"The Matrix" as a Lesson in Anthropology

Interview With J.J. Muñoz García, Professor of Anthropology and Ethics

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MADRID, Spain, JUNE 9, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Juan José Muñoz García, author of «Cinema and Human Mystery,» says that the cinema continues to be a favorite instrument to understand the human being.

Muñoz uses the movie «The Matrix» to analyze some tendencies of contemporary thought: «There are some in our postmodern era who are satisfied with weak thought: mere opinions or simple facts. They assert, like Cipher in ‘The Matrix,’ that ignorance is bliss.»

The cinema explains to us how the human being is, says Muñoz, who calls it «the principal storyteller» of our times.

Muñoz is professor of anthropology and ethics in the field of communication at the Villanueva University Center, attached to the Complutense University. He is also a professor of philosophy at the Colegio Retamar.

Q: What do you mean when you describe the cinema as the principal anthropologist of our time?

Muñoz: I only try to remind the reader that we have all learned what it means to be a good son or a good brother by listening to stories. Thanks to stories, we learned what it means to be a person, and how we should behave in life.

The basic norms of behavior became tangible when we heard stories and narratives with a moral. When we grew up, literature fulfilled this function. Classics like «Don Quixote,» «Crime and Punishment,» «Life Is a Dream,» or «Henry V» showed us that the greatness of human life is in the capacity to surmount difficulties, and in the search for meaning in life.

Reading Shakespeare, for example, we might learn the consequences of exaggerated jealousy — «Othello»; excessive doubt — «Hamlet»; or the desire for power — «Macbeth.» To this was added the good fortune of being able to see in our daily life close models who embodied values that made life worth living.

This didactic function of art has manifested itself in all cultures. Its success hinges on the fact that human life has a narrative structure. We love to hear stories because we are not merely biology. We also have a biography, that is, our life is a plan, a story that must have meaning.

However, for several decades, the cinema has been the principal storyteller. The seventh art has taken on, to a great extent, the anthropological role that formerly literature and traditions had.

As Julián Marías has noted, the cinema has become a great educational power. And if we want to be involved in anthropology today, we cannot ignore the big screen.

Very different films like «The Matrix,» «Sense and Sensibility,» "Toy Story,» «Lord of the Rings,» «Les Miserables,» «Life Is Beautiful,» or «Awakenings» are lessons of implicit anthropology, as they are telling us, with pictures, what the human being is.

However, the audiovisual world is not enough to know in-depth the mystery of the human person. It needs to be completed with the thought of philosophers and theologians.

Q: Why do you think that we are like Cipher, the character in «The Matrix,» who despite his knowledge, prefers to remain anchored in appearances and to abandon the struggle for truth?

Muñoz: To discover truth and allow it to possess us is a journey that is not made only with the support of the intelligence. As Plato and Aristotle pointed out, and psychologists tell us about the emotional intelligence, to arrive at truth requires effort and ethical habits.

Unfortunately, there are many in our postmodern era who are satisfied with weak thought: mere opinions or simple facts. Like Cipher in «The Matrix,» they say that ignorance is bliss. And immediately, they make decisions that attack human dignity, such as killing the unborn or terminal patients, or give their consent to the freezing and manipulation of human embryos.

I think that the main character in «The Matrix» lets us observe how truth and ethics go hand in hand. By denying the first, to stay with appearances, Cipher denies the second, and immediately betrays his companions. This is why it is so dangerous to say that there are no certainties, only subjective opinions, as in this way we open the doors to the arbitrary will of the strongest — be he a scientist, a communicator, or a politician.

Q: So, then, one can come out of «The Matrix.» Is it possible to escape from the cavern?

Muñoz: Of course. This escape was already referred to in Plato’s «Republic,» in Descartes’ «Discourse on Method,» and in Calderon’s «Life Is a Dream.»

Moreover, it is a basic idea of all religions, which is effectively realized in Christianity: The things we apprehend at first sight are not the sole or fundamental reality; there is something beyond.

We must transcend the immediate, without denying its relative value, and not be slaves to sensations and instincts. It is possible to escape from the cavern, but we need help to be delivered from that slavery.

Although we live in a society that worships appearances and pictures — a defect that the tabloid press and «reality shows» exploit — we know that it is possible to surmount the shadows of the Platonic cavern because every human being has a desire for transcendence. We feel, like Neo in «The Matrix,» an anxiety that drives us to seek genuine reality.

Hence, the fact that a life given to the purely external gives way to the most absolute emptiness, unhappiness and depression. Suffice it to read the biographies of some of the famous to see that nothing that surrounds us satisfies us fully.

Only the fullness of truth, goodness and beauty can satisfy our infinite longing and desire.

Q: Can technical competence and a dose of humanity produce quality films?

Muñoz: Indeed. There are examples of it in the course of the centennial history of the seventh art. In fact, the films that are most liked by the public are often those that have a great human content.

And the ones I analyze in the book as master lessons of implicit anthropology fulfill those requisites. To cite only some examples: «Marvin’s Room,» «Solas,» «Shadowlands,» «The Oil of Life,» «Cyrano de Bergerac» or «Cradle Song.»

I think that to be creative it is not enough to control the special effects, musical techniques or the photography. The artist molds ambits of human life in his works, and the spectator molds what he wants — although at times it might seem the opposite — the spectator wants to see from his seat the person portrayed with faithfulness, not debased to the condition of an object or instinctive animal.

Q: How can the mistrust that so many Catholics have of the cinema be overcome?

Muñoz: I would recommend that they read John Paul II’s Letter to Artists. In it he says that «beauty is the key to mystery and a call to the transcendent.»

The cinema has this capacity to «make perceptible, more than that, to make fascinating insofar as possible, the world of the spirit.» It is a means to express the mystery of the human being, «translating it into colors, forms and sounds that help the intuition of the one who looks and listens. All this without depriving the message itself of its transcendent value.»

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