“It is this melancholia of systems that today takes the upper hand through the ironically transparent forms that surround us. It is this melancholia that is becoming our fundamental passion.

-Jean Baudrillard (1)

Works of fiction, and in particular the American cinema, occupy a central place in the writings of Jean Baudrillard, at least since 1981 (the year of Simulacra and Simulation’s publication). Conversely, and well before the Matrix trilogy (1998-2003) gave this relationship such popular currency that the name Baudrillard became yet another item of critical jargon, Baudrillardian “thinking” has haunted the American cinema. Before proceeding in the elucidation of this privileged relationship – let alone its analysis – it is appropriate to dispel a certain misunderstanding, crystallised in ideal fashion by the hermeneutic fever provoked by the Wachowski brothers’ film.

There are two ways of envisaging the cinema when it comes into contact with a writer, two methods, two approaches with radically distinct aims, and here it is of little importance whether the writer is an essayist, philosopher or novelist. Firstly, we can test the quality of the conversion which has been operated, from the text to the image, of the resumption and development of the motifs extracted. The question then follows: whether or not it is acknowledged that the author of Écran Total has had some elements of his universe appropriated (hyperreality, feelings of de-realisation, control by the medium, the theory of simulation, the precession of models, and so on), does it suffice to turn certain films into transpositions, or even extensions, of his work? Are films such as Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990), Dark City (Alex Proyas, 1998), Wild Palms (Oliver Stone, 1992) The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998), Capricorn One (Peter Hyams, 1978), Westworld (Michael Crichton, 1974), Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2002), Crash (David Cronenberg, 1996), Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999) or even They Live (John Carpenter, 1988), among others, “Baudrillardian”? Posed in these terms, does the question even mean anything? This syndrome of a verification based on the respect of the original text – whether it is fidelity to the spirit or the letter of the text – constitutes the inexhaustible refrain of a concept of cinematic adaptation which judges the chosen films in terms of their conformity to the original (a thought, a tale, a narration, and so on) and to it alone. This movement of recognition and confirmation, proceeding from the origin to its transposition in other artistic fields, is well-known, still widely prevalent (as much in universities as in “cultural” periodicals) and, whatever may be the paths taken, has similarities to an autistic, and thus perfectly unproductive, relationship between text and film, as it presupposes the incapacity of the film to think, dare I say it, by itself, on the basis of narrative and/or theoretical material forged elsewhere. Beyond the sovereignty of the literary and philosophical text which even today informs a good number of filmic analyses, this unilateral method has structured the core of the debates aroused by the Matrix trilogy. Certain figures have viewed it as a popular, yet faithful, transposition of the theories of Baudrillard, Karl Marx, Plato, Guy Debord, and so on, while others, in the name of rigorously identical principals, have risen up against the impoverishment, if not outright misrepresentation, of these same philosophies.

On the other hand, we can also proceed from the film itself, from what it proposes, from what it invents or from what it lacks, and move on to its aesthetic analysis. “How can we take into consideration that which within itself refuses the logic of belonging, identity, confirmation? For the analyst, this supposes admitting a difficult question, a question which is not self-evident precisely because it targets its other: how does the work make a subject?” (2) We can identify the conceptual routes that it crosses, we can judge the pertinence of the exogenous objects which are integrated, the quality of the transplantation or the fertility of the interdisciplinary strategy, but without losing sight of the fact that every film thinks within the framework of its own territory, a territory whose contours are outlined and whose rules and mechanisms are fixed by the film itself. Here it is not a case of providing an autopsy of the film in the hope of finding that the philosophical theories it has absorbed are intact, but of entering into an understanding of its point of view, in order to shed light on the theoretical procedures it is working on. What does a film think about? Who does it converse with? For what purpose? It is therefore a matter of “considering images as a critical act and of thus seeking to deploy their own powers.” (3) This is the performative and theoretical power of the cinema, which thinks in and through the world which surrounds it. Consequently, the right of those who make use of Baudrillard to appropriate his writings, models and intuitions, and to become, to borrow a word dear to Jorge Luis Borges, his “co-authors”, must be recognised. From hereon in, the encounter between Baudrillard and the cinema no longer has anything to do with a frontal face-to-face between two closed conceptions of the world. Rather, it has similarities to a conversation where the origin of the theoretical materials counts less than the new proposition issued from this exchange. This assumes an acceptance of the re-interpretation of philosophical ideas when they penetrate the cinematic field, and of their capacity to mutate, to be contradicted, diverted and then reformulated outside of their place of birth, through a kind of reversion or ricochet effect, which, of course, has nothing to do with the psychoanalytical concept of repression. What interests me here is not what the cinema has to say on Baudrillard’s “thinking”, but what the utilisation of this thought by the cinema, in the name of a principal of creative and subversive allegiance, (4) says about the cinema itself.

What does the cinema think about when it dreams of Baudrillard?

What cinema did I dream of while reading him?

Nowadays there is no doubt that the term “Baudrillardian” is used in much the same way that “Mabusian” used to be. These two terms do not, of course, refer to the same historical reality, nor to the same political reality, but their utilisation, no matter how imprecise and approximate, expresses the same diffuse sentiment of a world riven with conspiracies, a world under a form of control which is simultaneously transparent (everything is visible) and totally opaque (everything is hidden), a paradoxical world where that which I am shown is not that which is.

Baudrillard’s concept of simulation constitutes, for those who have discovered its existence (including me, since reading Simulacra and Simulation in 1994), an exciting poetic proposition, in the same vein as Baudelaire’s Spleen or Michaux’s Meidosems. Not so much a hard theory or “thinking” – a word I have until now encased in quotation marks which will henceforth be discarded – as an impression of the world, a metaphysics. A poetic thinking, if you will – above all, a writing, radiant, desirous (but never mechanical), which prefers anticipation over deconstruction, revelation over autopsy, elliptical intuition over demonstration, probability over certitude. We can therefore speak of Baudrillard’s language without knowing his vocabulary, his theoretical workings or his aphorisms. A film, a novel, a painting, a landscape, an event or anything whatsoever can thus be Baudrillardian, Baudelairian or Bazinian, but it can never be Deleuzian or Derridean (the authors of these works maybe, but the works themselves?) because this surreality of thought is required to eliminate the vividness of their ideas.

I must confess that I have often combined a reading of Baudrillard with the American cinema, as his writings have constituted an important source of analytical orientation for me. I can no longer count the number of times which bringing the American cinema into contact with America, Simulacra and Simulation and Fatal Strategies has led me to reconsider it. The risk, of course, consists in wanting to resolve a work through a process of thinking, when in fact the latter only ever accompanies the former. This text is therefore (to a certain extent) the tale of a personal stroll to the heart of the American cinema, and of the treasures that can be found there when looking through a lens calibrated to Baudrillard’s focal distance.

