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Sunday, April 1, 2012

"Not now, mother, I got a headache": Yahoo Serious' Tree of Life, "Young Einstein"

Welcome. It's the Niles Files' second April Fools blog. Hi! If you're really bored and life is pointless, check out last year's entry on Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. Have a good day!
The recluse artist doubles for the great enigma of Art. He reflects the deep mystery, the magnificent consonance that rhythmically flows together in a hymn with which the soul finds unexpected kinship and is so teleported back to a place that existed before we were born – as a species it would seem, much more than as individuals. We oftentimes credit such stuff to an author, a “creator,” a God, even though a work of art, like life itself, is baffling and capacious enough to suggest that no author is worthy of its splendour. We are fascinated. We are held in aesthetic arrest and rapture. And we are fascinated more so in realizing the disappearance or silence of the artist, the emissary of the mysteries, be it Salinger, Pynchon, Kubrick, Malick, or the gods of all of the creation myths. The reclusive voice is like the ambient sound of Nature under a night sky: a presence there and yet not there, an omniscient void. More than any of the aforementioned personages, that sentiment applies to the subject of this piece, Yahoo Serious: a writer, a director, a producer, a musician, and an actor of unmatched skill in creating immortal screen images, characters, and montages. His first film, the startlingly moving and complex Young Einstein, perhaps the greatest of the last century’s mainstream movie biographies (perhaps matched only by the 1959 biographical film about Jans Enfeld, the Swedish diplomat who led Stockholm out of a deadly sewage crisis, Tore Biggum’s Brown-Town), is more than a fulfilling true-story of a rebel and genius: Young Einstein suggests the whole scheme of existence. It contains multitudes, finding a universe in a pinprick – or atomic explosions in the bubbles of beer.
It’s that first masterpiece that I want to briefly explore, though surely volumes could be – and have been – written about this film that reimagines Albert Einstein as a Tasmanian rock and roll physicist and beer-bubble maker. Yet according to the recent Serious biography, Young Reckless Accidents by Puddy (pronounced “Pootie”) Swarthemaker, Serious’ crowning success was also his most severely compromised endeavor, an accidental epochal work that was butchered by its financiers and only partially re-assembled after Yahoo Serious and his close-knit circle of collaborators reacquired a working print (by reacquire, I mean to say Serious personally broke into Buckingwood Studios Australia, took hostages, threatened a secretary at gunpoint, and nabbed the print before making a daring getaway to France, where Serious tried to edit the film back to his original specifications). Indeed, if we look closely at Young Einstein, particularly its lush and picturesque first act at the Einstein apple orchard (referencing a lost Eden) in Tasmania, we can spot clues to missing footage that would have fed deeper into the themes the filmmaker was wishing to explore: that is to say, the dichotomy of the Father and the Mother – Nature and Grace.
Swarthemaker obtained one of the few remaining copies of the original Young Einstein shooting script, where we get an idea of the audacity of Serious’ ambition. At a formidable 240 pages, Young Einstein was conceived as a trilogy of life stages: the first film was to be the apple orchard in Tasmania; Part II was Einstein’s subsequent struggle on the mainland of Australia, where he doubles with his adversary, Preston Preston (played by John Howard); Part III was to be a delirious Shock Corridor-influenced thriller, beginning with the climax of what is now the finished film, as Einstein reverses an atomic bomb by absorbing the energy into the force of his rawkin’ electric guitar, and then cutting back and forth with increasing frenzy to the scenes set in the Mad Scientist’s section of the prison. The picture ended on a note of morbid ambiguity, as Einstein apparently allows one of the infamous “cat pies” to go through the baking process, eats the pie, and deludes himself into thinking that he is one of the “Thundercats,” a popular action-figure/cartoon line of the 1980s: Einstein’s relativity and atomic theory has become the insanity of the twentieth century. He defies space and time, giving life and taking it (we don’t know if he succeeds in dismantling the bomb in Serious’ original version; Preston Preston, Einstein’s double in addition to being his own double – hence the name – proceeds to go through with a new cloning system, and there are implications that he succeeds in making Marie Curie his Overlord Queen as he rules the world and leads the next century into an Era of Great Darkness).
