I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.
Preston Barta // Features Editor
In A Glitch in the Matrix, a head movie from Magnolia Pictures of the most ambitious order, filmmaker Rodney Ascher reaches high, with his thoughts and animated graphics soaring. Shown recently at the Sundance Film Festival, where audiences had the opportunity to jump in a virtual reality of their own to discuss the material, the documentary addresses many of life’s bigger questions of existence. It seeks to cause us to debate on whether or not we’re living in a computer-programmed reality.
A Glitch in the Matrix is Ascher’s follow-up to 2015’s The Nightmare and 2013’s Room 237. It’s a beautiful, trippy, and impressionistic work that unfolds largely through testimonies, philosophical evidence, and scientific explanation. Prepare for your head to run just as soon as Ascher introduces the film with a Zoom call (featuring an avatar that feels plucked from World of Warcraft). Your mind will continue to sink further down the rabbit hole when a 1977 conference with sci-fi author Philip K. Dick appears throughout.
To peel back a few of the many layers, Fresh Fiction recently spoke with Ascher. Below is a transcription of a conversation about the nature of our reality, balancing complex ideas, and how the film causes us to think about life’s patterns.
Preston Barta: Are you prepared to be asked about this film for the rest of your life?
Rodney Ascher: “[Laughs] I don’t know. People are still asking me about Room 237.”
I suppose that’s true. There’s a bit of a common thread in your filmography: an interest in the human mind. Room 237 taps into the mind of a creative; The Nightmare tries to make sense of our dreams; and this, trying to make sense of our reality. Did this film cause you to think about any commonality across your work?
“Yes. It’s funny. A lot of it’s just in hindsight, right? I mean, I can see that eventual widening of the lens, but it isn’t as if there was a plan all along to do it this way. It’s just the way things tumbled into place. I’m attracted to not just mysteries but unsolvable ones. I go into these projects knowing that I’m going to get some interesting perspectives and opinions, but without the expectation or the hubris to think that I’m going to be the person to solve any of these questions for once and for all.”
I revisited the interviews you and I have done in the past. You said something in our interview for Room 237 that I found really interesting, especially when thinking about this film’s construction. You said, “When you break things down to their component parts, their meanings can change.”
When watching Glitch in the Matrix, my mind is going in so many different directions. The interviews could go in so many different directions. Meanings so easily could have changed by how you fit all these ideas together. Was it challenging for you to keep everything in a single lane?
“Yeah, absolutely. And not even that it can have so many meanings, but it can just have so many components. That simulation theory is such a broad topic. In the early days of this, I had this gigantic whiteboard, column after column, in different colored ink. It had every idea, every notion, every movie, every story, every philosopher—everything I know about physics that has anything to do with simulation theory. And as the movie went on, some of them would get crossed off, as they found themselves included, and others would get erased because we’re just not going to have the time to get there.”
“I’ve had the same sort of editing process on my films, where these interviews would get broken down into their component parts. In a two or three-hour interview that I might do with someone, it would turn into maybe nine really interesting three or four-minute little sequences. Then, each of those sequences would get a two-word name, such as Mexican Pyramid or Sensory Deprivation Tank. And as for me and my co-editor, Rachel Tejada, we would alternate between working on that one sequence—how long should it be, how much air should there be in the sequence, and guessing what the visuals are going to be like. But then also taking the post-it that just has those two words and grouping that into sequences, and then chapters, then ultimately the whole movie. I mean, I think it’s the same way that a lot of people write screenplays, right?”
“That on an index card, they’ll write the idea for a scene, and they’ll move the index cards around on the wall, as a way of being able to move between writing the scene and then looking at the way that that scene fits into the big picture. Editing a movie is constantly trying to move from the micro to the macro and then going back to that original board and how many things didn’t get in. At a certain point, you have to make peace because there may not be a definitive film on the subject that’s possible. Certainly, it’s not going to be this one. And if I’ve missed many important milestones that maybe you can find on the Wikipedia article, like the deprivation tank, like Paul talking to his uncle at the barbecue, that wouldn’t come up in somebody else’s version of this story.”
I feel like style, form, and content come together quite well in this film. I love that the interviews feature avatars, and the content never stops being compelling. Do you have thoughts on what creates a great marriage among style, form, and content?
“I don’t know if there’s anything more to it other than to think about it, think about it, and overthink about it. And it could be because I don’t come from a journalism background. I was much more interested in music videos and horror movies than in documentaries or traditional journalism. So, thinking about the form, style, look, and sound of it are things that come naturally to me in any project.”
