All artists reach a point when they want to make their good work great. The intention was right for William Faulkner, whose novel Flags in the Dust was cut down by his agent and publisher, into the much tamer Sartoris. Knowing he was holding back even in Flags, before it was transformed into – for his time and medium – the equivalent of a film producer’s hackjob, Faulkner let his creativity fly in The Sound and the Fury, a work that dismembers traditional narrative into a fresh experience, similar to his forbears James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, and yet new. Sartre famously described reading the book like traveling in the back of an open car, facing backwards – only at a distance do things become clear. Faulkner broke from convention because his mind worked in another fashion. After all, he wrote the short but groundbreaking As I Lay Dying during breaks shoveling coal.
Steady success urged Christopher Nolan to conceive Inception. With mastery at capturing action and suspense, the filmmaker aimed to stretch the heist concept into speculation. It resulted in an over-explained work, an anti-suspense film riddled with stops in attempts to right itself; critic Nick Schager nicely described it as “instruction manual cinema.” Nolan should have noted that Alfred Hitchcock, a master at suspense, couldn’t sneak in even one explain-away moment at the end of Psycho. In Inception Nolan replicates Hitchcock’s mistake throughout, even if the former’s film is now regarded as groundbreaking. Malick’s Tree of Life is something similar. His ongoing run of low-angle, swinging steadicam shots stress to us that this is childhood. And yet, with the film’s many idiosyncratic turns, this “childhood” plays as one far more strange than wonderful.
We must see these films as a collective chase for the sublime. The impulse of these filmmakers to make it new reveals anxiety more than innovation. Different than these is the choice to add innovative visual presentation to simple narratives. This appears in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire and, more obviously, James Cameron’s Avatar, while Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (currently unseen by me) seems to be similar. The Wachowskis have worked along these lines. Their triumph of classical narrative, The Matrix, took the time-worn device of Plato’s Cave and worked it into something fresh, yet contained in tradition. Their new film, Cloud Atlas (co-made with Tom Tykwer, Run Lola Run), uses simple story arcs, while the number is replicated in an attempt to sell the film as innovation. Freud wrote about how obsessive actions can lead to neurosis, the former revealing continual anxiety that will develop into the latter. That Freud connected this inclination to religious practice should be noted in the case of Atlas, since viewers react as if seeing the face of God when experiencing this and other “sublime” attempts. No more than a multi-plot traditional piece, Atlas feels like another anxious bid, while posing to be much more. It is like Babel stretched through time, though its character connections are merely assumed.
Not that the truly groundbreaking should be dismissed; the geniuses have and will come, though their honesty and modesty are something quite different. And as a simple diversion, Atlas plays just fine. But this attempt to revamp film history from the 1970s to the present selects more than it can serve faithfully. In the approach, Atlas reveals the cowardly move of many recent historically themed films. The Hours, Julie and Julia and others don’t want to commit to the past, so they weave in a weak contemporary tale to cynically lure ticket buyers indifferent to history. Atlas does as much, and then panders to fans of post-apocalypse, the 1970s thriller, small arthouse flicks, moralistic historic treatises, and others. I guess that if The Matrix creators want to revise Amistad, The Parallax View, Roger Michell’s Venus, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Blade Runner, and Avatar with Peter Jackson’s villains and Terry Gilliam’s lurking Satan (yes, they all show up!), who’s to stop them? We can’t marvel at a mixed bag of slight short works, though. It’s a tribute film masked as a bold new step.
There’s been much talk about the multi-narrative work of the performers. I’d bet that a series of focus groups would endorse a film of (what seems like) 1000 faces for Halle Berry and Tom Hanks. The latter is living proof that studio leads of yesterday can live on, while Berry is something similar as an ever-youthful rendition of classical beauty and skill. But, essentially, a number of roles played by each rest as cameo spots. (Though Hugh Grant must have had the time of his career as a wasteland ravager.) Hanks shows up as a writer turned psychotic, though no one ever doubted his possible range. And yet, while a piece posted by Roger Ebert describes Hanks’ role as a turn on expectations equal to Jimmy Stewart’s in Vertigo (how many forget that the actor did this earlier for Anthony Mann, more than once?), Hanks’ nut goes after a critic: direct anxiety about how the filmmakers’ “bold” work will be received.
In the end, the Wachowskis (and Tykwer) appear anxious over their own fates. We see them writing, shooting, and editing in a sprint to not become the next George Lucas. If a musical composition gathered different forms, all of which were simple, and rearranged them to produce something resembling order, we’d call it clever instead of brilliant. This collection demonstrates craftsmanship by practitioners wanting to be much more.
Matthew Sorrento teaches film at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ. He is the author of The New American Crime Film (McFarland, 2012) and a contributor to the forthcoming Wiley-Blackwell Companion to the War Film.