Wednesday, 10 December 2008

julie taymor

The other night I was out with a bunch of California people at a "free house" in London. (I'm still trying to find the difference between a pub and a free house.) A few of the guys were arguing vociferously about someone and one of them said, "...she's the only female auteur!" I turned around and said, "I hope you're talking about Julie Taymor." And they said they were.

I wrote the following after Across the Universe came out. It was supposed to go in a magazine, but it never did, and I don't think I've ever posted it. I'm pretty excited about the new version of The Tempest she is shooting with Helen Mirren as Prospera, so I thought I'd post it here.


Julie Taymor is fearless.

ACROSS THE UNIVERSE is a grand pastiche of our cultural history, absorbing and refashioning everything from Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation video to the Joffrey’s The Green Table to Japan’s post-war butoh dance art form: a remixed re-mastered movie musical collecting pieces of our shared nostalgia and shards of old headlines and spitting them back out at us as social, political, and romantic commentary. This is the low-brow in service of the high-brow and the high-brow co-opted to serve the low. Juicy, ambitious, dense, gut-wrenching, mind-bending, equal parts success and failure, but one hell of a ride.

You’ve seen things like this before, sure. You’ve seen every movie about the Sixties and you’ve seen Monty Python cartoons and you’ve seen the boy meets gets girl musicals and maybe you’ve even seen THE LION KING on tour. Except you haven’t seen anything like this before. Forget that the songs are the most memorable in the post-war musical cannon. Forget that it’s a musical. Taymor weaves a journey into our collective psyche using cultural touchstones as shorthand and she does it with dazzling beauty, wit, and grace. Brava.

The set up itself is cloying, but so were those early Beatles tunes. A sweet girl, a sweet boy who gets shipped off to war (and inexplicably dies before being shipped out); another sweet boy meets a tortured boy who happens to be brother to the sweet girl. Well, boring. I haven’t seen any of those instant musicals with the Songs Of…ABBA, Billy Joel, but I imagine this is a little bit like those, though a whole lot more sophisticated. (Until) The soda shop love story veers so far adrift from its happy marriage ending it actually delves into the truth of the dissolution of a way of life.

The boy, Jude, begins the journey by telling – no, singing – us a story of a girl he loves. We meet characters named for Beatles songs (cringe) like Max and Lucy and Prudence, all song cues waiting to happen(.), though they don’t always, which makes you wonder how much they shot and did not put in the movie. Unlike THE WIZARD OF OZ, the characters we meet don’t automatically get their introductory songs. Eventually our congenial and pleasant, yet not distractingly good-looking, group of young people make their ways from spots as supposedly divergent as Dayton, Ohio and Liverpool, England to convene in Boho Paradise – Greenwich Village circa 1967 or 68 or just before the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. One of the actors is even named for him, pulling us back into the present, which is clearly Taymor’s intention at every step. Substitute Iraq for Viet Nam in every instance. The characters add up to a cast of Zeligs – each one at the right, or wrong, place at the right time. Every watershed event seems to run through their way too big Greenwich Village apartment.

What is fascinating is the rapid transition from the leftover Fifties vibe of the early Sixties to the mind-blown, shell-shocked universe the Beatles, and the planet, traversed in such a short time. We tour all the high points; characters are not disguised – only the names have been changed. We get visits from Janis Joplin (Sadie), Jimi Hendrix (JoJo), Ken Kesey (Dr. Robert), Timothy Leary (Dr. Geary, an off-screen presence like the man behind the curtain in, again, THE WIZARD OF OZ) and a bus we know as Furthur but which sports “Beyond” on its front. Fabulous cameos by Eddie Izzard, Bono and others make the cultural reference roller-coaster ride all the more harrowing – Taymor will not let you escape her demanding notions that history does shape our present and our future and that celebrity has become our perhaps pathetic attempt to sustain ritual.

If you know your Sixties history, and your post-war history, you are in good stead here. “Bill” (played with some relish by James Urbaniak) tries to sign Sadie to a record deal, taking her to a party that screams Factory. Sadie’s difficult romance with JoJo recalls the ill-fated Aretha-Otis love story. This is a musical, after all, so nobody ends up od’ing, dead, unloved, or alone. The war, though, rages on.

Max, Lucy’s brother, has the most unbelievable and the most compelling storyline. A Princeton prankster, he drops out to drop into the raging lifestyle of the Village, only to be called up for the draft. He drives a taxi to make money, and every so often tries to figure out how he’s going to get out of going to war. When the day finally comes, he is too morally sound, even amidst all the corrupting forces, to just split for Canada, and ends up getting a 1A classification. His journey from rich Suburban boy to post-Viet Nam soul death is hammering. His only possible act of redemption is to try to reunite Jude and Lucy – driving his cab back in NY he seems to know already there is no future for him. He will drive a taxi and slug back whiskeys until his body gives out, the death in his eyes never leaving.

