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I was sent a copy of this film and said to my wife last night, "Let's watch Cloud Atlas."

She looked at me like I had two heads. "Didn't you hate it?"

"Well, yeah. But let's watch it again."

We didn't. But I think we will, or I will. Not because I expect to change my opinion of the movie, but because I want a movie like this one to be good. I want studios to try to make something big and ambitious like this, even if the projects fall flat. I think this one falls flat, but I figure I owe it at least one more look. There were things about it that I liked. I want to see if those hold up, change or recede on second viewing.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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So, yeah. Even though the quality is nothing very special, I loved this (first time around, anyway) and find it a bold and important experiment. Am I cracking up, Doctor? Is this the last of the ninth?

This basically sums up how I felt about the book, which drew on many of my favorite genres and them tossed them all into a really retro sci-fi heap. While I seldom find discrete parts of the book more than "pretty good," I always leave it gratified.

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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  • 2 weeks later...
  • 2 weeks later...

Andy posted on Facebook about his deep admiration of the novel on which the film is based. I've put the audiobook on hold, but I also plan to rewatch the movie before the end of the year.

The Atlantic has listed the novel as one of its staffer's "best books I read in 2012," and I found the writer's contrast between book and movie striking:

Spoiler alert: "Everything is connected." At least, that's how the Wachowski siblings saw it, judging from the tagline they put on the marketing material for their glorious abomination of a film adaptation this year. With the help of Halle Berry, Tom Hanks, and a lot of prosthetics, the Matrix directors and Tom Tykwer took an all-of-the-above approach to Mitchell's meaning, using on-the-nose voiceover and editing to hammer home the BIG THEME of ETERNAL RECURRENCE every FIVE MINUTES.

The movie was well intentioned, but still a betrayal. The genius of Cloud Atlas—what elevates it from excellent collection to new-classic novel—is that it reveals its secret only after being finished. Put the book down, wait a couple days, and a stray headline in the newspaper will bring to mind fictional acts of defiance on an 18th-century ship, at a 1970s power plant, and in 2100-something Seoul. ... The idea isn't that everything is connected, per se. It's that everything changes, except for the human experience.

I'm looking forward to being able to contrast the book to the movie. I'm hoping for a better film experience the second time around, but am now banking on my best Cloud Atlas experience to come through reading.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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  • 4 weeks later...

Dear "Cloud Atlas," I just spent three hours watching all of your extravagant visuals, and all I got was "We are all connected" and "All boundaries are conventions waiting to be transcended."

The first is obvious.

The second is nonsense. Sure, some boundaries need to be dismantled because they've been established in ignorance or fear or selfishness. But I happen to believe that some boundaries are very, very respectable, having been established as a sign of wisdom and experience, and that it's in our best interests to respect them. You do too, actually... otherwise, what were your characters fighting for? If you really believe that those who stick up for "boundaries" are the problem, then you've just set moral boundaries of your own. Why should anybody resist anybody about anything if there are no boundaries worth enforcing for a greater good?

If I were to accept your worldview, I would find suicide an attractive option.

I reject your idea that all stories are the same ad inifitum. That assertion robs stories of their dignity. I reject your equating all martyrs, Christ included, as just different editions of the same sacrifice. I reject your vision of endless violent resistance and revolution.

And I found your actors cast in multiple roles extremely distracting, constantly taking me out of the movie and making me hyper-aware of their bad makeup jobs.

So you're ambitious. You know what else is ambitious? [Edit: Ladies and gentlemen, here it comes... the worst analogy of my career in criticism!] The Hallmark Card company. They pump out countless greeting cards recycling the same sentimentality, cliches, and feel-good sloganeering every year, a million ways to say the same kind of nothing. [ (bowing to a silent audience) Thank you! Thank you so much!]

What's that? You say "The gulf between terrible movies and great ones is an illusion?" I disagree.

All things are connected? Sure, like the flowers, the trees, the birds, and the dung in my backyard, everything's connected. But that doesn't mean there aren't boundaries. It doesn't mean we're all the same, and that death's door just leads us to a new costume and a bad makeup job.

I should have listened to the folks who warned me to skip this one.

