"The weak are meat the strong do eat": 8 notes on Cloud Atlas

1) Even given my initial doubts (all of that makeup, Tom Hanks), I was very impressed with Cloud Atlas, thinking it the closest thing to James Joyce's Ulysses to arrive at the cineplex all year. The major value of the cinematic experience for me lay in the transitions, the matching action cuts, and Alexander Berner's thematic editing between the six storylines, the way the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer juxtaposed six genres (19th century travel narrative (Moby Dick), pre-World War II epistolary novel, airport thriller, comedic contemporary novel, Blade Runner-esque science fiction, and post-apocalyptic fantasy) so that the viewer is constantly teased with razzle-dazzle interrelations that criss-cross and loop-the-loop time and space.

2) I spent much of the weekend enjoying David Mitchell's 2004 novel, which, if anything, is better than the film because it can explain its correlations more, and sometimes even mock them. For instance, Timothy Cavendish dismisses any thought of the 1970's-era Luisa Rey being the reincarnation of the 1930's-era tortured artist Robert Frobisher as "too hippie-druggy-new age," and he also makes fun of the portentous comet-birthmark (that many of the major characters possess) by mentioning how his birthmark looks like "Timbo's Turd" (357). Some of the story lines succeed more than others (I preferred the detective thriller 1970s of The First Luisa Rey Mystery to The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing), but what matters is the rapid interplay between genres, the way the movie and the book resist oppression through conceptual play, taking as its central dichotomy the struggle between freedom and servitude in forms that range from 19th century slaves, present-day elderly imprisoned within rest homes, and futuristic workers/replicants trapped within debt and systematized corporate control. As Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent in the movie) points out in the novel: "`Freedom!' is the fatuous jingle of our civilization, but only those deprived of it have the barest inkling re: what the stuff actually is" (356).

3) Critics who complain about the movie's complexity and impenetrability miss out on the way Cloud Atlas is way more fun if one can't get to the bottom of its juxtapositions.  I will attempt to explore one aspect of Cloud Atlas' thematic depths by tracing some of its parallels/influences in Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation (2004), Soylent Green (1973), and Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962).

4) (spoiler alert) For me, the most compelling of the six narratives in the novel is An Orison [or prayer] of Sonmi-451, a Blade Runner-esque story of a replicant cloned to serve as a corporate drudge waitress in a restaurant for twelve years. She's supposed to attain "Xultation," or paradisal happiness in Hawaii, but instead she escapes, educates herself, and eventually evolves into a key figure in the Union underground resistance movement. In many ways, the future world of the Orison chapters reads like a satirical variation of our own, with a massive corporation running the world as it enforces an atmosphere of "Work, spend, work" (316) and "A Soul's value is the dollars therein" (325). Here, perpetually dissatisfied consumers enjoy riches at the expense of an unacknowledged underclass. The omni-present corporate popular media denies worldwide mass-pollution. Everyone has already suffered "the disastrous Pentecostalist Coup of North America" (327), and Papa Song restaurants resemble McDonald's in the way they cater to the children of the consumer clientele.  My comparison to McDonald's might seem incidental, but Mitchell underlines the likeness by noting the "golden arches" of Papa Song's Golden Ark," where the replicants supposedly enter their blissful paradise.

5) Instead of going through Xultation herself, Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) gets to spy upon what happens to one of her peer replicants, who secretly gets killed by a metal bolt positioned inside of a helmet. In the movie, metal bolts then pierce her ankles, and she's lifted into a large hidden mechanized abbatoir.  To quote the novel:

"A slaughterhouse production lay below us, manned by figures wielding scissors, sword saws, and various tools of cutting, stripping, and grinding. The workers were bloodsoaked, from head to toe. I should properly call those workers butchers: they snipped off collars, stripped clothes, shaved follicles, peeled skin, offcut hands and legs, sliced off meat, spooned organs . . . drains hoovered the blood."

When her interlocutor asks her the purpose of such "carnage," Somni-451 coolly replies:

"What cheaper way to supply this [Soap] protein than by recycling fabricants who have reached the end of their working lives? Additionally, leftover `reclaimed proteins' are used to produce Paper Song food products, eaten by consumers in the corp's dineries all over Nea So Copros.  It is a perfect food cycle" (343).

