Do you ever get the sense that you see everything clearly and yet comprehend nothing even remotely? Well, I have lived that all my life. It is from that vantage point that I watched ‘Cloud Atlas’ yesterday, a full year after it was released.Since one of the movie’s identifiable themes is about a weird continuity between the past, present and future, it should not make a difference that I am writing about it only now.
Based on David Mitchell’s much celebrated novel of the same name and written and directed Tom Tykwer and the siblings Lana and Andy Wachowski the film had a strange grip on me throughout the day.
I watched the 172-minute long film stretched over several hours, allowing my own life and its hardships to unfold simultaneously. Among the irritating hardships were half a dozen calls in a span of 15 minutes from a credit card company about a pending payment several weeks past its due date. One of callers even threatened to report my account to the credit bureaus. When I said “Go right ahead and if you don’t have the numbers for them I can give them to you” she was irretrievably confused. To push her deeper into her confusion I also told her that I was merely a transmigrating soul ensnared for a brief while in the oppressive banalities of her planet, namely Earth. She put the phone down.
I digress. I was telling you about ‘Cloud Atlas.’ Six stories set in six different eras, from 1850 to 2321, play out in ‘Cloud Atlas’. In those five centuries, while on the face of it many characters live many disparate and complex lives, a closer scrutiny would reveal an underlying connectedness across space and time. They are pieces self-contained unto themselves and when they come together they form a self-contained if somewhat amorphous whole as well. I have not read the book but am aware of its reputation for its thematic abstruseness and its inherently unfilmable nature. So it is to the credit of Tykwer and the Wachowskis that it is such a brilliantly compelling visual feast with strikingly told stories.
I don’t know about you but when I am confronted with material that is hard to grasp in the first, second, third or whateverth viewing/reading what I do is just distill sense from moment to moment and move on. It is not like life generally makes much sense anyway. That’s why I started with the question whether you ever get the sense that you see everything clearly and yet comprehend nothing. Seeing is comprehending.
Tom Hanks as an Irish thug author in ‘Cloud Atlas’
There are many memorable scenes but the one I found laugh out loud memorable concerns Tom Hanks, playing an Irish thug whose autobiography was panned by a snobbish prick of a critic. The critic had said of the book this: “Mr. Haggins should apologize to the trees felled for the making of his bloated autobio novel, 400 vainglorious pages expire in an ending that is flat and an end that is beyond belief.” At a party when Hanks meets the critic he just flings him off the high balcony, looks down on the critic’s badly mauled, flattened body and says “Now that’s an ending that is flat beyond belief.” Not that I recommend that writers deal with dismissive critics thusly but it works well cinematically. (I have used “thusly” for its humorous undertone).
‘Cloud Atlas’ packs in so much in terms of ideas, constructs and philosophies as well as performances, images, special effects, prosthetics, and characters that it is best to experience them from moment to moment. Life is never presented to us as a whole but a series of moments that can be as seamless as they are disjointed. Given my own inability to make sense of much of anything I have long lived from moment to moment. That way, both your comprehension and incomprehension are momentary. So are your triumphs and failures.
It strikes me that in the many interludes between watching the film I also did an hour-long interview with a local Indian music radio show on WLUV 88.7 FM called ‘Global Desi World and Women’. It is hosted by the effusive associate professor of sociology at Loyola University, Shweta Singh. Her show was mainly about the great singer Manna Dey who passed away the other day. I was reminded of one of Dey’s very popular songs from the 1969 movie ‘Chanda aur Bijli.’ Written by Neeraj and composed by Shankar Jaikishen, the song began with the lines:
Kal ka pahiya ghume bhaiya
Lakh tarah insan chale
Le ke chale barat kabhi to
Kabhi bina saman chale
I do not feel like rendering its translation but the poet is talking about how the wheel of time keeps revolving irrespective of what we do. A possible theme song for ‘Cloud Atlas’, I think.