“And then, because these are documentary projects, where I talk to real people, I try to be very conscious of that. That’s an element that maybe I need to train myself to be especially attentive to because I’m coming from a background with a special interest in form and style and then trying to do justice to the content. And so, in a way, that’s harder work for me, something that’s more deliberate, something that I have to talk with Rachel as I’m editing this. And am I being fair to this person? Is this an accurate summary of what they said? Do we have enough of these ideas to make this interesting? And then, when it’s time to talk about how it looks and sounds, that’s just play. That’s the fun of it.”
Because all your films push higher than what’s expected with a documentary or a critical analysis, what’s that internal dialogue like for you? I watch this and wonder how much you think about going against the grain, thinking outside the box, and how to keep it all grounded?
“Yeah. I mean, I don’t know if I ever got to a point where I said, ‘That’s too much.’ I think we kept pushing and pushing. Another aspect of the process is watching and re-watching the work in progress again and again.”
“With the Philip K. Dick speech, I had many more pieces of it cut, and some of them were really very interesting. And there was actually a chapter where he was talking about the impeachment of Richard Nixon. And we were editing that sequence during the former president’s first impeachment, and it played really well. And it was really kind of fascinating, but there was no place for it. And we, for our structure, at one point, it went from nine, to eight, to seven chapters. And the fewer chapters, the fewer slots for that speech.”
“After the harrowing journey of Josh Cook’s story [who, in 2003, shot his parents to death in their Virginia home], there was some playful section of Philip K. Dick’s speech about traveling between the future and the past and this other thing of reality. I felt while watching it as an audience member, ‘We’ve had about enough from you. Your story is over now. All I want from you is a nice little wrap-up. I’m not ready for another build.’ So, that’s not really about the style going too far, but I mean, sometimes the content.”
When did Philip K. Dick’s work first strike you, and how did this speech in your film open your mind and creativity up more?
“Like most, I discovered him through Blade Runner and Total Recall. I read [the book on which Blade Runner is based, titled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?], and I didn’t quite get it the first time I read it, because it was so different from the movie. But eventually, I would go back and pick out one, here and there, and I fell in love with [Dick’s 1974 sci-fi novel Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said]. I think it’s still one of my favorites.”
“One of my favorite adaptations is Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, which holds up really well. That movie is a pretty fair one to go fishing with for a project like this. I didn’t expect to find Alex Jones ranting into a bullhorn and being dragged away in an unmarked van in that movie. It’s not first-hand Dick, you know? It’s Linklater interpreting him, but still, just that image feels a lot like Dick, which is to say, a halfway-mangled prophecy of the future.”
“Conversations with this movie seem to have a way of leading toward January 6th. And, if I’m not wrong, he was there with a bullhorn at a certain point. We couldn’t have anticipated that. The movie had been edited and locked since August . But those weird coincidences and synchronicities seemed to have a way of getting attracted to these projects.”
Has this film caused you to think back on any possible bizarre patterns in your life to see if there are any deeper meanings there?
“I’ve given up on looking for the meanings of them, but I still notice them, time and time again. For this one, we were lucky enough to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, but Sundance was a virtual film festival, which was very strange. Sundance is famous for having good parties. And, in sort of a show-must-go-on spirit, they put one together, only it was in VR. So, I put on the goggles, and I met the cast and crew and some audience members and Sundance folks. But we were all in a virtual reality, talking about this movie, which couldn’t have been a more appropriate place to do it, but it was such an unlikely turn of events.”
Has this film changed your fears and your relationship with the fears you explored in your previous films?
“A little bit. I’ve been watching more horror movies and meeting folks in the horror community at film festivals. I’ve tried to reflect on what’s scary and what’s scary to me, and what does that mean?”
“I found Josh Cook’s sequence in this movie pretty scary, and some folks have described it as such. It’s not being scared of something painful or dangerous happening to you, but the fear of doing something terrible. This world is a pretty difficult place to understand, and it’s easy to imagine making mistakes. I’ve made a ton of mistakes, none of them with the consequences of that one, knock on wood. It’s like The Shining, too. When I watched The Shining as a kid, it’s scary to think about your dad turning on you. But what’s scary about watching that movie as an adult, and I’m a father, is you falling into that place and turning against your family. Confronting the worst possible version of yourself is the scariest thing.”
Lastly, with all these thoughtful concepts you’ve explored in your filmography, are you ever truly done with them? I guess this brings it around to my first question. Do you still find yourself wrapped up in the thoughts you’ve examined in your films?
“No, I mostly put it down. I’ll talk about The Shining or sleep paralysis with people, often as a way of being social. But for the most part, my quote-unquote obsession with those topics was exorcized by the process of making them and then watching it with an audience and talking about it with people like you. I imagine, before the end of the year, I’ll keep tabs on simulation theory (out of sort of professional interest), but I won’t be driven to dig deeper. I’ll be happily down the next rabbit hole by then.”
A Glitch in the Matrix is now available On-Demand.