterion Collection.

Insignificance (1985)

Earlier this year my husband and I set out on a quest to watch all of Akira Kurosawa’s films, and it is something that would have been much more difficult to accomplish without the access of the Criterion Channel. To this day, they still have the vast majority of his films on the service, and while we’ve been going through his filmography slowly it has allowed for us to really marinate in what his films have to offer and to watch Kurosawa evolve. He wasn’t the director we all know and love in the beginnings of his career, because he was working under heavier censorship rules and forced to support the Imperialist government of Japan at the time by inserting various bits of propaganda in all of his war-time pictures. The most fascinating aspect of this period of the master’s work is how he smuggled in his own political feelings through a subtle usage of form that he had complete control over by the time of1944’s Sanshiro Sugata Part Two. I wrote about one scene that I found especially startling given the time and conditions of its release:

When Sanshiro fights an American boxer named William Lister a lesser director would have configured this encounter as an us versus them skirmish, but Kurosawa uses it as an opportunity to understand one another through their combat techniques. It’s a masculine interpretation of formed relationships, but one that has ultimately always worked in cinema. Sanshiro watches Lister’s body and Lister does the same. They’re both counter-fighters, and especially in the case of Judo, it’s what the entire martial arts technique is built upon, and when Lister does eventually lunge, Sanshiro catches his arm. Lister tries to wrangle himself free, but Sanshiro steps with him so he can’t wiggle loose. Kurosawa frames this in a wide-shot, and because we can see the entirety of their movement we can see the relationship they have to one another as fighters. While Lister is trying to free himself of Sanshiro’s grip the Judo technician is watching Lister’s feet and when Lister steps in too closely Sanshiro positions his foot so he can use a hip-toss into a throw combination maneuver and win the fight. The Japanese audience cheers and the American audience defeated, but Kurosawa makes the dangerous decision to have Sanshiro help the American man to his feet.”

One of the greatest curatorial strengths of the Criterion Channel thus far has been its ability to showcase specific actors and actresses from Old Hollywood. They currently have a spotlight set on the delightful Rita Hayworth, but in the past they’ve offered up a bounty of features from the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Burt Lancaster, Gary Cooper, Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck. The actor among those that I focused on first was Barbara Stanwyck. At this time last year I wasn’t very familiar with her body of work or her talents as an actor, but I quickly fell in love with what she does, especially in pre-code films from the likes of William A. Wellman, where it wasn’t strange to see her trading fists with the likes of Clark Gable. I wrote about Stanwyck last year:

Stanwyck has a few trademarks that are consistent throughout all of these films. She’s a master of body language and always perfectly conveys everything her characters mean through the way she carries herself. Frank Capra and William Wellman are good directors, and have numerous films featured in this set on the Criterion Channel, but the draw in these movies, the real author, is Stanwyck. When watching these movies certain patterns emerge. I love the way Barbara Stanwyck walks whenever she’s playing a character who isn’t a Spring daisy. She saunters with her hands in her pockets (POCKETS!). Her hands are hidden away downstairs, her elbows bent, obviously taking up more space, but what impresses me most about the way that she walks is that she doesn’t do so with her hips, but her shoulders. She’s angular. Most women who are movie stars, walk with their hips first. They sway, which emphasizes her form, but the way Stanwyck walks is triangular, uncommon, rare, it’s a subtle statement of star-power and dominance itself. My eyes are drawn to Stanwyck when she walks, because she carries the rest of her body in tune with that movement. Her eyes are steely, squinted, almost in the same way that made Clint Eastwood famous many years later. Cowboy shit. You get the sense that you could hit her with a car and she wouldn’t even move. But I wouldn’t categorize the way she walks as masculine either, because the way she moves doesn’t come with a socialized casualness in the same way men tend to move. She walks in a way that is still very cognizant of her surroundings, as if she’s scheming in her own private thoughts. If I saw Barbara Stanwyck walk into a room I would know immediately that she was someone of importance, because she doesn’t move like anyone else. She moves like Barbara Stanwyck.”

