National Cinemas: Yellow Submarine

After uploading two of the most depressing British films I can imagine, I decided a nice counter-balance would be in order: a couple of bonus reviews of just about two of the damn cheeriest films in existence. It’s been my pleasure.


Yellow Submarine
is a Beatles film, and this carries certain baggage. Above all, we must have the Beatles – this is the Beatles psychedelia express vaguely hiding as a children’s film after all, and insofar as they are the star of the show, they must be in the film. We must ask of any Beatles film then: what does it reflect about the Beatles as an entity? What is most surprising about 1969’s candy-coated art film, then, is how little a presence they have in the film, and how little import they play even as the narrative (insofar as it can be called one) is wholly about them. I don’t mean this as a negative – their aloof, detached standoffishness, their inability to take any problem seriously, and their seeming lack of interest in really doing much of anything seems wholly intentional. And it is subversive as all hell.

Depicted here, the Beatles are lazy, often clueless children who really don’t significantly play into the narrative at all (that narrative amounts essentially to “bad stuff is happening in an approximation of a place called Pepperland and the Beatles for some reason need to stop said bad stuff from happening, so they ride around in a yellow submarine and spend 90 minutes looking at things and stopping to sing songs for the sake of it and then eventually things are righted almost in spite of the Beatles themselves). The whole film comes off more than anything like a rather wry, fiendish poke at their exuberant, fey brand of theatrical, child-like image. They sound undeniably like children, or impressionist depictions of the very childlike image of the band at this point in time. They quite literally live in a child’s dream mansion where logic is the enemy and imagery runs amok, and they cavort and jovially comment on the film’s events less with a sense of necessary urgency than a distant, private amusement made public.

Most of all, it seems as though they simply cannot possibly take anything seriously (the narrative almost threatens to resolve itself in spite of the band, with the four sort of “remembering” they have to save the day at the last minute). Instead, in their surfeit of spare time, they take to making left-field, free-spirited connection-based comments on the happenings around them that poke fun as much at their environment as the way in which the characters cannot actually relate to it except as unfitting addendums to it. There is an air of light self-critique in the portrayals, a frothy mocking of the image of the Beatles (most notably in how, being voiced by stand-in actors, the four characters sound almost all identical to each other). Following in the footsteps of their other classic film production, A Hard Day’s Night, which was almost entirely about being a pastiche of the mental image one conjures when they hear “The Beatles”, the film is very much about making fun of this image of “The Beatles” and how the image, more than anything, has taken over the place of “The Beatles” as actual, private human beings. None of the characters ever once conveys any human emotion at all other than smug amusement, and when they attempt to express emotion, it’s rolled out onto the screen with the driest parody of their Liverpool accents as to seem droopily artificial, like a child saying they are sad in order to get what they want rather than because they truly feel the emotion. They don’t approach us as heroes of a medium, but as placeholders, as images in a larger tapestry as prey to the medium of artifice and pop-culture as anyone else.

Yet, if it is a light satire of “The Beatles”, and the whole cloth of the childlike, dreamy non-seriousness of the hippy-dippy movement they symbolized, it is also an awe-inspiring ode to these things, more in love with itself and its “late ’60s” aesthetic than probably any single work of fiction from the time period. Certainly, the film is absolutely in love with the Beatles as filtered through their music –  the chosen means by which they let their spirit and intentionality be known, and the true way in which this film is starring “The Beatles” as a musical-performative concept more than as a reality. Less important narratively than for the way the films eschew narrative in favor of pure ecstatic feeling and anarchic playground fuzziness, the Beatles films exist in a world all their own as documents to the moods and playful tones created by music, and an attempt to ascribe concrete visuals to the essence of this music. Yellow Submarine survives as both alien artifact to the swinging ’60s and careening, swirling dance that transcends time precisely for its commitment to the free-flowing stream-of-consciousness feeling of the psychedelic nonsense of the music itself.

