What We Know
by MARTIN MULKEEN
dir. Phil Alden Robinson
To provide the formula of this ‘real virtual,’ let me refer to a recent paradoxical statement by none other than Donald Rumsfeld. I think that this statement was an important contribution to contemporary American philosophical debate. This happened in March 2003 just before the war on Iraq, where Rumsfeld elaborated the relationship between known and unknown. First he said there are ‘known knowns.’ There are things we know that we know. Like, we knew at that point that Saddam was the president of Iraq. Ok, everything clear. Then he went on: there are ‘known unknowns.’ There are things that we know that we don’t know. The idea was, for example, we know that we don’t know how many weapons of mass destruction Saddam has. Okay, now we know he had none, doesn’t matter, at that point it appeared like this. Then there is the ‘unknown unknown.’ Things we don’t know that we don’t know. Things which are so foreign, so unimaginable that we even don’t know that we don’t know. For example Maybe Saddam had some unimaginable, totally unexpected weapon. And here unfortunately, Rumsfeld stopped. Because I think he should have gone on, making the next step to the fourth category. The fourth valuation which is missing which is not the ‘known unknowns’ but the ‘unknown knowns.’ Things we don’t know we know them. We know them. They are part of our identity. They determine our activity. But we don’t know that we know them.
- Slavoj Žižek, The Reality of the Virtual
If you love him, if you really love him, then just keep on loving him. And never let him know that you know what he thinks you don’t know you know, you know?
- Robert Redford as Martin Bishop in Sneakers
Sneakers opens with the exterior of an academic building of a presumably prestigious east coast university in 1969. Snow flurries fall as short, puzzling non sequiturs rearrange themselves to spell out the names of the film’s cast. Inside the building, two students, Marty and Cosmo, are hacking into bank accounts and wantonly redistributing wealth on an early model personal computer. They take from the Republican Party and give to the Black Panthers. They transfer the entirety of Richard Nixon’s personal checking account to the “National Association of Legalized Marijuana.”
“Power to the people, Marty,” says Cosmo, raising a fist — ostensibly in solidarity, but privately in personal triumph. He has just conned his partner into going out for pizza in the snow.
Before I go any further I should note: Sneakers is about a man named Martin from San Francisco. I am a man named Martin from San Francisco.
I usually omit this bit of information when discussing Sneakers with someone who hasn’t seen it. It makes it something of a tough sell, like a scout hawking his own son to the big leagues — an unsavory cocktail of narcissism and nepotism. But hear me out! The cast of Sneakers is a murderer’s row of dramatic and comedic talent. Robert Redford. Ben Kingsley. Sidney Poitier. Dan Aykroyd. David Strathaim. River Phoenix. Mary McDonnell. James Earl Jones. The guy who played Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day! The list goes on and on.
I remember liking Sneakers the first time I saw it in theaters, when I was young enough that being “from” somewhere was something like Žižek’s “unknown known.” At that point I hadn’t really met anyone who wasn’t from San Francisco.
Hearing my name in the film hastened the process by which the script became a shared language among friends: “Give me the box, Marty,” was William’s way of calling dibs on whatever remained of my sandwich at the end of lunch. “I leave message here on service but you do not call” (in a falsetto female Russian accent) if Gabe wasn’t answering his landline. “I don’t expect other people to understand this but I do expect you to understand this!” when debating related rates problems in calculus. “Pain? Try prison.”
Sneakers is one of the only movies from the 90s about computers that isn’t as obsolete as the hardware on the screen. Unlike other tech movies from that era, it hasn’t been relegated to pure cult or camp. Yes, all the ancient computers in Sneakers have glowing green letters on them, but the script presciently side-stepped the bawdy operating system visuals to which many of its contemporaries succumbed. It didn’t make the mistake of supplanting technology for plot. Sneakers is a caper narrative in which a mathematician’s code-breaking tool — “the black box” — falls into the wrong hands. Meanwhile, more topical films like The Net exploited the trendiness of the avatars and chat rooms.
Sure, if Sneakers were remade today, the black box would probably just be “in the cloud,” encrypted by a code that only the black box could break. But the beauty of the film’s black box being a piece of hardware is that it operates under the physical logic of a matryoshka doll. It begins as an answering machine on the mathematician’s desk. Later, Martin plucks the valuable contents from it, leaving Cosmo with just the shell of an answering machine. This makes Cosmo (Ben Kingsley) so mad that all he can do is yell “Maaaaaaartyyyyyy!” from his Silicon Valley rooftop as he and his ponytail are enveloped in a swirling Michael Bay-style 360-degree shot. His friend has screwed him again!
Even when Marty hands over the box to the FBI, he saves the essential core chip, the piece that can crack any code and redirect airplanes, or take money from someone’s bank account. And because he holds on to the smallest little Russian doll in the set of nesting black box dolls, the United Negro College fund posts record gains thanks to some large anonymous donations. We have come full circle.
At this point you’re wondering: is it on Netflix instant? Well, no. But I’m sure it could be soon! That’s a “known unknown,” the question of when or if Sneakers will be on Netflix instant. Just like bank account numbers in the film. We know they exist. We just don’t know them. The unknown unknowns are the bank security weaknesses — banks don’t know if they have them or what they are.
Sneakers is chock full of unknown knowns. Namely, anagrams. A turnip cures Elvis: Universal Pictures. Fort Red Border: Robert Redford. Setec Astronomy: TOO MANY SECRETS. The black box is the descrambler of the wildly complex anagrams that make up the internet. It is the ultimate descrambler of unknown knowns. I’ve always thought Scrabble should release a special Sneakers edition featuring Braille letters that would be housed in a small hollow black answering machine, instead of that slate gray plastic sleeve. Which brings me to another very important point: Sneakers foretold the marriage of scrabble and the internet long before Words With Friends.
But my favorite scene doesn’t feature any memorable lines or anagram rearrangement suspense. It’s when Martin gets dumped by his kidnappers from a car on Russian Hill at dawn. He collects himself and begins walking, hands in his trench coat pockets. He has just endured a brutal evening of cheap shots, blindfolds, and car trunks, but for the first time in the past 12 hours, he actually knows where he is. And so does the viewer, because Redford has been conveniently deposited onto the pavement at an intersection where we can recognize Alcatraz to the north and Coit Tower to the east. He has placed himself, but what is his name? Is it Martin Brice or Martin Bishop? Is anywhere safe anymore?
I know what you’re thinking. And I would love to lend you the DVD. I will lend you the DVD, as soon as I find it or get a new one. See, a couple weeks ago I lost it. This DVD was one of the first things I ever bought on Amazon. In the past decade I’ve taken it everywhere with me, played it in a hundred DVD players and at least four laptops in half a dozen countries. It passed through so many hands that it slowly shed its housing, like the Black Box itself. The original DVD plastic snap case? Gone. Its replacement, a repurposed plastic sleeve plucked from an old Case Logic CD binder? Gone. When it went missing it was just a loose disc wading between receipts and gum wrappers in my shoulder bag, so scratched up it was barely useful as a reflective surface. And now my computer doesn’t even have a CD drive anymore. But I’m sure it’ll show up. At this point the location of the DVD is something like an unknown known, you know?
Martin Mulkeen is a contributor to This Recording. This is his first appearance in these pages. He is a writer living in Brooklyn. He twitters here.
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