Helter Skelter
By Joanne Kouyoumjian

Across the Universe
Dir. Julie Taymor, U.S., DreamWorks

Throughout Julie Taymor’s new musical, Across the Universe, I couldn’t help thinking how much it resembled a Mad magazine column: “The Lighter Side of the Sixties,” anyone? Admittedly, the film’s conceit—narrating the decade through a collection of regurgitated Beatles songs—seemed like a bad one from the start. How could one possibly encapsulate all of that turbulent era’s familiar archetypes, everything from Vietnam war draftees to sexually liberated hippies and the Weather Underground, within karaoke versions of selections from Sir Paul’s songbook? The short answer is: you can’t, at least not on the big screen.

If it had been reconstituted as a big, bombastic Broadway musical, Across the Universe might have functioned as a garish jukebox of sorts, something like Mamma Mia meets Hair. The characters could have worked as mere caricatures, seen from a distance and aided by Taymor’s famously intricate masks and puppetry; the superficiality of the plot would have been overwhelmed by the live presence of the performers, the music, the costumes, and lights. But as a feature film, Across the Universe is disastrous; the filmmaker seems unable to decide whether the characters are flat archetypes or living, breathing human beings. Taymor fills the screen with their earnest faces in extreme close-ups, beckoning the viewer to identify with and psychologize them. Yet her creations are too shoddily constructed for the viewer to care, and it’s unlikely that they are intended as Brechtian stand-ins for aspects of any cultural ideology.

Across the Universe’s most embarrassingly predictable aspect is that it contrives that all the characters’ names are taken haphazardly from Beatles songs. Jude (Jim Sturgess) is a fatherless dockworker from a dreary, Dickensian Liverpool, naturally. Leaving his girlfriend behind and signing up to work on a transatlantic ship, he sails to America in search of his father, whose last known address leads to Princeton University. After finding out his father is not a professor as he’d imagined but, rather, a janitor, he meets mischievous Max (Joe Anderson) and his sister, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), with whom he ends up spending a summer of love in New York City. The tepid romance that blooms between Jude and Lucy starts to fade as Lucy becomes involved with a radical antiwar group after Max is shipped off to Vietnam. Lucy, the one mildly “political” character, isn’t convinced of the revolutionary dogma espoused by the weathermen-like party leader whose sway she falls under—rather, the audience is led to believe that she mostly just thinks he’s cute. These people don’t seem to represent even the most superficial aspects of the Sixties, nor do they seem to exist within their own constructed reality.

The supporting players who randomly appear in the lives of the main characters are even more problematic. During their tame summer, Max, Lucy, and Jude cohabitate in their apartment (which has got to be the most squarest commune ever) with Prudence (TV Carpio), Sadie (Dana Fuchs), and Jo Jo (Martin Luther). These “extras” are the least developed and the most pointless: Sadie and Jo Jo are cheap imitations of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, respectively, while Prudence resembles no one in particular—she has absolutely no interiority, no perceivable motivation or personality, and appears with very little back-story (it’s inferred that she is a lesbian, but she is never allowed intimacy with anyone).

Trying to ascertain what Prudence represents leads one down another long and winding road. Throughout the film I continually tried to spot references to the Beatles’ autobiography, which became a kind of game: which Beatle was the working-class Jude supposed to be? Or was it just enough that that he had a mop top and was from Liverpool? Is Prudence, the only Asian woman in the film, supposed to be a vague nod to Yoko? Or perhaps, more offensively, was she merely a reminder of the Vietnam War? This seems plausible considering that in one scene she asks draftee Max, quite literally, if he secretly dreams of raping and pillaging little girls who look like her in Vietnam. In another musical sequence, a group of Asian women with long black hair and painted white bodies are dancing in a rice paddy, suddenly falling backwards in slow motion—Prudence stands in front of them, the only one without a mask. The least integrated or integral character, Prudence sticks out from the film, but also best represents what’s wrong with Across the Universe. The director can’t decide whether she wants to make a fantastical Beatles biopic or a swinging sixties pastiche. The plot is narrow, the characters convoluted, and the film suffers from a tiresome, banal literalism.

The director’s confusion extends even to her art direction, normally the obvious main attraction of any Julie Taymor production. By incorporating her background in live performance into her film work, she often brings a unique set of aesthetic choices that, even when they don’t quite work, are admirably risky for American cinema. Yet here, the few brief forays into psychedelia are neither narratively motivated nor metaphorically touch upon the1960s experience, appearing disconnected and unmotivated, much like everything else cursorily touched upon in the film, from the Civil Rights movement to the activism of the radical left. Case in point: the visually flat bus sequence with Ken Kesey–like character Dr. Robert, played by Bono sporting a cringe-worthy American accent and cowboy hat; it’s an acid-infused road trip represented as a series of nauseatingly quick cuts of Taymor’s squeaky clean cast laughing and rolling around as bus passengers. In a subsequent scene, Eddie Izzard, as a Cockettes-like Mr. Kite, proves to be the only one playing his part with sufficient ironic distance, and in effect creating the perfect musical theater interpretation of Sixties acid casualty, as though seen from another planet.

Taymor’s interest seems most piqued when dramatizing the Vietnam war, as these are the strongest scenes in the film. When Max, after getting his draft papers, is sent for his military medical exam, Taymor breaks into full Titus mode: fascistic lines of soldiers wearing foreboding masks with exaggerated square jaws and enormous boots stripping the young men down and treating them like cattle—the stock scene of the induction of the new and ambivalent soldier turned into theatrical spectacle. Similarly campy is a number in which the young recruits carry the Statue of Liberty across a tiny model of the jungles of Vietnam, crushing tiny trees with their enormous boots while singing “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” Yet as visually coherent as these gestures are, Taymor never fully develops the idea of mediation into the core of her aesthetic choices. Even when she later intercuts what appears to be actual stock footage from the war with TV images of Max in Vietnam, she’s nodding to previous representations of the 60s, both theatrical and filmic, but never fully engaging with them, barely scratching the surface of what the Vietnam meant not just for soldiers but for an entire generation of spectators. Aside from a throwaway line about the impact of watching the war unfold live on television, Taymor drops the idea entirely, settling to switch between earnest nostalgia and parody with no artistry. In the end, Taymor doesn’t appear to be able to tell the two apart.

Now that we see how the utopian movements of the 1960s were a failure, and how the same generation was to betray those values it had allegedly embraced a mere decade later, Across the Universe seems all the more hollow. Today civil rights are disappearing daily, public schools are being threatened with re-segregation, the average family is a lot worse off economically, and we’re stuck in another war without end. Baby boomers such as Taymor can only respond by pawning off the Sixties as nostalgia to a younger generation, appealing to them with glossy studio polish, and making diminutive and harmless the problems of an era whose activist failures still haunt us. There is nothing subversive about revisiting the Detroit riots with a gospel version of “Let It Be” blaring in the background; in fact, it’s a rather self-serving, arrogant gesture to use a Beatles song to represent the revolution against hundreds of years of brutality and racist oppression in the U.S.

Taymor is grasping at straws, trying to make Beatles lyrics fit every aesthetic and social movement of the Sixties. To follow her logic, the audience would have to accept the claim that the Beatles inspired an entire generation to end the Vietnam war, demand civil rights, and establish their sexual identities. While that claim seems dubious at best, one thing is for certain: the only way this film would incite a new generation of kids to action is for them to download Beatles songs onto their iPods.