There’s an old saying: Critics are the kind of people who go out after a battle’s been fought and shoot the wounded.
That little chestnut came back with a vengeance when I read some of the reviews for Cloud Atlas.
Briefly #1: If you’re unacquainted with the novel by David Mitchell on which the film is based, or the basic outline of the six nested stories that make up the narrative, this summary by Wikipedia is serviceable.
Briefly #2: I was amazed by the film, touched to the point of tears more than once. I left the theater in a kind of marvelous daze, like I was walking on fog, something that rarely happens at the movies any more.
Apparently, this isn’t the consensus view, at least among the illuminati.
I may be one of the few people on earth who went into the theater expecting next to nothing. I’d not seen a trailer, I’d read no reviews, imbibed no other media hype, and I’d not yet managed to read the book. (I intend to correct that last limitation as soon as I can.)
My sole pre-viewing opinion came from a writer friend, Tom Barbash, who’d seen an advance screening and said the film rivaled Citizen Kane in its importance to American cinema—this from a Stegner fellow and Stanford professor who didn’t merely love the book, he read it four times.
But after viewing the film—more on that in a moment (don’t worry, no spoilers)—I was hungry for more information, especially when a friend informed me the reviews were “all over the map”—a phrase, interestingly, often used to describe the film.
I’m sorry I bothered. I compare the experience to overhearing a circle of gossips carp and snipe about what’s oh so obviously hideous about your sweetheart.
On reflection, I too can see many less-than-successful aspects of the film. But I found little merit delving in to the orgy of self-congratulatory bile that in too many cases tried to pass itself off as legitimate criticism.
Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, and I see movies and books from the inside, looking at what was attempted, not just what’s there. I’ve learned to both enjoy the decor while also checking out the plumbing. And I was seduced by the ambition of Cloud Atlas. More than once, I sat there wondering: How are they getting away with this?
Clearly, many believed they got away with little or nothing. And they can’t say it spitefully enough.
Some of this I suspect is the usual professionalized envy that too often masquerades as criticism. Some of it is political—the Wachowskis are deemed “radical.” Some of it is the kneejerk railing against anything ambitious as “pretentious” or “pompous”—an opinion often expressed in flamingly pompous fashion.
But what I experienced over and over and over again while watching this film was the magic of the movies. I had a blast. There’s a just a visual, experiential joy to the film that I found not just inviting or seductive or infectious but engulfing.
The actors play multiple roles, crossing gender and color lines and playing a variety of ages. Is the makeup unconvincing in places? I’m enthusiastic, not blind.
Are some of the performances overly broad? You mean as in opera? So?
Is the theme delivered in ham-handed fashion or in leaden dialog?
At times. And I don’t minimize this fault. If you need to announce your theme, you’re doing something wrong. But the theme was also brought home so often by the visuals and the structure that I decided to overlook this limitation. Yes, I think the theme the filmmakers chose to emphasize is a bit simplistic, and that oversimplification created a somewhat cartoonish evil—The weak are meat, and the strong will eat—opposed by a less cartoonish but still unconvincing good—boundaries are illusions, we are all one. But the interplay of this theme in its various manifestations—some witty, some tragic, some melodramatic, some potboilerish, some hip—helped mitigate the simplicity by adding texture and contrast.
Is the movie as subtle, thematically suggestive or structurally ambitious as the book? Oh, please.
This last question seems to go to the heart of some of the most withering criticism. In just the sections I’ve managed to read so far, the prize of subtlety so clearly belongs to the book as to render the question irrelevant.
This isn’t the book. It doesn’t try to be, nor should it.
It’s a big budget ($100 million) film that needs to do well in many markets to earn back its investment. That means it has to honor the intent of the original while also playing to the cheap seats, not just here but around the world. For my money, it does so not just well, but marvelously.
However, despite earning a ten-minute standing ovation at the Toronto Film Festival, it appears to be stalling at the domestic box office. The middling reviews are creating a downward drag; those who might have gone to see it are reconsidering. (How can I shout this loudly enough: Screw the reviews, go see it for yourself!)
Argo stole this past weekend’s top receipts, and Those in the Know opine that Cloud Atlas may continue languishing and lose out not just in receipts but at the Oscars to Argo, The Hobbit, and other weighty fall fare.
That’s a shame. Because I think it’s pretty cool that a literary novel can be turned into a great visual feast and a daring cinematic event that also induces that childlike wonder that reminds us of why we go to the movies.
And I think some of the criticism against Cloud Atlas results precisely from the fact it’s not as much of a “film” as some wanted, but rather a movie.
And that’s what I call shooting the wounded.
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So, my readers: If you’ve seen the film, feel free to chime in.
If you haven’t, what criticism have you read lately that raised your hackles—or resonated with the truth?
Do you believe in a clear bright line between “movies” and “films”?
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This is a repeat of information I provided yesterday concerning my upcoming class through LitReactor, starting Thursday. We still have a few seats available so sign up now.
NEW ONLINE 4-WEEK CLASS — BEGINNING NOVEMBER 1ST!
The Spine of Crime: Setting, Suspense, and Structure
in Detective, Crime, and Thriller Stories
Online at Litreactor
Building on my preceding course, The Character of Crime, I move from the Who of crime writing to the Where, What and How. (The prior class is not a prerequisite for this course. The subject matter to be covered here stands alone.)
In this 4-week course and workshop, you’ll learn the crucial role of setting in crime stories—perhaps the most setting-dependent genre in literature. You’ll learn how to let suspense emerge not from coincidence but as a natural extension of character, context, and conflict. Last, you’ll learn how to construct the “spine” of your story through structure, finishing up with an examination of the unique plot elements that characterize stories in the detective, crime, and thriller sub-genres.
Week 1 — Setting: How to Ground your Theme, Characters, and Structure in Place
Whether your story takes place in a pastoral village or a skyscraper jungle, how people live in a specific place and time will define the nature and limits of what’s deemed a crime, who gets called a criminal, and what stands for justice.
Week 2 — Techniques of Suspense: Character, Conflict, and Context—not Coincidence
The trick is always to make the reader keep turning pages. Creating suspense always requires a bit of legerdemain, but to do it well, you need to look deep inside your story, not rely on chance.
Week 3 — Structure: Letting the Conflict Shape Your Story
Three-Act structure too often strands the writer in a meandering second act. By understanding structure as an outgrowth of character, plot points become meaningful events in your story’s growing conflict, not just turnstiles in the plot.
Week 4 — Structural Beats for Specific Sub-genre Types: Detective, Crime, Thriller
Each sub-genre has its own unique thematic emphasis, and that’s reflected in the nature of the adversaries and the conflict they generate. Those variations result in unique structural emphases and expectations.
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Jukebox Hero of the Week: One of the themes of Cloud Music concerns the seemingly recurring, perhaps even eternal nature of certain patterns of behavior–and musical refrains. My vote for timeless, in the realm of music at least: