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Critical Consensus: B. Ruby Rich and Lisa Schwarzbaum on the Identity Politics of 'Cloud Atlas'

By Eric Kohn, B. Ruby Rich and Lisa Schwarzbaum | Indiewire October 25, 2012 at 11:03AM

Indiewire's Critical Consensus, in which two critics from IW's Criticwire network debate new releases, this week features film scholar B. Ruby Rich and EW's Lisa Schwarzbaum dissecting one of the most ambitious films of the year and its relation to the coming-out of its transgendered co-creator.
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Editor’s note: Critical Consensus is a biweekly feature in which two critics from Indiewire’s Criticwire network discuss new releases with Indiewire’s chief film critic, Eric Kohn. In this installment, University of California, Santa Cruz professor and critic B. Ruby Rich trades e-mails with Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum about "Cloud Atlas," which opens Friday.

Tom Hanks in 'Cloud Atlas.'
Tom Hanks in 'Cloud Atlas.'


Lisa, from what I can tell, the only Wachowski movie that ever won you over was the siblings' first one, "Bound," which you found superficial but impressive as a genre exercise. "Cloud Atlas," of course, fuses many genres across a vast spectrum of events and characters. What kept you from appreciating the film on this level? And since you didn't respond kindly to any of "The Matrix" films or "Speed Racer," were you expecting another dud here? Or did the presence of a third director and peculiar source material shift your expectations? Finally, are there films that you would consider comparable to "Cloud Atlas" in some way that you like better?

LISA: Hi, fellow earth citizens. I’ll pick up on your line of questioning in a minute, Eric, but first: I hereby promise that at no time during our conversation will I attempt to duplicate the aggravating dialect of the post-apocalyptic Valleysmen who occupy one portion of the "Cloud Atlas" map. That talkety-talk, all flouncy poetic/primitive (sample: “Second day fluffsome clouds rabbited westly an' that snaky leeward sun was hissin' loud'n'hot") just barely holds together on the pages of David Mitchell’s fabulously constructed nesting novel. Spoken by Tom Hanks as the tribesman Zachry in his portion of the yarn, it hurts the ears, and head.
 
And second: I will try not to dwell, moping, on the truth that the structural ingenuity of "Cloud Atlas," the book--and the powerful whooshing reading experience of fitting all the book’s narrative components together—can not be duplicated in a movie. There's a reason why so many who love Mitchell's novel (I obviously am one) say that the thing is unadaptable. Because it is. What we have in "Cloud Atlas" the movie—with a screenplay, yes, I know, blessed by the author himself—is a different "Cloud Atlas" entirely.  I will make peace with that.  I know that books come to life privately, in our active imagination, while movies must present themselves publicly, in front of our passive eyes.
 
So, Eric, what was it you were asking? Oh, right, what kept me from appreciating the "Cloud Atlas" created by Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer as a dazzling fusion of genres across time and space and gender lines and la la la?? Well, see, I do appreciate its dazzling-ness. I like "Bound," you’re right, but I also dig the Wachowskis' first "Matrix" as a display of sci-fi wowziness. (Even more, I really dig Tykwer's "Run Lola Run," and "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer," and "The International," and that sinuous little daisy-chain bit of erotica, "Three.")  But you know what doesn’t impress me anymore? Dazzling fusions of genres! Amazing special effects! Beautiful 3D that says, "look at this beautiful 3D!" Watching the stories unpack on the screen, I saw all the groovy work that went into tackling such an obstreperous tale, and I could admire this element or that (and I’ll wait a round of talk before getting into the whole multiple-role casting trick). But what I saw was surface. Shiny, tricked-out surface. Boys at play.
 
One more thing: You’re wrong to think I was "expecting another dud" here. It’s true, I think "The Matrix" offered diminishing returns. And "Speed Racer" was unbearable. But, well, who else would dare take on such a mad project except Wachowskis + Tykwer?  I was eager to see what kind of a world they would construct. You know?

Next page: B. Ruby Rich makes the case for "Cloud Atlas" -- and wonders how it might relate to Lana Wachowski's coming out tour. 

This article is related to: Critical Consensus, Reviews, Criticwire, Cloud Atlas, The Wachowskis, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, The Sessions