The music is anti-narrative, emphasizing a string of events so loose and off-the-cuff as to register more than anything like a child’s dream – this is what someone who had no grasp of narrative or film but  every grasp of simple storytelling and sky-high dreams not filtered through this Earth would create when asked to make a film. It is completely and wholly interested in present-tense moments, and it works precisely for its utter transitive innocence, its subservience to egocentric head trips, and its restless rejection of the gods of narrative progression. It is, most of all, a remarkably distilled tone poem to the spirit of its decade, not a reflection of the ’60s as it existed, but an encapsulation of the “idea of the ’60s” as filtered through the essence of the time as it survives in a collective mental map.  It is no mere soundtrack accompaniment, but instead an exploration of the spirit of music in visual terms.

And that concludes the paragraph where I open about the backbone of the film being the “music” and then go on to not discuss a single song in the film. That’s because the songs themselves need no introduction (although some do actually), but let me indulge myself. We have the loopy title track which sounds intentionally distant and canned, like a children’s song from 100 years ago, and self-reflexively plays with the nonsense of children’s music lyrics while also existing wholly and totally within its own sense of momentous, propulsive nonsense-joy (it’s a song unlike any other in that it has no ego whatsoever). We have the impossibly sad, haunting “Eleanor Rigby” as drippy violin-soaked ode to loneliness at the opposite end of the spectrum. We have the classic naivety of “All You Need Is Love,” perhaps the ultimate statement to the band’s music, the charming McCartney ditty “When I’m Sixty Four” which hides depressing lyrics under spry, ineffectual music. We have the more mocking, even bitter ode to loneliness “Nowhere Man”, on which their harmonies shine like perhaps no other song. We have the spry, lithe, simply fun “All Together Now”. We have the band at the height of their drug-induced sky-high  mysticism in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. We have the impossibly sassy, swaggering, confrontational rocker “Hey Bulldog”. We have the deliciously deconstructionist anti-song “Only a Northern Song”, along with the slightly-less deconstructionist rock ‘n’ roll anti-manifesto (often misunderstood as anything other than a tightly coiled viper lashing out at rock bands everywhere) “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. And we have the toweringly tired epic “It’s All Too Much”. If you’d like to find fault in that track-listing – well sir or madam, I’d like very much not to know you anymore. What’s more to say?

Yet in a herculean feat, the images which accompany the songs are perhaps even more notable.  A whirlwind collage of all manner of animation styles and, in some powerhouse sequences (most notably “Eleanor Rigby”), found footage objects invading the imagery, nothing stands in the way of Yellow Submarine’s vocal, spirited, kaleidoscopic-psychedelic mind-trip. Every scene plays out with such distinct non-clarity that it might as well all be vignettes, and yet the film remains cohesive – always on the edge of descending into chaos but tightly controlled to teeter at the most precarious point. It is difficult for words to do justice to the playful jazz improvisation of these images which simply could not care less but for to exist – they are wholly of the moment, and wholly affecting. The musical interludes play out like a backbone of pure distorted art for the sake of it, giving us all manner of color, geometric shapes, and distorted angles as we have vague, often abstracted depictions of the Beatles sing and play for us. These are mini-movies, more than anything else, and doing justice to any one of them would take paragraphs upon paragraphs. At the least, they are an encapsulation of all that was wonderful, all that was fake, and all that was wonderfully fake about the late ’60s aesthetic of pure, dizzy carnivalesque chaos.

Not to be misconstrued, the film reveals its mutinous energy right in its opening moment, with an introductory text which reads “once upon a time, or maybe twice”, informing us firstly that this is a children’s book and a mythic fable of a bedtime story (pay attention to how the narrator sounds more than a wee bit bored and sleepy), secondly that this is to be told in as cheerfully ,transgressively lackadaisical a manner as possible, and finally, and most importantly, that Yellow Submarine is wholly and entirely open about how the whole affair is essentially a complete lark and nothing more. The film is aware of its own construction like few others, and it is refreshing for how it is willing to test the limits of narrative structure without ever devolving into unfitting seriousness or a smug superiority.  “Once upon a time” is a nonsense phrase, and the film is very much interested in revealing it for that, as well as completely falling in love with it for the very same reason. If this borders on the precipice of anti-storytelling, it is nonetheless an astoundingly pure encapsulation of the long-lost “yarn” at its most ripping. An anarchic collective dream diving head first into the cosmic cartoon abyss, Yellow Submarine ultimately survives as a ghostly after-image of imaginative life from another far-flung world known as the late ’60s.

Score: 10/10

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