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The Aesthetics of Nonsense

cloudatlas1Two big-budget films have become the cornerstone of a developing theorem of mine: Philosophical meaninglessness can be deceptively beautiful. Those two films are Cloud Atlas and the Life of Pi, both of which left me with the same take-away — visually-impressive nonsense.

Of course, there were many who saw the films as profound, deep, and triumphant. Over at Tor.com, one contributor reflects on  Cloud Atlas One Year Later: Why 2012’s Biggest Flop is Also its Biggest Triumph. The author does not appear concerned about restraining himself:

I adore Cloud Atlas. It’s huge, smart, ambitious, profound—everything a Hollywood film ought to be. And I’m not alone in saying so. The movie received a ten-minute standing ovation at its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival—a sign that the filmmakers had created something very special. Only later did the negative buzz begin. But those movie-goers who enjoyed Cloud Atlas didn’t just like it—they loved it, passionately. Some have even called this film a masterpiece.

A “ten-minute standing ovation”? Really?

The book’s author believed it could never be made into a movie because of its unique narrative structure, which interwove six storylines over centuries of time. Props to the Wachowski siblings for taking up the challenge, much of which they pull off. I mean, the film looks fantastic. What made Cloud Atlas not work for me was not the multiple threads and non-linear narrative. One was Tom Hanks.

i09’s Is Cloud Atlas an unholy mess or a brilliant masterpiece? Yes, sums up my impression about Tom Hanks’ role in the film:

…the strangest thing in the film might be Tom Hanks, who delivers one of the most balls-out-the-window performances I’ve seen in a long time. William Shatner will watch the way Hanks delivers lines like, “The weak are meat, and the strong do eat,” and feel a deep sense of inadequacy. And playing a post-apocalyptic tribesman, Hanks aims for the cheap seats in a different way. Hanks seems to have decided this is his chance to prove that he’s capable of being just as bonkers as Johnny Depp.

But Hanks’ parts (he plays multiple characters, as do the rest of the cast) in the film was not nearly as infuriating to me as was the philosophical noodling going on. It’s not only unclear what the movie is about, the narrative style seems to intentionally obfuscate any possible clarity.

In speculating about the meaning of Cloud Atlasthis Slate contributor sums up six possible themes. One is “reincarnation” and the evolution of a soul over time. Reincarnation, as a major theme, carries its own philosophical baggage, most notably (1) Where did the soul originate and (2) Who / What determines the object of its evolution. Under the heading of “Good vs. Evil” (which would be filed under #2) the writer points out that “evil” in Cloud Atlas is portrayed as a “force of conservatism… and oppression,” while

The third is a force of good who can see beyond superficial differences of race, sexual orientation, and genetic engineering.

And everyone knows that “good” is seeing “beyond superficial differences of race, sexual orientation, and genetic engineering.”

At the end of the film, rather than reveling in Cloud Atlas‘ sublimity, I was left scratching my head. While the graphics, sets, and soundtrack were awesome, the overall point was incoherent. Which is why this Forbes’ reviewer who called it a Noble Disaster.

It is true that ambiguity is something that all stories about the Big Universal Questions must ultimately embrace. Some films, like Ridley Scott’s clumsy sci-fi epic Prometheus, use this as a shield; the fact that there are no answers to these philosophical yearnings makes them thematically bullet-proof to those who wish to find the answers in the story.

Some will call Cloud Atlas spiritually profound, and others will call it disjointed and pretentious. I think it is a bit of both. It will inspire vigorous debate among its fans and detractors, and while I am certainly in the latter category, I cannot condemn it in the manner that I, and many others, have condemned Prometheus. Although executed badly, the intentions of Cloud Atlas are pure, and its failure noble.

In many ways, Cloud Atlas is the cinematic equivalent of the riddle: What’s the sound of one hand clapping? In the case of the film or the riddle, any answer is voided. The underlying assumption is that “the Big Universal Questions” have “no answers,” making the books or films that pose them “thematically bullet-proof.” All that’s left for the artist is to be technically proficient, which in this case means throwing lots of fancy CGI effects at the screen, and she can be as morally and philosophically nebulous as she wants.

