A Ghost Story : Phantom Mechanics

Ghost Story

A Ghost Story (2017, Dir. David Lowery) is a bizarre experience.It’s a film which does its best to wrestle itself away from any genre conventions you might associate with it on first glance. Seeing the supernatural draws your mind to horror, but there is very little to be scared of here. Seeing the hype quotes around it, with words like cosmic” and another one I saw describing it as “meditation on the passage of  timemight prepare you for a mind bending cerebral brain melter, and while part of that’s true, a lot of the film is concerned with tiny, minute and gentle human motions, all very easy to grasp hold of.

That’s not to say any one element is better than the other, but seeing them combined together in such an unusual package such as this one, one which starts A-list actors spending most of their time simply being present rather than “Acting” in any traditional sense of the word. Seeing these elements in a film which inhabits a space much closer to still life photography than the frenetic technical wizardry of modern-day cinematography. It works together to make a film which is constantly forcing you to adjust to its rhythms, and re-adjust almost immediately again. For only 92 minutes, the structural and poetic complexity is honestly quite impressive.

I’ll try to break it down through its most noticeable element, it’s play with time. Much has been made of film’s ability to compress or extend time, it’s ability to make years, centuries or even millennia pass from one frame to the next, or to drag a single moment in time, a second or even a fraction of that, and drag it out to last seconds, minutes, even hours if you were bold/mad enough. A Ghost Story manipulates time for all it’s worth. There’s a very bold choice as we watch M (played by melancholic Rooney Mara) consume a pie in real-time for nearly 4 minutes, Lowery choosing to focus his lens on time which many other films would gloss over to focus on more “dramatic moments”. Or from one second to the next, an entire life flashes before C’s eyes (played by melancholic Casey Affleck under a sheet for 90% of the time). That’s messing around with structure, making the audience get lost and disorient from their usual understanding of time.

It does all sound rather cosmic when you start to write it down, but again lots of the film is devoted to very small, intimate details. C spends a large amount of time scratching at a nook in the wall where M left a note.  A beginning scene just involves C & M gently and sleepily kissing each other, which goes on for a while. There’s a lot more of these tiny moments, and each one adds up like tiny fragments of a shattered glass. And since so much of the film is image driven, the lack of spoken words drives the film into a territory where things are much more unfocused, but much simpler. It puts you in territory which is usually reserved for experimental films (which I guess this is anyway?), the territory of experience rather than precise understanding. You have to use emotional reasoning rather than logical processing here.

On it’s more surface levels, it’s still unconventional and produces strange effects. The film is framed by an aspect ratio which is something akin to looking through your camera’s viewfinder or as Lowery says here, like old photographs. Cinema screens have always favoured horizontal compositions over vertical ones (since the screen is usually wider than it is tall), so on one hand there are portions of the screen on the left and right completely unused, while on the other hand this also allows for what’s onscreen to be more focused, less distracted by the environment around it. It’s dialogue is often sound mixed into the orchestra, creating an organic soundscape in the film where music and dialogue mesh to the point where both are just as important, but also at times making dialogue difficult to hear. Honestly at times the film moves into music video territory, underscored by a serene but powerful score from Daniel Hart.

So too is the performances, muted and subdued and minimal to the point of going no further. I mean Casey Affleck as the ghost essentially becomes a blank slate for you to project onto in the second half of the film. Prevented from facial expression, and with body movement limited to only the barest, slowest movements, it becomes an intriguing and simultaneously frustrating experience. I don’t necessarily think it’s bad, but just the common film diet gives you so much more to chew on, characters with clear motivations and conflict and interplay between a whole big cast of people working for and against each other. This is so much leaner, the only way to reduce C’s role without annihilating it completely would be to prevent the ghost from moving at all, an even extremer choice which would have harmed the film more than it helped. Just in every way it’s mechanics are those often forgotten by more conventional cinema, the film requiring you to extend towards it a greater depth of understanding, a greater allowance and tolerance to idiosyncrasy.

