Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception... until the screen is a white glaring rectangle (with fuzzy corners)

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Getting to Own You: CLOUD ATLAS (2012), RUGGLES OF RED GAP (1935)

In my eleven feet of apartment, in a couch gone saggy from my restless weight, armed with a hairless cat and a vast battlefield of Coke Zeros and Camel Lights, I spent the Fourth of July weekend watching a  six part Revolutionary War documentary and marveling at the mule-headed courage of our American forefathers (many of my ancestors fought in it, from Ipswich, Mass --how Lovecraftian!): "All men are created equal," Jefferson wrote, believing it "self-evident," yet even on his deathbed the man could only bring himself to free five of his many slaves. What a complete bastard, but perhaps the meaning of freedom is lost on those who are born free. Unless they watch the right empathy-triggering movies, of course.

Here now I celebrate my freedom from the bondage of self, from the need to socialize to stave off anxiety and depression, to reap the benefits of age and medication which allow me to sit and be fully absorbed into what I watch. I observe no bed time, no three course meal structure. I am free to gild my cage and wallow in the tube's glowing captivity. Fuck the picnic grilles and distant echoing screams of children. The world outside the screen becomes more and more like an easily forgettable dream, the waiting in line portion of Space Mountain, a place to freshen one's palate before the next dip into the collective cable-DVD-Blu-ray-Streaming never-ending ocean of dream options. I am free to choose any illusion.

A true slave, at last, am I.

And over in 'real life,' what is it about owning our fellow man that is such a vile turn-on? Why are we natural enslavers of ourselves, and each other, we who revere freedom with such sanctimonious lip service?

I didn't realize my next choice of dream submission transmission, CLOUD ATLAS (2012), would perhaps explain all that and more. There are whippings and escaped black slaves, SOYLENT GREEN references, unlawful incarceration, schizophrenic devil visitations, bombs on planes, cannibalism, Tom Hanks as you've never seen him before, an ingeniously understandable futuristic neo-ebonic patois, interesting predictions, way too many Jim Broadbents, and strangely CGI-dependent faux-epicanthic folds. There is misery and the sweet sting of freedom's disconnect and the bizarre difficulties in trying to whittle a human soul down to a commodity.

Its source novel-- written originally no doubt in that page-turner potboiler manner where something bad is almost about to always happen at the end of every riveting chapter--each small victory against the tyranny of evil men comes cathartic through the door at the last possible moment, and even if we're all going to eventually be sucked under by Miss Fellowes-closeted dykes, racist capitalists and homophobic Capulets, somehow we go on to write interesting if overly familiar philosophy about our intertwined destinies, one life after another.

The fantasy at play in ATLAS' life-after-life thesis isn't just reincarnation, for there are enough documented cases of past life remembrance to make that a fact for anyone willing to look at the copious research, the true fantasy is that our words, art, or music will somehow endure through the ages, even if it looks for all intensive purposes like we'll die in obscurity. But even if we only get a handful of copies of our music out on CD-R, or LP, or our films are only seen by a few hundred on YouTube, or our abolitionist diaries are only used to prop up piano benches, as long as we reach one other person in the future then we will have succeeded, because that person might be us, or have known a future/past version of us, and even be interested in helping this future version of us, based on what they read or heard by this past us. And so, each piece of art or writing is a message in a bottle, every shipboard journal or pirate broadcast a possible future bible. It's what we writers and artists and musicians tell ourselves when laboring in near-obscurity, writing sermons that no one will hear, casting messages in bottles out in the waves of infinite time and space. Even if we're world famous we still have to face that blank page alone, and it's never satisfied, even after inspiration has long since flown it begs for words, like a junkie. It's a fantasy we cling to like a leaky life raft, this eventual immortality (even the currently famous wonder how long until they're in the cut-out bin). Only a focus on the perfection of craft has any results, bailing-wise. Termite art as its own reward, man. But is that a true artistic 'in itself' purpose, or a distraction from our true one, finding out what that true one even is?

