November 27, 2010

My Favourite Music Videos: "Across the Universe" (1998, d. PT Anderson)

Fiona Apple - Across The Universe
Uploaded by samithemenace. - Watch original web videos.

Of the four videos Paul Thomas Anderson directed for then-girlfriend Fiona Apple, this one, their first collaboration, is by far my favourite, though "Paper Bag" is quite good and indicates that Anderson has a glitzy Hollywood musical in him--or at least a Pennies from Heaven-style critique of one. The other two might represent him getting some delayed student-film impulses out of his system, and consequently they're somewhat risible in their contrived artiness. He's still recognizably himself in "Across the Universe," doing relatively long takes (especially for the medium), shooting in 'scope*, and even slipping in a John C. Reilly cameo.

Rejuvenating a music-video standby (fiddling while Rome burns), "Across the Universe" is a tie-in clip for Pleasantville that takes place in that film's soda shop and re-enacts--with a visceral impact and visual sumptuousness that makes you wish Anderson had helmed Pleasantville instead of Gary Ross--the riot visited upon it by the titular town's black-and-white residents, who object to the polychromatic painting decorating its glass façade. (Here, unlike in the movie proper, the park bench that goes flying through the window has the ferocious impact of Mookie's garbage can, shocking colour out of the image.) But dollying into the establishment, Anderson gets comically distracted by the pretty girl: snaking illogically but determinedly around a corner and past the looters as if following the siren song, the camera finds the mesmerizing Apple, looking for all the world like a flower child drawn by Disney. She's wearing headphones, and her presence seems to have a similar effect on Anderson, who blots out the world with blissful ignorance. Oh, he tries to zoom out or pan away from her, snatching a few choice glimpses of dreamily-choreographed mayhem in the process, but he clearly can't resist the magnetic pull of her face. While plenty of videos fetishize the hot singer chick, so few of them feel like this, that is to say genuinely infatuated; and those moments when Apple's not on screen suggest a bashfulness on the part of Anderson more than anything else. (The unwavering use of slo-mo is definitely a contributing factor to the sense of lovestruck awe, reminding of that cornball homily from Big Fish: "They say when you meet the love of your life, time stops.") Before long she engages him (or is it the other way around?) in a kind of flirtatious game of chicken, testing him as she tilts her head to the side and what we'll call his P.O.V. follows suit until both are upside-down defying gravity. It's silly, it's romantic, and it's the kind of abstract idea that lends itself to the music-video form. Behold, the stupidity of the mutually besotted.

I think of Tarantino's pastiches as letting me see all the schlock that influenced him through rose-tinted glasses. Similarly, it's hard to come away from this video not pining a little for Fiona Apple, because the piece is so palpably taken with her. That her cover of this Beatles favourite is gorgeous just adds icing to the cake.

*Unfortunately, I couldn't find a version of it in its original aspect ratio on the Internet.


Alex Jackson said...

This is a favorite of mine as well. I saw Pleasentville at precisely the right time and place. I was in high school in Utah at the time. And I still really like it, I think the idea behind it is much too strong to really mess up and I like the scenes between Tobey and his surrogate and biological moms.

But yeah, still, it's not as good as the music video that it spawned. A PT Anderson helmed Pleasentville would have been incredible. If only he'd occasionally be willing to make features for hire instead of only direct his own stuff.

This is a very good feature by the way.

Bill C said...

Thanks, Alex. I hope to keep this one up; was raised on music videos, really, and they're a dying art that needs eulogizing.

I don't hate PLEASANTVILLE, for what it's worth. Wish it was smarter, though.

corym said...

If only he'd occasionally be willing to make features for hire instead of only direct his own stuff.

I'm always kind of excited when a good director is brought on as a hired gun. It's nice to see an artist you love forced out of their comfort zone a bit. It's funny, though, seems to be mostly happening with comic book movies these days. Raimi, Nolan, Singer. Now Aronofsky and Branagh are jumping in.

What other hired-gun movies are out there? Intolerable Cruelty? Prisoner of Azkaban? Everything Coppola did in the 90s, including Godfather Part III? Any favorites?

Alex Jackson said...

In the olden days the auteur theory said that a director was one if he was able to put his own personal stamp onto other people's material. Writers/directors didn't count because it was all about the tension between the artist and the material.

There's probably no major director who illustrates this more fully than David Fincher. I don't think that any of his films really originated with him and yet every one of them is unmistakenly a David Fincher film.

Anonymous said...

Even Benjamin Button? I don't see a single fingerprint of his on that mess.

KayKay said...

"Even Benjamin Button? I don't see a single fingerprint of his on that mess."

I do. In the almost surgical precision with which the effects were rendered.

I got not one iota of the sentimentality Fincher was aiming for, but am mesemerised at the ageing CGI employed which makes it textbook Fincher.

From the negative warping of Seven, to a newscast coming alive in The Game, to a bullet through a cheek in Fight Club to the camera zoom through a keyhole in Panic Room, Fincher's signature has always been the seamless rendering of stylish filmic tics so fluid it takes awhile before you realise..."Fuck! That was cool!"

KayKay said...

On another (sad) note:

"Surely, you can't be serious?"

"I am serious, and don't call me Shirley"

RIP, Lt.Drebin.

James Allen said...