The Night Nurse (1931)

But it was Bette Davis who had the biggest emotional impact on me as a viewer, as critic and as a woman. Now, Voyager (1942) had a palpable, almost life-changing effect on me as I watched Davis’s character struggle to ultimately let go of the past and try to move forward with her own life despite the abuse she had grown up around. What’s so extraordinary about Davis in this role is that even when she does recover you can still see the weight of the past in how she carries herself, how she talks and how she moves. She never lets the character become completely confident of herself, and it is a daring choice on her part, because it would have been easy enough to turn on the fire and embers that she is capable of emitting. Instead, she opts for something softer, reserved, tired, but never at the expense of the euphoria that she feels when the character does ultimately get control of her life. It’s a performance I’ll be thinking about for the rest of my life, and even having only watched the film a month ago I’m ready to return to it, study it and feel it again and again.

There’s all this wound up confidence in Davis, because she knows she can do anything, and delivers as much time and time again. Her work in The Letter (1944), which mostly captured with her back facing the camera is a master-class in how to move ones own body to tell a story. For all the criticism that Davis sometimes gets for being a little too much or a little too explosive and larger than life much of her work strikes me as subtle, or rather, the aspects of her ability and talent that I gravitate towards are things that others don’t seek out as much when thinking about acting. I watch Bette Davis and she makes me want to try out acting. She makes it seem like the most fun anyone could ever have even when you can see all the work she puts into her characters. While watching Davis you can see that she never lost the child-like notion of “play”, and because of that, the time that she does spend with child actors in a film like Now, Voyager feels all the more powerful. After witnessing many of her films through the Criterion Channel I now worship at her altar, and throughout 2020 I have a loose plan to watch many more of her features. I can’t get enough of Bette Davis, and the absolute best thing one can say about the Criterion Channel is that through their curatorial work they will light the spark for others to dive deeper as well. Cinephilia is a mindset of discovery, about people, places, time periods and history, and Criterion’s streaming service is without a doubt the kindest to these principles of learning. It is one of the best things to happen in all of movies in the past year, and now that we are all stuck at home for the foreseeable future it has only illuminated for me further that they are a torch carrier for cinema.

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Courtney Love in The People vs. Larry Flynt

The  image that most people had of Courtney Love in 1995 ran parallel to how she presented herself during the MTV Video Music Awards that same year. She picked fights with Madonna, who claimed Courtney just wanted attention, and  later she flashed her ass to paparazzi on her way out. She was a fuck up  who appeared to be wasted 24/7, but the image of Courtney Love has  always been more complicated than surface level assertions by reporters and papparazzi. That’s been the way with her ever since Vanity Fair published a hit piece on Love  asserting that she did heroin while she was pregnant with her soon to  be daughter, Frances Bean Cobain. No one’s ever really taken the time to  empathize with her and the agony that lay within. That part of her  image, was saved for the stage when Hole performed, “Violet” that evening. 

Courtney  stood there wearing a tattered pink baby doll dress. Her eyeliner  blackened beyond all recognition standing out against her ghostly pale  face. The paleness and her body language in those opening seconds of  silence are haunting. She approaches the microphone and in a droning  voice, she says this one is for Kurt and Kristen and River and all the  other lost souls of the 1990s. She stares out into a sea of people for a  moment before clasping the microphone and glancing downward, pulling  herself up for the performance and all it takes for Courtney to come alive is a few chords. She screams, throws her body around, barely  keeping her voice in tune and scraping against the limits of her lungs and throat like nails on sandpaper. It’s an astoundingly physical performance. After the better part of a year of grieving the one person she loved above all  else, this is a catharsis. She hurts and every single time she screams it echoes out beyond  the veil of a TV screen, begging you to listen to this torrential  release of everything she’d been keeping inside. “Go on take everything”  as if a dare to the world that she’s already been dealt her worst blow,  what else could you possibly do to hurt me? Damaged girls feel seen. During this song she doesn’t seem wasted, but she carries the wounds of the past in her body  and during “Violet” it feels like she may fall apart or combust at any  moment. When the song’s over she drives away at a few repeating chords  and howls “god bless your soul” before hurling her guitar into the drum  kit. There’s a stray image of Courtney caught by the cameras before they  cut to break where she grasps up at her hair with a pained expression on her face. What do you do after the music stops? What can you do when the music isn’t enough? 

