“It hit me like a ton of bricks one day. I remember having a cup of coffee and I went, ‘Well, look, there is a giant canvas in every little town everywhere around the world. And on this giant canvas there are 24 frames of image on that screen every second and it’s the most wonderful living art form.’” –Yahoo Serious, The New York Times, 1989
Okay, so, taking Young Einstein—ahem—seriously may, initially, seem like taking Plan 9 from Outer Space seriously. Roger Ebert gave this film one star, and seemed to begrudge it even this tiny reward. The movie is ridiculous: a fictive debut out of Australia from an art school reject; made on a shoestring budget; produced, starring, and directed by this same art school reject; and no script doctors or test audiences were employed in the making of this film as far as I can tell. It is, at best, a B-movie.
However, the auteur definitely took his subject matter seriously, and saw comedy and his film persona as a way of communicating something deep and powerful through what is a fundamentally goofy and campy lens. Yahoo Serious sold his car and gave up his profits to his investors to bring his vision to life. He constructed a whole mythos and worldview celebrating pacifism, a cheerful outlook on life, fantastic music, and an individualistic spirit in the face of adversity. The special effects are terrible. The pace of the film does not follow the traditional Hollywood beats.
If this sounds bad, let me assure you: it is a great film! In fact, it was the sixth-highest grossing film in Australia (ahead of E.T.) before it made its way to America. The fantasy of the film constructs an alternate reality not unlike a children’s cartoon, where recognizable symbols of our world and our history—the Nobel Prize, beer, rock and roll, insane asylums, famous historical figures—are all remixed and distilled in a comic fashion not unlike surrealism. In this manner, Greg Pead (the birth name of the man now known as Yahoo Serious) used his cinematic talents to present his vision of the world, and how things ought to be. He was a documentarian before he created Young Einstein, and before that he had been expelled from the National Art School for satirical graffiti. He had been mounting tires in a garage to pay for his education, at the time, and he thumbed his nose at power. He was both very talented, and very driven.
He is also a man who seeks to fight injustice. Today, long after his brush with fame, Yahoo Serious is a director of the Kokoda Track Foundation, which fights for the rights of the Papua New Guineans. This, and not the few quirky films that were popular in Australia, would appear to be his life’s great work. But his film work is political and radical even as it appears, on the surface, completely campy and ridiculous. The name he chose for himself is perfect. At first, it sounds ridiculous, but he chose the last name Serious, hidden behind the wild Yahoo. (He actually sued Yahoo, the search engine, but that’s another story.) He’s a serious man with a ridiculous name; he took his satirical work very seriously, and so we will take him seriously, too.
Logicians and legal scholars test an ethical or legal theory by supposing the circumstances have fundamentally shifted in some meaningful yet completely ridiculous fashion. Comedic alternate history narratives, often the most underappreciated versions of the form, often test the edges of accepted reality with their ridiculousness in order to suss out the truth of some moral or ethical situation that resonates through time. These zany hijinks form an alternate reality, where the readers are expected to have some fundamental knowledge of how things really happened, as well as a willingness to suspend disbelief. The film buff must integrate both reality and false reality to put together the film’s worldview and plot.
Suppose that, before Albert Einstein was born, his family had emigrated to Tasmania, becoming apple farmers and pioneers. Science, in and of itself, exists as a pursuit of knowledge, but shifting the brilliant scientist to Tasmania and to a humble, backwoods background calls into question whether Einstein’s great scientific theories would have even been created at all. But what other important discoveries could he make under such different circumstances?
Assuming these other theories and inventions and ideas are created, would anyone take them seriously to them if they came from someone perceived as outside the accepted class of those who are permitted to invent? In the film’s view, music theory, surfing, and beer brewing would have been of great concern to the young scientific genius—and the invention of rock and roll would have happened much sooner as a result.
So, let’s summarize this film, for those non-believers who’ve never seen it. (Spoilers ahead, folks!)