In 1996, through an effect of ironic precession, the critical analysis of a film pre-existed the film itself. Thus David Cronenberg’s Crash appeared, to the reader of Baudrillard’s eponymous text (5), as the perfect but de-mined adaptation, not so much of Ballard’s novel as of his critical model, with which the film, in fine, only coincides. Crash, understood here as a theoretical machine ruminating on the question of the simulacrum and its (impossible) figuration via car accidents supposed to reconnect their victims with the sentiment of an inexorably lost reality, found itself realised, but retrospectively, as if struck with inanity by the very process which had given birth to it. (6) This antecedence, not of reality, but of the commentary, in relation to the fiction, allows an approach towards the singular status of Baudrillard’s writings, and of the manner in which certain of them have been able to resonate with the, primarily American, cinema. Multiple reasons would doubtless be susceptible to throwing light on this sympathy, beginning with the predilection of the author for contemporary (sidereal) America, and its capacity to realise, in a complete state of unconsciousness, the simulation he has theorised. (7) But I will only focus on two of them: firstly, the predominance of space and topography, formative both for the American cinema and the naturally spatial thinking of Baudrillard; secondly, the ontological imbrication between a Nation, its History and its fictions, which has become, for Baudrillard, an object of perpetual fascination and reflection, up until the events of September 11 (“something like an additional fiction, a fiction surpassing fiction”) (8), which, we could be led to think, in their turn realised some of his theoretical intuitions. (9) But, in Baudrillard’s language, “fiction is not imagination. It is what anticipates imagination by giving it the form of reality. This is quite opposite to our own natural tendency, which is to anticipate reality by imagining it, or to flee from it by idealising it. That is why we shall never inhabit true fiction; we are condemned to the imaginary and to nostalgia for the future. The American way of life is spontaneously fictional, since it is the transcending of the imaginary in reality.(10)

“We have lost that lead which ideas had over the world, that distance which meant that an idea remained an idea. Thought has to be exceptional, anticipatory and at the margin – has to be the projected shadow of future events.(11) Because of its attachment to the anticipation of phenomena inherited both from science fiction (and its delirious exacerbation of the real in the imaginary) and from pataphysics (“Pataphysics is the imaginary science of our world, the imaginary science of excess, of excessive, parodic, paroxystic effects – particularly the excess of emptiness and insignificance.”), (12) Baudrillardian thinking gives particular prominence to speed: acceleration, deceleration, advance, precession, precipitation, coincidence, real time, the gap; these constitute some of the recurrent notions which flow from his pen. For there is, in Baudrillard, an absolute passion for competitive dynamics, for theoretical games – in the mechanical sense of the term – which can exist between phenomena and concepts, fictions and their models. (13) Thus, in reference to the Harrisburg tragedy which, in hindsight, realised the fictional scenario of James L. Bridges’ 1979 film The China Syndrome (the real having become, through an effect of reversibility and an irony proper to the logic of simulation, the simulacrum of the film which had fixed the events unfolding in it, and so on) (14); thus, in reference to the inextricable link between the Vietnam War and Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now (“The war has been turned into the film, the film turns into a war, the two are combined by their common effusion in technology.”) (15); thus, in reference to the visionary character in Dead Zone (David Cronenberg, 1983) and the precogs in Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, 2002), these brains capable of foreseeing crimes before they are even committed: “It is going to be necessary, then, to invent a security system that prevents any event whatever from occurring.. A whole strategy of deterrence that does service today for a global strategy.” (16)

As a thinker of limits, as an inventor of a world which is just waiting to be realised, Baudrillard frequently proceeds from the work of art (literary, Borgesian and cinematic fictions…) in order to construct his theoretical models. Art constitutes a radical thinking of the world such as it is becoming. It effectuates a reversible radiography which makes room for territories on the basis of their horizons, and it is this thinking which is freed, in the end, from the constraints of verification – in the present, and always a little soft – in realist sociology.

The “Neo” moment of the American Cinema

Due to being structured by specific genres (the Western, the melodrama, the musical comedy, the Sci-fi film, film noir, and so on), the American cinema, at least up until the 1960s, was, for the most part, a cinema of reruns. From its origins, the remake was therefore at the heart of the Hollywood machine. In the classical era (which reaches its apogee in the 1950s, both from an economic and a stylistic point of view), genre identity, that is to say the permanence of immutable and recognised codes, constituted the best guarantor of an effective development of the public’s loyalty. The effect of seriality nourished the unwritten pact of Hollywood fictions, this “deep desire [for the reader and the spectator – J.-B.T.] to once again rediscover a schema.” (17) From the mid-1960s onwards, due to multiple economic and historical factors (the purchase of the major studios by financial conglomerates, the development of television and the multiplex, assassinations and political scandals, the Vietnam War, the emergence of the counter-culture), Hollywood changed its colours. The end of the studios, coupled with the emergence of a young generation of filmmakers reared on cinema and television (the movie brats), was the origin of what Peter Biskind baptised the New Hollywood. Their names were Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Bob Rafelson, Robert Altman, Dennis Hopper and Brian de Palma. During the course of this period, which stretches, roughly speaking, from 1967 (Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde) to 1980 (Michale Cimino’s Gates of Heaven), the American cinema undertook a large-scale critical re-reading of its history, its myths and classics. The laws governing genre did not escape from this overhaul and underwent a double process of unveiling (showing what Hollywood had hidden) and/or hybridisation (transgenericity, or the alliance of genres, was one of the major characteristics of the period). But the golden age was fleeting and by the mid-1970s, two filmmakers anticipated the Reaganite turn that America and its cinema would take several years later. Steven Spielberg (Jaws, 1976) and above all George Lucas, who, after an audacious film veering on experimental cinema (THX 1138, 1971), and before Star Wars (1977) forebodes what Baudrillard refers to in America as “the success of Reagan’s illusionist effort to resurrect the American primal scene.(18) “It had become depressing to go to the movies. I decided it was time to make a movie where people felt better coming out of the theatre than when they went in. I became really aware of the fact that the kids were really lost, the sort of heritage we built up since the war [World War II] had been wiped out by the ‘60s, and it wasn’t groovy to act that way anymore, now you just sort of sat there and got stoned. I wanted to preserve what a certain generation of Americans thought being a teenager was really about – from about 1945 to 1962.(19) By stopping the storyline of American Graffiti barely a few months before the Vietnam War and the assassination John F. Kennedy, George Lucas makes a retro film on America in the 1950s, its auto races, its James Dean clones and its sheltered values, as if the time had come to rub out the decade just gone and proceed, both cinematically and politically (let’s recall that Reagan was elected in 1980) to the “anachronistic resurrection” (20) of a perfect world: “It is on the murder of Kennedy that Reagan’s current reign is founded.(21) For historians and film critics alike, Baudrillard’s books, and three of them in particular (America, The Consumer Society and Simulacra and Simulation) offered precious orientations for analysis, capable of capturing the politico-aesthetic metamorphosis which reached American cinema in the 1980s.

“As Marx said of Napoleon III, sometimes the same events occur twice: the first time with real historical import; the second merely as caricatural evocation of the event, as a grotesque avatar of it – sustained by a legendary reference. (…) In history, this process is called restoration: it is a process of the denial of history and the anti-evolutionist resurrection of earlier models.” (22) At this stage, the Neo moment of the American cinema begins, which, under the impetus of the films of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas reactivates the corpse of pre-war narrative structures and binary visions. America re-gilds its mythological blazon, and the cinema follows close behind. Forcefully battered during the course of the preceding decade, the founding values of the Nation – heroism, individualism, the American way of life and the films of Walt Disney – gain a second wind. It is the elegiac return towards a triumphalist and conquering America, in which “life was beautiful”, an America before the rift and after the orgy (“the power was still there, but the spell was broken.”) (23). It is the revival, in every which way, of a primitive innocence, in its prime, the carnivorous smile of Larry Hagman in the TV hit of the 1980s, Dallas. “Simulation is the master, and we only have a right to retro, to the phantom, parodic rehabilitation of all lost referentials.” (24) With Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Spielberg revisits the serials of the 1940s. Robert Zemeckis follows the lead with the evocatively-titled series Back to the Future (Parts 1, 11 & 111, 1985, 1989, 1990). John Travolta writhes to the bedevilled rhythm of the Fifties in Grease (Randal Kleiser, 1978). Ron Howard offers a second, fantasy youth to the survivors of this era (Cocoon, 1985). Christopher Reeves whirls around in a sky bedecked with Stars and Stripes (Superman, Clive Donner, 1978) while Sylvester Stallone finally corrects the recent history of his country and wins the Vietnam War once and for all (Rambo II, Pan Cosmatos, 1985). The great period of restoration and recycling (of the ideals, myths, forms and classics of the cinema) has been ushered in, (25) renewing in its stride “the original American pact of an achieved utopia.” (26) Francis Ford Coppola, too, turns towards the Golden Age (The Outsiders and Rumble Fish, 1983) and John Carpenter, still a while away from his fallow years, makes Christine (1983). Through the murderous epic of a car assembled in Detroit in 1958 and bought second-hand by a teenager 20 years later, Carpenter delivers a sombre commentary on an America which wallows in the rehabilitation of a carefree era which did not take place – Christine as a noir version of the 1950s – and whose iconoclastic and ironic reverse shot will be filmed by Joe Dante, the other maverick of the era, with Gremlins (1985). From this time-delay between the (masked) reality and its PR version manufactured for the needs of a society based on consumerism and entertainment, Carpenter, once again, will extract his central allegory in They Live (1988). In this seething fable, the filmmaker imagined a world handed over to extra-terrestrials, who had taken control over humanity by anesthetising them through littering a seductive, colourised reality with subliminal messages in black and white, encouraging consumption, procreation and obedience. “They Live is a documentary, not a fiction,” Carpenter declared when the film was released. Indeed, it does not take much in the way of divination to grasp the parallel established between these aliens in business suits and the Wall Street Yuppies, incarnations, according to the author, of the dominant tendency of the American neo-cinema: “In relation to the preceding generation, there was no heart-wrenching revision,” wrote Baudrillard, “but just ablation, amnesia, absolution – the somewhat unreal process of forgetting which follows an overly strong event. The Yuppies are not renegades from the revolt, they are a new race, sure of itself, amnestied, white-washed, evolving with ease into the performative, mentally indifferent to any other finality than that of change and promotion.(27)