Courtney  Love is both these images. She carries that in her persona in  everything she does. The damaged feminine, a tattered angel, someone  with a deep insularity and loneliness because no one’s ever been there  for her without it falling apart. No one ever expected much different from Courtney Love in 1995 other than the rockstar death wish she seemed to carry with herself, but that all  changed for a brief moment when Love become more than just a musician in  Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt. 

Courtney  Love had dabbled in acting a bit before performing in Forman’s film,  but it was mostly relegated to side characters in Alex Cox films during  the 1980s where she was given little space to make much of an impact.  This was years before she had created an image of herself as the frontwoman of Hole and been dubbed the Yoko Ono of grunge, by shit-head rock fans who blamed her for the death of her late husband Kurt Cobain.  Courtney Love always wanted to be an actor, but after years of confirmed drug usage and suspected substance abuse in other instances she was a risk to hire. Milos Forman fought for her, because he knew she was perfect for the role of Althea Flynt and had a unique screen presence in her own right. Forman put up one million dollars of his own money to insure that she’d be drug tested and meet the strict guidelines of  Columbia Pictures while the film was being shot. He took a chance on  Courtney Love and it paid off.

In a way  Courtney Love was made to play Althea Flynt, because Althea and  Courtney lived similar lives. They both had trouble in their upbringing  from abusive parental situations and went in and out of foster homes until they decided to strike out on their own in an uncaring world. They  both lit the flame at both ends in their work and home-life and both were brilliant at what they did. By not so secretly coding the Althea  Flynt character as a veiled version of Courtney Love it allowed Courtney  to inject her own real life personae, built upon anarchic femininity, into the character.  The type of acting that’s built by creating a  unique personae is extremely difficult to maintain and while old Hollywood was built upon the strength of all the greats who understood their own brand and how to convey that outwards in an appealing and  seductive manner it wasn’t nearly as ripe in the 1990s. MTV fundamentally changed how we perceived screen stars with the advent of the music video which allowed for musical artists such as Madonna and Prince to become the new screen legends of their time. When you take the  MTV model and apply it to rock music iconography and status built upon  controversy, such as the case with Courtney Love, it hitches the  performance to a set of expectations one can expect. It was shrewd casting on Forman’s part to crystallize this notion into a movie which  tapped into everything that made Courtney Love a dangerous, seductive,  damaged force of womanhood in the mainstream. That Courtney got to funnel all of this into her character and play off Woody Harrelson’s  portrait of Larry Flynt as a walking talking middle finger was an added  bonus. Love and Harrelson are mesmerizing to watch, because they  shouldn’t be lead actors. They’re too weird, too specific, and in Love’s case too prone to explosiveness in her own life, but then Althea and  Larry shouldn’t have been iconic public figures either.

The first time we see Courtney Love in The People vs. Larry Flynt she’s  stripping in Larry’s club, and shoving her ass into the camera, just like at the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards. It’s an inauspicious debut for her in mainstream movies, but it’s also totally her. You don’t get the sense that she’s a special actor until the following scene when Althea and Larry discuss the legality of her stripping in his club due to her being underage. They have immediate chemistry and unlike her stripping,  which is purposefully robotic and unsure, her seduction of Larry in his own office is another story. She has him in the palm of his hand, making sure to lean into her own sexuality, words slipping out of her mouth like crushed velvet and gesturing to Larry that she’ll be legal “just like that, in one second” before snapping her fingers. She has him,  completely and then she asks him a question: “if he ever fucks the girls in the club?” and that’s enough for Larry. He’s done for. In this scene Courtney Love completely overwhelms Woody Harrelson, which is exactly the point. Woody has the hyper-flustered body language of someone with an erection under his desk and Courtney plays the room with the knowledge that by making him feel that way she’d be in complete control.  Courtney Love would usually play the guitar with one leg hiked up on an amplifier in a power stance. She didn’t care if you could see up her  dress. She was putting her foot down that she owned this room and if you  looked it’s because she wanted you to. She brings that to Althea who  goes from merely getting Larry hard to marrying him in no time flat. She gets what she wants. She falls in love easy, but you get the sense that she wanted that to happen too.

