Learning to extend metaphor: taking the red pill

Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.

In a recent post, I wrote about how attempting to write changes the way you view works of art.  As I continue toiling away, creating artificial worlds in which my characters come to life and try to deal with the situations in which I place them, I find myself thinking more and more about the choices that writers make in the creation of their own artificial worlds.

A writer needs a framework to address the themes that are important in the writer’s life.  In my previous post, I focused on the writer’s journey to find a voice and a style that “fits.” The quest to find a unique voice is the same quest to “find yourself,” a phrase that captures each person’s unique journey of self-discovery.  We are told constantly to “be yourself,” and are shown heroes on the movie screen who are attempting to find their place in the world.  One of my favorite script writers, Judd Apatow, creates unconventional comic heroes who struggle with their personal journey to self-discovery (see “Cable Guy,” “Fun with Dick and Jane,” “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up”).

My usual method of exploring this theme would likely involve pontificating theoretically and waxing philosophically on this abstract theme.  But these days I am trying to be more concrete, so instead I’d like to at real examples of two different artists trying to explore self-discovery through film.

“The Matrix” is a great example of a huge-budget film that uses a lot of “sleight of hand” to address the theme of self-discovery.  Wikipedia offers a nice synopsis:

Thomas A. Anderson is a man living two lives. By day he is an average computer programmer and by night a malevolent hacker known as Neo. Neo has always questioned his reality but the truth is far beyond his imagination. Neo finds himself targeted by the police when he is contacted by Morpheus, a legendary computer hacker branded a terrorist by the government. Morpheus awakens Neo to the real world, a ravaged wasteland where most of humanity have been captured by a race of machines which live off of their body heat and imprison their minds within an artificial reality known as the Matrix. As a rebel against the machines, Neo must return to the Matrix and confront the agents, super powerful computer programs devoted to snuffing out Neo and the entire human rebellion.

In my imagination, the Wachowski brothers are sitting in a coffee shop in the early nineties (I’m sure they preferred The Coffee Bean to Starubucks) having a conversation that went something like this:

Andy Wachowski: “Ok, so our themes are the dehumanization of modern society through technology, the difficulty in being an artist, and the struggle for self discovery.”

Joel Wachowski: “Yeah, that sounds about right.”

AW: “So our hero has to be a rebel – someone discouraged from doing his thing by the rest of society.”

JW: “What about a hacker?  Hackers are like modern day pirates…”

AW: “Yeah!  That’s a good idea, we could have him hacking the mainframe of some horrible global corporation and trying to get the ‘truth’ to the employees…”

JW: “Ok, that makes sense… so what does the corporation do?”

AW: “Well, obviously they need to be in the business of distracting people from the fact that their slave labor is what keeps those at the top rich and powerful.”

JW: “Yeah… well what’s the most extreme illustration of that?”

AW: “Well, we can use robots…”

JW: “Too many robot films already, the Terminator films already did that…”

AW: “Well, we are talking about a world constructed by unseen powers and our blind reliance on technology.  What if computers ruled the world?  What would they use humans for?”

JW: “How about as a source of energy?”

AW: “Yeah! Like batteries! Humans are batteries for the computers.”

And from there, the Wachowskis built a world with a visual style and aesthetic that illustrates the hero’s personal quest to find his place in the world, using myths from literature and film to present the hero’s struggle in an entertaining way.

The Matrix suggests that being yourself – struggling to overcome the idea that we are “supposed to be” a certain way – is better than living in an artificial world filled with self-deception and delusion:

Cypher: You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize?

[Takes a bite of steak]
Cypher: Ignorance is bliss.

One of my favorite scenes from the film dramatizes the choice between the “truth” (creating a unique self) or continuing to believe the illusion presented by the programmers of the Matrix (allowing the “herd” to define your identity):

After Neo chooses Truth, he finds himself painfully unplugging his atrophied body from the machine, and is reborn as a real human being.  It’s painful and scary.

This is slightly more visually appealing than showing a young university student filling in a form “Major: ART”.

