100 Exceptional American Movies in 10 Genres: Sprawling, 10-6

You can read up on the basis for this series here, and also find links to other posts in the series.

Movies I’ve reviewed on this site have a link in the title which you can follow to read my full review.

10) Cloud Atlas (2012), directed by Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer

Look, if Cloud Atlas isn’t the very definition of the word “sprawling,” then we need to reassess our language.

Six separate stories with hundreds of years’ distance between the first one and the last make Cloud Atlas one of the more daunting movies of the past decade. It’s not complicated to follow – each segment is totally different in appearance from any other – but its range is a little dazzling. Based on the David Mitchell novel of the same name, an absolute all-timer among the “unfilmable novels” genre, Cloud Atlas is as faithful to its original text as can be expected in a movie. It chops scenes and characters (much of Adam Ewing’s journey disappears, the character of Eva is removed from the “Letters from Zedelghem” section and makes some wholesale changes to the Sonmi-451 sections, but the biggest change is in the order the stories are told. I’ve argued before that cutting the movie to give us a traditional narrative arc as moviegoers at the expense of each original story was probably a mistake, and that still feels true to me; I know that I would have preferred a chronological movie, each with its own arc, and with an implicit trust in the audience to put the pieces together. “How will any of these stories connect?” gives way to “What is an ocean but a multitude of drops? What is a movie but a multitude of shots?”

The two best sequences of the movie are maybe its most down to earth. (This is going to be a theme of these writeups.) The sequences adapted from “Letters from Zedelghem” and “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” are both fairly straightforward. In the former, a young composer seeks out an aging master to be his amanuensis and grapples with the consequences of the old man’s whims in the former; in the latter, an old book publisher saddled by debts accidentally gets himself locked in a nursing home run by his vengeful brother. Small ludicrous tinges help those chapters keep up with the cataclysmic touches of the Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing’s life-or-death struggle and the corrupted nuclear power plant in Half-Lives. One thinks immediately of the enormous woman in charge of the nursing home in “Timothy Cavendish,” a sadistic monster with a powerful slap, a Nurse Ratched type if ever there were one, and she is played by Hugo Weaving. In terms of stakes, they bring situations which are not quite commensurate with the revolution of Sonmi-451 or the reclamation of Zachry, but close enough to keep us on the same page. “Letters” gently mixes Frobisher’s funny, tender letters to his lover, Sixsmith, with the realities of a brilliant composer whose temperament and dramatic choices will ensure that he will be forgotten as soon as he kills himself. It seems like those two should matter far less than the other four sections of the movie. Indeed, “Letters” feels like it should be its own movie more than any other section, and “Timothy Cavendish” is so funny that it doesn’t seem to fit in well with slavery at the front end and post-apocalyptic savages at the back. Even these add to the multitude of drops. In “Half-Lives,” Luisa Rey meets Rufus Sixsmith and hears Frobisher’s Cloud Atlas Symphony by accident. And Sonmi-451 sees a movie version of “Timothy Cavendish,” which paints a picture of a very different Cavendish who intends to stand up for his rights bravely.

9) Titanic (1997), directed by James Cameron

Say what you will about Titanic, twenty years old and as bloated as Cal Hockley’s ego, but the movie draws us in because of its bigness. The budget was enormous. The take was enormous. The buildup was enormous. “My Heart Will Go On” was as omnipresent as Britney Spears and boy bands at their peak. And the characters in the movie itself are not shy about calling attention to the massive nature of the ship. Cal himself tells Rose, “There are some things you can be blase about, Rose, but not about Titanic.” For Jack, who digs into the Ship of Dreams marketing plan with both hands, no little ocean liner could represent the hugeness of his hopes. For Rose, who calls Titanic a “slave ship” (yeeech), Mauritania would not convey the vastness of the injustice being done to her by her mother, who hopes to salvage the family name with an influx of Cal’s steel money. The trip across the Atlantic is nothing much for Titanic – the ships in the next movie would take much more time to cross our planet’s most temperamental ocean – but it’s not enough for Ismay to be satisfied. The press has already written about the size of our ship, he tells the captain. I want them to marvel at her speed. And so they will; everyone marvels at how quickly the Titanic can sink, brought down by one of the few objects in the ocean larger than her.