In The Matrix, Cypher, one of the members of the rebel band led by Keanu Reeves, decides to betray his comrades and be reconnected in to the Matrix. He then meets Agent Smith, assigned to watch over his return to illusion, who bestows him with a nickname – “Reagan” – which says a lot about the status of the character in the fiction. When he informs Trinity of his decision, she counters with an argument which she judges to be sufficient, but which Cypher does not understand: “The Matrix is not real” she tells him. From a Platonist perspective, “this subordination of the good to the true excludes human happiness from being able to exist in the Matrix. Cypher, in any case, does not contest the point: to taste a good steak in the Matrix while knowing that there is no steak is not enough for him, he insists to Agent Smith to make him forget everything he has lived outside of the Matrix.” (28) As for Cypher, he exemplarily incarnates this exaltation of “signs on the basis of a denegation of things and the real,” (29) but which can only be enjoyed at the price of an operation of consensual amnesia. In opposition to the famous “I know very well, but still…” of psychoanalysis, here it is ignorance which becomes the sine qua non (and paradoxical condition) of the pleasure I feel. Little does it matter, then, that the poetry of the steak (i.e. reality) is only a sensorial illusion produced by the Matrix. Little does it matter, in the end, that in swinging from one world to another, Cypher erases a part of his personal history (the revolt against the Matrix). Doubly amnesic, the Reaganite Judas in The Matrix appears as the epigone or the perfect metaphor for the spectator postulated by the American cinema of the 1980s, which, to adhere fully to the political and aesthetic resurrection embarked on at the time, had to forget what had preceded it (the Seventies), as well as the artificial nature of the “primal scene” whose repeat performance was desired.

In a text analysing the American policy of contemporary remakes, Jean-François Rauger noted that they oscillated “between a will to undo and a will to redo.” In the first case, it is a question of demystifying the model, in the mould of, for example, the work undertaken by Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch, 1969), Arthur Penn (Little Big Man, 1969) and Robert Altman (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, 1975) on the classical Western. In the second case, “it is a question of a simulation […] which is the other dimension (supplanting its predecessor) of the wish for a remake. Simulation is the dimension of the remake which solicits the attention of an infantile public, willing to see films several times over.” (30) But for some years now, the politics of the remake seems to be developing, in parallel to the classical “will-to-redo” and the “will-to-undo”, another type of relationship, founded less on the affinity of the works to their models – a prolific affinity, because every good remake becomes an original in its own right – than on the will, whether affirmed or not, to replace them, to re-programme them. Hollywood cinema, more than ever confined to the infinite retrospection of everything which has preceded it, (31) presently lives in the time of a will-to-erase, which is the radical version of the reanimation operated 25 years ago – the corpse is exhumed only to be better buried. “A whole generation of films is emerging that will be to those we knew what the android is to man: marvellous artefacts, without weakness, pleasing simulacra that lack only the imaginary, and the hallucination inherent to the cinema.(32) For it is a precise period which is targeted, that is, the 1970s. A decade which weighs on current production like a ghost (the most active young filmmakers were born in this decade) and for which the desire for subversion and experimentation that it incarnates (for want of being able to be reborn?) must be eradicated. We only ever remake what we have repressed – the danger being that the Seventies is a paradise desirable because lost – and the last Golden Age of the American cinema constitutes the great repressed of today. Thus the recent remakes of Shaft (Gordon Parks, 1971), Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1967), Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974), Dawn of the Dead (George Romero, 1978), Walking Tall (Phil Karlson, 1973), The Stepford Wives (Bryan Forbes, 1975) and these innumerable adaptations of TV series (Charlie’s Angels, Starsky and Hutch, and so on). Is the dream factory finally on the way to being transformed into a bubblegum factory? Emptied, for the most part, of their political content (what does Texas Chainsaw Massacre say about America in the year 2004? Nothing), deprived of their critical power, in a word: reprogrammed, these films are at once similar to their models and radically different – in this regard, the re-use of the titles already says much about the barefaced will for substitution. These movie snatches evoke the human beings replaced by their vegetative double in Don Siegel’s prophetic film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, made in 1956 and which will yield two remakes, one in 1978 (Invasion of the Body Snatchers by Philip Kaufman) and the other in 1993 (Body Snatchers by Abel Ferrara).

What is a body snatcher? Literally, a thief of bodies, an entity of a vegetative origin which duplicates, and then replaces, clones, a living organism. What is striking, at first glance, is the hallucinatory resemblance of the human to himself, (33) as, once re-made, the copy conforms to the original. As if escaping from a waking dream, the population of Santa Mira, a sleepy hamlet straight out of a Frank Capra film, is reborn, strictly identical to itself and yet radically different. The perfect crime. No longer a collection of individuals, no longer oppositions or relations, but an undifferentiated mass, where nobody is a subject anymore. It is “the hell of the same”, this paroxystic form of identity which Baudrillard recently located in the Spike Jonze film Being John Malkovich (1999) (34) and whose fatal version would be Agent Smith in the Matrix trilogy: “This is our clone-ideal today: a subject purged of the other, deprived of its divided character and doomed to self-metastasis, to pure repetition. No longer the hell of other people, but the hell of the same.” (35) We can also think of Paul Valéry describing his impression of the cinema in 1944: “Now what is the value of the exchanges of these actions and emotions that I see, and their monotonous diversity? I no longer want to live, because now it has become nothing but resemblance. I know the future by heart.(36) And yet, in Siegel’s version of the film as much as in those of Kaufman and Ferrara, there still exists a way to distinguish a human from its replica, in other words, a way to “isolate the process of the real.(37) For something gets lost in the translation from the human to its remake, and this something can be verified in the face, behaviour or gaze which is missing. “What is absorbed by the cosmic pods is, very explicitly, desire, and its anaesthesis is the approval of a collective belonging whose condition is precisely its removal.(38) Once replaced with their double, the human leftovers are discarded, literally, in garbage trucks. What this process of substitution eliminates is less the “aura” of people in the age of their reproducibility, their soul and their urges, than reality itself. In this sense, Invasion of the Bodysnatchers appears as the matrix film of the cinema and simulations, and the vegetal analogons appear as the fictional and/or prehistoric version of Baudrillard’s simulacra, proto-simulacra if you will – “proto” because still imperfect, incomplete, different in spite of everything: “The era of simulation is inaugurated by a liquidation of all referentials – worse: with their artificial resurrection in the systems of signs, a material more malleable than meaning, in that it lends itself to all systems of equivalences, to all binary oppositions, to all combinatory algebra. It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real.(39)