Who cares if it makes sense when it looks good.

The Life of Pi suffers a similar fate. While the film is one of the most impressive visual experiences I’ve had since Avatar, the ultimate meaning of the story is more smoke and mirrors. That is, if you can see through the philosophical gobbledygook to unearth a meaning.

A story that claims it will “make you believe in God” has a disadvantage from the get-go. Life of Pi traces the journey of its title character from India, across the Pacific Ocean, to Canada. Retelling his story to a struggling author who hopes to be inspired and “believe in God,” Pi becomes a posterboy for the Coexist movement. Born as a Hindu, who loves Jesus and practices Islam, the inevitable conclusion drawn from the protag’s search is equally a mish-mash. After Pi recounts his epic tale of survival adrift in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, the author expresses skepticism. To which Pi recounts an alternate, far more believable version of the same events. The film concludes as Pi poses a question to his dubious listener: “Which version do you prefer?” followed by the comment, “So it goes with God.”

Huh? At that point, it took great restraint to not hurl my beer mug through the big screen.

Life of Pi tows the postmodern line and places all religions on the same footing, as if Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity don’t contradict one another and make exclusive claims. This absurdism is essentially what diminishes the spiritual and philosophical gravitas of the film and becomes insulting of the very religions it proposes to celebrate. The film “invites you to believe in all kinds of marvelous things,” says the New York Times, but “leaves you wondering if you saw anything at all.” On the contrary, what I “saw” was quite impressive. The Life of Pi contains some of the most exquisite visuals you’ll ever see. However, it is precisely these effects that make the film disappointing.

Like Cloud Atlas, the Life of Pi is aesthetically fulfilling and philosophically vapid.

Everyone knows, the more thoughtful and “deep” you are, the more meaning you can extract from seeming nonsense. Apparently, filmmakers are compensating. Only now they can bury their pseudo-intellectual nonsense behind layers of makeup, matte paintings, digital vistas, and cinematic beauty.

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{ 7 comments… add one }
  • Melissa Ortega October 24, 2013, 9:52 AM

    I haven’t seen either film (not interested in Cloud Atlas), but I’ve read Life of Pi, so that’s my only context. While the book doesn’t reach the conclusions of faith that I have, it is a very good book written by a man who started off to write about the absurdity of faith, then turned a corner. I love it. I love, love, love, love it. It’s a window into the thoughtlife of a person changing their mind about the possibility of God existing that displays an inarguable logic. It is very remniscent to me of the journey previous atheists have taken to agnosticism on their way to meeting that great Presence in the boat face to face. I can only pray that if they seek Him they will find Him – and I’m not so ready to cast off a step in that journey as some are, just because it’s incomplete.

    Like it or not, this is where our culture is – we can either meet them there and be a signpost or abandon them and call their journey stupid.

  • Katherine Coble October 24, 2013, 6:03 PM

    Life of Pi has always been a novel that makes my teeth hurt; I confess I only made it through the first ten minutes of the movie. Maybe a half hour. Not sure. With Cloud Atlas I also had an ultimately unfulfilling read and didn’t even try to see the movie. Both of those novels–speaking again to the novels only–showcase the worst parts of postmodernism.

    As a philosophy there are some tenets of PM that I am fond of. Courtesy for all points of view is one one of them. Patience with others (mislabeled as “tolerance”) is another. But I’m not quite thrilled about embracing the affectless outer edge of the philosophy that feeds depression with its Absolutes Are Evil outlook. (“Only a Sith Deals in Absolutes” is perhaps my least-favourite film line of all time. I hate it not only for its callow stupidity but also for its complete lack of internal logic. Yet it sums up all that is bad about the fringe of Postmodernism.)

