Monday, September 24, 2007

All together now

It would be easy to be all grown-up about Across the Universe, Julie Taymor's new film, which fashions an unlikely musical out of Beatles' songs. It would be easy to sit aloof at a critical distance and point to the hackneyed screenplay, the juvenile in-jokes, the incoherent plot and the unevenness of the music; easy to dismiss this film as a silly mish-mash of old pop tropes, ludicrous idealism and adolescent sensibility.

I hope I never get that old.

The truth is that Across the Universe is everything the Beatles were - silly, sentimental, hilarious, quirky, psychedelic, sexy, intense, innocent, idealistic, chaotic and gorgeously, heartbreakingly beautiful; a swirling kaleidoscope of a film shot through with snatches of pure poetry, that captures as well as anything ever could the joy, the goofiness, the sheer fucking exuberance of that most transcendent, most essential of rock bands. Even calling it a film is doing it an injustice - this is not a musical, nor (god forbid) a romantic comedy - it is a magical mystery tour, a collage of exquisite moments, a sequence of dreams turned into music videos, one long, freaky acid trip.

What this movie understands, I think, is that the Beatles were never about the lyrics (which were frequently trite) or the tunes (which were often cheesy), any more than the sixties (or what we now think of as 'the sixties') were really about sex and drugs and protest marches. All of that happened, existed, but underneath it all was the awareness that you didn't need some complicated philosophy or self-important achievement to be happy or alive - all you needed was the courage to go out there and live with all your heart, to give yourself to any and every cause and idea and person that moved you and not be afraid to feel or admit that you were moved; all you needed was to revel in the unadulterated exhilaration of being alive. The Beatles understood, as Taymor seems too, that art, like love, doesn't come from surrounding yourself in cleverness, protecting yourself with irony and cynicism, it comes from a willingness to risk being ridiculous. The Beatles were never afraid of making fools of themselves - on the contrary, they reveled in it - and it was this that gave them and their music a kind of irresistible honesty. Whatever else they were, the Beatles were always genuine, always real, and it was this unselfconscious spontaneity of theirs that put them beyond all criticism. It is a quality that Across the Universe shares. It's terrible, but it's also brilliant.

Czeslaw Milosz, in his Charles Eliot Norton Lectures (collected as The Witness of Poetry [1]) speaks of "the poet as a person who differs from others in that his childhood does not end and who preserves in himself something of the child throughout his life". If that is true, then John, Paul, George and Ringo have to rank among the greatest poets of the last century. If we continue to treasure the Beatles today, it is because they represent a kind of innocence, a kind of beautiful naivety that we, in our jaded, sophisticated, post-ironic, desperately self-conscious world need to cling to. That is why it doesn't matter that the plot of Across the Universe is corny, that the characters look like they've stepped out of a Benetton catalog and that at least some of the scenes will make you cringe. Nobody is trying to pretend that the 60's made sense, least of all this film, that makes it abundantly clear that the 'Revolution' such as it was, was a revolution of children. Of course they were being impractical. Of course there are things that can't be done, that can't be sung, that can't be made or saved - love is not all you need. But what matters here is the earnestness, the enthusiasm; what matters is that all of us, either as children, or, in some cases, as young people in the 60's, sincerely and in good faith believed in these things. It is that sense of possibility that the Beatles, and this movie, celebrate. e e cummings writes: "Because my father lived his soul / Love is the whole and more than all". Replace 'my father' with 'The Beatles' and you have it, precisely.

To be fair, the movie does do a good job of demonstrating the sheer range of the Beatles' music - taking it from corny pop songs to tender ballads to gospel to screaming, head-banging rock. Watch out for renditions of Helter Skelter, Why Don't We Do It In The Road, Something, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Come Together and, perhaps most memorably, Strawberry Fields, not to mention the sight of Bono singing I am the Walrus, or the scene when an impromptu band plays Don't Let Me Down at top volume from a Manhattan rooftop, which, of course, is how it's meant to be played (Oh! and IMDB confirms it - that is Joe Cocker playing a busker singing Come Together. Yaay!). But the real reason the film works, I think, is because for those of us who grew up listening to the Beatles, their songs constitute a language all their own, a special secret mother tongue whose every word sounds familiar, whose every line comes remembered from the heart. So when the characters in the film suddenly, often bizarrely, break into song, it doesn't strike us as odd or peculiar, it strikes us as natural as if they had suddenly switched to French or Hindi, and we understand exactly what they mean. If for no other reason, you should watch this film because, while there will always be other films in French and Italian and Japanese, this may be your only chance (outside of special showings of A Hard Day's Night et al) to see a film in Beatle-se.

