Tobago

Tobago
Horizon at Sandy Point

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Cloud Atlas - simultaneous and sequential

Cloud Atlas (2102), the video club manager assured me, was rubbish, rubbish. And even though I depended regularly on his advice, I was intrigued. Don't bring it back to pelt me, he warned. Well, prepared like that, I steeled myself, and stayed entertained, surrendering cynicism and logic to the power of the story. In this case, six stories are lightly linked by literary references and other clues. They are powered along by the energy of the cast, each actor carrying several distinct roles in widely divergent eras.

What could possibly have ended up a tedious compendium of strange and separate stories, gels in the repertory performances of a relatively small cast of actors - among them Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent, the relatively unknown Ben Whishaw and David Gyasi, and others. Aided by the artfulness of masque and make up; and finessed with editing for split-second sequencing. In three hours, we shuttle in time and tension, back and forth across 500 years.

Based on the novel by David Mitchell, the stories are shared between the directors (Andy and Lana on one team) Wachowski, and Tom Twyker. Each directs three stories; some are filmed simultaneously.

Over more than a hundred years of movie-making, we have learned how to make movies with more technology, greater complexity, with a grasp of simultaneity that matches the synapses in the brain. No longer restricted to linear sequence and plot, we have learned to perceive and order the story that loops and returns upon itself - like a DNA strand. Cloud Atlas is six strands intertwined, each affecting the others, snapping and sparking off each other. It is a seminal movie that matches the way modern humans - and cinema goers - respond to information from multiple stimuli.

There have been other movies about co-influencing human action and emotion. Crash (2004), with its cast that included Sandra Bullock, Thandie Newton, Matt Dillon, Terrance Howard, takes place in a day and two nights in Los Angeles. In this sprawling city that's a rich mix of culture, class and ethnic diversity, there is coincidence as human emotions spill over to generate misunderstanding, ill-will, prejudice, racism, death; and to a lesser extent, communion, hope and joy.

Even earlier, the movie Six Degrees of Separation (1993) proposed that every human being on earth is separated from every other by only six persons; perhaps no longer an existential view twenty years later.

Babel (2006) hangs on a thread that runs from California to Mexico, Morocco to Japan. "The single gunshot heard around the world" - as its tagline -  brings tragedy to the lives it affects. Babel might be a multitude, but it is a single tower, as we are a single species, on a single Earth. Our senses have been trained by multimedia as much as by movies - Inception with its many levels of reality - to accept simultaneity.

Cloud Atlas condenses the human story into a single strand: action and non-action; going with the flow or standing up to the fight; living before dying. At least two of Tom Hanks' characters summarise, "One governing principle that defines every relationship on God's green earth: The weak are meat, and the strong do eat." We cannibalise our kind. We build the future upon the bones of the past. We rise again, cells re-assembled. Everything is connected.

Somni 451, the clone that ignited the revolution, becomes the icon generations later: "Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future."

At every turn, there are those who uphold the system, however heinous, being met by those who refuse. Adam Ewing, who took pity on a slave bring whipped, turns his back on his father-in-law's business, refusing to become rich on the slave trade. "There is a natural order to this world, and those who try to upend it do not fare well," he is told. "This movement will never survive; if you join them, you and your entire family will be shunned. At best, you will exist a pariah to be spat at and beaten, at worst, to be lynched or crucified. And for what? For what? No matter what you do it will never amount to anything more than a single drop in a limitless ocean."

To which Adam responds, "What is an ocean but a multitude of drops?"

We are connected. We may even be the same. As the poet Tagore wrote: "The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures. It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers."

Our sameness comes from the common impulses of the human heart, and manifests in good as well as evil, in joy and sorrow, conflicts and complacency, greed and liberation, revolution and evolution. It instructs that we live before dying. Somni 451 said, "I believe death is only a door. When it closes, another opens."

And from Robert Frobisher, the composer of the musical score that is called - in the movie - the Cloud Atlas Sextet, "I believe we do not stay dead long."


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