In these opening  scenes between Althea and Larry Courtney Love’s image as a rock star and a fuck-up that we’re more familiar with isn’t used in her technique, but she does so later. It’s light and day between the confident, boisterous, powerful woman we see running Hustler magazine along with Larry Flynt and the addict Althea would become later in the film. Both parts of Courtney’s image are used in The People vs. Larry Flynt,  because the rise and fall structure of biopics is perfect for rock-stars  who live floating on the ether of both at all times, and in Love’s case  she does so with the amplifiers cranked up to eleven. The difference in her physical stature when Althea slips into drug usage as a side  effect of Larry’s paralysis after a failed assassination attempt is  staggering. Courtney Love becomes the Courtney Love we all know well,  albeit one with black hair instead of her usual blonde. In court-rooms she laughs inappropriately, becoming child-like and seconds later  vulgar. She can’t keep herself up on two feet and stumbles, shifting her  body language to that of a wrecking ball. She did the same things when  trying to interrupt Madonna’s interview at the ’95 VMA’s. Courtney Love  finds that part of herself and weaponizes it in the performance which blurs the line between reality and fiction in Althea. By contrast,  Harrelson opts for a transformative angle, changing the cadence of his speech and his own physicality when Larry becomes bound to a wheelchair.  Woody’s choices are big, and Courtney’s introspective ones meld into a relationship that feels lived in and dynamic and as a fan of acting it is exciting to watch, because they’re working in completely separate modes, and both are doing it so well. 

No one really expected Courtney Love to survive the 1990s. Everyone just  assumed she’d go the way of Kurt one of these days and opt for oblivion  instead of perseverance so the final image of Althea having drowned in a  bathtub is a startling one, because it’s an image that could have been real in Courtney Love’s own life. Because Courtney Love opted to create Althea as an extension to herself this final image, becomes shocking and unnerving. The  blurring of reality and fiction between Courtney Love and Althea forces that image to reach deeper, beyond the movie and become contextually relevant to Love’s own public and artistic image as a tortured woman martyr. No such model for who Courtney Love was had ever happened before in rock music, and the typical ending of rockstars going out before their time, for Love, only ever happens in The People vs. Larry Flynt. The most shockingly brilliant thing about Courtney Love’s performance is that she changed her image, by using every last bit of what people thought of her before burning it to ash as Althea Flynt. She opts to  survive. She only died in fiction. 

originally posted 11/26/2018

The Question of You: Destiny in the Work of the Wachowski Sisters

Revolution must happen. Morpheus (Laurence Fishbourne) knows this in the depths of his soul. He knows the world was taken from humanity so he tries to find his own personal Jesus to change the course of history. God, by way of the Oracle, has already told him that “the one” would save Zion from the corruption and decomposition of Earth. Herein lies his faith. When Neo (Keanu Reeves) accepts the responsibility of joining a guerrilla military operation to overthrow the machines he joins the religion of the underclass, and like Christ he has to find his divinity within his own humanity. Choice and belief is paramount towards any religion, idea or decision and for Neo the choice is between a rejection of the truth, and therefore a complicity in the violence of the oppressive class, or the potential hard life of the soldier-activist-god to make both himself and the world a better place. Neo chooses to believe  

Lily and Lana Wachowski are filmmakers who choose to believe as well. Their belief, like that of their heroes Neo, Morpheus, Trinity, Speed Racer, Corky and Violet, is in the creation of their own destiny or their own meaning in life. When asked about  viewer experience  during The Matrix in 2012 Lana Wachowski responded[1]i “Can the audience go through the three movies and experience something similar to what the main character experiences?’ So the first movie is sort of typical in its approach. The second movie is deconstructionist…And then the third movie is the most ambiguous, because it asks you to actually participate in the construction of meaning.” You have to decide for yourself. 

