The Soul is a Metaphor
Issue #
182

Cloud Atlas
Directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski
Warner Brothers, 2012

The audience claps in thunderous waves as she walks on stage and bows, her pink dreads like a flower on her head. A few years ago, Lana Wachowski was Larry Wachowski, a man who co-wrote and co-directed the Matrix movies. Millions of people watched the films, seeing in them a dream of revolution. None of them knew that inside the male body of the Matrix director and writer, lived a woman considering suicide.

“I began to believe the voices in my head that I was a freak, that I am broken...that I will never be lovable.” Wachowski told them of her teenage identity crisis,
“... I know the train platform will be empty at night because it always is...I try not to think of anything but jumping as the train comes...Suddenly I notice someone walking down the ramp. It is a skinny older, old man wearing large, 1970s square-style glasses that remind [me] of the ones my grandma wears. He stares at me the way animals stare at each other. I don’t know why he wouldn’t look away. All I know is that because he didn’t, I am still here.”

Being loved for one’s true self — it is the pivot in her speech for the Human Rights Campaign’s Visibility Award. When she ends, they clap loudly because the HRC audience — gays, lesbians, transgender and bi-sexual people — like her, struggled for visibility. A great wave of gratitude could be heard in their voices. They knew that anyone who cheered for Neo in the Matrix or Somni 451 in Cloud Atlas would now realize they also indirectly cheered the transformation of Larry Wachowski into Lana.

The need to be free — it drives the plots of Wachowski movies — can now in part be seen to come from the desire to transform one’s body to fit a deep self-image. It crosses the last red line of conservatism, the belief that sex and gender identity are naturally locked. And whoever crosses that line is in danger. In 1999, a year after a transgender woman was stabbed 20 times, advocates began the Transgender Day of Remembrance to honor those killed in hate crimes. The roll call for those murdered in the United States is up to 327 and another 300 reported in other countries. Add to that the harassment, bullying and isolation flowing down on them like a cascade of psychological acid.

In this light, Cloud Atlas’ motif of the transmigration of souls through time can be read as an allegory for Lana Wachowski’s migration from a male to female body. In the film, adapted from the book of the same name, six separate stories are fused into one overarching plot. It leaps from a lawyer discovering the horror of slavery on a 19th century sea voyage, a gay male couple separated by suicide in the 1930s, a black female journalist discovering the corruption at a nuclear power plant in the 1970s, an elderly publisher escaping a prison-like retirement home, a clone slave who joins a revolutionary group in the 22nd century and finally to the far future where a tech advanced visitor to a left-behind tribe is guided to a mountaintop satellite where she zaps an SOS message to humans living on other planets.

At the Cloud Atlas press conference, Lana Wachowski said, “We all felt the book affects your brain. You read it and your brain no longer splits it up into six stories. Your brain begins making connections itself.” The directors line up the climaxes of the many stories like mountaintops in a row so that the viewer can see the same struggle for freedom over the great expanse of time. And in each era, authority figures — whether slave traders or futuristic city cops — say “There is a natural order to the world.”

And in each climax there is a hero, male or female, who knows this to be a lie. The effect on the audience in seeing such vastly different societies from the 19th century’s racial slavery to the genetic clone slavery of the 22nd century is the realization that no natural order exists. Every society is a web of power and ideology woven together that ensnares the bodies of those living in them. What is natural is the desire to embody the repressed truth and live it. The lawyer saves and in turn is saved by an escaped African slave on the ship; the gay couple frolic in bed as the hotel staff bang on the door; a journalist uncovers corporate corruption; the clone slave woman Somni 451 falls in love with the revolutionary who rescued her, even though it is forbidden by law.

And in each new story, each new scene, we see the familiar faces of the actors under new make-up, playing different lives but interconnected by the unforeseen consequences of their actions. We see the New Age fable of the transmigration of souls but learn to accept Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, James Darcy, Susan Sarandon, Keith David and Hugh Grant in different bodies. They change skin color, change sex, change personality, change morally but we see the essential quality that unites their different bodies.

And if we could see through the movie, past the author’s story lines, past the special effects and into the mind of the directors we’d see Andy Wachowski, a man who loved his brother Larry as he became a woman. If we looked further, we’d see Lana Wachowski as a woman emerging like a butterfly from the cocoon of an old body.