When I recently asked an acquaintance what he thought of Cloud Atlas, he cleverly responded, “Which film? There were 6.” I laughed politely, but he makes a valid point. Even from the trailer it is clear that a heck of a lot is going on in different story lines which may or may not be related to each other but which are somehow, theoretically, stitched together. So I started wondering, how the hell they could A). fit 6 films into one (even at a hefty 172 minutes), B). Do it without jerky transitions, and C). Somehow make sense of it all.
I was curious, erring on the side of skeptical, to see how they would integrate so many plot lines and mash them together. And more importantly, if the plots would play together nicely. Thus I went into the film with curiosity and caution optimism.
The only things I felt it fair to expect were: for it to be photographed beautifully (Painfully apparent from the trailer, as in “IT’S SO PRETTY I AM IN PAIN”). And Tom Hanks to be Tom Hanks. Cause come on, that alone is enough to get me to go see a movie.
So I saw the movie. It was gorgeous. Tom Hanks was there. (also Ryan Gosling in the previews, he was there too) It is hard to say why this movie is beautiful.
The costumes, makeup, music, mise-en-scene, the acting, it was all beautiful (excepting maybe Hugh grant, who was great as the ass-hole company president from the 1970’s, but “meh” in all his other roles). This extreme beauty that makes up the film is not merely an optical illusion for your viewing pleasure without any weight, depth, or meaning behind it. It has a few very distinct functions in the film. Here are CA’s 3 main functions of beauty:
1. To keep the audience engaged. The plots jump around leaving so much left unexplained, the beauty has to be the hook that keeps the audience engaged until some connections between plots are made. The nature of the film is that each audience member gradually forms connections between plots and defines the themes of the film. The film does not tell you how to feel, or what to think, but presents information and allows the audience in interpret and imagine. Modern audiences, however, are not used to working this hard in a film. Especially when it is a film which is the definition of existentialism.
Existentialism: a chiefly 20th century philosophical movement embracing diverse doctrines but centering on analysis of individual existence in an unfathomable universe and the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad.
We like to know what is right or wrong or good or bad. And yes, there are moments in the film where the audience will feel universally the same about certain characters or situations. But at other moments there could be a myriad of interpretations and feelings. The more abstract and existential, however, the more beautiful it needs to be to make sure we do not give up on it because it is too much work or simply does not make sense.
2. To effectively tell the story and create the world of the film (and the separate worlds within the film). The beauty is creating this unfathomable universe. It is just familiar enough that we are comfortable, just unique and abstract enough that we are intrigued, and just beautiful enough to be magical. With this combination, we will believe anything that happens. The most unbelievable becomes believable, and we as the audience are fully on board for the whole ride. And for some reason, that makes it seem all the more real.
3. Structure. A lot of film people talk about the 3 act structure, which can be useful for breaking down a film and analyzing it…and I have a lot of feelings about this…but not as many as the Hulk.
MOST OF TIME IT LEAD WRITERS TO JUST TRY MAKE CONNECTING POINTS BETWEEN THE BEGINNING AND ENDING. THAT ABOUT IT. WHICH MEAN CHARACTERS NOT MOVING FORWARD IN ANY DISCERNIBLE WAY. JUST WAITING AROUND FOR 80 MINUTE MARK SO THAT THEY CAN BEGIN THAT ENDING THINGY. IT A SHELL GAME OF UNMOTIVATED EVENTS ALL BECAUSE THE DEFINITION OF 3 ACT STRUCTURE = COMPLETE ASS.
Cloud Atlas could care less about the 3 act structure. And it is not waiting for anything. How could it with 6 films happening at the same time? We could go through each story and break it into 3 acts, but that would negate what the film is doing so beautifully by constantly showing us characters decisions, propelling the character development. Again, this film is the definition of existential because it is focused on “the analysis of human existence and the centrality of human choice,” and because they are showing all the decisions that are happening in each story, there is no time for unnecessary events.
Each time the film takes us back to another story we know it is important for the characters development. Because we are putting together the pieces as we go, watching the film feels like reading a mystery, or watching a mystery tv show. Straight off the bat, you don’t know who is talking, where you are, what he is talking about, and even what he is saying. Both the language, dialect, and accent are difficult to understand. You have to work to try and figure out what is going on. You are constantly asking yourself “Why and I being shown this,” or “what does that mean.” Even a non film geek person realizes that a close up of a button or the repeated shot of a book means that it has significance, even if they don’t realize why. You know the information you are getting is an important even if you don’t know how or why yet.
