Friday 21 December 2012

Yellow Submarine (1968)

When I first heard 'Eleanor Rigby' it was just a song in the background.  Perhaps it was in the foreground, but I hardly gave it my full concentration.  Later, when I first paid attention to its lyrics, it became suddenly far sadder.  A dismal, believable picture of the world I lived in.  Ms. Rigby's loneliness is something I've managed to avoid, but Father McKenzie's situation seemed more familiar.  It was a shock to find something so grim from a band I'd assumed, from their popularity and classic status, were habitually happy.  When I was young, I think I assumed happiness and popularity always coupled closely, so the gradual discovery that some Beatles works weren't just pop was confusing.

'Yellow Submarine' is a very odd film.  When first it was shown to me, in wretched-quality download at university, I walked out a quarter of the way through saying that if the Beatles weren't in it nobody would remember it - and that the Beatles weren't in it - the voices are just impersonators.

I was wrong to condemn it as forgettable.  Perhaps it was the difference in picture and sound quality, but this viewing showed it to be something far more precious.  Nothing made by human hands has ever much resembled 'Yellow Submarine' except when directly imitating it - and on this level I couldn't fail to be impressed.  It's a striking set of pictures, but I can't quite make up my mind whether it's beautiful.  Perhaps that means it isn't - but it's deliberate.

Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name.
Nobody came.

The film brought to mind my young confusion about the Beatles.  This is, after all, a whimsical family film, a vehicle for antics, lively banter and puns, a meandering plot to support a string of otherwise unconnected songs and psychedelic experiences.  Isn't psychedelia meant to be fun, if not funny?  One of the songs, though, is 'Eleanor Rigby'.  Another is 'Only a Northern Song', one of many slightly bitter, uncomfortable Beatles works.  Despite my earlier protestations, The Beatles certainly are in this film, in the songs, set alongside or against the characters in the comedy - the real Beatles and the folk-memory of the Beatles.

The plot - Pepperland is encumbered by the Blue Meanies, so a submariner goes to get the Beatles, who make music and champion colour and joy, and so drive away the blues - is simple enough, but scene-by-scene the film is mind-bogglingly unpredictable.  The comedy is occasionally very funny, and had me laugh aloud at a couple of points - but the context is all so strange, both colourful and bleak, with the Beatles often set against empty white backgrounds and similar dearth of background sound, the fun misplaced in a void.  Perhaps this would all make more sense to me if I'd seen it as a child, and could look back on it with the warmth of nostalgia - or seen it in the sixties, when I like to imagine people lived in Nostalgia, or a cloud of Nostalgia-flavoured smoke, as it all happened to them.  As it is, the parts tinged with unhappiness - the emptiness, the tragedy of the songs, and the knowledge of the Beatles' conflicts and end only a couple of years later - make the whole thing seem unsettling rather than lively.

Why don't people a) dress and b) stand like this any more?

This sounds like I didn't, or couldn't, enjoy the film.  On the contrary, I came out of it enthused.  The whole thing was an experience, a dream of images and ideas, like 'Russian Ark' (2002) or the bizarre 1967 'Casino Royale'.  A simple call to peace, revolution and humanism.  It was an experiment, like the equally eccentric and uneven White Album, released the same year, part fun, part angry, part slightly rubbish.

Perhaps, in wanting something more cohesive and straightforwardly enjoyable I'm proving myself square, like the despicably mundane Mr Jones in 'Ballad of a Thin Man' by Bob Dylan, that corrupter or Beatles.  If this had been an easier film to enjoy, it probably would have been far less like the actual Beatles.  The use of cartoon Beatles in a comic fantasy and real Beatles in the songs is more appropriate, I think, than asking the real four to act like pictures of themselves and deliver somebody else's Beatle dialogue.  That way lies 'Help!' (1965), a terrible film when compared to this.  This, at least, looks like a work of art rather than a caper vehicle for four non-actors.

If I haven't put you off the whole fascinating film, why not get a copy - or to save yourself money and support council ventures, borrow it from your local library?

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