Cloudy with a Chance of Hope

“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,” scientist extraordinaire Sir Isaac Newton theorized more than 400 years ago.  This was heady stuff at the time — the idea that there are LOGICAL consequences for every bit of the naughty or nice behavior you put out into the universe, rather than retribution or praise from God, Santa Claus or Donald Trump’s money, depending on what time period you live in and who or what you see as your Higher Power.

Newton wouldn’t seem to have a lot in common with Mr. Trump and his 2012 ilk, though there is a movie that oddly sees something of a connection.  That movie is called “Cloud Atlas” and no one was more surprised than I was at the spell this perfectly imperfect film has cast and still continues to hold over me.

You really got a hold on me…

Let’s face it, you don’t go to studio movies these days expecting to be forced into considering the existential issues of life unless it’s directed by Paul Thomas Anderson or stars a superhero in mechanical armor, spandex or some rare combination of both.  It is also worth noting that in the case of the latter, this discussion will take place only in the broadest of good vs. evil terms, sort of like a political fight on either Fox News or MSNBC.  It is equally worth noting that in the case of PTA (one of my faves), this will only persist if he continues in profit, Oscar wins or some combination of both as time progresses.  (Unfortunate Translation: You better enjoy movies like “The Master” and “There Will Be Blood” while you can, because it doesn’t look good).

Using that logic, it is quite unlikely “Cloud Atlas,” with its mixed reviews, mediocre box office returns and general lukewarm reception among the Hollywood elite, will emerge as the kind of “asset” (au currant studio chief jargon for movies) film studios will lust after in the near future.  But that doesn’t matter.  Because as sure as I’m typing this, that’s how positive I am there are other writers, directors and actors (those people known as the above-the-line talent – or engine – for new work) who will be inspired or moved enough by Lana Wachowski & Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer’s attempt to tackle a seemingly unfilmmable novel of depth and profundity and, in turn, seek to do something with equal meaning and depth that they personally connect with.  In other words, Newton’s theory holds not only in science but also for artistry.  Said even more plainly — just as studio chiefs might be repelled at $24 million in US box office grosses for an unusual film that cost $100 million and probably an equal amount to advertise, the creative forces behind movies (well, at least one, two or three of them) will be moved and attracted in the exact opposite direction for the exact opposite reasons of their bosses – those of intellectual substance rather than money.

Everything is connected.

I don’t love much about the movie business these days but I especially do love this.  If nothing else, that’s what “Cloud Atlas” and the perceived highly unlikely (in some quarters) re-election of Pres. Obama (because I am a die hard liberal who wants to bask in getting almost everything I wanted on election night), did for me this week.  See, for most humans, much of life’s bottom line profit is not about what’s measurable on a balance sheet.  It’s about intangibles like fulfilling inspiration to do good stuff, bettering one’s life or others’ lives through telling your own story in some form, or moving people to take action, any kind of action, on their own.  That is why Pres. Obama won the election and why cutting public funding for PBS – or refocusing our educational system on multiple choice test scores while chopping its creative classes – will never net the result we truly want, no matter how black and white positive it looks on a logic board.  Gravity and medical science can be proven in fairly absolute terms by thinkers such as Newton and those who followed him, and guide us in the quantifiable correct direction in medicine and science.  But what moves (or will move) the human spirit in the area of creative action and that which will produce a truly satisfiable result is an incalculable combination of events – sort of like the show business version of predicating a hit recording, TV ratings bonanza or the latest international box office hit.  Despite all the tried and true formulas or computer programs that promise you such, there is always, as even Simon Cowell has figured out, that human X Factor. (Note:  You have no idea how it pains me to give Cowell any credit at all – but – there it is)

In any event, back to “Cloud Atlas.”  Here’s the big money quote from the movie and novel – which out of context might seem like a greeting card from the 1970s – which is probably why I like it to begin with:

“…Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime, and every kindness, we birth our future…”

