September 20, 2013 § 1 Comment
I have to admit: I cried. It seems to be a recurring theme in my life recently that, whenever I am alone and watching a film, I cry. Of course, this may have something to do with the film itself. Watching the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas for the first time, by yourself, is never the best decision.
Watching Cloud Atlas alone was, in fact, a good decision. I am reticent in saying this next bit, but: reading the book helped. Perhaps this is true of most adaptations. Watching Apocalypse Now armed with your knowledge of Heart of Darkness can only add to the experience, enabling you to predict the outcome of each instance. In fact, I think knowing what will occur inevitably in a film and, therefore, knowing its overall raison d’etre and purpose, can add to the suspense and tension – perhaps, two rather typical things to note in relation to film. With Cloud Atlas, this was certainly true, although its directors, Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, tweaked aspects of the novel’s partly inverted plot. This had to be done and I think that their choices were the right ones to make when it comes to film. For example, visuals, of course, played a huge part throughout with actors playing numerous roles, thereby reappearing across eras. It was fun spotting the overlap: in one scene we see Hugh Grant as a cannibal in a post-apocalyptic Earth; in another, he is the sexist head honcho of a nuclear power plant, doing his usual turn as a smarmy charmer. Yet, there were instances in which it became outright funny, particularly Tom Hanks’ attempt at an Irish accent. Nevertheless, I understand the decision to use the same actors for several roles; it was an avant garde choice for an avant garde book. In an interview with the three directors, an accompaniment to the movie’s trailer, they discuss their desire to not only have actors played different roles, but different races, gender and ages. This, they say, delved to the heart of the book’s central ideas: connectivity, karma, the inheritance of consequences. (If you would like to watch the directors’ commentary, then here it is). It is this aspect of the film that I think most people have struggled with; that, and its inability to be defined. As Andy Wachowski says, ‘Why keep genres separated?’, a point that raises further queries regarding genre itself, in both fiction and film, and the stigma that so-called ‘genre fiction’ faces. No one knows quite how to describe this film. What is it about? In fact, what is it?’ Films struggle far more with such issues than books do (although, NB: I am no film studies expert). In a book, there is the space and length to describe anything and everything, as minutely or vaguely as the author wishes. Film is a different medium, one based on the eye, on a moment. We may have the rewind button, but rewinding back to a scene can create a jarring experience; unlike with a book, which welcomes the easy backwards flicking to a previous page, to another chapter or, even, the final line (I am all too guilty of the latter). That moment in the book when Luisa Rey reads Robert Frobisher’s letters to Sixsmith and he ‘mentions a comet-shaped birthmark between his shoulder-blade and collar-bone’; then, in the shower, she looks in the mirror at the ‘birthmark between her shoulder-blade and collar-bone’. This was one of the novel’s numerous revelatory moments that the reader tallies up like clues in a detective story. Yet instead, in the film, we have this instance reduced to an obviously Significant Moment in the elevator when Sixsmith mentions Frobisher’s birthmark and we see Luisa’s reaction as it slowly dawns on her (that old cliché). This scene felt a bit forced; I could almost see the mechanics of it. Of course, it’s an important discovery and I see why such decisions must be made in a time-constrained film that is already bursting at the bit with action and characters and time-zones. But, I prefer the slow burn of the written word and being given the chance to come to a conclusion by yourself instead of glaringly obvious ‘this is important, stay alert’ dialogue.
Although, it must be noted that this scene in the elevator did not require prior knowledge of the book, nor did several other scenes such as the brilliant unfurling of the Frobisher and Sixsmith story, right to its devastating end. Their strand was beautifully rendered on screen and I could have watched an entire film solely dedicated to their relationship. However, the opening with Zachry left me a little startled and confused; obviously, I don’t want to underestimate an audience’s ability to contextualise the opening or position themselves in the narrative, but if I hadn’t read the novel, I would have been lost from the beginning. I must concede, though, that my prior understanding of the book may have been a disadvantage when it came to the film. I watched it expecting one thing and, when the film did not adhere to the book’s structure, my mind rebelled somewhat. Perhaps this says more about the difficulties in adapting novels to the screen, and less about Cloud Atlas, the book and film. Regardless, I like that the film ends where it begins, with Zachry, in a similar way that the book itself does (the film inverts the book, in that the book’s central story of Zachry becomes the film’s metaphorical bookends).
If anything, Cloud Altas is a film that requires your attention; it isn’t “easy viewing” exactly but I prefer films with important messages, however highfalutin that sounds. This certainly comes armed with numerous big messages, ones that are pertinent to our current culture and society, one that is based heavily on connectivity and yet largely devoid of community or mutual responsibility. Having only recently watched The Matrix, too, I can’t help hoping that Cloud Atlas may turn into another Wachowski cult classic, one infused with philosophical and political questions about our world and the decisions that we must make about its future.