Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Four Matters Regarding Cloud Atlas

A Matter of Reduction

My final year of college I took a one-on-one course with a professor about Romantic poetry—Wordsworth, Coleridge, et. al. Fantastic class, just fantastic, but one that really challenged me to move beyond doing work that was merely sufficient. The professor asked me not to just be sufficient, but exemplary.

I remember specifically near the beginning of the class he had me read a poem—I don’t remember by who—and then a passage from Nietzsche regarding memory and how humans are like cows…it made sense in context. The assignment was to read this passage, which was the first of many, and then write a two page response to it. I remember sort of filing off the response and doing what I thought was “good enough work.”

The Professor took me to task for it.

The main issue was with the ending paragraph, where I spouted off some aphorism that I was certain “summed up” the entire passage. Something like “you can’t always believe what you see” or “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” A bland, trite and clichéd line that I put in to quickly and easily finish off this response, because it was one of fifteen things I had to do that week. I’ll never forget what the Professor told me, more or less word for word:

“The issue here, Mr. E, is that you’re taking this complicated, thoughtful and complex idea and are intent to simply boil it down to some essence. You want to put it in a nice little box and put a bow on top of it. And it’s natural to want to do this. But why do we do it? Because once we put that bow on top—once we ‘figure it out’—we don’t have to think about it anymore.”

Those words stuck with me. Because it is the easy way out. Reducing complicated and work-laden thought into a cliché just reeks of intellectual dishonesty. Humanity gets nowhere that way.

I was reminded of this coming out of the theater subsequent to the final shot of Cloud Atlas. After near three hours of dynamic shots, Oscar-worthy editing and acting, and deep philosophical dilemmas, a woman in front of me steadfastly proclaims that “after all that, it was just about karma.”

There was two issues I took with this analysis.

First, this person apparently didn’t know the difference between karma and reincarnation. But that’s neither here nor there. The main concern I had with her interpretation was that after three hours of film, in a movie with six different stories, time periods, and characters, she essentially dismissed the final product as some fluffy thing about karma. Which is within her rights, of course, but I have to ask: was it worth three hours of her time and $7.25 out of her pocket to see some movie about karma? Why would you pay for that experience, if that’s all you’re determined to take from it?

A Matter of Pretension

Cloud Atlas is a complicated film. It has six diverging and converging storylines spanning  a number of centuries, from slavery-era 18th century Caribbean to some time in the future at least 106 years after 2144. In a novel form, this sort of structure can be readily handled. In a movie form, it becomes the most ambitious undertaking of the last decade—even more so that special effects wizard Avatar. To make a movie with six completely disparate stories into anything approaching a whole—and we’ll get into that a bit more later—with all six stories having wildly different tones and genres—political thriller here, period piece here, outright farcical comedy here—this movie was doomed to fail. How in God’s name can you take six stories that on the surface have literally nothing to do with one another and make anything approaching  cohesive unit out of them?

The closest movie I can think of taking on such an ambitious project was actually this year's The Avengers, where six or seven distinct characters were taken from six or seven distinct worlds and mythologies and were supposed to “fit” together believable in two and a half hours—an undertaking that succeeded, in my opinion. But something like Cloud Atlas takes that concept even further—it’s the equivalent of Marvel making the six pre-Avengers movies—Thor, Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, Ironman 1 & 2--andmaking them one movie with six or seven complete arcs. Anyone who suggested that idea would be pronounced a plenary lunatic in any brainstorming session, yet this is basically what they’re trying to pull off in Cloud Atlas. It’s ambitious and it’s something that I’m not sure has ever been attempted on film before, and to pull it off, you have to rely on the language of cinema: editing, special effects, cinematography, sound—and not only that, you have to utilize it in dynamic and interesting ways.

When you do this, inevitably, you will be labeled pretentious.

Now there’s a word that’s undergone some deferment of meaning over the past few decades. Few things will doom any hope you have of getting a message across than being labeled “pretentious.” At this point in pop culture it amounts to a kiss of death. Because no one likes people who think they are better than everyone else. What’s fascinating about pretentious is how diminished the word has become. The root word "pretense" means, more or less, an affectation or conceit, usually not supported by fact. So something that’s literally pretentious puts on airs, or gimmicks, and think that's an end in itself to get a story or message across. Or a person that’s pretentious dresses himself in layers of sophistry and world-weariness when he really has no idea what he’s talking about—as an English major you meet a lot of these.

