By Shawn StJean
I had done my best to forget the numbing spectacle of the Super Bowl for another 10 months, but as I recently thumbed through a paradoxical magazine that juxtaposes features on eco-friendly homes with advertisements for upscale/luxury products to fill them up with, I was reminded–by a full page spread–that the iconic figure of Morpheus, a lead character from the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix films, functions these days as spokesfigure for Korean-based KIA’s new luxury sedan , the K900.
The TV commercial and the print ads are amusing enough, but the concept–”Challenge the Luxury You Know”–among other patent allusions to Hollywood’s dialogue–may as well be a riff against “the Devil you know” (Cadillac, perhaps?). In the television ad, Morpheus as concierge offers a wealthy couple the “blue key” or the “red key” –as if they’re the type that would take the latter, under any circumstance. What follows is an even sillier, operatic orgy of vehicular destruction, and, the corporations would have us believe, it’s all in good fun.
I have no issue with the car companies, or any product manufacturers, competing, and employing every rhetorical means to persuade us of their superiority (hey, when you watch the Super Bowl, you oughta know what you’re in for.) But, as anyone who frequents this blog knows, I’ve a special place in my heart for The Matrix. It has made some seminal ideas of Socrates, through Plato’s philosophy, accessible to twenty-first century citizens of the planet. We need them.
But like this?
Are some writers, thinkers, ideas, and people themselves, inviolable against parody, especially in the service of commercialism? Laurence Fishburne, who plays Morpheus, thinks not. He granted an interview discussing the advertisement, and some of his remarks are more revealing than the ad itself.
“All my heroes are doing commercials now: James Earl Jones, David Bowie, Malcolm McDowell, Sam Jackson. . .actors of weight.” Hmm. So the great Morpheus, the paragon of free thinkers, follows the crowd now? Or is that Fishburne talking? Appearance and reality do blur here. Is he somehow less free of market forces?
“In The Matrix, it’s like, reality is what you perceive, it’s in your head, blah, blah, blah. . .” It’s more like the actor is struggling to remember, or it’s not a concept worth articulating. Perhaps the bodily weight he’s put on through a decade of prosperity has clouded his Kung-Fu. In any event, Mr. Fishburne certainly has come a long way from seventeen-year-old “Clean” in Apocalypse Now.
I imagine this sounds like a personal attack on Fishburne and his choices, but fundamentally it’s not. I’m drawing attention to the debasement of important cultural values of the West. There was a time not so long ago when actors/personas of “gravitas” didn’t transfer their charisma, admiration, and authority to corporations. So why now? Are all rules out the window? Do they really need the money that badly–or has public trust become just another commodity to be leveraged?
But, Hey, I can hear someone objecting, didn’t the Matrix trilogy make Warner Bros. like a billion dollars in the first place? So where’s the paradox in one commercial entity washing the hands of another?
For my reply, I’ll enlist the aid of another cultural icon:
Venerable songwriter Bob Dylan also featured in a commercial during that same ball game, and some might say the difference is merely in degrees of propaganda: he encouraged viewers to buy American cars (Chrysler ones in particular.) But there’s a distinction worth making. There’s more there than a hip guitar beat and a series of jingoistic catch phrases/images (one girl wrapped literally in an American flag.) Whether one views the approach as pure patriotism or crass exploitation of sentimentality, a higher reality lurks here. It’s a policy of isolationism that’s defined Americans since Plymouth Rock and which, for better or worse, kept us on the bench during World Wars One and Two, until very late in those games. Since then, we’ve abandoned those policies in favor of trade deficit, unlimited debt, War on Terror, world economy, world bank, world police force. And how’s that working out for us? To me, Dylan’s choice to endorse isolationism, whether right or wrong, is to stand for something real: a defensible philosophy. “Let Germany brew your beer; let Switzerland make your watch; let Asia assemble your phone; we will build your car.” After all, those are quintessential American jobs he’s talking about–and even if, with all the imported materials in Ford, Chrysler and GM products, and the “foreign” autos assembled in U.S. plants today, the situation isn’t as simple as Dylan presents it, it’s still a solid concept: keep your business among your neighbors, and they’ll be around to buy back from you. They’ll have retained the means, the freedom, and the pride to do it.
I’m not trying to politicize Fishburne’s particular brand-fealty–it might have been Ford just as well as KIA. My point lies more in the dilution, or rather the dismissal, of a fundamental truth. Addiction to comfort, security, and luxury, over Truth, is one of those very “shadows on the wall” Plato and the Wachowskis warned us against. This isn’t homage, or even parody. It’s contempt. And it insults the American consumer by waving his own illiteracy in his face.
Yes, The Matrix franchise has about as much surface resemblance to Plato’s Republic as the Super Bowl has to an actual football game: it’s one big show. But for all the window dressing, beneath the TV sales, the betting pools at work, the 6-hour pre-game, and the bottomless bowls of nachos and empty calories, there’s still something there, a fundamental set of values. Football is a worthwhile activity, for American youngsters especially, and their families. The Matrix, for all the car chases and bullets flying, presents an unpalatable set of considerations to the young people of today: you don’t have to exist as a wage-slave penned up in a cubicle, jacked in to what amounts to a milking machine, for 1/3 to 1/2 of your functional life, all for the possibility of some intermittent pleasure and luxury. An automobile, after all, following a home and the decision to have children of their own–will probably rank as the third weightiest financial commitment of their lives. The payments will keep drivers working, and tractable, and docile. But, before they buy in, they can still choose Red/Reality–it’s not as pleasant, and the vinyl doesn’t feel like “real” leather. But hell, leather is skin: whether cowskin, pigskin, or the human variety. It likely came off the back of the guy in the cubicle next to you.
Decide for yourself:
KIA K900 Super Bowl TV Ad: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ob-wn52Dkmk
Dylan’s Super Bowl TV ad: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KlSn8Isv-3M