P.S. I should say, though, that this is a film strictly for serious Beatles fans. If you've never heard the Beatles (you miserable loser!) or don't much care for them (die! die now!) then you are likely to find this film entirely inexplicable, and should probably stay away.

[1] Space Bar: Now there's my Bible!


Space Bar said...

you needed was the courage to go out there and live with all your heart, to give yourself to any and every cause and idea and person that moved you and not be afraid to feel or admit that you were moved; all you needed was to revel in the unadulterated exhilaration of being alive.

In other words, all you need is love. (I hate you. When will this film come to India?)

There used to be this documentary about the Beatles - can't remember what it was. I had a mouldering vhs of it until last year. The Strawberry Fields Forever bit of it was amazing. But maybe its just the song.

Oh, and let me outblaspheme you by saying I change Bibles - Gideons or James - often and have several of 'em! This is why book tags are fun and menaingless. That list has already changed since I took a look at my book shelf.

Cheshire Cat said...

One miserable loser shambling in for duty.

But I don't care, I liked "Titus Andronicus" and "Frida", I'm watching it anyway.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, Falsie, I long ago swore allegiance to the PW and if the delightful Sean Burns gives it a D+, ("breathtakingly, humorlessly earnest and so "far out" it deserves its own zip code.."), I'll have to skip this for Superbad. Surely intense love for the people who sang so joyfully of existing in jaundiced underwater contraptions should not cloud your poetic polysyllabic judgment, dearest?


Anonymous said...

All of that happened, existed, but underneath it all was the awareness that you didn't need some complicated philosophy or self-important achievement to be happy or alive - all you needed was the courage to go out there and live with all your heart, to give yourself to any and every cause and idea and person that moved you and not be afraid to feel or admit that you were moved; all you needed was to revel in the unadulterated exhilaration of being alive.

Easier "written" than done for some of us. Oh you should know it.

Anonymous said...

I hope u never get that old.

and this post i have to show my spouse. no, i dont want him to start a blog and write like u. i just hope he reads u and after a year or 2 maybe he understands other worlds too.

??! said...

revel in the unadulterated exhilaration of being alive...
you loser...

Who are you - you fun-loving, bubbly, fanboy - and what have you done with Falsie?

Falstaff said...

space bar: Ya, see, I was saving that one for later.

And I think the real question is whether it will come to India at all. I'd be surprised - it's a fairly off-beat film and very,very trippy. Think Moulin Rouge meets Godard's Sympathy for the Devil. I can't imagine there'll be a large enough audience for that kind of thing.

Oh, and I change bibles too - just this one happens to be my chosen one at the moment.

Cat: Hmmm...haven't seen Titus Andronicus. Will watch.

n!: Your loss. It is earnest and far out, but so were the Beatles. As for "humorless" this Sean Burns person must be deaf, blind and / or plain stupid.

And who said my judgment was clouded? Even without the Beatles vibe, I'd still pick a daring, inventive film like this one, that tries to do something new with the medium, than a formulaic regurgitation of infantile comedy tropes that weren't funny to start with like Superbad.

anon1: True, but that's why the idea of it is so precious.

anon2: Errr..thanks. See post from a week ago introducing the Shelfari list in the sidebar. Pay special attention to the bit about resisting the urge to try and change your boyfriend / husband based on this blog.

??!: Don't worry, he'll be back.

km said...

All right then. You've just made my weekend plan for me. Thank you.

//"Backbeat" remains the best bio-pic about the Beatles and AHDN their best film. Anyone wants to slug it out?

