Baumann and Burch Conversations #15: Cloud Atlas

Tim: We begin this at 2:30 a.m. to bring the True-True to You-You.. 

(I want it said that Matt has edited “you all” to You-You, so that’s auspicious.) 

Matt: I am the Author (like Rowling)

Tim: Both of us are avowed Cloud Atlas fans, both the movie and the really exceptional book it’s based on, though I’d also like it said that my attachment to it falls short of the religious fervor that I think Matt has expressed. 

Matt: I think we have a podcast (one of the real early ones) where I express said religious fervor. The book is one of my two favorites ever. And Mitchell is probably my favorite living author. The movie is among my favorites. I love everything about this world, it speaks to me on a soul level. 

Tim: We just finished watching the movie together for the first time since we saw it in theaters. 

Matt: And Tim’s tooth exploded!

Tim: It had to do with a hard candy and not the quality of the movie, though I dunno. What is a jawbreaker but a multitude of hard sugar molecules? 

I’d guess I’ve watched it a couple of times since the theatrical experience. You?

Matt: Watched in once more in the theater. Bought the DVD immediately and have watched it, at least 8 or 9 times since the theater. Probably more than that. So between 10-15?

Tim: Whoosh. I appear to have some catching up to do here, though that would explain why you were saying lines in tandem with the characters the way I do with Mean Girls.  

Matt: We both have that party trick, so yeah that’s why. I can also spot most of the dialogue changes between movie and book (I’ve read the book at least 5 times). 

Tim: I just have one reading of the book down, though I’m due for a reread. Maybe that goes next in my queue. (I still have to read The Goldfinch…I’ve been putting that off like people put off doing laundry until they’re staring at the last clean pair of underwear in the drawer.) 

I think where we should start, and quickly so that we do not make this the length of the book, is with the movie as an adaptation. Adaptations from novels are always sort of difficult, because a novel is invariably much more full of ideas than can be pushed into a picture, and this novel is one that I honestly would have thought was unfilmable until we, of course, got the film. What, in your more expert mind, makes this such a successful adaptation?  

Matt: In broad terms, I think the smartest thing the movie does is stay true to the themes and most of the events of the book while having a unique aesthetic and structure. So it communicates the various essences of the book in its own style, and the Wachowskis and Tykwer are well suited for Mitchell’s brand of excess.

Tim: I think that’s definitely understated, and I will wait for you to finish this thought before I chip in my two cents.

Matt: They also knew what to change and omit from the book, and have a keen sense of which elements would work on screen. The editing they did (with some help from Mitchell) from page to screen is sort of incredible. All the buzz while this movie was being advertised was that the novel could not be a film and the Wachowskis have gone off the deep end. We should be pining for more ambitious attempts at movies like this. Sometimes they pay off grandly. 

Tim: I don’t think it’s necessarily a killer if the movie’s director(s) don’t align well with whatever is in the soul of the book, but I think it can absolutely be a difference maker. Say what you will about adaptations of Lord of the Rings or A Clockwork Orange or The Princess Bride, but I think that each of those directors really saw into what the book was trying to do and then went from there. Lord of the Rings is a good example. Jackson gets the general drift of what Tolkien’s working on, and even if it means cutting out Tom Bombadil and a couple albums’ worth of music, it by and large succeeds in passing on the story of good and evil that Tolkien’s got in there. The Wachowskis and Tykwer have this investment in world-building, in really conceptual stories and occasionally abstract ideas, and this sounds funky, I guess, but they were weird enough to make this work. I’m not using him to rag on him, even though I do a lot, but Steven Spielberg couldn’t have made this movie any more than I would trust the Wachowskis/Tykwer with Indiana Jones or Jurassic Park

Matt: I don’t think there is any “safe” version of this movie that works. You need the commitment to the universal and the fantastical that Tykwer and the Wachowskis come with. We can see when we look back at The Matrix, and V for Vendetta, and Run Lola Run a good chunk of what’s going on in Cloud Atlas. This does really feel like a perfect marriage of author and directors in terms of what they all value. There’s a certain spirit that the directing team and Mitchell all share. 

Small tangent, is there another working director (or set) who you would trust with this adaptation? 

Tim: Offhand, I would throw Ang Lee out there. I think Ang Lee can do anything, and this is a movie that requires several different skills. George Miller is my wild card. Claire Denis feels a little odd, as does Olivier Assayas, but I think both of them do such brilliant work with identity and have immense skill at delving into character, and neither one of them has such an inhibiting set of takes (I’m thinking about Haneke specifically) that the story would get broken down at the outset. Heaven knows I would love to see Steve McQueen’s Cloud Atlas

Matt: Maybe this is a weird addendum (and genuine question here), but are any of them committed enough to the…I guess the Muchness of it all. The Wachowskis are all about Big Ideas that are simultaneously stunning and profound and cheesy as hell but work perfectly because you know they’re in total earnest. 

That said I very much want McQueen’s version now. 

