I had never heard of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas before it was recommended to me by my friendly, typically overqualified neighborhood barista. I sought it out on a somewhat aimless whim, and am I ever glad that I did—it is a masterpiece, a true reward for my venture into the literary unfamiliar.
Comprised of five thematically related mini-novels and presented in a parabolic structure wherein the first and last sections are the two halves of one story, the second and penultimate sections the two halves of a different story, etc., with the novel’s vertex the only undivided part (credit where credit is due—the barista is the one who came up with the clever parabola analogy). It is a real tour de force, demonstrating that Mitchell has mastered the medium to such a degree that he needn’t strain in the least to exhibit his powers; the writing is fluid and casual in each new, wildly disparate novelistic idiom Mitchell leaps confidently into. One section takes the form of an explorer’s journal from the 1800s; another is an epistolary novel of European correspondence from the 1930s. There are also a politicized pulp/detective novel set in the very polluted "new dawn" of Reagan's America; a dystopian sci-fi segment; and, at the aforementioned vertex, a postapocalyptic folktale written as if it were directly transcribed from some indigenous oral tradition, which somehow manages to successfully convey everything in an entirely invented future dialect a la A Clockwork Orange.
There is a high degree of intertextuality in Cloud Atlas, which is decidedly postmodern (by which I mean familiar with all styles, forms, and tactics, while privileging none). But one does not need to be familiar with the structural terminology that aptly describes Cloud Atlas in order to appreciate that it is the finest novel to derive a clear majority of its power to move the reader solely from its structure since Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin.
Todd Haynes says it better than I ever could about the vitality of feminism—-not the middlebrow, commonplace, rather shallow and pointless Gloria Steinem variety, but the passionate, brave, intelligent, invigorating, and bracing Simone de Beauvoir/Germaine Greer kind—-in his introduction to Three Screenplays:
”From my first encounter with the invigorating notion of gender as a product of ideology, feminist theory has left an indelible mark on my own critical—-and creative—-thinking. As far as I knew, at least until the emergence of AIDS in the late 1980s, there was really no study of homosexuality that could rival the complexity—-and diversity—-of feminist thought, from its incorporation of Marx and Freud to its reexamination of film and society. For me, everything I questioned about what it meant to be a man—and how much my sexuality would perpetually challenge those meanings—could be found in arguments posed by feminists.”
I was reminded of Haynes’s thoughts as I read through Molly Haskell’s feminist film history From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, first published in 1974. My selection of Haskell’s book was inspired by the enlightening and entertaining (if somewhat overedited and artificially convivial) videotaped conversation between Haskell and the great Andrew Sarris-- who is also Haskell’s husband-- that was included as a supplement on the Criterion DVD of Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait.
Twenty years on from the initial publication of From Reverence to Rape, Haskell, in the Heaven Can Wait conversation, comes across as smart and energetic, full of movie knowledge (and love) and Southern-accented bemusement toward both Lubitsch in retrospect and Sarris in person; she’s like the one they excluded from Designing Women for being a bit too academic and substantial, neither frivolously regressed nor a sassy/coy Southern belle caricature (Haskell originally hailed from Richmond, Virginia, but escaped to the Sorbonne before landing in New York’s intelligentsia). In her writing as of 1974, which one suspects is a bit more militant than it would be (or need to be) in 2005, Haskell is not nearly so vehement and defensive as the book’s agitprop title would seem to indicate. In fact, she spends more than a few pages calling the feminist movement—-at least as it stood at that time—-on their own contradictions, their own misplaced or unwarranted vehemence and defensiveness, which she seems rightly to regard as blind spots or, worse, only superficially “empowered” and even unconsciously concessionary political and ideological quicksand.
Instead, Haskell reminds the movie audiences of 1974 that films rarely, if ever, directly mirror the cultural moment; rather, she argues, what she sees as the previously unheard-of misogyny of cinema screens circa 1974 was a conscious and/or unconscious reaction, on the part of mostly male film establishment, to the actual reality of increased political self-exploration and awareness of women at that time. Haskell accords all due respect to the talents and innovations of Kubrick, Antonioni, Bergman, and Godard even as she critiques their various patronizing or re-mystifying ways of handling “their” women, making a strong case that the shifting focus and artistic freedom of auteurism in the wake of the studio system’s collapse constituted a decreased level of liberation for women onscreen in comparison to the old star/studio system, in which the much more hands-on involvement of women at various levels of the industry (both in front of the camera and in the roles of screenwriters, suppliers of additional dialogue, even costume and makeup departments) created a variety of silver-screen roles and archetypes for women that were much more multifarious and humanized than the ones afforded by the inarguably inventive, original, and revolutionary—-but almost exclusively male—-auteurs of the sixties and seventies.
By acknowledging that a film can be simultaneously great and tainted by misogyny (wondering all the while where the great non-misogynistic films are, or where they will come from), Haskell creates an excellent dialectical pattern that serves her views, the reader, and cinema itself very well. Her attitude is learned, erudite, and collegial rather than vituperative toward fellow critics—-like Sarris and Kael—-with whom she would seem to have some rather sharp divergences. It is unsurprising that Haskell shares, in sharp contrast to Kael’s fevered and sometimes disingenuous anti-ideological stance, the Village Voice-favored objectivity and global sensibility of Sarris and J. Hoberman (probably the most interesting and relevant regular film critic reviewing today): she has actually been the film reviewer for that venerable institution, and her style adroitly balances itself between engagement, astuteness, and obsession without ever tipping into desperation or smugness. In fact, despite its impressive range and confidence, From Reverence to Rape can most interestingly be read as Haskell’s simultaneously personal and ideologically analytical struggle to find a new way of responding both observantly and with a specifically cinephilic generosity—-without any ideological judgments to the point of exclusion—-toward the history and content of the medium, but on her own (feminist) terms.
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