Hugh Grant - Reloaded
Hugo Weaving, about to get (finally) clobbered by a Scotsman
All writers of today and even yesterday dream and wonder about whether their words will live on to tomorrow, or disappear forever in some massive power outage that kills all internet files. We wonder if we wouldn't have been better off writing everything down in longhand and saving it all in a mysterious pouch for our future descendants to marvel over in 3-D Technicolor flashbacks, but years of typing and bad posture and impatience have made our thoughts too rapid for slow pen movements, our hands gone arthritic from poor circulation. In longhand I end up writing three sentences ahead of my previous one. My text collapses in on itself like a slowly forming whirlpool. Doesn't yours, Mr. Anderson?

CLOUD ATLAS understands all this. The censors of the mind are some seriously twisted villains, cast against type mostly, except for Hugo Weaving who is cast as, depending on the century, a Papa Legba-style demon, a corporate assassin for big oil interests, an old world evil enslaver of black flesh... and an evil female nurse at a no-escape Dickensian old folks home wherein s/he looks unaccountably like Matt Damon. And then, evilest of all, Hugh Grant as a cannibal, another slaver, and an old grotty rich dude who traps his freeloading brother in said gulag rest home.

But the siblings Wachowski and Tom Tykwer may have brought over too much baggage from THE MATRIX. For one thing, they are way too into face ornamentation and futuristic neo-pagan nonsense (who can forget the RELOADED's big rave scene?). The many lives/many genders thing is great, though, and the vibe of impending hostility and anti-freedom crusaders breathing down your neck has never seemed so urgent. Having one of your writer/directors be a real-life transgender undoubtedly helped this, as who else has the chance to live two distinct but intertwined lives in one skin? But more than gender, this crazy threesome bask in the glory of art and letters (and video tape) to transcend time. With the ability of writing to transcend time and keep flames of freedom alive it's like V FOR VENDETTA all over again, or THE FOUNTAIN (see: American Grievers), wherein one letter writer gets an art exhibit and people flock to gaze at their faded penmanship. Experiencing the full magnificent weight of ATLAS, you get the feeling they're already justifying to themselves that it's okay if this film doesn't make any money. Future generations will recognize it as the defining film of our century. Hell, maybe it isn't, but here it is anyway, permanently.

The Fountain 
And who amongst us, late at night, alone, drunk off our asses with notebook in hand, haven't looked down upon our incoherent scrawls and felt the surging power of Wagnerian music in our unbound soul, as if every line will one day be memorized as gospel by millions? Every drunken scribble studied by enraptured art history majors? Does it really matter if that's all just the booze warming your cockles? As long as you feel famous, who gives a shit whether anyone will have ever heard of you in 100 years? They all suck anyway. The Akashic Records, man, they'll have you on microfiche.... and that's good enough.

But maybe here, on this plane, if you could feel entwined and get that old unfamiliar familiar feeling listening to a dead stranger's music, or seeing their art, or reading their life story, or seeing them act in a film, does that make them you in a past life? Doesn't that make their ghost feel better about their lifestyle choices? The things they sacrificed to bring you that book or painting or film? What about a future life wherein you write something or see something you've already read or seen last year? (Which is how I feel about John Dies at the End). Or what about contemporaries? Can't you be living more than one life at the same time, separated from it by a wall of conscious amnesia that only art and music can cross?

Didn't I write this....tomorrow?
See, I feel that way about Lou Reed (hear me sing "Sweet Jane" here). I felt a deep connection to him and his music even BEFORE I ever did drugs, drank, or realized we shared the same birthday, and studied the same subject at the same University. And so I feel that reincarnation can occur in a contemporary phase. If all of us are connected and time doesn't really exist then it makes sense that not only will we live many lives along a linear historical axis, but we'll live every life in all eras, eventually. The only lasting illusion of our reality, besides space and time, is separateness, oh yeah and everything else.