Tim: Denis is probably as close as we get to that, though she is not even a little cheesy. Assayas is as good at working through individuals, and their many many facets, as anyone else working right now. (Clouds of Sils Maria is the movie that comes to mind first, though you could choose just about anything.) You know, before Widows I wouldn’t have thought McQueen could come down to some of that cheesier stuff, but there’s enough in that movie which is fairly…not cheesy, precisely, but heartfelt. I guess I’m also not giving Alfonso Cuaron enough credit, though as a Potter fan I am still a little wary of his adaptations. Prisoner of Azkaban is a good movie and not a particularly great adaptation. 

Matt: And to be clear, I use cheesy lovingly for the Wachowskis. They are just definitely about Ideas that would induce groans in the wrong hands, and there are many wrong hands. “Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and Present”: that idea in that explicit a fashion over 2 and half hours would fall flat with most directors, I think. 

Tim: Full agree.

Matt: But we were talking more specifically about what makes this a good adaptation. I think the most important reason is the soul. But the structural choices the directors made, I think, are marvelous. 

Tim: There’s a quote from Mitchell who said something like, If they adapted it like the book they’d be getting new characters at ninety minutes into the movie, and that’s a problem. I’m very sympathetic to that argument. I think I’m actually more sympathetic to that basic truism that you don’t put main characters into a story that late than I am to any other argument about the movie’s structure. I’m sure you will talk about the editing, which definitely works at a high level. But I want to go back to a thing I’ve said before, and maybe it’s just me, but I like the idea of getting waves. I saw the movie first and then read the book, and I really liked the way that one is given these distant multiple opportunities to make connections. The way they do it certainly makes the connecting simpler, but I think the initial crowd/critical reactions to this movie makes it clear that it was already hard for Joe Audience or Sally Critic to build those connections. Why not go whole hog? Heck, I think this movie should be a solid 200 minutes, even though no movie gets to be 200 minutes anymore. There’s short shrift given to the Neo-Seoul chapter that I think does a disservice to the movie as a whole. 

Matt: You have a substantial amount of faith in Joe Audience if you think he could sit through 200 minutes of 11 sections of movie, with 5 stories cut in half, and having to remember what ole Adam Ewing was up to 3 hours ago. I think the population who likes that version is much smaller than the one the movie maintains now.

Tim: My idea is that they should have just said, Screw it, we’re already making a movie that’s too convoluted for most people, let’s just lean all the way in instead of 75% of the way in. 

Matt:  Well, they were already in fraught funding and production territory. 

Tim: I’m an idealist. Someone else will look at the budget and care, but there are so many ways for a movie to make money after the theatrical run…I’ll admit to being out of my financial depth, certainly, but as a movie I think it would function at a higher level.

Matt: But also, I blame audiences for not being able to follow the movie as currently constructed. I wouldn’t blame them as much for getting lost if we had a movie structured like the book. 

I agree it should be longer, but the interstitched nature feels right to me. In part because while the novel is certainly about these innate connections we have across time and space and culture and how our lives are ripples, the movie focuses on that even more heavily. Mitchell is more nuanced with the connections. The Wachowskis and Tykwer make that the Point. That “Our lives are not our own” bit is not in the novel. So seeing these rapid fire cuts and connections helps to bring form to that thematic emphasis. 

Tim: It’s nice to have that. I dunno, if this were Tarkovsky’s Cloud Atlas (stifles a loud guffaw due to the lateness of the hour, Tarkovsky’s death, etc.), there’d be more left up to us as viewers. And that’s a tradeoff I would make now, especially for something like this which was made at the dawn of serious streaming.

Matt: I doubt we see a full-bore version of what the Wachowskis and Tykwer really wanted. They’d been working on this sucker for years and years in some capacity, I don’t think the streaming thing is entirely fair. I’m just cognizant of the external factors that would prevent any Tarkovsky-esque version of Cloud Atlas happening now. And the Wachowskis have always been about big blatant themes anyway. 

Tim: There’s a line in Sideways where Thomas Haden Church tells Paul Giamatti to self-publish his own book, get it into libraries, and “let the people decide.” In a world where Netflix or Hulu or Amazon Prime or whoever just wants to have content, and this movie still has endlessly bankable movie star Tom Hanks…I feel like this is a movie where you can let the people decide. Of course, I would say that people (like us, for example) have done that already, and I also have no insight into the minds of Les Wachowskis et Tykwer, so maybe they dumped the idea of doing a straighter adaptation from the get-go. I have faith in that version, and like I’ve said before, I’m sure there’s someone who has done a “Mitchell cut” and is waiting to upload it to Dailymotion. (It’s not me. I wish it were me, but it’s not.)

Matt: Mitchell doesn’t even believe in the “Mitchell cut.” And I’m convinced you would pan that version for having new stuff halfway into the movie (back upon initial viewing).