This belief in the power to choose is what drives the Wachowskis’ narratives, and their conviction in the the possibilities of human decision-making also informs their empathy, love and understanding of characters and the world. They trust their audiences to ponder the actions characters take, and whether or not the end-goal is worth the difficulty along the way- this is definitively humanistic. Because The Wachowskis work with hero narratives they create earnest, endearing movies, showcasing the understanding they have in the flawed, bold, decision-making of their heroes,whether they’re making good or bad decisions. This has made them two of the most optimistic authors in the whole of genre cinema. But it is their ability to transcend subgenre after subgenre while navigating these ideas of choice and destiny that truly makes them interesting and worthwhile artists.  

In their first film, Bound (1996), The Wachowskis uncork a tightly wound bottle of vintage film noir eroticism. The story of Corky (Gina Gerson) and Violet (Jennifer Tilly) is in the visual eroticism of touch. Throughout the picture The Wachowskis linger on body parts, as if evoking Claire Denis through a lesbian lens, and while the film never quite reaches the levels of human contact in her pictures it remains a worthy route to examine a same-sex romance powered by lust and held back by societal and personal roadblocks. In Barbara Hammer’s seminal 1974 short film Dyketactics, she practically rewrote the book on female queer sexuality through a cinematic lens. In that short film Hammer focuses on hands as a tool of the orgasm, shot in close-up the stimulated vagina, and used dissolves to gracefully move her camera in and around the female body. For Corky and Violet it’s also all in the hands.

In Bound, the Wachowskis work in this same mode, and while they cannot utilize the daring, open, female nudity of Hammer’s erotic political short due to studio restrictions, they channeled her spirit. With the help of sex consultant Susie Bright, The Wachowskis were able to tell the story of Corky and Violet authentically, and the images of their open sexuality became resonant within queer themes in cinema. The films opening moments play out with a standard femme fatale first impression like Humphrey Bogart meeting Martha Vickers in The Big Sleep, but both in Bound both of these characters are women. Corky with short hair, dark jeans, and a white tank with paint stains all over her clothes is resolutely butch. Violet, in contrast, is introduced wearing a slinky black cardigan, a low-cut dress exposing cleavage, and perfectly applied make-up and styled hair. She’s a trophy wife of mob lackey Ceasar (Joe Pantoliano). Violet is perfect, doting, passive, feminine, and always pretty as a picture, but she has secrets she keeps behind closed walls. She’s gay, and she’s going to steal Caeser’s mob-cash while framing him along the way.

All in all, Violet’s plan is a Hell of a way to come out of the closet. She needs a partner though, and what started out as a seduction quickly turned to love for Violet for Corky. Violet needs to untangle herself from a marriage to the mob, but Corky has past demons of her own, including a 5-year prison sentence for robbery. What unspools from this narrative yarn is an exercise in queering the noir while also playing into its tendency for tightly woven stories of bad men and worse women who scream cinema by their sheer presence, a quality that Tilly and Gershon have   in spades. Gershon is evoking the world-weary toughness associated with your typical, almost always male, lead. Her sarcastic drawl, stiff upper lip and constant raised eyebrow in the face of adversity are from a woman who has lived through it all so give it your best shot. She’s going to come back fighting. Tilly on the other hand uses the preconceived notions about her intelligence and demeanor to get what she wants. It’s classic stereotyping. She’s a ditzy girl who needs looking after, but that’s only what she wants men to see, because it couldn’t be farther from the truth. She’s smart, with a knack for planning and getting what she wants, because she knows how to use her own power.  