The Matrix, or the melancholy of systems

On the one hand, the Matrix, the universe of manipulation of changing identities, the “programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes.” (40) On the other hand, the planet Zion, gigantic cloaca where the last humans live in reclusion. A sleek, technological world faced with its tribal, primitive alternative. Between the two, a trio of (de-programmed) free electrons, Neo, Morpheus and Trinity, who try to save the planet of their birth – in other words, the reality principle – from the claws of the Empire. Metamorphosis and proliferation, such are the two major qualities of the Matrix, in the image of Agent Smith, its exemplary apparatchik (at least in the first instalment). But for the inhabitants of Zion, those who chose to be disconnected from the Matrix, waging war assumes, as a prerequisite, a re-thinking of the opposition to the Matrix, and consequently an understanding of its topography. What is the margin when the centre and the periphery become confused? How to struggle against a reticular power? Is there still a position external to the system? Simply put, how to resist? These constitute the cardinal questions which inform both the Wachowski brothers’ trilogy and a large part of America’s cinematic output, for which opposition to the system constitutes a formative obsession, from the films of Frank Capra (Mr Smith Goes to Washington, 1939) to those of Michael Mann (The Insider, 1999).

An unusual filmic object catapulting the formal experiments of Jean Epstein and Eadweard Muybridge into a virtual, Baudrillardian territory, The Matrix can be read, above all, as a palimpsest of the different modes of resistance which have marked the American cinema since its beginnings. In any case, it is on the political level that the film is truly novel, constructing, with the passing of each episode, and using Baudrillard’s theories, a passionate reflection on the nature of the System, its evolution, and the different modes of action that can oppose it. “The Matrix is everywhere,” Morpheus explains, during his first encounter with Neo. “It is all around us, even in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window, or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.” An accomplished version of the reality of substitution manufactured by the aliens in John Carpenter’s They Live, the Matrix is none other than a metaphor for the System, and the inhabitants of Zion are its vehement opponents. Morpheus: “We know pertinently that we are all here because we are united by disobedience.” Even before being informed of the Matrix and espousing the cause of its enemies, Neo is already distinguished from the others by his recalcitrant attitude with regards to power: “You have a problem with authority, Mr Anderson. You believe you are special. That somehow the rules don’t apply to you,” his boss says dryly at the start of the film.

In the beginning, the framework is entirely binary: the System’s servant against its dissidents, programming against intuition, software against critique, the Matrix against Zion. Two options, therefore, and two warring logics: one logic anchored in the 1960s and which still believes in the effectiveness of struggle from a position outside of the Matrix. This is Zion with its inhabitants flanked with talismans, imbued with mystic convictions and ready to forget themselves in prehistoric techno raves. With its Council of the Wise, evoking the design of the Simian Chamber in Planet of the Apes, and Morpheus, their charismatic leader (distant avatar of the head of the Black Panthers?), Zion incarnates the tomb of 1960s American counter-culture (literally, since it is located several kilometres under the Earth’s surface), its degenerated version, and one can not fail to note the ineffectiveness of its mode of action in a world which has become a network – without the intervention of Neo, acting from within the heart of enemy territory, the final battle of The Matrix III would have been lost. This affinity between Zion and a dated form of historical contestation constitutes the very subject of The Second Renaissance Parts 1 & 11 (Mahiro Maeda, 1998), a manga comic written by the Wachowski brothers and providing a free variation on the universe of The Matrix. This diptych, which unravels the genesis of the war between Machines (initially in the minority) and humans and the creation of the Matrix, thus throws light on the prehistory of Zion via sequences of repression against humans which explicitly cite certain shock images of the oppositional movements of the 1960s, from the struggle of the Black minority (a majority in Zion) for civil rights to the televised execution of a Viet Cong by the Saigon chief of police in 1968. In an interview accorded to François L’Yvonnet, Baudrillard distinguishes four modes of attack and defence symbolised by different life forms: wolves, rats, cockroaches and viruses. In Zion’s cave where the confrontation with the machines is being prepared, it is the time of the wolf: “So you build barricades, ramparts, build the mediaeval town; at any rate you resist head-on. The enemy’s visible. You know who you’re dealing with. You might say that, up to Marx’s class struggle, that was still the pattern.(41)

For resisters in the old mould who still expound on the interdependence of man and machine (see, in The Matrix II, the discussion between Neo and the head of the Council, over which the ghost of MacLuhan’s theories hovers) and remain tethered to a classical conception of the System, the only thing left to do is “shake the cave” – a revolutionary command launched by Morpheus to his troops in order to galvanise them, and which Jerry Rubin would not have disavowed. But making noise does not stop you from being inaudible. Faced with this, another logic prevails, that of the infiltration of the intelligence of Evil, in other words, the Matrix. Trench warfare against virtual guerrillas. Plato vs Baudrillard. This is Neo, having become, against his own wishes, the chosen one of the people of Zion, less in the name of a marketplace mysticism than for his capacity to invent, completely unconsciously, new trajectories within the System. Neo and his gang of hackers must ceaselessly circulate, from Zion to the Matrix and vice versa, they must re-appropriate for their own purposes the network lines that they are fighting, create bugs, and hijack its operating system following properly terrorist methods.

The nightmare of networks

Due to its obsession with opposition to the system (and here it matters little whether it be political, institutional, economic or mediatised), The Matrix constitutes the prolonging, if not the entropic extension, of all those film-dossiers of the 1970s (All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976), The China Syndrome, The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula, 1974), The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)) (42) which tried to politically envisage McLuhan’s famous aphorism – “the medium is the message” – qualified, by Baudrillard, as “the key formula of the era of simulation.” (43) What resistance strategies must be reinvented in the time of the simultaneous implosion of the medium and the real? What does the System resemble when the poles have disappeared? What is the Other in the hell of the Same? Two master films for the Wachowski brothers’ trilogy: The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor, made by Sydney Pollack in 1975. In this film, Robert Redford incarnates Joe Turner, an analyst working for the CIA, charged with tracing, in the documents he is provided with, hidden signs of hypothetical conspiracies against the American government. A professional interpreter, Turner is revealed to be indifferent to the nature of the material given to him (letters, novels, comic books, classified ads, news stories, and so on), and is heedless of the distinction between reality and fiction, since each helps him to think through the other – at the beginning of the film, for instance, we learn that he decrypted a message by applying a method borrowed from an episode of Dick Tracy. But one day, the members of his unit are assassinated and Joe Turner, the only one to have escaped from the carnage, tries to follow the thread of Power, in the old style (starting with the periphery and getting closer to the core step by step), before comprehending the inanity of this method when faced with the new reticular topography of the System. In the history of the American cinema, Three Days of the Condor, as well as The Parallax View and The Conversation, are pivotal films which recorded the moment of an acquisition of political consciousness linked to the metamorphosis of the System, for which the assassination of JFK in 1963 is without doubt the founding event. Before, power had a name, a face and, consequently, an outline. To defeat it, it was enough to target the summit of the pyramid and the centre of this summit: the skull of the President or great conspirator. All the pre-JFK films – in sum, the classical cinema and its legions of characters struggling individually against an alienating structure – were thus articulated on a topographical conception of the system which is both centred and centripetal. The passing of the classical cinema to its disenchanted opposite in the 1970s, the counter-classical cinema if you will, centres around, roughly speaking, the passage from a mythology of the line (the Frontier) to a mythology of the Network. The first, constitutive of the American cinema and its crowning genre, the Western, was founded on a dialectical binary opposing the centre to the periphery, which presupposed the existence of a centralised, human power which could be approached by concentric movements. In the majority of the conspiracy films of the 1970s and in the Matrix trilogy which constitutes their extreme point, power, and therefore the System, has been diffracted within enormous networks: “With the extenuation of the political sphere, the president comes increasingly to resemble that Puppet of Power who is the head of primitive societies. […] The Kennedies died because they incarnated something: the political, political substance, whereas the new presidents are nothing but caricatures and fake film. […] It is now the era of murder by simulation, of the generalised aesthetic of simulation, of the murder-alibi – the allegorical resurrection of death, which is only there to sanction the institution of power, without which it no longer has any substance or an autonomous reality.” (44). This is magisterially illustrated by the closing sequence of All the President’s Men, when Nixon’s disembodied face, a few hours before his resignation, appears in the editing room of the Washington Post, like a low-definition video image, a cathode signal among others doomed to disappear without leaving any traces in the media noise of the moment. In the era of reticular structures, there are no more centres, no more peripheral spaces, but a proliferation of nodal points and obscurely connected lines. Within this new topographical order, whose terminal version is represented by the Matrix, there is an absolute coincidence of the world and the network, and every conspiracy is confounded with the network itself. For Joe Turner, as for Neo, his descendant (an affinity discretely evoked by the anachronistic use of landline telephones in The Matrix), it is thus a question of experimenting with new forms of fatal resistance, which suppose a perfect knowledge of the enemy’s cartography and a capacity to hijack its engineering. 1970s conspiracy cinema, then, inaugurates the time of the rat (“it is a subterranean enemy, frontal defence no longer exists, something else must be invented ­– prophylactics, hygiene – in order to stamp out this far more slippery enemy”), and the time of the cockroaches, which “do not wonder around in three-dimensional space, but in interstices. As opposed to rats, they circulate practically everywhere, it becomes very difficult to reduce their numbers, all modes of defence must be reconverted.” It is no longer a matter of contesting the reticular theorem (everything is criss-crossed and each node is virtually central) nor of resuscitating the corpse of an exteriority to the System (the classical theorem) (45), but to bring its very use into question.

