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Across The Universe (Taymor, 2007) is a tribute to the great 1960s band, The Beatles. It showcases, amidst an often wandering narrative, the most important songs of the band’s career. The story follows Jude’s relationship with Lucy, set against the backdrop of the Vietnam war. When Lucy’s brother Max (also Jude’s best friend) is drafted, Max is seen to ascend the stairs of the US Army building as the first bars of the song ‘I Want You’ enter the sound-scape.
The first shot we see of this sequence is a low angle which shows, quite simply, the sheer enormity of the building Max is about to enter. The shot slowly pans down as the foreboding notes of the score play, showing an equally foreboding structure. Within the first few seconds of the sequence we are aware of the Director’s intention; we are to view this building, and the events that happen within, with fear. This is a reference to the fear that the character is about to experience, but also a reference to the fears that the audience holds for the army.
The film was both set and made during times of military fear- the vietnam war and George Bush’s war against terrorism. The film is blatantly declaring its intention; it does not intend to speak well about the military, or the government. Its confidence in this portrayal shows its confidence in a positive reception. It does not expect those watching it to like the US military or government in any way.
As for the building itself, its windows barely deserve the name. Its entranceway is a vast, gaping mouth, waiting to consume every body that enters. It is clear that once you are in, there is no getting out. The building is a visual representation of all of the might of the US Army- and also its ugliness. Taymor uses this building to explicitly tell her audience that Max is not going to escape his appointment with Uncle Sam. It betrays even further her own dislike of the army. She leaves her audience with no avenues of escape- by the very formal choices she makes, she is forcing her audience to interpret the military as she wishes it to be interpreted- it is bad, bad, bad.
The lighting in the first shot, in comparison to its darker elements, is quite golden. It shows that Max, even though he is entering this inescapable fortress, still carries the hope that he will avoid the draft- he hopes to fool his examiners into thinking he is unfit to fight. However, as we see his feet ascend the stairs in the next shot, dark bars of shadow, like prison bars, cross his body; we already know that he is done for. And indeed as he walks through khaki coloured double doors two uniformed soldiers close them behind him, as if they were specifically waiting for him to arrive so they could lock him in. The final frame of the shot is him, silhouetted against what looks like a giant oesophagus- the building is swallowing him whole.
The third shot is the first in the sequence to actually show us Max’s face. As the doors close behind him we see him walking towards us, shoving a cotton ball in his mouth (in the hopes that an X-Ray will show it as a spot on his lung). His face appears calm- until the moment when the first words of the song pierce the bridge between the digetic and non-digetic and Max turns his head in horror to see the figure of Uncle Sam himself reaching out of a poster towards Max. He sings ‘I want you’, the words of the song and the US Army’s slogan.
It is only then that Max seems to notice where he is- the walls glow with the khaki green of the paint, lending everything an almost sickly green light. Uncle Sam, dressed in the US colours of red, white and blue, is a menacing figure on each side of Max, reaching for him. He is the embodiment of the US government and seems almost like a druggy in the desperate way he reaches for Max and sings. Taymor uses him to show the US government’s mindless quest for war, their disregard for human life. She portrays them, as an entity, as addicted to the destruction they create, as a greedy monster, gobbling up all the country’s unfortunate sons who come within their reach.
The next two shots are quick snapshots to reinforce this. The first shows Max’s back as he flees and two uniformed arms pull him back, and then his terrified face as the soldiers drag him through the oesophagus like door under the legend ‘United States Army’. It would be almost poetical if it weren’t so mind numbingly obvious. Taymor screams again and again at the audience ‘THE ARMY IS EVIL. IT WILL EAT YOUR CHILDREN!!!’ They don’t care if your children want to fight for for their country or not; they’re bloody well going to.
In the final three shots in the sequence Max is shoved through the doors in to a long corridor. He stands on a moving conveyer belt, hemmed in on either side by a line of plastic faced soldiers. Each face is a replica of the last and their hands grab him with an almost machine-like precision as they strip him of his clothes before he is shoved off the belt into a holding room. This shot is just dripping with implied meaning. The soldiers are without defining characteristics. They speak of the uniformity of the army, the lack of personality the army allows its members. They almost seem inhuman. In fact, they most look like GI Joe dolls, a plastic product of the time designed to make children fantasize about a life in the army. This resemblance is closely linked to the action they are taking- shoving a man down a conveyer belt.
The allusions to consumer society and the production line is obvious. Taymor is telling the audience that the army produces its soldiers like a toy company produces dolls- it does not care for the individual ‘product’, only the numbers, the profits, and the end result of success. One life does not matter, it is the product that is created, the war that is created (and subsequently won), that is important. This is even further emphasised by the stripping of Max’s clothes. Clothes are a human’s most obvious way of expressing themselves. We use them to show the rest of the world something about ourselves. By stripping away Max’s clothes the soldiers are literally stripping away the visual representation of his personality. They are going to make Max just like them. Another faceless toy in a production line.
The irony is that by forcing her audience, by means of the extremely directed form she has used, to interpret the US Army as an evil entity she has in fact used the same sort of method that the army itself uses to create its soldiers. Film making is a production line that, itself, cares nothing for the individual in its creation. Even directors can be replaced (as the disasterous River Queen (Ward, 2005) production will show us). And by forcing us to experience the Army a certain way she has in fact taken our choice, our individual modes of interpretation and meaning. She herself has actually taken away any personality or humanity that might geninely exist in the army. By showing us the monster she sees, she has inadvertantly become the same monster.
However, Taymor’s intention in portraying the US Army in such a negative light is vital to the overall film. We need to dislike the army because if we didn’t, the characters’ later actions and motivations would have much less impact on us as viewers, thus reducing the overall impact of the entire film. By majorly restricting our options of interpretation Taymor has in fact performed a imperative task. Her methods are not subtle. They are not unique. What they are, is effective. She is clearly a master of manipulation and visual symbolism- which is not to be unexpected in such a respected theatre director. Her form is impeccably pointed- it has a very clear purpose, and it fills it admirably.
Taymor’s main focus in this sequence is clearly on the visual symbolism she can achieve rather than using her cinematic form in an unusual way to create meaning. She has deliberately kept it simple it seems, so as to further focus on the symbols within the shot. The music is complementary to the sequnce, which is cut to match it in turn. To fill the scene with innovative shot choices would detract the eye from the theatrical visuals that Taymor, as a theatre director, is particularly impartial to in her story telling, or from the music itself, which the sequence has been created for. The simplicity of form in this aspect lends the overall feel of her film an almost innocent, child-like appeal which bellies the innocence of the time in which it is set. And perhaps even hints at our own.
Taymor’s intention in this sequence is clear from the outset; it is imperative to the story that we as an audience dislike the army so she has sculpted the scene so we can take no other meaning from it. While a tyranical mode of directing, it is effective and beneficial to the film. We are led to feel the loss of human life and the fear of the army’s production line. We are led to fear war, and its creators. But most importantly we are led to sympathise with the people that we need to sympathise with to enjoy the film. Which is a good thing.
Taymor, J. (Director). (2007). Across The Universe [Motion Picture]. USA: Revolution Studios.
Ward, V. (Director). (2005). River Queen [Motion Picture]. New Zealand/ United Kingdon: Silver Screen Films
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