October 27, 2012

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas is a novel that any sane person would consider unfilmable. It consists of six interlinked stories set in vastly different times and places and each told in a different literary genre:

1. A young lawyer travels to the South Pacific on business and has a harrowing ship voyage home: told in the style of 19th-century realism in the form of a travel diary.

2. An impoverished, unknown composer finds work as an amanuensis to a world-famous composer and tries to advance his work amid love affairs: told in the form of letters between lovers.

3. A journalist in the 1970s follows a trail of clues to a dark secret about a nuclear plant: told in the style of a detective novel.

4. A self-centered and profligate publisher entreats his rich brother for help and finds himself the victim of a cruel prank: told in the style of a contemporary comic novel.

5. A clone in 22nd-century Asia joins a rebellion against the totalitarian government: told in the style of science fiction.

6. A primitive tribe in Hawaii battles for survival against a nearby tribe of barbarians: I'm not sure what I would call the genre of this section, but it's almost anthropological.

The movie adaptation was released this weekend and is an amazing success, considering the odds against it. It's hard to say how it would be experienced by someone who hasn't read the novel. But for someone who has read and loved the novel, the movie is everything you could hope for. Most important, it captures the epic feel of the novel and its monumental themes: the endless cycles of greed and inhumanity to which we subject each other, the moments in which we choose to fight back, the saving grace of love and empathy. The biggest change from the novel is the movie's structure, which cuts the stories together instead of presenting them sequentially. This works beautifully and provides opportunities for the filmmakers to elide scenes and stories, to mash up camera angles and juxtapose situations, actions, and even settings.

The acting is likewise fantastic. Because the same actors are used in all the stories, the temptation to engage in what my friend Julie calls "Where's Waldo" is a bit of distraction: You spend a certain amount of time thinking, "Which actor is that? Is that Hugh Grant under the tribal makeup? Oooh, that's the same girl as the other story." But it's a small price to pay for the effect that this layering of identities provides, and the actors truly transform themselves from role to role, not just with makeup and accents but their whole bearing.

The theme of the movie is summed up in a statement that recurs several times in the film: "Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future."  Even looking at the six images above, you can see how the movie embodied these themes: look at the positioning of each pair, and you can see opposition, camaraderie, competition, unity.

It's a great achievement, and I'm so grateful for the care and skill that the directors and producers put into creating this humane and beautiful work.

October 23, 2012


I can say these two things: it's a gorgeous film and it's my favorite Lars von Trier film.

Of course, I hate Lars von Trier films. Like the others that I've seen, Melancholia is choked with its tone of rarefied misery. It helps to know that Trier has battled severe depression, and it gives me sympathy for his need to work this cinemafied state of mind over and over (and over and over). But two hours is a long time to spend with someone who can't manage to take a bath or get through the cake-cutting at her own wedding.

It doesn't help that these people remind me of absolutely no one. Maybe that's my provincialism, or maybe they are simply abstractions for the states of mind they represent: depression (the bride), bitterness (the mother of the bride), arrogance (the brother-in-law), uncomprehending normality (the groom). But it's irritating: How does a woman get all the way to her reception before realizing she's repelled by her boyfriend? How realistic is it that a woman as bitter and unhinged as Charlotte Rampling's mother of the bride would come to the wedding, much less bother to make a scathing speech amid all the toasts? And how does a woman fawn over her favorite horse one day and beat it  mercilessly the next?

But I did watch for two hours and never once really thought of switching it off (though I might have done a slow fast-forward toward the end). It's gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous to look at and kind of flabbergasting to contemplate such a complete end to our world. The idea that the confident fall apart and the melancholy feel right at home with the end of the world is fun but maybe not that true to life. Hopefully we'll never have to find out for sure.

October 15, 2012

Brittle, Smart, Emotional Debra Morgan and Her Predecessors

Jennifer Carpenter plays Debra Morgan on the the TV series Dexter, and I think she's the best character on television right now. She is what characters, and probably female characters especially, are so seldom able to be on TV: individual. Bravo to the writers who give the role its due, but brava too to Jennifer Carpenter who fully, fully brings this character to life in all her coolness and sharp energy.

Her performance on Dexter reminds me of the first really great realistic performance I remember seeing: Holly Hunter in Broadcast News. Hunter showed the same range of emotion and specificity of personality, and the very real possibility that you could dislike her character—when she wasn't a villain or temptress but a normal character—spoke volumes.

October 12, 2012

More of This, Please

Dear Culture:

Please learn from Doug Barry how to write an original phrase. Like this one describing a police report that "takes a turn toward the ninja" when describing how a woman pushed around her apartment by an intruding ex-boyfriend manages to reach for the nunchuks to fend him off.

October 11, 2012

Stop Doing That (part II)

Dear Culture:

Stop putting "and not the sparkly kind" behind the word "vampire."

It is played.


October 10, 2012

Stop Doing That (part I)

Dear Culture:

Stop making jokes about women celebrating their 29th birthday for the nth time.

Nobody does that.


October 5, 2012

Just Because:

A sand mandala created in the British House of Commons for the visit of the Dalai Lama:

October 3, 2012


Allen Mandelbaum's translation of Ovid is gorgeous and heartbreaking. All of those women, bodies manipulated by the whims of a god. I'm looking forward to digging into his translation of Dante, with facing-page Italian text.

October 1, 2012


The name Tess occurs in fiction with a frequency completely out of proportion with its frequency in real life.