Now the word has become twisted, mangled in its overuse. Anything that doesn’t do things traditionally is pretentious. Write a novel with out-of-order chronology? Pretentious! Make music that doesn’t match a form? Pretentious! Focus on beautiful, mind-bending cinematography? Pretentious! It’s a crime, really, because it’s just another form of the reductivism mentioned above. You don’t have to think about something that’s labeled as pretentious: in your mind, that’s all it can be, and is therefore unworthy of consideration.

It’s a crime because there’s no legitimate way the word can be applied to Cloud Atlas, but it has been already. Because the film isn’t trying to do anything that fits the manner of “pretense.” It just trying to tell an endlessly convoluted tale in the only way it can, by maximizing the language of cinema at its disposal. This, obviously, is pretentious. For some reason. Cloud Atlas has complex, tradition-defying, almost perfectly executed editing that gently weaves the audience through six disparate stories with different tones and content without feeling out of place or jarring. Obviously, this is pretentious. Pretentious! Pre. Ten. Tious.

Ambition is pretentious. Unless you’re talking about special effects and 3-D. Then it’s not pretentious. 

PICTURED: Arguably overkill special effects and 3-D. Not pretentious.
I think this is one word that really needs to undergo some introspection. We can tell when something is pretentious. It’s a gut instinct. Like roughing the passer in American football. If you have to hem-and-haw over whether a call is roughing the passer or not, it’s probably not roughing the passer. And if you have to actively find reasons to label something pretentious, it’s probably not pretentious. It’s might be just trying new things. Cloud Atlas is trying to do new things. Cloud Atlas is attempting to do something arguably never attempted before. Cloud Atlas doesn’t entirely succeed. But that’s not pretense. That’s courage.

A Matter of Dismissal

The saddest part of the whole affair is how easily courage can be denigrated.

A lot of hoopla has been made about the makeup in this film. Race-bending, gender-bending, age-bending, and everything in between. The link above talks about how terrible it is. Listening to it, I’m reminded just how psychologically taxing the life of an artist can be.

Way back in 2008 there was an indie game named Braid that became the biggest thing ever there for a while. It was  deeply personal brain trust of Jonathon Blow. It was not some mega-corp Triple AAA platformer, nor a cynical cash grab. It was just a guy trying his best to say something through beautiful aesthetics and game play. When people didn’t get the game or had issues with it in the resulting flurry of attention, Blow was constantly there. Constantly online to correct and argue his vision. Some condemned him as a blowhard who couldn’t handle criticism. But it’s pretty apparent why he acted the way he did. Braid was and is a game of ideas, aesthetics, art and emotion. To have people “not get it” and to have people routinely dismiss it has to hurt. Has to be a slap in the face. It’s like criticizing someone’s child, and inevitably the parent is going to leap to the child’s defense.

The same thing is true of Cloud Atlas. You can tell this was a passion project. You can tell that people really put their all into this movie despite the challenges and the very real chance it was going to bomb horrifically.

The makeup is constructed in service of the movie. The Wachowskis (and Tom Tykwer) obviously thought it was important to not use different actors in these roles. And to say the makeup is bad is…really sort of missing the point. Is it really bad? Is it really? Are people expecting white Hugo Weaving to ever really look like a Korean? Or Keith David? If you honestly think that’s even possible—well, you live in a more fascinating world that I. For what it's asked to do, that is, make you think people of respective races/ages/genders are other races/ages/genders while still recognizably the original actor, then the makeup is spectacular. If you can even partially make the audience think Hugo Weaving is a Korean, you’ve done quite a job.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? A movie about the links of humanity and partially about reincarnation, and especially a movie with six disparate stories is going to have to have more to ground it than a random image of a comet-shaped birthmark. Having the same actors through all six set pieces not only serves the entire theme of movie, but also gives the audience a through-line to latch onto. To lessen the chance of confusion and, ultimately, detachment. The Wachowskis (and Tom Tykwer) are not idiots. They knew that people were going to recognize Hugo Weaving as a Korean—but focusing on it is simultaneously part of the theme and missing the point entirely. It’s the equivalent of people watching a movie from the sixties and saying the special effects look fake. Okay, yes, but is that what the movie’s about? Is that what it’s trying to say?

It’s a burden that everyone who creates art has to be able to handle, and it’s tough to do. The makeup people on this film probably put hours and hours and days and days and weeks and weeks, blood and sweat and tears and maybe even a bit of sanity to make the makeup in this movie as serviceable and realistic as possible—all so a bunch of critics on the internet can dismiss all that work in a couple of sentences. Not to try and garner sympathy for those poor, oppressed well-off art directors and makeup designers, but still...it does have to be difficult.