The apple farmer leads his quirky, brilliant son, Albert, to the family beer shed to work on the eternal problem: How does one get foamy bubbles into flat and boring beer? The solution involves nuclear fission: Splitting the beer atom! In this fashion, E=MC2 is invented on a ragged piece of paper that emerges from the exploded shed. Albert is sent into the city to patent his discovery. On a train into Sydney, the filthy and wild-eyed genius finds himself in a train car with the head of the local patent office and a beautiful, young scientist, who recently won the famed Nobel Prize: Marie Curie! She is quick to recognize the genius of his patent, and clearly some romantic attraction exists, but the boorish patent agent will undoubtedly intervene. In fact, as a favor to his crush, the patent agent hires Albert Einstein to work as a young patent clerk – while stealing his formula and selling it to a local brewer to build a giant keg of foaming beer! Albert, unaware of this betrayal, makes his way in the city undeterred, and continues his quest for truth and Marie Curie’s affection with the innocence of a bumpkin, brushing up against all levels of society from the highest to the lowest. When he discovers that his formula is not only stolen, but being used to create what will amount to an atomic bomb, he goes on a quest to stop the activation of the explosive device. This leads to his incarceration in a grotesque and surreal insane asylum. Hijinks ensue, of course, and a cross-dressing Marie Curie infiltrates the asylum to convince Albert it is time to take a stand to save the world from this terrible invention that will potentially blow up Paris. In a daring escape, Albert uses his knowledge of music and energy and his electric violin – naturally – to overload all the locks of the asylum, and escape with the madmen into the city, and off to Paris he goes to stop the activation of the massive keg of bubbling, foamy beer atom bomb. The solution to the problem of atomic explosion is to plug the electric violin into the bomb itself, and shred in a roll and rock fashion until the dangerous atomic energy is burned off in hot, hot riffs. The day is saved, the girl is won, and together Albert Einstein and Marie Curie dance and drink in far Tasmania, celebrating the triumph of pacifism and science and beer and dancing.
You might question my serious inquiry into Young Einstein, but in its lo-fi, deadpan, and quirky independent spirit, the film contains multitudes. Consider the journey of the talented young scientist beat-by-beat in his relationship to the work of science, as the character explores the genuine outcomes that occur in the world of research. In the first brush with the larger world of the community of the sciences, in his grandfather’s beer brewing shed where the serious problems of global science are wrestled, this outsider annihilates explosively a long held belief by, in the parlance of the film, “splitting the beer atom” to make bubbles in beer. No one could do it until now. This discovery’s potential to make people happy, and to put his obscure part of the world “on the map” (according to his father) drives the young scientist to cross the great expanses of Tasmania and Australia into the world of industry and society, exemplified by the first class train car of none other than Marie Curie. Women of the day were not supposed to be scientists, and she recognizes immediately a fellow traveler: an outsider and great scientific mind like herself.
Despite Marie Curie recognizing his genius immediately, the scientific community of the film does everything it can to decimate the spirit of our plucky, young physicist. First, his ideas are rejected for failing to apply to an invention by the boorish patent office clerk. Second, this same pompous man at the patent office—a lesser scientific mind—steals the idea for profit; his failure to fully comprehend the scope of the stolen idea means his profit-making scheme is doomed to disaster. Third, in an attempt to be accepted by other great minds, Einstein is rejected from the formal university system when his ideas are not presented in a particularly scholarly fashion, despite their revolutionary and groundbreaking qualities. Fourth, pushed into a dead-end job in the Sydney patent office, he spends his days in toil unsuitable to his nature that ultimately wears at him. Fifth, in an effort to squelch the truth of what was stolen from him, he is committed to an insane asylum.
Still he persists, like Copernicus, in holding to his truth. He is only embraced by the larger scientific community when he is able to save the world from the errors of their efforts with his own scientific discoveries. (Incidentally, at each step of his journey, he encounters folks who are engaged with science, from hotel clerks who ask difficult questions in debate with other patrons; to a professor of physics that shares a dinner table in the insane asylum, ready to critique and discuss; to women of questionable morals debating each other in their idle hours about the truths of the universe. One gets the sense that the world of the sciences has cast out others in similar ways to our Tasmanian reinvention of Albert Einstein.)
