So, many kudos to A. O. Scott for giving the rest of us plebs who do not actually subscribe something to chew on:
Here's to Postwar America, We Never Really Knew Ye
By A. O. SCOTT
The New York Times
December 4, 2005
ONCE again, we find ourselves in the thick of the biopic and costume drama season, during which actors, directors and production designers stake their Oscar hopes on the detailed reconstruction of the past. Period movies are nothing new, of course - playing historical dress-up has been part of filmmaking since the beginning - but there seems to be, at present, a curious obsession with a single period.
The three high-profile movies about real people that opened this fall - George Clooney's "Good Night, and Good Luck," Bennett Miller's "Capote" and James Mangold's "Walk the Line" - take place mainly in the hard-to-define, decade-straddling era between Korea and Vietnam. Mr. Clooney's movie, the most concentrated of the three, flashes back from 1958 to 1954, a pivotal moment in the career of its subject, Edward R. Murrow. Mr. Miller's begins in 1959, with a murder in rural Kansas, and ends in 1966, with the publication of "In Cold Blood," Truman Capote's book about the crime. "Walk the Line," the most conventionally biographical of the three, charts the rise of Johnny Cash, dwelling for most of its running time on the span of his career between 1955, when Sam Phillips signed him up at Sun Records, and 1968, when he married June Carter and performed his famous concert at Folsom Prison.
This might seem like more of a coincidence if last year's biopics - "Ray," "Kinsey," "Beyond the Sea" - had not also concerned American celebrities of the postwar era, and if a passel of other recent period pictures, from "Mona Lisa Smile" and "Far From Heaven" to "What Lies Beneath" and the forthcoming "Brokeback Mountain," did not mine the same historical ground. Everywhere you look, it seems, you see women in A-line skirts and men in narrow-lapelled sack suits, smoking unfiltered cigarettes and drinking highballs, talking on black rotary-dial phones and traveling the country in wood-paneled buses, accompanied by a soundtrack of appropriate pop, country and R & B tunes. And some of the era's cachet surely resides in the deep reservoir of visual and aural styles it offers. In a way that subsequent decades are not, the late 50's and early 60's seem permanently cool.
But that perception is itself most likely the product of a particular generational perspective. The years in question coincide with the formative years of the baby boomers, a cohort whose endless self-discovery has dominated American popular culture for as long as some of us can remember. Perhaps more relevant, for Americans born in the 1960's - including Mr. Clooney, Mr. Mangold, Mr. Miller and this critic - the Eisenhower and Kennedy years lie just over the horizon of living memory, and therefore are likely to exert a particular fascination. Characters like Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Edward R. Murrow and Truman Capote are at once tantalizingly close and intriguingly remote. We may recognize their names, faces and voices, but still wonder where they came from and who they really were.
Watching these movies, with their painstaking detail and their trompe l'oeil leading performances, we may also wonder how we got from there to here, a line of inquiry that the pictures frustrate by means of their elaborate visual fidelity. The difference between a period film and a historical film, in other words, is that while a historical film implies a continuity with the present, the period film, far more common in Hollywood, seals the past in a celluloid vitrine, establishing a safe distance between then and now.
And the period in question, eventful and tumultuous though it may have been, also represents a zone of safety - if not of comfort, exactly, then at least of clarity. The notion of the Eisenhower years as a time of dullness and conformity - a dubious revisionist legacy of the 1960's in any case - has been replaced by a series of images and stories that emphasize both ferment and stability. When these movies deal with political and social issues, it is almost always with the optimism of hindsight. The prejudice and repression that figure in "Brokeback Mountain," "Kinsey" and "Far From Heaven" will eventually be overcome, the major evidence for this progress being the existence of the movies themselves. The specter of McCarthy, whose scowling visage haunts "Good Night, and Good Luck," will be expunged, as will the racism that casts its shadow over "Ray."
It is interesting that all of these movies, while gesturing toward various manifestations of social change, evade or stop short of the upheaval and rebellion now commonly thought of as characterizing the 60's. That story may be at once too thoroughly assimilated into the cultural memory and, at the same time, still too contentious to engage the imaginations of today's filmmakers. The ideological and culture fractures of the present, moreover, feed a nostalgic longing for images of consensus. It is not just that Ray Charles and Johnny Cash, mavericks in their own day, have become objects of universal admiration, but also that the stories of their ascension to stardom are, implicitly, stories about the public that has such people in common.
The greatest nostalgia these films express is for the culture that produced characters like Charles and Cash, Murrow and Capote - all of them creations of a celebrity-driven mass media at an early phase of its dominance, and all of them distinguished, at least in retrospect, with a kind of self-invented, all-American authenticity that seems to have vanished from the cultural scene. That authenticity may not have been visible at the time, but if movies can't synthesize authenticity, what good are they? Remember when television news was a bastion of integrity? When nonfiction pieces in glossy magazines changed the way people thought about journalism and literature? When the music charts were dominated by innovators who gave traditional American forms a modern, personal spin? Neither do I. That's the point.
And you know why Hollywood stops short of "the upheaval and rebellion now commonly thought of as characterizing the 60's"? Because the social moments of that period were left incomplete--by the very same baby-boomers to whom pretty much every industry must grovel before--and they know it. How many people like being reminded of their failures? How many parents like to be reminded that they failed their children, that we will be significantly worse off today than our parents were?
So, as Scott notes and as I pointed out over a year ago to my Mona Lisa Smile
-watching Women in Literature class, we like looking back and saying, "Man oh man, look at how ignorant we used to be!" while at the same time patting ourselves complacently on the backs and consoling ourselves with the knowledge that there has been progress of some sort. In any case, it wouldn't surprise me if the upcoming Brokeback Mountain
film is of this nostalgic kind--assuring us that we've come a long way, baby, but stupidly ignoring how much further we have to go...and no movie that leaves it at that will ever be genuinely affecting if you ask me.