Matthew Smolenski, ‘Here, There and Everywhere’: Movement in the Beatles’s Fiction Filmography

 

 

Creator’s Statement

In this video essay I discuss the Beatles’ fiction filmography that spans from 1964 to 1968, constituting A Hard Day’s Night (Richard Lester, United Artists, UK, 1964), Help! (Richard Lester, United Artists, UK, 1965), Magical Mystery Tour (The Beatles, Apple Films, 1967), Magical Mystery Tour (The Beatles, Apple Corps, UK, 1967), and Yellow Submarine (George Dunning, United Artists, UK, 1968). Although my focus on the movement of the central performers’ bodies could certainly be extended to Let It Be (Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Apple Films, UK 1970), I was primarily interested in the integration of this movement into specifically narrative cinema that opposes a “safer” audio-visual context that isolates musical performance as its primary attraction, such as the band’s legendary appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

For both this reason and for chronological convenience, A Hard Day’s Night proved a natural starting point for a consideration of the Beatles’ movement within a narrative context, which works towards putting the Beatles within the familiar comfort zone of tele-concert spectacle. As a ‘low-budget exploitation film’, [1] A Hard Day’s Night’s narrative could be considered a vessel for its musical performances, and so Tom Gunning’s ‘Cinema of Attractions’ theory of early and avant-garde cinema, defined by the act of display and direct, self-conscious address, emerged as an obvious comparison point. [2] The film’s structure contains a degree of self-awareness that centres diegetic fans as stand-ins for its diegetic audience who eventually have their desire for the “attraction” of pure performance fulfilled with the same direct address of, for example, an Edison Company film, but through this comparison I wanted to highlight that the narrative’s continuous flow covertly turns every moment into one of performance. In the same way that much of the appeal of a Beatles’ concert lies in the band’s sarcastic banter in-between songs, movement between and within specific locations in the narrative becomes its own attraction rather than an obligation, defined in this essay as ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ movement respectively. If this ‘macro movement’ can be considered analogous to deep focus cinematography that provides multiple ‘micro movements’ to choose from, A Hard Day’s Night certainly merits Andrew Sarris’ evaluation of it as ‘the Citizen Kane of pop musicals’.[3]

As this video essay defines its selection of films in relation to its musical stars as auteurs rather than its filmmakers, I wanted its structure to depend more strongly on the concept of discography than filmography, using its focus on rhythm and movement to instil within the spectator the feeling of voraciously consuming the ‘macro’ of every Beatles album within the ‘micro’ of its short run-time. ‘Glass Onion’, from 1968 album The Beatles, reveals the self-referential nature of the Beatles discography, explicitly calling back to older songs such as ‘I Am The Walrus’, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Lady Madonna’ in its lyrics with intertextual aplomb that assumes listener familiarity, and as such this video essay could also be considered a tribute. After a long silence, its filmography is accompanied by ‘Her Majesty’, the final hidden track on the band’s final album, as both a reference to the musical legacy that scores the video and as a reminder of the essay’s condensation of a much deeper career. One advantage of this condensed structure is an absence of didacticism. Although the recurrence of trains in early cinema is explained in relation to the linear, continuous flow of A Hard Day’s Night, the video’s continuous flow need not be broken by frequent comparisons to Help’s planes, Magical Mystery Tour’s coach or Yellow Submarine’s submarine; these comparisons are instead invited by the temporal proximity of the images.

Speaking of the amount of cover songs on the Beatle’s first album in an NME review of Please Please Me, Hamish McBain writes that ‘the Beatles at this point were born interpreters’.[4]  A similar impulse exists in my reliance on comparisons to early cinema and Italian Neo-Realism in ‘Part One’, defined by a sense of the Beatles “interpreting” cinematic language, and just as the Beatles’ discography eventually phases out cover songs altogether, comparisons increasingly focus on previously discussed Beatles’ films, with a prominent comparison to the work of Busby Berkeley even considered a bad object for its pollution of the essence of the performers. In this instance, the Beatles do not provide an interpretation of another artist, studio, and period’s style, but rather an imitation. A handover of sorts could be said to occur around the midway point of the video, with the introduction of psychedelia destabilising conventional cinematic means of representation and forcing a centralisation of the Beatles’ boundary-pushing internal world, which is reinforced by an accelerated reverse montage that gives the video’s first half a pseudo-palindromic structure. “Essence” is thus articulated as intrinsic, and so apparent are its virtues in the cinematic movements of the Beatles that I have considered the act of depiction as self-evident, instead staging my argument around the framing of this essence in each film.

