Mapping Out Multithread Narrative in ‘Cloud Atlas’

Image 1: James D’Arcy and Ben Whishaw, Cloud Atlas

In breaking through the boundaries of conventionality, as referenced during a dream sequence voiceover that marks the film’s most poignant moment of self-reflexivity, Cloud Atlas employs a sprawling range of storytelling scope in its creation of six interrelated narratives that span centuries of human existence. Unlike David Mitchell’s 2004 novel from which it was adapted, the film capitalizes on the capacity of its medium by applying a multithread narrative structure to simultaneously shape each story rather than containing them within individuated sections. While these distinct plotlines are independently functional, it is the manner in which they intersect and coalesce that generates the film’s impact. A consistent use of crosscutting allows each of these narratives to unfold with internal linearity as parallels between the circumstances, characters, actions, and thematic issues are highlighted. This multithread framework allows each of the six parts to function as individual, yet essential, components of the whole, with the film’s totality deriving its significance from the interplay of the complementary layers of narrative. Continue reading “Mapping Out Multithread Narrative in ‘Cloud Atlas’” »

‘Gangster Squad’ Gets Away with Murder

Gangster Squad (2013)

Historical fealty has never been Hollywood’s strong suit (as this year’s Oscars crop reminded), and even classic exposés of La La Land such as Chinatown and L.A. Confidential played fast and loose with the facts. But at least these period pieces covered their tracks with allegorical subtext, composited characters, and pseudonyms. Ruben Fleischer’s crime drama Gangster Squad (2013), which shoots holes as wide as the Arroyo Parkway in its realistic backdrop, not only purports to play it straight but flaunts authenticity like nobody’s business.

The bait and switch begins with the opening establishing shot of Los Angeles in 1949, highlighting a seemingly spanking new “HOLLYWOODLAND” sign—indeed, the sign’s original spelling since 1923, when it served as a billboard for a residential development. By 1949, however, literally fallen into disrepair with letters crumbling and keeled over, the sign was renovated and resurrected in its present iconic form. The abridgment expanded the sign’s purview to reflect, and rebrand, the larger Hollywood district, film industry, and frame of mind—all of which were themselves in desperate need of refurbishment due to a disastrous postwar decline in movie attendance and the rise of Las Vegas as a rival nightlife hub to Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. Continue reading “‘Gangster Squad’ Gets Away with Murder” »

The Sea of Information

When Orgeron, Orgeron, and Streible talk about a “dense, rich, and largely neglected history,” their language carefully situates the state of educational film history as a stand-in for all film history and even the daunting task of the archive itself. I wrote about some of these issues once in a piece for UCLA’s Mediascape Blog, talking about the anxieties over information glut that have attended the history of the archive in western culture, and the compulsive need for hierarchical systems of organization. My central trope—the anxiety of the mis-shelved book, speaks to the fear that a historical artifact can be hidden in plain sight, obscured by the indifferentiable sea of entries that surround it (an idea that finds filmic expression in Citizen Kane, All the President’s Men, and Zodiac, among a host of other movies). Canons, whether personal (an informal list of movies you want to watch again) or institutional (the National Film Registry) are created in order to banish the thought of a lost film by drawing a permanent circle around what’s worth keeping. I’ve been thinking, however, about a number of film screenings I’ve attended in the past few years, and the cycle of loss and recovery as a value-making system. Continue reading “The Sea of Information” »

Digital Faith: Visual Effects and Religion in ‘Cloud Atlas,’ ‘Life of Pi,’ and ‘Prometheus’

Equipped with ever-improving technology and visual effects, filmmakers have often used new tools to turn back time. As Svetlana Boym notes in The Future of Nostalgia, filmmakers used developments in computer-generated imagery to recreate the past: the titular sinker in Titanic, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and the Colosseum in Gladiator. Faced by a perceived acceleration of time in the age of modernity, progress “didn’t cure nostalgia but exacerbated it,” Boym says. As I have previously explored, David Fincher has also employed cutting-edge digital technology to revive the San Francisco of the past and literally reverse the life cycle of one Benjamin Button.

In 2012, a different trend emerged. If a desire to turn back time is implicitly rooted in a fear of impending death, then last year’s visual effects–driven cinema offered an alternative: transcending time and death. All released within months of each other, the big-budget features Cloud Atlas, Life of Pi, and Prometheus explored issues of faith and religion and asked questions about our existence. Continue reading “Digital Faith: Visual Effects and Religion in ‘Cloud Atlas,’ ‘Life of Pi,’ and ‘Prometheus’” »

Media in the Classroom: Using Batman and ‘The Simpsons’ as Teaching Tools

Every year, the Comic-Con and Wonder-Con Conventions greet hundreds of thousands of fans, industry insiders, and reporters from across the world in order to showcase the latest and greatest of all things superhero- and comic book–related. While the conventions have been taking place since 1970 and 1987, respectively, for the past 20 years there has been an added facet to the festivities: the Comics Arts Conference. Known as the CAC, the purpose of its panels is to showcase work in the academic field relating to the world of comic books and superheroes. This past March, I was lucky enough to attend five of the different panels, whose topics range from utilizing The Simpsons as a learning tool to questioning the morality of DC Comic’s “The New 52” relaunch. What follows is a summary and analysis of some of the first panel I attended, titled “All I Really Need to Know, I Learned from Batman and Bart, Man: Embiggening Brains Without Crayon Implants.” This panel featured three different professors utilizing comic book and animated characters in an academic setting to improve student learning. Continue reading “Media in the Classroom: Using Batman and ‘The Simpsons’ as Teaching Tools” »