Unlike the Wachowskis and Tykwer I'm not a big budget story teller. Rather I am a story liver-througher. I treat what I see onscreen and hear through my headphones as part of my own living heritage. As Peter Tork said (while wearing a white robe): "It is impossible for the brain to distinguish between the real and the vividly imagined." Media is more meaningful to me than my own reality --I feel it too deep. I can read the future in a passing synchronicity ("plate o' shrimp") on TV, and find any mood or exaltation reflected in any actorly face. God, in other words, speaks to me through the randomness of TV chance. Film is my I Ching.

There are reasons for this: I grew up in the land where color aerial TV was the height of home entertainment and no child overruled their father on what to watch, so we learned to take it all in without distinguishing what we liked or disliked.  Cartoons were on until dad came home from work and switched on the news, without so much as an apology, and I regularly had to go to bed before the end of the prime time movie, forcing me to dream the rest of it. I learned to roll with the boredom of Meet the Press, exalt in the heights of Shock Theater, soak it all up sans filter, ride the cathode ray like a twin-stalked lobster surf into the blue dream mystic.

Anyway, my point is this:

Close our eyes and think hard enough and we can feel the feelings of being anywhere any other human has ever existed. If it can be imagined or performed, if we can hear or see our fellow man, if we can feel and hear and taste that which is suggested, then it's all true, and those instantaneous links our words and music and art create are proof we are immortal. We're the cumulatively encompassed transparadoxical double helix time line of Self.

Hugo Weaving, comin' ta get ya!

By contrast, the evil people--the racist, classist, sexist, and intolerant-- the Hugo Weavings and Hugh Grants in their various ATLAS incarnations-- will always want to isolate, enslave, incarcerate, or annihilate a subset of humanity for personal gain. Our unified field of self is proof of their evil and separation. They refuse to be connected in any compassionate way to the people they've deemed lower than themselves in order to justify their inhumanity. But to oppress humanity in any of its forms is to abjectify an aspect of oneself, which is what leaves homophobic racists on a shrinking life raft until they finally have to try and lynch themselves from their own toes upwards. What anti-gay marriage proponents forget to mention is that up until 1968, it was illegal in most red states to marry outside your own race (see: Anti-Miscegenation Laws). Nowadays even Rush Limbaugh doesn't dare publicly wish this law was reinstated. But those toes, ever more foreboding, grow. (2)

Olivier's Richard III
I pity these haters in many ways because I know the horrible feeling of powerlessness that underwrites such veiled misanthropy. These souls can only create human bonds the cheap, fast way, by demonizing a subset. "Not it!" they cry, always first, always terrified of being "it" in life's game of tag. But they know it's only a matter of time before they're next on their own chopping block, like the Duke of Buckingham (above) in Richard III, slowly realizing the unspoken rule of paranoia: if one sells out others one shall inevitably be sold out in turn ("... and then they came for me"). It can be no other way, by definition of karma's own law, which we realize all too soon was invented just for us.

BUT even within the context of this, there's something downright unnerving about CLOUD ATLAS and its suggestion that evil souls can survive through many lives, rather than the common conception, shared by me, and Buddha and probably Rosicrucians, that after one life of such condensed navel-orbiting they get ground up in the archons' furnace and recycled into new tadpole blank slate souls. Hugh Grant and Hugo Weaving in ATLAS however are unconscionably evil shits for centuries, persecuting the same souls over and over. It's truly a horrifying idea, to suggest a persona so split it's PTSD survives through aeons in two separate incarnations, the one dominating, incarcerating, flogging and inconveniencing the other without relent.

I don't believe this is 'really' how reincarnation works. I believe Weaving's character would probably wind up re-melted in Satan's forge and caste in lower forms after one go round, or better still would reincarnate as his own victim. BUT - it's damned scary to think that some souls are just evil forever, given a license to shit on the same other soul/s throughout eternity. That idea is just too odious to bear, though it does make for riveting viewing. Real nightmare shit --I don't advise seeing it alone, high on DXM and a fever, unless you want your old FLATLINER death signals reawakened. Then they came for me.

Carrefour is the name of the mindless black slave descendent-turned-automaton
played by Darby Jones in I Walked with a Zombie - coincidence?

