It was the end of my summer season working Glacier Bay National Park, which puts it sometime circa 2012 or 2013. I decided to visit a bit of southeast Alaska, including Sitka, and while in Sitka I stayed at a pretty rad little hostel.
I was told that the little group of guests would be watching a film that night, and so I joined the merry band. It was a rather odd forum for film viewing. We all sat in the hallway, awkwardly leaning up against the walls or lounging on pillows, contorting our bodies every which way in order to view the projector screen that was set up at the end of the hallway, in the door that led to the porch. And so it was that I watched Cloud Atlas, for the first time. And like many fans of the film, I knew I would have to see it again. And again, and again, etc.
I knew I had to watch it a few more times just to get the sense of what the fuck was going on. The fascinating thing about the film, though, is that you can enjoy it even while being fairly confused as to the point of it all. You can feel the beauty of it even while confused ast to the plot lines or even of the resolution in the film. In this sense, for me anyway, there’s feeling I get from watching the film, it’s moving in a similar way to listening to music. And music itself is one of the main motifs of the movie, so there’s that.
The film contains multiple plot lines, in multiple periods of time and in diverse settings, some of which are out of this world, i.e., one of the plot lines takes place not on Earth. This is one of the reasons why I’ve felt like watching it over and over and over again. But the abstract slant of the film also leaves it open for a good deal of fun, in terms of forming interpretations. There are numerous themes and interpretations are infinite in possibility, but for my money, the most dominant idea of Cloud Atlas is something almost theological. I think of it as sort of the spiritual dimension that drives revolution and social change: our interconnectedness necessitates that we overturn the established order, the so-called “natural order.” Why?
Separation is an illusion
The antagonists in the film repeat the mantra of the establishment: There is a natural order to this world and those who violate this order do so at their own peril. This natural order justifies everything from slavery in the old days to economic corporate domination in the contemporary world. The natural order is what justifies the hierarchies of domination and control.
The weak are meat and the strong do eat!
In one of the plot lines, the rebellion is called “Union” which is in rebellion against “Unanimity.” This illustrates the influence of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn was a Russian philosopher and severe critic of the repression of the old Soviet Union. So, I found the lables telling: Union represents true solidarity, over and above conformity for the sake of advancing a corporate totalitarian regime, Unanimity.
Over and against the idea of a “natural order” of hierarchical power is the idea that “To know thyself is only possible through the eyes of the other.” This is what brings together the solidarity movement of Union. It is also sort of the philosophical basis for separating false solidarity from true solidarity. Mere conformity — whether this be Soviet style or the consumerism of the U.S. — is not solidarity.
Solidarity is based on the central insight that most of those who occupy a society must recognize not merely that we are all interconnected but that each person must make an effort to understand the ways in which “the other” sees things. It’s the “walk a mile in my shoes” idea. Whatever it means to build a society based on solidarity, as opposed to mere conformity, it has to involve the actual effort of citizens to see each other through the eyes of the other, through the eyes, especially, of those with whom we do not understand.
I’ve only picked at one of the many threads that run through this film. If you’re a Cloud Atlas enthusiast, like myself, I’d be curious as to what it is about the film that hits you. Above all, this is a film that lends itself to many interpretations.
I’ve seen the film at least a half dozen times, I reckon, but I haven’t read the David Mitchell novel, at least not yet. I hope to, though, soon.