At 195 minutes, Titanic has the endurance of a blockbuster thirty-five to forty years older. I don’t know many people who love the movie for its second half, basically from the car sex scene on, during which a whole bunch of people die. The movie’s most debated scene takes place back there, once Titanic has shuddered into the deep; for heaven’s sake, they try to fit both of them on the door but the thing about tips over. If we’re going to litigate the dumb things about Titanic, we can do it for the parts of the movie which are genuinely dumber than that. Those are the scenes which are biggest, most sprawling, and although there’s some thrill in watching a fairly intimate movie become The Poseidon Adventure with a historical sign-off, I’m not sure they’re necessarily the movie’s most effective. To me, Jack and Rose’s one-weekend stand on the most luxurious ocean liner to ever raise its anchor is a better use of the movie’s bigness. The difference between Rose’s first-class world and Jack’s bunk in steerage, the worlds apart between fine dinners and fiddle-driven dance parties, can all exist on a single boat. It’s a big boat, but it’s not big enough to keep the two of them apart for very long; nor, do we find out, is the boat’s size sufficient to keep their romance safe from Cal, his vaguely homicidal valet, or the greatest maritime disaster ever.

8) Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), directed by Peter Weir

More boats!

Aside from the fact that the Galapagos Islands play a fairly important role in the plot of Master and Commander, since they are the site of Surprise’s final confrontation with the Acheron, the mere presence of a place that Darwin made immemorial to science gives Master and Commander a fundamentally different tone than the average swashbuckler. By the time the movie makes its way to the Galapagos, we’ve had several of the traditional oceangoing tropes already: a terrifying squall, a clever nautical ruse, cannonballs and small arms fire, tense councils of war. I can think of plenty of other movies set on the high seas which do each of those things, not to mention the many more which take similar tacks on dry land. But how many other movies are willing to peel off at the height of the drama so that one of the protagonists can collect specimens heretofore unknown to European science? Master and Commander earns that feeling of sprawl. Hundreds of miles’ chase over the open ocean takes place, as the subtitle says, on the far side of the world. Nothing could be stranger to English sailors and their French opponents than the marine iguanas and flightless cormorants of the Galapagos Islands. It’s fittingly Weir to do spend time on such animals, to hold them up next to the equally inscrutable machinations of the humans surrounding them. In Picnic at Hanging Rock, all sorts of animals scurry around the disappearing girls and the searching boys, from lizards to birds to koalas. It’s much the same (albeit sans koalas) in Master and Commander; when Maturin sees the Acheron on the opposite side of the island from Surprise, the specimens he and his helpers had picked up have to be set down in an attempt to run back to the ship.

Weir is capable of depicting the cooped-up life of sailors aboard a Napoleonic Era warship with fitting claustrophobia. Scenes below decks are tight, yellowish with the patina of urine and sweat and grime. Men pack close to one another even in what must be searing heat. Even dinner at the captain’s table is a pretty close affair, with officers clustering together around their dishes and glasses and weevils. But no movie set at sea would be complete without those shots of a single boat and a camera pulling away from it, showing that there’s nothing but water on all four sides as far as eyes can see. It makes Aubrey’s pursuit of Acheron even more impressive than the fact of his victory over a bigger, stronger, faster ship. There’s not much that separates the two ships from one another; it’s only water, after all, but that would be enough for the vast majority of us. Weir depicts Aubrey as a man who is at home with this sort of emptiness around him, a master of seamanship, as one of his officers crows. Where Maturin needs a crowd of insects or a crowd of organs to do his work, Aubrey does his best when he is given little more than a map and his sails to achieve his mission. The seeming nothingness of the open ocean is Aubrey’s canvas.