The brilliance and beauty of the structure is that these choices and developments are happening to the characters at different points both in their stories and in the film, so the audience is never overwhelmed by action, but rather the stories compliment each other in a roller coaster of emotion and situation. One moment someone could be running for their life, the next moment we are laughing at a silly old man, the next we are longing for true love to endure. The film lets us experience such a range of emotion because the characters constant choices propel their constant development, so the individual characters and the underlying themes of the film are also continuously developing. This give us an initially very abstract but ultimately very dynamic film.
So there you have the functions of beauty. But what about beauty as artistic expression?
If I were to try to convey to someone the cinematic, philosophical, and scenic beauty of Cloud Atlas, it would most likely result something equivalent to saying the music is an enchanting melody.
It is enchanting, that is true. But that is also insufficient. It doesn’t get anywhere near the depth of what we feel when we hear the music. But words barely begin to answer why and how the music captures us. Is the depth and beauty of Cloud Atlas as simply as a strain of music that stays with us, a series of notes coming together in just the right point in space and time touch our hearts? I don’t know. But Cloud Atlas stays with us in that same way. Something gets at us deep down and makes us feel both infinitesimally small in the world and also hugely important. It takes our focus away from our own lives and simultaneously makes us intensely focus in on ourselves. Instead of consuming Cloud Atlas as entertainment, Cloud Atlas captures and changes us. It infuses into us, and we merge ourselves into it. It doesn’t profess wisdom, it just presents it. It is there for the taking, to be plucked out of the air, but it is not forced on us.
Beauty is great, I love beautiful things. More films should be that beautiful. But that doesn’t mean that everyone in your average American audience will go for it. *Warning, gross generalization ahead* American audiences are not prepared for this intensity of beauty and depth of meaning in a film. They don’t usually like it when you change things up and mess with their expectations. Give them a good straight up 3 act structure film on the rocks any day. Audiences are neither asking, nor expecting, films to actually be profound. But this one jumps right into the pool of profoundness. It has that “I am an independent film and I don’t give a damn!” bravery. It is challenging how we see film and that sure as hell is admirable, whether or not it ends up changing anything.
Cloud Atlas really hits on these moments of beauty and connection, of joy and purpose, life and humanity. What is it in us as humans that drives us to amazing feats and failures? I don’t think the film is pretentious enough to pretend to know the answer. And I don’t think it is even asking that question necessarily…it gives to you moments of life, but through clever editing and a cunning structure to the film, it allows the audience to use the connections and themes they have discovered using their own thoughts and imagination, to be the method of consuming those moments. This makes the consumption of the film much more personal and profound. We are not just watching, we are involved in the film.
Thus, when the film puts humanity on display, we are on display. When the film looks critically at a character or civilization, we look at ourselves critically. But we are so used to just watching and being entertained by film, not being so emotionally pulled into it, that we are not even aware of this deep philosophical thinking we are going through. It is like when you lay in the grass and look out at the stars, but the sky is so wide you can’t even take it all in. The more you look the more you realize how much you can’t see. You know things are out there beyond your capacity to see and comprehend. You are overwhelmed by the vastness of it all, that the world is hanging in nothingness, spinning, and you are hanging off of the world. I always have to clutch the grass in this moment because I feel like I will fall off the earth. That is what Cloud Atlas was like for me.
I love that a film about the love and bonds that form between humans in all civilizations, times, and worlds, never has a character say “I love you.” I goes deeper than the passionate Hollywood embraces we have learned to expect from any film purporting to have romance. That kind of love is only a surface level facade of emotion telling us exactly how to feel, and when, and for who. Now I love a good romance as well as the next person, but what I so appreciate about Cloud Atlas is that it doesn’t just give you the love. It makes you wait and suffer for it with the characters. None of the stories are the love story of the film. They all have aspects of love, but more than love, Cloud Atlas is about people needing each other. Humans need to be connected to each other, need to be understood, recognized, to need someone, to be needed, and yes, to love. Love is a branch of this need for connection, but not the dominating force. The truth is, we don’t have love like in the movies in real life all the time. But we do need people. And that is why Cloud Atlas feels so real.