NEIL YOUNG'S debut as a film director is surprisingly boring. Not surprisingly bad--I expected it to be as self-indulgent and philsophically vacuous as it was. But for sheer inarticulateness, Young's premier effort is simply outstanding.
Journey Through the Past examines the history of Neil Young's rock groups--Buffalo Springfield, Crazy Horse, Crosby, Still, Nash and Young, and the Stray Gators--using their songs and personal reflections to create a Commentary on Our Times. In case you don't find the lyrics or the singers' pained contortions sufficiently eloquent, Young hammers home his messages with grandiose allegorical scenes. The product displays the artistic force of a Fritz Pearls poster and the musical imagination of the Johnny Mann singers.
Competition for the movie's worst moment is fierce. Young's recurring character, a hippie graduated from college, wandering the roads, the deserts and beaches with grimy diploma and tattered cap and gown in hand, is a symbol--do you get it?--of America's unfulfilled youth. Picture, if you can, the affluent but over-schooled, over-technologized, overburdened young man cast from the best university like a body thrown from a car--which occurs on screen, believe it or not--into a landscape where society has eroded nature's richness. No one gives him directions. No one gives him a hitch. He trudges on and on, encountering symbol-people on the way--such as a loud, precocious little boy complaining because a card shark, that is, society, is giving him a bum deal.
At points like this, Young reinforces his meaning with interviews that always prove insipid, offensive, or both. A reclining David Crosby explains:
You give a kid the choice, man...y'know you give him a choice between that dealer handing out the bad cards, y'know, like the bad values, man, and then, on the other side, a girl running through a field...a field of flowers, man... half-naked, man, and, well, the kid's not gonna take those values, right?...
Crosby's choice of values to espouse is embarrassing.
THE GRADUATE finally finds himself on a beach. While he sits silently watching, an army of black-cloaked crusaders rides across the beach to destroy Mother Nature's last stand--a 2001-type monolith which, in this case, is a wooden post. But what can the poor boy do? Why, he just takes out a syringe and shoots up. Society has destroyed its middle-class child, and an insight often stated in a well-written paragraph has been clumsily transformed into an atrocious two-hour film.
Other scenes are equally as pretentious and silly. There's Neil Young talking about America as he sits atop an auto graveyard. (Waste, get it?) There's Neil and his woman--she, of course, has no other identity--riding their car, stopping on a bridge for some food and a smoke. (Crossing that bridge when they got to it, get it?) And, finally, we see the ever-pensive Stephen Stills explaining that songs are written for self-assurance and that when the New Age comes, we won't need words. One can only wonder if marijuana really does rot the brain.
The film fails dismally on four grounds. First, there is no human dimension to the characters depicted in the movie. The real people Young films and the characters Young creates either say the obvious things you're afraid they will say or stand only as lifeless symbols in Young's moving picture puzzle. There's no justification for the use of people in these roles. For all Young uncovers about the dehumanized college graduate, he might as well have put a "College Graduate" sign around a rock and used that for his symbol.
Second, there is no analysis behind the allegory. Young points out at the beginning the obvious conflict between the songs of revolution which CSN&Y sang and the ever-rising prices they charged for concert tickets. But he never takes responsibility. His view of the world leaves him out of it. Had he carried the implications of his insight to their logical conclusion, he certainly wouldn't have spent so much money on a lousy film that never transcends the obvious.
Young also overestimates the flexibility of his songs. The virtues of Young's pieces never lay in the originality of their message, but only in the terseness of their expression, the resonance of their imagery, or the rhythm of his music. Occasionally, as in his song "I Believe in You," Young cleverly develops an unusual paradox, in that case, the realization that people who respect each other must sometimes admit they don't love each other. But these themes are never startlingly new; at best they represent ideas which occur to everyone but not often enough. When extended into a scene or transformed into clumsy symbolism, Young's use of the commonplace becomes embarrassingly hackneyed.
But Young's greatest failure lies in the psychological vision he projects. He has no social analysis because he himself is self-absorbed. The world, in his music and in the film, is nothing but the projection of his own pain. But to blame the world for that pain without taking any responsibility for his participation in the world is the height of effete, passive self-indulgence. To make a million dollars by singing for the screaming teeny-boppers is not really the world's worst fate. Young acts and writes as though the whole world, and particularly women, have exploited and misunderstood him, when all he wanted to do was smell the flowers.
THE OLD songs used in the film are as welcome as familiar friends. Everyone has moments of self-pity or absorbing anger, and Young is skillful at striking that self-obsessed chord in all of us. But his skill, or at least his elusiveness which passes for subtlety, started to crumble with his last album, Harvest. In Journey Through the Past, it breaks down altogether; Young wields images like a lumberjack swings an ax. Any self-respecting director would have kept such nonsense out of public theaters.
Ordinarily, a bad rock film can be saved somewhat by its music. The Orson Welles even installed new speakers for this occasion. But Journey Through the Past is so insufferable an excursion that not even the combined talents of Buffalo Springfield and CSN&Y can get it back on course. For the price of two tickets, you can buy yourself a record. With his few seeds of ideas, Young harvests only boredom.
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