Wednesday Afternoon at the Movies
by Jerry Walden
Those who read my columns will note that I do not review movies. I’m a happy consumer and find movies enjoyable. But, I believe movies have had, and will continue to have, a great influence on American culture. If I were to be assigned a label, I suppose, “social observer and commentator,” might be appropriate. That said, I want to comment on two films that appear to reflect a change underway in American society. These two films brought to mind a series of films that influenced changes I experienced in my adolescence.
I read a review of “A Single Man.” I decided not to go see it. It is another gay movie, for gays, dealing with gay realities. Two years ago I did go to see “Brokeback Mountain” and really appreciated the sensitivity and humanistic treatment of the story of those men, so, I might change my mind, about “Single Man.” Maybe it isn’t just for gays. I think both may be classics, in some sense, movies that are part of societal change and growth.
My decision not go see “A Single Man” was not because it is a story about a homosexual; I won’t go see it because the setting is 1962 Los Angeles. It apparently reflects the rigidity and intolerance of the American suburban culture of the 195o’s; and I am a dysfunctional product of that time and place. I came of age in the 1950’s in Los Angeles and I have avoided L.A. ever since I escaped from there, many years ago.
Sociologists and historians have explained that after the great depression of the 1930’s and the incredible effort required to prevail in World War II, Americans wanted a breather, a quiet peaceful time with no diversity, no dissension, no disturbances. What they got was the Cold War, McCarthyism, Richard Nixon and soul crushing conformity; especially in the suburbs of the large American cities. What they sowed and reaped was the greatest youth rebellion in this countries history, violent civil rights movements and two failed wars, Korea and Viet Nam.
The generation of teenagers of the late 40’s to the early 60’s was stifled in what should have been the experimental and growth period of their lives. They were forced to conform to and accept the values and life styles of their parents as the only acceptable behavior. Everyone was expected to get a job, or career, and work at the same company until death or retirement. Education was occupation oriented instead of intellectual oriented.
And, just to properly ice this cake; there were no birth control pills. Condoms were sold only in pharmacies and kept out of sight, and they were sold only to married men or those over 21. Abortion was illegal, everywhere, pregnant high school girls went to “visit relatives” out of state and never came back.
One movie of that time, “Rebel Without a Cause”, captured that angst. It is best known for being a James Dean movie, but it should be required viewing for anyone who wishes to study the psycho-social development (or lack thereof) of adolescents of that era.
There was another movie in the mid 1950’s which touched me personally, “The Wild One.” It must have pointed me in a direction, because one year later I was a biker. After a year or two I ended up in one of the more notorious motorcycle clubs, the Sinners of South L.A. I “lived the life” until I was drafted into the Army in 1960. With the wonderful hindsight of middle age I can see that I was searching for some way to ‘find myself,’ and the motorcycle clubs provided me with opportunities to grow which was taboo elsewhere. Then, the army put me in uniform, made me stand up straight and kicked my arse back into conformity. Somewhere in that mix I became semi-acceptable in middle class society.
In the mid 1960’s the “Boomers” arrived and the world is still reverberating from that shock wave. The clash between the generation in power and the generation born after WW II was a conflict between a culture as it used to be, and a world not quite here, yet. Of course, my generation was someplace in between. Not really unusual for a dazed and confused generation who only knew one thing for sure, “the nail sticking up the highest is the first one to get hammered.”
It was once pointed out that my generation was the only American generation who never had a president. We went from the WW II generation; Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush; to the boomers, Clinton, and the other Bush. Also, our generation has no name. Maybe we aren’t really here. There is that angst again.
But, wow! There were some really good movies and the music sings for itself. Another movie of the 1960’s spoke to me, “Easy Rider.” It was about a mile up the road from where the Sinners were some ten years before. Now, that movie screwed up everything the army and five years of wearing the cloak of invisibility had done for me. There I was, in my white shirt, buried in the middle of a tall mountain of white collars. Sitting at the summit was with an ogre with blazing eyes, dressed in a grey suit, trumpeting, “Take all the hippies out and kill them.” And that, my children, is how Viet Nam got started. However, my generation had one foot in the Age of Aquarius, and the other firmly planted in the safety of the middle class society, and we kept it there.
Last year I went to see “Wild Hogs.” It was fun, but it left me in a melancholy mood. I was saddened at what being a “biker” had become. I was kind of disturbed to think that these movies might be a description of the lives of my generation. But, I find it interesting that movies can, and do describe our social history. I’m sure others have and will see parallel trails of social change in movies. The love affair between Americans and their movies is deep, ardent and long lived.
Perhaps the production of “Brokeback Mountain” and “A Single Man” heralds the emergence of greater acceptance and tolerance in our society for this ridiculed and oppressed minority. I hope so. But there will always be those who refuse to emerge from their personal dungeons of ignorance and fear. As we gaze at them, with pity, we must remember, don’t let them play with sharp objects, they can be dangerous.
Now, let’s go to the movies. They will show us our history, where we are now, and make a few suggestions. They will show us what we are thinking about, worrying about, wishing for. That’s what we pay them to do.