Meryl Links

Oct 15, 2021

9 min read

Simulations and Dreams

In which a trans woman discusses the The Matrix without ever bringing up the themes of transness.

Directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski and released in… come on now, don’t play that game; you know The Matrix right?. I’m going to assume a basic level of familiarity with the film from here on out, so if you really haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil anything major so you can safely read on, but I also recommend you go and treat yourself to a viewing. It’s a really cool film.

What is ‘real’? How do you define ‘real’?

When it was first released, one of the messages many viewers took from the film was the thought “maybe the world I live in isn’t real” and “if the world wasn’t real, how would I ever know?”. It’s a typical philosophical conundrum, but it demonstrates a superficial engagement with the themes of the film, and misses a key theme in its visual language.

Looking at these pictures, what do you see? The real world (i.e. outside the Matrix) is blueish, grey with generally cold and dirty environments. Inside the Matrix, everything has a green tint, lines are sleek, surfaces reflective and even the clothing is shiny.

The stills above are extreme examples, but through this visual language alone, it’s more or less clear at every point in the film which world we are in. The film provokes viewers to imagine that the world they know might not be real, but also gives them a clear ‘out’: you’d just know if you weren’t in the real world, because things would be off somehow - in a way that you would notice. Is everything green? You’re in the Matrix honey.

The conceit of the Matrix is that if you were inside it, you wouldn’t know you were inside it, however it is clear that the two worlds are quite distinctive and easily differentiable. The question still remains as to which one is the real world, but the ability to distinguish them is only tangentially explored. The film early on makes an on-screen reference to the philosopher Baudrillard, but generally is not a robust articulation of his philosophy of simulation. I’m no expert on this topic either, but there is a short scene in the film which I think provides an opportunity to explore this philosophy.

Scene: Neo and the other human survivors are having dinner outside the Matrix. Their dinner is some kind of grey goop and they joke about it as Neo glares at it looking nonplussed (more than usual). The food in this world clearly doesn’t taste great. The Matrix on the other hand has a greater variety of food with really nice tastes, even if it was all simulated. This is the first level of simulation, where the symbol is emulating a reality that exists out there somewhere. Neo has only ever eaten in the Matrix - he can’t have ‘real’ nice food in this world so he wants simulated nice food. It may have been a computer fake, but at least it was as good as the real thing, right?

Well…

While they are eating, they discuss the cliche that “everything tastes like chicken”. A kid (called ‘Kid’) sitting next to Neo suggests that perhaps the reason why everything tastes like chicken is because the machines who created the simulation never knew what most foods really tasted like, so they just made everything taste similar to chicken. This is the second level of simulation, where the symbol obscures or distorts the reality it emulates. The meat Neo has eaten in the Matrix is like a knock-off of the real thing, it’s like chicken/beef/shark/whatever, but probably not as good somehow. Anyway, still beats the crap in front of them right??

Maybe.

Hold onto your ass though, because we aren’t done here. Consider this; none of the people in this scene have ever eaten chicken. How do any of them know what chicken tastes like? They compare everything to chicken, but they’ve never eaten a real one. This is simulation level three; the symbol masks the absence of a reality. In discussing food, the characters use the word ‘chicken’ in order to communicate a common idea or understanding, but that symbol serves to obscure the fact that none of them have ever eaten chicken before. At this level of simulation, the symbol is no longer even pretending to be a faithful copy of the reality.

However, there’s a fourth level of simulation in Baudrillard’s framework. At this fourth level the symbol not only loses connection to the reality of the simulated thing, but serves to mask the absence of any reality whatsoever. It is a symbol that refers to its own reality.

What does that mean? Well, who’s to say that the word ‘chicken’ refers to anything at all? It’s not just that none of these surviving humans has ever eaten a real chicken, none of them have ever even seen a chicken…. they have no clue whether or not chickens ever actually existed on earth, let alone what they taste like.

Morpheus tells Neo that the humans who have escaped the Matrix have had to piece together the history of earth by stealing data fragments stolen from the Machines. He readily admits that their information is incomplete, but what he cannot know is whether any of their data they stole is reliable. Chickens? I made ’em up babes.

The taste of ‘chicken’ for these characters is a pure simulation. It no longer requires a referent in reality; it exists purely in its own logical space, not necessarily anchored to any specific real concept, and even if it is, none of them could never know it.

Human society often seems to operate at this fourth level, trading in symbols that are pure simulation: we could never know whether they reference real concepts or not, and to some extent it might not be important because those symbols take on their own reality and form their own logical space.