I can remember writing a letter to Newsweek in the early 1990s rebuking its cynical attitude towards what it termed leftover “hippie thinking” of the sixties.  My position has always been that it was how much the youth of that time believed in the healing power of peace and love that made that group a big part of the reality that helped force the US government to end the Vietnam War and to begin to face some of the great social issues of that time (e.g. gender equality and gay rights).  Like a book whose ending is yet to be written, or a screenplay that is years away from being finished, no one knew for sure what the ending of those protests or way of thinking would be.  But the feeling that something had to be done to create the preferred ending you wanted – that kind of blind faith and, yes, hope – is what caused people to act.  This is not unlike the mass turnout of 18-25 year olds for Pres. Obama (a group that as a college professor I know quite well) who are still at the point in their lives where they believe that change is possible despite all seeming evidence to the contrary.

Courting the youth vote.

If one can reduce the 6-8 different interweaving stories in “Cloud Atlas” to a single theme this is what they’d amount to.  Each character is faced with a moral dilemma over which they are challenged and each has to decide whether they are courageous enough to step up to the plate despite all evidence to the contrary that there is much of a chance to succeed.  Because it’s a movie that takes place over the course of numerous centuries, and because most commercial movies today have beginnings, middles and ends, we get to see how dependent upon each other these actions are over time to not only the survival of every character (and over whether they’ll have a happy life) but to the survival of mankind.   There is no such crystal ball that I know of for any one of us forced into making moral decisions at our given moments in time – whether we’re a writer, singer or actor deciding on what project we want to direct our creative energies to, or whether we’re Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela or some hippie chick or dude.  The only thing we do have is the gnawing belief that when push comes to shove something must be done – a belief that moves us to what, on the surface, might seem to be the silliest fruitless or most unwise action imaginable until it turns out well.   Certainly this same action can just as likely be a self-destructive or defeating one, at least in your lifetime.  Yet also at the same time this very action can lead to yet another reaction or additional action by someone else that will produce an entirely different and favorable result in the future for another person or group or, to be lofty, entire race of people we have yet to or never will meet.

The film “Cloud Atlas” is certainly reflective of all of the above.  Tom Hanks is distractingly miscast as some of its villains and perhaps even a bit on the nose as its hero.  And certainly the movie’s 172 minute length can be a lot to take.  Also noteworthy is the relentless shifting narrative in the first 40 minutes to the point of distraction, not to mention the obviousness of some of the stories and their lack of depth.

Ice-T Tom Hanks loves Coco.

But some movies, just as some lives, are greatly flawed yet ultimately a whole lot greater than the sum of their parts.  I would argue this is the case in particular here.  It is not the message inherent in any one of the C.A. stories but how the stories ultimately work together and build to create a much more powerful overarching testament to empowerment.  And a side note to aspiring moviemakers – this is done through not only what it’s saying but by the very act and execution of its technical construction.

In my mind it is not an accident that one of the directors of this film and its major creative force – Lana Wachowski – is a woman with a personal story unlike any most of us will encounter.  Lana, up until a few years ago, was known simply as a famous director and writer who, along with her brother, was merely responsible for one of the biggest movie franchises of the last thirty years – the “Matrix” films.  But Lana was also seen as a non descript looking middle aged man known as Larry –a secretly transgender person who by all accounts psychically suffered until she had the wherewithal and means to take change of her circumstance of birth and proceed with self-acceptance and whatever gender reassignment procedures she chose.  These procedures have scientifically evolved to the point where there is a way to measure their chances of medical success but certainly not to the point where there is as empirically reliable of a way to measure their chance of psychological success given the limits across the board for any absolute measure of human happiness and contentment.  Yet, like the theme of her film, which she admits became a bit of a metaphor for her life, Ms. Wachowski decided to make the leap anyway because she knew in her heart of hearts it was the right thing and perhaps only thing she could do.

