Preliminary Remarks on CLOUD ATLAS

By: Michael Schwartz

I call this blog “preliminary” because having seen Cloud Atlas only once in the theaters, I am aware that an authentic and deep engagement with this cinematic artwork is going to demand many viewings once it comes out on DVD. That said, I would like to share some initial reflections.

Cloud Atlas is a new kind of film – in its combination of the multiplication of the roles actors play (including the sliding of the age and gender portrayed by a given actor), the weaving of six story-lines, and the use of two directors per story sequence. The result is a film, in both its production and its effects, that complicates notions of individual identity, authorship, and attunes us to the sublime intricacies and scope of action in human history.

The typical reviews of the film – see Rotten Tomatoes online for a survey – even when positive, tend to miss the scope and scale of the filmic worlds. Without being inflated, one can say that there is here indeed an altitude gap between makers and their movie from much of the critical reception and reviews. Or perhaps it is more open-hearted and fair-minded to say that, in lieu of undemonstrated claims about altitude (which require an actual metric analysis of those involved), it is the case that there is no meta-story in our common culture to orient critics about adult development where we humans have the potential to continue to evolve in stage-structure unfolding well into our biological decline, hence there is no collective cultural story about what higher stages look like (adult stages tend to get unconsciously lumped together) -- the result being that there is no common cultural orientation from which to entertain the film and its themes.

The multiplication of the roles that actors play and the doubling of directorship for each story sequence throws into question just what individual identity and creative authorship might be. In this manner there is a profound movement to enacting and demonstrating evolved modes of We-ness that deconstruct the American one-sided liberalist obsession with individuality and its rights while creating new senses of what might count as the conditions and character of identity.

Some critics have picked up the theme discussed by some of the film’s characters about re-incarnation, but to see the film as an illustration of some thesis on transmigration would be reductive. The film seems to open questions in this domain, where re-incarnation (no single or simple topic in its own right) is one explanatory possibility, but the movie goes much deeper to evoke a mysterious and profound sense of the slipping and sliding of action- streams beyond single lifetimes as intersecting currents within a larger ocean of being/becoming – and all within multiple senses and directions of time, inclusive of irreversible linear historical time.

The result is an expanded sense of one’s actions as partaking in the vastness of human and natural history as well as the mystery of the various senses of time, all of which exceeds one’s lifespan or that of a single generation. The effect is to invite one’s growing into very high level action logics, approaching that of the so-called Ironist (and perhaps in certain ways into yet to be mapped possibilities therein).  We as viewers can come to re-view our own lives, that while our acts are but a drop in the ocean, to echo a line in the film, they matter all the more because of their participation in such a vastness, with that vastness imparting a complimentary sense of humility where the fruits of our actions in the long run are unknowable.

Nor is the film theoretical or abstract. It is a singular work of art that is not setting out to illustrate prior concepts, but shows ways of being human with a concrete specificity that theory – and integral theory – can never perform. The opening of the film, in moving from story line to story line, paints the tetra-arising of specific historical worlds, replete with characters of various stage-structures; yet none of the “same” stage-structures across historical worlds are the same, each is unique in its feel and way, such that (technically speaking) there is a seamlessness between deep structure and surface structure.  That is, red meme ways of being differ qualitatively in different historical worlds, where these worlds are tetra-arising via costume and scarification, gestural styles, artifacts and technologies, ways of collective organization and living together, as well as the felt-atmosphere and ethos of the unique historical situations. Great art indeed.

Cloud Atlas, in these ways, is an extraordinary film, Like The Matrix Trilogy, but perhaps surpassing that postmodern epic, it breaks new ground in the history of cinema – a mass cultural work of art perfect for integral types to explore and discuss.

Therefore, on Thursday Dec 6th, at 8:30pm eastern time, there will be an Integral Art and Media Center Conference Call to discuss Cloud Atlas, this call open to IAM Center members only. Hope that you can join in this discussion as we collectively teach each other about this film! All viewpoints and artistic assessments are invited into this meta-integral dance.

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