Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski’s adaptation of Cloud Atlas contains subtle reinforcements of ‘white’ narratives
It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words.
If that is true, then how many millions of words’ worth is a moving picture lasting two and a half hours, and to whom?
How many – and which ones – of those millions of words contain information, misinformation and disinformation?
Cloud Atlas (2012) is the latest production by ‘The Wachowskis’ (formerly, the Wachowski Brothers) and German director, Tom Tykwer. As is the case with practically everyone else on the planet that has seen it, I very much enjoyed The Wachowskis first science fiction offering, The Matrix (1999), both for its style and, more importantly, its cerebral content. The Matrix is perhaps the film of the last two decades that has made issues at the intersection of philosophy and technology both interesting and relevant, and for an audience that includes professional philosophers and lay persons alike. (Unfortunately, the film’s two sequels made for rather less intellectually engaging viewing with the exception of scenes featuring two characters, The Merovingian and The Architect, whose pronouncements on causality, determinism and power continue to remain intellectually stimulating.) I was also impressed with The Wachowskis’ adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel, V for Vendetta (2006).
One of the reasons for the success of The Matrix franchise and V for Vendetta was the outstanding performances of Australian actor Hugo Weaving – as antagonist AI (artificial intelligence) program Agent Smith in the former, and mysterious anarchist, vigilante and freedom fighter ‘V‘ in the latter. It is interesting that Weaving, along with a number of other high profile actors including Tom Hanks, Jim Broadbent and Halle Berry, also appear in Cloud Atlas.
And what about Cloud Atlas itself? First, some background.
The film is an adaptation of an award-winning science fiction novel with the same name authored by British writer, David Mitchell. The book consists of six nested stories that take the reader from the remote South Pacific in the nineteenth century to a distant, post-apocalyptic future. The official synopsis for the film states that it is “an exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.”
In terms of narrative style and plot, one of the principle differences between the novel and the film is that the latter dispenses with the linear, embedded or “Russian Dolls” approach to story-telling in favour of a more non-linear, chaotically interwoven or “Swiss Cheese” approach to story-telling. The Wachowski’s maintain that this was done for creative reasons and Mitchell has leant his support to translating his work in this way. However, although I enjoyed the film, I must admit to finding it difficult to follow and am left wondering whether it was necessary to go the non-linear route.
That said, let me make it clear where I am coming from in terms of a review. My ‘reading’ of Cloud Atlas, like my reading of Lincoln and almost any other cultural production, is informed by what might be referred to as a “critical race-theoretical” perspective – more specifically, a “counter-racist” stance which holds that the modern world system was historically established and is currently being maintained by people who self-classify as ‘white’ and who stand in a relation of dominance to others who they classify as ‘non-white’.
So let me turn now to Cloud Atlas and the matter of race. I’ve written a bit about this already on the Bandung2 blog, and interested readers might want to follow up some of the links to pieces by other commentators contained within my blog post. Briefly, the film has come under fire from some East Asian critics on account of what they regard as its use of Yellowface, i.e. East Asian characters portrayed by white actors, artificially changing their looks with make-up in order to approximate East Asian facial characteristics. However, while it is indeed the case that Cloud Atlas does involve white actors playing the role of ‘yellow’ characters, I am having second thoughts about whether this really is an instance of Yellowface. If it is, it is a much more subtle, refined and sophisticated form of the latter compared with earlier examples of the racist phenomenon in Hollywood productions such as the Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu films, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I’m unsure as to whether Cloud Atlas involves Yellowface because it’s not that the white actors are only playing East Asian characters in the film; rather, the same white actors are playing multiple roles. Of course, one might legitimately “flip the script” at this point and argue that if a white actor is playing multiple roles, one of which is non-white (more specifically, ‘yellow’), then why not have a non-white actor play multiple roles, one of which is white?
To be honest, such racial “script flipping” does occur in Cloud Atlas. However, at this point, deeper and broader – more precisely, systemic – considerations of race and the entertainment industry enter the (moving) picture. Cloud Atlas is written, directed and produced by white people, and largely features white people in acting roles. Halle Berry and Doona Bae are the principle exceptions (and is it not the case that the exception proves the rule?). In short, the film is of the (white) people and by the (white) people. Is it also for the (white) people?
In closing, I want to briefly mention another problem I have with Cloud Atlas –its reinforcement of the conventional (that is, white) ‘liberal’ narrative on the issue of (Trans-Atlantic) slavery. Similar to Tarantino’s Django Unchained, one of the six stories in the film focuses on the transformation of one of the protagonists from white slaver to white abolitionist; in short, yet again it is all about ‘bad’ white people becoming ‘good’ white people.
Which brings me back to the question I began with: How many millions of words’ worth is a moving picture lasting two and a half hours, and to whom?
Join the dots and the (moving) picture should become clear.
Image from: html http://www.sfx.co.uk/2012/09/
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