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

Lisa, you anticipated that the casting trickery of "Cloud Atlas" would come into play during this discussion. It sounds like you're keener on that device than a lot of other aspects of the movie. What do you make of Ruby's toying with a possible correlation between Lana Wachowski's "coming out tour" and the way the movie uses the cast to cross lines of gender, ethnicity and age? If "Cloud Atlas" were  viewed exclusively in autobiographical terms, would that ameliorate some of that "boys at play" quality that you find so troublesome?

LS: Ruby, that thing you mention about approaching the work on a level playing field? If we’re following those guidelines, I think the rules ought to apply equally to the directorial back story—that is, to ignoring that back story—in considering the success of the enterprise. It may well be that the filmmaking decision to blur gender, race, and age in the shape-shifting casting emerged, deliberately or subconsciously, out of Lana Wachowski's experience of coming out as a trans-gender woman.  But that's none of my business, is it? At least, I think it shouldn’t be. I’m happy she's happy. (Plus, I love her "Run Lola Run" cherry-colored hair!) But what matters to me as a viewer, or ought to, is only what I see on the screen. Which is easier said than done, I know, not only for professional critics and other industry types, but also for non-pro audiences who these days are fed a silo full of promotional/editorial chow long before the opening of any big movie. (The truth is, although I was plenty informed beforehand about Lana Wachowski's gender journey, it didn’t even occur to me, duh, to read her personal history into the "Cloud Atlas" circus before my eyes.)
 
Anyway, what I see in the casting is—well it’s much more than a mere gimmick, since it's evident that the filmmakers put serious, puzzle-solving thought into their choices—but what I see in the casting is just that: intellectual puzzle solving. Moving A to D and F to B. On top of which, the participation of big movie stars adds a further layer of intentionally artificial showmanship: Look, there’s Halle Berry playing a white woman! That Tom Hanks plays 27 roles (okay, six roles, in six stories) is novel, and an interesting challenge for the actor-statesman. But added to the plot shuffling, and the visual fireworks, and the, yes, Dazzling Fusion of Genres, the switcheroos end up meaning less, rather than more.  Also, can I just say, it's unfortunate to open the movie with Tom Hanks looking as if he’s still in search of Wilson the volleyball in the end game of "Cast Away." I‘m a lifetime member of the Tom Hanks Fan Club, but not a character metamorphosis went by that I didn’t think, huh, that’s Tom Hanks in Role #4, or 5, or 6.
 
One other thought, prompted by Eric: Andy Wachowski may now have a sister rather than brother, but I still do think that from "The Matrix" on forward, the siblings' work is indeed a cinematic manifestation of boys at play, all motion and thrust. I have a vivid elementary-school memory of watching two boys march around the schoolyard together at recess making vroooom vroooom noises while holding toy rocketships and vigorously bobbing them up and down. I should check my archives to see if their names were Andy and Larry.

Ruby, your reading of Lana's coming out tour as being intertwined with the casting decisions provides a fascinating way into a device that--at least from my viewing experience--stood out so prominently that it was impossible to buy into the performances in the moment. Of course, from "Intolerance" to "Fahrenheit 451," movies have cast actors in multiple roles for various reasons. But you position the application of actors and role changes in "Cloud Atlas" as particularly innovative. In your estimation, just how radical is this movie? Does it challenge the notion of Hollywood stardom in unprecedented fashion? Or can you identify other similarly progressive examples?

BRR: Ah, to quote Ann Romney inopportunely, this is hard! After a lifetime as a happily snarky rock-thrower, I can't believe I've ceded the role to Lisa and have to settle instead for the far less unsatisfying role of public defender in this "Cloud Atlas" drama. So okay, here goes. Tom Hanks? Not my favorite. But if you're going to use him, really, this is the place – kinda "Cast Away" meets "Forrest Gump" with a dash of "Da Vinci Code." And Halle Berry? Her recent choices of roles have been so disastrous that here at least she gets a full roster of them: black, white, Korean, space alien. The hop-scotching has a brio to it that carried me along. Yeah, of course they are all kinda recognizable across the "centuries" (wink wink) but c'mon, Lisa, are you really going to carp about casting movie stars in a movie? I can't imagine what else you'd want to do with them.
 
And similarly, Eric, are you arguing that performance is, well, noticeable?  I agree! But people generally have no idea what acting even is: Generally, it's the actors that are the most noticeable in their roles, i.e. fail miserably at their job of embodying their characters, who win awards and fans. I found "Cloud Atlas" amusing as much for its ambition as for its delivery.

Octavia Butler.
I guess I really disagree with you, Lisa, on the vroom-vroom thing, but I don't see this film as the product of those schoolyard jerks. Peter Jackson, yes. James Cameron, yes. I am allergic to the smarmy boy-genius movies of whiz-bang special effects and elaborate plots that speed toward some millennial horizon with all the command of a bottle rocket on steroids. That's not "Cloud Atlas," which belongs less to the blockbuster category than to the novelistic category of science fiction or better, alternative reality, its current monicker. Parts of it made me think of the late great Octavia Butler's "Parable of the Sower." It's a pop film that pops with ideas, some of the inspired, some daft. Actually, I love the credits sequence with cameos of every actor in every role, playing to its regular accompaniment of an audience applauding, not the film, but rather its own cleverness in having spotted the transformations. Does it use these change-ups in a radical way? No, I wouldn't say that. But it does play with stardom rather refreshingly by destabilizing its most salient features – gender, race, recognizability. I don't think that's the same thing as star turns in the service of a particular otherness, like playing gay or ageing or growing a nose or wearing drag. It's the instability that I rather like here, one that seems suited to the film's (and presumably novel's) imaginings of time-space continuums.

LS: Hmmm, I do like the notion of a movie messing around with the salient features of movie stardom. As you suggest, Ruby, stars are stars because we recognize them, and because we recognize them, they're cast in more big movies. There are stars who are famous for the thoroughness with which they transform themselves--Meryl Streep, Daniel Day-Lewis, to name two--but we still know, as we watch them, that that that's Streep being Thatcher, Day-Lewis being Lincoln. Maybe it comes back to the question of adaptation, the issue I vowed just a few paragraphs ago that I'd set aside. As a reader, the more I know/love a book, the more I want to keep the characters as I imagine them. And if others are going to imagine those characters into on-screen visibility, I kind of wish, with useless, criticky high-mindedness, for the casting of unknowns.

Except, of course, that's not how big expensive adaptations of popular and/or artistically lauded books get made. Such undertakings depend on stars, not only to justify the budget, but also to enhance the pleasure of the whole movie experience on its own terms. And yet. Yet. There are adaptations and there are adaptations, stars and stars. Aside from young Daniel Radcliffe and his fellow Hogwart friends in the beginning of the undertaking, every single player in the Harry Potter movie series was a great British Thespian Someone, and none of their reknown got in the way of being Snape, or Dumbledore. On the contrary. All of which brings me back to "Cloud Atlas." Here, Ruby, you enjoy how the elements of stardom are passed through a kind of prism. Me, I think that the experiment lessens, rather than intensifies, the emotional power of the story by diverting viewer attention towards the (boy-centric) game-like fun of playing with prisms and away from the haunting (feminine?) we-are-one-across-space-and-time reverie on which David Mitchell built his whole intricate beauty of a novel.

Snarky rock throwing? I don't think that's what I'm doing here. Let's talk about "Taken 2" and we can really lob some stones!

Next page: What does "Cloud Atlas" say about the nature of celebrity?

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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.