Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Drunk on Foolish Pleasures: Magical Realism in the Films of The Beatles

I have a strange and magnificent theory to share with you all today. When you are finished reading it, be sure to weigh in (I know... I know... it's not the weekend) and tell me if you think I am imagining things… or if you think I AM A GENIUS.

I recently presented a workshop at my school district's annual Visual Arts Day. I am always flattered when the teachers who organize this all-district field trip ask me to present because I am generally ignored by the younger teachers, whom I refer to as "whipper-snappers" as I ask them to "get off" my "lawn."

So essentially, once a year, my school’s brave art teachers coax the bridge troll out from under his bridge, clean him up, dress him up nice, and encourage him to spout off about whatever nonsense is currently on his mind to a big group of young and impressionable students.

This year, what’s been on my mind is the Beatles… and magical realism.

According to Wikipedia, THE SOURCE OF ALL KNOWLEDGE, magical realism is "a genre where magic elements are a natural part of an otherwise mundane, realistic environment (emphasis mine). It is most commonly a literary genre, but also applies to film and the visual arts… Magical realism was first seen in the world of narrative fiction in the works of Jorge Luis Borges and later Gabriel Garcia Marques, whose One Hundred Years of Solitude is widely considered to be a benchmark of magical realism."

Most critical sources I’ve read point to the 1980s and films such as Like Water For Chocolate as the first time mainstream audiences were treated to magic realism in commercial narrative film. I disagree. I think that Richard Lester, in directing the Beatles’ first film A Hard Day's Night (1964), actually pioneered the use of magical realism in commercial narrative film. I think Lester and the Beatles don’t get enough credit for their lively, innovative explorations of magical realism on film.

A Hard Day's Night, perhaps owing to its low-budget origins (United Artists only bankrolled the film so they could release a soundtrack album) fools the audience into thinking it is a documentary, a presentation of a few days in the lives of the Beatles. It is in black and white and uses some hand-held camerawork and other hallmarks of documentary films at that time. Yet it is not a documentary. It is a tight-scripted, carefully directed romp that, for its first fifteen minutes, merely resembles a documentary.

I have here three representative clips from A Hard Day's Night that I think are the best evidence of Lester’s pioneering use of this particular trope:

Clip #1: "Mister, Can We Have Our Ball Back?"

Evidence of Magic Realism: After making faces at Mr. "I Travel On This Train Regularly Twice A Week With A Stick Up My Butt," the Beatles immediately appear outside the train, running alongside it, one of them on a bicycle. How did they get out there? The train is moving; how did they even step out to run alongside it? Where's Ringo? What we are watching at the end of the scene is impossible... and is never explained. The film just keeps on going. The Beatles are back on the train. That's magical realism. Perhaps director Lester thought that by 1964, filmmakers could "get away" with something fun like this without the movie audience rioting.

Clip #2: "I Should Have Known Better"

E. of M.R.: Again, where did those instruments come from? And where do they disappear to at the end of the number? And why does young Patti Boyd (the cute blonde) suddenly appear inside the cage with no explanation? It's magical--magical realism!

Clip #3: "Can't Buy Me Love"

E. of M.R.: This is about halfway into its running time, where the A Hard Day's Night turns all bull-goose loony. In fact, for these two and half precious minutes it resembles an entirely different film. This is the only musical number in the film that is not presented realistically (i.e., the Beatles playing live with their instruments) and the only musical number using fast motion and slow motion. With all of the running, jumping, and standing still going on here, it resembles Richard Lester's earlier, award-winning short, The Running, Jumping, and Standing Still Film. (Note: If you’d like to see The Running, Jumping, and Standing Still Film, the esteemed Criterion Collection announced yesterday that they will release the film on Blu-ray in June. Extras will include the aforementioned short and the excellent making-of documentary You Can’t Do That by David Leaf.)

I also find it interesting that both Help! and Yellow Submarine, two other narrative Beatles films, begin with recognizable, drudgery-filled reality before going off into their respective flights of fancy. Take a look at this scene from Help! and explain the gardener in George's bedroom with the chattering teeth. Could it be, dare I say it, magical realism?

Clip #4: "The Beatles At Home"

A student who attended my discussion last Friday suggested that Walt Disney might have been the first to "test the waters" in films such as Song of the South and Mary Poppins, wherein humdrum daily life mashes up against an alternate, and more colorful, cartoon universe.

