In honor of another Wachowski bullet ready to be thrown away and left out in the cold by an undiscerning society, Jupiter Ascending, here is a review of their previous film, a work that draws out their strengths and weaknesses for creating passionate, alive, messy, confused, singular cinema like few others.
Let no one say the Wachowskis aren’t unique, and neither is their friend Tom Tykwer. When they succeed, they succeed in a way that no other film these days even dreams of. And when they fail, they fail gloriously and unapologetically, not for laziness or lack of trying but for the sort of self-aggrandizing messiness the likes of which we haven’t seen since the New Wave auteurs were drowning in their own sweaty ambition thirty five years ago. Usually, they achieve the extra fascinating feat of accomplishing both such success and failure within the same film, to the point where they don’t so much swing wildly between the two as construct an edifice wherein the distinction between success and failure is no longer meaningful or even useful.
Case in point, Cloud Atlas, a film for which good and bad hold no meaning, a stew where achievement and failure are mixed together so that they are inextricable and one-in-the-same. Cloud Atlas is surely a unique concoction, but saying anything else takes us into uncomfortable, un-confident territory where every statement is merely a half-guess loaded with so many qualifiers it often serves no purpose in and of itself.
Most film adaptations of written texts are lesser versions of their source by definition, for they seek to be a lesser version of their source. They aspire not to reconceptualize or interpret a text through the artistic expression of a visual palette, but instead to regurgitate their source without anything added from the film itself. They aspire to tell written stories and forget that film is a visual medium, necessarily rejecting what film could offer to the story in favor of simply using cinema as a lay-man’s variant of a book or other source. They see film not as a method of artistic expression and modification, but as a tool of laziness, a deep-fried book for people who cannot bothered to read and must turn to cinema instead to indulge in fiction passively. The fact that the film version has images seems almost beside the point to the fact that the subtitled version is simply less text than the full source.
Say what you will about Cloud Atlas, but the way it uses cinema as a precise means of artistic expression is about as far from an after-thought as humanly possible. This is a film’s film, a work made for cinema and by cinema, no mere adaptation of a book but a distant cousin. It cares not an ounce about what the book brought to the world; it cares only about itself as cinema and what this peculiar art of cinema can bring to the world. It is a boldly presentational feature, a work where mood and theme and character are advanced as a result of a cacophony of set design, costuming, hair and makeup work, color, cinematography, and editing, all of which are individually as important as the base-level screenplay. So much of the ambivalence about the film is tied directly to the way in which it sacrifices traditional conceptions of narrative dialogue and scripting based detail in favor of its own sort of motif-based storytelling where colors brush across centuries and musical cues dance around decades, where performance gestures recompose and define characters who exist three hours and several centuries apart from one another, and where vast grand holes of theme are left for the viewer to invade and overcome on their own accord.
Cinema as cinema is the best intentions for any film. The problem, insofar as there is one, is that good intentions do not a film make. For all that this work is a gloriously cinematic one, it seems cinema may have swallowed the film whole in the process. At some level, it’s a much easier film to appreciate for what it’s trying to do than for what it does, but at another it’s a far more digestible work if you simply sit back, rearrange your conception of sense, and fall in love without concentrating so much on conventional respect and appreciation. This is bold, bodacious filmmaking without restraint, intimate directing on the grandest of scales, and an unqualified work of vision that, like few films since the silent era, asks us to accept it by threatening our understanding of the world as it exists at very basic narrative and cinematic levels. The way it flies in the face of the individualist norms of modern storytelling which emphasize separation and individual effort at the expense of interconnectedness and visual determinism is only just cracking the surface. But what do we find underneath?
This boundless vision, perhaps unfortunately, is also true of its question of race. Cloud Atlas asks many of the same actors, Tom Hanks and Halle Berry most famous among them, although certainly not most prominent in the cast, to play different characters in each of its six stories. Throughout, they swap race, gender, and age across time, asking men to play women and women to play men and white actors to play Korean characters and Korean actors to play white characters and black actors to play white characters. The intent seems to be a sort of “we are all bound together at internal levels that render race superficial”, a noble cosmology in its own way and a certain sort of multiculturalism we never really see in a race-conscious society. But it also denies the way in which race is a factor in society, and in which this sort of “everyone can clearly play anyone of every race” haze casts a spell of egalitarianism that elides the ways in which “asking a Korean actor to play a white character” and “asking a white actor to play a Korean character” are two very different things in terms of sociological effect and context in society.
