Cloud Atlas

When I saw the trailer for Cloud Atlas I knew it was something I had to see. When it finally arrived here it came with the baggage of having been a commercial flop in the States and dividing critics between those who proclaimed it one of the best of the year, and one of the worst. I can sadly appreciate why it flopped as its a hugely ambitious concept, taking David Mitchell’s complex interweaving novel structure of multiple stories across different timezones (stretching from the 19th century to the far, far future) and having different actors portray people of different genders, race, nationality etc, all packed in to a dizzying 3 hours. On the surface it probably feels a lot more complex than it actually is, its really much more straightforward.

It’s brilliant. As a friend who saw it with me said “I enjoyed every minute of that.” It never once felt slow or long, I was never once bored, the pacing expertly timed to introduce the characters and concepts before gradually pulling all the threads together, making the links between all the disparate elements clear. Parts of it reminded me of the finale of Inception as the different story lines converge (although, it must be said, Inception probably pulled off the big ‘convergent’ scene better, but it had less to do). The ensemble cast are excellent (although, as good as Tom Hanks is, his brief turn as an Irishman produced guffaws from the Dublin audience…his accent is up there with the all time great bad Oirish brogues from Hollywood), and its a technical tour-de-force (how it didn’t get Oscar nods for editing, effects or make-up is beyond me).

And running through it all is a central philosophy of interdependence and interconnectedness that is very dear to my heart. In many ways it’s a manifesto for a radical Buddhist-socialist-Wattsian revolution. I’m on for that.

I’ve described Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” as a glorious mess. “Cloud Atlas” is in the same spirit of adventurous, risk-taking, grand cinema. It is prone to over sentimentality, but I don’t think a film tackling these kind of themes in this way can’t be. And I guess in todays cynicism-as-default mode, anything like this can be dismissed as ‘sentimental’. But it works. It’s a glorious success.

On skepticism

I’ve always been wary of the ‘skeptic’ community (that is people who readily self identify as ‘skeptics’) and the overly enthusiastic proponents of ‘science and reason’. Whilst I am no opponent of ‘science’ and indeed enjoy reading about it, its discoveries and enjoy a life aided by it, I am put off by how ‘skeptics’ have (ironically) turned science into a pseudo-religion, almost anthropomorphising a method of enquiry into a force of nature itself. There is a strand of sneering condescension from some ‘skeptics’ which does their cause absolutely no favours.

I have just stumbled upon probably the best articulation of my feelings in an article entitled “Why I Am No Longer A Skeptic” by Stephen Bond. It’s a long, but really good, read.

In particular the stuff that resonated with me were Bonds skewering of the claim that science is a beleaguered, under threat movement, when in fact it dominates our lifestyles and culture. As Bond says:

On any major political decision, the technocrat speaks louder than the bishop, or anyone else, for that matter.

He also deltly deconstructs the skeptic claim that science is the superior source of knowledge, a neutral and objective process, and that all other human knowledge is inferior or ‘spurious’.

But as Bond notes:

The scientific method generally involves observation of reality, hypothesis based on observation, and experimental testing of hypothesis. All of these elements, particularly the first and third, involve the use of human perception — which, when building models of objective reality, can introduce a dangerously subjective element.

Bond points out that humans perceive the world through metaphors, some of which are inherited, some are learned. Culture always influences science, and science cannot be objective.

As Robert Anton Wilson also liked to stress:

any description of the universe which leaves you out is inaccurate, because any description of the universe is a description of the instrument that you use to take your reading of the universe — if the only instrument you use is your own nervous system, you gotta include your own nervous system in your description of the universe.

So, ergo, any model we make does not describe the universe, it describes what our brains are capable of seeing at this time.

Bond very strongly skewers the idea that modern science is above or free from cultural or political influence.

Skeptics, in insisting on the primacy of scientific knowledge, deny the value of non-scientific metaphors in future scientific advance. As far as they are concerned, western liberal democracies have made all the political, social, cultural and economic advances they need to. Western thought is already so free that anyone who tries can perceive reality direct and unmediated, with no obscuring metaphors in the way. To the trained western eye, the truth simply reveals itself, in as much detail as our scientific understanding allows. It’s difficult to imagine a more absolute statement of confidence in liberal democracy.

There is lots of other really good stuff in there, so give it a read. It’s a very strong rebuttal to the ‘skeptic’ community and the cult of reason.

The real living

‘Consequently our age is one of frustration, anxiety, agitation, and addiction to “dope.” Somehow we must grab what we can while we can, and drown out the realization that the whole thing is futile and meaningless. This “dope” we call our high standard of living, a violent and complex stimulation of the senses, which makes them progressively less sensitive and thus in need of yet more violent stimulation. We crave distraction-a panorama of sights, sounds, thrills, and titillations into which as much as possible must be crowded in the shortest possible time.

To keep up this “standard” most of us are willing to put up with lives that consist largely in doing jobs that are a bore, earning the means to seek relief from the tedium by intervals of hectic and expensive pleasure. These intervals are supposed to be the real living, the real purpose served by the necessary evil of work. Or we imagine that the justification of such work is the rearing of a family to go on doing the same kind of thing, in order to rear another family…and so ad infinitum.

This is no caricature. It is the simple reality of millions of lives, so commonplace that we need hardly dwell upon the details, save to note anxiety and frustration of those who put up with it, not knowing what else to do.’

Alan Watts – The Wisdom of Insecurity