Bound is the only film of its type that The Wachowskis ever made, but some of their directorial tendencies they’d come to be known for are present. One stylish sequence, where the plan Corky and Violet have concocted plays out in real time while they deliver the explanation of said plan in the past tense, recalls the opening race of Speed Racer – it’s a deft means of handling exposition.. In that race, Speed’s backstory is delivered as a young kid watching his deceased brother try to set a track record in a heated race: his brother’s ghost serves as his own personal pace car. In their usage of camera wipes, The Wachowskis clearly define the heroes, villains, and everyone in between by capturing these characters at various points in the lifeplot of the film before leading up to the end of the race. Essentially all the cards are laid out, and every character is given a motivation and an alignment that plays out in the movie. The wipes are used to deftly move through their life with overlapping rhythm, which delivers all the background of the movie in one scene. The Wachowskis, are, after all, moral filmmakers, and believe in the choice to do good. Robbery is not usually something akin to grace, but for the oppressed to rob from the rich, à la Robin Hood, in Bound, it reverses a sin into a blessing. Corky has to make the choice to align with Violet, and does so out of a blossoming love between the two, and Violet has her own decisions to make regarding her coming out. The Wachowskis pay close attention to how these contrasting forces clash, and in the end Corky and Violet, the heroes of their narrative, overthrow Caesar, the mob, and the straight world.

Frequently, Corky and Violet are framed with walls, closets or doors disrupting the onscreen space. After the two of them have sex for the first time a closet door is seen with a sunbeam coming out of the cracks. This is the possibility of the belief in the self that is frequently present in their theology. Corky and Violet remain together in the film, as true loves succeeds (another theme in their work), and The Wachowskis call back to their focus in tactility. In the final moments Corky and Violet clasp their hands in Corky’s brand new pick-up, riding off into the sunset, ready to conquer anything that may come in their path. It recalls and corrects the sisterhood-trumps-all ending of Thelma and Louise, but Corky and Violet aren’t platonic and they didn’t have to die for their freedom, which is a radical message in and of itself for a movie about queer characters.  

The Matrix begins in a similar fashion to Bound, but instead of a tracking shot in close detail through a closet, the camera moves through the neon greens of text, code and computerized language in a digital zoom. The introduction of computer altered camera-work is the first noticeable addition to The Wachowskis arsenal, and becomes something of a calling card throughout their career with Hong-Kong influenced martial arts refashioned through an American lens of computerized athleticism and wire-work. The influence of the first action sequence would be copied for years to come in pictures ranging from Charlie’s Angels (2000) to Inception (2010), but the effects of bullet-time, slow-motion martial arts, and wire-work are hardly ever as graceful as they are in the green, dilapidated cage of The Matrix.

In this first sequence, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) is ambushed by police officers and agents after her secure line with Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) is hacked. With her hands raised behind her head, a police officer approaches in a split-diopter shot, followed by a medium shot of her breaking that same police officer’s arm in a moment of fluid camerawork and coherent action storytelling. The scene becomes legendary when she follows that strike with an aerial kick to the face and the camera follows her in a slow-motion 360 degree pan. The scene concludes with a Jackie Chan homage when Trinity kicks a chair into a police officer’s face, runs up a wall and escapes after dispatching a final police officer. All of this is completed with simple, logical action that gets the viewer from point A to point B, with the added inclusion of reality-bending camerawork to add to the allure of the unreal nature of The Matrix. This scene sets the tone for the entire franchise. 

The Matrix is set up immediately as a chase film. Trinity’s escape of the agents in the opening scene is a smaller part of a larger microcosm of the trilogy as a whole. The structure of unseating the power of the Machine City in which the A.I. Lives and controls human existence through the computer programming of The Matrix is always dependent upon the resistance group being in motion. There are certainly moments where the philosophy of The Matrix takes centre stage, but these moments are only brief stages of calm before an oncoming storm hits once more. This is most notable in the second film The Matrix Reloaded where Morpheus, Neo and Trinity attempt to free the key-maker (Randall Duk-Kim) from the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson). The Merovingian portion of the film is a series of interconnected sprawling action sequences intertwined with well-constructed geography set amid an endless highway that treats humans like Frogger and cars like Burnout. Funnily enough before all the guns are drawn the Merovingian utters “It’s only a game. It’s only a game”.    

The Merovingian is a man/program of class. He has underlings, won’t be seen in anything less than high fashion and even has a trophy wife (Monica Belucci). The class systems of The Wachowskis’ films have always been drawn with relative frankness and easily definable imagery. This is most significant in Speed Racer and Jupiter Ascending, but dates back to The Matrix and even Bound on a micro level. They are filmmakers of the underdog and the defeated heroes who fail along the way only to learn their worth and the importance of their morals. Reaching a philosophical high ground has always been important to The Wachowskis and while they’ve never discussed the nature of Christianity or Buddhism in their process it seems to inform their character decision-making.  

