This past weekend I decided to fire up the Roku and spend a cold winter's day watching a streamed movie from Netflix. I try and watch the films that are scheduled to expire the soonest. If they do expire soon after I watch them, I avoid wasting a half a week waiting for them to arrive on DVD.
I decided to watch Across The Universe, Julie Taymor's 2007 musical set in the 1960s and using the music of the Beatles as catchy show tunes. I had read some decent things about it. The reviews were mostly positive, with reviewers specifically pointing out how good the movie looked. And it did look good.
The movie's general story is about Jude. Jude is a British kid working in a dockyard in Liverpool, England who was fathered by an American soldier during World War II. Jude decides to travel overseas to America, and he finds his father as a custodian at the Princeton University campus. He soon meets a Princeton student named Max and the 2 become fast friends. They move to New York and are soon joined by Max's sister Lucy. Max is soon drafted and sent to Vietnam while Jude and Lucy live out a romance against the backdrop of the "volatile" 1960s.
I didn't enjoy it. I thought it was rather shallow and predictable, and the use of Beatles songs (which at times were completely misinterpreted) bordered on criminal. The movie looked good, but it was mainly a mash-up of Hair and Moulin Rouge. In other words, it probably won't win any awards for originality.
What really struck me, however, was how two-dimensional it portrayed the 1960s. It was like the writer had a checklist of the 60s and carefully ticked off each item as production progressed. The hippies were fun loving, recreational drug using peaceniks: check. People got drafted and went to war, even when they didn't believe in it: check. People protested, sometimes violently: check. It was all there, and it all felt very uninspired.
Across the Universe has an inexplicable modern feel to it, even though it is set in the past. It almost presents the 60s with a packaged nostalgia, like it came in a box labeled "Make your own memories of the 60s". It was trying to present the 60s in a way that lets the kids of the 21st century claim the 60s for themselves. The movie presents a false nostalgia for kids for whom the 1960s is becoming ancient history. And it's this false nostalgia that I take issue with, and I realized this isn't the first (or last) time this has happened in a movie.
Hollywood seems to be presenting us with more and more strangely nostalgic films. Being a child of the 80s I grew up with many of the properties movie studios are trying to sell today. Transformers, G.I. Joe, The A-Team, were all things I watched when I was younger. But I don't think I'm the audience these properties are for. These are aimed more squarely at kids that grew up in the 90s and the 2000s.
A friend told me the other day how an 18 year old acquaintance of his complained of how the new Indiana Jones and Transformers movies ruined childhood memories for him. (he used a more vulgar statement) But how? These were created during the 80s. He wasn't born until 1990 or later. How can he complain about a sequel to a movie that was released in 1989?
But Across the Universe, and things like the video game Beatles Rock Band, seem to really be reaching. The 60s were a long tome ago, with the summer of love more than 40 years past. How can kids today even relate to things like the draft? We've had 2 wars and there has been no serious discussions about re-instating the draft. They live in a very different world from the 1960s. I can't imagine they have the same understanding of racial inequalities, drug use, or the sexual revolution that young adults did who grew up in those times, let alone be able to identify with characters in a movie about those times.
Perhaps this repackaging is a result of people who did grow up with these properties and ideas. For a long time former "hippies" have tried to convey how great their college years were, often siting Woodstock, street protests, and recreational drug use as romanticized centerpieces. Perhaps these same people, now in charge of industry and government, want to pass their own memories and youthful ideas on to the younger generation. Maybe this helps them to feel that their youth meant something more than what it was. After all, most of the baby boomers grew up and left their values lying by the side of the road, forgotten in the wake of their own self-interests.
We're in a strange point in our popular artistic culture. We are surrounded by remakes, reboots, and repackaging of franchises and cultural moments that came before. And this is happening across media platforms, including game consoles, television, and movies. The entertainment industry is completely focused on their key young demographic at the expense of everyone else. Hopefully, like most trends, this one will run out of steam and we will see a new era of originality in the near future.