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

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

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.

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. 

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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