Edited by Overstreet

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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So you're ambitious. You know what else is ambitious? The Hallmark Card company.

Jeffrey, I think your reasons for disliking the movie are quite valid--but this has to be the worst analogy you've made in your entire critical career.

Edited by Rushmore
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So you're ambitious. You know what else is ambitious? The Hallmark Card company.

Jeffrey, I think your reasons for disliking the movie are quite valid--but this has to be the worst analogy you've made in your entire critical career.

You're probably right. The movie put me in a very bad mood. I'm writing hastily. I'll come up with a better one and replace it.

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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So you're ambitious. You know what else is ambitious? The Hallmark Card company.

Jeffrey, I think your reasons for disliking the movie are quite valid--but this has to be the worst analogy you've made in your entire critical career.

You're probably right. The movie put me in a very bad mood. I'm writing hastily. I'll come up with a better one and replace it.

Cool. I hope my comment didn't come across as offensive.

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I don't abhor the film. I think parts of it work okay, but I don't have any serious disagreement with your assessment.

The way you deploy the Hallmark metaphor doesn't quite work, but the metaphor itself is spot on.

This is a sentimental, cloying, overlong film. As I look back at the year, this is one film I don't have any desire to watch again.

I have heard good things about the novel, though . . (ducks).

@Timzila

"It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind." (Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners).

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Yeah, I read part of this recently, and it really is unfilmable. Whatever movie comes out of this project will be interesting, but it sure won't be a big-screen version of the book.

Interesting, Jeff, to read your most recent post and then, going back to the thread (I was looking for my own early posts on the film; don't appear to have any here, although I reviewed this movie at Crosswalk), see that you'd read "part of" the book.

What's your take re: book vs. film. You obviously didn't care for the movie; was the book better? Did you read only part of it because you gave up in frustration/boredom?

The audio version has been ... interesting. I can't say the story's themes are resonating much more deeply than they do in the movie (they're deeper, just not as much as I'd hoped; and really, how could the book be any more shallow in its treatment of those ideas?), but I'm still not even halfway through the novel. Its strength, to the extent the audiobook has one, is in its multiple narrators. But each story goes on quite a bit before it transitions to another story, so if you don't care for a particular narrator -- and the Cavendish narrator is rubbing me the wrong way -- it can be a long slog.

I had the audiobook over the holiday when I wasn't driving. It's due back before I'll be finished with it, but I think I'll just put it on hold again and knock it out when I get a copy a second time.

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Christian, this is a situation in which a film adaptation has been so bad that I think even less of the book. I can't erase the awful makeup in the film from my more positive memories of the book...

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

Filmwell | Twitter

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The book does seem to be getting worse, not better -- but I'm in the middle of that (in the movie) wrap-around story where Hanks speaks gibberish. In the audiobook version, the narrator sounds like he's trying to talk like a Jamaican, which is not how Hanks treated the same text, I don't think.

Anyway, thought I'd post Wesley Morris' thoughts on the film over at the Slate Movie Club:

The only movie that was as formally ambitious, at the level of grand latticework, was Cloud Atlas, which I guess we're calling a disaster (and I won't disagree) but which is much more to me than merely a movie that didn't work. Its earnestness is moving. Of course one man's cosmic latticework is another's amateurishly crocheted bootie. So if we have haters among us: Speak, but only in Tom Hanks' astral pidgin.

Jeffrey's been discussing this film on Facebook with one fan who refuses to jump ship. That's what intrigues me about this movie: The people who love it are few, but they love it.

Why do they love it? Usually I can figure out why certain people love a story/book/movie that leaves me cold. That's part of developing an appreciation of how art works. It's educational. It's profitable. Even if you don't end up changing your mind.

But with the movie of Cloud Atlas (and, I fear, the book, although I've got a ways to go), I simply don't understand the appeal. Is it the theme about connectedness? I don't begrudge anyone who connects with a story that moves them. It's just that the movie's treatment of that theme (and the book's to a lesser, but still disappointing so far, extent) is so facile.

What, exactly, resonates about Cloud Atlas, and why can't I see it? It may be my fault. It probably is. I want to appreciate it, even if I think the movie is a botch. But I need some help.

