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"In the city of my birth, I had a dream..."
This is the sort of article Frank Rich USED to write. 
5th-Dec-2005 08:34 am
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

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.
5th-Dec-2005 02:40 pm (UTC)
I agree that the promises of the 60s – for an end to war, an end to racism, an end to greed, etc – were never realised, and the world we live in today is a very sad world indeed. And those very things that the 60s promised an end to are now back, in an even more virulent form. But I don’t think you can get away with blaming the baby-book generation. What did the generations who followed the baby-boomers do to make those promises into a reality? What have their actual achievements been?
5th-Dec-2005 05:58 pm (UTC)
But I don’t think you can get away with blaming the baby-book generation. What did the generations who followed the baby-boomers do to make those promises into a reality? What have their actual achievements been?

First of all, one of the reasons why people ask this question is because subsequent generations get overshadowed, and, like all parents, baby-boomers whine about their kids and how they're lazy bums and THAT'S what we see. Subsequent generations have had to live and deal with the promises, sometimes broken, of the civil rights movements--for example, including so-called post feminism and revival of a conservative backlash because those promises were incomplete. Now, as a liberal, I don't like that, but the waves of conservativism in this country are largely due to the needs and accomplishments subsequent generations, and if THAT isn't a driving force in our lives today to be "proud" of, God knows what is.
5th-Dec-2005 07:55 pm (UTC)
I think what happened back in the 60s is that people got a glimpse of freedom, and it scared them. Most people are scared of freedom. And what worries them even more is the thought of other people having freedom. That’s why people elect authoritarian governments. It’s very depressing. That’s why you’ll always get conservative backlashes. People who like to live sad little lives being told what to do want to make sure that everybody else has to live sad little lives too. People who don’t like to enjoy themselves want to make sure than nobody else gets to enjoy themselves either. That’s why you get things like the War on Drugs. That’s why Christianity still exists – to make sure people don’t get to enjoy themselves.
5th-Dec-2005 08:17 pm (UTC)
There’s also the fact that back in the 60s there was an issue that was so urgent – the Vietnam War - that it forced people opposed to the war to be focused. They didn’t have the luxury of sitting around debating their response to it, it was simply too urgent, it was so clearly and outrageously wrong that there was no need for debate. It was much the same for Abolitionists in the US in the mid-19th century, and for British feminists in the early 20th century, and for the Civil Rights Movement – they all had a very clear and very simple aim to focus on, ending slavery, gaining women’s suffrage, ending segregation. Since the 60s there hasn’t been another issue that has provided the same focus.
5th-Dec-2005 08:21 pm (UTC)
And even though there is today an enemy that is every bit as dangerous as any faced by any previous generations – fundamentalist Christianity - too many people seem reluctant to face that threat. Even women, who have so much to lose if these nutters get their way. Possibly people are afraid they’ll be seen as anti-religion. Or possibly because they know Christians personally and can’t believe such people are really such a huge threat.
5th-Dec-2005 10:06 pm (UTC)
Actually, I think it was more than just being scared of freedom in general. Whites, in particular, white men, were not included in the civil and women's rights movements in the way that they should have been, and with the inclusion of more people into the set of full humanity, they felt as if their identity were being eroded. Hence the fundamentalism and the rollback of minority rights, which is surprise surprise driven largely by white males.

You know, it took three and a half years for the majority of Americans to oppose the Vietnam War. It only took a little more than one for the majority to oppose the current Iraq one. So why aren't people out in the streets protesting? Well, #1, the government has learned its lesson and does not draft, which would REALLY light a fire under the asses of all the people who oppose the war. #2, the youth of today are much less certain that there is a single answer to anything, and that's a symptom of the generation--this fragmented view of knowledge.
6th-Dec-2005 09:33 am (UTC)
I’m not sure about fundamentalist Christianity being driven mostly by white males. In my own experience (my best friend is a recovered Christian, I’ve been to a few Holy Roller churches with her, and a significant part of her family are fundies) there seems to be no shortage of women in these churches. Of course oppression always works best if you can persuade people to oppress themselves, and the history of Christianity is a shining example of this, with women being persuaded to be the gents of their own oppression. If Christianity is to be defeated women will have to vote with their feet and leave the churches.
6th-Dec-2005 10:06 am (UTC)
I hope I'm not giving the impression I'm trying to get white makes off the hook. As a white male I am very conscious of the evil that has been perpetrated by white males. It just frustrates me when I see women joining Christian churches - to me it's as if Afro-Americans started joining the Ku Klux Klan! And it dismays me when women vote for conservative leaders who are taking away women's rights.

