Tuesday, April 23, 2013

“The Weak Are Meat; the Strong Do Eat.”

“Cloud Atlas” (the book) by David Mitchell, 2004

Texts and film are two different mediums, but they intertwine frequently.  Most good films are based on the work of an author, and then a screenwriter.  While film is a more visual, emotional and auditory medium, it is surprising how few good ones are written directly for the screen – almost like the medium has not fully matured yet.  “The Tree of Life” by Terry Malick is one example. (“Tree of Life” reviewed below.) 

Cloud Atlas, (the movie) is one such film based on a book.  (The film was reviewed below, in “What is Under This Movie’s Hood?”)  The film was far more successful in Russia and China than in the U.S. – perhaps because the immediate Hollywood payoff American audiences look for was not there.  The simpleton lag I call it.  Some foreign film audiences are more trained in something other than cliché.  It was a bit too vague and complex to become a ‘must see’ American film, and got almost no nominations for Oscar - which might be a good thing.

Rarely do people see a film before reading the book, and the experience is actually somewhat dilatory if it happens to you.  Reading a book before seeing the film is the better end of the periscope, as you are aware of the whole story, not the Cliff’s Notes ‘short story’ you are seeing in celluloid.  After all, most films are like short stories – and the longer ones like ‘romans a clef’ – novellas at best.  Anna Karenina?  Les Miserables?  Forget it.  Two different planets.

Reading a book after seeing the film makes the film intrude into the book.  It lessens it.  It flops its images over the ones your mind might have seen.  You seek to find something the film didn’t cover.  And they pop up – but smeared over by the filmic residue.  In this book, the ‘point’ seems to be different than the film.  This book is somewhat more comedic and popular, more cynical and entertaining, not as mysterious or rebellious as is the film.  And that is usually the reverse story bout books and film.  

“Cloud Atlas,” the book, fills in the missing factual spots in the film.  The IslandHawaii’s big island itself.  The stowaway came from Polynesian islands to the southwest of New Zealand, the Chathams.  The big composers house was outside of Bruges in Belgium.  City that housed the nuclear plant was north of LA, south of San Francisco.    

The book does allow you to delight in the language, because in a book, there is more of it!  Mitchell’s invented a good dialect for the island folks – the mouthfuls that Tom Hanks mumbled out.  He brings the stilted English verbosity of a ship in the 1800s out of the archives – like Melville’s Typee.  For the less traveled, the English slang and jargon of an old English crank in our time.  Or for the imaginative, the futuristic hybrid language of a South Korean slave/robot ‘fabricant,’ Gagnam style. 

The links are there.   Comets appear on the skin of one character in each story.  The boat that crossed the Pacific in 1830s is sitting restored in a 1970s California harbor.  The female Seoul rebel from 2100 becomes a god figure on the later Hawaiian island.  A comical movie about 2010 old British publisher locked in a nursing home becomes a movie watched in Seoul.  The 1930 composer’s letters appear in 1970s California, as does the person he was writing to.  So does the composer's sextet, in a record store.  The diary of that old pacific journey is found by the composer in 1930. The exciting story of the fight against nuclear power is read in 2004 Britain by the aging publisher after he gets out of the lockup.  Yet all these vague connections still seem artificial and are not convincing in telling us that ‘all things are linked together.”

The vaguely poetic phrase ‘cloud atlas’ reoccurs in several stories.  It is a guide to some kind of 'land of joy' in the sky, or some such thing.  Mitchell:  “Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies.” The Cloud Atlas sextet contains six movements, just like the chapters in the book.  Beginning to end, then end to beginning – a circle – just like the book.  The book is an atlas of these souls, evidently, six of them.

The most important thing, besides the story or the writing, is the ‘point.’  I’m didactic that way.  Errant ‘enjoyment’ and ‘entertainment’ can be gotten in many places.  “Entertain Me Until I Die” should be the slogan of American life.  What is the point of this book?  It was somewhat hard to decipher the film, and the book is no different.  Oddly enough, the film is more radical and less cynical than the book.  So props to the film. In the book, the composer never shoots his older beneficiary and leech.  He just kills himself.  The fabricant rebel in Seoul reveals that the “Union” underground was a set-up by the police, and that she was created to provide a target for the dominant Corpocracy.  (A combination of corporate, copraphage, hypocrisy and necromancy - love that word.)  The islanders never get off the planet, but are instead mostly slaughtered by crueler Hawaiians.  The sailing ship reveals progress – the white man does decide to become an Abolitionist because his life was saved by a ‘black’ Polynesian.  The reporter finally does expose the deadly criminals running two nuclear power plants in California.  And the old English publisher does escape from the nursing home lockup. 

Given its whole trajectory, the book is clearly a post-apocalyptic look at history, ending in violence, isolation and defeat.  Here is how Meronym describes the cause of this apocalypse, or ‘who tripped the Fall,” in pidgin English: 

“…o’ humans, yay, a hunger for more.  “Oh, more gear, more food, faster speeds, longer lifes, easier lifes, more power, yay.  Now the Hole World is big, but it weren’t big ‘nuff for that hunger what made Old Uns rip out the skies and’ boil up the seas an’ poison soils with crazed atoms an’ donkey ‘bout with rotted seeds so new plagues was borned an ’babbits was birthed.  Fin’ly, then quicksharp, states busted into bar’bric tribes an’ the Civ’lize Days ended, ‘cept for a few folds’n’pockets her’n’there, where its last embers glimmer.” 

Or as one Korean rebel describes the dystopian present: 
“The Media is keen to scorn colonies such as theirs, comparing them to tapeworms; accusing them of stealing rainwater from WaterCorp; royalties from VegCorp patent holders; oxygen from AirCorp.”  And more description:  “The lake water stunk of effluent from its salmon net ponds.  Crosswater hills displayed mighty corp logos.  A malachite statute of Prophet Malthus surveyed a dust bowl.”

As the Fabricant rebel tells her interviewer:
"Nea So Copros is poisoning itself to death.  Its soil is polluted, its rivers lifeless, its air toxloaded, its food supplies riddled with rouge genes.  The downstrata cannot buy drugs to counter these privations. Melanoma and malaria belts advance northward at forty kilometers a year.  Those production zones of Africa and Indonesia that supply Consumer Zones are now 60-plus percent uninhabitable.  Corporacracy's legitimacy, its wealth, is drying up." 

It doesn’t take much imagination to know that Mitchell is talking about today.  But his language is deeply sunk in the vocabulary of fiction, as if we lived in a society where self-censorship was necessary in order to slip present truths through the censor’s door.  The British author probably has a cozy place in the countryside with 2 kids and a Volvo.  So there it is.  I rarely say this, but the film is, in regards to its message, better than the book.  Although there would have been no film without the book. So - a worm eating its own tale.

And I bought it at Cheapo Books!
Red Frog
April 23, 2013

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