One of the commonest and most satisfying events of my life is the sudden realization that X is really a lot like Y if you look at it in just the right way. That happened to me (again) last week as I was thinking of a minor character in The Matrix and a minor character in The Joneses. Overcome, I realized, by a common enemy–not something you see about characters in different movies.
This is about that.
You don’t have to watch very much of The Matrix to see that Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) has a serious crush on Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), nor to see that Trinity is not similarly enchanted. It turns out later that Trinity is in love with Neo–he is the One for her–and that is why Neo is the battleground of the sparring carried out by Trinity and Cypher.
Under the circumstances, there isn’t much hope for Cypher’s sex life aboard the Nebuchadnezzar, but that doesn’t entirely account for the Cypher’s choice to betray all his shipmates to the evil Agent Smith. In The Matrix, only Cypher knows what the Matrix is and chooses to give up his real life in favor of the illusion of a life of splendor and satisfaction of every kind. Real life aboard the Nebuchadnezzar is dreary and dull and difficult. Better an imagined (experienced) life of luxury than an actual life , a meaningful life, of resistance and freedom. Here he is anticipating the taste of a steak he knows does not exist.
Actually, it isn’t Cypher I want to consider. It’s another guy from another movie. It’s Larry Symonds (Gary Cole)from the movie, The Joneses. His sex problem is tougher in a way. His wife has no interest in him at all. What to do?
It turns out that Larry has a “friendly neighbor,” Steve Jones (David Duchovny). really is a neighbor, but he is not a friend. Steve’s job is pretending to be part of a family—the Joneses—which is there for the purpose of getting people to aspire to keep up with them. The part of Steve’s life that is showcased for Larry’s benefit is their sex life, which, as they represent it, is everything Larry could possibly want.
Two scenes will illustrate this nicely.
Scene 1: Steve intercepts Larry on the sidewalk in front of the house and shows him some earrings he is planning to give to his “wife.” “Summer would really like those,” Larry admits.
“Do you know how I keep it fresh between Kate and me?” Steve asks.
Larry tries for the “good husband” answer. “Good listening?
Steve pours contempt all over the right answer. “Noooo. No, no. It’s about me never believing that I have her. Being full of surprises and a steady stream of gifts.”
There’s a lot to like in that answer. Steve has some “good husband” lines too. The opposite of “never believing that I have her” is “taking her for granted.,” and it’s never good to take your wife for granted. Then there’s “being full of surprises,” as opposed to being dreary and predictable. That sounds pretty good too. Then there’s the central pitch, the “steady stream of gifts.” Now Larry is caught. He wants the kind of sex life he thinks Steve has and his wife, Summer, has no interest it him at all. She treats him as an inconvenience.
Why does he think Steve and Kate Jones have such a hot sex life? Because they parade it. Kate signs off a phone call from Steve—she is having her hair done at the time so there’s a receptive audience—“Don’t come home too tired.”
Scene 2: At the party, which features the earrings Steve has given her, Kate wanders off to the den where Steve is displaying some fantastic electronic equipment. Here’s the way Kate displays their sex life for the group of men in the den.
Kate: Are you showing off your new toy?
Kate leans over Steve, who is seated on the sofa, and gives him a torrid and extended erotic kiss, clearly for the benefit of her audience.
Kate: And who’s your favorite toy?
Steve: (Appearing befuddled) You are?
Kate: Ummm, hmmm.
We are meant to see this from Larry’s point of view. The camera work makes that clear. What he knows about their sex life is that it is fueled by “a steady stream of gifts” and that the effect of these gifts is to have a wife who chooses to come to her husband surrounded by his buddies in the den and pronounce herself “his favorite toy,” a role she apparently finds very satisfying.
Larry wants so badly what he thinks Steve has that he is willing to do anything to get it. The movie turns heartless at this point. Larry does in fact provide Summer with “an endless stream of gifts,” although he can’t afford them, and Summer does, in fact respond with the kind of sex life Larry was hoping for—right up until bankruptcy is imminent. That’s when Larry chooses to drown himself in their swimming pool, weighted to the bottom by a huge and fantastic multi-media lawnmower. This is a picture of Larry before he catches on to the logic of his choices.
There are the two stories. Cypher and Larry judged that reality was not worth living. Both judged that the illusion of living the life they preferred was preferable to actually living the life they had. Both died in the attempt—Cypher by homicide, Larry by suicide.
Why did they do that? This is one of those ratio questions that I am so fond of. I like questions like “Was the water too high or was the bridge too low?” I like “Was the room too cool or did you underdress for the temperature?” I like “Was the power of the commercial enchantment so great or was your resistance to it too weak?” I like those questions because they are really bad questions and they have the additional virtue of seeming to be just as bad as they really are.
Everyone can see that it is the relationship of the two that causes the trouble. If the bridge were higher or if I had dressed more warmly or if I resisted the commercial appeal with a little more moxie, “the problem” in the form I described it would not be there. So we could ask why Cypher and Larry were so weak. It’s a perfectly good question. I am interested today in the other half: why the illusion of the good life was so strong.
Moses made the list of heroes in Hebrews 11 because he “chose to be ill-treated in company with God’s people rather than to enjoy the transitory pleasures of sin.” This passage is thoroughly religious, of course, but it isn’t the religious part I want. For “God’s people,” I need only “the good guys.” For “the transitory pleasures,” I need only “the illusion of pleasure.” For “sin,” I need only “the experience of conspicuous consumption.”
Why are these illusions so strong that Cypher and Larry choose them, knowing them to be illusory?
I see three reasons. These get really nasty when you find them together. First, they were strong because they portrayed an illusion as “an alternative reality,” a reality that could be chosen. Agent Smith helped Cypher get through a deal Cypher knew was false. Cypher demands to be, in his illusory life, “rich;” somebody important, like an actor; and he wants to remember nothing of his present perfidy. Smith keeps replying, “Anything you want.” Steve Jones helped his neighbor, Larry, aspire to a level of sexual gratification that he could achieve only by spending himself into bankruptcy. Larry knew, just as Cypher did, that the life he was choosing was a mirage, but the life each was living had so little to recommend it that the choice of an illusory luxury seemed worth it.
Second, they were strong because they made the present reality untenable by comparison. Cypher living conditions were what they were and he had been living with them for nine years. It was only when he began to think there was an alternative—something better—that he was able to look back on his life and find the sacrifices intolerable. Larry Symonds fell for the same ruse. His life with Summer was what it was—not what he wanted, but worth having—until a flagrantly sexual couple showed up next door. When he saw what they had—it was all illusion remember, he reassessed his own marriage and found it to be intolerable.
They were strong because they promised that action could achieve the desired result, leaving everything else the same. That was actually true for Cypher because although the remainder of his real bodily life would be spent in a tub of goo generating heat and electricity for his masters, his experienced life would be rich beyond the dreams of avarice. Larry Symonds wanted everything to be the same—the same house the same golf club, the same job—except that his wife would stop treating him like a litter box. He had it on Steve Jones’s authority (and example) that he could buy his way to acceptability, leaving everything else the same.
When those three get together, they are extremely effective. When they do, you lose.