In Which I Review the Cloud Atlas Film Trailer

I liked David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas.

I reviewed it here in some detail, but here’s a brief overview:

Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas comprises six sections, each interrupted by the next section (with the exception of the sixth section), and then commenced again in reverse order (a simpler way to think of this might be a schema: 1-2-3-4-5-6-5-4-3-2-1). Sections 1-6 move forward chronologically and, significantly, each section represents a new literary trend. (Again, perhaps a schema with illustrating examples would work better here; for more detail, check out my review: 1: Melville-2: Modernism-3: Airport novel-4: Contemporary novel (Roth?)-5: Dystopian sci-fi (post-Orwell, shades of PKD)-6: Post-apocalyptic (language games, à la Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker)). In short, Cloud Atlas is an exercise in several genre styles, glommed onto a few ideas cribbed from Nietzsche: eternal recurrence, master/slave relationships, will to power, all that jazz. Ultimately—and more interestingly, I think—Cloud Atlas is an exercise in postmodernism-as-genre, a sort of critique perhaps (intentional or not), brought into even greater relief when one examines Mitchell’s novels Black Swan Green (a coming of age story) and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (a straight-up historical romance), which are, again, genre exercises.

This leads me up to the film adaptation of Cloud Atlas, the long trailer for which dropped today.

I would embed the goddamn trailer, but it’s been blocked on YouTube and other similar sites by Warner Brothers, who apparently have absolutely no idea how publicity works.

You can watch the trailer here.

[Update] Here’s the trailer:

Did you watch it? Okay. I’m gonna riff a little:

I know that trailers have to advertise films to a wide range of potential audience members, and that often leads to overwrought musical cues and lines pulled out of context and big flashing words in all caps, but damn, this is cheeseball stuff. Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a subtle book (at times), one that works best when the readers are allowed to do most of the work. The trailer suggests spectacle over nuance, bombast over substance. But again—just a trailer.

Not that the Wachowskis—who are directing and writing and producing (along with Tom Tykwer, whose films Run Lola Run and Perfume I recall enjoying)—-are known for restraint.

And, while I’m bringing up the Wachowskis: They are most famous for their visual inventiveness (these are the guys who did The Matrix), but great looking films don’t necessarily mean much. I mean, the last film they did was Speed Racer (okay, Cloud Atlas looks a lot more restrained than that fiasco, but still, these guys have major problems with storytelling).

Now, based on the trailer, the filmmakers seem to have done some significant rewrites. In Mitchell’s novel, each section (or sections 1-5, at least), exists as a narrative of some kind—fictional narratives, in a few cases. Each protagonist comes to find him or herself echoing or tracing or otherwise repeating or prefiguring the protagonist of another narrative—but there’s always the recognition of the textuality (and hence, metatextuality) to this patterning. Put another way, these are all characters in stories that are awfully familiar to us, and Mitchell strives to make the reader aware of this textuality: it’s a thoroughly postmodern move. 

The film seems to connect the characters in two ways: 1, it seems to use actors across separate roles (this could work) and 2, it seems to have characters from previous segments interact with each other across segments. I might be misreading the trailer when it comes to point 2 here, but I think that having characters actively puncture the nested narratives of Cloud Atlas is a bad idea. And, even if I am misreading this, the film clearly imposes a unifying style across the narratives—sure the dystopian sci-fi scenes will have different set dressing, etc., than the Pacific journal narrative scenes—but take note of how all the scenes seem to follow a unified visual sensibility. The joy of Mitchell’s novel is the way he plays with, parodies, adores (etc.) the narrative styles he’s reworking. For example, Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery reads like a bad airport mystery (or at least a mediocre one). I was hoping that the filmmakers would attempt to do something similar with the film—actually play with the concept of genre, actually manipulate and amplify the distinct genre conventions at work in Mitchell’s book. Which, maybe they do. Again, I know: it’s just a trailer.

But it’s an awfully slick, shiny trailer.

Okay, perhaps I’m griping too much. All the characters seem to be there, and the casting doesn’t seem terrible. My curiosity is piqued, admittedly, but mostly because I want to know how the filmmakers will handle the nested narratives (also: how long will the movie be?). In any case, I’m sure this will be one of those movies where people sigh and say, “Yeah, the book is way better.”