The Merovingian’s mansion is laboriously programmed with fine marble, exquisite portrait, and crests bearing his initial “M”. Holding the wealth, even in a computerized world is sinful, and his ties to the machines who place the humans inside The Matrix only make him more dastardly, just like Royalton in Speed Racer. The destruction of his mansion then carries the weight of the falling class system, and the nature of justified violence when provoked. The Wachowskis seem to take a lot of joy in the destruction of his statues, utilizing the slow-motion bullet cam technique they popularized in the first picture by showing each piece of his constructed wealth crumble. This informs the narrative of class for the chase at hand and the potential world-saving skills of the key-maker who must escape. For what is freedom and wealth if not gate-keeping? Jupiter Ascending ponders this very notion as well. Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is a house cleaner from a family of first generation immigrants, but she’s also the heir to a throne on the planet Jupiter. It’s the kind of Young Adult novel plotting that has seen such success with movies like Divergent and The Hunger Games, and like those movies Jupiter Ascending asks questions about power and how we use that power for good or evil. Jupiter finds herself thrust into a world of wealth, power, beauty, and limitless resources. She can have it all at the expense of others and rule her land, but Jupiter is bereft of corruption. When the curtains are pulled back on the House of Abrasax she recoils. Jupiter Jones is gifted her own version of a key by way of her inborn right to power on Jupiter, but like Neo and company she resists and attempts to overthrow a corrupt higher power. With a key you can enter that world and shape it in a radical way.

In the first portion of the Merovingian sequence, Neo fights off a group of the Merovingian’s servants, all of whom are holding sword-based weaponry, in a circular room. The round room works to the Wachowskis favour, because of the circular camerawork and swift pans that they had mastered at this point in their careers. The action resembles the choreography of the great Lau-Kar Leung, and takes obvious inspirations from the pacifist nature in his movies, along with the hero’s journey of finding himself with discipline and hard work. In the first film, Neo learned Jiu-Jitsu and other martial arts techniques almost immediately, but when it came to learning how to jump across a building it meant failing on numerous occasions.  

In Lau-Kar Leung’s pictures, the hero has to be humbled before he can find strength, and Neo follows that same path. In The Matrix Reloaded, he is a master of craft and in full belief of his god-like abilities to move inside The Matrix. The Wachowskis achieve the effect of fluid grace among invincibility in the fight with more wire work and attention to weaponry and geography. The structure of the room is displayed through the camera movement as Neo moves up the stairs, down, back up and down again. The symmetry of the room creates a nice cohesion between the movement and the image and when Neo finally lays waste to all of the Merovingian’s henchmen the camera settles for a moment in a long shot to show a perfectly symmetrical shot of Neo standing among the bodies with the room decorated by debris in equal measure.  

A quick look of concern from Trinity when Morpheus says “freeway” is enough myth-making to relay the danger of the road they’re about to travel. The minimalist storytelling of that line delivery is carried over into the chase where one highway becomes an endless straight line into hell. The beauty of the sequence is in the juggling of movement between cars and the hero-villain dynamic. Overhead camera shots create a push and pull between the moving vehicles and cars crash when bullets plunge into their metal flesh. The passerby vehicles become aerial at any destruction creating a confetti effect behind the action and eventually tumbling in front. Evasion becomes key to survival and with the added problems of internal fist-fighting in Trinity’s car between Merovingian’s chief twin henchmen and Morpheus the scene becomes almost unbearable with adrenaline. The clear minded camerawork, and lack of gritty, visceral impact moving the camera out of the action create poeticism between the action and movement as they become one. When tensions rise to a boiling point with death inches from our heroes, Neo flies out of the sky like Superman and saves everyone from the reaper’s hand.