Tim: This Sally Critic has always been very open to “new characters late” ever since I read Brave New World for freshman English. Again, I may be the only person in the world who would prefer the Mitchell cut, including Mitchell. I just have faith in that. 

Matt:  “I’m actually more sympathetic to that basic truism that you don’t put main characters into a story that late than I am to any other argument about the movie’s structure” – Tim Sally Critic

Tim: And yet I still think it would have worked. Sympathetic, sure, convinced, eh. John the Savage doesn’t need to be in the first thirty pages of Brave New World to make that story run. 

Matt: But book still works different from movie. And this whole argument is based on a hypothetical. There’s interiority we can get in books to keep things moving differently that a movie is not able to do in the same way. And with the narration of Cloud Atlas (which is 6 different genres of writing), I think that straight shot would be even harder. 

Tim: Definitely hard, but I don’t think anywhere close to impossible. Cloud Atlas is a tough cookie to adapt, but there are plenty of movies that don’t give any hint of a main character until we’ve gone a fair piece. The Third Man, Psycho, Fargo. The genre shifts are their own thing, but I think an audience that gets halfway through “Adam Ewing” will wait for the second half. Especially if the Frobisher section throws that line about missing half of Ewing’s diary at them in the first couple minutes. 

Matt: I think the audience for that is maybe low thousands. And no studio is going to publish that. And the point is less main characters and more you would have totally new characters and settings dropped periodically in what is not set up as a truly episodic piece. 

Tim: If we’re being purely practical, the only person who matters for that decision is Tom Hanks, because he’s the reason this movie got made at all. It is 12:28 in the morning there, so we will probably not get him before deadline. 

Matt: Ehhhhhhh…..Hanks has a hell of a lot of cache. But he’s not adapting the sucker. 

Tim: No, but if it’s merely a question of funding, he’s the one who people said, “This book is unfilmable, but oh, Hanks is enthusiastic and on board? We’ll give you some euros.” 

Matt: They did that and it still barely worked. No studios want to touch something like this, really. And this is the Wachowskis after Speed Racer tanked. They did not have a high stock. And Tykwer, who I like, didn’t have much name beyond Run Lola Run

Tim: I think we’re sort of deep in a circular hypothetical, even for us, and this one is not necessarily one where we know much besides “movies are expensive.” 

Matt: The premise of totally different structure is hypothetical so there is no real conclusion to reach, not in the face of the practical constraints. There is no real analogy for a movie looking, narratively, like Cloud Atlas does as a book. 

The most important part to me is that the directing team here is trying to do something within the spirit of the book but slightly different, and the structure works great for that. The cuts between scenes where your transition point is a gun being aimed, or a color scheme, of a city skyline to the vignette of a ship, or between two characters being played by the same person, this is an elegantly edited movie. The comet birthmark motif plays a larger role in the movie than in the book, so I don’t mind some heavy-handed, but very well executed, editing (where’s the Oscar for this?).

Tim: I can see why Argo has the Editing Oscar, but I also see why Argo won Best Picture, and that’s not a compliment. The editing in this movie absolutely backs up the choice to adapt the movie the way they did, because I have no doubt that in the editing room this movie was messy, if not an outright mess. Three directors, working separately often as not, relying fairly heavily on CGI for a few sections of a three-hour movie…this movie was made in the editing room (another truism, which I much more strongly believe than the other one), and it came out really well. I don’t know that I understand the argument that it’s edited badly? I don’t know that people are in droves making that argument, but to me this is pretty clearly a movie that’s well put together. The cut that I really love is of Jim Sturgess and Doona Bae on what amounts to a catwalk over all of Neo-Seoul, and we see feet, and then we get David Gyasi’s feet on the crossbeam of a mast on ship almost three centuries earlier, thousands of miles away, similarly fighting for his life. That’s a masterclass, and the Wachowskis and Tykwer and Alexander Berner, who I have never heard of and whose career is a total mystery to me, deserve a lot of credit. 

It’s been a minute, and we’re talking some about Neo-Seoul. Is it time for us to address the movie’s most serious problem?

Matt: It has what I honestly believe and always will are earnest intentions, but you can’t do yellow-face. Performers play multiple characters in the movie. Many have a character in each of the six sections, or most of them anyway. The decision to have everyone play multiple people is simultaneously smart and a little offputting for me. The white people as Asians is….you see the idea, and I think they all mean well, but it’s not a good look. And they, rightfully, got hit hard for that. But also the idea does make sense. 

Tim: I have wondered about what else they could have done, because that connection over hundreds of years is essential, and yellowface is just wrong. (I think the only other racial makeup they do that isn’t “whiteface,” which isn’t really the term for that, is Doona Bae as a Mexican in the Luisa Rey section? Am I right? Either way I don’t love that choice.) 