The essay’s concluding argument essentially turns its opening question on its head: yes, the Beatles provide a valuable lens through which to consider cinematic movement as a pleasure in and of itself, enforcing its privileged position within a cinematic hierarchy through their inability to conform to the plotty mould of the Bond film, the limpness of its laboured enforcement in Magical Mystery Tour or its totalising effect on the world of Yellow Submarine. However, what is also revealed in this analysis is the value of cinema as an archive of the Beatles’ movement in a context that prioritises it through form, and it is this that cannot help but shine through in not only this selection of films, but the video essay itself. The spotlight enjoyed by the Beatles was indeed as ephemeral as A Hard Day’s Night’s ninety deadline-oriented plot structure, but testament to their energetic optimisation of that spotlight is my hope that even the ten-minute spotlight of this video should convey even the periphery of the band’s capability during this period.

Matthew Smolenski

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

Armour, Nicole, ‘The Machine Art of Dziga Vertov and Busby Berkeley’, Images, 5, November 1997

Dyer, Richard, In the Space of a Song: The Uses of Song in Film (New York: Routledge, 2012)

Glynn, Stephen, A Hard Day’s Night: Turner Classic Movies British Film Guide (Bloomsbury Academic, 2005)

Gould, Jonathan, Can’t Buy Me Love: Beatles, Britain and America (London: Piatkus, 2008)

Gunning, Tom, ‘The Cinema of Attractions: Early Cinema, its Spectator and the Avant-Garde’ in Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, ed. by Thomas Elsaesser and and Adam Barker (London: BFI Publishing, 1990), pp. 56-61

Gunning, Tom, ‘Now You See It, Now You Don’t: The Temporality of the Cinema of Attractions’, Velvet Light Trap(1993) 3-12

Kirby, Lynne, Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997)

MacBain, Hamish, ‘Looking Back On The Beatles’ “Please Please Me”’, NME, 2016 <https://www.nme.com/blogs/nme-blogs/the-beatles-please-please-me-769691> [accessed 4 February 2021]

Mulvey, Laura, Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image (London: Reaktion Books, 2006)

Neaverson, Bob, The Beatles Movies (Michigan: Cassell, 1997)

Roth, Mark, ‘Some Warners Musicals and the Spirit of the New Deal’ in Genre: The Musical: A Reader, ed. by Altman, Rick, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul in association with the British Film Institute, 1981), pp. 41-56

Sarris, Andrew, ‘Bravo Beatles!’, The Village Voice, 27 August 1964, p. 13

Filmography

A Hard Day’s Night (Richard Lester, United Artists, UK, 1964)

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years (Ron Howard, StudioCanal, UK, 2016)

Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica, Produzioni De Sica, Italy, 1948)

Escamotage d’une dame chez Robert-Houdin (Georges Méliès, Star Film Company, France, 1896)

Help! (Richard Lester, United Artists, UK, 1965)

Footlight Parade (Lloyd Bacon and Busby Berkeley, Warner Bros., USA, 1933)

‘Four (August ’64 to August ’65)’, Episode Four, The Beatles Anthology, UK, ITV, tx. 17.12.1995

‘From the ABC Theatre Blackpool’, Blackpool Night Out, UK, ITV London, tx. 1.8.1965

Gold Diggers of 1933 (Melvin Leroy and Busby Berkeley, Warner Bros., USA, 1933)

The Kiss in the Tunnel (George Albert Smith, UK, 1899)

Lady Lazarus’, Episode Eight, Mad Men, Fifth Series, USA, Sky Atlantic, tx. 8.5.2012

L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (Louis Lumière and Auguste Lumière, Société Lumière, France, 1896)

Magical Mystery Tour (The Beatles, Apple Corps, UK, 1967)

Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, VUFKU, Soviet Union, 1929)

Trapeze Disrobing Act (Thomas Edison, Edison Company, USA, 1901)

What Happened in the Tunnel (Edwin S. Porter, Edison Company, USA, 1903)

Window Water Baby Moving (Stan Brakhage, USA, 1959)

Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory in Lyon (Louis Lumière, Lumière, France, 1895)

Yellow Submarine (George Dunning, United Artists, UK, 1968)

[1] Stephen Glynn, A Hard Day’s Night: Turner Classic Movies British Film Guide (Bloomsbury Academic, 2005), p. 9

[2] Tom Gunning, ‘The Cinema of Attractions: Early Cinema, Its Spectator and the Avant’ Garde’ in Early Cinema: Space Frame Narrative, ed. by Thomas Elsaesser and Adam Barker (London: BFI Publishing, 1990), pp. 56-61 (p. 57)

[3] Andrew Sarris, ‘Bravo Beatles!’, The Village Voice, 27 August 1964, p. 13

[4] Hamish MacBain, ‘Looking Back On The Beatles’ “Please Please Me”’, NME, 2016 <https://www.nme.com/blogs/nme-blogs/the-beatles-please-please-me-769691> [accessed 4 February 2021]

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