A Matter of Resonance

I’m going to make a prediction here, that the biggest problem people are going to have with Cloud Atlas is its lack of narrative resolution. I’m also going to make a prediction that people won’t realize that’s the problem they have with it.

By its score on Rotten Tomatoes alone, Cloud Atlas is probably going to claim the mantle of the most polarizing film of the year. The wave of five-out-of-five star reviews is only matched by the equal number of one-out-of-fives. It’s a challenging film, and one that’s going to have people scratching their heads upon its conclusion. I think one of the biggest causes of the head scratching is the narrative resolution.

A certain level of snarky-elite critics pontificate ad nauseum about how general audiences are idiots. And yes, that can certainly be true. But general audiences can also be intelligent and perspicacious without even knowing it. People can feel when something is off, it’s a basic human survival mechanism. What most general audiences don’t have is enough knowledge of cinema to articulate what, exactly, feels off about a movie. It’s like a person who knows nothing about plumbing continually hearing an ominous gurgling coming from the sink. They might not know what’s wrong, but they know something is.

Since general audiences don’t possess the language or understanding of film to express their issues with the film, blame gets laid at the feet of other things. Bad special effects, bad acting, ancillary portions of movie making that are tangible and easily defined. Usually the problem, however, lies in story and character; more complex phantasms, and much, much harder for people not trained in the language of narrative to discern.

I see this being the case with Cloud Atlas. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong, but it’s a gut instinct. Because the movie leaves you feeling kind of hollow, despite the amazing filmmaking on display and the deep, heartfelt themes of human empathy. There persists a nagging intimation that something is missing. This something is narrative resolution, which Cloud Atlas  (perhaps intentionally) is devoid of.

I won’t say something condescending such as "people like to have the movie answer all questions and have it explained to them," but there is a concept called "narrative unity," which Cloud Atlas noticeably lacks. The Wachowskis (and Tom Tykwer) try to lessen this impact by casting the same actors in different roles throughout the time periods and repeating images throughout all the stories, but it doesn’t replace the fact that in the end these stories have nothing intrinsic to do with one another. Soon-Mi becomes revered as a God in the post-apocalyptic setting, but it doesn’t affect the progression of the plot of those respective stories in any substantial way. The stories are completely and totally isolated as far as narrative progression goes.

Again, this may have been intentional. In fact I’d bet a large wad of cash that it was intentional; it's also risky, and whether it works or not...meh. The movie’s not trying to put a bow on everything, and the narrative cohesion of the plot as a whole is achieved through editing, but it’s hard to see what each narrative has to do with the other—and they don’t. There are literally six different movies playing at the same time, with nothing—narratively, mind you—to connect them.

PICTURED: Except...except it's not. Not really
 Now Cloud Atlas is about life, human empathy, and why kindness matters even when in the grand scheme our actions don’t. This type of movie doesn’t lend itself to narrative resolution; and it probably would have hurt the movie to try and force it in. Unfortunately the rectitude of the decision will probably not keep audience from the feeling that something is missing after they leave the cinema, which will, in turn, lead to blaming more visible elements such as six stories! Bad makeup! Tom Hanks doing a Cockney accent!

I’m hesitant to even call this a weakness. Is something you do intentionally classifiable as a weakness? But I can’t shake the notion that this lack of narrative connection/resolution will alienate at least some of the general audience. Humans like things to have a connection. They like things to have a point—for everything to sort of flow into everything else, so they can look back and see how it all lines up and makes sense. Perhaps it’s a way for us to organize an inestimably chaotic universe? So what does someone not bathed in the aesthetics of narrative do with a movie with six different stories that seem to kind of have something to do with one another but by the end, don’t really?

In Conclusion:

Cloud Atlas is an event, and undoubtedly the most fascinating experience I’ve had in a theater in recent memory. It is an ambitious, sprawling, epic, masterful and heavily flawed piece of art. Masterful editing and makeup almost completely obscure the inherent incohesiveness of telling six separate stories simultaneously. But to be frank, all that’s really beside to point. It’s just filler. What you really need to know, what people really need to realize is that this is an ambitious, gorgeous, sweeping movie more like a symphony than the cinema we’re used to, and that movies like this don’t get made very often—usually because they have a less than ten million dollar opening weekend.

With that in mind, all three of you in northern Manitoba that are reading this, please go see Cloud Atlas. You may come out thinking it’s stupid, overhyped, incomprehensible, unwieldy and tonally unbalanced, but I can almost guarantee you won’t be able to stop watching.

Until next time,

Mr. E

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