Matt: You’re right. That’s the only other moment of race makeup. The only other way to handle it is more Asian actors/actresses. Which, yeah that would work. But when you’re in Neo-Seoul, the connections thing gets a bit hard. It was a thorny choice no matter what. Yellow-face is wrong. There is a sort of vast-multicultural-connection logic at work. (This, of course, is what Matt writes about for his dissertation, the fraught yet noble ideas couched within cosmopolitanism in the 21st century).

Tim: My galaxy brain take, and I know the cost would have been astronomical, is that they should have animated the Neo-Seoul section. Take your lumps, let Jim Sturgess voice Hae-Joo, let Keith David voice General An-kor, whatever, but avoid the makeup issue that is so fraught. Is this the thing people were talking about most for this movie when it came out? I feel like that was the majority of what I was reading/hearing, followed by “Too much going on.” 

Matt: General (like Joe Audience) reactions leaned the latter, but the former was the big one on the internet. The yellow-face is the biggest problem. The “too much going on”….have more confidence in your brain, humble reader.

Tim: This is an aside we can come back to if you want, but I want to throw out there that it’s okay to see a movie twice, and to know what’s going to happen, and to figure out more when you do. 

Matt: I don’t know how much time we need to spend on that, I firmly agree. Revel in the richness of texts, friends. Live with them for awhile. 

For what it’s worth, the Wachowskis did seem to learn as they went on to Sense8. I think they are very receptive to that sort of feedback and didn’t mean it in any gratuitous way. Still, shouldn’t have. It’s not the effect you get of Sterling doing black-face in Mad Men, which also has a point (and that point is gratuitousness). But it’s still a rough look. 

Tim: I mean, I get the point in both cases in a way that, for example, I don’t get why Tarantino has this n-word problem. I get his personal problem, but it’s something to be cut out of the screenplay, especially when you find out that the guy wants to be on screen to say it himself half the time. Cloud Atlas I genuinely do want to give some kind of benefit of the doubt (like people look at Alec Guinness in Lawrence of Arabia and say, “Ah, he thought this was an acting challenge and appears to have whiffed on the profound racism”) while still wondering why that was the final choice. Finding motives means something, even if it’s not forgiveness or acceptance. 

Matt: I can easily see the Wachowskis and Tykwer thinking it was a well-intentioned gesture meant to show radical connectivity, that we aren’t solely our cultural construction and performance. I am in no way attempting to diagnose the Wachowski mindset here, but they are both transgender and I wonder if that multiplicity of body was in their minds here. They’re smart though, they should have known what connotations racial makeup has. Or someone should have been in their ear even if I do think it was actually well-intentioned.

Tim: Here’s a structural question: how do you want to approach talking about the movie? Up in our notes we have this potentially broken down by actor and by section. (And themes, but I think that’s a good thing to save for last.) I’m a little more interested in the actor angle? Here, tell me if you agree with this. I think this movie’s five most important actors, in terms of what they bring to the film and its themes and so on, are:

  1. Hugo Weaving
  2. Ben Whishaw (Frobisher homerism, probably too high)
  3. Tom Hanks
  4. Jim Broadbent
  5. Doona Bae

Notable exceptions: Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Hugh Grant, James D’Arcy, Keith David.

Matt: I agree immediately on (in some order) Weaving, Hanks, and Broadbent. I am the king of Whishaw stans, and he is absolutely perfect as Frobisher, but I have a hard time figuring out what to do with him because he otherwise plays bit parts. He makes the Frobisher section go, but not other ones. Keith David feels like he belongs up there to me. Grant does some great work too. Doona Bae seems right. 

Like how I’ve managed to answer without answering?

Tim: The True-True. I think Weaving is sort of a counterintuitive answer for this, but I think two things matter. With the possible exception of the Neo-Seoul story, where he’s definitely not dominating screen time, he has a character who matters in each of the sections. And second, I think it’s important that he’s the one in each of these stories that the protagonists are pushing against. You know that thing where you press your wrists against a doorframe real hard for like, thirty seconds, and then you walk away and they rise up? He’s the doorframe of this movie. 

Matt: I like the analogy—

Tim: I love the analogy, and I am a normal person.

Matt: —[barely stifles guffaw] but I’m wrestling with the idea. The movie is, in different ways, framed by him and Hanks. Thematically, Weaving gets the big antagonist line, even if the father-in-law to Ewing he’s playing isn’t as vital as Goose in that section. The movie does something interesting with the “Sloosha’s Hollow” post-apocalypse section in sandwiching everything between Hanks as Zacr’y spinning a yarn to his grandkids. 

Tim: I don’t think Hanks is the right answer, which I think is a popular opinion and not the answer you’re giving. I know because I remember that a fair bit of the marketing was “Tom Hanks becomes a good person over some hundreds of years,” and that is crap. I think he’s got two sections in “Pacific Journal” and “Sloosha’s Hollow” where he’s super important, and beyond that he’s plot meat. He wears the waistcoat, he lets Luisa know something’s up, he kills a critic and sends his goons out for money, he is sort of an inspiration to Sonmi and her friend in the movies. 

