Don’t Shade Me, Bro

What do The Matrix Resurrections, Spider-Man: No Way Home, West Side Story, Macbeth, Drive My Car, and the new Scream have in common?

They all make their bones by being in deep conversation with a pre-existing piece of art. Ahistorical trendsters (philistines?) might be inclined to label 2021 as the year that cinema really went into the meta-verse, and though this predilection is definitely more popular in a concentrated way now than before, postmodern referentialism ain’t new.

Which is why simply referencing prior art isn’t a virtue in itself. As always, people: it’s not the what, but the how. What’s the nature of the conversation, and what’s it in service of?

For example:

The Matrix Resurrections explores the underpinnings of this artistic cyclicality, and the franchise’s role in perpetuating it, satirizing our desire for the same stories in recycled — but slightly different — forms. Most sequels in some way reinterpret previous installments…but Resurrections delves into literal re-interpretations of the first movie; we see clips from it, and then the characters debate possible explanations of what the scenes could possibly represent. Can you say: exegesis (I mean, the religiosity is right there in the title)! 

As such, the entire movie can be understood as Lana Wachowski using the world she created — and is recreating — to wrestle with her own legacy, specifically her specific place in the aforementioned cycle. It’s the artist’s journey writ large on a giant scale, a personal reckoning with the hamster wheel on the factory line of commercial re-commodification.

This navel-gazing thematic framework acts as a form of artistic lampshading. Oh, you think certain parts reek of uninspired rehashing? Well, that’d be thematically on-point, and thus justified! It’s like how designing a dog to chase its own tail inoculates the designer from criticisms that their dog ain’t going anywhere new.

Perhaps that’s one reason artists are so obsessed with the rearview mirror.

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