I didn’t want to see Cloud Atlas. I had done a lot of reading about the yellowface aspect of it, and really, I should not have had to do any reading about it. The yellowface should not have happened in the first place.
It was argued to me that the yellowface wasn’t that big of a deal, because actors of color also appeared in the film as white characters. Here’s the thing about that argument: it’s bullshit. It’s pretty basic: actresses of color wearing makeup to appear as though they were white is not the same thing as white men wearing makeup to appear as if they were Korean. You know why? Because of history and power.
There is not a tradition of white actors being denied access to roles because actors of color put on some powder & stole all the plum jobs. There is, however, an ongoing problem of white actors being cast as characters of color. This is still happening today. It’s happened in every single Twilight movie. Prince of Persia. A Mighty Heart. Avatar: The Last Airbender. The upcoming Lone Ranger . That’s just off the top of my head.
Plus, there’s the question of billing. It would be troubling, but maybe less so, if the film featured a broad array of ethnicities. It didn’t. Of the six cast members who received top billing & appeared in the promotional materials, five were white men. The sixth was Halle Berry. This is not a wide range, I hope you’ll notice. This is white-man-as-default.
So. It’s a problem, and I didn’t want to support it financially. But SIFF picked it up for a week, which meant I could see it essentially for free. And I do actually like to see things and then form opinions on them, rather than just plucking opinions out of the air. So I went. And was appalled.
The thing is, the racial problems weren’t limited to the casting & the rep company structure of the film. There are a others that appear to be inherent in the source text. There’s the fact that all of the stories were Western except the dystopian future of fabricants & cannibalism. That, of course, is set in Korea. There’s also a colonialism arc, where a young lawyer has to have his life saved by an escaped slave before he realizes that slavery is bad, m’kay, complete with an eye-rollingly awful confrontation with his father-in-law.
Racial issues aside (which is, I grant you, a huge caveat), the film is enamored of its own cleverness. It always wants you to know just how neat it is that they’re making it happen with all the same actors. It takes a far more focused person than I am to watch it and not spent half the time trying to work out who is buried under makeup & prosthetics in this or that scene.
Furthermore, it was distracting trying to work out if casting actually meant anything in a given arc. For example, during the story where Doona Bae is the daughter of Hugo Weaving’s plantation owner character, I spent a significant portion of the scene wondering if her character then was meant to be white or biracial. Maybe someone who has read the book can tell me.
Plus, there are anvil-like connections between storylines. In 2012 Jim Broadbent yells that Soylent Green is people, and of course by 2144 fabricants are killed & turned into food for other fabricants. The problem with a lot of these is that they pop you out of the story with a visual or an audio joke.
The most egregious one reminded me of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. In that film, Luhrmann yanks the audience out of scenes with visual jokes, such as focusing on “longsword”, “dagger”, etc engraved on the side of firearms. As soon as that happens you’re not thinking about the story. You’re thinking about how clever it was to work in Shakespeare’s weapon choice.
In Cloud Atlas, this occurs during a passionate confrontation between a blackmailer & his victim. They’re at the height of the conflict, the victim is brandishing a gun, tension is running high… and right in the middle of everything we’re shown a lost item under the bed. Why on earth would you choose to do that? The audience is caught up and then you basically hit pause, point out the lost item (which, of course, is also a connection with another storyline LOOK AT HOW CLEVER). So irritating.
It’s also frustrating because aside from moments like that, the best part of the film is definitely the editing. Which sounds like damning with faint praise, but I don’t mean it that way. The book takes us through the six stories chronologically, I believe, forward through time and then back, but the film mixes and matches elements, weaving times together in a beautiful & effective way. The flow and pacing is definitely impressive, but in service of what? Evolution of the soul is hell. We’re all connected, from womb to tomb, apparently. And if at the repeated invocation of that phrase you can manage to not start humming “Jet Song” from West Side Story, you’re a better person than I am.
The second best part is a movie that existed only in my head. There’s a gorgeous still from the 1930s Cambridge section, which features James D’Arcy & Ben Whishaw in a room, arms raised, plates & pottery flying through the air. It looks like a still from a film about two magicians in love. I desperately want to see that movie. If someone could make that happen, I would appreciate it.
(Guys, I promise I’ve seen stuff this fall I really loved. Some of it was even new film. Some of it dealt with the evolution of the soul, and yet did not infuriate me! I’ll share it with you soon.)