In praise of Julie Taymor’s strange visions 

What do you call a theater professional who pushes the envelope of movement, voice, and dance? A visionary artiste. A film director who does the same? Box-office poison.

So seems to be the conventional wisdom concerning Julie Taymor, whose third feature film is once again an object of wonder (and gossip) to blogerati everywhere. After Sony Pictures allegedly balked at Taymor’s cut of her new Beatles-inspired musical Across the Universe, Sony test-screened a shorter, apparently less wacky, cut of the film. Once the brouhahaha hit the blogosphere, however, Sony backed down, and Taymor’s version arrives here and everywhere in all of its intended psychedelic weirdness.

We at the Current couldn’t be happier; we’re also surprised at the naiveté of Sony Pictures. The runaway success of Taymor’s stage musical The Lion King, for instance, seems to have blinded everyone to the fact that Taymor has always been an iconoclastic artist, following the beat of her own (occasionally African) drummer. Though born in Boston and schooled in mime in France, Taymor draws most often on eastern theatrical influences, including Balinese puppet theater and Japanese kabuki. What’s amazing about The Lion King is how Taymor completely rethought the (rather flimsy) Disney film, at least in terms of style: gone are the cutesy 2d cells of Simba and Timon, replaced instead with a heady brew of Eastern puppets, African ritual, and Broadway razzmatazz.

Taymor’s adaptation of Oedipus Rex (1993) is the only filmed version of Sophocles that doesn’t make us want to take out our own eyes. Ignoring Stravinsky’s original instructions for his oratorio, Taymor impishly injected an element of wild theatricality into what the composer had envisioned as a static piece. Forget your stodgy high-school tragedies: this one has copulating Cycladic statues (just mommy and baby Oedipus; it’s not an image you’ll easily scrub from the back of your, well, eyeballs), massive disintegrating Sphinxes, zombie Thebans waving leprous arms, and the brilliant arias of Jessye Norman and Philip Langridge. It’s an over-the-top, bravura piece of filmmaking, combining music, dance, and cinema into a cohesive whole. And it took Phillips more than a dozen years to release it ... on DVD.

So you can see what Taymor is up against: She might have been tapped for next season’s Broadway production of Spider-Man, but she still needs to prove her bona fides to Hollywood, even after the critically lauded films Titus and Frida. We’re optimistic, however, that Taymor’s Across the Universe is at least worth a trip across town. •



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