Our dreams feel real while we’re in them

Change film!!

In Inception, we follow a heist conducted by a group of bandits who infiltrate dreams in order to steal thoughts and ideas, only this time they attempt to plant one. I’m about to spoil the end of the film so I strongly recommend you go and watch it before reading ahead.

At the end of the film, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Cobb, spins a top before running out to meet his estranged children on the patio. Throughout the film, we’re told that ‘totems’ like a spinning top can be used to test reality: to see if you’re still in a dream. In the real world the top has to fall, but in the dream-world, unbound by logic, the top can spin endlessly. Since the film occurs both inside and outside of dreams, we see this mechanism used by the main characters a few times to establish whether they are really awake.

By the end of the film, Cobb has finally reunited with his children after overcoming the spectre of his deceased wife (whose death he feels responsible for) but the top is left spinning before the cut to credits, leaving us to wonder whether any of this seemingly ideal conclusion is real. Just as the scene cuts, the top wobbles suggestively…

Many film goers seemed to really have their imaginations activated by the ambiguous ending, immediately setting about trawling the film for possible clues as to which parts of the film occur in dreams and which parts real, and how they might be used to signal whether the ending of the film is real or just another dream. Some of the theories advanced are impressive in their attention to various details, right down to the inferences that can be made from the actors used in various flashback scenes or the shoes they are wearing (really).

The lesson from Baudrillard would not only be that it is impossible to tell — indeed, Christopher Nolan, the film’s director has stated that it was his intention to be purposefully obscure about this — but that it doesn’t matter.

Let’s take a close look at the top spinning at the end of the film. Look very closely at this picture. What do you notice?

Can’t see it? Don’t look at the top, that’s a red herring. A distraction. Think presence in absence. Ask yourself: “what’s not in the frame?”

Cobb. The main character of the entire film, Cobb, isn’t in this shot. He already turned away from the top to go and hug his kids, and he’s presumably out in the garden with them as this scene plays out. Cobb doesn’t care whether the top falls or not. It doesn’t matter to him, what matters to him is that his feelings of guilt have been processed and that he’s able to see his children.

What does this have to do with simulation? Cocaine magnate and professional misogynist Sigmund Freud told us that dreams are not simulations of the waking world, but rather they are wish-fulfilment fantasies. If that is the case, then by reversing the logic, the fact that all of Cobb’s wishes have been fulfilled suggests this might be a dream. However, what does it matter? A dream has its own reality and its own meaning to the dreamer, and the effects of a dream can be disturbingly real. If you’ve ever had a dream about having a fight with somebody, you’ll know it can be difficult to look them in the eye the next morning even though you know it didn’t actually happen.

Let’s indulge the theory that maybe huge parts of the film were a dream. In fact, why stop there? Perhaps the entire film was one huge dream. Maybe Cobb’s wife never died. Maybe he doesn’t even have a wife. Everything is just a symbol operating in its own space. The dream objects and people may represent real things, they may represent agglomerations of multiple different things. It doesn’t matter. The point is that there is some evolution, some change. The journey and the transformation are important to Cobb. He couldn’t see his children at the beginning of the movie, now he can. He was grief and guilt stricken about the death of his wife, now he’s reached some absolution. Just because the symbols don’t have referents in reality, it doesn’t make them any less meaningful — to Cobb.

Focusing on the dream/reality dichotomy is a great way to miss the point of Inception. What matters isn’t whether the events were real (as an audience, we already know that actually they are not), but rather the emotional affect they have. Cobb didn’t stick around to watch the top because in that moment it was immaterial to him whether the world was real or not. In this way, Inception is not only cinematically inspired by The Matrix, but is a spiritual continuation of the themes. We come to understand that world does not exist solely for the protagonist to occupy and adventure through, but that the protagonist’s own journey and experiences constitute her reality.

I contend that this is major thesis of Inception. At this stage it’s trite to point out that the film largely serves as an allegory for the process of film-making; Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is the director of a fantasy. He works with his producer (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), scriptwriter (Elliot Page), production team (Dileep Rao) and actor (Tom Hardy), to create a fantasy that will have an impact on the dreamer/audience (Cillian Murphy).

The central thesis is that the dream/film don’t need to be real in order to be felt and experienced, the film/dream has its own internal logic and symbols, and the interaction of those can have emotive power just as ‘real’ as any other experience. Just because nobody actually dies in a film or dream, it doesn’t make the experience necessarily any less moving or meaningful.