I see a lot of movies every year. A
ton. But this year I’ve decided I don’t see enough movies, so one of my
New Year Resolutions was to simply see more. And to write about them.
See, that’s the other half of the equation: I see a ton of movies, but
I write about comparatively few of them. There are a lot of reasons,
but they mainly boil down to the fact that I feel the need to do long
form reviews, and sometimes – like in the midst of Sundance – I just
don’t have the time.
so was born this new blog! I aim to make an entry for every single
movie I see in 2010. Some entries may be very short, some may be
lengthy. Entries may take a couple of days to be posted. Let’s see how
long this lasts.
last thing: one of my main objectives this year is to rewatch more
movies. I know this sounds like a strange goal, but there are films I
haven’t seen since high school, which means it’s been almost a lifetime
since I saw them. Recently I rewatched Black Christmas for the first
time since the 1980s, and I might as well have been seeing the movie
for the first time. I’m interested in getting a look at some movies I
loved or hated twenty or even ten years ago and seeing how I feel about
#18 Across the Universe
d. Julie Taymor
I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a more frustrating movie.
Before Across the Universe came out I ran a number of stories defending director Julie Taymor, who was in a battle with the studio over the final cut. Taymor’s a real artist to me – maybe I’m one of those self-loathing cineastes who thinks that because she came from theater she’s more important than our regular film directors, but I think it’s just that she brings a really unique visual flair to the screen. I’ve been sick of hard realism in movies for a while, and Taymor never bothers going near realism, and that appeals to me. Plus, I always side with the artist when it comes to studio versus artist.
On top of that, I loved the concept. The Beatles are ingrained in my brain; I grew up listening to them in just about the most literal way possible. My earliest music memories are listening to Beatles songs, and they provided a soundtrack to my whole life. Whatever kind of music I was into at any phase of my life I always had the Beatles. They are a constant for me, and the idea of growing up before the Beatles is almost weird, because the great thing about them is that they grow with you. They have songs and sounds for every stage of your life, and I’ve figured out that as I get older there will be different parts of the Beatles catalog that I will come to appreciate in different ways.
I ended up skipping the movie in theaters for a couple of reasons; the screening wasn’t convenient, and I had heard lots of bad things. Then I just never got around to it. The film sat on my Watch Instantly queue for like a year, and then today I decided it was time to finally scratch this one off the list.
What’s most frustrating about Across the Universe is that it’s not terrible. I live Tweeted my experience, and a lot of people couldn’t wait to tell me how awful the movie was and how they could barely sit through it. But it turns out that it’s not as terrible as that. It’s simply bad, and god knows I’ve loved bad movies before. The problem is that every now and again it’s great, or beautiful, or inspired, and then it slips right back into being bad and lazy and thuddingly on the nose.
One of the biggest problems with the movie is that it has no story. Like Milos Forman’s pretty terrible adaptation of Hair (terrible but I’ve seen it like a dozen times), Across the Universe so badly wants to be about the 60s that it never realizes it needs a story besides ‘It’s about the 60s.’ A random group of characters come together and take a guided tour of the pop culture highlights of the time – drugs and protest marches and the sexual revolution Vietnam and long wigs and glued on facial hair. But there’s no spine to it, and anytime a big event ends the movie feels like it too could end. See, because the only thing pushing it forward, narratively, is the fact that it hasn’t yet ended. In fact, the film could just keep chugging on for thirty more years of history – Jim Sturgess gets really into primal scream therapy! Evan Rachel Wood goes Wall Street! The other kid who I hated invents a dotcom! – because the film is simply without structure.
This is the mistake most films about the 60s make, by the way. They don’t want to be the story of these particular people, they want to be the story of the SWEEPING EVENTS AND CHANGES that rocked the country. So you’ll get a black guy and a guy who goes to war and someone who gets into the peace movement and someone who gets into drugs and all these basic stereotypes who exist only to reflect aspects of the 60s. Or aspects of the 60s as we understand them from the popular consciousness.
And the 60s as we understand them from the popular consciousness can be kind of cliched and boring and lead you to cast fucking BONO as Ken Kesey in your musical Beatles movie. And if that horrible scene wasn’t bad enough, we next get Eddie Izzard in a go-nowhere cameo as a Timothy Leary type. Izzard cannot sing.
Interestingly, that’s the nadir of the movie, and it’s what should be the best – the drug soaked wackiness comes across as tedious. The rest of the film feels sluggish at times, but the songs keep things going. I love that the Beatles can be reinterpreted as they are here and still work; in fact I loved the music in Across the Universe in the same way I love the music on the Love remix album (or on Dangermouse’s Grey Album) – it’s the familiar refiltered, and it allows you to hear it in new ways. It says so much about Lennon and McCartney as songwriters that these tunes pack a punch even after being overplayed into oblivion.
The problem is that the songs are treated within the film as stage directions. When the lyrics in Dear Prudence is ‘Look around, round, round,’ everyone fucking looks around, round, round. Characters have names that are Beatles references that lead to on the nose Beatles jokes (someone asks Maxwell if he’s hammered anyone to death. A girl comes in the bathroom window and someone says ‘She came in through the bathroom window’), and everywhere you go there’s some heavy handed allusion to the Beatles. I found myself caught up wondering if the Beatles existed in this universe; the main character Jude (!) is in the Cavern Club at the beginning of the movie listening to a very Beatles-esque band, but my time calculations put that scene long after the Beatles made it to America.
But even within the heavy handed allegories of the movie, many of the scenes are great. A sequence set to Come Together is a blast, and a military induction sequence set to I Want You (She’s So Heavy) is absolutely brilliant and one of my favorite musical numbers in years… until they get to the ‘She’s so heavy’ part and we see US SOLDIERS CARRYING THE STATUE OF LIBERTY ON THEIR BACKS ACROSS THE VIETNAMESE JUNGLE. I mean, come the fuck on.
And that sums up the film’s major frustration. The music is great, most of the singers are wonderful, and much of the imagery is intriguing. But the story, such as it is, is slack and uninteresting, the film’s endless Beatle referentialism is retarded, and there are just no characters worth hanging on to. There is a couple who fall in love, break up and get back together almost completely in between other scenes. The only reason I know anyone’s name in the movie is because when they’re introduced I automatically figured out how their song could come into play – hey it’s JoJo! And sexy Sadie! and lovely Rita!
I wish I could have liked this movie. And I wish I could believe I wouldn’t watch it again. I know I’ll watch it again. And I’ll get the soundtrack (which on its own is probably quite great). But like with my revisiting Hair, I’ll come back to Across the Universe because I’m drawn to the period and because I just love rock musicals. It’s a sad state of affairs.