November 27, 2010
My Favourite Music Videos: "Across the Universe" (1998, d. PT Anderson)
Fiona Apple - Across The Universe
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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.