Sunday, January 13, 2013

What is Under this Movie’s Hood?

Cloud Atlas, 2012 – Tykwer/Wachowski film with Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant

Cloud Atlas is another one of those ’10-Level” movies that zigs between different historical times or consciousnesses, attempting to unite everything in some fictional constant – in this case a comet birthmark, recurring motifs and recurring actors.  It reminds one of 'Inception' in its multi-layering and time scrambling, but without the spinning top.

The earliest sequence concerns a naval story set in the American slavery days of the 1840s or so – something like “Armistad” or "Master and Commander." In the next period represented, the “Cloud Atlas Sextet” is a piece of orchestral music composed by a suicidal gay man in the 1930s – something perhaps seen on the BBC.  Then there is a vintage corporate crime mystery, set in 1973 in San Francisco. The touchstone could be the “The Parallax View.” And in what seems to be the present, (there is a car with an 'On' button...) an old publisher is locked up in a ‘nursing’ home by his sadistic brother. That film reference is “One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest.” Then a horrific tale of a future dystopia in “New Seoul” sometime in the late 2100s, where Asian worker slaves serve ‘consumers’ and then are turned into meat themselves.  Sort of “The Matrix” meets “Soylent Green.”  The last level is a future world of people speaking pidgin-English living in island huts, hunted by death-head savages, while another crew of advanced survivors are trying to get off planet Earth.  Something has destroyed much of the planet much earlier.  Film reference; Planet of the Apes or Terminator.  One scene even screams "Nazgul" from Episode 1 of "Lord of the Rings."  Cloud Atlas is really 6 movies in one.

We can see that movies borrow from other movies, combine some parts, then reconstitute themselves as something new.  Nothing we didn’t already know.  However, anything that stars Tom Hanks sets off alarm bells of middle-America.  So what is the subtext - or actually, text?

In each story, someone is being ‘locked up’ or oppressed by someone or something else, and those people rebel.  The phrase, “I will not be subjected to criminal abuse” reoccurs several times.  So mainly it is a fictional attempt to fight oppression – not that rare in films these days.  This seems to be the real fictional constant. 

In the naval voyage, a young man who has traveled to the Pacific finds himself helping a 'black' Polynesian stowaway who had been beaten by island thugs.  He himself is slowly poisoned by the ship’s doctor for his gold, eventually being locked in his sick room.  Only to be rescued by the recalcitrant stowaway he himself had helped earlier.  The young man eventually joins the Abolitionists.  In the piece about musicians in the 1930s, an old over-the-hill composer threatens his gay helper with exposure of his gayness so as to steal his Sextet.  The young man escapes by shooting the old man, then after finishing the piece under his own name, escapes again through suicide.  The 1973 mystery results in lots of people dying too, but the tough black reporter - Berry - fights back and eventually gets the goods on an attempt by the oil industry to create a nuclear accident.  At one point, she is trapped in a sinking car, and at other points, toking up. In the improbable tale of the oldster locked up in a nursing home, a group of tough, working-class Scots in a bar beat-up the "English" people from the nursing home and allow the old folks to get away.  In the Seoul-less matrix, a rebel underground army, the “Union,” frees one of the robotic servers from certain death, and shows her the fate of her kind.  She becomes a prophet of truth and revolution, but all are eventually defeated.

The last sequence is set on a green tropical isle.  Two people from two different ‘tribes’ fall in love, one of them overcoming the imprisoning whispers of fear and hatred to do so.  They escape to another planet, far from earth, which has become only a ‘blue shimmering’ thing in the sky.  So the escape is if the earth itself is the problem.  All of these sequences are mixed, not sequential, so history is a puzzle piece, not a linear process.

The film toys with the idea that we never die, that there is an ‘eternal reoccurrence,’ a repetition of lives throughout history, much like the Hindu belief in reincarnation.  This plays the role in the film of an ideological sop to conventionality, to mysticism.  In fact, the links between people, situations or the birthmark in the film are actually very weak.  There is no real connection made, just implied.  The Sextet shows up as music in two sequences, one in a San Francisco hippie music store, one while being composed.  The markings on the black slaves in the oldest sequence show up on the white hut-dwellers in the last sequence.  The diary of the young man on the ship is discovered by the gay composer.  The movies of the locked-up old man are watched by those in New Seoul.  Yet you never get the actual impression that these events matter, or these people are alive again.  But the stark fact of bloody rebellion exists in each story, and is far more grounded in the film’s sections than the fantasy of reoccurrence. Love is present in several of the stories, but love is such a cliche in American film that it cannot even be extracted from its surroundings anymore.  It is sort of like the sun coming up - thematic wallpaper.

Cloud Atlas, of course, started out as a book.  Here are two political quotes from it:  “All revolutions are the sheerest fantasy until they happen; then they become historical inevitabilities.” “The better organized the state, the duller its humanity.” Quotes from 'Cloud Atlas,' the book, by David Mitchell.  Many other quotes fly off into fantasy or poetry, as this book is not an exclusively political one. 

So what do we make of this odd film?  Like so many, it seems to reflect the sub-consciousness of people who seem to be more readily living in a state of rebellion, yet a rebellion that has not broken out in fact.  It is still sublimated, still relegated to fantasy, still outside the plane of the real.  As Marxists, we observe culture to take the temperature of the ‘drip, drip’ of rebellion, of quantity into quality. As one of the characters in Cloud Atlas says:  “My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”  Certainly this is not the mentality of the isolated libertarian individualist anymore, or the drunken partier, or even the Obama voter.  Yet we are not yet at 'flood stage' obviously.

And perhaps films like this don't reflect rebellion, but actually play a role in releasing it vicariously, thus making audiences even more passive.  Perhaps 'that' is the subtext.

And I saw it at the Riverview Theater.
Red Frog,
January 13, 2013

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