In 1999, I walked out of the movie theater blown away by the Matrix, a movie that combined science fiction, action, and beautiful cinematography to tell a great story.  Existential philosophy was underneath the kung-fu and special effects, but I didn’t fully appreciate what the Wachowskis were trying to tell me.  In 2011, after trying to craft my own stories, I see the Matrix as a beautiful illustration of why we should struggle to create ourselves in a way that is meaningful and true to who we are, rather than reading blogs all day on our new iPads.

The Wachowskis mythologize corporate and technological slavery with kung-fu and innovative camera technology, which is a lot more interesting than showing a boardroom with powerpoint presentations on how to keep workplace morale high.

Other artists choose an approach with less sleight-of-hand, taking on the theme of self-discovery directly.  One of my favorite films dealing with this theme without much “myth” slapped on top of reality is the Coen Brothers’s 2001 film, “The Man Who Wasn’t There.”

1949, Santa Rosa, California. A laconic, chain-smoking barber with fallen arches tells a story of a man trying to escape a humdrum life. It’s a tale of suspected adultery, blackmail, foul play, death, Sacramento city slickers, racial slurs, invented war heroics, shaved legs, a gamine piano player, aliens, and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Ed Crane cuts hair in his in-law’s shop; his wife drinks and may be having an affair with her boss, Big Dave, who has $10,000 to invest in a second department store. Ed gets wind of a chance to make money in dry cleaning. Blackmail and investment are his opportunity to be more than a man no one notices. Settle in the chair and listen.

Like “The Matrix,” I saw “The Man Who Wasn’t There” in the theater, but I left the theater feeling like I had missed something. I remember leaving the theater feeling like someone had tapped me on the shoulder and whispered something in my ear.  Unfortunately, I had no idea what this imaginary person was trying to say.  The Coens give us Billy Bob Thornton as the existential everyman, a barber whose entire life seems to have been plotted for him by others, and whose identity is solely defined by his profession:

Ed Crane: I was a ghost. I didn’t see anyone. No one saw me. I was the barber.

If who we are is defined by the choices we make, it would seem that the hero’s lack of defining choices in life has turned him a hair-cutting spectre, an unthinking, unfeeling man who exists without passion or interest in anything.  At least the human batteries in the Matrix can enjoy a good imaginary steak.

Ed Crane is awakened to a journey of self-discovery when a choice is presented to him by a customer, who offers the hero a chance to invest in an innovative business called “dry cleaning.”  The hero’s choice to take a risk and invest in the enterprise (obtaining the investment money through blackmail) sets off a sequence of events which result in Crane committing murder in  self-defense.

In “The Stranger,” Camus takes us on a journey of self-discovery through the eyes of a hero who sees life from a completely different perspective after performing a murder.  The Coen brothers film-noir exploration of this idea is best captured by the hero’s reflection on his new perspective after the murder:

Ed Crane: [narrating] There they were. All going about their business. It seemed like I knew a secret, a bigger one even than what had really happened to Big Dave. Something none of them knew. Like I had made it to the outside somehow, and they were all still struggling way down below.

The murder is the “red pill” in “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” representing the truth that sets the hero free.  After this discovery of the truth, we follow our hero through a series of absurd events in which he attempts to create himself.  The new Ed Crane becomes a man of action, making decisions that define who he is and what he believes in.  At the end of the movie, we discover that Ed is writing his story from his cell on death row.  The barber has become an artist who wants to tell his story.

Like the Wachowskis, the Coens awaken their hero through an extremely dramatic experience — murder.  But instead of a blue pill and the unplugging of the robotic umbilical cord, they do so with a knife to the jugular.  In both movies, the hero’s call to “wake up” is shocking and visceral, and symbolizes that the journey to self-discovery requires a courageous act that the hero never knew he was capable of.  After this courageous act, there is no “going back” to the comfortable life among the herd.  Both Neo and Ed Crane are reborn, seeing the world with their own eyes.


Both “The Matrix” and “The Man Who Wasn’t There” address the theme of self-discovery and the challenges that we face when we have the courage to break from the herd and forge a unique self.  The forces that represent obstacles to self-discovery in our everyday life are dramatized as energy-sucking machines and violent businessmen, and our heroes are thrust into stories in which they are fighting for their lives.

Are you fighting for your life?

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