Am I the model which the original dreamed about? (46)

The passage from reality to simulation, from confrontation to envelopment has been fully carried out by one film: Pakula’s The Parallax View. In it, Warren Beatty plays a journalist, Joe Frady, who, several years after the death of a senator, and the suspicious disappearance of numerous witnesses, goes back over the inquest and discovers the existence of an organisation (the Parallax Corporation) specialising in the recruitment of violent individuals who it transforms into assassins. Following on the heels of his illustrious predecessors (those undercover agents from American film noir) Frady then decides to infiltrate Parallax and passes himself off as a potential candidate. In the first part, the inquest unfurls in the name of a perfectly binary logic (if the System can be penetrated, it can as a consequence also be withdrawn from) before a total turn-around is brought about. The narrative and ideological palinode of the film is produced during a test sequence, a final stage during which the organisation fully accomplishes its replacement programme. For Parallax is not only targeting the indoctrination and then the reprogramming of individuals, it opens up a more profound metamorphosis consisting of substituting reality (an ensemble of verifiable events) with a simulated reality (a series of coherent and lifelike images). “Totalitarian propaganda,” Hannah Arendt writes, “thrives on this escape from reality into fiction, from coincidence into consistency.” It “establishes a world fit to compete with the real one, whose main handicap is that it is not logical, consistent and organised.” (47) It is no longer an era of the simple theft of bodies (body snatching) but of the theft of bodies and minds, in other words: integral replacement. This mutation, being subtle and almost invisible, stems from a single question which the test sequence leaves in suspense: placed in front of a cinema screen, his nerve endings connected to a priori infallible testing devices, Joe Frady has no means by which to fake his responses. As a result, and in the absence of any possibility for cheating, nothing justifies his success in the final challenge. Whence the only a priori plausible conclusion: at this precise moment of the film, Joe Frady confuses himself with his role, and he himself becomes an assassin, thrown into the interior of a fiction where false and real are mixed to such an extent that they become indiscernible. Whereas he thought he could manipulate images with impunity (both his own image and those of the assassination), deconstruct them, analyse them, interpret them, in fact the opposite happened: the images ended up manipulating him, and he becomes absorbed by the System he is combating, like John Anderson (The Anderson Tapes, Sidney Lumet, 1971), Harry Caul (The Conversation), Jack Terry (Blow Out, Brian De Palma, 1981) or even Max Renn, the VCR-Man, victim of a double conspiracy in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1982), all manipulated by a reality that they thought they could control through its representation. In the last third of the film, Frady becomes confounded with the image of himself as an assassin, but does he really become the assassin who he thinks he is simulating? Does he turn the central equivalence posed by the text sequence between himself and the photograph of Lee Harvey Oswald into a reality? “Is the simulator sick or not, given that he produces ‘true’ symptoms?” (48) Pakula, then, integrates his character within a narrative already written – that of the conspiracy and the programmed assassination of a senator (in the final sequence). It is, in any case, in the nature of any conspiracy fiction to always be one step ahead. In Libra, Don DeLillo describes the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald as the result of a series of random events, and if Oswald becomes one of the assassins in Dallas, it is because, all of a sudden, he coincides with a model which pre-exists him. Win Everett, the CIA agent, incarnates a kind of Gepetto in the conspiracy against Kennedy, who one day realises that his theoretical model really exists: “It produced a sensation of the eeriest panic, gave him a glimpse of the fiction he’d been devising, a fiction living prematurely in the world.(49) Like the men of the Parallax Corporation, “in a reversal of the ‘reality’/fiction order, Everett invents Oswald before the latter, entering into the conspiracy, embodies the fiction.” (50)