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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The main thing I like (about the book) is the way Mitchell appropriates the tropes and styles of different types of literature and tells stories that simultaneously reinforce and subvert the expectations of those genres. That side barely translates to the movie at all, since all of the stories are pitched at more or less the same level. The book pushes the "everything is connected" angle much less than the movie--the comet birthmark is about all there is--which makes it more fun to tease out what the commonalities and overlap between the stories are.

It's the side effects that save us.
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Christian, if my post earlier in this thread doesn't answer your question, I don't think I can say anything that will. I'll just say this: I've only seen Cloud Atlas once so far, and many times I've found (from experience--i.e. this isn't just me lacking self-confidence, it's the truth) that I have to see a movie at least twice before I can trust my own opinion of it. It remains to be seen whether it will continue to impress me as much as it did the first time.

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Rushmore: Thanks for pointing me back to your earlier post. I'm glad you enjoyed the movie. I may yet give it one more try.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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The main thing I like (about the book) is the way Mitchell appropriates the tropes and styles of different types of literature and tells stories that simultaneously reinforce and subvert the expectations of those genres. That side barely translates to the movie at all, since all of the stories are pitched at more or less the same level. The book pushes the "everything is connected" angle much less than the movie--the comet birthmark is about all there is--which makes it more fun to tease out what the commonalities and overlap between the stories are.

Yes. The structure of the book is effective in that it reveals Mitchell's pretty stunning ability to work in multiple genres and across multiple voices. The structure of the film obliterates this aspect of the book. And the thing is, the film could just as easily have aped the structure of the book and potentially had the same success. I would have liked to see six markedly different films bound by Mitchell's metanarrative.

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

Filmwell | Twitter

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  • 2 months later...

Although two viewings of the film and one listen to the entire audiobook haven't changed my mind about Cloud Atlas being a failure as a story, I'll say this for the adaptation: I'm listening to the film's score again. Tom Tykwer, who co-directed the film, is one of the three listed composers. I wonder if his musical contribution to Cloud Atlas will outlast his filmed contribution.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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  • 7 months later...

Funny! 

 

An update: I watched this movie a third time over the summer with my wife and sister-in-law, and although I agree with every critique leveled in the clip linked by Jeremy, I'll say this for the movie: I've come to think that the editing is the film's great strength. Sure, I still don't really care about the characters, but after comparing the film to the more deliberately paced telling in the book, I find the film preferable strictly because of the technical accomplishment involved in all that cutting between stories. The film's rhythms began to fascinate me on third viewing -- but not so much on first or second, when I was (silly me!) trying to follow the story(ies).

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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The editing really was striving for something new and extraoridinary.  The film didn't always work.  But kudos to them for trying.

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I've just seen the film a third time, and I don't see my way clear to changing my opinion. I can't help feeling that in the face of something so big and so unique (if it's not unique, someone please give me a counterexample), normal criticism is simply not important. This isn't an "ambitious" movie in the conventional sense. This is a movie doing something that's never been done before. There are stumbles, there are dull stretches of clichéd pop-philosophy, there are half-assed characterizations and lumpy plots, there are bad makeup jobs--not necessarily anything against the makeup artists; it's just that convincing interracial makeup is hard to pull off--there are etc. etc., and none of that matters. Likewise, there are amazingly good parts, there are powerful ideas, there are feats of imagination, there is visual splendor, and none of that is of the first importance either.

 

Christian's comments about the editing come closer to the heart of the matter, but it's the editing of concepts (I almost said ideas, but I don't think the film has much of anything to offer philosophically) as well as the editing of images. There are worlds of connections to be made below the surface. I don't even know how many more viewings it will take before I can fully appreciate what an intricate and wonderful web this is.

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Well, the obvious precedent for this is D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916), which cut back and forth between four stories set in ancient Babylon, ancient Judea, Reformation-era France and the present day, all in service of a single theme. But that film didn't cast actors in multiple stories, or venture into science fiction, etc., so it arguably wasn't as ambitious on *that* level. On the other hand, Intolerance *was* made only a few years after the first feature-length films were produced, so it was certainly comparably ambitious in terms of doing something that no one had ever seen before.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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I've just seen the film a third time, and I don't see my way clear to changing my opinion. I can't help feeling that in the face of something so big and so unique (if it's not unique, someone please give me a counterexample), normal criticism is simply not important. 

