Last week in this space, I pondered the success of Tyler Perry's latest film, Madea's Family Reunion, which to date has grossed over $62 million (the bulk of that in the first 24 days of its run). Then over the weekend, I listened to a fantastic conversation on Integral Naked between philosopher Ken Wilber and Matrix director Larry Wachowski chatting it up about the heavily Buddhist philosophy and intricate storyline of the Matrix films**, and followed that up with this excellent piece on Zen Buddhism in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill films. Madea's Family Reunion, the Matrix triology, and Kill Bill - a group of films that on the surface appear to have almost no overlap, other than big box office returns - have more in common than you might think.
(Editor's note: As one of our readers pointed out, to access the interview, you have to join Integral Naked, which costs $10 a month - something I didn't realize at the time because my husband has an account, so when he sent me the URL to it, I was able to log right in. If you're into Ken Wilber, it's a bargain; if you're not into deep philosophical discussions that make your brain bleed, then just read the summary of the interview at the link, above, which you should be able to read without paying. It's a pretty thorough summary. Regardless, my apologies for not disclosing that you would have to pay to hear the interview yourself - KV.)
The two (so far) Madea films have a combined gross of over $112 million. The Matrix trilogy? Over $592 million. And Kill Bill, Parts One and Two, combined for $136 million (all numbers from Box Office Mojo). That's a lot of millions there - and three very different types of films. So what drew moviegoers to theaters to see these films in droves, while others languished?
For one thing, the directors, Tyler Perry, the Wachowski brothers, and Quentin Tarantino, all take something fairly serious - an underlying intellectual or spiritual theme - and wrap it in a package so entertaining and compelling that viewers are inexorably drawn in. Before the audience knows it, and perhaps without them even realizing it, the message of the film is delivered. Questions are planted in thousands of minds, inspiring debate and discussion on issues much deeper than they thought they were getting when they bought their popcorn. (The same, by the way, is true with the Wachowski's current film, V for Vendetta - I'm hearing lots of conversations about that film.)
Madea, for instance, is heavily laced with conservative Christian values - specifically African-American Christian values. Perry is smart enough to know that no one is going to shell out cash to see a play or a movie that's just boring and preachy. Folks can get that for free any given Sunday at their neighborhood church - if they go. Instead, he draws his audience into the world of Madea - a world that's funny and full of laughs in the context of the right audience (and probably, like that chest waxing scene from The 40-Year-Old-Virgin, even funnier in a packed theater of people laughing hysterically than it would be on your computer screen or plasma TV at home).
Perry holds theater-goers captive with comedy while dosing them subtly with values. Perry's audience relates to Madea. She typifies this almost mythical idea of the bossy, matriarchal grandmother, the one authority figure you wouldn't dare cross. No matter how bad-ass you think you are, you don't want to cross Madea. I suspect a lot of people went to the Madea films with groups of friends or family, because it's the kind of movie that really benefits from a communal viewing. Conveniently, the conservative values layered underneath the mostly harmless humor appeal to conservative leaders and ministers, who send their flocks to the film in droves, while Perry and Lionsgate sit back and count the stacks of cash as they plot their takeover of the movie world.
Then there are the Kill Bill films which are, on the surface, just a bloody, violent tale of revenge. But layered beneath the cool sword fights and multiple-rewind-worthy eyeball-snatchings, says David Simmonds in an article on beliefnet, is an exploration of Zen Buddhism and a "meditation on the Zen koan that provides the philosophical keynote for the plot: 'If you see the Buddha, kill him'." Simmonds argues that The Bride's journey through the two films is that of a spiritual warrior, and that the religious aspects of Tarantino's films tend to be overlooked. Simmonds makes a good point - Tarantino is a masterful storyteller who slips intricate story lines and ideas into showy packages. He's implied that some of his most spiritual moments - like Samuel L. Jackson quoting Ezekiel - were just the result of seeing or hearing something he liked, not put there by design; in any case, if spirituality and Buddhist teachings are interwoven in the Kill Bill films, even inadvertently, they are there with explicit intent in the Matrix trilogy.
In this conversation on Integral Naked, King-of-All-Things-Matrix Larry Wachowski elaborates on his refusal to discuss his view of the philosophy and meaning underlying the Matrix films. "You make a work of art and you want it to be provocative, you want people to dialogue about," Wachowski says, "The whole nature of the movie is about that. If we talked about it, because we are the filmmakers, our opinion would become law. I don't want to devalue anyone's experience." Rather than providing a director's commentary for the DVDs of the Matrix films, therefore, the Wachowskis asked Ken Wilber, a noted philosopher and theoretical psychologist who founded the Integral Institute, and professor, theologian and activist Cornel West, to record commentary - six hours worth - for The Matrix DVD Boxed Set.
We start out in The Matrix, Wilber says, believing we understand everything: inside the Matrix is lie; outside the Matrix is truth. Inside the Matrix is bad; outside the Matrix is good. Then in the second film, Matrix Reloaded, Neo discovers that the Oracle is a computer program - if computers equal bad, how can the Oracle be good? It throws us for a loop. As Wilber says, "when Neo finds out the Oracle is a computer program, we are taken out of the movie and into a very complex piece of literature." Wilber asserts that "body, mind and spirit" appear in the Matrix films in both their alienated forms and, by the end of the third film, in their integrated forms. Wilber's philosophical discussions can make the brain of the most intellectual of philosophical scholars bleed from the effort of grokking all his ideas, but at the heart what he is saying is the fact that the Matrix films are far more than the simple good guys-bad guys, sci-fi action films with cool martial arts effects they appear to be on the surface. The Wachowski brothers created in the Matrix a reality that spawns more questions than answers - questions that can be viewed as political, intellectual, or deeply spiritual, depending on the context you bring to them. On the other hand, if all you're looking for is a couple hours of kick-ass entertainment, the films (especially the first one) deliver on that level as well.
Therein lies the common thread among the Madea films, Kill Bill One and Two, and the Matrix trilogy - all of them work on multiple levels. Like Mary Poppins with her "spoonful of sugar" to help the medicine go down, they entertain those who just want to be entertained, while also providing a healthy dose of Christian morality (Madea), Zen Buddhism (Kill Bill), or mind-bending integral theory and spirituality (Matrix). You can find lots of films being churned out by Hollywood that aim way below this intellectual limbo bar, with goals of pure entertainment and minimal intellectual value. On the other end of the spectrum are the high-brow intellectual art house films that shoot so high above the bar that they get mired down in dreariness and forget to entertain. The films that are really going to draw people in droves to the theaters are those like Madea, Kill Bill and the Matrix, that find their path somewhere in the middle, with enough entertainment value to create buzz and get people flocking to the collective film-going experience, while delivering an intellectual or spiritual message that doesn't leave the viewer feeling only half-full when the closing credits roll.