It is a film about a guy under a sheet. There are moments where you laugh, where you laugh when you probably shouldn’t (I did that), moments where you are bored and wish it would hurry up, moments which instill you with melancholia, moments which are really quite profound. Really there’s just hundreds of different moments, fragments you could say, and once the film finishes you finally have a shattered glass which has been put back together again. It’s not perfect, but it’s deeply personal, and anything it lacks in conventional grace is made up for its unusual and deeply cared for mechanics.

-Alex

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A Ghost Story : Phantom Mechanics

The Human Condition (2/3) : Nostalgia/The Fog of War

the-human-condition-film-poster

Masaki Kobayashi’s monolithic trilogy, The Human Condition (1959-61) is a legend in cinema history. Based off of the six part novel by Junpei Gomikawa (which has never been translated into English, fun fact), the 9 hour trilogy is an epic chronicle of one pacifist’s journey through the last years of Japan’s involvement of WWII and its defeat, while exploring and navigating the brutal heart of darkness of the governing systems of imperialism and aggression, alongside its often vicious and intolerant perpetrators. Seen through the eyes of Tatsuya Nakadai who plays Kaji, we take an ardently non-conformist journey through Japan’s savage heart.

Using the recently re-released Arrow Films version (found here) I will be detailing the experience of the 9 hour epic in three parts. Each film is divided according to its Japanese version into two parts, making for six parts in total, the names of which title the entry.


Why is this story called “The Human Condition”? It is impossible to encapsulate all the infinite variations and possibilities of conditions a human being could go through. Even if everyone is linked through six degrees of separation, can you really claim to build artworks which speak of the experience of every human, of their conditions? A claim in that direction could be the absence of colour in the film, since its tones are only that of the white-black spectrum. Technical choices aside though, what gives this story its right to lay claim to the experience of the “human condition”?

Entry two, Road to Eternity (1960, Dir. Masaki Kobayashi) has its own answer, just as its previous installment did, No Greater Love (1959). To crudely reduce the films to a single word and a single theme, if No Greater Love was about resilience, resilience in the face of an entrenched corrupt and mismanaged system of factions, then Road to Eternity is about survival, and surviving those systems. Kaji’s fate and his soul has been darkened by his previous encounters, his already innumerable failures to protect his ideals and himself through pacifism. Here Kaji’s pacifism is pushed to its breaking point, as the desire to survive eventually forces Kaji into the corner; to fight or to die.  And while he does his best to fight power with non-violence, to martyr himself for those around him at his own physical and mental expense, even Kaji must come to terms with the violent and brutal conflict which drives every human.

The technical choices I don’t have much to say on, simply because what has been said before continues to be the case here. Kobayashi (in an interview found in the Arrow release booklet) said he found the best cinematographer in Japan to film the series, Yoshio Miyajima, and his deep-focus multi-layered compositions continue to fill your eyes, arresting images through placement of the action in front of the camera, rather than any mechanical wizardry of the camera itself. So too does the music and soundscapes remain austere and sparse, the ambient noise of the world minimal, with the dialogue continuing to take precedent. Even the battle scenes are a far cry from the dense muddy clashing landscapes of sound and vision in say, Saving Private Ryan (1998, Dir. Steven Spielberg).

There is no spectacle of war here, no feast for the eyes, not in my opinion at least. Is this because of directorial intention, or simply the cinematic limitations of the time? After all, the way of shooting film by the time of Saving Private Ryan, not only the technology but the psychology and methods of directors nearly 40 years later would barely have been imagined in 1960. Not only that, but the psyche of the Japanese, and the way they viewed their war is miles away in the psyche of how Americans viewed their involvement in the war. Disentangling this issue seems fruitless, since it’s probably a mix of those two elements and more.