Right up to the end, Pakula’s film maintains two conflicting hypothetical readings side by side. Is Frady acting in full knowledge of the cause before becoming a victim of a set of tragic circumstances, or is he manipulated from the very start? To put it more simply: has he been “Oswaldised”? Oswaldisation, one of the various forms of programming, responds to a simulacrum logic: “it is no longer that of divine predestination, it is that of the precession of models, but it is just as inexorable. And it is because of this that events no longer have meaning: it is not that they are insignificant in themselves, it is that they were preceded by the model, with which their processes only coincided.(51) The final sequence of Pakula’s film multiplies the immediately identifiable signals, all drawn from imagery associated with the assassination of Kennedy. Consequently, it thus becomes impossible to know if it is the situation (the context, motifs, indices, the narrative, everything harks back to the events in Dallas) (52) which qualifies the character and determines his actions, or vice versa: “Manipulation is a wavering causality in which positivity and negativity are engendered and overlap, in which there is no longer even an active or a passive.” (53) From this point of view, the test’s function consists less in requalifying the topoi than in making them swirl about according to an ecstatic strategy, then in liquidating them in favour of a principle of infinite reversibility. The film thus breaks with the equivalence between sign and reality and makes all dialectical relationships seem inane: there are no more identifiable oppositions, no more binary logics (truth vs lie, manipulator vs manipulated, sender vs receiver, and so on), but an indeterminate discursive position (54) whose parallax effect (the illusion of an optical doubling produced by the displacement of either the observer or the object) provides an exemplary metaphor: “Nothing separates one pole from another any more, the beginning from the end, there is a kind of contraction of one over the other, a fantastic telescoping, collapse of the two traditional poles into each other: implosion – an absorption of the radiating mode of causality, of the differential mode of determination, with its positive and negative charge – an implosion of meaning. That is where simulation begins.” (55) Previously distinct, the poles change their quality, leading to a hermeneutic entropy comparable to that provoked by the footage of the JFK assassination – the exegesis of which is unfurled in Pakula’s film. As Guy Debord writes: “In a world that really has been turned on its head, truth is a moment of falsehood.” (56) In conspiracy films – and the conspiracy in question here does not designate a cinematic genre as much as a means of interpreting the world (57) – the truth becomes a moment of lying, paranoia becomes a moment of analysis, manipulation becomes a moment of interpretation, fiction becomes a moment of history, and so on. The precession of the model, which Jean Baudrillard made a major lever of his theory of simulation, characterises Joe Frady’s trajectory (from himself to the murderer manufactured by the Parallax Corporation) as much as it does the (real) murder of Kennedy, coinciding, in turn, with an earlier fictional model –John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962) in which a high-level officer was programmed to assassinate a presidential candidate. (58) “This anticipation, this precession, this short-circuit, this confusion of the fact with its model […] is what allows each time for all possible interpretations, even the most contradictory – all true, in the sense that their truth is to be exchanged, in the image of the models from which they derive, in a generalised cycle.” (59) This principal of reversibility – “an about-face through which it becomes impossible to locate one instance of the model, of power, of the gaze, of the medium itself, because you are always already on the other side” (60) – informs both the narrative structure of the conspiracy film and the topographical metamorphosis of the System as it is reconsidered by the American cinema throughout the 1970s. Consider the last shot of Three Days of the Condor: in front of the headquarters of the New York Times, where Redford has just unveiled the facts, the question posed by one of the CIA officers casts doubt on his success: “Are you sure that they are going to publish it?” The image freezes and the film closes on the worried face of Robert Redford. This reversal of the poles, which is characteristic of the genre and which will also occur in the final “coup de théatre” of The Parallax View, Marathon Man (John Schlesinger, 1976) and The Conversation (was Robert Duvall really the victim of a conspiracy seeking to assassinate him or was it all just in Gene Hackman’s imagination?) speaks volumes about the centre’s capacity to become peripheral at any given moment. There is no more focal point, no more periphery, just a series of hyper-mobile cells exchanging their qualities. This being the case, in all of the aforementioned films, this reversion is still an event – for the character, of course, but also for the spectator watching the metamorphosis of the System in progress. In The Matrix, meanwhile, it has become the rule, a mode of reconfiguration systematised everywhere. After being disconnected from the Matrix in order to subjugate it (at the end of the first instalment), Agent Smith, Neo’s virtual, negative double, undertakes a massive reprogramming of the inhabitants of the Matrix, who he transforms into clones. With his capacity to switch between centre and periphery (and thereby putting an end to the very concepts), Smith alone embodies the principal of reversibility, he is its ideal implementer – in The Matrix Reloaded, for example, he “re-converts” a tramp into his perfect double. By inserting his hand into the bodies of his victims, Smith does not only reproduce the gesture by which Max Renn is programmed in Videodrome, he also brings about a kind of accelerated snatching (a few seconds are enough for the duplication to take place). Beyond the avowed affinity with earlier cinematic models, the speed with which this is executed allows us to grasp a certain condition of the contemporary spectator, who has seen the body snatchers of Don Siegel, Philip Kaufman and Abel Ferrara in action and already knows the transformation process “now restored in the imagination […] by the game of a type of mental programming.” (61)

Resisting the centre

The absence of exteriority to the System is explained, in part, by its capacity to surround everything and ceaselessly reconfigure it, since no position is possible other than being inside it. In Michael Mann’s The Insider, Al Pacino, a former student of Herbert Marcuse who has become an investigative journalist for the CBS network, also experiences the System as a totality when his report on tobacco manufacturers is refused broadcast due to “collateral consequences.” (62)

A third type of resistance is called upon, which does not take into account the cartography of the System (being impossible to pick out) so much as the dynamic of the trajectories that can be followed within it. This is the advent of a total, systemic world, a hyper-Mabusian world, evoking the man of reverie described by Bachelard, “truly inhabiting the entire volume of his space […] occupying his entire world, in an inside which has no outside.” (63) From this point on, the System is everywhere, and therefore nowhere, encompassing and ungraspable, like H.G. Wells’ invisible hero. From a political point of view, it is the viral moment of resistance, whose most successful moment up till now (64) has been provided by the Matrix trilogy. The virus is “an enemy, but we know nothing about it. Has it even a function? A vital function? It gets very difficult to protect yourself from it. These are problems the System itself has to answer, in terms of its self-defence. But those who wish to attack the System from the rear also face the same problem, since you have necessarily to follow the same lines of defence and attack.(65) In parallel to the war between the Machines protecting the Matrix and the Humans, another confrontation, which radicalises and resumes its principles, opposes Neo and Agent Smith. If the trilogy ends with their duel – Neo at the height of his power against Smith’s armies – it is because they both incarnate the same form of viral resistance, the same fatal strategy (“We will find subtle forms of radicalising secret qualities; we will fight obscenity with its own weapons” (66)) up against a System that one wishes to eradicate, and the other wishes to dominate. They both possess the same “passion for intensifying, for escalation, for an increase in power, for ecstasy – for any quality at all, provided that, ceasing to be relative to its opposite […] it becomes superlative, positively sublime, as if it had absorbed all the energy of its opposite.” (67) If Neo appears as the virus of the Matrix (in any case, he develops the modus operandi of the virus by infiltrating and re-routing its operations), Agent Smith is its cancer. The potentialisation of the secret qualities of the System comes up against the potentialisation of the Same, but both prove that “it is still possible to generate an event in this system, by producing something which, while taking on its form, pushes it to the extreme and takes it from behind. This is a strategy of thought akin to martial arts.” (68) There is no more frontal resistance, against which the Matrix is completely immunised (a conception which prevails in Zion), but a pure intelligence of the Other. This, by the way, is how Neo succeeds, where Joe Frady (from The Parallax View) had failed. For Smith, who considers humanity to be “like a virus”, the ruse consists of “respond[ing] to the simulation in which one imprisons them with an enthusiastic social process that surpasses the objectives and functions as a destructive hypersimulation.” (69) By dint of proliferating, Smith becomes the Matrix’s dissident metastasis, which threatens to make it collapse under the weight of its own de-multiplication (the crumbling and the crushing of structures are recurrent motifs in the trilogy), which threatens to precipitate it, proving to what degree it is the System itself which, in an involuntary and endogenous manner, secretes the weapons prone to endangering it, to provoking its collapse through saturation, in the same way that it is the mass itself which doubly threatened mass culture and the building of the Pompidou Centre in Baudrillard’s catastrophe scenario. “Simulation is the ecstasy of the real”, just as Agent Smith is the ecstasy of the Matrix, its faithful servant, having become, after an incoercible demiurgic fever, its destructive agent. “The only revolution in things is today no longer in their dialectical transcendence […] but in their potentialisation, in their elevation to the second power, in their elevation to the nth power, whether that of terrorism, irony or simulation.” (70) If Agent Smith physically threatens the Matrix, Neo threatens it by wrapping it up, by twirling it around, by ecstatic processes which inform, from a plastic, figurative point of view, all the action sequences of the trilogy. Thus, the multiple combats which oppose Neo to a mass of Agent Smiths in The Matrix II (in a plaza, in the sky, in a castle, and so on) systematically function around the capacity of the adversaries to occupy the centre of the frame. This is where maximum power and exceptional speed are acquired. The other must therefore be centrifugally pushed towards the edges of the frame or beyond (into the hors-champ), and installed in the centre of the device. This is an aesthetic and political challenge, since, in the (good) American cinema, there is no understanding of form which does not rest on a political statement. (71)

In America, Baudrillard writes: “They [the Americans – J.-B.T.] build the real out of ideas. We transform the real into ideas, or into ideology. Here in America, only what is produced, or manifested has meaning; for us in Europe only what can be thought or concealed has meaning. Even materialism is only an idea in Europe. It is in America that it becomes concretely realised in the technical operation of things, in the transformation of a way of thinking into a way of life, in the ‘action’ of life, (‘action’ in the film-making sense, as what happens when the cameras begin to roll. For the materiality of things is, of course, their cinematography.” (72)

