Saturday, November 3, 2012

Cloud Atlas--the Film Review in 3 parts

So I just saw the film Cloud Atlas, which is based on David Mitchell's novel of the same name--a novel that defies easy categorization since Mitchell is Irish, the six settings of the six embedded stories take place across various geographies and millenia (in chronological order, the story starts in the mid-19th century and ends in a post-apocolyptic future time marked by the seasons rather than by a calendar).

[Aside 1: Movie posters are always a good indication of who is most important, character-wise & star-wise in a film.  Case in point: Tom Hanks's head is HUGE compared to everyone else's--Halle Barry comes a close second in terms of prominence, and then you can figure out the prominence of everyone else in descending order]

Cloud Atlas, the novel, has been on my radar for several years.  In fact, a friend of a friend handed me a copy and told me I should read it.  And the book sat on my shelf for years, until finally in a purge I (stupidly) placed it in a library donation box.

[Aside 2: It's not stupid to donate to a library--only stupid that I didn't actually read the novel before doing so, because when I finally DID read it, the novel BLEW ME AWAY]

That brings us to August 2012.  As some of you may (or may not) know, I am a guest contributor to an Asian American magazine, ALIST.  In fact, you can read my latest column about Patsy Mink here (although I'm sure regular readers will recognize it from an older post I did over the summer--I did think with the election coming up on Tuesday, doing a political piece seemed in order).  In August I read this guest post by Matthew Salesses, where he talks about the yellowface going on in the film version of Cloud Atlas.

[Aside 3:  Full disclosure: Matt is a former student of mine, dating back to the first ever class I taught at Southern U--a course on Asian American literature.  Matt is also a very fine writer (which I know from the essays I've read by him).  You can check out his work by going to his website.]

Of course once I realized that there was yellowface in this film, I knew I had to see it.  But I had heard good things about the novel, so I sat down and read all 528 page in 2 days (doing nothing else but--well, eating and sleeping obviously, but you get my drift).  It's a brilliant novel--I couldn't put it down.  And is very thought provoking and well executed, despite the misgivings by this New York Times review.

One might say, based on the complexity of setting, time, character, and form that this would be an impossible novel to film.  But that apparently didn't stop the Wachowski siblings (the folks who brought us The Matrix franchise) and Tom Twyker from deciding that they were going to try.  And some might say that it's an admirable task that these three directors have done, distilling the essence of the novel, particularly the theme of "eternal recurrence" (taken from Frederick Nietzsche).  In trying to whittle down a 500+ novel into a film (one that clocks in at nearly 3 hours) certain choices had to be made--and one of the devices that the filmmakers used to unify the six narratives was to have the main actors portray various characters, major and minor, in all 6 segments, which inevitably meant that actos would be portraying people of different races, and in some cases gender.

The above image of the actor, Hugo Weaving, is an excellent demonstration of the ways in which he crosses gender, race, and in the last case metaphysics to play a female nurse, an unidentified Korean enforcer, and the incarnation of a tribal devil.

There's SO MUCH to say about this film that I've decided I need to divide it up into 3 parts--an introduction (which is this post) and then two parts: cross-racial masquerade, most notably the use of yellowface and whiteface and mixing of races as the salvation of humanity.

So stay tuned--also, I'll be talking about the films in their entirety, so I'll be sure to put "SPOILER ALERT" warnings for those of you who want to watch the film.

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