Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas
seen @ Cinemart Cinemas, Forest Hills, Queens, NY

Awhile back, when I was still writing my online comics column, I did a piece about a woman named Hilda Terry. I met her late in her life - her career went all the way back to the 40s, when she did a newspaper strip named Teena. She was, in fact, one of the first prominent women cartoonists in America. She went on to other accomplishments in her long life, but one of the most significant aspects of her personality was her belief in past lives.

This was different from the Shirley MacLaine-variety belief. As far as I knew, Hilda herself did not truly believe she lived a previous life. Rather, she was convinced she was in communion with a past life, one outside herself, which inspired her to make her comics. According to her, it was a little girl from colonial times, whom she discovered during the 70s, when she made a concerted effort to discover what she firmly believed was the true source of her artistic inspiration.

The following is from a collection of Teena strips, essays and short stories Hilda co-authored called The Baby Sitter's Magic Mouse Storybook:
In my 65th year I began to realize SOME one was HELPING me [with my cartoons]. And it wasn't God.... In 1979 I was doing the kooky things trying to reach my invisible collaborator. I wound up with a child crying MA-MA for a woman being tried for witchcraft. [When I] asked if she was my guardian angel, the tangled hair shook. Negative. A dirty hand gestured back and forth indicating she and I were one. Hey! A past life? [When I] asked her name, she lifted her tunic and MOONED me. 
[When I] asked how she happened to be me, she said "Rebecca." Actually, we never spoke. She pulled words out of my head and highlighted them. "Rebecca your mother?" I asked. Shaking her head "no" again, she brought up 3 words, Grandmother, Rebecca, Nurse. MY grandmother's name was Rivka, Russian for Rebecca. And I had lived with her through my first years. You could say she nursed me. I assumed she was naming MY grandmother. It didn't make sense. My grandmother was alive in 1914. 
Clearly, my head was playing games with me. Still???
Further research led Hilda to discover a real child from that era that she believed was her mystery spirit: Dorcas Good, an alleged witch from the late 17th century, along with a grandmother named Rebecca Nurse, another alleged witch who, Hilda believed, somehow facilitated their meeting.

Hilda goes on to say that she was convinced Dorcas not only helped her create her Teena strips, but was the unconscious inspiration for a supporting character within the strip. Still, Hilda made it clear that she is distinct from Dorcas:
I have had my OWN life. I have a whole raft of friends of my own in the next world. I don't know if Dorcas Good is my past life, but she HAS been something in my PRESENT life.... Through me, she has had a life that made up for the last one. To the extent that we share one mind, she learns what I learn. And what she knows, I know... so many things I have no way of knowing otherwise.
Having interviewed her and spoken casually with her on several other occasions before her death in 2006, I'm convinced she believed all this stuff, even as she was aware of how crazy it all sounded. Her strips are very good, and they still hold up today, and as a cartoonist, I've certainly used a variety of real-life people as inspiration for my stories (maybe even unconsciously in one or two cases), but I've never heard a story like Hilda's, before or since.

All of which leads me to the movie Cloud Atlas, a story about reincarnation, which made me think of Hilda and wonder what she would've made of it. I think she would've appreciated the overall message about how humanity is connected to each other in ways we can't begin to fully comprehend. Hilda was a very spiritual person, and though the movie is completely secular, I doubt that would've made a difference to her.

Personally, I found the film breathtaking in its scope. As with many of the great stories, love lies at the heart of it all, and even if you don't quite grok everything that goes on in the story, I think that much is clear. It's certainly a movie that invites repeat viewing, if for no other reason than to see it knowing who played what. I imagine this was an actor's dream, to play not only multiple roles in the same film, but different races and genders in some cases.

The multiple timeline-jumping was disorienting, no doubt, and not easy to get used to. What it reminded me most of was channel surfing. You know how it is, going from watching, say, A Game of Thrones on HBO to a college basketball game on ESPN to Spongebob Squarepants on Nickelodeon to some reality show on E! to a Bogart movie on TCM and back again. Do it long enough and a pattern may emerge, or at least you may think you perceive one.

I remember seeing the book Cloud Atlas several times at my favorite bookstore and being tempted to try it, but the format was very off-putting. Now that I've seen the movie, I may try the book at some point, though my understanding is that the movie takes a few liberties, format-wise.

The Cinemart is a neighborhood theater on a commercial stretch of Metropolitan Avenue in Forest Hills. It probably wasn't always a second-run theater, but it is now, and as such, it's relatively simple and no-frills. It's hung on for a long time in the face of digital screens and 3D movies and other such changes. I can't ever remember seeing it attracting large audiences, not that I've gone there all that often, but it fills a need for me, and when it finally goes to that great multiplex in the sky, I'll miss it, if for no other reason than it's local.

Metropolitan Avenue runs from southern Queens all the way to Williamsburg in Brooklyn. This section is nice and cozy, with lots of different restaurants that stay open long after the rest of the area closes for the day. There's an awesome ice cream and candy shop across the street from the Cinemart that's straight out of the 1950s; one step inside and you'll be eight years old all over again. Further down the street, there's a comics and collectibles shop - not as good as the ones in Manhattan; I've only been in there once - and a Trader Joe's, right before you hit a major cross street and a cemetery beyond that. I like coming to this part of town a lot.

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