Wolf Hall — Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s revisionist retelling of the Tudor saga through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, is new in trade paperback this week from Picador. When the book won the Man Booker Prize last year, chairman James Naughtie credited its success to the “bigness of the book . . . [its] boldness [and] scene setting.” In The Atlantic, Christopher Hitchens noted that the book put Mantel “in the very first rank of historical novelists.” In The New York Review of Books, Stephen Greenblatt pointed out that this “is a novel too in which nothing is wasted, and nothing completely disappears.” Here’s what Biblioklept had to say:

I’m coming to the end of Hilary Mantel’s brilliant treatment of the Tudor saga,Wolf Hall. Sign of a great book: when it’s finished, I will miss her characters, particularly her hero Thomas Cromwell, presented here as a self-made harbinger of the Renaissance, a complicated protagonist who was loyal to his benefactor Cardinal Wolsey even though he despised the abuses of the Church. Mantel’s Cromwell reminds us that the adjective “Machiavellian” need not be a pejorative, applied only to evil Iago or crooked Richard III. The Cromwell of Wolf Hall presages a more egalitarian–modern–extension of power. Cromwell here is not simply pragmatic (although he is pragmatic), he also has a purpose: he sees the coming changes of Europe, the rise of the mercantile class signaling economic power over monarchial authority. Yet he’s loyal to Henry VIII, and even the scheming Boleyns. “Arrange your face” is one of the book’s constant mantras; another is “Choose your prince.” Mantel’s Cromwell is intelligent and admirable; the sorrows of the loss of his wife and daughter tinge his life but do not dominate it; he can be cruel when the situation merits it but would rather not be. I doubt that many people wanted yet another telling of the Tudor drama–but aren’t we always looking for a great book? Wolf Hall demonstrates that it’s not the subject that matters but the quality of the writing. Highly recommended.

Presenting all these reviews is simply a way of pointing out that if you know anything about contemporary lit, you probably already know that there’s a strong critical consensus that the book is excellent. Which it is. And if you like historical fiction, particularly of the English-monarchy variety, it’s likely you’ve already read it (and if not, why not? Jeez). However, I think it’s important–particularly now, with the current brouhaha over what literary fiction is and how female writers are treated by critics–to point out that what makes Mantel’s novel so excellent–and distinctly literary–is the writing: the narrative craft, the intensity of characterization, the vitality of prose. There’s nothing gimmicky about Wolf Hall even though its hero Cromwell has been traditionally reviled. Furthermore, Mantel resists fetishizing her set pieces, unlike so many writers of historical fiction, who feel the need to bombard their readers with extraneous details, as if the author’s painstaking research were a weapon rather than a tool.

My original review of Wolf Hall overlapped with a reading of James Wood’s essay on Thomas More from his collection The Broken Estate (also, incidentally, available in paperback from Picador). More is the major villain of Wolf Hall, and Wood savages him in “Sir Thomas More: A Man for One Season.” It was strange then (not too strange, though) to see Mantel and Wood intersect again a few months later, in Wood’s New Yorker review of David Mitchell’s historical novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Here’s Wood–

Meanwhile, the historical novel, typically the province of genre gardeners and conservative populists, has become an unlikely laboratory for serious writers, some of them distinctly untraditional in emphasis and concern. (I am thinking not just of Mitchell but of Thomas Pynchon, Susan Sontag, Steven Millhauser, A. S. Byatt, Peter Carey.) What such novelists are looking for in those oldfangled laboratories is sometimes mysterious to me; and how these daring writers differ from a very gifted but frankly traditional and more commercial historical novelist like Hilary Mantel is an anxiously unanswered question.

Wood is typically dismissive of the historical novel even as he admits its attraction–one he doesn’t understand (or pretends not to understand)–to “serious writers,” a collective from which he deems to exclude Mantel. Wood’s rubric seems to be that Mantel is too “commercial” and “traditional” to warrant her inclusion in his club (even as he damns her with faint praise), but I think that his Mitchell review reveals a deep antipathy to anything that seems, y’know, approachable for most readers. That Pynchon leads Wood’s list is telling. Pynchon’s historical fictions range from fantastic and funny (V.Gravity’s Rainbow) to belabored and difficult (Mason & Dixon) to dense and inscrutable (Against the Day). But Pynchon is Pynchon and it’s not fair to exclude Mantel from the “serious writers” club for not being Pynchon (I sometimes think that poor James Wood has just been a book critic too long and hates reading). This is a roundabout way of arguing that, yes, Wolf Hall is serious writing, that it is literary writing, that it transcends its subject matter and comments on the human condition, on soul, on psyche, on spirit. That it happens to entertain at the same time is, of course, why we care. Highly recommended.

The Rumpus Interviews David Mitchell

The Rumpus interviews David Mitchell. Topics include his brilliant new novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, diction, syntax, and other writerly concerns. And stammering. I’m currently finishing up Mitchell’s novel Black Swan Green, which is hilarious and sad and beautiful. I will review it here shortly.