Home > [99 Problems] Series > [99 Problems] The Matrix, The Magic Flute, Gates of Hell

[99 Problems] The Matrix, The Magic Flute, Gates of Hell

Originally published 4 June 2010.

I can still remember the first time I watched The Matrix. I was probably 13 or so and saw a hokey edited version on TV. When it was over, I picked my jaw up off the floor and continued to leap around my room, making serious attempts at defying gravity and space-time. Nothing was safe, I would run and kick, pretending Agent Smith was in my dresser. The action sequences of the film changed the face of movie violence. The shots where time slows down to “bullet time” have become etched in pop culture through parodies on virtually every comedy show that aired in this decade. While the influence on action films was obvious, The Matrix also played a huge part in developing fantasy and mythology in combination with action. The complex philosophies, while often flawed, and the deft use of cliffhanger went on to influence a new generation of television and film. Dwelling amongst the fantasy and violence is the important role of theology. The Matrixreads at times like a Spaghetti Western and at times like the Gospel of John. As troublesome as the mixture proved to be in the later films, the first one made good use of them both and created captivating science fiction.

The Matrix is packed with common theological concerns and questions. Neo is initially intrigued by the question “What is the Matrix?”, but the moment that question is answered, another pops up – “What is Reality?” This is an integral part of the theological and philosophical mindset. One question just leads to another. In fact, Neo and Morpheus both display intense faith and trust in not only each other, but in the synchronicity of their situations. There is the famous appearance of the red pill and the blue pill. The red containing truth and the blue containing ignorance. This is the choice we face when moving to accept a religious doctrine. When that doctrine reveals truth to us, we take the red pill, committing ourselves to that truth and leaving behind ignorance. Morpheus shares his belief with Neo that he is the reincarnation of a messianic figure who was born inside the Matrix and who was promised to save the humans. This Eastern notion is coupled with a scene of resurrection, Neo breaking out of a womb-like shell and being told, “Welcome to the real world.” A difficult question is raised in the struggle that the “real world” presents. Is it better to know the truth and be miserable or to live in ignorance and be happy? In the Matrix, ignorance is the tool of evil, just like in our world. The Machines made the Matrix only so that humans will give their energy to them without knowing it. This is the place where I mention the Brain In a Vat concept.

This complex philosophy lends itself to our easy slip into the Matrix fantasy universe. You can usually judge how good the fantasy is by counting the number of comic books and video games that spawn off of a fiction. In The Matrix the Wachowski brothers play with the advancement of the internet to integrate fiction and reality. Since the internet was and still is widely misunderstood in technical terms, it easily a creates a rabbit hole where we can accept a number of possibilities resulting from it. It takes most people, including me, a couple viewings to fully comprehend the labyrinth of dreams and reality that construct The Matrix. That is part of the genius of it. The writers gave the universe a vaguely believable shading which was brought to life by the filming. The camera work never abandons realism even in the most gravity-breaking circumstances. While action sequences didn’t abandon realism, they sometimes abandoned the greater mythology of the trilogy. Especially in the latter two films.

The number 3 comes in handy when looking at Mozart’s second to last opera Die Zauberflöte or The Magic Flute. Just as one of the characters in The Matrix is named Trinity, there are just about 3 of everything in The Magic Flute. Three ladies. Three boys. Three slaves. Three priests. Usually sets employ three of everything. Mozart engraved 3’s into the music. Rhythms and key signatures. Many sequences in the opera take place in Eb, or 3 flats. Eb happens to be Mozart’s most sublime key along with A (3 sharps). (Beethoven did a lot of digging on C minor, also 3 flats…) You get the point. This opera took the concept of artistic symbolism and fantasy to new heights.

It’s pretty convincing that Magic Flute was widely influenced by Mozart’s dabbling in Freemasonry. You can’t really have a discussion of it without mentioning the Masons. This is evident in the first rhythms of the opera, thought by many to be a secret knock to the Masonic temple. The Masonic theology makes significant appearances as well. The morals of the opera are based around transitioning from religious superstition to enlightened rationalism by way of trial and education. The Queen of the Night, who sings the famous aria that will bust your wine glass, embodies obscurantism and reflects problems with 18th Century Catholicism while Sarastro, her nemesis, rules according to nature and reason. The ultimate message of the work becomes one of making Earth like Heaven and the mortals like gods.(“Dann ist die Erd’ ein Himmelreich, und Sterbliche den Göttern gleich.”) The opera is full of deliciousness, including some of the first trombone usage in opera, and would make for a good first trip to the opera house if you have never been.

Rodin’s The Gates of Hell were never actually used as gates, thank goodness. I would not walk through those. The artist spent 37 years on the project, never finishing it. Modeled after Ghiberti’s gates at the Florence Baptistery, the work mainly details images from Dante’s Inferno, but looks into the nature of evil and sin as a whole. Like The Matrix it abounds in religious fervor and is charged with intellectualism. I point you to just above the doors for evidence – the famous Thinker. One of the most reproduced men in art, he is said to be the image of Dante as well as Rodin, himself. The Thinkerconveys human creativity and his slouchy posture seems to reference incomplete philosophy or creation – like the gates.

Unlike Mozart in his final years, Rodin didn’t seem to be concerned with finishing The Gates. Pointing to the Gothic cathedrals, he asked, “Were they ever finished?” Instead, this work functioned almost like a notebook for Rodin, an infinite canvas on which he could dispose of demons. The work is an orgy of fantastical images – twisting bodies, terror, and anguish. The three figures on the top are shame incarnate. And toward the bottom left is an ogre believed to feed on children – clearly “damned.” Directly below him is a woman sprawled out over a rock, still, after what could have been an eternity of suffering, looks out and up for help only to see a wash of sin and pain.

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