Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Theme As Blunt Instrument: Across the Universe, a.k.a. The Beatles Were Super Cool

The other night I watched Across the Universe and though I watched it in its entirety, I almost didn't.

Sound tracks can be used to great effect in movies, and they can also start intruding. This movie was made out of Beatles songs, and very explicitly so. After all, three of the characters are named after the songs - all of which are in the movie. Okay, so it's a musical, right? Having loads of songs is what musicals are all about. Yeah, I'll give you that. But, when I was watching the movie and realized that the writers tacked together a collection of songs then said, "Now, what plot can we come up with to match it?" I gave up on caring about the plot and the characters.

I get the impetus to make the movie. The songs are, by and large, great ones. When you stitch them together, you do see a story. However, where it went wrong was emphasizing quantity over quality. If you could cut out a third of the songs from the movie, write more dialogue and tweak some character and plot points, I think it would work beautifully. As-is, forcing so many songs creates story-telling schizophrenia. It's more "how can we get this song in?" than "how do we best tell this story?"

Some of the songs were used well - the Let it Be montage sticks in my mind as particularly effective - but many songs/scenes were superfluous. As much as I love Eddie Izzard, his bit was pretty irrelevant. But hey, they got a psychedelic bit out of it, right?

Anyhow, this brings me around to the question of motifs, themes, running gags, etc. Done well, they add another level to a story. The recurring conflict of reality vs. "truth" in The Things They Carried is what makes the book work. The constant showcase of Beatles songs in the film ultimately made me loose interest.

More specifically, this brings me around to thinking about my thesis. My "unifying theme" refuses to stick to one thing consistently (as evidenced in this very blog) and is stubbornly remaining fluid. I keep getting nearer to nailing down what I'm going for, but I haven't quite got the "click" yet. Right now one part that seems more clicky than anything else so far is this question of animate vs. inanimate and changing one into the other. It works as part of my unifying theme, but doesn't feel like it's enough to be the theme in its entirety.

So, how do I figure my theme? How subtle should it be to keep from being overpowering? How overt should it be to keep from being lost? So far, my thoughts on the subject have leaned toward having a pretty explicit unifying factor in the thesis. I want to make sure it's clear, right? However, after watching the movie and thinking about it a bit more, I'm realizing that my first impulse leans toward overdoing it.

Now, some questions for you guys:
When you talk about the effective use of a theme/motif, what examples do you tend to use? Do you have a good example about overdoing it? What's the best way to find that happy medium in utilizing an over arcing theme? Are there particular types of themes that tend to work best?


Mishell said...

I loved Across the Universe. Mostly for the same reasons you disliked it. I loved the randomness of the music thrown in at odd moments. Though Eddie's song was not my favorite of the film (that honor goes to I Want to Hold Your Hand or maybe Across the Universe,) I thought it worked really well after the acid trip bus ride with Bono singing I am the Walrus (coocoocachoo, baby.) I mean, here they just took this wild bus ride and they land in LaLa Land. It's fitting. Anyhow, for me, the story was the music, the music wasn't the story. (Did that make sense? I don't know. It's getting late, and I'm a little punchy.)

As far as your thesis works having a over-arching theme, I see the necessity of it, but as my taste in the aforementioned movie shows, why does that theme have to be strapped tight? Why can't there be a little fuzzyness in it. Not a lot, but just enough to make the reader question exactly what you're trying to say. You know, be a little like Hemingway and add some ambiquity.

Ali said...

You've gotta love diversity of taste :)