Tuesday, 27 November 2007

review: across the universe (julie taymor, 2007)

A young man sits alone on a barren beach, beneath grey skies, and intones the words of a pop song become something grand, almost mythic. As he looks out at the waves, the music reaches a crescendo, and a montage of images and newsprint are superimposed on the waves, appearing and disappearing with their rapid ebb and flow. These riveting opening moments neatly encapsulate Across the Universe: a quasi-elegiac look at the myth of the 1960s, granting equal attention to a personal story of friendship, love and loss, and to the wider picture of a generation's dream and disillusionment, with the music of the Beatles (surely no better cultural, ideological and aesthetic metonym exists for the 60s) a constant, choral presence, both diegetically sung by the characters and as more traditional extradiegetic soundtrack. Above all these things, it is the most fun I've had in a cinema all year.

Across the Universe
is far from a flawless film, but it is a film I can't help loving wholeheartedly, despite its sometimes glaring issues. Closest in spirit to Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! (2001), it offers an LSD-fuelled vision of 1960s New York as unreal and fantastical as the earlier film's absinthe-fuelled vision of 1890s Paris. Taymor is not interested in demythicizing the era, nor in providing an in-depth examination of the social and cultural issues from which the youth movement was born. Its half-hearted attempts in this direction, notably a sequence depicting the July 1967 Detroit riots, while not exactly failures in execution, smack of tokenism - particularly, in that case, of attempting to introduce an element of race-consciousness into a very white-dominated film. Rather than providing any depth of social critique, these digressions from the main narrative succeed primarily in painting a backdrop of repression, authoritarianism and violence against which the main characters' actions gain weight and purpose.

Far more successful, in this regard, is a stunning sequence in which Max (Joe Anderson), having received a draft notice, reports to the local army base. Set to "I Want You (She's so Heavy)" and featuring (among many other things) singing Uncle Sam posters and rows of soldiers in identical G.I. Joe masks, this sequence demonstrates Taymor's undeniable talents at visuals, mise-en-scene and choreography. From her spectacular cinematic debut with the Shakespearean adaptation
Titus (1999), Taymor has demonstrated herself a relentlessly inventive visualist, eschewing subtlety or mundanity in favour of pop-expressionist flights of externalized fantasy and wonder. It is difficult to imagine a more perfect vehicle for her style than Across the Universe, and, unlike in Frida (2002), which only occasionally escaped the shackles of the conventional biopic formula, Taymor unleashes her imagination to the full, and pulls out all the stops to create an exhilarating sensual spectacle: we get swooping cameras, rich cinematography, psychedelic washes of colour, animation, CG-assisted visions, astonishing choreographies...and, of course, the music.

It is difficult to write anything in praise of the Beatles without sounding like either a fifty-something nostalgia-monger who stopped listening to new music in 1976, or a hype-spouting
Q reader. Nonetheless, I have to admit that this is one case where the hype and nostalgia are justified. The Beatles genuinely were a great, incredible band; their albums deserve their perennial positions in all-time top ten lists; and their music remains fresh, exciting, moving and beautiful today, undiminshed - in fact, almost enhanced - by the ponderous mythic status it has acquired. The music constitutes the emotional heart of Across the Universe, adding resonance and power to the film's events.

As it traces the rise and fall of a personal romance and of the counter-culture movement, Across the Universe encompasses heart-breaking beauty, love and happiness, and aching sadness, despair and melancholy. A sequence set to the grand, languid tones of "Because", one of my favourite Beatles songs, encapsulates both within a vision of almost painful beauty. Having taken Dr. Robert (Bono)'s magical mystery bus on a psychedelic road-trip to reach Mr. Kite (Eddie Izzard)'s, another drug guru, the protagonists lie in a golden, autumn-tinged field and dive in a crystal-clear lake. This is the apex of their escape from the social pressures that surround them into a psychedelic dream-land, and the moment is unutterably beautiful - and yet there is a palpable sadness underpinning it, with the realization that this cannot last. In Hunter S. Thompson's words, and to return to one of the film's opening images, this was the high-water mark of the revolution, and you could already feel the wave starting to ebb.

As I have said, as much as I love this film, it's not flawless. Its biggest flaw, apart from some smaller issues I have already touched upon, comes right at the end, when, after the film has reached a logical, affectingly sad ending, it proceeds to engineer a somewhat contrived happy ending. There's nothing wrong with this ending
per se, it's rousing, and it will leave you with a smile on your face - by this time you've come to love these characters and you want to see a happy ending - but at the same time, it feels like something of a let-down of the film's themes and its tragic movement.

This isn't exactly a minor flaw, but, perhaps despite myself, I found myself more than willing to forgive
Across the Universe its foibles. It's an earnest, endearing, exhilarating and lovable film, imaginative, beautiful, thrilling and affecting , the kind of thing I can see myself returning to again and again on DVD as comfort viewing. It may play into the myth of a 1960s that almost certainly never existed, and, like many other films that take its kind of maximalist sensual approach and earnest emotional tone, might seem faintly silly if you are predisposed to find fault. Accept it on its own terms, unconditionally, and perhaps, come the end credits, you genuinely will be inclined to agree that love is all you need. And be prepared to find yourself humming Beatles tunes for the rest of the week...


Lara said...

Did you ever have any doubt to begin with?

Daniel Vella said...

Not really...but then I'm not a bitter cynic with a shrivelled heart :-P

Lara said...

and above all, Love