The tales themselves are a mixture of genres and tones, theoretically clashing but corralled into a sort of disjunctive harmony by their positioning and placement and the rhythms of the editing. In order of chronological time-period setting (and first appearance in the film), we must confront: a slightly bitter friendship between a white American and a Maori slave on a Pacific Ocean ship journey during the mid 1800s, an even more confrontational relationship between an elderly composer and a young musician who dictates on piano for him in the 1930s, a mid 70s era political thriller involving corporate corruption and journalistic integrity, a modern-day satirical British-anti-British dry comedy about an elderly publisher bruised and battered at all turns and forced into an elderly home while hiding from criminals, a mid 22nd century tale of a genetically engineered marketing tool who becomes another tool for a would-be rebellion, and finally we conclude on a post-apocalyptic tale about the merging of two sects of humanity who occupy polar opposite ends of the technology spectrum. Yet the individual stories matter far less in the directors’ vision than the multitudinous ways they interrelate between one another, double-back on each other, and construct the conditions within which the others can gestate and breed. Which is for the best because, the moment to moment beats of the individual stories are questionable at best and dreary and tepid at worst.
For all Tykwer and the Wachowskis achieve here directing the individual segments and contrasting/ comparing them through design and color gestures, editor Alexander Berner is clearly best in show in one of the finest and most audacious editing jobs of the last generation of film. At some level, the whole effort is defined by its editing, the way it intermingles its time-speckled tales and draws out the tensions and connections between its individual tales, interweaving physical cause and effect with like-minded thematic similarities with juxtapositions of spiritual mood and audio-visual place. Taking cues from Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and cutting on color, sound, emotion, and more abstract conceptions of theme in ways both deeply intuitive and wonderfully counter-intuitive, it could be used as a text on the nature of how one can edit a motion picture, and how editing creates meaning based on the note-specific images that appear on either side of the cut.
For example: at one point, one character in a story watches/reads something associated with a previous story, and then a character from a third story narrates over the two, only for it to cut to a fourth story with the narration continuing while the new character from this fourth story is doing something emotionally relevant to the previous images in the other story and to the narration, but not necessarily relevant for the same reason. It is maddening and difficult, often painful, and always fascinating and boisterous, never always sensible or effective but delirious as a study in what editing can be and the different ways in which editing can be used, even if they don’t all work. Fittingly, it is also deeply off-putting but somehow poetic that each of the six stories is less than stellar on its own, but that the totalizing, pummeling bludgeon of the whole product is somehow more than the sum of the parts.
Cloud Atlas is not at essence a good film, but it is an essential one, sinking deeply into the hole of its own oblique vision and stampeding luminously back out and then careening downward yet again, sometimes in the span of a minute or two. It is a challenging, unparalleled film of love and care, perhaps the surest thirty-years-too-late auteurish question mark the likes of which Francis Ford Coppola of Michael Cimino could only perspire for and witness at a glance. It is the abstract idea of a film somehow side-winding itself into a finished product without any sense of its own identity, except that it has none, and it is the abstract idea of film that beckons Tykwer and the Wachowskis forward.
It should not exist, and yet it has a beguiling, occasionally transfixing potency often won simply by wearing the viewer down in a battle of attrition, the gargantuan will of the filmic object a test of might for any challenger. It is a difficult, almost indefensible film, but it has a certain off-kilter, unknowable, singular charm like a pug with so much personality you really don’t know how to tell it that it has one fold too many. Or twelve. But it’s trying so hard, sweat and slobber and over-zealous sense of passion and all, you sort of fall in love with it just for existing, and for being so completely sincere about itself despite what you or I or anyone may say about it behind its back. It’s just so happy to be itself, so excited to exist and be viewed by humans, and so excited to play, it almost works. And more often than not, it does.