7) 12 Years a Slave (2013), directed by Steve McQueen

12 Years a Slave has gotten some flak for being too aesthetically pleasing for a movie about slavery, which has always seemed a little bizarre to me; the American South has a distinctive beauty to it, and slavery is hell regardless of its geographical setting. 12 Years a Slave makes humidity buzz off the screen and into your seat, and the magnolias preen above fields of cotton. When Solomon is one slip in a muddy patch away from strangulation, it happens to take place in a beautiful part of the plantation. Solomon depicts some engineering prowess to his terrifically racist overseer in a dappled swamp. Louisiana is effectively contrasted with its white overlords in this movie. The land itself is beautiful, varied, even hopeful; it’s obvious that there’s significant potential in the countryside. But it’s not like the slaveowners who, even when relatively kind, like Ford or Turner, are still in violation of just about every code of decency that civilized people execute.

Calling it a scene seems a bit much because it’s basically just Chiwetel Ejiofor and the sky behind him, but it’s the best word for a short sequence late in the film’s run. Solomon can do little more than reflect on what must must have seemed like his best, last chance to escape bondage and return home more than a decade after having been kidnapped in the first place. It’s long and difficult, and although other scenes are much longer and much more difficult, this one stands out for its focus. In that moment of crestfallen abasement – lying to his master about his identity and his past in order to escape some horrifying punishment – it’s just Solomon, more alone in that moment than he had been before, somehow even more alone than he was when he was kidnapped. Steve McQueen waits and waits to draw us back into Solomon’s head without any “distraction” from the world outside. It would be a powerful moment if we had followed Solomon around like Laszlo Nemes follows Saul in Son of Saul. It’s more powerful when we leave ourselves entirely to Solomon’s thoughts.

6) Silence (2016), directed by Martin Scorsese

Silence is never really informative about where people are in relation to anything else. Names of towns are given but not often placed in context with any major city or region. Some events happen on the ocean. Others happen well inland, and others appear to occur in the mountains. What matters is that it is Japan (although filmed in Taiwan), and that it bears little relation to the grayscale world of Macau, where Rodrigues and Garupe embark from on their mission to find their apostatized mentor Ferreira. The only clear link between Macau and Japan are the stairs pictured above. My first impression was that the shot was needlessly artsy. Why would we need to see them going down the stairs sideways in the first place? But recently I’ve come around on it. It’s the first sign we have, beyond the obvious trouble the two young priests will have in finding their senior, that their quest will be endless. It will have no discernible markers of beginning or end, but only continue on towards one object. Finding the bottom of the stairs in Japan means ruin, death, apostasy, shame. For Garupe, it means drowning. For Rodrigues, it means some unknowable number of days, weeks, months on the run and some equally unknowable number of days in different types of captivity facing different types of gutwrenching scenarios. Silence is a movie as much about endurance as anything else; unlike 12 Years a Slave, it does not give us much of a timeline until the very end of the picture.

Scorsese, like God in Revelation, finds a way to make all things new. Few images compare to the sight of three crosses on a high dusty hill, less for the obvious drama and more for the symbolic resonance of the moment. For billions of people worldwide, that scene implies the greatest holiness, difficult to see in any other way without nagging discomfort. But Scorsese manages to do much the same thing in Silence while depicting three men placed on crosses. His Golgotha is not a hillside but the edge of the ocean. The crucified men are not nailed to their significantly flimsier planks, but tied on. And the point is not suffocation over hours, but drowning over days. The tide comes in over and over again, beating the condemned Christians. At first it looks like the water will overcome them and they will be forced merely to watch the waves come in that will drown them – but then the tide goes out again and the torture continues. One of the men reports to his superiors that the bodies he’s supposed to cremate will not catch fire because there is so much water in them. Perhaps the greatest difference in this scene – more than religion, time period, race, or vista – is the reason why these men can be strong enough for their death. We are told that Jesus did it as a means of salvation for humankind. Ferreira, later on in the movie, has a far more haunting reason for Rodrigues to chew on. They do it because they want to do right for the priests, he says. It’s not about God; it’s about the men who come to them in secret to bring them Communion and other sacred rites. For Ferreira, an act like the tidal crucifixion is proof that Christianity cannot grow in Japan. It is too different, too unknowable for men like Rodrigues and himself to comprehend.

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