6) As soon as I saw the film's version of this slaughterhouse, I realized that Tim Cavendish's taunt of "Soylent Green is made of people!" makes perfect sense, although in that case he was just emphasizing his need to escape the Aurora House rest home.  In his narrative, he also notes how his entrapment within the Aurora House has much in common with Randle Patrick McMurphy's plight in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Nobody, however, in Cloud Atlas, calls attention to one of Chief Bromden's dream of a slaughterhouse-like underground, a highly mechanized Metropolis (1927) world that includes "one of those trestle affairs like you find in meat houses, rollers on tracks to move carcasses from the cooler to the butcher without much lifting."  One of the workers there lifts up a patient and "drives" a "hook through the tendon back of the heel, and the old guy's hanging there upside down, his moldy face blown up big, scared, the eyes scummed with mute fear." Then, the "worker takes" a "scalpel and slices up the front of old man Blastic with a clean swing and the old man stops thrashing around" (78-9).

7) Lastly, one can find parallels in Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, this time concerning actual slaughterhouses for cows.  As Schlosser writes:

"For eight and a half hours, a worker called a `stickler' does nothing but stand in a river of blood, being drenched in blood, slitting the neck of a steer every ten seconds or so, severing its carotid artery.  He uses a long knife and must hit exactly the right spot to kill the animal humanely. He hits that spot again and again. We walk up a slippery metal stairway and reach a small platform, where the production line begins.  A man turns and smiles at me. He wears safety goggles and a hardhat. His face is splattered with gray matter and blood. He is the `knocker,' the man who welcomes cattle to the building. Cattle walk down a narrow chute and pause in front of him, blocked by a gate, and then he shoots them in the head with a captive bolt stunner . . . which fires a steel bolt that knocks the cattle unconsious.  . . . As soon as the steer falls, a worker grabs one of its hind legs, shackles it to a chain, and the chain lifts the huge animal into the air" (171).

8) Mitchell implies that the slavery of the past becomes the corporate exploitation and cannibalism of the future. Given the Nazi concentration camps of the past and the sweatshops of the present, some combination of both isn't hard to imagine. As Somni-451 says:

"in a cycle as old as tribalism, ignorance of the Other engenders fear; fear engenders hatred; hatred engenders violence; violence engenders further violence until the only `rights,' the only law, are whatever is willed by the most powerful.  In corpocracy, this means the Juche. What is willed by the Juche is the tidy xtermination of a fabricant underclass" (344).


Richard Bellamy said…
Glad you enjoyed the movie! I enjoyed much of it, and I started the novel on Saturday (so I skipped some of your references here to the book). You started the book this weekend and you got to page 343. I'm afraid I'm a slower reader.

My main problem with the movie is that some of Hanks's performances are just plain embarrassing, but I really enjoyed the mix of genres, as you did, and my favorite storyline is the Sonmi-451 one. I also liked the transitions in the editing. The cuts back and forth between storylines built some nice suspense.

I can tell already that, as you said, the novel is better, and I'm glad it explains the connections better than the movie does though I'd like to see the movie again after reading the book to look for some of the subtle connections, like the copy of Ewing's journal under the leg of the table in (if my memory is correct) the composer's room.

I never found the movie boring because it was so different and there were some nice surprises. I enjoyed your thoughts here about the films that influenced Cloud Atlas.
Thanks, Hokahey,

I agree with you about Hanks, but then again, I enjoyed Halle Berry's work as Luisa Rey. Hugo Weaving kept reminding me of The Matrix. Instead of more of the same Die Hard 5 or Iron Man 3, Cloud Atlas struck me as something new, an innovative film that takes genre elements as swirls them in thought-provoking ways. What's the correlation between Dr. Henry Goose's teeth excavation and the tooth that lands in Timothy Cavendish's beer much later on? It seems weird for a film to be both viscerally and intellectually engaging.
Richard Bellamy said…
Yes, it was viscerally and intellectually engaging - as well as visually engaging. Yeah, I think the tooth was one of the details, like the book under the leg of the table, that were supposed to keep the other stories in the back of your mind. But, I agree with you, the film isn't clear about the cosmic connections between the levels - the human actions that are supposed to affect the future - as professed twice in the film. Looking forward to the book and more information.

By the way, how are you doing with the hurricane down there in South Carolina? We are getting ready for it to hit it Cape Cod; school is cancelled for tomorrow.
The hurricane peacefully passed us by. We just had cloudy windy weather on Saturday.

In Cloud Atlas, Frobisher helps explain the importance of artistic innovation when he equates boundaries with convention: "Boundaries between noise and sound are conventions, I see now. All boundaries are conventions, national ones too. One may transcend any convention, if only one can conceive of doing so." So the novel's (and the movie's) wild structure befits its theme: you escape oppression in part by moving beyond conventional forms.
Richard Bellamy said…
I'm enjoying the novel - in the Frobisher part now and looking forward to tracing the theme of boundaries and bondage. Somehow so much is going on in the film you lose sight of its driving themes.