This belief is in part what prompted her to spend so many years “obsessed” with bringing “Cloud Atlas” to the screen and in using her “Matrix” clout in order to do it.  Certainly, she had a big stage to take her leap of faith.  But the size of the stage has nothing to do with the size of the personal leap or the eventual effect it will have on the rest of the world.  As the movie posits, there is no way to ever know that unless one has a crystal ball.  There is just a belief in oneself.  And the universe.  And the fact that Newton’s theory will tip towards the forces of good instead of evil.  This means acknowledging even though evil or the undesired outcome will always exist; it is equally true that the opposite can very well, and perhaps even likely, happen.

That’s why a 2012 message of 1960s hope and change will never go out of style. This, above all, I find reassuring.

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A Matter of Fact

By now everyone but three people in the world (and you decide whom) have heard this expression:

“Assholes are like opinions, everybody’s got one.”

But are there differences between opinions and beliefs?   Or a belief system?  And what about facts?  Where do those pesky critters enter into it in today’s world?  Because there are any number of statements that I would have sworn were facts a mere 5-10 years ago that are now considered opinions, beliefs or feelings in opposition to a belief system.  Or something far  more blasphemous worse.   (We’ll get to the latter in a bit).

There was a time many decades ago, when movies were truly worth arguing about and not just lamenting. I would get into heated discussions with friends and colleagues about the merits and failings of the hot or cold film of the moment.  Sometimes these debates would actually escalate into shouting matches, personal insults and, in the case of one first date that I had who didn’t think Woody Allen was particularly funny, the end of what I’m sure would have been just another in a series of dysfunctional relationships I seemed to so enjoy at the time.  (Note: FYI, the Woody and dating life I’m talking about were many decades ago – just in case you were wondering).

You know nothing of my work.

Aspiring Missouri Senator Todd Akin thinks women have something in their biology that shuts down pregnancy and Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh, who is running for re-election, said just a few days ago that medical technology has evolved to such an extent that it is now physiologically impossible for any woman to die due to childbirth, thereby ostensibly ending any legal right on the part of said woman to end her pregnancy.

Of course, neither Mr. Akin nor Mr. Walsh’s facts are correct.  But one can’t argue.  Because each of these middle-aged white men (I can call them that because I AM a middle-aged white man) will somewhere, someplace, find a pseudo “expert” (and chances are the expert will be another middle-aged white man) to back them up.  This is much the same strategy my friends and I would use to defend our favorite movies – the corralling of mass “expert” opinions (or, perish the thought, box-office grosses) inside the industry in order to disprove anyone who would even consider voicing “facts” to the contrary.  It is also interesting to note that the data could be used to support the argument any way you wanted to.  For instance, the lack of box-office for a particular film could be used as evidence of its genius (I even tried this strategy as late as 1995 to support the merits of Claude LeLouche’s quite original take on “Les Miserables”) just as movies that set record-breaking numbers could be seen as either inferior mass pabulum (sorry “Forrest Gump” and “King’s Speech”) or confirmation of its value and true emotional depth (“E.T’’s success on all levels simply cannot be disputed).

Who… me?

The artistic merit of a film has implications for the creative community.  Those include who will get meetings and future work, as well as how movies, as a whole, are viewed by the public at large.  Also, how it will survive to either inspire or repel future generations of filmmakers who will choose to either build on ideas that came before them or use the perceived inferiority of said film to be bolder and more original than any one filmmaker of the past, particularly the one perceived to be inferior, could have ever imagined.

Certainly there is value to all of this.  But let’s face it – the fact that I wasn’t bowled over by “Argo” last week despite its “A” plus Cinemascore, rave reviews and box office numbers, doesn’t matter in the scheme of things.  Not only because I don’t exert much public influence except over my blog readers (and certainly that’s debatable), but because – as Alfred Hitchcock once reportedly told Ingrid Bergman when she was fretting over something while shooting one of his films:

“Ingrid, it’s only a movie.”

This, however, is not the case with, let’s say for argument’s sake, politicians, who have feelings or opinions that they all too frequently nowadays try to masquerade as facts.