Matt: I’m just talking structurally that’s what the movie lives between. I actually toyed with saying Broadbent for a minute but didn’t. I think Weaving often gets to express the counter-theme that is important to growing the soul of the movie, even if he’s not always the chief plot antagonist. 

Tim: That’s where I’m going with Weaving. It’s that opposition which gives a movie this sprawling something to stand for/against, depending on the moment. I also think it’s worth noting that Weaving is acting super well, too. He fits beautifully into the majority of those parts, especially Old Georgie, which seems like it should be totally thankless but who is to me the standout supporting character of the movie. And one mentions Noakes, for fear of being beaten to death otherwise. 

Matt: A number of people do well with the range asked of them, but none as well as Weaving. Although, oddly enough, Hugh Grant does some work on that front. To be fair though, Weaving isn’t doing much in the Frobisher or Sonmi-451 sections, and he’s a necessary actor in Luisa Rey’s, but Grant’s character is the more philosophical foil in that one. I don’t think Weaving is the wrong answer, just saying that he’s not driving all of these. 

Tim: I think Grant’s the comic relief whenever he’s a chief villain. 

Matt: That’s not my point though. I’m saying he’s the one giving the thematic conflict. Weaving is playing a gun for hire, literally. 

Tim: I think this movie, with the exception of the “Ghastly Ordeal” section, is leaning pretty far away from comedy on pain of not being taken seriously, but I think it also uses Grant as comic relief as a way to keep us from feeling totally alienated by some of the abstract stuff. He’s practical in a way that Weaving is not.

Matt: I don’t know, I read a lot of what’s going on there as that character trying to be folksy while doing some super insidious shit. I never have the urge to laugh there or see it as comic. 

Tim: His body language in the “Luisa Rey” section is identical to the body language he’s got in Love Actually

His cannibal in the “Sloosha’s Hollow” section is licking the blood off the sword—he kills people, but I’d say the one who whistles for him towards the end of that chapter is much more menacing than the guy who’s basically doing some pastiche of cannibal horrorfest. Clearly he’s doing thematic villain work, but he doesn’t have Weaving’s presence. 

Matt: Sure, but I wasn’t talking about the cannibal thing. I’m saying his character in Luisa Rey’s section is the thematic foil we are saying Weaving is elsewhere. Broadbent is it in Frobisher’s. Sonmi-451’s is a bit weirder, she sort of talks through both sides herself and D’Arcy is a wall to some degree (though an important one). 

Also, never actually said Grant was the most important to the movie. Or even top five.

Tim: Seems like an awful lot of equivocating for someone who appears to largely agree with the premise put forward.  

Matt: Seems like a lot of protest from someone who recognizes I agree. We shouldn’t forsake detail. 

Tim: That’s the “Stop hitting yourself” of replies. Maybe part of the reason I’m understating Grant is that I think the “Luisa Rey” section is the least important of the six with a bullet, ha ha. Should we pivot briefly to trying to play through which sections are most and least important? 

Matt: We should, but I want to first remind us that my point was Weaving is doing different work in that section, not that we should be re-evaluating Grant totally. 

Tim: I’m saying that I don’t care if it’s different, because Doona Bae and Keith David are doing different work there too, but that his role in “Luisa Rey” still gives the heroes something to push against, and that’s more important on the whole than Grant’s pushing. 

Matt: Here’s our issue. You’re saying anything to push against. Which I understand. I was trying to set up who is doing the thematic pushing in each, in terms of what the spirit of this text as a whole is trying to convey. I just wanted that trajectory, not to say Grant is doing better pushing than Weaving. 

Tim: He is not the biggest pusher…there’s the Mean Girls me…in that section. 

Matt: Stop that. Weaving pushes more. Grant pushes the ideas. That’s all I’m saying. Weaving is a physical menace, and on the whole and in that section a better pusher. I was never arguing against that. 

Tim: On aggregate he’s getting the most done. 

Let’s go by section? I think we should rank them separately and then copy-paste at the same time for peak effect. (Suspeeeeense, ooooh)

Matt: 3, 2, 1…. 

1)      Frobisher

2)      Cavendish

3)      Neo-Soul

4)      Ewing

5)      Sloosha’s Hollow

6)      Luisa Rey 

 

Tim: 

1) Neo-Seoul / Sonmi~451

2) Pacific Journal / Adam Ewing

3) Sloosha’s Hollow / Zachry

4) Zedelghem / Frobisher

5) Ghastly Ordeal / Timothy Cavendish 

6) Luisa Rey / Luisa Rey

 

Oh, good, we’ve come up with totally different answers. Quick mean scores:

 

1) Neo-Seoul (avg. 2)

2) Frobisher (2.5)

3) Adam Ewing (3)

4) Cavendish (3.5) 

5) Zachry (4)

6) Luisa Rey (6)

 

Matt: Some Frobisher homer you are.

Tim: My favorite parts of the movie, almost too easily. But as essential pieces to what the movie’s up to…less so, unfortunately. You actually have my two favorites at 1 and 2.  