I cooled down after ATLAS in the warmness that is RUGGLES OF RED GAP (1935). In this Leo McCarey masterpiece the struggle against systematic oppression involves a third generation English butler (Charles Laughton) learning to stretch out in America's limitless potential as a Washington State small business owner/restaurateur, and to stand up to both his original British earl "owner" (Roland Young) and current harridan employer, Effie, the petit-bourgeois wife of Egbert (Charlie Ruggles, in his finest hour), the laconic heir to a vast lumber fortune in Washington State. But getting there first involves the pain of being 'lost' in a poker game Ruggles wasn't even present at.

"You're going to America, Ruggles," the Earl (Roland Young) simply announces that morning as Ruggles lays out the Earl's suit and hands him the paper.

"The country of slavery, m'lord?" Ruggles asks, British upper lip masking his aghast shock.

"Oh that's all finished, I think", the Earl quoth.

And yet Ruggles has been used as pokers stakes - if that's not slavery, what is. He later takes to drink (With Effie's verbal consent because "she's broadminded' - her finest moment), and starts imagining Native Americans, perhaps unaware they are basically wiped out by white expansion (cue image of Broadbent a suffering Sioux and Hugh an arrogant Custer).

As US citizens it's both amusing and alarming to hear an English valet dismiss America as beneath contempt for its practice of slavery, a nation that boasts of its relative classlessness (with Effie and he brother's attempt to bring class back showing only their petit-bourgeois vanity while true nobility is found more at the never-ending clambake keg party down the street). A few major cities like New York and Boston hold onto 'old money families' who vainly try to bring their strict stratifications across the land like a plague of misery to the land of the free, moving on any new money with the promise of providing name and station to go with it.

Ruggles' merry sidestepping of their pretense involves--among other brilliant things (I cry every time)--Ruggles reciting the Gettysburg address. Director Leo McCarey shows his humanist steak in spades here, and I think it's his best film, which says a lot (he's the man who gave us Duck Soup and The Awful Truth). As the villainous social climber there's snobby Boston in-law Belknap Jackson (Lucien Littlefield) who tries to fire Ruggles for various perceived insults (including Ruggles kicking him square in the arse), and generally gets what's coming to him to the delight of all. Bellknap and Effie are the same types who in the past upheld the traditions of slavery because it was 'being done' in all the best southern families; the sort that prizes one type of person over another, i.e. anything that enhances or upholds some social hierarchy must be superior to the French ideal of liberte' egalite' et fraternite' which is way too populist for the rich afraid of losing their riches... even now.

But--as I learned while working in a high end art gallery through the 90s--the really classy people--Ma, Ruggles, Nell, and Egbert --avoid the bourgeois nonsense and stick to drinking and having fun. The highlight being that the Earl and Egbert sneak out of the house to avoid the guests at the dinner party Effie's giving in the Earl's honor. All they really want to do is drink and hang out with pals like their cool-as-hell ma (Maude Eburne, below right), a wise woman cinemarchetype if ever there was one, never getting involved in the petty domestic squabbles of her in-laws, just paying the bills and shrugging it off with a good laugh. We should be able to do the same, and thanks to Warner's Archives, RUGGLES is at last on DVD, and looking great. Don't ever not see it.

I'm about out of time so, in closing, America, happy birthday again. For the most part, you rule! Just don't try to rule me, because I am not even here, psychically or spiritually. The last thing I want is for you to find that out and come looking for me inside the screen, hunting your lost property like a relentless alarm clock, insisting--as my mom used to do--that I come outside, to work, play with the neighborhood kids, and be my awful 'trapped-in-the-sticky-amber of linear time' self instead of vicariously living multiple lives across time and space. It took me years to be able to let all that go and indulge my misanthropy and vanting to be alone without hearing mom's nagging voice and my own depression dampening my spirit. But I made it, Ma. Look at me looking!