No doubt as to how Kobayashi and the story’s original progenitor, Junpei Gomikawa see the war though. Kaji swaps labour supervision for military ranks, and is exposed to a system which creates even more hostility and bitter resentment. Japan’s imperialistic mentality flaunts itself here, as cruel veterans and vicious commanding officers punish the recruits, to weed out the weak and create soldiers “worthy of Japan”. The suffering reaches its peak as a soldier Kaji was looking out for, Obara (Kunie Tanaka), commits suicide. Kaji presses for condemnation, but it’s no use. What changes in Kaji is his despair turns outward, as he begins to become willing to take matters of retribution and justice into his own hands. And hanging over all this, is the dream of the Soviet Union and socialism, a world which treats its men “like human beings”. Kaji’s hope no longer lies in reforming the world, but in a world where his reforms have already taken place.

But a martyr refuses a quiet death, and he continues to resist, taking over command of a battalion to prevent the same cruel treatment inflicted upon him happening to others. And his punishment at the hands of veterans climbs and climbs, until even unflinching defender Kaji breaks, in one of the films most powerful and well shot scenes, a man with nothing left to lose. Finally finding himself on the battlefield, undernourished, unprepared, and facing certain death, Kaji reaches the end of his transforming, as reality’s crushing weight comes down finally on him. Running into the wasteland of the scarred battlefield, Kaji screaming “I’m a monster, but I’m still alive” is mutely blood-curdling. Many more violent deaths have been filmed, been shown to us onscreen, but few have carried so much weight, not in narrative terms necessarily, but in terms of morality. Kaji’s beliefs are sundered apart from his actions, as his pacifism submits to the most primal instinct; the desire to survive, at any expense.

All this is naturally, bleak and depressing and tough to sit through. Suffering is a natural part of living. so why would you make a film, three films, or write a six volume novel about the relentless suffering endured by a single figure, to compound it happening to a single figure, watching him come apart at the seams under an unendurable weight, like Atlas holding the world?

Because Road to Eternity, is about “the human condition”, and its refusal to let up or compromise on the suffering endured by Kaji, and Obara, and everyone in the film is a reflection, a reflection of every act of cruelty and unfairness that worms its way into the hearts and minds of every man in every society, regardless of who you are. The painful reckoning is that what happens in the world so often, is not right. It’s not right, it’s not kind, and it’s not fair. But it happens regardless. It has to happen. It’s a game that everyone is rigged to lose.

What is noble is to try to win anyway. To battle the impulses of nature, to try to be more despite the stains of living, that’s what is admirable.

-Alex

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The Human Condition (2/3) : Nostalgia/The Fog of War

The Human Condition (1/3) – No Greater Love/Fury

the-human-condition-film-poster

Masaki Kobayashi’s monolithic trilogy, The Human Condition (1959-61) is a legend in cinema history. Based off of the six part novel by Junpei Gomikawa (which has never been translated into English, fun fact), the 9 hour trilogy is an epic chronicle of one pacifist’s journey through the last years of Japan’s involvement of WWII and its defeat, while exploring and navigating the brutal heart of darkness of the governing systems of imperialism and aggression, alongside its often vicious and intolerant perpetrators. Seen through the eyes of Tatsuya Nakadai who plays Kaji, we take an ardently non-conformist journey through Japan’s savage heart.

Using the recently re-released Arrow Films version (found here) I will be detailing the experience of the 9 hour epic in three parts. Each film is divided according to its Japanese version into two parts, making for six parts in total, the names of which title the entry.


No Greater Love (Ningen No Joken I in Japan) is the first experience and introduction into the world which Kaji inhabits. And Kaji is onscreen for almost 90% of the film’s running time, anchoring us in place around the constant swirling cast of characters which move alongside him. Given a chance to be exempt from military service, Kaji and his wife Michiko (Michiyo Aratama) move to a mining camp in Manchuria to govern the labour management, who Kaji believes are being ill-treated and thus causing low productivity.

Not just that, but it becomes Kaji’s battleground as he fights an ideological war on how human beings should be treated. For the first in a war epic, there’s little to no experience of anything you might see as traditional warfare. Instead Kaji takes on the welfare of Chinese POW’s against tyranny, corruption, fervent nationalism, hostility from the POW’s and the snakes in the grass which threaten to take him down. Make no mistake, in entering any part of The Human Condition, you are entering a world of moral and ethical conflict.

