Saturday, November 10, 2007

In memoriam: Norman Mailer

Check here for the NYT's large collection of articles by and about this great American writer

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Words are pouring out like endless rain into a paper cup

The following was written not as a formal review but as a letter to a friend discussing Julie Taymor's Across the Universe. Rather than try to prod it into a more formal piece of criticism, I'm putting it up here as is...

"I don't know that I've seen anything this year that I've liked nearly as much as "Across the universe", but, as I mentioned earlier, I was originally skeptical. First of all, the trailer raised comparisons with Milos Forman's misguided 1979 version of "Hair", a movie that was either 10 years too late or 25 years too early. (There are a few similarities in the storylines - and it's not unrealistic to think that Taymor is probably familiar with a production or too)..
Secondly, when you think of some of the awful liberties that have been taken with the Beatles catalogue over the years, by literalists who think that they have to make a live-action version of "Yellow Submarine" (as in the Bee Gees "Sgt. pepper" and a very shortlived mid-70s Broadway disaster of the same name) or, even worse, reduce the songs to cliched background jingles for lots of kids in bad wigs and exaggerated fringe-y hippie clothes flashing peace signs and carrying on like a group of street mimes on laughing gas (see Milos Forman's "Hair"....)
I should add that there was also a 3rd thing that made be a little doubtful; I heard parts of the soundtrack and was put off by the working-class accents ("Close yer eyes and I'll kiss yer, tomorrow I'll miss yer"), the desperate, plaintive opening of "I Want to Hold Your Hand", the chamber-like arrangements - all things which turned out to work much more effectively in the film than I would ever have guessed.
With those serious doubts (slightly lessened by having watched "Frida" a few week ago . I still haven't seen "Titus", but it's been on my order list with the library for months...) I have to admit that I was won over by the film almost instantly, from the introduction of parallel narrative lines during "It Won't be long now". By the time of "All My Loving" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand" came around, it was clear that the film wasn't just a nostalgic trip through the Beatles repertoire and that the songs were going to be placed with the context of the characters, accents, plaintiveness and all.
Which is one of the first really original things about Taymor's approach. While the film is obviously very stunning visually, it's NOT just a string a music videos or, even more importantly, a series of isolated episodes designed to illustrate the songs (see again the Bee Gees movie, "All This And World War Two" etc...). . You have to buy into the characters' lives first - their accents, high school crushes, family issues, etc... . The songs - and this is especially tricky, given their familiarity and frequent ventures into surrealism - have to make the movies emotional points work too or else they'll stop the story dead still...
Which is not to say that the film isn't also about the Beatles or ignores the fact that just about every song in it has its own substantial legacy - artistically, culturally, historically. But one of the most brilliant things that Taymor does is to consider all of those factors as a kind of collective unconscious, a shared backstory that the audience has with the characters. I cringed at first when I realized that the characters all had names derived from Beatles' songs (Max, Lucy, Prudence, Sadie, etc..) thinking that this would be another example of the dead literal-mindedness of the BeeGees film (Of course, "Yellow Submarine" does a little of the same thing with puns, etc...but gets away with it ), but because Taymor understands or assumes our familiarity, she doesn't have to be so bone-crushingly obvious. In fact, she doesn't even actually have to include "Sexy Sadie" or "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" or "She Came In through the Bathroom Window" for the audience to register those songs.
Let me digress for a minute: Several years ago there was an absolutely awful movie based on "The Mod Squad", arguably one of the worst movies of the last 10 or 15 years. At the end of the film, when the heroes are sitting around without much to do, one of the cops walks up to them and says "What do you guys think you are, some kind of "Mod Squad"?" It's a weird cultural reference point, because the cop and the audience know what the characters themselves don't; In a sense, they're the only people in the universe that have never heard of "The Mod Squad".
You might think that "Across the Universe" might have that same kind of problem. how do you put your characters into some kind of archetypal "1960s" world in which they've never heard of the Beatles or those songs? But you don't get that sense of absence in the film. Rather, it's a kind of alternate 1960s in which the recognizable songs become a kind of ethereal vapor running through their lives and through the universe itself. It doesn't matter that we have "Let It Be" being song in 1964 or 65, 5 years before it was written. The film operates in a realm where memory reconstructs history.
Which brings me to a final clever thing that the film does really well. Yes, it's about the "1960s" with all the pertaining cultural baggage that entails. But it references the key points of the period - civil rights, Vietnam, the Columbia uprising, the Weathermen,etc. - in a very clever way that avoids banality and nostalgia or the kind of superficiality that many accuse "Forest Gump" of using in its approach to history. Taymor does a very shrewd thing in relying on the viewers interest/boredom/awareness/ in that era by making it alive yet almost secondary to the characters and their lives. Thus, we have these familiar events but played on a different scale. A Hendrix figure who is obviously not Hendrix, referencing the idea of Hendrix without resorting to a banal roman-a-clef approach. The Bono figure, who is Tim Leary and Ken Kesey and yet not really either of them. The famous "Let It Be" rooftop concert, used in a completely new context, yet not really having to carry any of the historical weight of the actual event... (No band breaking apart, no Yoko), This too is a refreshing approach to the history, a sense not of name-checking the events and names of the period but of trying to address the emotional issue of what it was like to live through such things.
Funny that you should mention favoring the "Come Together" and "I Want You" sequences, arguably the most surreal in the film. I think my reaction was a little different. And despite the appearances of Joe Cocker, Eddie Izzard and Bono, I don't think the film gives the sense of dropping-in-famous-guest-stars-to-keep-the-audience-busy (a la "Tommy" or "Sgt. Pepper"). I think I was more drawn in by the principals and their stories, the way their lives were never shoved aside by the spectacle or the music. That's why in the middle of all of the more fantastic elements it's still a nice surprise when Prudence reappears, Sadie resolves her problems or Lucy turns up across the rooftop at the end. The movie gets to the heart of how music (and especially this music) and emotion and intense cultural events change the way people think and behave.
Yes, I'm rambling on pretentiously, but this film grabbed me straight in the heart in a big way, not just once but probably with about every other song. I react emotionally to musicals (and children's movies) but this was more than the usual response, which can probably be defined as how-can-anything-be-so-perfect? (as Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds getting together or Pinocchio coming back to life)? There's that too, of course, but I think that what "Across the Universe" touches is that magical and elusive sense of possibility that is so well defined by the Beatles' music and their cultural significance. yes, it's easy to dismiss "All You Need Is Love" as a corny statement, but when you hear those odd harmonies and irregular time signatures and daft counterpoints, it's just as easy to wish that it was some sort of organized movement because , damned if you're not ready to sign up. "Nothing's gonna change my world"? Hardly.

Okay. I'm all pontificated out."