A key scene reveals just how different the version we know and love now is from the original concept. The Einstein household is fraught with tension, as the pacifist Albert dreams of becoming a physicist, against the expectations of his father (Peewee Wilson). Albert’s doting mother (Su Cruickshank) tells him that it’s time for bed, and when Albert bends towards his father to bid him goodnight, the elder Einstein reveals a certain coolness and distaste for displaying affection. Albert then leans on his mother, and they hold each other for a long while. The father is noticeably annoyed by what he sees. (The meaning of the sheep, the silent member at the table, will not be dealt with here, as Ervin T. Boopson has essentially written the most moving and thorough piece on the sheep’s significance in his essay, “The Sheep Pen: Australian Cinema and the Erotic Animal Gaze,” 1997).
Albert goes upstairs and there’s an abrupt cut to a close-up of him as his father asks, “So Albert, you’re a scientist are you?” This is the splicing of two different scenes, originally separated by over 20 minutes of story. Serious was interested in exploring the male/female, father/mother dichotomy in the Einstein story, and there was a bizarre and disturbing Oedipal pattern set into motion that was explicitly laid out, including Albert’s tendency to take naps with his mom as Father Einstein looks on with a glint of envy, and then goes outside to shoot the film’s notorious and legendary Tasmanian Devil (an uncredited Billy Barty). The underlying sexual nervousness of the Einstein family was further reinforced by some choice close-ups that were removed while Albert bathes with the family dishes. When Albert takes out the plates, Mother licks her lips. Cut to Father looking at her, scowling and breathing hard, then a close-up on his hands rubbing against his pants, almost desperately.
These early provocative scenes were deliberately dissonant with the comic fantasy simultaneously unveiling. And they were lost forever when Serious’ backers took the film away from him. The Father represented a stiff command over the environment, as we see him tell his son that he desires Albert to “dam” the family land, instantly drowning the wildlife “in one go.” The Mother is a benevolent force, overseeing things with care, baking her apple pies and making life out of death. It is the Mother, after all, who wants to make love in the film. The Father resists – not once, but twice. “Father…” we overhear the maternal voice say from a distance. “Not now, Mother, I got a headache.” Later on in the picture, Father says, “How about a little light entertainment.” “A little early in the day for that, isn’t it Father?” Mother replies with a smile (significantly, she is slicing apples). Father is agitated, as her remark is reminding him of his impotence (which he sublimates through his dominance over Nature, like damming the valley or squishing a frog): “I was referring to the radio!”
We see how his son has inherited these sexual ambivalences. On the mainland, Albert rents out a room at a bordello, but he is absolutely clueless to the innuendos and come-ons from the surrounding prostitutes (one of whom is played by Serious’ real-life wife Lulu). But most tellingly in the sexual triangulation of Mother-Father-Son is when Marie Curie (Odile Le Clezio) visits Albert in the insane asylum, dressed as a man, claiming to be Albert’s father. She walks into the restroom and shower area, and the two kiss in front of Albert’s fellow inmates: it is a good laugh as he touches her buttocks, ha-ha, yes, but it’s obvious that Yahoo Serious is making a great insight into the unconscious of his character and of the nuclear family (which is to say, atomic family): Father, Mother, Son, and Daughter (as Marie becomes the Einsteins’ daughter-figure at the conclusion) are all one, explosively replicating one another in sex and love – which is to say, creation. The sexual complications are even further reinforced when we consider how Albert’s keeper at the asylum/prison is a surly man in drag. Yang and yin double for yin and yang. Everything, in Einstein’s universe, is relative.
Fortunately, even though the provocative close-ups and added scenes are lost, Serious’ themes – however much more subtle – still are affecting, and his ideas are not lost. We still detect the awkwardness of the Einstein dinner table as Albert is at a crossroads in his life, and it’s just as well, and perhaps very economical, that Serious’ final film immediately jumps to the Beer Bubble chapter of the picture, which builds on the analogy between family and creation. In the family “shed,” where rites of passage between father and son are archetypically passed on, Father shows Albert the beer-making contraption that has been the family legacy. “My father taught it to me,” Father Einstein says about the beer recipe, “He taught it to his father, and his father taught it to his father’s father.” It’s the wonderfully adroit and alliterative wordplay of Yahoo Serious that is further displayed between Preston Preston and Albert when clerical duties are being explained (the famous “Left/Right” scene: “In the right column you write what’s left in.” “Left out right?”), leaving the characters, like the audience, befuddled.