After all, I am not really even my own master - I belong to that remorseless muse, the inner spectator spirit, riding me forever deeper into the muck, heedless of fame or fortune, caring only for the next crazy turn in the untraveled yellow wood pulp. As long as it's the one less traveled, and a dead end, I'll keep going; even after it all vanishes in an electromagnetic pulse back to page one stone age tablets, I'll be so stoned too - m'lord., on the freedom of my cramped office/studio cage.

I of course refer to that old folk tale about the scared lodger who, spotting two shiny eyes at the other end of this bed, scared in the dead of night blows his own big toes off with a shotgun (the nails of the big toes resembled eyes in the moonlight) - as apt an illustration of projected hatred one is likely to find. Makes sense it's from Appalachia. They wise.


  1. otis rampaging heterosexuality11 July, 2013

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Back when I was reading about Buddhism, I had a similar thought to your reincarnation lightbulb.

    With modern (mostly Western) Buddhists, there was an insistence that time was sort of a mental construct. But if you combine reincarnation with time as a mental construct, you end up with a situation wherein contemporaries can be reincarnations of one another.
    From there, it becomes POSSIBLE that all of us are one big reincarnation of one another.

    Which brings you right back to the sort of "We're all one and any feeling otherwise is just an illusion from subjectivity of the senses."

    1. Interesting! Nonetheless, we are all physically distinct. But subjectivity, well that's anyone's opinion! ;-)

  3. Thanks Katy - I was thinking on this same topic on the walk to my office today, and wishing that somehow Hugo Weaving and High Grant wound up as Tom Hank's futuristic children or something like that, to illustrate the notion that oppressor and oppressed are just two halves of a larger conflicted soul. As it is, only the Hanks figure seems to undergo any kind of growth, one way or the other.

  4. This hits home in so many ways, Erich. The course (or perhaps privilege) of being creative is that you have the questionable ability to fantasize about the importance of your legacy. Some people get lucky and can access millions of dollars to bludgeon that dream to death on the big screen. Then there's the rest of us who try to live it out on a more minor scale. But the same fear is at the root of it. This basic fear that we (as humans) might not count for much in the cosmic scheme of things.

    I haven't seen CLOUD ATLAS for fear of it being self indulgent. Though maybe I'm missing the point; it's that way by design. Unfortunately, I can't make that decision until I spent 3 hours on it that I just don't have right now.

    Great, great post.

  5. I meant "curse," yikes...

  6. Just lost a long reply to your Post!! :-/

    Nonetheless, an interesting read and "Cloud Atlas" is a good film, but, for me it was forgetable. A shame, I loved its musicality (the entwined stories became more and more active until they culminated in a crescendo(!)) but the Matrix trilogy was better (wasn't it?). And, well, some of the underlying concepts were a little niave. But, ambitious? Too f***in' right it was! And, yes you could see the Matrix in it and didactic is a good word, particularly when you consider the moral implications of the word.

    A film this ambitious, technically adept and conceptually sophisticated, should be memorable! Don't you think? I remember thinking "Humanism" as well, after watching it.


  7. the sayer of the truth18 July, 2013

    "Cloud Atlas" is pretentious nonsense (and, strickly speaking, a load of old rubbish) but its still infinitely better than anything the British film industry could ever dream of producing (even in their wildest imaginings, the bloody pathetic Limey bastards), just to put things into the proper perspective again.

  8. Thanks Sayer of..., Crescent.... I did see CLOUD alone, on July 4th, after the Revolutionary War so I was feeling patriotic and freedom-minded, and vulnerable. If I saw it with my eye-rolling critic partner I might have liked it less... BUT Tom Hanks blew my mind, very good use of casting to create a false feeling of security. And Dusty, god bless you

  9. Yes, the part with the "Chinese Automatons" was genuinely disturbing, but, as I said, forgettable for me! Nevertheless a good, even very good film. It was close to "great" at times, but it just didn't hang around in my memory!

    @The Sayer... Notes on a Scandel was a good British film. The Crying Game was good as well, but, sure, I've seen some crap as well from British studios!

  10. In fact I wrote a short review of "Cloud Atlas" on my blog. Have a read if you like.

    Not a spam post. Delete when you've read it, if you like! :-)


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