Matt: I think those work most well as actual movie sections.

Tim: I was just about to say that, too. Those are both Tykwer’s, and I think they are super well done. The Frobisher section is achingly romantic in a way you don’t often get in the movies anymore, and the Cavendish section is funny

Matt: They also, and this is inflected by my research, are replete with moments of how the cosmic logic of that text becomes deeply intimate.

Tim: I was curious how much of your ranking is intertextual. 

Matt: Probably a lot. I can’t tear my brain from that.

Tim: Frobisher would be higher for me if I were working the book in more. And Neo-Seoul would be lower.

Matt: I read the themes throw that duplicate lens I just have. But I do think Frobisher and Cavendish work incredibly well as sections of movie. They’re very clean and just well done. The changes from book Neo-Seoul to the movie version are also well done, I think they made smart choices there in terms of what would film. Thematically, the heaviest lines are in Neo-Seoul and Ewing. The rebellion stuff is a little too loose for me in the Neo-Seoul section, they could do better with that. 

Tim: I think the stuff about how people connect is most elegantly done in the Frobisher section, i.e. “My life extends far beyond the limitations of me.” But I think the most emphasis is put on the sayings of Sonmi~451, and insofar as this movie makes those ideas digestible, it really boils down the concepts over and over again through her. 

Matt: Frobisher’s “All boundaries are conventions” is the necessary abstract for the whole endeavor, Sonmi-451’s “teachings” (there is much more about this in the book but I’m holding that back….but also kind of the point, the movie is up to something a little different) and the last line “What is any ocean but a multitude of drops” are the beating hearts in terms of phrases. 

Tim: That’s part of the reason I’ve got “Pacific Journal” second. I think the “multitude of drops” line is a really perfect summation of what the movie is trying to work with, but I also think it gets to the heart of the free will (in a more literal as opposed to philosophical or religious sense) that people exert in the movie. It’s about choices over and over again. The line itself is a choice to read Moore’s perspective on what his daughter and his son-in-law will become. As abolitionists they would be drops in an ocean, he says, and then Adam replies that that’s all oceans are. He chooses to see the world that way. 

Matt: BUT! (I’m about to have a lot of fun…and I admit I’m being slightly rude and fishing when I already have an answer. Socrates would be proud.)….we know where this timeline goes, to apocalypse. So how hopeful about freewill can we be? 

Tim: As hopeful as we can be about being drops in an ocean. 

Matt: This is sort of why I like Frobisher and Cavendish sections most in the movie. Those are best at translating the cosmic stakes into personal affairs. We need all of the sections together for the tapestry, but those more intimate ones are essential in a really unique way. 

Tim: I think the movie really wants us to get the Sparknotes version of “Our lives are not our own/We are bound to others,” which is the simplest possible explication of ideas that we hear better, particularly from Frobisher. It’s part of the reason I think this movie should be 200 minutes. Let’s imagine that we get an extra twenty-five minutes somewhere for this movie…the Neo-Seoul needs fifteen of those to stretch its legs more comfortably, because that part of the movie is rushed in a way no other part is. I genuinely think that hamstrings the movie. 

Matt: That’s also the only section they made large-scale changes to. It needs to set up better the rebellion(s) and how close the world is to catastrophe at that point (and indeed has already seen some…Neo-Seoul is over a flooded (Old) Seoul). So there’s more world-building that could happen there and just generally more nuance.

Tim: I am very much there with you. As adaptations go I don’t even mind that they went a different direction than the book, but I think they ran out of time, or underappreciated those elements you’re talking about. You have the Cavendish part second where I have it fifth. What am I missing?  

Matt: Imprisonment of the individual, cultural conflict, class consideration, the need to embrace our connectedness, our boundness, past actions haunting us but better futures being possible — all the stuff that makes the book is encapsulated well in “Ghastly Ordeal.” However, tonally, this section is very different. In some ways that helps, the madcap aspect is just fun to watch. In other ways it makes it feel disjointed. But I also like that to some degree because it’s our only (basically) in-the-present section. And our present always feels weirder than past or future. The “past” sections feel romantic in many ways. The future ones, while they have romance, are more hope in defiance of catastrophe. We process the present differently, as sort of a rush between weird events, and Cavendish’s section does that. 

Tim: I agree that having a present is important to this movie, especially in a practical kind of sense. I suppose I think that Timothy Cavendish spends as much time keeping his own counsel/working things out, whatever you want to call it, as anyone else. Luisa Rey’s in a similar boat. A lot of what connects him turns out to be more plot-related on the whole, as it is for her. He can’t escape the nursing home by himself any more than she can outrun Swannekke without her upstairs kid neighbor sidekick or Keith David. I also look at this movie more from this perspective of choices, I think, and from that point of view there’s not as much going on as there is in “Pacific Journal” or “Zedelghem.” Certainly his choices aren’t as potent as Frobisher’s, who has more opportunities to act, does a great deal with them, and has a more powerful connection with more individuals than I think Cavendish has with anybody. 

