Cloud Atlas

3 November 2012 in Film

After seeing Cloud Atlas, a friend asked me if I thought the musical storyline was believable. In the film, a young English composer (played by Ben Whishaw) becomes the “amanuensis” (copyist) for an older (apparently well-recognized) composer, leaving his lover in the lurch for what seems like the gig of a lifetime. It is the 1930s, (though the music and lifestyle both struck me as late nineteenth century) so yes, I found it plausible that the young man would move, enthusiastically, into the composer’s house. (Free room and board? How could an aspiring composer say no?) I even believed the scenes depicting their working relationship, from the older man screaming, “that’s not what I sang at all!” and causing me to doubt the apprentice’s musicianship and dictation skills, to their subsequent symbiotic completion of The Great Masterpiece.

The film may romanticize the setting and exaggerate the characterizations, but sure, I could imagine the musical storyline as an accurate depiction of its time. Composing, though it wears a certain mystique, is no different than any other great endeavor: it does not exist in a vacuum. Composers frequently enlist the assistance of copyists, orchestrators, and (today) computer programmers. And, as in the best collaborative working situations, specific authorship sometimes ends up as a question mark. Whose idea was that in the first place? No matter. Someone realizes the concept, and that’s what matters, even if the end credits do not reflect the creative lineage with accuracy. [I say, tongue-in-cheek.]

Beyond the credibility of the musical storyline, my jaded twenty-first century mind continued, later, to wrestle with the film’s contradiction between artistic subservience and individualism. Why would the young composer, for example, choose servitude in the countryside when he could have lived footloose and fancy free in a community of like-minded artists back in Cambridge? I could understand him helping out on one copying job, but moving in, in such devoted admiration of the older gentleman? There is a dissonance to their alliance that feels … selfish on the part of the young composer, and I was hardly surprised to see his story end so tragically.

Cloud Atlas makes obvious statements about lives that connect over lifetimes. Beyond that, it poses variations on a theme of the humanistic aspect of interpersonal relationships, whether maestro/amanuensis, surrogate parent/inspired child, or hero/slave. Even when (in the case of the two composers) relationships are less than ideal, they often stimulate, engage, and encourage people to respond in ways that are creative and purposeful. The relationship between the female reporter and the kid in her apartment building (in 1970s San Francisco) also illustrates this. Here again, a young person finds inspiration in someone older, and we witness the product of that relationship decades later. The manuscript of “The First Luisa Ray Mystery,” authored by the now-grown-up kid, echoes the young composer’s Cloud Atlas Sextet. Both works of “art” are the result of the chance crossing of two people’s paths.

That, at least, is my optimistic take-away from a film that offered up an equal share of bleakness.