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What was that all about?

One of the readers of this blog asked a few days ago if audiences absolutely demand that movies be linear and realistic. The question came in the thread about "Cloud Atlas," which in fact is realistic, at least in the sense that we understand stories set in the past and in the future--although we don't often get six of them in the same film. There's nothing in the film we can't understand in the moment, although we may be hard-pressed to understand how, or if, they fit together. And if the actors play multiple characters of various races, genders and ages, well, we understand that too.

Movies (and novels, too) have long felt fee to be non-linear. They feel no need to begin at the beginning and conclude at the end. Flash-forwards and flashbacks are so native to the art of film editing that even the earliest film audiences understood them instinctively. Realism, however, sets audiences at ease. No audience expects everything in a movie to be realistic--they understand fantasy, hallucination and dreams--but they expect most movies to be realistic within their own terms.

When a film slips its tether and goes drifting through time, space and logic, some audiences grow uneasy. They resist it when a character isn't "consistent." They expect a movie to establish some rules early on, and play by them. If Superman can fly through the air, stop a speeding locomotive with his bare hands and reverse the rotation of the earth, well and good. But if Kryptonite suddenly loses its power over him, fans get pissed off. Either Kryptonite is a danger to Superman or it isn't. Make up your mind.

By unrealistic I could, by definition, mean almost anything. For the purposes of this discussion, I'm thinking of a movie in which the characters do not inhabit the reality they, and we, thought they inhabited. What seems to be developing takes an unexpected or illogical direction. Their identities shift, or they exchange them. Dream logic infects what Richard Linklater calls "Waking Life," and a character is suddenly no longer affected by the power of gravity. These kinds of films inspire audiences with a great need to "figure them out." Nobody ever walks out of "Iron Man" saying, "what the hell was that all about?" But after seeing a movie like "Cloud Atlas," they ask it even though it's perfectly obvious what it's about: Those possible things happened to those possible characters.

In my review of the film, I abandoned any attempt to answer a question many people ask, which is "what is the connection between the characters and the segments in which they appear?" I've seen reviews of the film conjuring the notion of viewers who are channel-surfing between separate stories on separate channels, many of them coincidentally using the same actors in different guises, which happens all the time. All of the stories on these channels are so good you'd like to see the whole movie, but what you see is what you get. What's missing is not realism but continuity.

Better examples of unrealistic films might be "Synecdoche, New York," "Mulholland Drive," "2001: A Space Odyssey," "3 Women," or "The Tree of Life." Coincidentally, all of these titles were on my best 10 lists. Many viewers complained they couldn't understand what was happening. Both "Mulholland Drive" and "3 Women" involved two women who seemed to exchange identities, although it was more complicated than that.

"2001" began with some apes at "The Dawn of Man," and after one of them hurls a bone into the air it dissolves into an orbiting space station. It was, and is likely to remain, the most audacious flash-forward in the history of the cinema. Then the film's final episode, it involved an old man in a bedroom, somewhere in space. What did that mean? I could give you my perfectly logical explanation, but I was there at the world's first public screening, and I can tell you no one seemed in revolt. Kubrick's command of film language created a poetry where you felt the meaning.

Now. As for David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive." That was a film I took to the Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where we spent five days going through it a shot at a time, trying to explain such matters as the little old people crawling under the door, the wolf-man behind the diner, the Cowboy, and the purpose of the Blue Box. Man, did we dig deep.

I'm currently preparing to include "Mulholland Drive" in my Great Movies Collection. Of course I went back and re-read my original review from 2001. To my surprise, I was perfectly pleased with that review. I "got" the movie. I may not have explained it, but that's another matter.

One of the earliest reviews I wrote for The Sun-Times was of Bergman's "Persona." I felt in over my head. Could I come up with something deep and profound, worthy of the film's maker? I decided instead to simply try describing what I had seen. One of the common mistakes of beginning movie critics is to reach for unwise profundity, when observation may be completely adequate. A wise man once wrote: "A poem should not mean, but be."    

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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