    The problem with both of the aforementioned novels is that they are champions of that point of view. _Life of Pi_ attempts to celebrate it with its Catholic Hindu protagonist whereas _Cloud Atlas_ bemoans it with Man’s ever-increasing inclination toward self-interest and self-preservation at the expense of others. Either way it is the same story.

    Only you matter.

    Only what you think matters.

    You only matter for the span of your existence, which is limited.

    You only matter to you. Perhaps a few others will prize you a bit, but ultimately you are meaningless.

    These are not pretty philosophies, and they aren’t entertaining thoughts to ponder. I don’t understand why they became movies.

    —-
    P.S. Props to you for showing the courtesy of referring to them as the Wachowski siblings.

  • Greg Mitchell October 24, 2013, 6:27 PM

    I only remember being incredibly depressed after watching Cloud Atlas. As you said, from a technical standpoint, I think it’s brilliant. All the quick editing and juxtaposition of timelines was actually incredibly well done and moving. I had a great time WATCHING the movie. But, as I lay in bed after it was over, it just struck me as hopeless.

    The repeated theme is reincarnation, but nothing is ever improved. People aren’t ever improved. The world is never improved. You swap places sometimes. Tom Hanks is a scumbag in this incarnation, and the savior of the world in this other. But, still. All you have to look forward to once you die is coming back into another life just as full of conflict, misery, and toil as the one you left. I suppose they were shooting for “Nothing ever really dies and love lives forever,” or whatever, but all it said to me was “Endless Fighting”. Without the promise of a hereafter, it’s like, why bother? Oh, you get to meet your wife again. And then a thousand more terrible things will happen to you and then you’ll die, meet her again (maybe she’ll be a guy this time) and, hey, you get to go through a life of oppression and misery all over again. And again. And again. And again. Whoopity-doo. Depressing.

    I’m all about The Good Fight, but it ceases to be “good” if there’s no end to it. If, for all of that work and standing for your principles, you never rest but just keep fighting again and again and again? That might sound romantic from a fictional standpoint, but as an actual belief system? Terrifying.

    What’s funny–in a sad, ironic sort of way–is that the movie was all about Right and Justice. But without a God in the equation, who decides what’s right? Who decides what’s just? Society? Would that be the same society that thought slavery was okay back in the day? If society changes, then “right” changes, and all this posturing about standing up for “what’s right” is kinda pointless. Because then nothing is right. I think for all the movie’s bashing “absolutes” and religion, they instead proved the point that we need absolutes to stand on otherwise we’re just hamsters in a wheel.

    Which I guess is what reincarnation is all about. So, yeah, depressing.

  • D.M. Dutcher October 24, 2013, 6:39 PM

    I think Pi had a decent point, but the ending worked against it. The point was that the religious explanation of the idea and the secular one are based on the same things; a leap of faith depending on the authority of the person who told you. It was possible to explain everything symbolically, but also take it literally; Pi really did survive on the boat with a tiger for that long. It was a nice trick because the default assumption is to explain everything away in naturalistic terms, and during the movie we actually are believers, seeing it from the believer point of view.

    I think though when they brought in the carnivorous island, it tipped the “what do you believe” into naturalism if just that there had to be some symbolic intent to it. Also, Lee didn’t really foreshadow the fact you could take the events of the story more than one way as opposed to dump it all on us at the end, debunking his own movie. Having Pi cold-bloodedly tell us it could all have been a metaphor didn’t help.

    I agree that so many movies though try to be philosophical and just end up nonsensical. Film is a shallow medium for all its wonder, and I don’t think it can really go as deep to explore philosophical concepts as opposed to work with emotions and images.

  • Kat Heckenbach October 24, 2013, 8:26 PM

    All I’m saying is that I’m so glad to find others, whom I respect, who did not like Life of Pi any more than I did :).

  • Nissa Annakindt October 26, 2013, 7:15 AM

    It makes me glad I’m too poor to go see movies. To me a movie with great special effects and no substance makes me think of putting a fancy designer dress on an unwashed, ugly homeless woman. What is the point of either exercise?

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