"All boundaries are conventions, national ones too." Based on your observations in your posts, I can see how this appeals to you. Me too. Do you lean toward anarchism? (I do.)
I don't know if I lean towards anarchism, but I tend to be interested in the prophetic power of art, and the Somni-351 scenes reflect our current political and corporate environment in all kinds of subversive ways, and it seems all too easy to picture new mechanized forms of secretive power around the corner (or already here). Did you notice how Mitchell includes a variation of the Patriot Act with the "Homeland Laws"?

I think Tom Hanks doesn't quite work as Zachry because he's been living with fame and wealth for so long. His face looks too complacent to be convincing as a post-apocalyptic savage.

Mitchell includes several passages that comment on the structure and aesthetics of the novel as a whole, such as the references to a Cloud Atlas, Frobisher's sextet, and the image of time as a matryoshka doll (393). I wonder when and how the moviemakers attempt the same thing.
Jason Bellamy said…
You guys found a lot more depth in CLOUD ATLAS than I did.

I see all the narrative connections, and I see an attempt at thematic unity, but I don't see them actually working together -- although while the movie is spinning, spinning, spinning along, we get so dizzy that it's easy to think otherwise.

Just to pick one of the elements that Doc mentioned in the comments:

"What's the correlation between Dr. Henry Goose's teeth excavation and the tooth that lands in Timothy Cavendish's beer much later on?"

The correlation is this: it creates a narrative link. But I see no deeper purpose. It's a horoscope movie: implying just enough and committing to nothing so that we can create depth that isn't actually there.

Based on your link above, I read that Salon piece, and this passage cracked me up:

"A common theme is how people can become either more good or more evil throughout their lifetimes. We start out with Tom Hanks as a really villainous and greedy guy, but by the end of the movie, he’s ultimately good. We witness him transform again and again along his own spiritual path. So some people end up OK in the end and get a second chance."

Two problems with this: (1) So, the message is that previous lives might matter or might not? Wow! Deep! (2) OK, let's trace the Hanks character: Murderous thief > Compassionate hotel attendant > Ultimately noble scientist who is killed for his integrity > Movie actor playing a guy who is mad as hell and won't take it anymore > Asshole author who can't take criticism or control his temper > Haunted goat herder who looks on while a friend is killed, then risks his own life for his daughter's (that was his daughter, right?), then gets saved by a chick in tight white pants and then becomes a one-eyed storyteller. Yeah, I can see how it all fits together. Clearly the impact of his actions in one life leads to the next. Or not. Not at all.
Jason Bellamy said…
One more thing ...

I meant to say, I like this reading:

"Mitchell implies that the slavery of the past becomes the corporate exploitation and cannibalism of the future."

I wouldn't say the film conveys that idea quite as clearly. It does, however, suggest that we're almost bound to make the same mistakes in different forms (one of the characters even says as much, or something to that effect). But to me that idea that we're bound to make the same mistakes is in conflict with the idea that our past influences our future.

It might have been powerful to see each setting making similar crimes against humanity across the spans of time. But to apply that to this film would be to suggest that it equates the wrongful imprisonment of a book publisher in a retirement home with the slave trade. I sure hope that wasn't intended.
Thanks for your comments, Jason.

Your take on the film reminds me of my response to Eastwood's J. Edgar. If you don't buy into the aging makeup, and don't buy into a movie's pseudo-profundities, then what's left but the infinitely bogus remainder?

It's hard to argue about these things, but one either falls for what the movie's trying to do or not. I liked the mystery generated by the spinning genres, and I also immediately turned to the book, which serves as a great compendium of information (not to mention beautifully written passages) that very easily could help make up for the movie's inadequacies.

Did you see Mitchell's defense of the movie's "translation"?


