Thursday, November 1, 2012

Everything And Nothing

Cloud Atlas Vs. The Master

Cloud Atlas(2012)
Directed by Lana And Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer 

The Master(2012)
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

 "Cloud Atlas" is a film about the connections between human lives across centuries similar to Bill Forsyth's "Being Human" and D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance".
Actors reappear as various characters of different genders, ages, and races throughout time, as the acts of kindness and cruelty ricochet across various incarnations and time.
"The Master" is a film about a manic drifter who meets up with a charismatic cult leader who claims to have known him in another time. 
 The drifter joins his group and struggles with his faith in the leader, like other recent independent films "Sound Of My Voice" and "Martha Marcy May Marlene".
"Cloud Atlas" is essentially a literalized version of "The Master's" cult ideology The Cause and its belief in past traumas and conjoined souls interconnected across history, but "Cloud Atlas" arguments are seemingly metaphysics while "The Master" are existential.
"The point of this exercise is to Pick a direction, any direction, and then drive as fast as you can"
When Dodd finally tells Freddie about the past life they shared together, its a devastating blow, an obvious manipulation to win him back to the cause of spreading the message with Dodd
"We never lost a single balloon". 
In "Cloud Atlas" the characters of the six stories all share a physical link through (inhales deeply) a lawyer on a slave trading mission in the 1850's whose journal is being in 1931 by a suicidal gay musician in a copyright feud, who writes letters to his lover, which are later discovered as part of a murder mystery in 1973 by a journalist whose story becomes the basis of a novel, later read in 2012 by an editor wrongfully incarcerated in an insane asylum whose story becomes a b-movie a small scene of which inspires a enslaved clone (for whom all media is forbidden) in a dystopian future to become a martyr, later the icon of her martyrdom becomes a goddess to tribe of post apocalyptic people, and the discovery of the icons lineage leads to exodus of the last humans from the dying earth, all of which finally is being told around a campfire on a new planet, by the same post apocalyptic man from the final story who seems to have become fully aware of his past lives and all their connections making him The Master.
"Cloud Atlas" presents characters linked by spiritual and artistic collaboration but each life in and of itself is too thin to mean anything.
This is an important distinction to make, especially for those who argued the film is too soft and new-age.
In "Cloud Atlas" our individual lives are full of random petty scramble for money, property, and survival (every stories conflict in Cloud Atlas progresses in an almost systemic fashion about the problems of ownership and trade) and even the moments which transcend these limitations are often meaningless to our lives, but attain purpose through history.
"Cloud Atlas" is less about reincarnation and more about historical materialism, though interestingly many of the objects lose their historical significance over time and their misinterpretation is often more important than being understood in context most dramatically in the dystopian clone's appropriating of a bit of unfunny comic dialog into a revolutionary maxim (nicely echoed earlier in the film when the old man shouts "soylent green is people!"  while the orderlies give chase).
Likewise I now feel that to go the opposite extreme, and say "The Master" is only existential posturing about chaos and meaninglessness is similarly too reductive, though its certainly how I felt for the first few hours after leaving the theater.
"The Master" (the film, though Philip Seymor Hoffman is also referred to as Master by his followers, for the sake of this review I use Hoffman or Dodd) gives Freddie a back story but makes "The Master" opaque so that viewing the two equally psychologically is impossible.
This incongruity is important, because aside from a cold hearted handjob he receives from his wife, we get no images of Dodd outside of his position as Master.
Dodd has given himself over to his character and to the image of himself he has created completely .
Freddie naturally in his finds this appealing, and he also finds a sense of purpose, community, and self control in The Cause that was never possible in his family (destroyed by incest, alcoholism, and madness making him basically the skinny white trash "Precious"), in the military where was taught to "kill Japs" but not to feel bad about it, in any job situation from urban department store civility to hard labor in open fields, or in situations that have no toxic substances necessary for moonshine making.
