The more I watch Cloud Atlas, the more I’m convinced it’s a masterpiece. Here are a few notes on why.
Someone once said “good art consoles, great art provokes.” The Wachowski’s and Tom Tykwer’s Cloud Atlas does both. To claim it as a masterpiece would be premature, as this film requires slow burn reflection and I only saw it yesterday. It needs to be digested over days and weeks, possibly longer. It is packed full of ideas, challenges to conventions and a unique narrative complexity. It is big and unwieldy and difficult to grapple with. Attempting to analyse it reminds me of the story of the blind men and the elephant. A group of blind men examine an elephant, but each man only examines one part of the animal. Each man comes to their own conclusion based on the examination of the one part. So, the man who felt the tusk disagrees with the man who touches the foot or the tail. In most versions of the parable, the tale ends with the men fighting with each other over what kind of beast the elephant is. There is a variant ending, however, one less pessimistic, that has the blind men collaborating. They each listen to each other, rather than proclaim what the elephant is from their perspective. Through this process, they come to know what the elephant actually is. Cloud Atlas too, I suspect, requires a lot of discussion, comparison of notes, deep engagement with the text.
I. The Sublime in Cloud Atlas
It is not something you see much in modern cinema, although I have been noticing a distinctive treatment of it in things such as Malick’s Tree of Life and Fricke’s Samsara. Sublimity is an artistic quality that can be defined in so many ways, but a simple designation is “an overwhelming bigness.” Often, sublimity is contrasted with beauty. Beauty concentrates on smaller details (a portrait, for example, is judged beautiful by the detailed renderings of the face’s form, and so forth), whereas the sublime’s pleasure comes from its vast and terrifying dimensionality, its ability to take the audience beyond the boundaries of the work of art. Beauty is largely an effect of form, whilst the sublime is supposedly without form, is boundless. The idea is that beauty is harmonious and forms into a symbol of “morality” whereas the sublime is disharmonious and is symbolic of the amoral universal vastness. What’s interesting about Cloud Atlas is that the sum of its parts (or rather the way in which those parts interact) add up to a whole that could be considered sublime, while those parts themselves are suffused with a moral and aesthetic beauty. It’s a big film in every sense of the word. The audacity and ambition are enormous, the ideas are universal in scope, the scale of production is huge. Its effect renders the intellect mute, even if you don’t like it, because it is too much to take in and to respond to immediately. It needs time to process. But what is immediate is the sense of the sublime, or at least something approaching it.
II. Narrative and Identity
Prior to seeing the film, this was one of the things I was worried about. One of the pleasures of the novel is the way in which it nests each of the narratives into the others. So, a book someone is reading in one story, will be the actual story in another section, and so on. The novel does not break the narratives up. You stick with one, then move on to another, then another, and then you revisit those narrative blocks in reverse order towards the end of the book. Now, I’m not one of those annoying purists when it comes to adaptation, but before seeing the film, I was disappointed that the Wachowskis and Tykwer were foregoing this structure for a more conventional “back and forth” cutting between narrative vignettes. I thought that the nested structure would be an interesting narrative experiment to commit to film (because I don’t think anything like that has ever been attempted). However, as it stands, I think this cross-cutting works very well, because the editing is so elegant and thoughftul.
Narrative plays a large part in the film’s thematics, being concerned largely with “stories.” The fact that it has so many narrative threads (some only tangentially related, although the point is more that it’s a web of stories that can only exist as a whole if all of them comprise it). It is also about the stories that we tell ourselves as we live. Narratives are not just a way of explaining the world to us, in a sort of mythological sense, they are our way of rationalising and conceptualising our selfhood. We conceptualise our lives narratively. We can’t not do this. We make sense of our own identities by telling stories about ourselves. Not literally (or not always literally) of course, but we perceive the progression of our lives in much the same way that we do characters in a narrative. We see ourselves in our own story, but also acknowledge that our own story spins from our own actions and the actions of others. We see this writ large in the film, most especially towards the end, with Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) declaring his intention to join the abolitionists in the East. In response to his father in law’s claim that his contribution will be meagre next to the damage it will do to his reputation, Ewing and his wife characterise themselves as “drops in the ocean” of change. Narratively, this can be read at least two ways: Ewing will go back East and work with the abolitionists. The abolitionists will eventually win and stop slavery. But taking the long view and looking at it closely within the macro-narrative, we see the relation it has to other stories. In the story segment farthest into the future, Zachry (Tom Hanks) is aided and eventually saved from being eaten by cannibals by Meronym (Halle Berry), who, (presumably) is a very far future descendant of the very slaves that Ewing and the abolitionists worked to free. Likewise is the narrative of freedom and self-determination adopted by Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), a fabricant (or clone) who is a slave freed by Union (a group very much like the abolitionists). Drops in an ocean that spreads across vast distances of time. The film intimates the simple yet elegant truth that humanity and its history is a frame story, composed of billions of stories all interacting and weaving into each other in some way. We inherit the narratives that come before us and bequeath our own narratives to the future.
III. Usurping the Tyranny of Genre
Genre is our Dear Leader. We come to love it even though it enslaves us. Sure, there are shortcomings, but it offers us security, a system of comprehension via formulae and consistent “rules.” However, we love it even more when the Dear Leader is subverted. Some of us do, anyway. We like to think cinema is post-genre, where genre hybridity runs rampant in films like Kill Bill, Shaun of the Dead, Inception, even things like No Country for Old Men. But genre hybridity does not really deconstruct the concept of genre. The Dear Leader is still on his throne, his totalitarian control of visual and narrative convention is not so feeble. Hybridity gives you the sense of an impending generic revolution without it actually happening. There is a sense that postmodernism set off all this genre hybridity, but it’s been there from the start. How else to explain Casablanca or any number of classic studio films that combine different genres into one film? The mixing of genres is key to genres developing. Without it, they would stagnate. Cloud Atlas’ generic hybridity operates differently because it shifts between so many different genres so often. A film like Kill Bill, for example, may be composed of elements from disparate genres, but it is blended into a coherent whole. Cloud Atlas never settles on a genre, or even a comprehensible genre hybrid, though one could attempt to label it a “period piece-romance-mystery thriller-screwball comedy-science fiction” film. It’s not so much a blending of genres as a series of genre movements or shifts, structurally resembling the eponymous “Cloud Atlas Sextet” written by Frobisher (Ben Whisahw). While generic shifts within singular texts have occurred before—the most famous examples being Psycho, which shifts from a noir to psychological horror/slasher film, Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild, and Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn—it is not a common phenomenon, perhaps because there is a certain amount of generic fidelity that ensures economic returns. Static genre films as a mode of production and economic model, work all too well for commercial film.
There is freedom in shrugging off the shackles of genre and it is no surprise that the film acquits such emancipation, given its thematic lynchpins of power, oppression, liberty and selfhood.