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Monday, October 22, 2007


I've fallen in love this past week. With a movie.

Yep, I think I've found my favorite movie of 2007 (though the Disney film Enchanted, which looks like a strong contender, hasn't opened yet), and it's not Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Just yesterday I spent a couple of hours at the cinema for my second trip Across the Universe.

Think of Across the Universe as a rewrite of Hair with a very specific suite of songs. It's really the same stuff, very much the same story. At the dawn of the 1960s, young people figure out that they are human beings and not just extensions of their parents. They reject conformism (which is not worth embracing), they question authority (which deserves to be questioned), they look for new ways to express themselves and be themselves. And thousands of them are fed into the meat grinder of an unjust war overseas, resulting in a figurative civil war between the generations at home. All of this is set to rock-n-roll music--not just any rock-n-roll music, but the rock-n-roll that is widely held to qualify as true art and literature: the music of the Beatles.

One thing you're going to learn in your acquaintance with me is that the things I love are the things I find beautiful. Yes, beautiful in appearance and form, but also beautiful in sound and mind and thought. (For example, The Fantastic Four is, at its best, an exquisitely beautiful comic book by these very criteria.) And make no mistake, Across the Universe is a truly beautiful movie.

Where can I even start to praise this film? Okay, we'll begin with the characters and cast. Across the Universe is structured round a central trio of characters: Jude (Jim Sturgess), Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), and Lucy's big brother Max (Joe Anderson). Of these, only young Ms. Wood is widely known, partly from her role in the TV series Once and Again starring Sela Ward and Billy Campbell. It doesn't matter; they're all great, especially Sturgess and Anderson. The characters are truly endearing and well-played--and these kids can actually sing. The real find is Jim Sturgess in the role of Jude (as in "Hey, Jude") a boy from--where else?--Liverpool, England who comes to the States to find the father who left Jude's mother pregnant after World War II, and ends up finding the love of his life. Jude's journey is the journey of the picture. And young Mr. Sturgess is a wonder. Jude is not a musician (in fact he's an artist), but he is a Beatle to the core. He even looks like them; you'll almost think he's a handsomer reincarnation of John Lennon. And he sings the Beatles' songs like a Beatle! Now I've known people who would consider Jude a very poorly conceived character. Why? Because he is not a creature who wallows in angst and neurosis and is perpetually dogged by inner turmoil. There are people who would reject Jude as someone around whom to build a story because he isn't screwed up enough; his motives are too pure. He doesn't even hate his absent Dad, try as he might. Jude is about exactly one thing. Appropriately for the hero of a story inspired by the works of the Beatles, Jude wants nothing more than love. That's it; just love. Specifically, the love of Lucy, the sister of his new American best mate, Max. Don't confuse purity of character for poor writing; Jude, as played by Sturgess, makes you love him effortlessly. Like all the great innocent and pure-hearted characters of literature and film, Jude reminds us of the way we should all be.

Besides, if there's one thing we know about people with pure motives in fiction and reality, it is that no one else in the world has greater troubles than they. Jude finds his Dad working as a custodian at Princeton University. He also finds a friend and surrogate brother in the fun-loving but unmotivated student, Max, who takes Jude home for Thanksgiving. Jude gets a taste of not only the holiday feast, but all-American family dysfunction, when Max announces at dinner that he's dropping out of college. Before the night is over, Max and Jude will have taken Lucy bowling and Jude and Lucy will have started to fall in love--this, in spite of the girl Jude has left across the Pond and the boy whose return from Vietnam Lucy is awaiting. Max takes Jude to live with him in Greenwich Village, while Lucy gets the devastating news that her boyfriend will not be coming home--alive. Eventually she, too, is off to the Village, and her fate in the arms of Jude. All of this is set to Beatles songs that evoke the joy of being young, having fun, and discovering true love: "With a Little Help From My Friends," "I've Just Seen a Face," and "If I Fell". However, along with Lucy comes dropout Max's draft notice. The military induction sequence, with its Uncle Sam poster that comes to animated life and its ironic use of the song "I Want You," made me think of one thing. This is just like what happens in Star Trek when the Borg get you! As we watch and listen, poor, scared Max is assimilated! "Resistance is futile!" They're going to turn him into a drone and send him off to rape another country in the name of "liberty!" It is awful!

From here, intertwined with the stories of various other characters, things turn very dark for young lovers Jude and Lucy. For all his pure motives, Jude suffers first the loss of his best friend, then the loss of Lucy as her anti-war activism comes between them. After desperately trying to save her from being arrested during a protest riot (his despair at Lucy leaving him and Max's terrible plight is juxtaposed with "Strawberry Fields Forever" and the mystical title song), the heartbroken Jude is deported, while the Max who is sent home from the killing fields is a broken shell of the irresponsible but joyous boy that he was.

As I think of it, this may actually be a much better story than Hair.

If I have one critique of Across the Universe, it is with the middle section of the movie when Max comes under the shadow of the draft, and everyone attends a party where the punch is more than just punch. At this point, things start to get a bit..."trippy". Well, you know from last week's Blog ("October 1987") that I'm not exactly a fan of the drug scene. But I'm going to preface this by saying that it would have been very dishonest for the picture to gloss over the drug consumption of 1960s youth culture and the role that it played in that whole experience. That needs to be in there, or we're not getting the whole, real story. But I do think the psychedelic part of the flick goes on a bit too long. If anything could be trimmed a bit from the film, it's this part. Not eliminated, just abbreviated.

Things get better after the trippy part and the sorrow of Jude losing Max, Lucy, and his life in America. Max does get better, and Jude feels his friend's spirit calling him back to New York to reclaim the one Jude loves; this, of course, set to the tune of "Hey, Jude". And return he does; the two friends are happily reunited (Max, restored to his true character, makes a crack that everything below his waist still works), and Jude makes a beeline for Lucy. The ending--well, okay, I might quibble with how facile it is. Jude joins a rooftop jam session of some other characters, who do happen to be rock musicians, and begins to sing "All You Need is Love" (which might as well be the anthem of the Beatles) into the streets of Manhattan. Jude's friends convince the cops, who want to break it up, to relent with the song's chorus of "Love, love, love" (that's the facile part), while on the adjoining rooftop, Lucy appears. She still loves him, of course. As the war couldn't snuff out Max's love of life, it couldn't snuff out Jude and Lucy's love of each other. But in the words of a song from earlier in the picture, "Let it Be." This is a musical, it is a romance, and in the end, love is what the music of the Beatles was really all about. Pure, simple, young love, as embodied by Jude and Lucy. The triumph of Across the Universe is that it accepts human nature for all of its darkness and cruelty, while reminding us that these things are not all that we are. The pure things, the good things, persist even when we are at our worst. Especially love. That's really all that John and Paul and George and Ringo were trying to say. I always liked the music of the Beatles before seeing Across the Universe. But after seeing this virtual manifesto of the Fab Four, I appreciate it so much better.

I've been listening to the soundtrack of Across the Universe all week, and you can believe I'll be getting the DVD. To this beautiful movie I give "All My Loving". Jai guru deva om.

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