 

 

I can't really unpack that sentence enough to so say whether I agree or disagree. I suspect the latter. But I'm really, totally unsure what "not important" means in this context.

Similarly, claims of uniqueness are both tautological (every movie is unique, even the most conventional rom-com or franchise reboot) and problematic. In order to give you a counter example, I'd probably need some clarification as to what the "something" is in "something that's never been done before." Given that the latter is in italics, it appears to me to be not only a claim, but the foundation or evidence of the other claim (that conventional criticisms don't matter). That being the case, I think the burden is on the party making the special pleading (i.e. normal rules don't apply) to state what is exceptional about it.

As to counter examples, not all of these will be accepted since that "something" could be (I suspect is) a vague word used to cover over an emotive or unique response rather than to describe a unique film, but some similarly structured/themed films I would cite off the top of my head, in addition to Intolerance, are Pulp Fiction, French Lieutenant's Woman, Possession, The Simpsons ("Homer vs. Lisa and the 8th Commandment"), Paris J' Taime, 31 Short Films about Glen Gould, The Wizard of Oz, The Fountain, and Tykwer's own Lola Rennt.

If we wanted to get into more specific features of the film that are hinted at, such as montage editing, the use of music to connect characters/storylines, I'm sure that more formally minded cinephiles on the board could comply. 

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I've just seen the film a third time, and I don't see my way clear to changing my opinion. I can't help feeling that in the face of something so big and so unique (if it's not unique, someone please give me a counterexample), normal criticism is simply not important.

 

I can't really unpack that sentence enough to so say whether I agree or disagree. I suspect the latter. But I'm really, totally unsure what "not important" means in this context.

Similarly, claims of uniqueness are both tautological (every movie is unique, even the most conventional rom-com or franchise reboot) and problematic. In order to give you a counter example, I'd probably need some clarification as to what the "something" is in "something that's never been done before." Given that the latter is in italics, it appears to me to be not only a claim, but the foundation or evidence of the other claim (that conventional criticisms don't matter). That being the case, I think the burden is on the party making the special pleading (i.e. normal rules don't apply) to state what is exceptional about it.

I'll do my best to explain myself. What's unique about Cloud Atlas, on the most basic level, is that it weaves together several different, temporally distant storylines that are thematically connected but never merge into one. As far as I know, the sole precedent for this, which I mentioned in my first post in this thread and Peter mentioned just above, is D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, an experiment from the early years of film. Intolerance is probably better crafted, though it has its own flaws, some of which seem to be due to Griffith's cutting the film down to less than half its original running time at the studio's insistence. It seems highly unlikely that Cloud Atlas will ever attain anything close to the semi-canonical status of Griffith's work.

 

But I wouldn't stop there. If Cloud Atlas were nothing but a rehash of Intolerance, it would still be noteworthy, given the lack of imitators, but it actually blazes a good deal farther along the same trail. It does this in at least two and probably at least three ways. First, it creates more complex connections between the stories (and again, I'm convinced that there are some subtle connections that reward searching out in addition to the obvious ones). Second, it shifts back and forth between straight narrative, meta-fiction (the Luisa Rey story), and in-story nonfiction narrative. (I'm not saying this sort of boundary-crossing hasn't been done before, but that it hasn't been combined with the fugal storytelling found in Cloud Atlas and Intolerance.) It also has a more sophisticated editing rhythm than Intolerance, which for the most part moves steadily from slow to fast, culminating in a rapid montage showing the climax of all four stories, whereas the pace of Cloud Atlas ebbs and flows with a sort of tidal rhythm, and includes several rapid montages, each with its own purpose in creating the viewer's experience.

 

It would be quite possible for someone to concede all this and then say either that it doesn't matter, or that the film doesn't execute it well enough to be worthy of attention. I would disagree with both of these, but neither would be absurd on its face. What I do find absurd, and pretty much indefensible, is the claim that Cloud Atlas is just one pretentious, pseudo-intellectual action/sci-fi movie among dozens. That seems to me a refusal to confront what's really there in the film.

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