After watching “Cloud Atlas,” it’s obvious that none of the three filmmakers—Andy Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Lana Wachowski—have any truck with the word “unfilmable.”
As one of the many memorable lines from David Mitchell’s wildly imaginative novel (and the subsequent script) puts it, “You have to do whatever you can’t not do.” And four-and-a-half years later, we have the movie they couldn’t not do, with six narratives often hundreds of years apart, with actors playing different roles (and often different sexes and races) in each passage, and the trio have marked the movie with their own fixations and fascinations. They’ve been good friends since the time “The Matrix” and “Run Lola Run” were released in the U.S. around the same time in 1999. (“We could make every movie together if we didn’t each have other movies we want to make,” Tykwer told me after the Chicago International premiere.) There’s so much stuff in the film, so many joys for the actors on-screen, all in a kind of Dickensian amplitude, but it’s also a deconstruction and reconstruction of not only the storytelling, but of space and time. (“All boundaries are conventions waiting to be transcended,” a character asserts.) “Cloud Atlas,” the movie, unlike the book, crosscuts its dramas and comedies, a la D. W. Griffith’s “Intolerance,” which was originally subtitled “Love’s Struggle Through the Ages,” a suitable second name for this movie as well. And, among the cumulative details there are so many small acts of kindness, which lead to the final line of the book becoming a perfectly placed line of dialogue, “What is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”
I talked to the Wachowskis on a rainy afternoon last week on the north side of Chicago, in their enviable, capacious office and production space. “The book celebrates storytelling in the same way that I think the movie tries to, it celebrates the role that storytelling has in the creation of our humanity,” Lana says. “Storytelling and our humanity are inextricably linked. Storytelling through the ages, the kinds of stories that have had that have had huge impact on our lives, like Dickens, Melville, Hugo, these are storytellers who tell huge, giant, sweeping, epic, human stories that are also very philosophical. Victor Hugo stops in the middle of ‘Les Miserables’ and debates whether it’s better to live as a person who believes in God, or not, to be an atheist. Something struck me in reading David Mitchell’s novel, when he gets to the end of this incredible page-turner, and then stops and has a four-page moral argument about how you should live your life.”
“Which ends in that line, ‘What is an ocean but a multitude of drops?'” Andy adds. “And that’s the last line of the book.”
“It resonated profoundly,” Lana continues, “with these other kinds of storytellers and these other kinds of very beautiful, ambitious works. If I’m gonna spend four years telling a story, why not tell a story the way these people tell stories? When you encounter art, right, the encounter’s usually based on an invitation. I think all art is first the work of an optimist, and I think ultimately that optimistic project is, ‘I am going to show you another way to see the world.’ The form of engagement that many people struggle with, that art asks you to abandon your own point-of-view and go with this person, go change your life, go see the world differently, imagine the world differently.”
“All boundaries are conventions waiting to be transcended,” as the line goes, I say. Andy smiles. “This movie, we’ve said that line more times than any other line,” Lana says. “There are three of us, that’s a convention we had to transcend. And we couldn’t even quite transcend it, the DGA [Directors Guild of America] wouldn’t allow us to have our credit as we wanted and so they had to force this weird credit that doesn’t have anything to do with the way we made the movie, in order to fit into their traditional rules around crediting. And then in the way the movie is unconventional in [form]. I don’t think any movie has ever mixed tone so much, I don’t think any structure has ever attempted this kind of musical, symphonic structure, I don’t think, we couldn’t think of a movie that asks so many actors to play so many multiple roles. The fearlessness of these actors!”
The movie is definitely a demonstration of a pronounced love of actors. What vaudeville or what solemnity can you bring me today? Andy and Lana laugh. “Yeah, yeah,” she says, “we think that acting is a strangely underrated art form.” It’s taken for granted by some as photographed behavior. “There’s a craft to it. It’s a mystery and a magic and a craft. And if you really love actors the way we do, and you let them show you what they’re capable of, it’s miraculous.”
“Cloud Atlas” opens Friday.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.