From a spatial point of view, Zion is presented as the perfect negative of the Matrix, a reticular, unstable and virtual world. In Zion, there is a belief in the permanence of the System, its fixed nature, the unchangeable nature of its topography, and it is therefore completely natural that the architecture of its spaces follows this classical conception to its most minute details. Zion resembles a cave which is centred and closed in on itself. Its space is structured around a hall (the dock) covered by a circular dome which constitutes its principle entry point – in the end, the machines will penetrate this site by piercing a bottleneck in the centre of the vault. The pyramidal organisation of political power follows the same principle, from the base (the inhabitants) to the summit (the Council of Zion). This is an almost archaic spatial arrangement which evokes the subterranean worlds of Jules Verne, but which primarily indicates a coincidence between architectural order, knowledge and history, as an astronomical totality. (73) Zion would thus be the utopian extension of the shot in All the President’s Men, framing the two Washington Post journalists from the dome of the Library of Congress, symbolically situated in the centre of the reading room. A type of classical resistance ensues from this topography, driven by Commander Lock (sic), who only believes in frontal opposition, in a one-on-one confrontation, from a position exterior to the Matrix, but its ineffectiveness will be demonstrated by the final battle in Matrix Revolutions. “Simulation is the master, and we only have a right to retro, to the phantom, parodic rehabilitation of all lost referentials.” (74) Zion thus appears as both the last avatar to date of our melancholy for the system, and the fundamental passion of an American cinema which strives to come to terms with this fact. The theoretical and political power of The Matrix, as a palimpsest, resides in its mise-en-scène of this opposition (frontal resistance versus fatal strategy) and in its capacity to cast light on the metamorphoses of the System and its limits through space.

For, in the end, the Wachowski brothers’ trilogy gives a verdict on the most productive position: the Source, the Matrix’s nodal point, its site of conception, a circular room clad with television screen, in which Neo finally meets the Matrix’s designer. Not an ideologue, as would no doubt have been the case in the European version of the film, but an architect. This is not only the great political lesson of the trilogy but one of the major points of disjunction between it and Baudrillard’s thinking: certainly, there is only a truly fatal resistance in the centre (a principle which fuses both the film’s formal standpoints and its political subtext, as comprehension of the narrative challenges in the story’s perturbations in fact passes through an understanding of the topographical and dynamic mechanisms at stake) but the sudden reconfiguration of the Matrix around a nodal point, from a centre which is once again active and incarnate, cancels out the radical reticular hypothesis that the trilogy had nonetheless posited. As if, due to the melancholy for the system, the film could not be resolved with its own theoretical logic and reactivate, in fine, the classical (and in this case regressive) myth of the individual up against the System. For no matter who the individual, no matter what the System, their relationship is, for the American cinema, a formative one, and, between its utopian re-enchantment and its pure and simple disappearance, it will always wager on the former.

In the American cinema, particularly in The Matrix, topography and politics are indissoluble, and the spectator will only be able to fully enjoy the spectacle at the price of a detour through a reflection on the question of Order, resistance and opposition, and the relationship between the individual and the collective. (75) Short of positing the (seductive) hypothesis according to which Zion is nothing but a third order simulation produced by the Matrix in order to generate, in a reverse shot of itself, the fiction of the real (76) – which would fully affiliate the trilogy to the reticular theorem of an all-encompassing System without exteriority – the dialogue with Baudrillard formed by The Matrix (77) would ultimately provide little interest if all we saw in it was a filming of the theory of simulation (whose false kinship is defined by its author, who has pointed to the ontological invalidity of wanting to represent the simulacrum – which is impossible to depict – or the process of simulation, which is impossible to isolate): “There is, in fact, no room for both natural intelligence and artificial intelligence. There is no room for both the world and its double at the same time.(78) In contrast, if the encounter is moved to the political terrain, we can understand what, in the American cinema, could interest the author of La transparence du Mal, even while the former has made him an object of appropriation and reformulation more in phase with the myth of individual, alone against everyone, the founding myth of American-ness, which is always repeated in the critical cinema. The American cinema, with its convulsive history, from the glorious confidence of the 1950s to the disenchanted re-evaluation of the 1970s, has found ample material in Baudrillard’s thought with which to think about the nature of the System, to anticipate its mutations, to envisage the type of action which could be used against it, and Baudrillard’s writings have thus been utilised as theoretical, dissident weapons. The constant link made by Baudrillard between America, its space and its culture doubtless furnishes one of the essential reasons for this prolific alliance, and the important resonance it has been able to have on the American mind. “As soon as you set foot in America, you feel the presence of an entire continent – space there is the very form of thought.” (79) “Monument Valley is the geology of the Earth, the mausoleum of the Indians, and the camera of John Ford,” (80) wrote Baudrillard in America, a poetic essay entirely constructed on the discovery, and the radiography, of a culture on the basis of its space, from the analysis of New York City (and the threat of its collapse as the only catastrophic exit-point of its verticality) to the horizontality of Los Angeles. For Baudrillard’s thought is indeed an abstract thought (and hence difficult to convert or represent practically), it is abstract in the same way geometry can be. To read Baudrillard is to deliver oneself, almost against one’s wishes, to a geometric modelling of the ideas uttered. From the figure of ecstasy to that of catastrophe, from the disappearance of dialectic polarities to the viral riposte, from flights of enthusiasm to reversive strategies, Baudrillardian language teems with spatial metaphors, translatable into multiple topographical models, which the American cinema, in the name of an almost unconscious sympathy (given its Frontier history (81)) has re-appropriated for itself. Speed: “Akin to the nostalgia for living forms that haunts geometry.” (82) What doe the cinema of space par excellence think about when it dreams of Baudrillard? It thinks about lines (dialectical polarity), about maps (the precession of the map over the territory), about networks (reversibility and the circular forms of commutation), about hyperbola (potentialisation), about interstices (viral strategies) and about spirals (ecstatic enthusiasm and thought as precipitation). In short, it thinks about fatal spaces of resistance.

Translated by Daniel Fairfax

Originally published in Baudrillard, Les Cahiers de L’Herne (ed. François L’Yvonnet) #84, February 2005. Reprinted with kind permission of the author and publisher.


