New Internationalist

Why are we dancing round reality?

Issue 437

If the Age of Enlightenment was about proving certainties, we’re entering the time of unravelment, when everything falls apart.

Talk about the centre not holding! My cinematic popcorn experience has been more interesting of late than for ages. We may no longer have the agitprop output of the post-World War Two cultural boom, but serious issues are creeping in where the Hollywood mainstream normally dreads to tread.

New World Orders are all very well, but they carry the chaos of realignment at every level, with your actual fabric of reality dropping its stitches in a veritable plain-and-purl harbour disaster of perception slippage. We can’t even rely on those pesky filmmakers to give us cosy reassuring reflections like they did in the 1950s. Sci-fi novelist Philip K Dick is Deity in Chief as his two key questions – What is real? Who is human? – get assessed, processed and re-presented while opposing strands of society try to nail down who and what we are. And Leonardo DiCaprio graduates from the permanence of Big Love in Titanic to the transient consciousness of Inception, joining Keanu Reeves as the poster boy for the anxiety at the dark heart of society, as we try to keep a grip on our disintegrating collective take on what is true.

They say we are now an underclass, no longer of any value. We say, hell no: we are Neo in The Matrix asserting our humanity by taking the red pill. We are Little Leonardo in Inception, a cosmic matador dancing in and around the ‘realities’ coming at him like trains down a track.

Even though he came unstuck in Shutter Island, another hit movie juggling illusion and actuality, he was still able to make a moral decision at the end and do a better thing than he had ever done, taking his self-imposed fate like a manly Man and not as a lab rat. As did Donny Darko and the protagonist of the multi-layered The Butterfly Effect.

Film historian Jasper Sharp reminds me that these films borrow heavily from Japanese anime. ‘The Matrix was pretty up-front on its debt to the original Ghost in the Shell film, which posited a totally “wired” society back in 1995 before the internet was really a thing of the masses.’ And Inception was influenced by Satoshi Kon’s anime, Paprika, chucking our nightmares right back at us.

Given what happened in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, it’s no wonder the Japanese are seriously good at this. Or that William Gibson, whose novel Neuromancer gave us the founding cyberpunk text back in the 1980s, is so popular in Japan.

I wonder what the developing nations in transition out of ‘third world’ poverty make of our grizzling: they’ve been putting up with assaults on their reality for centuries. Mostly from the Western powers or, at any rate, those in the driving seat. When you have no power, others – meaning the seriously rich – get to define your world. That’s one bit of reality that never changes. Anyone told Hollywood?

Anna Chen is a writer, performer and broadcaster. Blog: Madam Miaow says... was recently shortlisted for the 2010 Orwell Prize.

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