Matt: But that’s also the point. We aren’t a stock model. We won’t all make choices as potent as Frobisher or Ewing. A 67 year old man outrunning his past as a sniveling, erudite louche won’t play out the same as a young man who can join a growing abolitionist movement. But we all have to make choices, no matter what our context allows. The point of Cavendish’s section is that he has to realize he is connected to others. Frobisher already knows that, but we aren’t all Frobisher. That Cavendish ends with Ursula is a touching symbol of how far he’s come. He has some friends now, and a peaceful existence. (Of course, Aurora House is going to be a mess after 4 patients escaped, so the collateral is never far off). That’s the journey he had to talk after a lifetime of insisting otherwise. The movie gives us different visions of choice and how it relates to context. Cavendish’s change is just as potent, even if the stakes are much smaller. 

Tim: Which is why I think the movie spends less time trying to focus on it. For me, Broadbent is the best actor in the cast, and he’s doing one of the best performances in the cast, balancing this very funny, occasionally slapstick/slap-plunger character with someone who does have loneliness and regret in his life that he ultimately has to pay the Piper about. As a central character in one of these sections, he’s fabulous, and as someone I think the movie is trying to emphasize, he’s lower on that list. 

Matt: A not small part of me likes that though because I don’t feel like a grand actor on the world stage. There’s a relatableness there that I appreciate. If we’re talking book that section is sort of smack in the middle for me, but I think it comes out so well on film. Also Mr. Meeks. Only this has Mr. Meeks. 

Tim: “I know, I know!” In terms of craft, that’s one of the best chapters of the movie. In terms of importance to what the movie is trying to work through, I’m sort of bummed that it doesn’t get a little more heft.

Tim: Last thing, I think, because it is a time of day that I try not to see in my real life, but what do we make of the Zachry section? We’ve managed to talk all the way around it here, which is funny, not least because I think it’s the money chapter in the movie’s marketing? I also want to give the filmmakers credit, because as much as I was talking about not being ambitious enough earlier, it takes a real fire in the belly to adapt the dialogue/narration style from that section of a novel and then put it into a feature film that anyone is going to see. That’s got to be one of the gutsiest choices I’ve seen in a movie this decade.

Matt: And to not subtitle it, which I respect immensely. 

Tim: I didn’t even think of that, and now I am thinking about it, and I am angry.

Matt: So we’re set in Hawaii after some vague environmental and nuclear cataclysm, society here having “reverted” back to tribe warfare. We have sort a classic personal journey at the center, from coward to courageous, and around that is a recognition not of connection itself (a la Cavendish) but of what that actually means and entails.

Tim: It’s very interesting to me that, with the exception of the “Luisa Rey” section, which is just pure mystery novel stuff at the highest level, this is arguably the most direct and straightforward of all of the stories in terms of character development. Game of Thrones has ruined the phrase “character arc” for me, but Zachry goes from “watch Adam and his kid get murdered” to “refuse to allow the people he cares about to be murdered,” using pretty easily diagnosible moments along the way to build that arc out. Meanwhile, this is also the section which I think one gets thrown into most without much in the way of prologue or explanation. 

Matt: This is also the section that I’m guessing people could look at (maybe Neo Seoul is the answer here though) and say “oh the Matrix and V for Vendetta people, got it.” I don’t know though, I always feel like there’s a lot of good in this section of the movie but it doesn’t feel quite as sweeping? Old Georgia and the inner torment of Zachry is good stuff. The ‘yarnin’ framing I like (and reshapes the movie a bit). Susan Sarandon in this section is Tim.

Tim: It’s true, my skin is weird. It looks old and young at the same time. 

Matt: That’s my new favorite comparison you’ve made. There’s a lot of stuff coming together here and it’s really pushing us to “the past is important to learn from but not rely on in a Boomer’s nostalgia way” and “we could make the future. Maybe.” So there’s a lot of thematic heft here that I really like. But it feels a little up and down as a section. I think?

Tim: Another thing that’s funny: granting that Hanks and Berry are this movie’s two biggest stars, and that this is the section which focuses on them most, it’s curious that I agree with that take that this is an up-and-down section. The best parts have Zachry dealing with Old Georgie, or Meronym talking with the other folks like her, and the scene where the two of them fight off the cannibals and gain some prominent scars is pretty exciting. But as a movie it hiccups a little. There are so many events in this one, the same way there are a lot of “events” in “Luisa Rey,” that it all gets crammed together. The Frobisher section does not have that problem, nor does Adam Ewing. Time matters a little less in those, and the continuums in those stories—”Frobisher inches closer to musical immortality and physical suicide,” “Adam Ewing’s getting poisoned by a man named ‘Goose’”—are less interested in the dots on a timeline. As much as Zachry is interesting, I am much more taken in by Ben Whishaw and Tom Hanks with ginger chops than I am with Tom Hanks doing the futuristic Mike Tyson tattoo. 

