Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
November 2012

Cloud Atlas

Head in the clouds

'Cloud Atlas' goes for broke and comes away with a fascinating, frustrating, magnificent folly about pasts, futures, myths, legends and the nature of the stories we tell

Cloud Atlas
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Andy Wachowski
Screenplay: Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Andy Wachowski, based on the novel by David Mitchell
Starring: Halle Berry, Tom Hanks, Doona Bae, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, Jim Broadbent, James D'Arcy, David Gyasi, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, Keith David and Susan Sarandon
Rated R / 2 hours, 52 minutes
Opened October 26, 2012
(out of four)

What can be said about the storytelling of Cloud Atlas that the film itself is not already trying to say? For now we'll leave aside the question of whether it does so successfully, and for a moment just consider the breadth of what it's accomplishing (or attempting to accomplish).

In a way, the film plays like a testament to itself and the impossibility of its own ambitions - not unlike Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York (though approached from an entirely different angle). Its core concern is nothing less than the totality of storytelling as a transformative piece of the human experience - its history, its future, and further than that, the very idea of it, and the fundamental role it plays in our lives.

There are a lot of cosmic, existential and philosophical ideas at work here, but all function in the service of a more singular focus. Taken at face value, Cloud Atlas is a multi-pronged fable about eternal recurrence and karmic forces that pass through the annals of time, featuring a revolving masquerade of actors, race-, age- and gender-swapping across six distinct stories in six distinct periods. Writer/directors Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer weave the six stories together, linking (sometimes far too blatantly) all the recurring thematic touchstones, at the same time carefully keeping each narrative on pace with the others to produce one grandly synchronized dramatic arc.

We see fundamentally the same scenario again and again, modified by time, culture, politics, etc. It's a rather simple motif - the powerless taking on the powerful, the enslaved breaking free from their oppressors. So predominant is the notion of freedom that the film's other concerns - love, death, rebirth, identity - often seem like window dressing. Even so, if you stop to consider those ideas, you'd be hard-pressed to find many more time-tested and persistent themes in art and literature. Which is ultimately, I think, the point. The filmmakers (and of course David Mitchell, whose great novel is the basis for the movie) are deliberate and specific in their choices. Cloud Atlas serves as a sort of meta-commentary on why and how such ideas persist - perhaps even arguing that such timeless struggles and concerns are the very impetus for storytelling itself.

What Tykwer and the Wachowskis end up with is a narrative Ouroboros intrinsically about the act of storytelling. This is not a collection of six literal narratives that take place along one temporal line, but about stories embedded within one another - passed down, discovered, re-discovered, re-told, each telling a virtual rebirth of old, resilient ideas.

Within the bounds of the film's internal reality, each tale is, in its own way, a work of fiction. Let's see if I can do this in one breath: The first narrative is a young lawyer's 19th-Century journal, which is published and read some decades later by a talented but mischievous young composer, who (in addition to composing a sextet that he describes in fully narrative terms) pens aching letters to his faraway lover, letters that are discovered in the 1970s by a reporter, whose own story is recounted in a series of suspense novels, which in the present day are read by a charmingly perfidious publisher, whose own ghastly ordeal as a prisoner of a nursing facility is published and turned into a movie, a movie that is watched some 150 years in the future by a genetically engineered "fabricant," whose own sad tale is recited to an archivist, recorded and later transmitted to a future post-apocalyptic society that has interpreted (recreated?) her as a deity in an expansive story that concludes with the old version of its main character re-telling the tale to his grandchildren around the campfire.

Got all that? Even beyond that, there are additional narratives embedded within the narratives. How many different storytelling forms does that cover? Personal diaries, letters, novels, cinema, music, oral history. More, probably. I think it's beside the point to take the individual parts of Cloud Atlas on literal terms; instead, consider them as entries in ancient and enduring traditions. Consider the way ideas - even people - are reinvented, histories re-interpreted, legends re-told, gods created.

That conscious awareness of the very act of telling tales justifies the filmmakers' decision to cast each actor in a variety of different roles. The fact that we are watching actors wear different faces, costumes, accents and affectations, or to embody whole different eras (both historical and imagined), is part of the experience. It speaks directly to the theatrical and cinematic aspects at work - if it feels like transparent play-acting at times, so be it.

This is one of those movies whose failures you can appreciate almost as much as its successes - probably because they're not mutually exclusive. With each actor taking on so many roles, there are bound to be performances that soar and those that miss the mark. With the extensive use of makeup, prosthetics and CGI, there are instances of seamless work that creates one brilliant illusion after another, as well as (almost inevitably) glaring flaws where one transformation or another is all too transparent, or even flat-out clumsy. But we have to take it all.

Tom Hanks is right at home in the post-apocalyptic segment as a loyal tribesman/everyman (future generations will refer to everyman roles as distinctly "Hanksian") visited by a more sophisticated "Prescient" (Halle Berry) in search of salvation for her people. (This segment makes for a rather dazzling combination of futurism and primitivism.) Hanks isn't quite as effective, however, as an Irish thug-turned-author. That particular role, though, is brief, as it exists only as the precursor to the story about the publisher, the film's most overtly comedic segment and one that is absolutely owned by Jim Broadbent and his goofy, befuddled, stirring performance.

Broadbent also shows up as an aging maestro visited by the talented apprentice Robert Frobisher, brought to life with beautiful simplicity by Ben Whishaw in one of the film's best roles. Frobisher's tortured lover, Rufus Sixsmith (James D'Arcy), plays a key part as an older man in a corporate-political mystery uncovered by Luisa Rey (Berry). And so it goes.

Perhaps the most effortlessly affecting performance is that of Doona Bae, the fabricant known as Sonmi-451 who becomes a symbol of rebellion and freedom. What she can express with so little is, in certain moments, astonishing.

The film doesn't necessarily break any new ground, but what it does do is put all its chips on the table, creating the grandest spectacle possible, quite deliberately using all manner of familiar cinematic methods - effectively, more often than not. Having said that, Cloud Atlas remains a difficult film to judge, though not nearly as difficult to interpret. One of the nagging problems is the film's insistence on laying out its well-meaning messages and emotional conclusions in terms that make them seem trite. Elements of the film end up getting reduced merely to platitudes. The ultimate effect is paradoxical - on one hand, the film is offering a lot for us to chew on; on the other, there lingers the conviction that it's not letting us chew enough, simply because it spells things out far too clearly. With such an epic scale as this, we don't need the Hallmark card treatment.

Many have astutely noted D.W. Griffith's 1916 epic Intolerance as a predecessor and influence. It, like Cloud Atlas, was brilliant in its construction but wore its platitudes too squarely on its sleeve, far too eager to express grand and simple sentiments about love and what-not. (I was also reminded of Darren Aronofsky's undervalued, certain-to-eventually-be-rediscovered The Fountain, primarily in the way its three segments flowed into and out of one another, both visually and narratively.)

There are spectacular moments and pieces in Cloud Atlas, though I'm not yet sure how close it comes to achieving its ambitions. I'm eager to see it again. I could end up loving it, or I could remain somewhat frustrated that it can't quite follow through on its mighty stab at greatness. In any case, it's certainly an impressive leap of faith.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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