The movie oozes nostalgia, bringing up equal parts of sweetness and pain. In places it is as hard to watch as an episode of I LOVE LUCY where Lucy’s done something terribly wrong that is unfixable before Ricky gets home. You watch knowing that she is going to have some “‘splaining” to do as your gut twirls and twists the comedy out of the moment. ACROSS THE UNIVERSE is like that. You watch these fresh-faced idealistic characters go through their lives unaware of what is so painfully obvious: the societal fabric has melted while they were so lustily coming of age. Each step they take is fateful, only they don’t know it, and you do. It is a lesson in hindsight and hubris that might act as a cautionary tale, were it not already too late. Each successive generation has tread the same path as this, trying mightily to balance saving themselves and the world, with surviving in a civilization where the mechanisms for war and destruction are so firmly in place. You could place this movie in a time capsule and give future civilizations the answer to how we lost our way.

Daniel Ezralow’s choreography is refreshing. There are no new steps, and this is not a dance movie, but what is achieved here is an active participation of choreography in the daily lives of the characters. Basketball drills turn into dance routines. When the characters go to a bowling alley, they are quickly fulfilling every 6-year old’s dream of sliding up and down the alleys with impunity. Corporate cronies perform pas de deux with briefcases. Activity dictates choreography, which is as it should be. The same way behaviour should dictate performance. In that, Taymor mostly manages to stay low-key, allowing her actors to sing many of the songs simply as if they were dialogue, and then occasionally hitting a home run out of the park with set pieces that are musical numbers unlike any we have seen on film.

The most successful of these is the rendition of “I WANT YOU”. Easily a song about sexual desire, Taymor flips the script and makes it about…conscription. As Max heads into an Army headquarters to get his pre-enlistment physical, posters of Uncle Sam on the walls start singing to him “I want you…I want you so bad…” Every soldier he meets has an exaggerated mask and the whole number is an intense induction into loss of identity. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anything on film like it before. Use of CGI, animation, masks, dance, song, irony, satire, pathos, and actors in their skivvies going from assured young men to victims of a system add up to a powerful center point in this film. And as we’ve been told, the center cannot hold.

The bottom fell out of the 60’s. The shattering events of multiple assassinations and a war without cause and without end occasioned ridiculous excesses in the culture at home. From the perspective of 2007 it is both easy to call it ridiculous excess and to see the predicating factors that led straight there. From here it is easy for Taymor to both exalt and expose her faux Ken Kesey character in ten minutes of screen time, whereas for those who really were on the bus (mostly in altered states), months or years or decades of their lives were spent following someone they believed in whole-heartedly and who only slowly revealed himself as just another man on his own trip.

The truth remains, we wouldn’t be where we are today without those assholes. Without a Ken Kesey and a Timothy Leary to counter the decisions of men holding power, things could have been much worse and certainly very different. Without those doing their own thing in reaction to governmental actions, we might never have reached the kind of consciousness we have today. Fascism was eerily close at hand in hindsight, as it is now, yet it still has not won the better part of us. For every Robert McNamara, we had a Janis Joplin, willing to live life to the very edge to make sure that we were still feeling. For every conscripted kid who didn’t want to go, we had rebels willing to take to the streets and some willing to never go home. With the strong center of leadership decimated: Kennedy, Kennedy, King, X, we were left with only the poles. The pendulum was deadly, but it broke through boundaries in record speed and changed the pace at which we live and experience our world.

It’s easy to condemn behaviour at that time: revolutionaries using bombs to fight for non-violence; people using drugs to expand their consciousness while building their own personality cults; governments making enemies in order to preserve the status quo. In light of all the excess, our main character, Jude, comes out smelling like a rose from Paul McCartney’s London garden. Looking like a cross between Jake Gyllenhaal and the young Sir Paul, Jude goes from shipyward worker to artist in no steps. He draws away the days and nights and loves a blonde girl whose parents embody the American dream, but who has lost the future they fashioned for her at the hands of war. She eventually falls for a revolutionary so caught up with himself he is barely civil to those around him. Just another revolutionary rock star, Jude sees right through him, but Lucy cannot. When she confronts his lack of politicism, his response echoes many by Paul McCartney when challenged for writing love songs: “Well I'm sorry I'm not the man with the mega-phone, but this is what I do.”

This movie seems to know that the only things that will for sure kill you are not doing and not loving. Everything else is certainly subject to fate and chance. ACROSS THE UNIVERSE is planetary, like Peter Max drawings. It says from its perspective on Orion that some people easily know their purpose in life, and some don’t. Some will find it after searching and some will never know it. And that we need all of them to get to where we are. And that love is all you need if you do it right, but it isn’t ever going to be the only thing, since we do so much wrong. It says we couldn’t function fully as humans without those who question, those who go out on limbs, those who simply comfort and those who just exist. This is the pastiche humanity is. Dig in.

No comments: