Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Runner-Ups: The Wachowskis in "The Matrix" (1999)

Scene from The Matrix
Every Oscar season, there are a handful of actors who get tagged with the "snubbed" moniker. While it is always unfortunate to see our favorites not honored with at very least a nomination, there's another trend that goes largely unnoticed: those who never even got that far. The Runner-Ups is a column meant to honor the greats in cinema who put in phenomenal work without getting the credit that they deserved from The Academy. Join me every Saturday as I honor those who never received any love. This list will hopefully come to cover both the acting community, and the many crew members who put the production together.

The Runner-Up: Lilly and Lana Wachowski
Film: The Matrix (1999)
Oscar Nominees in the Best Original Screenplay category (1999):
-American Beauty *Winner
-Being John Malkovich
-Magnolia
-The Sixth Sense
-Topsy-Turvy


This past week marked an impressive, record breaking induction of 683 new Academy members. If you're limber enough to read and remember every name, you'll find a handful of talents on there ranging from logical (last year's winners) to the somewhat baffling (Marlon Wayans?). Among the list is Lilly and Lana Wachowski, who may best be remembered for The Matrix and its subsequent sequels. The duo has had a fascinating career both in the public eye as they both became transgender; but also in a filmography that hasn't been shy of exploring high concept sci-fi on a budget that seems insane for a story so singular. It's why they haven't necessarily had a hit, even if Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas, and to an extent their Netflix series Sense8 has kept their good will strong. Still, there's a cult based around them that argues that they're not only great sci-fi filmmakers, but arguably two of the very best currently working. If nothing else, their entire body of work is an interesting mix of genre fare and exploration of LGBT themes that have become less subtle as time has gone on.

Even if their first film Bound was a lesbian heist drama, The Matrix doesn't immediately strike some as an LGBT film, especially since terms like "gay" were never thrown around, and it was a good many years before Larry became Lana. However, one could easily see the construction of The Matrix as a metaphor for transitioning. I won't go into specifics, but it does make figures such as Morpheus take on a deeper and far more interesting subtext. It makes sense why the film became a runaway hit. It was full of great action beats and one of the best opening acts of any genre film of the 90's. In fact, it more than earned its four Oscars in technical fields, of which may have some wear today, but still feel groundbreaking. It's an inventive story and one that helps the argument that 1999 was one of the best years for American cinema period. How good? It somehow saw Lilly and Lana Wachowski getting snubbed for what may have been their only sure shot at an Oscar nomination.

I am not saying that what they have done since is inferior. In fact, most of it is often more challenging than the Best Original Screenplay nominees. However, they never had a phenomenon or streamlined vision quite as pure as The Matrix. Its themes ushered in the modern computer era, leading to questions about security and reality that have only gone into caricature territory since. If one can base success on imitation, then The Wachowski's vision is one of the greatest. While most remember it for the action, there's those quiet moments that impact the film's status as being more than fun. It had a Freshman-level understanding of philosophy and used it to its full advantage. Still, it was a technical marvel that had almost everything not named Keanu Reeves, Lawrence Fisburne, or Carrie Ann Moss lost in the background. Still, can a film that defined the cultural lexicon with the "Red pill/Blue pill" concept be so bad? Yes, it inspired misguided readings such as the men's rights groups, but it also created imagery that one frankly cannot find even in last year's Best Original Screenplay winner Spotlight. True, they were going for different things - but nobody is going to be quoting the journalism film 17 years from now in the same way that The Matrix is today.

While it has gotten a divisive racket in later years, The Matrix also works as a perfect outline of the hero's journey, which isn't an original concept here, but was used to great effect. It showed how it could be applied to a strange and exciting landscape while blending genres and ideals in a way that showed the blending of cultural norms. The third act may stray a bit, favoring the action side of things. However, the build-up alone reflects a certain creativity that The Academy often requests but rarely lives up to rewarding. I'm not saying that all nominees need to be creative genre fare, but there needs to be some acknowledgment that these films are integral to the industry and do make a difference. Genre films need to have their say. Thankfully, the screenplay categories have been decent with recognizing more than their conventional titles. However, the lack of The Matrix in fields not called technical from 1999 is a little disappointing.

Which isn't to say that the nominees that remained weren't impressive. It's often a problem to narrow down these categories in ambitious years. After all, four of the five nominees have remained in conversation in significant fashions. It's further evidence that 1999 was a year that went above and beyond, even if audiences today remain divisive about giving American Beauty so many trophies. It's one of those circumstances where the absence isn't that criminal. It was merely a packed year with titles too amazing to ignore. However, it's hard to look at The Matrix and see that a film so influential didn't feature any glorification for the two directors at the time. While Cloud Atlas could've been their rebound, the film was too high concept and successful mostly from an international standpoint that made voting for it taboo. Instead, the Wachowskis walked away winners in one way, but not in name. Their film continues to inspire, but it's almost entirely written out of Oscar history books as being anything but a technical marvel.

I guess it's hard to judge in hindsight, but I still think that The Matrix is an appealing sci-fi film in way that most similar titles could never be. It's accessible yet dense, often incorporating H.R. Giger-style animation on a budget that predecessors only dreamed of. Considering that the next "most influential" sci-fi film Inception got twice as many nominations while winning in the same fields, it makes no sense why The Matrix feels as snubbed as it does. Even Inception had a Best Original Screenplay nomination to its credit. Maybe it's just the luck of what the competition is and that 2010 wasn't as great of a year for cinema as 1999 (I actually think differently), but it's a sign of improvement as well as evidence that The Wachowskis could've gotten a different career. I doubt that they would be better because of awards, but they would likely get more credit for what they do right. Much like their career, their triumphs are met with misunderstanding and near misses. 

Considering that I am one of those skeptics who don't believe that The Wachowskis will make a film as impacting as The Matrix and thus are not likely to get nominated, it's a bummer that their one shot ended up as a resounding thumbs down. It may not be my favorite film, but I have to admit that its production and story were far more ambitious and dizzying in ways that didn't get credit at the time. Maybe they will get an Honorary Oscar at some point in their career. For now, they are Academy Members and can help to make the group better. I don't know how, but anything is possible. The only wish is that for two filmmakers who have continually been this impressive on a high scale to get their recognition in some way. It's baffling as it is to think that they haven't gotten to that point yet.

1 comment:

  1. With Car Rental 8 you can get the most affordable car hire at over 50000 international locations.

    ReplyDelete