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Across five and a half decades

I re-watched the Blu-ray of Across the Universe, the musical featuring the troubles of the Vietnam-war era youth to the music of the Beatles. It struck me as a well- made movie and yet far removed from the era it depicted. As for the well-made, there is good art direction and intelligent photography. The Blu-ray preserves the shadow detail, important in many scenes; a DVD might not have sufficed. Roger Ebert is quoted on the case notes saying this “re-imagines America in the turbulent late-1960s”, which is a good way to put it. The film does not try to portray the 60s so much as to symbolize them. The writers have forced in the leading themes and iconic moments mentioned by culture pundits as indicators of the 60s. There are the black and white television news clips, the Vietnam war as if staged on an Apocalypse Now set, some very unhistorical riot scenes (with the US Army sniping at Black arsonists from windows), and of course, many musical performances. These manage to squeeze the early sixties to the Woodstock era into the space of about a year, with most of the people looking like they walked out of the seventies. On the whole the musical performances are a cut above the talent level of the typical sixties musicians, whose live performances were sloppy, and whose records were recorded by studio musicians such as Glen Campbell. The film’s music comes off fairly well, with the early Beatles songs losing their crassness (though experienced as exciting in their time). Most remote from reality are the people. Besides looking wrong, they communicate effectively. Lucidity and clear thinking were alien to American youth of the time, and nothing shows it more than the cant that filled their speech. “Hey man, that’s a heavy trip man, blah, blah, blah.” Watch the Woodstock movie and pay attention to the interviews. Then there is the matter of the war protests. There was no peace movement, only a help-the-commies-win movement. Many useful idiots would mouth slogans, but anyone with a concept of what they were doing was a Red. The people in the film who rally come across as of that era are the organizers of “Students for Democratic Freedom”, intended to represent the actual SDS. They are soon making bombs (incompetently – they blow themselves up) much like the Weather Underground. The leaders of the campus radicalism (and this is something the movie seems to get right whether by design or accident) were pre-Beatles, pre-hippie people from a time when articulated theory still mattered, and by the period of the movie were in graduate school. But here is the truth about the sixties: both the leftist political side and the hippie side were creations of people born in the thirties and were take up by a wave of people born in the mid to late forties. After that there were just runaways and losers who grew their hair long and smoked dope. There is now an increasing suspicion that the whole movement was manufactured. David McGowan, in Weird Scenes Inside the Canyon: Laurel Canyon, Covert Ops & the Dark Heart of the Hippie Dream, documents how the Laural Canyon bands appeared suddenly, were presented with new instruments and with recording contracts while still trying to learn their instruments. The same musicians had family connections to military intelligence, and elite eastern families, with improbable frequency. (McGowen, with his Irish resentment of the successful, goes too far, and tries to make something of even their distant ancestors, shared by hundreds of thousands if not millions of people, myself included.) A more cautious book is Tom O’Neill’s Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties. As it happens, when I first saw Across the Universe I had just finished reading Richard Wolin’s The Wind From the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s. I was impressed by the great divide between the American scene in 1968 and the intellectual-ridden French events of May and following on. Though people in America were reading Marcuse, which seems the closest analogue, the French theory nonsense did not take effect here until much later, and by then nobody who was interested in anything with relevancy paid it any heed. By then it was just a game for useless professors and their graduate students (who were mainly trying to figure how with get though life with enough income to buy fancy wines, but without have to work a real job). While the French students obsessed with how to achieve solidarity with the workers and thus become “authentic”, their American contemporaries, to the extent that they had adopted the sixties ethos, wanted to distance themselves as far from Joe Sixpack as possible. (See, e.g. the movie Joe.) Across the Universe is, then, is a celebration of high points of the media’s representation (falsification) of a synthetic era. The real universe of the movie is that of media imagery and movie quotation. It is a celebration of the pop-media memories of the sixties. This illustrates points made in Jacques Ellul’s The Humiliation of the Word. The movie has only to evoke the iconic images of the era to represent it. It does not matter to its creators that the originals have been staged, or were only symbols of some agenda to begin with. They aim not at authenticity but at creating a sort of mythic sixties. Images convey a sense of reality, an impression of truth, that in contrast to verbal claims, bypasses the critical faculties. For thousands of years our ancestors told each other lies, but except for a few artists at limited times and places, they could not, before printing and photography, easily show lies. Culture, consequently, is much more strongly armed against verbal deception than the visual. What works very well for the movie is the grasp of the artistic sensibility of the era, such as making use in a few scenes and in the credits of the technique then called posterization (because it was a cheap way to make posters) that inverted colors and accented outlines. This was because of the limited technology available then – there was no Photoshop – and soon fell out of use. They also avoided the early seventies hippie look of tie-dyed clothing, etc., which must have been a temptation, as it is a very cheap and colorful way to evoke almost the same era. This enhances the sense that the film understands its subject, when what it really understands is the popular art and media. But maybe that is the subject.