Sunday, December 02, 2012

Cloud Atlas: Racebending, Genderbending and a Film for Us

Before going to see Cloud Atlas, I knew I few things about it.  I'd seen the trailers, and could see its scope was epic.  From the trailers I also knew it was a film by the Wachowskis, whose movies I generally FUCKING LOVE.  I knew it had been a book.  I knew it practiced racebending (actors of one race made up to look like people of another race/characters of one race played by actors of another).  And I had read two reviews, one referenced and linked to in the other: Cloud Atlas is a Film For Us - It is Our Film, in which the author argues, in part;
This won’t make much sense to a lot of people, but Cloud Atlas is Our Film. And there isn't a trans person in the film. But truly, this is a movie that is as rich and complex and deeply moving as the lives of Trans people, and it carries forward with so many themes that it resonates soundly with transness in a way that it id challenging to describe (sic).

It is a movie for those who love, and for those who are loved. It is a film for those who struggle, who wonder, who hope.
As I was watching the film myself, I couldn't help but agree with this review.

Her words kept ringing in my ears.

But I don't want to start there.  I want to start with what made me profoundly uncomfortable about the movie: the racebending.  Quite frankly, the white men made up to look Asian looked more like Vulcans or Romulans than actual Asian people of any ethnicity.  Like, the makeup people really tried, but it just DIDN'T work.  It was SO distracting.  It was SO awkward.

Similar feelings were conjured when Doona Bae was made up to be white and then a darker Latina, although this was more successful.

Halle Berry I didn't actually even recognize when she was made up as a white woman.

There is a LOT in here about my own perceptions, the perceptions of the other people in the theater, about "passing," about Otherness, and about mixed race features and "beauty" that are beyond the scope of this review (like I'm wishing I was back in school cuz I just keep coming across more things that are so fucking worth analyzing and talking about that I just want to write a huge research paper or something, but I don't want to do all of that right here and now)...

But whether the makeup "worked" or didn't, isn't really the point and isn't what ultimately bothered me about watching white men play at being Asian.  What bothered me was thinking about all the Asian men who could have played these roles, and who ultimately weren't in the movie because of the choice to racebend white men into the roles instead.

At the same time, I do understand the choice to have the same actors portraying many different characters.  I mean, without going into heavy spoilers, this is a lot of what the movie is about.  And not in some white-washed liberal colorblind way (even if in the end whitewashing did occur) but more in the sense of the idea that our souls have been/will be tied into bodies that are different from the ones we have now, and to represent that, they chose to use the same actors, so we can identify these souls visually as they move from body to body throughout time.  From a visual storytelling perspective, this strategy makes sense, and as I said to one of my friends as we discussed our reactions, this is basically the ONLY scenario I can even entertain the idea of racebending of this nature being remotely appropriate/excusable.  It's also a very theatrical choice, as my husband pointed out, which given the Wachowski's grand style of film-making, is also rather appropriate.

That said, I can think of other ways they could have achieved this.  There is a running visual element throughout the film of a distinctive birthmark.  Put that birthmark on anyone, and we could know it was this character reincarnated.  You could then have multiple actors play that role (which they did) and we know to trace them all together.  Obviously the actors, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving and especially Tom Hanks in particular would have had considerably less fun and demonstrated far fewer of their acting ability in that case, but many more actors, and importantly, many more actors of color, would have had the opportunity to demonstrate THEIR skills instead, and it would not have reinforced Hollywood narratives of the erasure of actors of color and current social narratives of whitewashing.

Note I do not say here "colorblind" narratives, because I absolutely did not take that message away from the film.  The message of the film, in the way it takes us through so many various lives, and shows us their interconnections, is one that does not shy away from difference, nor try to argue we are "all the same;" but that we are connected, that we are not totally separate from each other.  This was one of the messages that I thought was brilliantly done and beautiful to behold.

So yes.  This practice of yellowface made me deeply uncomfortable.  Even as I think it attempted to challenge the idea of the Racial Other, I also think it didn't really succeed.  And that is where I wanted to start my discussion of the film, because it deserves to be put front and center.

