Cloud Atlas

In what universe is "our lives are bound with others" such a revelation that it's tantamount to revolution? These words are apparently so powerful in the fascist future of Neo Seoul, when society is divided into servers, consumers, seers, archivists, and other ominous-sounding, dystopian categories, that they start a religion, and the clone girl (a "server") who speaks these words becomes its martyr. What, do the people of New Seoul not have social media, where "friends" would spout such profundity daily? Do none of them have stoner friends to regale them with the mind-blowing philosophies they've worked out from the latest Wachowski film?

No, because this is not a universe that bothers with such quotidia. It's a universe in which every point in history is exactly the same, while appearing vastly different. Well, that's not quite true. It cannot be said that faces appear vastly different, from era to era. Makeup artists have been tasked with the contradictory work of this universe: they must make the same look different, while being reocognizable as the same. The same actors are recycled throughout all time by the addition of putty. The awkwardness of a Korean with freckles, a ginger frizz, green eyes, and a frock is considerable, but nothing compared to the awkwardness of equating a slave's emancipation in the 19th century with a sleazy publisher's escape from a retirement home. The nuances of such comparisons, however, are not within the scope of this universe, which is nonetheless considerable, at least by appearances.

Don't get me wrong, I am a hopeless enough postmodernist that I think it's cool to find the deep relation between historically disparate things. Far more specific things. The vision of the Wachowskis, or David Mitchell, or Tom Tykwer, or whoever (if we're "all connected" and the same so are they), is so grand that history is merely a colorful backdrop. The past and the far-future are the Orient. There can be no insight in these relationships between disparate points in time, because they aren't relationships; a relationship is necessarily between different entities. There are six stories here, all the same.

Let me be as clear as this film's vision is obscuring: the best part is the aging publisher's escape from the retirement home. (The best part is Jim Broadbent.) And I think, also, the most honest. One of my issues with the film, then, is a matter or hierarchy: all of these stories are just the publisher's amusing tale (which takes place in the present day) with different scenery, which is also the contention of matchcuts and smooth audio transitions that do more violence to time than Kubrick could have ever dreamed, but they also insist that all these tales are on an equal plane; I rather think the many all spring from one, here. As all these characters demostrate, we dream of mattering, and this is the filmmakers' way of mattering: spinning tales of consciousness-raising, of heroes using their privilege to save the underclass. Why must the universe always be saved by heroism? Why must heroes dodge bullets, perform acrobatics, vaunt peaks, and generally preen in their own transcendance?

What else is it, when an author chooses to disperse a story across eons, but to say "look, my imagation transcends time and space"? I do not mark anyone for imagination, nor do I ask that history be treated sanctimoniously as if it's "true-true," in this film's cutesy futuristic patois, but must imagination be so showy? A message does not get more profound through ventriloquism. When all the voices say exactly the same thing, why bother multiplying them?

The answer is embedded in the film's revolutionary praxis: The revolutioaries' mouthpiece must be one of the masses whose cause they champion. This is an erotic relationship, and the revolutionaries positively drool when they see Sonmi: an opportunity. Their message would not seem authentic if not spoken from the lips of its concern. Sure, diegetically these are her words, but her author needed her to say them.

But this is supposedly about the triumph of love, not of authorial fantasies. Love is apparently all the same at any and every historical moment, whether between a revolutionary and a clone slave in the future in Korea, two male interbellum English aesthetes, Halle Berry and Tom Hanks--I mean a journalist and a scientist in the 1970s, Halle Berry and Tom Hanks again but in costumes that seem already to be relics of imagining the future or maybe just second-hand Star Trek, or a black slave an English man of the cloth. Sure sounds to me like a definition of love peculiar to the present.

The gentle, warm-hearted Christian man asks the slave "how do you know I'm you're friend?" The slave replies by pointing at his own eyes and then at his friend's eyes and saying "it's all you need." I was quite taken by this simple truth when I saw it, but now I ask: really, is that all? And that difference between then and now is why I ask. In this universe, however, people are reliable, and most reliable in love, which is both the articulation and the constitution of their souls. Or should I say soul.

The conviction that self and other are interconnected could be profound, if it were troubled by the consequences of relationality, rather than lubricated by all those others it obscures and squashes under its zealous, revolutionary bootheel. There is a lot of anger here about people whose personhood has been and continues to be violently denied (slaves, women, homosexuals), but the heroic fight against this oppression involves no shortage of othering, and this gives nobody pause. Faceless black-visored police enforcers in the future, monotonic secret operatives who spew racist slurs in the 1970s, belligerent landowners in the 19th century. (The only intelligible bad guy is in the present, of course: the publisher's sadistic brother, who spites him for his financial dependence, and for sleeping with his wife.)

I wouldn't say the death of people our historical moment despises is inconsistent with Sonmi's philosophy, but neither is the mass murder that supposedly inspires it. If death is a "door" to another life, then why should we care about clones like her being farmed like chicken? If "boundaries are an illusion," then what does slaughter violate? It's hard to believe the fuzzy newagisms she broadcasts to the world inspired anything, much less a religion, and it's equally hard to believe that they are in any way connected to the ghastly circumstances of her life. I've heard people say similar things after merely enduring the line at the local coffee shop.

In this latest installment of the Wachowski's battle against The System, the thing to be brought down is "The Natural Order" (the point of this term being that it's only natural to those who privilege from it). But their issue does not appear to be that what is considered "natural" tends to work in this socially determined way. The thing that's supposed to break up The Natural Order is love. But if love is destiny, transcending time and space, determined before you were born, what is that but a consolidation of what is natural?

29 October 2012