Across the Universe in a Day

OK, back from the break, folks.
Across the Universe, Julie Taymor’s Beatles movie, is out on DVD. When I saw the preview for it, I cringed for the first two thirds – the characters are named Jude, Lucy, Max (short, naturally for Maxwell), Jojo, Prudence – and just the idea of pretty people singing Beatles songs to each other as they Go Through the Turbulent Decade Knowan as The ‘60s seemed icky.
AND THEN….
In the middle of the preview, the soundtrack launches from a lugubrious beginning of “Hey, Jude” into the “better, better, better” etc. to the big scream – and I fell in love. A gorgeous shot of backlit dancers leaping through a bowling alley, a bunch of girls in Butoh white paint falling backward into the sea; this looked to be some pretty audacious cinema. I tried to get to the movie, but this being Michigan, it played at weird times and, with my schedule, I could never get to them. So I anticipated the release more usual.
I wanted to really love the movie. I love bits of it here and there, but I don’t think I got more than a 5-minute stretch of that great feeling (I wanted it verging on desperation) that this was my new movie to love. (For the record, nothing yet has topped The Prestige and The New World, though 3:10 to Yuma was pretty terrific, and not just because of the man candy.) It reminded me of several things:
1. The obvious parallel is Milos Forman’s Hair, a movie with couple of good sequences, but really brought low by the cast of 28-year-olds. A local high school did a production of Hair a few years back, and though it was a pretty standard high school production, the fact that the kids were the right age to get drafted made a huge difference. Wm. Goldman made the same point about Hair’s move to Broadway; when it was still playing at some disco, the actors were the right age, so you overlooked the shortcomings; when it moved to Broadway, slick and old basically killed whatever was fresh in the show. Taymor cast her movie beautifully; the kids are young and appealing, they sing well, and they have a nice easy onscreen fluidity as they move through the thin and predictable story, so I’ll definitely give her the up on that. I did keep wondering if she’d mention Hair in the commentary track (I put it on to keep me company while I did some work in the kitchen), but she didn’t.
2. When I worked on the big special edition of Evita, I felt the same way about it as this movie. There is some dazzling stuff in Evita, and overall, Alan Parker did a great job of reimagining the story off the stage and onto the screen. Madonna’s the big problem; she’s too invested in showing what a great woman Eva Peron was (and that she herself is by proxy), and completely ignores the obvious parallels between her and Juan’s girl – i..e, little talent, hella ambition, and zero qualms about crushing anything or anyone in her way. I think if M had been able to embrace the manipulative aspects of the character and cut loose, Evita would have been a great movie, but Madonna is too literal-minded.
In that way, Taymor I think robs her own movie of greatness. The sequence, “I Want You,” starts with Uncle Sam CGI-ing his way out of a poster to drag one of our young protagonists before the draft board; it’s pretty silly. But the draft board itself is quite brilliant, a nightmarish chamber that subdivides into smaller chambers populated by soldiers in scary masks doing this ultra-precise and stompy choreography. Then there’s a whole sequence where these little puzzle boxes open to show body parts as they’re examined, beautifully done.
Unfortunately, this ends with the boys in their underwear carrying a giant statue of liberty through a tiny jungle (the trees are about knee-high) with She’s So Heavy blaring in the background. The image might work on stage, given the distance and that stage is inherently fake anyway. Film is too close, too naked.

The bracketing of 2 or 3 minutes of jaw-dropping invention with such corny literal chicanery happens a lot. It’s a real problem. The above is probably one of the biggest examples, but there are little small things, like when Prudence locks herself in a closet and all the characters sing “Dear Prudence” until she comes out. In fact, Prudence seems to bring out something very annoying in Taymor; not only does she enter Act II of the movie by climbing in through the bathroom window, but a character actually says, “She came in through the bathroom window.” Taymor says on the commentary, “You either embrace it or you don’t.” Cop out. The visual without the literal comment might have actually been clever or at least whimsical, but Taymor has to make sure we get it. Channeling Spielberg? Sigh.
3. My final comparison is bittersweet. I, too, was in a production of Hair in college. For various reasons, I was rather bad. The production was not so good either, mostly self-indulgent and loud, though a few people in the cast (still friends, by the way – Hair does tend to unite people in a strange way) were really good, but they tended to be good in anything. (One, my buddy Grant Gottschall, was good enough to get cast as Gary Gilmore’s younger brother in The Executioner’s Song, which was filmed in Utah, which is where we went to school. Of course we wanted to do Hair; Utah???) These journeys to the ’60s by new audiences never quite get it right, because – and here’s the really sad part – we’ll never, ever be able to repeat the hope. Kids gave a shit, but more importantly, they believed that giving a shit would make the world better. My first husband was in the crowd that tried to levitate the Pentagon (the spouse and I recently watched a Viet Nam documentary with that event in it, I can’t remember which movie, but I think Karl may be on film for just a second). He told me that he really believed they’d see it rise off the ground that day. War remains an abomination, as hideous as a baboon’s ass, to paraphrase Giraudoux. How sad that no one believes any more that protesting will do any good.

As for Taymor, I think she’s going to remain an oddity as a filmmaker, capable of flashes of astonishing brilliance, but a little too in love with herself to ask the hard questions and make the subsequent tough decisions to make one great movie. But I’ll still check her out.

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