The 60s Counterculture as Musical

Curator's Note

After weeks of reading critiques of realist representations of the past in class, my students suggested we go see Across the Universe. If the danger of realist cinema is that we think that we know too much, that the form promises a knowledge and mimesis it cannot deliver, what of a cinema that abandons realism, promises nothing but spectacle? The Julie Taymor movie is an impressionistic take on the 60s and the youth counterculture, told through the songs of the Beatles and the story of a couple of upper middle class white youth who reject the suburbs and Ivy League education for the grit of a countercultural Manhattan. A few of the movie’s moments, such as the song and dance in the draft office (segment shown here), choreograph movement, image, and song into impressive critique. Staging the drat exam of one of said upper middle class disaffected youth to the Beatles’ “I Want You,” the scene uses choreography and animation to pointedly depict a the military as a dehumanizing machine. The soldiers’ faces morph into masks; they become more robotic than human. The draftees are fed down the conveyor belt into a machine that encases and processes them in the rest of the song (not shown), rendering them into so many body parts. In this scene, a love song turns into a timely critique of military training and induction. However, the rest of the movie seems to do just the opposite: turn the tumultuous and wrenching events of the 60s into style, the backdrop for a love story. The young people leave the suburbs for the counterculture in search of love, or just excitement—not as a rejection of the values or future the suburbs embody. The film promises no knowledge, just spectacle. But in packaging the 60s as a musical love story, the decade becomes a style to be consumed.

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