Tuesday, July 19, 2016
David Mitchell’s novel ‘Cloud Atlas’ boasts the most formal exercise in structure this side of the work of Iain (M) Banks. Essentially, it comprises six novellas, each in a different genre and written in dramatically different styles, their timelines ranging from 1850 to the dystopian future and a post-apocalyptic society beyond that. The structure is akin to a set of Russian dolls. The first story is told to its half-way point (breaking off mid-sentence), then the first half of the second story commences (containing an echo of its predecessor), and so on and so forth until five stories, incrementally reaching into the future, have been half told. Then the sixth tale – the post-apocalyptic one – is told in full, after which the fifth story is completed, then the fourth, etc. until the reader is returned to 1850 and the cycle is completed, echoes and prefigurations and consequences resounding through time and across continents.
It’s a structure that works beautifully on the page. The grammar of cinema, however, functions very differently. In terms of the written word, perhaps only poetry as an art form can achieve the juxtapositions that cinema is capable of; sure, prose has paragraph breaks and novels are (generally) divided into chapters, but poetry lineates mid-sentence, mid-thought, and set forms such as the villanelle and pantoum use repetition not just to reinforce but to recontextualise, even to subvert. (Incidentally, I’m grateful to Tim at Antagony & Ecstasy for setting me off on this train of thought in his review of Terence Malick’s ‘Knight of Cups’. Until he’d effected a comparison between poetic form and filmic structure in respect of that movie, I’d been struggling for a point of cohesion in order to write about ‘Cloud Atlas’.)
I’d be fascinated to know whether the script for ‘Cloud Atlas’ was written in the weaving, contrapuntal, slightly undisciplined form that the finished product takes, or whether each sequence was scripted as an individual narrative and the structure, rhythm, pacing and points of connection and intersection were discovered in the editing suite. I really hope the latter, because that allows for moments of “holy shit, we can cut from this to this” or “but what if we have ten solid minutes in this time frame and then – bang! – just half a minute in the next”. Which means that art was created on a feverish high of possibilities and light-bulb-above-the-head epiphanies. And I’d rather have my art created in a cauldron of adrenalin and craziness powered by lightning bolts from the muse. Better that than cool cerebral precision any day.
For the record, cool cerebral precision is a massive bonus if one is creating mainstream product: ‘Yada Yada Yada Generic Tentpole Flick’ will always play better if it’s smartly done and well crafted than if it’s a tired piece of hack work. But if you’re going for broke and bringing to life something bold, visionary, genre-bending, rulebook-shredding and more than a little bit bonkers, then craziness, adrenalin, pinging light-bulbs and zinging bolts of electricity straight from the muse are definitely the way to go.
And there’s no doubt that ‘Cloud Atlas’ is bold and visionary. Bordering on the lunatic, in fact. Pushing three hours, it is packed with famous faces in offbeat roles and it bristles with imagery that walks a tight-rope between the aesthetic (there are individual frames that are as striking and visually beautiful as anything cinema has given us) and the ridiculous, and performances that vacillate between tear-duct-inciting poignancy and a cartoon strip from Viz come to life. ‘Cloud Atlas’ both dares to dream and shrugs its shoulders when it fucks up. A futurist rebellion against a regime that makes Thatcherism look like a teddy bear’s picnic plays off against some shenanigans in a nursing home that come across like ‘Waiting for God’ if directed by Ben Wheatley. A melodrama of art, loyalty and what Bosey called “the love that dare not speak its name” finds an unexpected point of reference in a 70s-set conspiracy thriller. And the furthest point of the narrative, in which humankind is reduced to a cluster of semi-literate warring tribes, contains the crucial detail that ties everything together.
Which isn’t to say that ‘Cloud Atlas’ delivers an “ah-ha!” moment in which everything coheres at a single nexus. Not at all. The film has been confident in its viewer’s intelligence through its long but commendably fleet running time; and it has the confidence not to fall at the final hurdle. It doesn’t so much explain itself to the viewer as give them the opportunity to unpack and consider and return to its treasure-box of themes and ideas and juxtapositions. It invites you into a dialogue with it, and lets you contribute something of yourself. That, for me, is another hallmark of great art.
800 words into this review and I realise that the author of the source novel is the only person I’ve mentioned by name. Not the co-directors, not the actors (many of whom play multiple roles). And I’m not sure that it matters that I haven’t. ‘Cloud Atlas’ is great art – flawed, to a lesser degree, but still great – and better still it’s collaborative art. Collaborative art that, at its most sublime, is a hymn to the individual. A big sloppy work that finds scenes and images of absolute focus. The imperfect almost – almost – achieving perfection.