To become a man, Albert must walk away from family, the arms of his mother and the stern protection of his father, and patent the formula for creating beer bubbles. His triumph in putting bubbles into beer is what will “put the Einsteins on the map,” but unless you own an idea, it’s worthless. The picture is telling us about the abstract world of ideas colliding with visceral experience of real life, and how capital greed (Preston Preston) is constantly at odds with that. We have the same problems watching a film: how do we interpret the intellectual ideas put forth by a director while also enjoying the escape of filmed entertainment? The Machine, ironically for Serious considering the cuts made to his vision, manufactures the ideas for mass profit: Preston Preston will steal the Einstein formula for beer bubbles, give it to his Bavarian beer-making partners, and make “lots and lots of money.”
But money, though we treat it as the most important thing in the world, is not reality. Nature is reality, and science the study of that reality. Preston Preston cannot stand Nature, cowering in fear from a lizard (which he mistakes for a snake), while Albert is happily at home in his brothel hotel room, overrun with plant-life and cockroaches. The moneyman cannot reconcile the real world to the abstract idea, and as such, Preston Preston doesn’t realize the danger he creates with his atomic beer-bubble maker. Serious is using Preston Preston as a symbol for the bureaucratic “suit” of Australian culture in the 20th century, who has only the dimmest notion of what it means to be scientific or progressive.
In Preston, we may think of politicians like A.O. Neville (portrayed by Kenneth Branagh in Philip Noyce’s 2002 film Rabbit-Proof Fence), whose policies sought to take mixed-race aborigines and integrate them into white culture. Preston is the double-faced antagonist, his reaching out to the “Other” only being a means for further self-validation and ego gratification (We might also think of Robbie DeBanana’s short film, Dreamtimers, where a white American boy is diagnosed with testicular cancer, is reincarnated as an Australian aborigine, only to be eaten by a crocodile after failing to convince his tribesmen that opening a Zantigo restaurant would be a better idea than Taco Bell). We notice that Yahoo Serious has some references to aboriginal life in Young Einstein, and Albert’s character demonstrates how his genius links with an ability to celebrate disparate cultures: when he splits the beer atom, he has become a black man, and on his journey to the mainland he partakes in nature-games with aborigines. He represents perfect harmony – grace – between the races. Later on, we see how his newest invention, rock and roll (or “roll and rock”) brings the races closer yet still, as he stands close to an aboriginal friend (filmed for American television, indicating an homage to DeBanana). It is a powerful statement on Serious’ part.

The aim of Einstein is no less than the ambition of all art: to elevate a moment, making Time Stand Still and giving intimations of the eternal. There is a paradox in Young Einstein where the scientist seeks to create momentum and movement in rock music, as when “upbeat acceleration is equal to the escape velocity of the downbeat. Upbeat equals downbeat. In that state, gravity rolls to the downbeat, the body rocks to the upbeat,” and the dream of stasis, when Einstein points out a clock to Marie and has the insight: “Light travels to us from the hands of that clock to tell us the time. If we could travel away from that clock at the speed of light – time would stand still! This moment would last forever!” Ironically, cinematic permanence is grasped through Serious’ employment of musical montage: movement, rolling and rocking: the song playing during his discovery of rock and roll is The Models’ “I Hear Motion.” Whether moving across Australia to Icehouse’s “Great Southern Land,” or adjusting to city life to Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls’ “Dumb Things,” the movement of life and creation is hastened and exhilaratingly felt by Serious’ genius employment of music.

In contrast, time without music (creative movement) is death. This is the for-profit bureaucratic office of Preston Preston, whose double name negates the possibility for growth: there is no roll and rock to him. Two clocks, not identical, are positioned at both sides of Preston Preston’s desk: time is different, but still banally the same. Preston Preston’s appreciation for music is limited to classical, and it’s the social posturing of a buffoon: unlike Einstien, who dances to his roll and rock and physically splits the beer atom, Preston Preston cannot put the formula – musically, linguistically (notice his French mispronunciation), scientifically – into a real-world canvas.
Einstein saves the world through music, bringing the thunder of his rock to absorb the atomic energy of Preston Preston’s beer-bubble machine, eliminating the colors with which he was born to become emblematic of an “Infinite Man,” a human being who is himself a work of art. What he brings home to Tasmania with him, along with Marie Curie, is the “Rock and Roll” music, presented as an obviously lip-synched cover song, which is an echo of what Yahoo Serious has done with history: Albert Einstein appropriated as a Tasmanian, the 20th century beginning as a rock concert of intersecting ideas, even if the scientists in question are dead: Marconi, the Lumiere brothers, and Darwin, along with Marie Curie and Albert Einstein, all together as great defenders of freedom against tyranny of the negative appropriations of the Preston Prestons of the world.
