Something In The Air
A semi-autobiographical drama from director Olivier Assayas set in 1970s Paris
'Ugly Duckling' Jonathan Livingston Seagull learns to "fly without limits" in the movie version of the 1970s bestseller by Richard Bach
Circa 1973: Martha, a Californian housewife in her late twenties is married to Peter, CEO of a construction company. When flower power was in full bloom Martha and Peter (Republicans with a small 'r') concentrated on building a home and putting their daughters through private education. With Peter increasingly away on business trips, a restless Martha begins to feel there's something missing from her life; might those troublesome hippies have been onto something? One day, her old schoolfriend Susan drops by for coffee, clutching a copy of Kahil Gibran's 'The Prophet' and 'Jonathan Livingston Seagull', the latest publishing phenomenon by Richard Bach.
"Why don't you take a swim in lake you?" smiles Susan, and leaves the books for Martha to ponder over. Days pass, until out of curiosity, Martha picks up the little blue book with the outline of a seagull on the cover - it can't hurt, can it? This Bach fellow's topped the 'New York Times' bestseller lists for 38 weeks - a respectable writer. They've even made a movie of it. And Martha has always enjoyed nature documentaries. Like Milos Forman's Hair, this movie adaptation is made with Martha in mind. Whatever would Peter say? Oh phooey - for the first time in her 27 years, Martha is spreading her wings...
Dedicated to "the real Jonathan Livingston Seagull who lives within us all", this perennial campus favourite is an allegory for breaking free of the mould and living one's life without fear, to "fly for the fun of it" and "learn what perfection really is". It's 'The Little Engine That Could' with feathers. Or Herman Hesse with a mouthful of herring. Although the story was inspired by John H Livingston, a top American pilot of the 1920s and 1930s, Richard Bach (a new age forerunner to the likes of Deepak Chopra and Paulo Coelho) has denied he is the real author of the novel, as like Aleister Crowley before him, or Terence Trent D'Arby after, he merely acted as a conduit for some higher power; fortunately, there's not yet a legal precedent for robbing superior beings of their royalty cheques.
Whoever the writer, one cannot underestimate the impact the book had on the 'Me' generation, with its hodge-podge of Eastern philosophy and self-empowerment speak ("We can soar free across the fly - but how often we don't want to!"), later ridiculed by writer Beverley Byrne as "Horatio Alger doing Antoine De Saint-Exupéry" or "the Qur'an as translated by Bob Dylan". Composed of fewer than 10,000 words, it broke all hardcover sales records (in fiction - and, tellingly, non-fiction) since 'Gone With The Wind', shifting more than a million copies in 1972 alone. 'Reader's Digest' published an abridged version, and Richard Harris won a Grammy in 1973 for his spoken-word album-of-the-book. Naturally, given its earning power, studio execs were inclined to jump all over it.
Shot in California (where else) and New Mexico for $1.5 million, and sporting a soundtrack by Neil Diamond, the film version concerns the education of the eponymous, non-conformist seagull, voiced by James Franciscus. Driven by a desire for limitless flight ("There's got to be more to life than fighting for fish heads!") and an embarrassment to his parents and his girlfriend, he is banished by the elder of his flock (Holbrook) for flaunting the proscribed rules of speed and altitude.
He soon encounters two other outcasts who teach him to soar to a higher plane of existence, where dwell a flock of enlightened gulls, led by a wise old bird named Chiang (Ahn) who, um, takes him under his wing. Under Chiang's tutelage Jonathan learns how to instantly 'jaunt' to anywhere in the universe. The secret is to "begin by knowing that you have already arrived". As Chiang explains, "Your whole body, from wingtip to wingtip is nothing more than your thought itself. Break the chains of your thought, and you break the chains of your body too."
Equipped with his teacher's parting words, "keep working on love", and with the knowledge that the soul can only be free through the ability to forgive and to pass on such wisdom, the beaky Messiah flies back to his flock to spread the word ("Listen, everybody! There's no limit to how high we can fly! We can dive for fish and never have to live on garbage again!") amassing supporters, until he flaps off again to God knows where.
As successful as Bach's novel had been (and continues to be) Jonathan Livingston Seagull the movie was a troubled production, which plummeted from the screen a few weeks after release in the face of almost uniformly terrible reviews. The serenely spiritual Bach ended up launching a law-suit against the producer (who initially wanted to graft Disney-style animated mouths on the seagulls) for not sticking to the letter of his book, and remains a non-fan of the film version.
Trouble is, given the sheer volume of philosophising at the expense of narrative, the decision to render everything in disembodied voice-over can become tiresome, and one's appreciation of the film may be fundamentally dictated by how many new age platitudes you can ingest without discomfort (or indeed giggling - "We don't go flying through rock till a little later in the programme"); similarly, how much sub-standard Neil Diamond you can take without feeling the urge to drive pencils deep into your ears.
With a melody invoking Elgar's 'Nimrod', and lyrics like "Lost on a painted sky, where the clouds are hung for the poet's eye", Diamond's overwrought title song 'Be' (which on release barely tickled the Top 40) recalls nothing so much as Engelbert Humperdinck's 'Lesbian Seagull' ("Oh fly with me lesbian seagull/to my little nest by the sea") from Beavis And Butt-Head Do America - a song possibly inspired by the movie.
Diamond, who also launched a suit against the producer, nevertheless saw his soundtrack album go double-platinum; the likes of 'Be' and 'Songbird' ("Seek out your harbour of light! Let your song be heard!") faring slightly better out of context. On the plus side, the movie's nature photography is often sublime - the knowledge that the film employed various radio-controlled gliders (built by one Mark Smith of Escondido, California) standing in for the gulls, in no way detracting from the superb aerobatics on show. Cynicism aside, there's also some pretty sound advice here - why shouldn't we attempt to "fly without limits", or strive to be the greatest seagulls we can possibly be? It's better than a face-full of rotten fish. Keep your beak up.
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