Each glorious and utterly deadpan frame of the film is constructed both to amuse, and to illuminate some truth. All of these pitfalls that occur to our plucky hero are very real pitfalls in the pursuit of sciences. If a man or company cannot profit from the discovery, what use is it? Outsiders always have to work twice as hard to succeed where insiders can coast on mediocrity, and in scientific research, women and those who did not come from traditional formal schooling often struggle to be accepted by the larger scientific community. The process of pushing a new idea or theory through the traditional channels of scientific research can be something of a political buzzsaw, and one never truly knows when one is being pushed out for stepping on someone else’s toes as opposed to a genuine concern about the research. Brilliant minds, forced to earn money to live, are often pushed into jobs that are tedious and/or unsuitable, destroying their spirit to create and live their truths. People in power who are challenged by the minds that they have exploited for their personal gain have, historically, been known to imprison and label as deviant the very brilliant minds that invent the future. And, occasionally, the final role of a brilliant scientist or inventor is as a doomsday prophet, calling out a warning against the unchecked development of the very invention or idea they originally pioneered, like the inventor of the Keurig, or early founders of social media that now warn against it.
The science of Albert Einstein is an earthy thing, concerned with making people happy, making the community happy. He is frantic about the theft of his formula that splits the beer atom not because of the potential monies lost, but because of the danger this power could have when not carefully and safely applied. Consider the kitten pie, Schrodinger’s kitten pie, if you will. In an insane asylum, a monstrous chef takes live kittens and places them into the dough of a pie.
He does so gently, shaping and snipping the exterior crust to create cat ears out of pie dough. He places the pie in the ferociously hot oven. It’s harder to understand the urgency of Schrodinger’s paradox outside of the sciences, when the nature of quantum physics tumbles forward into dangerous and potentially explosive places. Really, the cat is in the pie. Is it alive or dead? Will scientists be able to save the kittens from the madness of man’s work? The film asks us to consider what we make, how it is used, and how it helps others and how man relates to the natural world that is the source and inspiration and confounding master of all the sciences. Something as mundane as an apple might be placed into a pie, or made into a nice cider—or be used to destroy the world, if one splits the apple atom. Science has consequences, and quantum physics have consequences. Scientists who wish to escape madness must remember that their work exists to save the kittens from the pie, not just question whether kittens live or die.
The grand symbolism of this madcap film may be best embodied in Einstein’s famous invention: surfing. Of critical importance to the pacifist and nature-loving inventor and physicist, the relationship between the natural world and the sciences is always one where humanity’s knowledge is skimming the surface of the depths present in space and time. The visionary genius fells a beautiful tree, and painstakingly carves the trunk into the shape of a board. With this invention, a revolutionary one for 1906, he manages to ride waves in to shore to enjoy his life and his moment in time. In this, the great scientist is at play. The creative mind is not trying to invent the atomic bomb. He’s trying to create foam in beer for everyone’s enjoyment. He’s trying to experience the wonder of the cosmos, and the great unknown sea. He’s seeking the theory of relativity as a way of extending a beautiful moment with a woman he loves.
In this, the great lesson to all dreamers and builders is one of purpose and perspective. We are surfing the tides of time and space, seeking on the shore the affection of our fellows, striving towards peace with the universe. We dreamers in the apple orchard, sleeping where the fruit may fall, dream from a place of love for all beings. Science is a state of wonder. Even the greatest minds look upon the fabric of the universe and marvel at the unknown. I suspect many great scientists have also had an occasional goofy porch hoedown in suspect attire while lip syncing to Chuck Berry.
In a thousand years, in some great, southern land, I wonder if this film might emerge from a discovered VHS archive and be taken seriously as a life of Einstein. This apocrypha will undoubtedly be embraced by some as a the truth, and possibly cause a new history of man to form. The vast, sweeping plains of nature will have no concern, at all, to the continual folly of the men who tell stories and do science to try and understand our tiny place woven into the fabric of space and time, as indifferent to our strange dreams of ourselves as a black hole shivering in some distant night.
PS: The soundtrack to the film is 80s-indie-Australian fantastic. I highly recommend checking out the Stevie Wonder-inspired sneering dance anthem by The Models, “I Hear Motion,” and the sweeping, majestic synthesizer ode to Australia, “Great Southern Land” by Icehouse.
Joe M. McDermott is best known for the novels Last Dragon, Never Knew Another, and Maze. His work has appeared in Asimov’s, Analog, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. His novel The Fortress at the End of Time, is available from Tor.com Publishing. He holds an MFA from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Program. He lives in Texas.