Of course, you could say that his take on the movie has been blinded by writerly self-interest. I was already a big fan of his more recent novel A Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, but I had stalled about a third of the way through his Cloud Atlas. So, I had the added pleasure of rediscovering and finishing one of his novels.
Richard Bellamy said…
I read quite a bit during the power outage yesterday and I'm into the first Sonmi installment. I like how the novel is constructed, advancing in time, then going in reverse order back to the voyage journal. If I were considering filming this novel, I would never consider performers in multiple roles. The beauty of the book is that the segments seem so different until you notice the subtle connections.
I agree. The filmmakers might have chosen to save money by having movie stars share roles, but that proves a distraction (with the audience trying to see through the makeup) more than a benefit to the story. The novel's structure works better if one keeps the whole idea of reincarnation out of it, so you can appreciate time/space/genre interrelations on other levels.
Richard Bellamy said…
Just finished reading the Zachry part. I was patient with the language, found it easier as I went along, and then really came to like the author's invented language even though some of it is kind of cutesy. I even felt sorry when that part was over. Also, I think it provides some important information that was either left out of the film's depiction or was incomprehensible because of Hanks's mumbling of the language. Wow, the film changes this part radically be putting Hanks in the role of Zachry and making him much older than in the novel.
Thanks, Hokahey. I agree that the casting of Hanks radically changes the Zachry storyline, and not necessarily in the best way.

I just finished the novel, and noticed how cannibalism as a metaphor for human exploitation and consumption saturates the Pacific Journal narrative. The novel begins with a "cannibals' banqueting hall . . . where the strong engorged themselves on the weak." The novel ends with "one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself," and then Mitchell holds out the possibility of humanity transcending this "tooth & claw" tendency (508). Also, on page 503, he appears to summarize the theme:

"But, Adam, the world is wicked. Maoris prey on Moriori. Whites prey on darker-hued cousins, flea prey on mice, cats prey on rats, Christians on infidels, first mates on cabin boys. Death on the Living. `The weak are meat, the strong do eat.'"

It seems like a larger study remains to be written of the way this theme in the novel compares with the one in the movie.

I'm also really looking forward to the Blu-ray edition of Cloud Atlas, so I can look at the editing between genres more closely.
Richard Bellamy said…
FilmDr -

I am enjoying this exchange about the book.

I will definitely get back to you when I finish the book, which I am really enjoying, and I look forward to the DVD so I can pick up on bits I missed, especially due to the futuristic Hawaiian language, which I am fluent in now.

Yes, cannibalism is big in the Zachry chapter and, of course, that makes the Soylent Green reference fit in nicely.

Again, I liked the "Sloosha's Crossin' an Everythin' After" part much more than I thought I would, and the book's message seemed to click in.

Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an' tho' a cloud's shape nor hue nor size don't stay the same, it's still a cloud an' so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud's blowed from or who the soul'll be 'morrow?

The book and the movie follow souls across the ages. These souls may or may not have an affect on the future, but they are part of what constitutes the cloud atlas. Considering this, it is enough to read the segments and not necessarily discover any big dramatic or emotional connections. And that, for some viewers, is the problem they have with the film. Where is the emotional payoff? I think this film is similar to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which frustrated many. (I loved it.) For some, not enough happens and there is not enough emotional payoff, but the film is about the passage of time and the progress of one human life observed from back to front. Similarly, Cloud Atlas is about the passage of human lives within a vast matrix of time that moves toward "Everythin' After."
Good points, but I have trouble getting my head around the "soul" aspects of the movie. In his new New Yorker review, Richard Brody characterized his experience of the movie in terms of three filmmakers buttonholing him about their respective mystical theories of reincarnation, but I don't really see it in the book (the movie suggests it due to the repetition of the actors). What does it mean to "follow a soul" through the ages? I may have blocked that aspect of the movie to appreciate it on other levels. I also enjoyed Benjamin Button, but more because there's no particular reason why one's life can't go backwards as well as forwards (which makes the whole enterprise more absurd).
Richard Bellamy said…
I agree on the reincarnation interpretation. That is not supported by the book. And I really think the movie makes the mistake of suggesting this with the actors in multiple roles - that all these characters are being reincarnated is silly.

Finished the book and I really enjoyed it. Didn't want it to end. I found myself feeling indifferent toward the first part of the Ewing journal, but the last installment really drew me in.

I have to say my favorite part is the Frobisher letters; I really liked the tone of the narrative - sardonic educated Brit wastrel. Really enjoyed the surprise episode in which Frobisher visits the WWI front. Would have been a nice addition to the movie; also, I liked the Belgium/ Bruges setting, which is not in the movie.

My second favorite level is the Sonmi part, but I didn't dislike the post-apocalyptic story in the center of the novel. I got used to the language and I was sorry it was over. As for "souls," I kind of mean it more in the sense of "individuals" and how individuals contribute those droplets to the ocean.

Despite its failings, the movie (saw the second half again; coming out of Flight, I slipped into Cloud Atlas) gave me lots to think about and spurred me to read the novel. Priceless!
Dan Ellender said…
If I might ask, what are you reading after Cloud Atlas? I don't see any interesting movies coming out any time soon.

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