Existing alongside this really fucking important discomfort is the fact that I loved this film.  So I cannot over-emphasize my ambivalence here.  What they tried to portray with it was just epic.  There are quotes from the film I want to put in here, and I regret not taking notes as I watched, but I return now to the idea that "this film is for us."  I'm not trans, but I kept thinking about that review at different points in the movie, because, YES.  As someone who has long felt that the status quo/normative culture is one I am forcefully alienated from, YES.  The complexities, and beauties, and tragedies of life, hope and betrayal and greed and love are all in this story instead of some easily digested fantasy, and what ultimately comes out of it all is the need for us to stand up for each other.  To risk that.  To risk telling our truths.  To risk suffering and dying for each other.  That "boundaries are conventions," and conventions must be challenged, pushed at, broken through.

In other words:

REVOLUTION.


Revolution so that we all can survive and REALLY FUCKING LIVE.  In all our difference and splendour and variation and BEAUTY.  And even in our imperfection, making some of the imperfect choices made in its creation perhaps even sort of appropriate.

This movie is so QUEER that it doesn't surprise me that not everyone is "getting" it,* as attested to by the fact that it hasn't been a box office "success," apparently, and that I've heard/read so many saying they were confused by it.  But I don't know.  With all its flaws, it spoke very clearly to me.

And this was why the genderbending didn't make me uncomfortable like the racebending did.  Yes, Hugo Weaving still basically looked like Hugo Weaving, but he didn't play that character as a caricature.  More than that, I was fascinated by this choice of genderbending, given that this is the first movie (IIRC) after Lana Wachowski's transition, the first film she released as Lana publicly.  And in it she chooses a man who has been in like, all but one of the Wachowski's movies, to play a woman.  To play a butch, masculine woman.  Maybe, to play a trans woman.

In fact this is perhaps one of the most stereotypical ways that Hollywood presents trans women, one of the ways it displays it's transmisogyny** and undermines trans feminine identification.  That REALLY, they are not women at all, but "men in dresses."

It would be easy to read this character in that light, and it can't be ignored that this character exists within a movie-making context that is openly hostile to trans people, one that does undermine the perceived validity of trans identification in this manner.  And yet, in her first movie created openly as Lana, she chooses this man, clearly like their favorite actor ever and I'm guessing close friend, to portray this character.  And he does so really, really well.  Nurse Noakes is not played for laughs (although I did hear some VERY uncomfortable and surprised laughter when she first came on screen), and her femininity is not played to a hyper/false-feminine "drag queen" stereotype.  Weaving does affect his voice to make it higher, and this isn't done flawlessly, but it also isn't done hyperbolically.  So to me, this read as a great moment of trust on Lana Wachowski's part.  Of wanting to put characters on screen that don't conform to cisnormativity even as she had to know the hostile environment she would be adding that character to.  And so she chose to person close to her to portray that character, and tried to navigate a razor thin line between challenging the normative and falling into its traps.

It worked for me.

Let me also not ignore here that Weaving was not the only actor to genderbend in this film.  At least one of the woman actors (Xun Zhou, I believe) portrayed a man.  However, this character didn't have as big of a role as Weaving's nurse, and was not as apparently genderbent.  In fact, it wasn't until the end of the movie that I realized she had played that character at all.  And part of my brain screams about what this says about the way in which Asian men are portrayed/perceived as feminine, that this perception arising out of white supremacy's influence on normative gender means it is the Asian actors who have more gender mobility when swapping parts.  It is playing along that edge again, of challenging normativity, and sort of playing with normative perceptions too?  Perhaps in that legacy of Disidentification.  I'm not sure.  I probably won't be sure until I've seen this several more times, but I don't want to ignore any of the inklings of critique bubbling their way to the surface of my mind.

If you have gotten this far, I'm going to guess you've figured out this is a complicated and multi-layered film.  It is.  It is also at times a beautiful film.  Maybe even a transcendent film (a word I don't use lightly as I find it horribly cheesy and pretentious usually).  I do hope you will see it.

It is a film for us.



Footnotes:
*and by that I do not mean "have a problem with any of the totally critique-able parts" but the frequently heard "I have no idea what this movie is about"
**versus "merely" its cissexism in pursuit of "validation" of trans feminine identity through their portrayal by cis woman actors


Addendum:
As for Time relegating this to "the worst movie of the year" all I can say is LOLZ.