I just watched the Blu-ray of Across the Universe, the musical featuring the troubles of the Vietnam-war era youth to the music of the Beatles. It struck me as a well-made movie and yet far removed from the era it depicted. Lucidity and clear thinking were alien to American youth of the time, and nothing shows it more than the cant that filled their speech. “Hey man, that’s a heavy trip man, blah, blah, blah.” Watch Woodstock and pay attention to the interviews. Plus there was a generational resentment at the time, where the previous generation was accused of hypocrisy and phony values that had landed the sixties generation in a mess that demanded a total break with the past. In its justification we can admit the the period of the movie was before the wave of fuzzy-headedness peaked around 1970, but still the success of The Graduate with its detestation of the Mrs. Robinson generation shows that the the generational resentment was already cresting in the movie’s period. So with its directness and simplicity Across the Universe felt wrong. It was made with the sensibilities of another time. The leaders of the campus radicalism (and this is something the movie seems to get right whether by design or accident) were pre-Beatles, pre-hippie people from a time when articulated theory still mattered, and by the period of the movie in graduate school. I remember when I started graduate study that the manager of the campus bookstore told me that book sales crashed with my generation. I was about a year ahead of my cohort, and the phenomenon had been around for about a year, so it was the generation graduating from college in 1972 and high school in 1968 who were the last to show an interest in ideas.
As it happens, I had just finished Richard Wolin’s The Wind From the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s. Once again I am impressed by the great divide between the American scene in 1968 and the intellectual ridden French events of May and following on. People in America were reading Marcuse, which seems the closest analogue, but the French nonsense did not take effect here until much later, and by then nobody who was interested in anything with relevancy paid it any heed. By then it was just a game for useless professors and their graduate students (who were mainly trying to figure how with get though life with enough income to buy fancy wines, but without have to work a real job). While the French students obscessed with how to achieve solidarity with the workers and thus become authentic, their American contemporaries, to the extent that they had adopted the sixties ethos, wanted to distance themselves as far from Joe Sixpack as possible. (See, e.g. Joe.)
Across the Universe reflects that divide as its awareness reaches no further than Liverpool, and it only crosses the Atlantic because it is a musical based on Beatles music. Vietnam is an unpopulated cartoonish montage of previous Vietnam war movie clichés. The real universe of the movie is that of media imagery and movie quotations. It is a celebration of pop-media memories of the sixties.