  1. Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), p. 162.
  2. Nicole Brenez, De la figure en général et du corps en particulier : L’invention figurative au cinéma (Brussels: De Boeck University, 1998), p. 11.
  3. Ibid.
  4. The term comes from Claude Gilbert Dubois in Le Maniérisme (Paris: PUF, 1979).
  5. Jean Baudrillard, “Crash”, in: Simulacra and Simulation, pp. 111-121.
  6. Note that David Cronenberg’s affinity to Baudrillard’s theories can be traced as far back as 1982, when the filmmaker made Videodrome, the first instalment of a speculative trilogy based on the reality principle and on the control of reality, which, before concerning itself with the sphere of simulation (Crash and eXistenZ) will make a stop-off in the work of McLuhan.
  7. “The Americans, for their part, have no sense of simulation. They are themselves simulation in its most developed state, but they have no language in which to describe it, since they themselves are the model.” Jean Baudrillard, America, trans. Chris Turner (London/New York: Verso, 1988), p. 28.
  8. Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism, trans. Chris Turner (London/New York: Verso, 2002), p. 29.
  9. See: Stéphane Bou and Jean-Baptiste Thoret, “11 septembre 2001 : la pensée face à l’événement : Conversation avec Jean Baudrillard” in Simulacres No. 6 “Ruines 2”, March 2002.
  10. Baudrillard, America, p. 95.
  11. Jean Baudrillard, The Perfect Crime, trans. Chris Turner (London/New York: Verso, 1996), p. 102.
  12. Ibid., p. 71.
  13. “The models no longer constitute either transcendence or projection, they no longer constitute the imaginary in relation to the real, they are themselves an anticipation of the real, and thus leave no room for any sort of fictional anticipation.” Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, p. 123.
  14. See: “The China Syndrome”, in: Ibid., pp. 53-59.
  15. See: “Apocalypse Now”, in: Ibid., pp. 59-61.
  16. Jean Baudrillard, The Intelligence of Evil or the Lucidity Pact, trans. Chris Turner (Oxford/New York: Berg, 2005), p. 118.
  17. Umberto Eco, De Superman au surhomme (Paris: Le Livre de Poche, 1978), p. 132. As Alain Masson notes: “In Hollywood, the 1940s and 1950s were the most fertile decades for remakes: duplicates reach, and surpass, 10% of total production levels, a proportion which has never been attained before or since.” (“Améremake”, Positif #459 (May 1999), p. 76).
  18. Baudrillard, America, p. 108.
  19. Peter Biskind, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock’n’Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998), p. 235.
  20. Baudrillard, America, p. 108.
  21. Ibid., p. 88.
  22. Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures, trans. Chris Turner (London: Sage Publications, 1998), p. 99.
  23. Baudrillard, America, p. 107.
  24. Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, p. 39.
  25. “We can either perish under the weight of the non-degradable waste of the great empires, the grand narratives, the great systems made obsolete by their own gigantism, or else recycle all this waste in the synthetic form of a heteroclite history.” In: Jean Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End, trans. Chris Turner (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), p. 27.
  26. Baudrillard, America, p. 108.
  27. Ibid., p. 110.
  28. “Cypher”, collective entry in: “Glossary of the major symbols, concepts and characters”, in: Matrix, machine philosophique (Paris: Ellipses, 2003), p. 165.
  29. Baudrillard, The Consumer Society, p. 99.
  30. Jean-François Rauger, “Remakes américains”, in: Jacques Aumont (ed.) Pour un cinéma comparé (Paris: Cinémathèque française, 1996), p. 241.
  31. “It seems we are condemned to the infinite retrospective of all that has preceded us.” Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End, p. 25.
  32. Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, p. 45.
  33. Ibid. p. 23.
  34. Baudrillard, The Intelligence of Evil, p. 59.
  35. Jean Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena, trans. James Benedict (London/New York: Verso, 1993), p. 122.
  36. Cited in: Philippe Arnaud, “Les Vampires”, in: Jacques Aumont (ed.) L’invention de la figure humaine (Paris: Cinémathèque française, 1995), p. 308.
  37. Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, p. 21.
  38. Philippe Arnaud, “Les Vampires”, p. 316.
  39. Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, p. 2.
  40. Ibid.
  41. Jean Baudrillard, Fragments: Conversations with François L’Yvonnet, trans. Chris Turner (London: Routledge, 2004), pp. 71-72.
  42. Roughly speaking: conspiracy movies, to be understood here as films with a narrative structure founded on the opposition between an individual and a secret system which tends to absorb it.
  43. Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, p. 82.
  44. Ibid., p. 23-24.
  45. This does not mean that the American cinema, in the permanent revival of an undertaking to resurrect prior models, no longer produces anachronistic films based on outmoded models which still lend credence to the system’s old topography (and therefore to a Neo-Capra-style resistance against it). See, for example, Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brokovich (2000) and Traffic (2000).
  46. The following passage is extracted from a chapter of my book, 26 secondes, l’Amérique éclaboussée : L’assassinat de JFK et le cinéma américain (Paris: Rouge Profond, 2003).
  47. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (London: George, Allen & Unwin, 1967 [1951]), pp. 352, 362.
  48. Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, p. 3.
  49. Don DeLillo, Libra (New York: Viking, 1988), p. 179.
  50. François Happe, Don DeLillo (Paris: Belin, 2000), p. 92.
  51. Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, p. 55-56.
  52. The political assassination, the murder in an automobile, the sniper rifle (similar to the Mannlicher-Carcano used by Oswald), and even the desperate flight by Joe Frady from darkness into the light, then a black silhouette bursting onto screen whose shape recalls that of Jack Ruby breaking into the darkened corridors of the Dallas police station before killing Oswald.
  53. Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simluation, p. 16.
  54. See: Ibid., p. 17.
  55. Ibid. 31.
  56. Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1994), p. 14.
  57. See, for example, Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974), The Stepford Wives (Bryan Forbes, 1975), The Nickel Ride (Robert Mulligan, 1974), Last Embrace (Jonathan Demme, 1979).
  58. After the Kennedy assassination the film was notably withdrawn from distribution.
  59. Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, p. 17.
  60. Ibid, p. 29.
  61. Rauger, “Remakes américains”, p. 245.
  62. See: Jean-Baptiste Thoret “The Aquarium Syndrome: On the Films of Michael Mann”, in: Senses of Cinema #19 (2001), www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/01/19mann.html.
  63. Gaston Bachelard, Poétique de la rêverie (Paris: PUF, 1986), p. 144.
  64. Along with Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999).
  65. Baudrillard, Fragments, p. 72.
  66. Jean Baudrillard, Fatal Strategies, trans. Philip Beitchman and W.G.J. Niesluchowski (New York: Autonomedia, 1990), p. 7.
  67. Ibid., p. 9.
  68. Jean Baudrillard, “Illusion, désillusion et esthétique”, in: Jean-Olivier Majastre (ed.) Sans oublier Baudrillard (Brussels: La Lettre volée, 1996), p. 207.
  69. Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, p. 69.
  70. Baudrillard, Fatal Strategies, p. 41.
  71. “We will postulate that space, and, more precisely, topography, is the form of a thought. The problem is not to think space; it is space which itself thinks. Instead of subjecting it, we have to give it some room to move.” Frank Lestringuant, Le Livre des îles : Atlas et récits insulaires de la Genèse à Jules Verne (Geneva: Droz, 2002), p. 31.
  72. Baudrillard, America, pp. 84-85.
  73. On the question of topography as totality, see: Charles Leary, “What is the Matrix? Cinema, Totality and Topophilia”, in: Senses of Cinema #32 (2004), http://sensesofcinema.com/contents/04/32/matrix.html. See also: Frederic Jameson: The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995).
  74. Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, p. 39.
  75. The Wachowski brothers’ film represents yet more proof of the incontestable power of the American cinema, and of certain of its blockbusters, which are capable of occupying the entire breadth of the spectrum, from the majoritarian to the minoritarian, from the popular to the political, because one does not work without the other. Is The Matrix Reloaded a film of resistance right in the heart of the Hollywood matrix?
  76. “Disneyland exists in order to hide that it is the ‘real’ country, all of ‘real’ America that is Disneyland.” Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, p. 12. Let us note, in passing, that the humans connected to the Matrix, and whose energy it uses for fuel, evoke “a sympathetic nervous system made up of childhood signals and faked phantasms.” Ibid., p. 13.
  77. Let us recall that Simulacra and Simulation makes an appearance in the beginning of the first opus, in Neo’s bedroom.
  78. Baudrillard, The Perfect Crime, p. 36.
  79. Baudrillard, America, p. 16.
  80. Ibid., p. 70.
  81. Let us recall that the mythology of the Frontier, on the basis of which America has constructed its representations, was, in effect, this line of division and exclusion which found a formidable promotional vehicle in the classical cinema, and above all in the Western. In a country whose history is written retroactively by the cinema, there has therefore always been a very close relationship between interrogating the notion of Frontier (and with it American History in general) and the administration of the limits of the frame, whose breach determined not only the status of American space, but also that of society as a whole at the given moment of the narrative. As if, on the level of mise-en-scène, Frontier mythology and its binary logic (Good vs Evil, Self vs the Other, Civilisation vs Barbarism) was rediscovered, in part, in the type of relationship governing the field [champ] (the space of Good) and the hors champ (the space of the Other).
  82. Baudrillard, America, p. 7.

About The Author

Jean-Baptiste Thoret is Editor-in-Chief of the French journal Panic and author of Le Cinéma américain des années 70 (Éditions Cahiers du Cinéma, 2006). He is currently working on a book on Michael Mann.