“We were the Wachowski brothers... Now? Wachowski Starship.”
Andy Wachowski was being funny, and the packed house for Cloud Atlas laughed along, but it was also Andy’s way of addressing a potential elephant in the room - Lana Wachowski, who lived most of her external life as a male before transitioning to womanhood. If the public had any passing interest (it’s not every day that the cocreator of a massively successful piece of science fiction becomes a role model for the trans community), the tabloids went above and beyond to feed that interest in their typically ugly, intrusive way. The Wachowskis were already averse to doing press for their films, gaining a reputation as reclusive artistes, and the public documentation of the Larry-to-Lana transformation seemed like enough to drive the siblings underground for good.
There was probably some expectation that the two would be pretentious mad-genius types, two filmmakers used to getting their way, with chips on the shoulders from the weak reception of their last two films, The Matrix Revolutions and Speed Racer. Yet, there they were, onstage at Fantastic Fest and winning the audience over in a big way. The Wachowskis are whip-smart, as already evidenced by their films, and both are naturally witty. Neither seemed like recluses; just remarkably down-to-earth creatives, excited to discuss their new and ambitious project made outside of the studio system. When the post-film Q-and-A session ended because the auditorium was needed, Lana even suggested everyone just stage a sit-in and occupy the theater to talk about Cloud Atlas all night.
Cloud Atlas, based on the David Mitchell novel, is a remarkably positive film, and it provided a natural intersection of the Wachowskis’ thematic interests with those of German director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), who is also one third of the directing team on the sprawling sci-fi adventure. The film stars Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess and Jim Broadbent in multiple roles, across multiple timelines, that intersect and weave to tell a story of how our connections with others impact our lives. It’s possibly the funniest, most apparently heartfelt film that any of the three of them have ever made, and a master class in transition of tone as well as how to juggle divergent storylines with cinematic clarity.
They’ve got a lot at stake, artistically and commercially. Cloud Atlas is a difficult film to describe in an elevator pitch. It was also financed independently, so it’s understandable that the filmmakers would do everything within their power to get the word out on the film, including coming out to Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas just to say hello. Even if the film hadn’t won me over, the Wachowsis did.
If the Wachowskis’ perception of their audience is based on angry message board backlash over the third Matrix movie, Speed Racer’s box office, or a leering, invasive interest in Lana’s personal life, it’s no wonder they’ve stayed quiet. As a member of that audience, I can only hope that the Wachowskis' experience at Fantastic Fest has changed their mind somewhat on interacting with the public. They’re vibrant people with a lot to say, and speaking strictly from the perspective of an audience member, I offer this advice: don’t worry.
Don’t worry about Lana Wachowski.
Lana’s personal life didn’t need to be addressed at the screening for a number of reasons, but primarily because none of us really knew Larry Wachowski. As Cloud Atlas has them putting on a more public face, Lana is Lana, not Larry transformed; Larry Wachowski is nothing to us but a name. Lana Wachowski, however, is an animated, passionate speaker with expressive eyebrows and a great sense of humor and enthusiasm. Who’s Larry?
I don’t blame Andy for saying something (he wasn’t being derisive), but there was no need for explanation - not for the people in attendance. I can’t fathom the fear of acceptance that comes with making such a visible transformation so far into adulthood, and Andy’s joke belied a nervous concern that the Q and A might field nothing but questions about Lana. It was interesting to see that they felt they had to be forthcoming about it when they didn’t have to be. My hope is that they both walked away from the Alamo Drafthouse that night with more confidence.
I’m sure Lana isn’t posturing to be a role model to the trans community, but our reaction as an audience to her - our acceptance of Lana as a woman, not as a former Wachowski brother - can provide a model to that community. A general indifference to Lana’s origin can go a long way toward helping others like her live a life without fear or shame. It was nice to see that in action during the Cloud Atlas screening. Nobody cared. As it should be.
Don’t worry about past box office.
I didn’t like Speed Racer, but, big deal, I didn’t like the cartoon either. After the high-profile tentpole earned only $43 million, the Wachowskis might be concerned that their brand was damaged, with audiences and possibly within the studio system. In truth, Speed Racer was never a hot commodity to begin with, and it was that brand that was rejected by audiences, not the Wachowskis.
With Speed Racer coming after their lowest grossing Matrix film, it might have seemed as if we were sending the Wachowskis a message through the box office that we’d had enough, but it was just happenstance. There’s no guarantee that Cloud Atlas will be a hit, but it’s nothing like The Matrix trilogy and nothing like Speed Racer (or Bound for that matter). The end-of-day box office numbers don’t measure love; just ask any of the die-hard Speed Racer fans that are out there.
Don’t worry about Matrix fans.
Matrix fans probably won’t dig Cloud Atlas; Wachowski fans probably will. Genre fans can get mean and ugly, and I’m still confused by the general public reception to Matrix Revolutions. With one film, a pop-cultural phenomenon was staked to death by its own fans, and I’m sure the Wachowskis recoiled at the audience’s prickly reaction. Being told you’re great by millions of people, then being told that you suck by those same people just a matter of months later is enough to drive anyone underground.
If there’s a takeaway, it’s that you can’t please all of the people all of the time. As long as you keep creating new and different films, the audience will move on (and if you don’t, you become George Lucas, and your audience holds on to its freshest memory of your worst project). Time will be kind to the Matrix trilogy, and as more films as inventive as Cloud Atlas are created, time will be especially kind to the Wachowskis.