Matt: How would you cover up a giant face scar? 

Tim: Paper bag, probs. Though I understand that makeup gurus on YouTube are profoundly advanced.

Matt: ……I don’t know that they have those. 

Tim: I like how that’s true no matter how you read that. 

Matt: The True-True strikes again. 

Frobisher’s section, and I think this is ultimately why I have it first, feels both personal and immense in the decision he makes. He is well and truly trapped, and does the one thing to set him free after he composes the Sextet. And that scene is just so powerful and just him in a plain tub. Zachry, his choices matter and it’s important to watch, but it never feels as heavy even if it’s as important. 

Tim: As a movie audience, that section fascinates me because, depending on your mileage with Adam v. Autua, I think he’s the only protagonist we aren’t meant to identify with. I think we’re supposed to want to unravel that mystery with Luisa, or feel like we’re coming along on Zachry’s journey of self-discovery, or chortle at Timothy Cavendish’s protestations. But to me I think Sixsmith is the key place for us home in. Frobisher is a little too witty, too talented, too devil-may-care for us. Sixsmith has a much easier thing to do, and James D’Arcy does this very well: he is smitten by someone who seems to shine like a star, and I think we’ve all been there at some point since middle school. 

Matt: [hums “Ma Belle Evangeline”]

Tim: I think it’s another brave choice for the movie, and it’s what makes that scene on top of the tower really moving. It’s not just that we’re seeing these two miss each other by inches, or that Frobisher is avoiding Sixsmith despite their affection because he’s made a choice he intends to carry through. It’s because Frobisher is avoiding us and our affection for him and our fascination with him at the same time. I don’t know that Whishaw hasn’t peaked as an actor…he’s so good in this part that I have a hard time imagining him one-upping this role. 

Matt: Incidentally that scene on the tower is my favorite in the movie. 

Tim: Same.

Matt: I maybe wouldn’t call it the best from a technical perspective (though close there too). 

Tim: I think I would, but boy there are a lot of scenes in this picture. 

Matt: But that moment moves me. I think a lot of us have some Frobisher too though. The way he’s ensnared and his passion is being exploited. This is life for most of us in capitalism. His eccentricities make him a bit obtuse, and he is certainly of single-mind throughout, but he’s not lost to us. In a way though we are chasing that moment of great deliberation and action. He’s sort of an ideal in that way while Mitchell and the directors make the smart choice to not put us in the role of a suicidal man. 

Tim: Well, you know what they say. 

Matt: Flumpo?

Tim: Very nearly! “All boundaries are conventions.” In all seriousness and without the pithiness, that is the section of the movie which I come back to when I want to recommend Cloud Atlas to someone else, book or movie. It’s so hard to create romantic yearning or romantic longing in a movie without it feeling stale or unnecessarily forced upon us, and in those scenes Cloud Atlas belongs to, without necessarily ranking with, movies like Casablanca or Carol or They Live by Night or even Brief Encounter. It’s easy to imagine Letters from Zedelghem as an eighty, eighty-five minute movie, which is more than we can say about a couple other sections. It’s deeply underrated in that way, which is sort of its epitaph. (I say all this while the theme is playing in the background, which is maybe making me slightly emotional.) 

Matt: The personal within the universal is key to the whole thing. Frobisher’s section nails that beautifully. It feels so coy and hopeful and real and final in really satisfying ways. There could have been more for Frobisher, but could it have been good? That’s a necessary question, rather than just assuming all future is good future. 

Tim: He emphasizes in voiceover how good things are on that morning. It’s a beautiful morning. He’s smoking that cigarette, which is equally good. And we know that he has created an absolutely lovely piece of music which is all his own, and which he has refused to yield up to another. 

Matt: He has that perfect moment and, honestly, there’s nowhere else for him to go. Either he withers under Ayrs or he runs away and his reputation is shot anyway. So, for me, Frobisher stands on this incredibly thin line between being emblematic of what’s going on in the whole and a necessary counterweight. And the final scene of that one, with Sixsmith embracing Frobisher now dead in the tub, that scene kills me in a way nothing else does.

Tim: By my count, four of these chapters end hopefully. “Neo-Seoul” ends sadly, but it also understands that Sonmi~451 has made an immense mark on the world to come. There’s something pyrrhic about the Frobisher ending that no other piece of the movie has, which makes it stand out all the more.  

Matt: All the threads come together there: our boundness and impact on others, past and future; the essentialness and deliberateness of choice; the haunting beauty and disaster of life; breaking free of convention; the collateral damage of individual action; our lives not being our own (as Sixsmith carries his grief and Frobisher’s letters, and of course the Sextet living on). Everything this movie is up to weaves together for one perfect moment when Sixsmith cradles Frobisher. 

One thought on “Baumann and Burch Conversations #15: Cloud Atlas

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