Kobayashi’s technical work on display here is very simple, very clear. Strong, multilayered deep focus compositions abound throughout the entire film. The film stages its action very classically, but by doing so keeps everything in focus, making sure not to drive the film into Kaji alone. The film follows Kaji, but Kaji spends little time on anything else beyond the welfare and the warfare of his friends (who could be enemies) and his enemies (who are enemies). Because so much of the action takes place through different depth planes, shots seem to breathe and the editing of the film is set to a slow pulsing rhythm which only rarely feels at times it drags. Of course, to the hyper sensitive, hyper frenetic editing paces of today’s visual media, the film will naturally feel slow.

But its slowness allows time to ponder and reflect on the events unfolding. So too does its sparse, austere sound. Technological limitations of its time mean audio tracks were mixed in mono sound, with the third and last film being the first in Japan to release with a stereo sound mix. Technological details aside however, the film is constantly quiet. Dialogue fills the space and the sound of brutal thuds and slaps on flesh recur, and the musical score reveals its melancholy tone, or allows for a few fleeting seconds of joy to burst through the screen. Mostly though its sound is devoid of distraction, which keeps the film more “pure” if you would like. The clatter and din of reality may be absent, but then this isn’t a documentary.

Kaji’s clash with the forces of reality is incredibly prevalent however, as the film chains us to him as we watch his ideas meet the muddy and soiled nature of real men and women against his unbreakable spirit. His unwillingness to compromise continually places him in danger, aggravates his situation, allows him to be played and fooled by those willing to exploit his desire to protect others from harm. You could imagine how this might get repetitive after 2 out of its 3 hours, but Kobayashi mines the source material (how much, if any was written purely for the film I cannot say) and brings to life not only engaging subplots, which explore ideas that can’t be expressed through Kaji, such as the story of the prostitute (comfort-girl) who falls in love with a hardliner idealist POW whose story becomes a symbol of both manipulation by shrewd higher-ups and love blossoming in the unlikeliest of circumstances.

Not only that, but the subplots also produce enough variance while being able to continually hammer away at the same bitter theme; the suffering encountered in being human. Like the encroaching tide, each wave which approaches Kaji is both the same and completely different, and all of it washes over him. It’s a profoundly existential film, or maybe that’s just my reading of it, but I found it awash and brimming with that continual torment of being alive, the incessant negotiations of a landscape of people who are often indifferent or hostile to your concerns. Watching a particularly naive and fresh-faced Kaji endure biting pain is a testament to the resilience of any of those who have suffered under similar chains. The rule of those who are unkind, brutal, sadistic or perhaps just plain incompetent and inefficient. The conflict that rips Kaji apart (driving him to near death) is those that care more about the word of law and how to apply it/circumvent it and the spirit of the law.

Resilience seems to be the key theme, at least in No Greater Love. Each character is profoundly resilient, both the good and the wicked. They care greatly about survival, but like Kaji, not all of them care about themselves. Kaji’s survival is a spiritual one, of trying to retain his humanity in the face of increasingly difficult and inhumane conditions. Michiko tries to retain her husband’s survival along with her survival of her self, as forces Kaji to stop being blind to her. Kao (Shinji Nanbara) and Wang Hen Li (Seiji Miyaguchi) (names are akin to the ones presented in the Arrow version) represent the strain for survival under the net of imprisonment. The Kenpeitai (Japanese military police) enforce the survival of strict miltary discipline and imperial honour, at the expense of anything else. While other characters may be driven by more base motives, they are no caricature villains in this. Just the ugly, dark natures involved in existence.