7th-Dec-2005 10:43 am (UTC)
Well said--and I completely agree with most of what you said. (I can't believe you actually had a class where they even showed Mona Lisa Smile :P Horrendous). That's actually one of my few concerns with Brokeback Mountain--it does allow people to happily say to themselves "it would never be like that now"--which negates Annie Proulx's very point (and I'd imagien Ang lee's)

7th-Dec-2005 05:40 pm (UTC)
(I can't believe you actually had a class where they even showed Mona Lisa Smile :P Horrendous).

I'm dead-serious. And even though it ostensibly took place at Wellesley, many of the issues from "back then" were actually contemporary issues associated with MY alma mater (like a history professor lying to students about with war stories...10 pts if you know who that was; it was all over the news). Not to mention that Wellesley "back then" actually had Pollock paintings in their school museum, and that setting the plot up as the progressive from California vs. the conservatives in the Northeast was just Hollywood stroking its own ego.

That's actually one of my few concerns with Brokeback Mountain--it does allow people to happily say to themselves "it would never be like that now"--which negates Annie Proulx's very point (and I'd imagien Ang lee's)

After reading Giovanni's Room, I couldn't believe how identically "Brokeback Mountain" mirrored the plot of the former. It's like all Proulx did was take Paris and do it over cowboy country. They even take place in the same time periods, as well. However, Baldwin set his story in his "now," whereas Proulx set hers in her past. Brokeback Mountain invited the easy "well, we're better now" dismissal even from the start, alas. Tragic love stories will always be popular, anyway, no matter how egalitarian our world becomes. :P
16th-Dec-2005 09:12 am (UTC)
Done exams so I have more time to talk.

I finally saw Brokeback and while it hasn't immediately replaced Ice Storm in my list of Ang Lee films, I was overall very pleased (though the huge buzz it's getting is making me worry about a backlash). I agree that the story and film does sorta allow some to say "well it was harder back then, that isn't a problem now" but I think in both cases, especiallyt he film that's not the message the film's tryign to send and would be a misreading. (Ang Lee himself has spoken out that that's not one of the themes of the movie and that it's very contemporary). After all the film does end in the 80s anyway (as does the novel kinda) and start in the 60s--it's not *all* that "back then..."

17th-Dec-2005 01:22 am (UTC)
You realize the 80's is already 20 years ago, give or take? >_< Saying that the 80's is the same as our present is like saying that the 50's was no different from the 70's. ^^;

Interestingly, the original version of the "Brokeback Mountain" short story did not feature a flash-forward to the 80's in the beginning. Proulx added that later for the story's inclusion in the Close Range anthology, I believe. I'll bet she did that for people tempted to dismiss the story as an anachronism of the past.
17th-Dec-2005 01:27 am (UTC)
Ya I know that (though as I lived the 80s I guess I sometimes forget that) But still for gay "being out" etc post Stonewall--80s even is a lot closer to now than the 50s of Far From heaven were or something. Hrmmm. But of course that's a moot point in the setting of Brokeback.

Wow--i actually only have read the 97 New Yorker version--as my mom had a subscription growing up and I'd always save issues with articles or fiction I liked. didn't knwo some was added--I'll have to check out the print version.

17th-Dec-2005 01:33 am (UTC)
I think that there's been a respectable amount of progress even within the span of our lifetimes, though (we're about the same age, provided you're telling the truth on your info page ^_~ ). I mean, when Ellen came out, it was like "Burn her at the stake--and boycott Disney while we're at it!" and her face was EVERYWHERE. When Richard Chamberlain came out a decade later, about the most reaction from the public and the media was a yawn.
17th-Dec-2005 01:44 am (UTC)
I do agree--i didn't think my argument through much ;)

Although one reason no one cared about Richard (or Tab) is that they weren't exactly headlining a hit show at the time. but I agree

17th-Dec-2005 01:52 am (UTC)
'Course, Chamberlain WAS a huge heart-throb in his day, especially in The Thorn Birds. *chuckles* Though, when you think about it on hindsight, the whole "forbidden love" thing that he was doing in that miniseries was quite apt. :P
17th-Dec-2005 02:28 am (UTC)
Never saw thorn Birds tho I did grow up on reruns of that 60s medical show he did--Dr Kildaire I think?

Sigh :P
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