I don't think Freddie ever really believes in the Cause but he thinks trying to believe it will make him a better man.
A man more like Dodd.
In Dodd he trusts.
When first exposed to Dodd's adjusted version of the talking cure, Freddie makes breakthroughs in evaluating his life and whats important to him.
Even the Causes restrictions on sex and alcohol, give him a level of focus that he could have never mustered under his own willingness.
The precise moment when Freddie realizes he has no more to learn from Dodd is during Dodd's speech at the convention when he says "the laughter", quoting something he himself learned from Freddie's first examination.
In a normal Master apprentice dynamic this is when Freddie would either become a Master himself or leave.
Freddie leaves.
But when his dreams are again crushed he returns to the only spiritual structure he knows, but has simply outgrown.
Dodd and Freddie's last exchange is the the point at which genuine spiritual improvement becomes supplication to organizational dogma.
"Maybe in the next life?". "In the next life you and I will be enemies and I will show you no mercy".
Freddie like the Fool in Alejandro Jodorowsky's "The Holy Mountain", is sent back down from the precipice where quest for ultimate wisdom bleeds into the ultimate eternal fool's errand, to find a woman and life and make his own mountain, only Freddie makes a holy mountain out of a woman made of sand.
I don't see "The Master's" final scene of Freddie in bed with the bar girl as a backslide or a symbol of how everyone repeats the same power games endlessly, but about Freddie's ability to see the power games for what they are, to be able to laugh at them (instead of flying into rages), and to enjoy playing such games without needing an ultimate revelation.
Where Tom Hanks savage man eventually learns he is a part of everyone, Freddie is forced to accept that he is a part of no one, sometimes not even himself.
Both are equally true in context, since Hanks is literally surrounded by generations of family (a clear physical legacy of his impact on earth) while Freddie is with a girl he met in a bar, but who is no more substantial to him than the sand woman was from his time in the war.
For Freddie having a one night stand at a bar is the equivalent of masturbating with an person shaped object; an idea of lust, peace, and lost affections, but as ephemeral as a sand castle just the same.
"All we are is dust in the wind", as the song goes.
"Cloud Atlas" and "The Master" have been two of my favorite films this year, though both are at opposite ends of the same political and philosophical spectrum.
Both films are full of actorly excesses which cross playfully between the tragic and comic often in mid scene, unexpectedly stirring and unintentionally funny, but "Cloud Atlas" is a sprawling anthology film across time and space, where "The Master" is an at times claustrophobic close character study that takes place mostly in the 1950's.
"Cloud Atlas" is about political struggle materializing through history in a common bond of souls past and future, while "The Master" argues that collective actions degenerate into petty s&m games for dominance and control, and sometimes nothing can be trusted, included even ourselves (subject as our minds are to addictions, obsessions, and hierarchies).
 Both films agree that human life in and of itself is meaningless, but Cloud Atlas believes in an egalitarian ethos of "all for one and one for all" (as Timothy Cavendish says to his fellow retired escapees), while "The Master" is clearly indebted to Camus absurdism, as Dodd tells Freddie, "If you have figured out a way to go through life without a master you would be the first in human history".
The absence of God/Structure does not create freedom, but an unquenchable (absurd) longing for meaning, that can only be redirected to other targets, but remains fundamentally absurd no matter which way you point it.
The campfire as a symbol for collective unity and a place for sharing dreams, and the sex with a sand woman as an image of the lonely lengths we will go to create something from nothing.
Both are occurring at the same time at different ends of the same shore.
Its easy to imagine the critic in the doorway from "The Master" lurking at the end of "Cloud Atlas" saying "First you can cure cancer, now you claim to be able to stop the bomb and save the world?"
Just as its easy to imagine Dodd and Freddie meeting again in the future where Dodd is the villainous space captain Xenu and Freddie is leading a thetan army of ghost slaves back to their stolen bodies and the promise of freedom.
Its really just a matter of ideology and personal temperament that separates liking one film or hating the other.
Of course being united in  hating both films mutually is another story all together .