For instance, perhaps scarier than potential Senator Akin or Congressman Walsh’s view of the female anatomy are several congressmen presently on the House of Representatives SCIENCE committee.  Case in point — Georgia Representative Paul Broun, who is also a medical DOCTOR, believes that evolution and the big bang theory are “lies straight from the pit of hell,” partly because he can’t fathom that his “lovely” wife was descended from an ape and partly due to the beauty of the world, which he believes could only have been created by a superior being in the space of a week.  I also don’t want to leave out my own state of California, one of whose representatives, Dana Rohrbacher, another sitting science committee member, eschews today’s overwhelming evidence on global warming, suggesting that having this thought is akin to believing that temperature fluctuations millions of years ago were due to dinosaur flatulence.  (Rachel Maddow explains it far better than I can, if you want more, click on her)

click for full video

Never mind that critical ice levels in the Arctic Ocean melted at record rates this summer (which will in turn affect global temperatures) and that another MSNBC’er, Chris Matthews, reports that many Alaskans at a recent science conference he attended say that ships will soon be able to pass easily over the North Pole.   Two very powerful members of the science committee seem to deny climate change and overwhelming evolutionary evidence based on the actual bones of animals from millions of years ago not on facts and physical evidence but on a belief system rooted in theology.  Which is fine for them but perhaps not so fine if you’re an agnostic, an atheist or a religious person who likes to keep God between you and your Goddess of choice.  Or a scientist seeking funds to save an overheating Earth from extinction or medical researcher hoping to fund a new drug protocol instead of the old tried and true method of bloodletting to cure cancer.  On that note, I suppose we can at least take solace in the fact that Congressman Broun is no longer a practicing physician and will not be prescribing the biblical remedy of leeches if you happened to come into his medical office seeking treatment for a 2012 heart condition.

’nuff said

The issue is not whether any of the white middle-aged men mentioned are right or wrong but how much their personal opinions and feelings affect public policy of a committee that is responsible for potentially billions of dollars in research grants and the general direction of medical and scientific exploration for the world’s greatest superpower.

I’m all for anyone believing anything they want as long as they don’t try to make me believe it or use those beliefs to further their own agenda and thwart mine.  For example, when several friends proclaimed the brilliance of Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” to me last year I was happy to accept that as their opinion because I was confident in the fact that their enjoyment couldn’t literally prevent me from waxing poetic over, say, “Bridesmaids.”  However, when they told me I HAD to at least admire “The Tree of Life” as a piece of cinema I felt a line had been crossed.  I mean, if I wanted to admire a purposely obtuse film that didn’t work I could have saved the $12 ticket price and just imagine what would have happened if the sloppily constructed, somewhat indecipherable second screenplay I had ever written had actually gotten filmed.

Speaking of dinosaurs… “Tree of Life” screenshot

Or I could have saved the admiration for my auteur du jour, Paul Thomas Anderson and his much-maligned (in some circles) “The Master.”  PTA’s even the type that might write 2012 bloodletting into a medical office scene, though at the very least I can rest assured that he is not going to require said medical “procedure” as part of the admission price to said film in the future.  (…or…might he?…)

As we approach the presidential election and the release of a slew of movies being touted for Oscar contention this year, it might be worth considering the differences between opinions, feelings, belief systems and facts.  One way to do this is to accept what is the official 2012 definition of one of these words.

Fact – –

  1. Knowledge or information based on real occurrences.
  2. a. Something demonstrated to exist or known to have existed: (Genetic engineering is now a fact). b. A real occurrence; an event.

Using these rules:

  1. How one feels about a movie is an opinion.   It is not fact.
  2. The precepts of one’s religion are part of a belief system.  They are not facts.
  3. The temperature of the earth at a given location, the workings of the female reproductive system and the evolution of man based on fossils, ruins and solid scientific research, according to our 2012 definitions, are facts – or at least the best facts we have at the time until, like the centuries old medical technique of bloodletting, they are proven wrong.

Anyone who chooses to deny or confuse these facts for the benefit of themselves or their belief system as a way to influence public policy, could quite fairly, by 2012 definitions, be considered an asshole.

And that is one last fact.