Falstaff said...

km: You're welcome. No argument with AHDN and I haven't seen Backbeat. At any rate, ATU is certainly not a bio-pic - I don't think the Beatles even get mentioned explicitly.

Chronicus Skepticus said...

Awww, I rather *like* fanboy Falstaff. He's...y'know, sweet.

equivocal said...

I dunno, man. Are you sure that irony is only about "self-protection" and avoidance? Can it not also be a positive, creative force, opening things up? And since you conflate idealism and risk, cannot irony, in some circumstances also be a risk?

What I mean to say is, are you sure there has to force a choice, irony or earnestness? Is it not possible for both to co-exist? Does that not fully reflect our present human condition?

And what I mean to say is: is not the appeal of the Beatles precisely that both coexist and mingle in the music, the warp of irony and naughty smarts intercutting the weft of idealism, earnestness, plainness? (Don't know about you here, but i would rate the later work at the top, esp. The White Album and the John and Yoko solo album, Double Fantasy. Take those as poles in a continuum: both were beautiful, both were risks.)

Compare the Beatles to that man free of all irony, John Denver. I happen to love John Denver, and one might even make a case that his music is far superior to the Beatles because it isn't jaded in any way. And yet: The Beatles look at life like me, they are who I would choose to identify with-- not John Denver, and not, for that matter, Frank Zappa at the other extreme.

And personally, I think at their best the Beatles' lyrics are really great. There was a good reason why Auden spent most of the 60s trying to write like them.

Falstaff said...

cs: :-). don't worry, he's always around.

equivocal: Oh, I agree. I wasn't trying to say that irony is always a negative thing - only that it can and does get used defensively, as an affectation to stave off vulnerability. People who use irony effectively (certain East European poets spring to mind) employ it selectively, as a deliberate artistic choice rather than as a knee-jerk response to any hint of emotion or sentiment or (to use Zagajewski's term for it - since at least some of this is his argument) ardor. There are good reasons why we need irony, if only to move beyond the soppy earnestness of, say, the Victorian poets. In the wrong hands, irony becomes a way of holding the world at an emotional distance, and that's a trap it's easy to fall into with ATU. You could easily sit through this film sneering at everything that happens on the screen and making clever smart-alec remarks to dismiss it for being too sincere / too over the top. But in being that critical you would lose out on what, if you suspend judgment for a moment, is a gorgeous film.

And yes, at their best, the Beatles' lyrics are great, but come on, there are reams of their songs where the words are depressingly twee. And that's true of the film too - there are certainly scenes in it that are glorious enough to need no apology, but there's also a lot that, taken out of context, will make you cringe.

For me, the fascinating thing about the film is how polarizing it is. From what I've seen of the reviews / heard from other people everyone either hates it or loves it. I'm yet to hear a single person say it was "okay" or "nice" - which is a reaction so many films provoke. That's what I mean by risk. Even if you hate this film , you can't accuse Taymor of playing it safe or being unoriginal, anymore than you can say that of the Beatles.

Space Bar said...

from what i see of the wiki entry about the film, it appears that most of the references are from revolver on: more specifically abbey road, sgt. pepper and the white album.

and i saw the lcd screens playing the trailer over and over at pvr both yesterday and today. i hope that means the film will turn up here after all. i'm etirely incapableof being objective about any beatles related film. i mean, i even owned at one point a silly ten film called I Wanna Hold Your Hand.

Falstaff said...

space bar: That's true, I think, though you do get some pre-Revolver stuff: I want to hold your hand, If I fell, It won't be long, All My loving, Girl; also, I don't think there's that much of Sgt. Pepper's - just With a little help from my friends and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. There's probably more of Magical Mystery Tour.

Also, I feel like I should be warning you (and by you I mean anyone reading this post) not to get too excited about the film. There is a lot wrong with the film, and there's a good chance you'll hate it. I don't want you walking into the theater with sky-high expectations and coming back to me saying "how could you like this crap?".

equivocal said...

I agree. As Derek Walcott once said, "Beware of cynicism. It's the greatest romance of the 20th century."

There's an interesting take on the film on Silliman's Blog, slightly different from yours-- don't know if you saw that: