Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Eric Kohn, B. Ruby Rich and Lisa Schwarzbaum
October 25, 2012 11:03 AM
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Critical Consensus: B. Ruby Rich and Lisa Schwarzbaum on the Identity Politics of 'Cloud Atlas'

Tom Hanks and Halle Berry in "Cloud Atlas."
Ruby, in your dispatch from the Toronto International Film Festival this year, you wrote that the program was "haunted by history." I suppose "Cloud Atlas" fits into that assertion given the volume of time periods it covers over the course of its hefty running time. Every scene of the movie is haunted by events unfolding in different eras, from hundreds of years in the past to the distant future. Even people who don't respond kindly to the film—-Lisa, myself—-tend to admit that there's a certain ambition driving it forward. Perhaps we should single out where that ambition comes from. Several shards of influence are behind the existence of this film—the Wachowskis, Tom Tykwer, David Mitchell's 2004 bestseller, and the various spiritual/epistemological ideas that shape the overall premise. That's what I'm seeing, anyway; how do you define "Cloud Atlas"? Since you gave the movie a positive rating on Criticwire, I know you like it, but tell us what makes this movie's bold ideas hold together: Is it a religious movie? Or more generally a treatise on identity? I'm grasping for ideas here, so maybe you can help.


B RUBY RICH: I have not often been a fan of the Wachowskis, but Tykwer has interested me, and the combination of the "smart action" auteurs from both sides of the Atlantic intrigued me from the start. I haven't read "Cloud Atlas," mind you. I haven't read the screenplays of films not based on books either, so I've always avoided the adaptation game as a way to approach filmmaking. I prefer a level playing field. Actually, I barely read novels anymore. But I live with someone who's writing one, and she reads everything, so believe me, I'd heard about the wonders of "Cloud Atlas." Made me nervous. Big epic films of big epic books tend to turn gold to dross, not the opposite. But discovering that it would premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in the glorious Princess of Whales Theatre made the event irresistible. With lights glittering, painted ceilings screaming fin-du-siecle, and blood-lust crowds of fans circling the block, who could resist? So I went.

Sure enough, there were the six complicated interlocking stories spanning centuries and continents. Everybody's read about that already, right? An 1894 ocean voyage to and from the slave trade, a journo-mystery about a nuclear power plant, a gay composer and his evil patron, a publisher and his evil brother, a clone revolt in a Korea of the future, a caveman-like tribe in a post-apocalyptic future and its alien visitor, all add up to … what? Captivation for some, irritation evidently for others. "Cloud Atlas" moved me from column B to column A. Normally I am irritated by the "21 Grams" school of episodic, we-are-all-linked storytelling. But in this case, I found myself enjoying the way that the mix of genres threw up unexpected nuances. And as show-offy and guy's-guy as the style can be, I appreciated the bells and whistles being put into the service of a work more complex than a shoot 'em up, more evolved than a rocket launch or a bomb blast or some jazzy new techno-weaponry. It's a smart film! Imagine that.

So here's the deal: Since it was impossible to replicate the "Cloud Atlas" trope of shuttling between stories and epochs and characters like a mad rug-weaver at a hyperactive loom, what the three did was recast that device as, literally, a casting device. The actors switch back and forth on our behalf. We get to time-travel if and when we recognize them. And in so doing, we are tested.

It isn't incidental that "Cloud Atlas" has emerged in tandem with the news of Lana Wachowski's arrival, the first film not to be credited to "the Wachowski Brothers" team. Since Larry's transition to Lana, who continues to make films with brother Andy, all the pronouns in their online credits have been revised. As we read on Salon and in the New Yorker and in any other coverage of the film's production or debut, the promotion tour for "Cloud Atlas" has also been a coming-out tour for Lana (Editor's note: Watch Lana Wachowski's speech at the Human Rights Campaign's San Francisco gala, where she received the Visibility award, below), with articles tracking her transition as much as the film's genesis. Hmm, Genesis, there's a thought. Watching "Cloud Atlas," it occurred to me that its strategy of deploying human actors through a mix-master of casting might not be coincidental. Rather, I began to wonder if Lana's transition might have spurred the decision to move beyond mere color-blind casting to have actors switch race and gender (as well as age, that well-worn, badly-managed switch that movies love). Because these are name-brand, bold-face actors (Halle Berry, Tom Hanks, Hugh Grant) who are paid precisely for their specific gender incarnations at the top of the food chain, it's a nicely audacious trick. It made me buy into the film's larger conceits.

There was, I admit, one little problem: the ending. How can we as an audience be put through all these shifts and switches and inventions, only to arrive at an indeterminate future in an indeterminate galaxy inside … a nuclear family? C'mon! I didn't see that one coming.

Next page: Schwarzbaum responds to Ruby's position and delves into the movie's unique casting decisions.

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2 Comments

  • Joe Tyrrell | October 25, 2012 5:42 PMReply

    Ah, if only it were the Princess of Whales Theatre. Toronto has gotten funkier, but not by all that, and Anglo-Canada just ins't that spunky.

  • Josh Ralske | October 25, 2012 3:02 PMReply

    Interesting discussion, but as someone who appreciated the movie's thematic ambitions, and admired it to some degree, I'm fairly startled that no one even brought up the troubling aspect of white actors in awful makeup playing Asians.