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Cloud Atlas, directed by Tom Tykwer in collaboration with Lana and Andy Wachowski, is a convention-breaking experiment that lays bare both the promise and perils of cinematic experimentation. While the film is somewhat avant garde, it is simultaneously mainstream in the use of certain techniques – particularly revenge-based violence — as it attempts to reach  a wide audience. That said, the film effectively targets a generational, racial, and values-based constituency that is likely to change the mainstream cultural and cinematic landscape.

In many ways, the film reflects the evolving demographics and values seen in the United States today. It inverts the racial roles of Black and White, chronicling the decline of the white tribe over a period of several hundred years, alongside the ascendancy of a consumerist and nihilistic Asia within the context of a multi-racial era that puts the person of color front and center as the dominant factor of any future world. This reflects a growing perception (and reality) of shifting demographics that was in many ways evident in the recent Presidential election. While 15 years ago political pundits spoke of a permanent conservative majority in the U.S. – because ‘the country is inherently conservative’ – today such talk rings false. Looking back, the events of 9/11 may be seen as last attempt of the Anglo-alliance (Britain, U.S. and Australia) to maintain dominance through its wars of choice. Rather than project strength, however, the wars portended a profound shift, as they ultimately revealed cracks and limitations of a post WW-II hegemony that no longer holds. Rather, what holds is the new global and interdependent world structure that has no clear dominant force. Cloud Atlas reflects this reality.

Thus the themes of interdependence of Cloud Atlas  fit neatly with a more global society that no longer needs, taking a Freudian view, the Super Ego of the White Male to define it.  Rather, the subconscious ID prevails; there is no single author (there are three directors), and even he author of the book (David Mitchell) apparently admits he doesn’t understand all of the story’s connections. What results borders on a kind of narrative insanity that could arguably represent the decline of Western storytelling prowess, but in the case of Cloud Atlas we get a well-thought out decline that has a method behinds its madness.

Tom Hanks, our emblematic straight White Male, descends  into a pigeon-speak (and probably illiterate) tribal reality. Moreover, the mix of alternative races and sexual preferences wove into the various stories clearly show the straight White Male as either corrupt or rotting. This is no artistic accident. The arrogant path of the Anglo race, shown in a causal chain into the future, puts it in context and showcases the smallness and transience of any civilization’s desire for permanent anything, including empire. This is not that the ‘White Male’ is the evil villain of the film, far from it. If there is any villain here, it is time itself. But time is also a wise villain, and very democratic.

The filmmakers key off several other cinematic experiments that were also interested in the nature of time, but rarely does this type of film to make it to the suburban cineplex. We can look back to Timecode (director Mike Figgis) and the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu (such as Babel) as well as Paul Haggis’ multi-threaded Crash, for the cinematic roots of Cloud Atlas. The film also throws in a little Quentin Tarantino and Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) for good measure – mostly in attempt to add humor, lighten up the narrative and infuse a dose of violence to ensure their video-game inundated youth audience doesn’t nod off with too much talk of human connectiveness.  Clouds Atlas also provokes comparison to another recent “Big Idea” cinematic experiment: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, whose narrative structure also broadcast the incomprehensible (read unknowable) nature of truth. What is comprehensible is that the thematic glue of both Tree of Life and Cloud Atlas can be summed up in one word: Love.

I opened with the idea that the film is actually somewhat mainstream in its outlook. Let me explain. Large canvas films never seek to alienate too many people for fear of having no one show up at the theater; certainly Cloud Atlas, with a budget of nearly $100 million dollars, must have some constituency that it appeals to – and that is the real experiment of this film. Did it reach and find this constituency? Time may tell, for the film may indeed lose money in the near term.

The constituency is diverse: Gays, Blacks, Asians, Latinos, Buddhists, and disenfranchised Whites and conspiracy theorists. This is the same constituency that was cobbled together for a majority of votes for Barack Obama. This new demographic mix is well understood by the filmmakers, who have an intuitive sense of who they want and need to speak to. Again, we have gone global: there is no cohesive, singular Anglo view, but rather a pastiche that reflects the new global reality.  But beyond the pastiche of, let’s say,  Tarantino’s Kill Bill, the directors try to integrate and reconcile various contradictory views, resulting in a narrative that edges past the post-modern pastiche of a film like Kill Bill and into what philosopher Ken Wilbur calls the ‘integral’ phase of human development. In other words, various views and stories are integrated into a whole that transcends the sum of its parts.

What will be interesting about Cloud Atlas is not whether it makes its money back short-term (such ground breaking films often don’t) but whether it has staying power over a period of years and winds up, over the longer term, proving  to be a successful experiment along the lines of 2001 A Space Odyssey. The critical response to the film has been quite mixed, but again that is true of many such films that experiment with narrative conventions. If the Facebook chatter (where quotes from the film are being pulled and touted by the film’s fans) is any indicator, the film will have a long post-theatrical life and already falls under the umbrella of cult classic. In its current theatrical run, if people see the film multiple times, it might even eventually make a good return for the brave investors who backed it.

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D.R. Thompson is an award-winning filmmaker, playwright and essayist. His latest book of essays, A WORLD WITHOUT WAR, is now available from Del Sol Press. You can email Thompson at info@nextpix.com.

 
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