Lost in the matrix

Posted: May 26, 2003 12:00 AM

Fashion designers expect movies to influence taste, otherwise they wouldn't be hanging "Matrix"-y trench coats on the racks this fall. CEOs think movies influence consumption, otherwise they wouldn't pay to place their products on a movie set. Movies affect the way people talk (cuss), comb their hair (or not), kiss and make up.

Almost everyone admits a link between reel people's habits and real people's habits except Hollywood, particularly when it comes to the connection between screen violence and street violence.

"I don't know what the links are," said producer Joel Silver.

Mr. Silver, of course, is the man behind "The Matrix" series, in which anti-gravitational bouts of violence punctuate human efforts to liberate themselves from an omnipotent computer network -- the Matrix. The producer was reacting to a Washington Post article about several murder cases in which "The Matrix" has emerged as "a central theme." Not possible, according to Mr. Silver. The movie, he said, is "a wonderful fantasy story that doesn't take place in the real world" -- a catch-all description roomy enough to include "Snow White."

"I can't comment on what makes people do what they do," added Silver.

Not everyone is tongue-tied. A poll of parents commissioned by Common Sense Media, a new media monitoring group, finds that 80 percent believe movies (such as "The Matrix") -- along with television, music and video products -- promote violence in their children. Not all of which remains under control.

Rachel M. Fierro, currently defending Josh Cooke, a 19-year-old Virginia man accused of murdering his parents, described her client as being "obsessed" with "The Matrix." According to a court-appointed psychiatrist, Mr. Cooke "harbored a bona fide belief that he was living in the virtual reality of 'The Matrix'" when he allegedly gunned down Mom and Dad. So, too, did Vadim Mieseges, who, police say, described himself as having been "sucked into The Matrix" before killing and dismembering his landlord in California. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Tonda Lynn Ansley, who, curiously, also murdered her landlord, later told authorities in Ohio she "lived" in The Matrix. She, too, was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Maybe pleading not guilty by reason of "The Matrix" would have been more appropriate.

There's more: "Wake up! Free your mind, you are a slave to the matrix 'control,'" Washington sniper suspect Lee Boyd Malvo wrote from a Virginia jail cell this year. "The outside force has arrived. Free yourself of the matrix 'control' ..." Blah, blah -- you get the picture.

No word on whether the suspect's defense team will enter an insanity plea. But maybe that's beside the point. While a significant legal decision on the sniper case lies ahead, the Matrix-ing of the culture is already here.

The movie's inspirational role in a rash of murders makes all the headlines, but its wider impact probably lies with the law-abiding population.

The fact is, even though most of us will never see a single "Matrix" movie, all of us live with their influences -- what one (approving, if ironic) write-up said becomes "our characteristic pose in the history books: sullen, dystopian, jaded." It's bad enough when you pay to study that pose on a two-dimensional movie screen, but perfectly awful to encounter it, say, in a three-dimensional clerk at the hardware store.

However, that is our lot, to live in a time when the biggest cultural influence of the day isn't, alas, "Lives of a Bengal Lancer" with Gary Cooper (characteristic pose: courageous and downright noble), but is "The Matrix Reloaded" with Keanu Reeves -- one more numbing dump of violence and a very pretentious foray into darkness that is embarrassingly empty.

It is also, as demonstrated by the murder cases to date, quite potent. Experts may not directly pin crimes to "The Matrix" -- or "Natural Born Killers" or "The Basketball Diaries," to name other movies associated with murder cases -- but they tend to believe, as the Post pointed out, that movies "with suggestions of hidden evil and uncertain reality" encourage violent behavior in the mentally ill "by helping unhealthy fantasy worlds to flourish."

Which isn't so edifying for anyone else, moviegoer or homebody. Not that movies have to be edifying, exactly. But we find ourselves at a strange bottleneck, a stranglehold of the sullen, dystopian and jaded -- a cultural matrix in need of an overhaul.