Despite all this, the reason for its power lies in its ability to stay true to the world. The world is not unrelenting in its pain. Even if it’s only fragments, moments snatched away from the jaws of darkness, there are powerful moments of joy and of triumph. A river ebbs and flows, and even the darkest world needs a little bit of light to illuminate it. Kaji exists like a candle in the black and white frame, almost glowing at times with determination and resistance in the face of physically and spiritually overwhelming odds. Of course it is bleak, but the bleakness of the world motivates Kaji into being, drives him to near obliteration to stand up and do what is right. Perhaps its bleakness lies in the fact that we know it to be so true, but that should never be the end of the story.

For people like Kaji, it’s only the beginning. And even though he may be a fiction, an idea and an ideal, having a star to look up to is a refreshing change of pace from wallowing in the mud.

-Alex

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The Human Condition (1/3) – No Greater Love/Fury

The Holy Mountain – ???

the-holy-mountain-french-film-poster

 

I mean…I don’t really…

How do I even start this one?


Words don’t do this film justice, so here’s the trailer. Which doesn’t do it justice either.

I don’t think there’s an inherent value in pushing limits for the sake of pushing limits. Call me crazy but I’m not a fan usually of extreme cinema, cinema which pushes visuals to such an overpowering degree that its messages and themes beyond the visuals have to be explained externally through directorial interviews. We watch cinema through a frame, and cinema which frames the illegible only transmits the illegible, or since the act of interpreting is done by both a director who makes the film, and the audience who sees the film, the audience interprets something completely different or unintended. The famous example of people starting their own fighting clubs after watching  Fight Club Dir. David Fincher, 1999) can show how even when transmitting an idea, it’s other parts, namely its irony at the whole premise of the clubs themselves can be lost.

The benefit of extreme cinema though, in all its forms some I like more than others, can show us how much power the image still holds over us, more so than the word which can only conjure up images in our head, but when actually seeing images beyond anything you ever imagined at the time, it reminds you just how visceral the cinema experience can be, removed from its usual standard gloss. Finally, its other benefit is that it again works as a transaction for the alternatives in the audiences, the more open you are in mind and spirit, the more you get out of these abstract, unconventional pieces of art. But that’s a rabbit hole that one can fall too far down into, one that leads to cinema I can’t stand (read this for my thoughts on an example).

I didn’t know what I expected when I went into this film, and I still don’t quite know what I saw as I sit here writing this. Nevertheless, this film needs to be seen to even be believed, let alone understood. It’s made me question some of those tenets I expanded on above. It’s also, fucking genius.

I have a post it note stuck above my computer that says “write something timeless or something radical of the time”. The Holy Mountain (Dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1973) is both and more. It is a film of genuine astonishment, a testament to the power of cinema in its most abstract, most peculiar and most visceral form. A film which contains the images of a true surrealist, someone who takes the real world and inverts it into itself in profound and weird and bizarre contortions and distortions. It is also a a film made by someone who has faith, in what that’s for you to find out and interpret and for Jodorowsky to know, and its definitely made by someone who’s spent a lot of the time on a drug induced spectral plane. To be able to create a cinematic capsule which can help truly transmit those visuals and those impressions, requires someone to have first experienced them, and then to be far more than competent (and just the right amount of crazy) at imagining them into the real world to be captured by a cinema camera.

It’s hard to talk about the film in non-mystical terms, as obscure as my language may appear. It’s just a work which exists on the symbolic level, and the reason why I love this film as opposed why I would dislike a work like this is because the visuals contained are not exploitative of the body. Usually when we watch films we might term extreme cinema, it is usually due to the nature of exploiting the body, either through graphic sex or graphic violence or graphic acts. It uses the body as a vessel to convey ideas, and as a result, the impressions are so strong of what we’re seeing directly done to a body that at least for me, it becomes a moot point as to what the images represent because that’s not the primary intention of the scene.

To bring it back down to Earth, imagine a film (or watch a film) like The Human Centipede (Dir. Tom Six, 2009) which the director himself said to be partially a reflection on fascism. Now regardless of how genuine that claim was, by having a concept which is so alien to the discussion of fascism (read: the entire concept of the human centipede), and one which is explored so graphically through the body, I just can’t help but shake my head ruefully. Everything can be art I’m a firm believer, but what makes good art is an understanding of the tools you’re working with. Graphic exploitation with indirect thematic links behind it will never properly transmit any other than graphic exploitation images.

