The recent emergence of Australian cinema, or rather a small group of Australian films, film-makers and stars, as a significant commercial presence in Hollywood and the international film market is now well documented. Following GEORGE miller’s success with the Mad Max series, the PAUL HOGAN Crocodile Dundee series has made a dramatic impact on the us market. In this context, the emergence of a new Australian actor- director with a smash hit first movie is surprising, but hardly astonishing news.
The actor-director in question is one GREG PEAD, who, for reasons best known to himself has re-named himself YAHOO SERIOUS. His film, Young Einstein, has, aside from its purely filmic merits, been attracting attention by virtue of its both outstripping Crocodile Dundee in box-office performance on its opening run in Australia and by being picked up for worldwide distribution by American giant WARNER BROTHERS. So far, so (commercially) unusual, but from here on the story gets stranger... Despite Warner brothers’ high hopes for commercial success for YOUNG EINSTEIN in the us domestic youth-market, the film is decidedly not a standard genre piece along the usual predictable lines. What it is, and what it is already being compared to, is an effervescent example of the emergent post- Surrealist comic genre trail-blazed by Pee Wee's Playhouse, Paul Reuben’s and tim burton’s collaboration on Pee Wee's Big Adventure and burton’s own Beetlejuice’. That is to say, that within its particular references and performative aspect, it combines a quasi-anarchic youthful irreverence and bizarre central characterisation with the determined antinaturalism, self-reflexivity, narrative swerve and ellipses which have come to characterise a particular tendency in late Eighties cinema.
Something of the tone of the film may be grasped from a brief description. The basic plot involves a scenario where EINSTEIN is born in late 19th century rural Tasmania and grows up in a lush mock-pastoral landscape crowded with docile sheep, amiable kangaroos and the occasional marauding Gremlin-like Tasmanian Devil. Here, after an alcoholic rite of passage to adulthood with his father, he learns of the family’s quest for the mystic alchemical formula to put bubbles in beer which will bring a fortune to its inventor. Showing both his intellectual brilliance and an inability to envisage less positive aspects of the nuclear age which also typified the real- life EINSTEIN, our hero finally produces the fizzy elixir by splitting the ’beer atom’ - a process which also results in the explosive destruction of his laboratory and the inventor’s unexpected sky-dive through his parent’s roof. After further adventures - including crossing the Tasman Straits and the vast Australian continental landmass, meeting and embarking upon a romantic courtship of a young marie curie, getting his idea ripped off by an unscrupulous and foppish Englishman (a favourite character in much Australian comedy) and finally travelling to Paris- the film re-stages the ending of MICHAEL ZEMECKIS Back to the Future by having YOUNG einstein defuse the energy of a dangerously unstable atomic beer making machine (and thereby save Paris) by plugging-in a prototype electric guitar and thereby inventing Rock and Roll and winning curie’s love...
As will be apparent from the brief plot description, the ending collapses into youth movie cliche. But aside from this, and the overall failure of the film’s attempts to integrate the pop video form as an element within its linear narrative; Young EINSTEIN is chiefly remarkable for its eclectic bricolage of devices, referents and influences, all of which are brilliantly displayed in its opening Tasmanian sequences. As pead tells the story, the original idea for Young EINSTEIN was inspired by a t-shirt design of einstein sticking his tongue out glimpsed by him whilst on a boating trip up the Amazon. Specifically inspirational as this encounter may well have been however, there are also other clear stylistic antecedents in both popular music videos and records such as landscape’s eins tein-A - Gogo and falco’s Rock Me amadeus and the pastiche pastness various explored by Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract, terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits, or most significantly for Young EINSTEIN, the far less distinguished camp costume excess of the film version of jules verne’s Round the World in Eighty Days.
The film’s wholesale adoption of pop video techniques and sequences reflects the general popularity of the music video form within Australian (youth) culture. This popularity, at least in part, reflects a particular geographical-logistic determinant on Australian popular culture, namely the role video plays in exposing groups and artists to a population who rarely get the chance to experience popular Western acts live (or at least live at the time of their emergence or peak of popularity). But perhaps more significantly, the specific use of pop video sequences and techniques in the film also reflects the significance of indigenous Australian music on establishing a distinct Australian media identity for a young Australia which conceives of itself within Western rock-culture derived models rather than the world view produced by popular Australian TV Soaps.' The inclusion of seminal Australian rock tracks such as icehouse’s Great Southern Land alongside contributions by other leading Australian acts such as MENTAL AS ANYTHING and THE models is therefore a deliberate attempt to locate the fantasy- pastiche of the Young einstein film text within in an actual culture and national context which is thereby asserted as capable of generating such an ingeniously articulated fictional product.
It is therefore particularly unfortunate that the film’s principal failure is the awkwardness with which it attempts to include (infra-textual) pop video sequences as part of its narrative. The most glaring example of this is that sequence shot to accompany Great Southern Land. Instead of succeeding in communicating the vastness of the Australian continent through an epic use of imagery and along the lines of the song’s lyrics; the sequence is undercut by both its general cliches and its similarity (if not reference) to ULTRAVOX’s clearly signalled pastiche adventure video for their Great Adventure single. If a critical relation between sound and image had been intended (in the way for example that images of violence offset the soundtrack during the LOUIS ARMSTRONG Wonderful World sequence used in BARRY Levinson’s Good Morning Vietnam)-, this would have been an effective strategy. As it is, it merely grates against the film’s overall sensibility and signifies an error of judgement on the director’s part.
Whatever director Pead’s occasional directorial failings, one of the film’s undoubted strengths is the central onscreen performance of its auteur whose YAHOO SERIOUS/YOUNG EINSTEIN persona constantly holds centre stage. As he himself admits, he sees himself consciously in the role of a comic performer-director auteur in the tradition of buster keaton, JACQUES TATI and WOODY ALLEN; and in keeping with this tradition there is a slippage and confusion of roles whereby the auteur’s persona is the screen character. But despite his self conscious embracing of keaton as both a precedent and influence, the einstein/serious persona, style of slapstick comedy and many of the visual jokes are closer to the classic animation territory of Tex Avery, Tom and Jerry and the Roadrunner cartoons than either silent cinema or more recent auterist film comedies. Indeed there are close parallels between how the the classic (and aberrationally extravagant) BUGS bunny cartoon What’s Opera Doc? treats its subject (Wagnerian Opera) and how Young EINSTEIN sets about rewriting the history of nuclear physics. It’s therefore no surprise that as well as evoking former Disney animator TIM burton’s visual style, Young EINSTEIN’S wit and spontaneity also recalls the work of another American exanimation director frank tashlin (responsible for films such as The Girl Can’t Help It and Will Success Spoil rock hunter?).
Amid the unevenness of many of the narrative’s turns it is the sheer energy and zest of serious’s performance that carries the film and which suggests that it is far from a one-off success. The question hanging over pead though is whether he can either develop the yahoo serious/young einstein persona sufficiently to maintain interest in a series of Young einstein follow-ups, develop new contexts for his persona’s performance or otherwise devise another effective comic persona altogether (dilemmas also currently facing paul reuben).
If despite its opening, the film does not prove as fresh and original as either of TIM burton’s recent efforts, or if the yahoo SERIOUS persona ultimately lacks the manically gleeful perversity of pee wee Herman, the film still deserves attention as both a significant contribution to that emergent genre outlined in the introduction and also, along with david byrne’s True Stories, represents a significant, if significantly flawed, attempt to negotiate the form and formal characteristics of the now globally prevalent pop video text within the feature film.