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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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Jim Broadbent Susan Sarandon Cloud Atlas

As much as we might enjoy the opportunity to clobber a silly movie franchise, I get the feeling that "Taken 2" is something of an easy target -- unlike "Cloud Atlas," which, as you've both shown, is a tough movie to unravel whether or not you actually like it. When was the last time anyone got this fired up about Tom Hanks? So let me put this in more general terms: Would "Cloud Atlas" work better or worse if you didn't recognize any of the cast? Also, now we've entered the realm of hypothetical scenarios: Seeing as we've had movie stars nearly as long as we've had movies, would the art form benefit if the star system went away? This past week, there has been plenty of discussion about the limitations of the nudity in "The Sessions." Clearly, familiar faces can have a limiting effect on movies. Imagine the possibilities if they went away.

LS: Aww, Eric, I’m not suggesting we waste time clobbering "Taken 2." Likewise, I’m not suggesting that movies would be better without movie stars. That’s just crazy talk. In addition to which, as long as we're making that brief detour, I think the participation of stars has nothing to do with the balance of M/F nudity in "The Sessions," a story in which a display of more graphic (aroused) male nudity (let’s call a penis a penis) would have been more of a distraction to make a feminist sexual point than a service to the narrative. Even the sight of an unknown actor's erect penis would have been beside the, er, point.

What I’m saying about "Cloud Atlas" is this: It's a ballsy, ambitious project, made by interesting filmmakers whose work I am always eager to see, and whom I respect for being both serious and passionate about their medium. But for me, the movie’s time-hopping, card-shuffling plot structure plus the novelty act of celebrities as famous as Hanks and Berry assuming multiple roles through the magic of prosthetics and make-up plus an overload of CGI-abetted visual foofaraw plus well, yes, that bit with the Valleysman dialect that had me thinking of Jodie Foster in "Nell" equals a busy movie in which the soul of the source material, i.e., David Mitchell's original novel, gets lost. The book, as a book, is thrilling. The movie, as a movie, is not.

"The Sessions."
Fox Searchlight Pictures "The Sessions."

BRR: Ah, actors. The question as to whether movies would be better served with unknowns in the roles doesn't have to be hypothetical, since this is the year of "Beasts of the Southern Wild," where the cast of Louisiana nonprofessionals indeed got audiences to suspend skepticism and believe in a fairy-tale that could have fallen flat if any stars had shown up in the swamp. So yes: There are movie-star movies and there are no-stars-please films, and both have a place in the firmament. And either route could probably have worked for "Cloud Atlas" – but that's not the point. It couldn't have found financing without the stars. Without Hanks and Berry and Grant, we wouldn't be here online arguing about its success or failure. And I suspect the same is true for "The Sessions." I agree completely with Lisa about its politics of representation. But I'd go one step further: The film's gender politics can be exposed in half a minute if you just imagine switching genders on the sex therapist and the patient.

Consider: Who would make that movie? And who would go see it? If you answer nobody to both questions, then you can't see the film's gender politics as anything but corrupt. It's a sad situation when disability has to trump gender to solicit empathy from an audience.

So, finally, where does all this leave "Cloud Atlas"? As I wondered, I happened into a lecture where cultural critic Jim Clifford was speaking apologetically about being an optimistic romantic. As in academia, being optimistic is a quality demanding apology from a film critic, too. Yes, there's plenty in "Cloud Atlas" both to inspire and to irritate: the wonderful time-spanning heroines, the gay thing, the switch-ups, the vastness, and yeah, the mumbojumbo caveman stuff and too-predictable dystopias. But while both the Wachowskis and Twyker do have their whiz-bam moments, they also share an energetic optimism that I find myself, here, willing to accept. Give me a flawed effort over a smooth package any day, and if the seams show and there's worry around the edges, so much the better. I know how uncool it is, but I'll extend the olive branch on its behalf. This isn't the "Titanic" with its perfect formula and readymade myth; equally ambitious with an insanely smaller budget, "Cloud Atlas" tries for something just as huge, but more original and challenging. I, for one, appreciate the risks it's taking and, this once anyway, am willing to clap.
 

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





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