But what makes The Holy Mountain different then, is that while there are certainly some strange and overpowering visuals throughout, they are visuals which on their own are overpowering through their composition, not through the exploitation of the actor’s bodies. The meeting of the alchemist in the rainbow room (what a sentence) is such an overpowering visual because of its aspects which inspire awe, not voyeurism. The bold colours, the thief moving forward knife in hand, the alchemist in one of the most amazing costumes I’ve ever seen. All those aspects and more help to build a cinematic experience, not sink us lower into the mud. Most of those who watch The Human Centipede or Salo are the morbidly curious, rather than the insane or genuinely mentally imbalanced, but morbid curiosity imbalanced against other things is depressingly empty.

And beyond that, beyond the pure immediate visual language, lays a film which is so rich in its themes and ideas that I just can’t help but get enraptured by it. It’s a film which I feel can be enjoyed how you want, whether just for the sheer absurdity of its visuals, or for the strong metaphysical backbone behind it. It certainly requires you to approach it with an open mind, and I can’t say how much you’ll get out of it, but at the very least I can say you’ll see some of the most interesting images ever put on the silver screen, just for their sheer imagination.And if cinema is the land of dreams, then what a dream this one is. And like all dreams, we need to do as the alchemist (played by Jodorowsky himself) says and wake up, “real life awaits us.” One can only dream for so long.

-Alex

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The Holy Mountain – ???

Cloud Atlas – Mapping Faith

cloudatlasbanner9172012

Cloud Atlas is tough to grasp. I don’t just mean in terms of its scope, its ambition or its lofty sense of grandeur. I mean it’s tough to grasp, because everything about it forces you to think in terms of the universe. To zero in to any one particular element or any particular story seems equivalent to marveling at the banquet laid out in front of you, only to fill up on bread. Maybe if you assembled every singular review of Cloud Atlas, and put them into a single experience, you’d get something similar, a mirror response of the film’s structure. In fact even the production of the film takes this into account, having not one but three directors, the Wachowskis (of The Matrix fame) and Tom Tykwer   ( A Hologram For The King, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer).

Cloud Atlas (2012) follows a recent trend of ever-present but increasingly noticed genre films I can only describe as “philosophical epics”. Cloud Atlas can hang its hat next to such films as, Interstellar, The Tree of Life, and The Fountainhead. Epic, sweeping narratives which transcend space and time to help illustrate and universalise their themes. Rich, densely textured pieces which press on the higher faculties of your mind, zone out and you might miss important thematic illusions, dialogue packed with ideas and subtext, or visuals bursting with splendour. Usually all three at once.  And if that doesn’t whet your appetite, a film which contains a period piece,  a seventies political thriller, a bohemian composer, a neo-Seoul almost directly birthed from Blade Runner, and a post apocalyptic future/past fusion surely will.

But the real core at the heart of Cloud Atlas, like the core of the other films referenced, is that they all focus intensely on the endeavour of the human spirit.  Especially Cloud Atlas, on the transcendence of our acts outside of their specific space/time context by the ways we can speak to each other through the generations, through the same thoughts and ideas, but transmitted from handwritten journals, to letters and music, to film scripts and holovids and through that ancient but tried and true technique, oral storytelling, round the metaphorical (and literal in the case of this film) campfire. As a species, we’re constantly rediscovering the truths that keep appearing to us, that are dredged up only to be submerged again in the streams of human day-to-day, year-to-year living.

Truths like the irrepressible will for freedom.  In four of the six stories, the desire for freedom, from entrapment, imprisonment, enslavement is omnipresent. It manifests in different forms, in the story of the stowaway slave in 1849, in the story of the composer who is blackmailed into losing credit for his work in 1936, in the story of an aging publisher imprisoned by his brother in a nursing home as cruel penitence for having an affair with his brother’s wife. In 2144, as a Fabricant, a human cloned for slave labour discovers the true nature of her existence and fights to let the world know the truth.

