It’s fall, the season of serious movies. The Venice Film Festival Cat D9 and TIFF Komatsu D575A are bulldozing the path to the Oscars started by Cannes back in spring but now overgrown by the kudzu of summer. Venice had PTA’s The Master but TIFF has the bulk of the fun-yet-smart-and-well-made set. TIFF knows it’s got the glitz with substance, having opened with Rian Johnson’s Looper (Timecop meets La Jetee?) and just screened Cloud Altas, from David Mitchell’s Booker nominated book thanks to Tom Twyker and the Wachowski siblings, whose Matrix films started well then unfunned themselves along the way. The trio are interesting filmmakers, and Twyker has at least one good adaptation in Perfume, for which he wrote the script as well.
For such a big movie with big stars and in a film culture that revels in the minute, Cloud Atlas strangely blinked into existence with a trailer that looked as if it came from a nearly finished film and not assembled from dailies. In the many mentions of the trailer, I read that the book was thought ‘unfilmable’. I wondered what made it so since this had been said also of Naked Lunch and Crash*. Was it too dependent on language and interior monologue? Too many descriptions of naked young boys orgasming as they were hanged? So I read the book.
Was it too long? Lord of the Rings long? Thakfully, no, though length of book doesn’t equate to length of movie. Raul Ruiz managed to make Time Regained from the last volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and sum up the entire novel – many months of reading – in two-and-a-half hours, the time it takes to read a few pages. Peter Jackson is reversing that with The Hobbit.
Was the structure of nested parentheses too complicated? Inception uses something very similar and there’s Nolan’s other structure-fuck, Memento. Inception’s multiple plots are linked but multitudinously meanwhile, while Cloud Atlas’s are tangential but temporally linear, so call them equals. But that complexity is a good thing. Audiences like this kind of puzzle; it’s something fun to talk and feel smart about. It leads to the ‘what does it mean’ discussions of the Tarantino style – snappy diner — not the Bergman — lugubrious dinner.
Was the idea of a soul migrating across centuries too far-fetched? It wasn’t some forty years ago on that Jack-the-Ripper episode of the original Star Trek. 2001, a Wachowski touchstone, foregoes science to go as slit-scan crystally as Superman. I imagine people who read Shirley MacLaine and GOOP, go to colon-cleansing retreats, and talk about chi and chakras over chai eat the mystical up.
Was it seen as too expensive? No space battles. No unitarded CGI or wire work. Production design wouldn’t be too bad except for the Korean future part and the ship bits could be interiors easily enough; Hawaii probably still has some rotting Lost sets for the distant future part. Casting wasn’t an expensive concern: no one knew that Tom Hanks would be in it, or that most of the main cast would be playing multiple characters, multiple races, and in at least one case, multiple sexes.
Was the book too daunting? No, despite the ‘epic’ being attached to it. It’s a pleasurable, breezy read. The structure is a clever cliffhanger, but the reversal isn’t Jaye Davidson’s dong, you can see it coming. It’s not a ‘Jane Eyre’ nor a ‘Freedom’ with an audience and credibility, but was succesful. It’s not overly stylised — unlike DeLillo, but Cronenberg loves and rises to a challenge – and less dependent on a well-read reader than Eco’s Name of the Rose. Some people mention that the language – the new tech words and such – was a problem but audiences worked through A Clockwork Orange.
So none of those. Perhaps what made the book ‘unfilmable’ is that it’s a book, not a movie on the page. I enjoyed that it was content to be a novel. Reading much popular fiction the narrator is the camera; the shot is on the page, the plot clunks in accordance with Syd Field’s dictums. Characters look into mirrors and see actors staring back. This is what bugged me so much about Stephenson’s Reamde.
I don’t think anything is unfilmable, even Maldoror or Austerlitz. I think it’s good marketing to say it is. They win either way: fail and it was always unfilmable; succeed and you are golden. It received a standing ovation at TIFF (not that that’s a great marker because it’s like an award in kindergarten – thanks for being you) and Roger Ebert wrote nicely about it here, so I guess they succeeded, and I’m happy for them and happy for me because there’s another interesting, smart and fun movie out there to see. We all win.
Looper is set to open here on the 28th. No mention about Cloud Atlas but here’s hoping because the cinemas here, particularly the one we go to, are better than the ones in HK.
*At the DVD bins during lunch today, I found Crash after all these years. It’s a polyglot of packaging, with the English title, ‘un film de’, Cronenberg in Japanese, and the Chinese title on the side. The best part is the English blurb:
“Boycott – What you can do is to keep this revolting film off our screens. One of the critics about Crash” High praise.
I also found Barton Fink, for which I had also searched for years, and which also has the multi-lingual packaging but alas, no blurb. Edith might finally understand why I occasionally spout, “I’ll show you the life of the mind. I’ll show you the life of the mind!”