R.I.P. Frank Drebin

I would've posted earlier, but he wasn't dead yet.

"It's a topsy-turvy world, and maybe the problems of two people don't amount to a hill of beans. But this is our hill. And these are our beans!"

jer fairall said...

And now Irvin Kershner, too.

Methinks this is shaping up to be a very bad week for my childhood.

Jefferson Robbins said...

It's impossible to watch Leslie Nielsen's early straight films anymore, because his post-AIRPLANE! career retroactively makes every word he says funny.

And it's kind of sad that Irvin Kershner's biggest legacy in the public mind will be "the guy people use as a cudgel to beat George Lucas over the head," but that's what happens when you work for people who soil their own legacy over the long term.

KayKay said...

RIP Irvin Kershner.

Pity the other sequel he directed had quite the opposite effect of Empire.

Robocop 2 wasn't bad per se, just that it didn't cushion it's unrelenting nastiness with biting satire the way Verhoeven did so brilliantly in the original.

O'JohnLandis said...

I'm uncomfortable with the idea of retiring the original Fight Club review. The purpose of an archive is access to old stuff. That's all. It's hard to know for sure what people like/prefer, and even if you think Walter's piece is better, it's better still to have two voices on the record.

Mr. Lucas, let us have both.

Bill C said...

@O'John: I suppose I should show more, i.e., some, reverence for my work.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...


I agree with O'John, both yours and Walter's views on Fight Club should be up. But it was good to see Walter's thoughts about it finally expressed in a review. From what I read in Walter's American Beauty review I suspected he may like it less.

Irvin Kershner... well, lest we forget, he also did Never Say Never Again. Funny that the one real standout of the Star Wars films is probably the only Hollywood film of Kershner's with any value. Also: a Robocop sequel? An unofficial Bond film? Not to mention The Empire Strikes Back? That's about as "hired gun" as you can get.

More hired gun directors for you...

Nick Castle - The Last Starfighter was more of a collaborative effort, to me.

Peter Weir - the real voice in The Truman Show belonged to Andrew Niccol.

Steven Spielberg, pre-Close Encounters - Weren't The Sugarland Express and Jaws more "Zanuck/Brown Productions"?

John Badham - He directed two films that I hold in very high regard, films that Walter rated highly (SN Fever, WarGames) - and yet he wasn't first choice director on either.

Richard Marquand - Apart from being hired to direct RotJ, how else did he stand out?

There's more, I'm sure...

Finally - Jefferson, great point about the now late Leslie Nielsen. I was born the year Airplane! came out and hence I never even realised he was a serious actor until my knowledge of films broadened.

What comic timing he had - "I just wanted to tell you both, good luck! We're all counting on you!" - until it began to wear thin post Naked Gun 33 1/3.

Which reminds me - how about a review of the original Police Squad! TV series? For some reason, Drebin's far less of a bumbler on TV than on the big screen...

Patrick said...

Harry Potter must be one of the most clueless heroes this side of Keanu Reeves. Thankfully, he is the hero in a series that at the end reveals all the cogs and wheels that ensure the plot is moving along, and naturally revolving around him, as well. By which I mean I understand why the trailer for HP7 almost exclusively contains scenes from part two – part one is mostly perplexing and boring. Might be because all the actors you like to see are only there for mere moments, but most likely it's because any semblance of narrative is lost early on. Things happen, and often they also don't happen, probably because it's not yet time, and Potter is the hero because he has a scar and has two friends who know stuff and do stuff, sometimes.

Three stars? Yes, there were some great moments here, isolated moments in the very sense of the word. And it looked good, I guess, but if WB wants my money twice, the least they can do is polish this thing. The best moment is possibly the very first, which gets a callback when Hermione treats the Death Eater at the shop. But ***/****? That's a little too generous for me.

Walter_Chaw said...

Tim Burton

Dan said...

Peter Weir - the real voice in The Truman Show belonged to Andrew Niccol.

I see what you're getting at, but Weir's own ideas had a BIG impact with the script's development. Niccol's original draft was much darker, nastier and urban. Weir gave it that lighter, breezier tone and style. Which I think was a wise move. Plus he got a good dramatic performance out of Jim Carrey. I don't feel like he was a hired gun for Truman Show, really.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reply, Dan. On reflection, I suppose who you perceive as a "hired gun" depends on how much you believe in the Auteur Theory.

It's true that Zanuck & Brown hired Spielberg to helm Jaws.

Then again, it's also true that most of his personal touches are there, such as his skill with visuals and suspense, and also, for better or worse, his use of women and children to elicit an emotional response. It just happens to be free of the sentimentality that clouds his work from E.T. onwards... and, not surprisingly, E.T. was the first of his films on which he held a Producer credit.

Hmm... maybe, when you're talking about hired gun films, you're talking about films that could have been directed by anyone. School Of Rock, maybe? Orange County? The Bond films? (That said, the Campbell-Meheux partnership gave us the franchise's finest film in nearly forty years...)

Dan said...

@Si: Yeah, I take "hired gun" to mean a director of a certain standard who can shoot a screenplay competently enough to release, and the film will do its basic job.

It just won't be anything special because the director isn't particularly engaged with the material, and therefore isn't bringing any of his own vision to the thing. And that's not the case with Peter Weir on Truman Show.