This truth, the same desire to be free, manifests itself inside the story inside the context of the location and the time period, but the essence of the character is the same. Besides David Mitchell, author of the book confirming that each character is the same soul reborn throughout time, it’s visually conveyed through the possession of the birthmark each main character shares, a small comet. The whole film works as a testament to that eternal journey, that eternal cycle of the human spirit which struggles against forces that are not its own, as they encounter worlds they had no part in shaping, but are inexorably at the same time forced to create their own futures.

If that sounds heady and impenetrable, that’s because it is. If that sounds preachy, it’s that too. But it’s unbearably honest in its aims, and as a result, everything that springs from that well will either taste like honey or poison. Because the dialogue is very straight, there are no ulterior motives, no hidden machinations to any of the characters. They all speak honestly and truthfully, which can easily come off as one-dimensional and creaky and more importantly, unbelievable to many. Because human beings often don’t talk like this, we shroud our intentions behind language, often trusting our subtext to communicate what we’re really saying, only saying what we really feel in times of great emotion, when the barriers unfold inside of us, and the torrent of the truth comes out.

And this can very easily come off as grating. It’s uncomfortable to listen to people talk so plainly about what they think; people often describe it as stilted and awkward. But Cloud Atlas occupies the same space that our myths occupy, that it’s not what they say, but what they mean when they say it.

It can be difficult to get accustomed to people talking so frankly, that we are so used to the subtle unconscious social navigations that surround us, as we constantly do our best to perform the version of ourselves that is appropriate for the context; the way we act at work is not the way we act in front of our family is not the way we act in front of strangers etc. But the way our characters act, think and talk is a representation of their ideals, and their ability and integrity to follow them. Time and time again, the same soul of Cloud Atlas sacrifices itself for higher causes. In 1973, Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) sacrifices her safety to expose the story of the unstable nuclear reactor.  In 2321, in a post apocalyptic Hawaii, Zachry (Tom Hanks) battles dangerous tribesmen and his own mental state to help Meronym (Halle Berry) send a message to the off-world colonies for help. The young composer Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) sacrifices himself for his music.

Of course the film is far from perfect. Any film that wants to tackle this kind of subject matter will ultimately throw of the shackles of a rigid, consistent formula which satisfies us, for something ultimately more baggy, where characters flit in and out, loose end are never really tied up, nebulous thematic links are put in place of concrete, ‘real’ ones. And if it is not your cup of tea, then the film makes no concessions to its opposite. It is ambitious, or it is pretentious depending on side of the coin you fall on. But then, if human beings are constantly locked in a battle to find meaning in their lives, do they not occupy the same space? It’s heavy-handedness is a by-product of its earnestness, you can’t have one without the other.

There are more examples, but the consistency of the actions of the same soul is what’s paramount here. Not that this is not important in works outside of this, but here its precedence is built on a spiritual level, not just a logical level, because the actions of the soul of all of the characters are consistent across the whole spectrum, even if each character might react differently if they were placed in the experiences of their other time placed counterparts. Even more importantly, is the consistency of the forces the soul faces. In each world there is always good, and always evil, locked in a never-ending struggle of infinite instances.  The cast of thousands in the film is populated by the same returning faces, most of the main cast appearing in at least three out of the six of the stories, often more. They all play different parts on the spectrum, different sexes, different genders, and different paths of morality. Their faces are transfigured by facial morphing, by their period costumes, by the very different worlds they inhabit. But still they recur, to help illustrate the universality of it all.

That ultimately, the spirit will endure. The victory of the spirit’s endurance is one often ignored in the face of the overwhelming odds of the world we live in, whenever we live in it. But the spirit never stops. How much you take that to heart, or how much you reject it, ultimately depends on how much faith you have in humanity.  And love it or condemn it, Cloud Atlas is a very hard film to ignore, simply because it has so much faith.

-Alex

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Cloud Atlas – Mapping Faith