Hmmmm. Was I wrong? Was it Disney who pioneered the use of this style in narrative film after all? I thought and thought. Then, I thought some more.

I don't think so, and here's why. Mary Poppins is so full of magical Disney pixie dust from the get-go (the strange neighbors, the strange wind, Dick Van Dyke's astoundingly unconvincing Cockney accent) that one would be hard pressed to say the film is grounded in the drab reality of mundane "real" life. When your protagonist flies in on her umbrella, I think we are dealing with pure fantasy here from beginning to end.

Song of the South does start in an actual and recognizable place and time. The film is in color, and we are being presented simulacra of everyday life. Yet Song of the South fails the magical realism test because the only "magical" elements (the animated segments) are used to illustrate Uncle Remus's fanciful tales. Nothing new there; narrative films "breaking reality" to dramatize a story-within-the-story is a trope that goes back to the silent days.

For it to qualify as magical realism, the fantastic element has to present itself inexplicably in an otherwise realistic and mundane frame. In film after film, that’s the very quality of unexplained “wackiness” that Lester and the Beatles present.

I don’t know what it was about the Beatles, or Richard Lester, or the 1960s, or movies about pop bands, that sparked the use of magical realism in these films – but I believe Lester was a pioneer in exploring this genre. What do you think, F-Heads – AM I ON TO SOMETHING HERE?


  1. Great article JB, I always love the Beatles content. Sidenote: Can't thank you enough for putting Good 'Ol Freda on my radar. Finally watched it last week and what a find. As a lifelong Beatles fan I gained new insight into the lads, as well as just a really cool person in Freda.

    I think perhaps Buster Keaton also displayed magical reality from time to time. I'm thinking to some moments from his short films. One where he paints a hook on a wall and hangs his coat on it, and another where he falls in a deep hole only to emerge with a chinese wife (you guys should F a Keaton film).

    1. Speak of the devil! I'm screening some Keaton shorts and The General in my film studies class this week.

  2. I agree J.B! I did a module on British Cinema with my MA and we discussed A Hard Day's Night a bit. It seems fitting that the film would use Realism, with the popularity of such films as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner featuring the Northern working class anti - hero, the angry young man. The Beatles were this only more radical, they had personality. They weren't 'angry', they were cheeky, charming and quirky. A Hard Day's Night uses the same techniques only also makes room for this element of Magical Realism, which reflects what makes these four guys so special. I love The Loneliness of the long distance runner as it mixes the strict rules of realsim with some expression and freedom, which you can see with the camera movement when Colin runs. The film was not considered as highly as Saturday Night because of this but with time it is what the movie was credited with. When you think about that you see how brave it was to use these techniques in A Hard day's Night so I think more people should be crediting Richard Lester for that bold move. I am a big fan of British cinema from the 60s as I think they were very bold and featured many mixed influences. Therefore, I don't think it is crazy to think that Magic Realism came about during this time of revolution in cinema.

    1. Yes, Lester, Alun Owen, and the Beatles invented their own genre-- the cheeky young man.

  3. Have you guys talked about "I Saw the Devil" in any of the podcasts?

    1. Hi, Brent!
      I talked about it a little on our "Favorite Movies of 2011" podcast, where it was my #2 pick (I think).

    2. Thanks! I'll check it out. I just found out about this site a month ago and I've been binge listening to all the episodes. You guys do what you do better than anyone else. Keep up the great work!

    3. Hey thanks! We're very happy to have you and hope you'll stick with us!

  4. Always love to hear you talk Beatles, JB - hard to believe you've found something MORE to appreciate about A Hard Day's Night (after how many viewings?!) - it's funny because the running outside the train scene in particular always struck me as being something, but I didn't realize it had a name - magic realism, indeed - I love it! It almost applies to the whole phenomenon that is THE BEATLES, though I guess that's just plain magic.

    Also, the wording of your article wasn't entirely clear so I did a search and found A Hard Day's Night itself is getting a Criterion release! Exciting news!

    1. You are right, Sol. It does sound like I'm saying that the SHORT is getting the Criterion treatment. Sorry...

  5. I agree with you completely. Bree is always reading this Spanish and Hispanic novels that feature magic realism and she introduced me to the concept. I think that What Richard Lester was doing in A Hard Day's Night was certainly pioneering new ground for film, even if Lester and The Beatles themselves probably didn't realize it and were just doing what came naturally. So many of the wonderful things they accomplished seemed to have happened without any effort of their own: it just happened, and history was made. Great column.