Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Wachowski Reloaded, Part 9: Cloud Atlas

            Part 9, in which the Wachowskis tackle their most ambitious project yet. Which is really saying something…

            Joyce Carol Oates put it best: “The individual voice is the communal voice.” 

We separate our fiction into different categories based on the vehicles used to drive each particular story. Clear demarcations that mark the boundaries of genre, wherein lines are drawn based on the details and setting. We have fiction and we have science fiction. We have horror and we have romance. We have drama and we have comedy. Nowhere do these delineations exist more than they do in blockbuster filmmaking, where each genre is cordoned off to its own segment of the video store... sorry, streaming service. But when you break down any genre movie to its basic components, you’re left with essentially the same stories. In the end, it’s all just one big story, anyway--the never-ending story of the human race. The six interconnected narratives of the Wachowskis’ (and their co-writer/director Tom Tykwer’s) most ambitious project to date… 

Cloud Atlas is a movie that pretty much defies description. Based upon David Mitchell’s structural masterpiece of a novel, Cloud Atlas boldly flies in the face of narrative convention, transcending boundaries of time and space with the most simple of filmic effects: the cut. Of course, the cinematic cut has always held this power, the ability manipulate time and space to its own advantage. With a simple cut, films were able to transport T.H. Lawrence to the Arabian desert by simply blowing out a match… or send us hurtling thousands of years in the future from a bone flung in the air to a ship flying in orbit… or take the Eighth Wonder of the World from his home on Skull Island to the Big Apple without having to worry about how the crew of the Venture was able to get him there. Cloud Atlas is a sobering reminder of the true power of the cinematic cut, pushing the form to its furthest limit to achieve its goals as a multi-narrative experience.

Perhaps it pushed them too far, considering how the movie came and went with little fanfare since its initial release back in 2012. The Wachowskis have been ahead of the curve since the beginning of their careers, and while it paid off in spades with works like The Matrix, it’s been a near constant disadvantage to almost everything they’ve done since. It’s an odd position to be in, and thus a hard film to judge… at least, when held up to traditional cinematic criteria. Bound, Speed Racer and the Matrix films were exercises and subversions of tried-and-true cinematic forms; Cloud Atlas is a whole other beast altogether. The filmmakers are breaking new ground, surging ahead into uncharted territory, and thus it’s hard to boil down into “good” or “bad” filmmaking. It’s messy and bloated and features some rather questionable make-up choices for its all-star cast, but it is also uplifting, exhilarating and unlike anything else out there.

One thing the film has against it when compared to Mitchell’s novel is time. The filmmakers must bring the six varied and complex stories of the novel into a manageable length, and still struggle to contain everything within a three-hour run-time. As a result, some of the characterizations can lean towards the broad side, and the nuances of the six different plots get lost in the shuffle. But the film’s true power once again lies in its editing. While the novel took on a reflective, nested egg structure (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1), the film cuts back and forth between scenes from the stories based on structural and tonal similarities. This is where we see the true power of cinematic editing, and the filmmakers continually exploit this in surprisingly-effective ways. Nowhere is this more apparent than when the film cuts back and forth between a car chase in the 1970’s and an escape from a retirement home in the present day. One scene is deadly serious, a part of a typical 70’s-style paranoid thriller, while the other is a whimsical comedy of errors. Two supposedly different tones, but they edit together beautifully because the characters’ goals in each story are essentially the same: to get away from the “bad guys” in each era, both played by Hugo Weaving. Theater has always told us that comedy and drama are essentially interchangeable (the only distinction made being musical theater and non-musical theater), and here we have an example of why. 

Ultimately, Cloud Atlas crosses such supposed boundaries by virtue of populating itself with such varied perspectives. It’s sort of like the old story of the angry man changing his tire in the rain, whereupon everything that could go wrong goes wrong in the worst possible way. From the vantage point of an onlooker, it’s hilarious. From the vantage point of the man himself… not so much.

1 comment:

  1. I found KyleKalgren's YouTube video about this movie and book pretty entertaining.


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