The legacy of Young Einstein is preserved, and it remains a stirring classic of cinema. During the climactic moments of the picture, we see Father Einstein embrace his son along with Mother: the family’s markers and limitations have broken down, and harmony is established. This last year, we saw Terrence Malick try to do something similar with The Tree of Life, but it’s obvious that his Nature/Grace Father/Mother creation journey was absolutely derivative of Yahoo Serious. It’s also interesting to note how Malick could only make his film as he approached old age, while Serious was still in his twenties when Young Einstein was released: Orson Welles himself barely exhibited the wunderkind skills of Serious.
Serious has only made two subsequent films, Reckless Kelly (1993) and Mr. Accident (1999), and his absence has been compared to Malick. Rather, I can’t help but compare Malick to Serious. Even with a mere three motion pictures, Serious has (seriously) given us enough profundity to feed on as viewers. Scorsese said that Kubrick’s films were worth ten of everybody else’s. I would make the claim that a Serious film is worth about twelve, possibly thirteen. (The quantitative method for figuring this out is much too complicated for you blog readers to understand, so piss off).
It’s interesting to glance at that last film, Mr. Accident, where once more Serious begins a story by looking at the family and its role in the scheme of creation: Roger Crumpkin (Serious) draws an idyllic family on paper, when his father and mother cruelly remind him that Crumpkins are “parts people,” they split the atoms of existence, taking things apart: “We don’t make things up! We take things to pieces!” Serious’ theme throughout his life has thus been this paradox of how the atom splits and comes back together through human imagination, a timeless longview of the universe that humbles the viewer. Though some have mistakenly dismissed Mr. Accident as an unfinished debacle, it’s clear that Serious was completing what he planned, at the time, to be his final testament as a true artist.
It’s also a seriously angry picture, as Serious takes on capitalism and mass manufacturing. Mass production results in trash, an idea generated visually as we see Crumpkin's apartment building, called "The Future," surrounded by trash. Society, meanwhile, is covered in signposts of Stop and Motion (that familiar Serious theme), as a Stop sign has pedestrian feed underneath it.
The target for Serious' political anger is the tobacco industry, as his villain is now Duxton Chevalier (David Field), a former tobacco executive who has murderously taken over his brother’s egg business. To increase profits, he’s concocted a scheme of inserting nicotine into the eggs, making them addictive. It’s significant that Mr. Accident came out the same year as Michael Mann’s The Insider, a film that is timid when set alongside the magnificence of Serious’ activist moviemaking. Serious’ approach for Mr. Accident shows how he’s become interested in the Body, and the damage that ideas inflict on the Body: the consequences of malignant thought. Crumpkin feeds his beloved goldfish Barry a nicotine-laced egg, leading the fish to become frenzied and hop to its death. Serious does not flinch with his camera as we see the fish hit the ground (from a 100 stories up) and then be squished by an oncoming vehicle.
Serious’ solution is political fantasy. His adversaries are punished in ways that match the twisted ideology informing their methods. Duxton consequently has what is probably the most freaking awesome and coolest death scene in the history of world cinema, his body plummeting hundreds of flights, landing headfirst, the flesh impacing on itself as his feet remain standing erect. Harmony is once again established in the Serious universe, as accidents are wedded to order (the female lead, Sunday Valentine, whose family puts things back together). The picture ends with a misplaced hubcap ascending into intergalactic orbit and finding its extraterrestrial home, departing from our universe as the great director, Yahoo Serious, would also take leave of his audience.
Yahoo Serious and his three masterpieces endure with us, though the filmmaker has left us wondering of what more inspiring visions he can give us. Indeed, after 13 years, it would be hard for him not to disappoint us, and as technology has accelerated, we ask if the timeless Serious, who brought rock and roll to 1906 and saw the universe as a great egg yolk, adapt to the digital age? It’s a challenge that is worth speculating about, and if any filmmaker were to ever step up to the challenge, I believe this man, more than any other director, could capture the spirit of the times – along with the spirit of all time – better than any other scientist or artist. Seriously.
Next Year! Charles Laughton made one film, Night of the Hunter, a classic. The same with ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, whose UHF anticipates the televisual hysteria of the 1990s. We take on Yankovic’s pre-Information Age masterpiece (assuming we don’t all die in December 2012) in the April 2013 edition of the Niles Files April Fools Series.

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