The action between vehicles in The Matrix Reloaded was a good test run for The Wachowskis Crayola-anime dream Speed Racer. Lily and Lana have always owed a real life debt to anime for directly inspiring the work they created with The Matrix. The Matrix, after all, looks like it came directly from the same world as Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell with its rainy dystopia of green-gray-black imagery peppered with philosophical leanings and questions of the body. Considering their love of anime and East Asian filmmakers The Wachowskis should have known better than to adapt Speed Racer with an all white cast standing in for this Japanese story. It’s a blackmark on what is otherwise, their most formally daring work to date. One can’t look at Speed Racer without commenting on this issue and grappling with it to some degree. It dampens their thematic interest in narratives of the people and righteousness, and in time will look poorly upon them as we advance as a culture into a more progressive age. As is, Speed Racer is one of their best films, but it cannot reach the upper echelons of their finest works, Bound and The Matrix for this reason. It fits comfortably in their filmography, but not without bringing up this fault in their creative process, which they clumsily made once again in their worst film, Cloud Atlas.  

In Speed Racer, The Wachowskis wanted to make a real life anime, and they did this by using high-definition video cameras and placing the foreground and background in focus to replicate the animation style. To this day no other film looks quite like Speed Racer due to this effect. The jarring adventurous use of camera wipes to replicate the turning of the page in Japanese manga and kaleidoscope editing tactics unfold with images layered on top of each other in successive fashion to create a colouring book of supercharged rainbows, peach-amethyst sunsets, and dizzying races that previously only existed in animation and video games.

The Wachowskis use all of these techniques to deliver a narrative that is not unlike that of Neo, Trinity and Morpheus. Like Neo, Speed (Emile Hirsch) is faced with a decision about where he allies himself in a war for preservation of the world. Speed has to either race for the Royalton corporation or choose his humble trappings as a family owned driver on the big circuit, and by refusing Royalton Speed would be risking his career, because they own Racing. Speed’s father (John Goodman) is completely distrusting of Royalton Owner E.P. Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam). Speed chooses his family and sets about to unearth the corrupt business practices infecting the racing sport he loves so much. For Speed racing is his religion and this task is his own Zion, and Royalton with all his cronies is Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) and the machines that rule the world.  

For Speed to save the world, he needs to win The Crucible, a Wacky Racers meets Death Race 2,000 (1975), underground race that cost his brother his life when he was blackballed from racing professionally by companies like Royalton. Speed Racer picks up where The Matrix Reloaded leaves off, but instead of including practical effects, Speed Racer opts for digital craftsmanship and technical perfection in the movement of vehicles. In the various tracks of The Crucible, cars fly as much as they drive, and driver skill is built as much upon belief in their vehicles as ability. When Speed eventually wins The Crucible with help from Racer X (Matthew Fox) and finds his way into the Grand Prix, he has his chance to change the world. It’s a beautifully sculpted sequence of neon hot wheels gliding in high speed. Paint swirls and colours bleed into one another, and the only constant image is Speed’s determined face. Meanwhile, using the wipe editing, Speed’s backstory is relayed once more, showing us the stakes of Speed’s mission. Racing is his life and he believes in the power of doing what you love, and believing in what you love. Winning the race means saving his loved one, and he drives his heart out drifting and crashing, flying and spinning in mid air, and ultimately finding a way to burst through the walls of racing’s blackened history and into a checkered whirlpool like an inverse of the spiral image of Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo.  

 Speed’s relationship with racing is built upon an earnest, sincere love, and his destiny to make his family proud. Neo had to believe in himself to become a god and save the world, but more importantly he wanted to save Trinity whom he loved with all his heart. He brought her back to life once, but he couldn’t do it a second time in The Matrix Revolutions, but in her final moments she got to see the Sun, and she remarked it was so beautiful. The Wachowskis make their movies on these larger emotional moments. These moments of pure cinematic magic where their admiration for character and earnest want of love come through whether it be platonic or romantic. They traverse subgenres of action cinema like Anime, Noir, Young Adult and Cyberpunk, but their heart remains the same and they’ve always been filmmakers of sincerity, even when the world gets cynical. We all need something to believe in and The Wachowskis give us that through their movies, which believe above all else we can define our destinies and become heroes of our own story.