Sunday, February 11, 2007

Movies In Context


Posts coming into Monday should be fairly light, don't you think? I considered writing about Trotsky and Lenin, but I don't know, I just couldn't get my enthusiasm up to speed. Instead, I want to write about something dear to my heart: film.

I have been watching many films this weekend, sort of a mindless marathon. As I watched "Saw III", a film I can't recommend, my mind started wandering and I found myself trying to identify films which are tied to a decade. Some films can be seen over and over again, regardless of time's passage: "Casablanca", "Gone With The Wind", "Apocalypse Now", "The Godfather". However, there are some films that are noteworthy not as film but as timecapsules. They exist as a little window into a removed time and culture. If you want to take a look with me through that time portal, here are some suggestions which are certainly not inclusive. I'll only cover forty years with lists that are woefully incomplete. Note, this is not about quality, this is about films for the cultural historian.


1950's -- James Dean as angst ridden bad boy in "Rebel Without A Cause"; Marlon Brado as biker punk with the heart of gold in ( "What are you rebelling against?" "Whattya got?") "The Wild Ones"; Glenn Ford tacking teen delinquency in "Blackboard Jungle" (which by the way launched "Rock around The Clock" by Bill Haley and the Comets); "Baby Doll" by director Elia Kazan (a man who would later sell out his own in the McCarthy hearings) and based on a play by Tenessee Williams. This film about the life of postwar Amreica behind the gray flannel facade irked then New York's Cardinal Spellman to declare the film "evil in concept... certain to exert an immoral and corrupting influence on those who see it." Spellman should have lived to see "Revenge of the Nerds".


1960's -- David Niven took a turn as a befuddled parent in "Prudence and the Pill" a statement about the decade's perceived promiscuity as symbolized by the development of birth control; "I Love You Alice B. Tolkas" starring Peter Sellers as an uptight middle class bachelor who suddenly embraces the sixties drug culture; and more promiscuity with "Bob, Carol, Ted and Alice" and "Three In The Attic". On another front Sean Connery took the role as James Bond in "Dr. No". I love the Bond series, but this film is pure Cold War. It's a wonderful look at early sixties fashions, automobiles, and technology. The same can be said for "Goldfinger" which had Sean Connery mouthing the words: "Get lost, darling, this is man-talk" and "The best way to appreciate the Beatles is with a good pair of earmuffs." And Vietnam? "The Green Beret" with John Wayne on the right. Antiwar films weren't front and center until the seventies, and even then they were mostly allegorical.

1970s -- "The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh" is pure disco culture as is ""Roller Boogie" and"Xanadu", which was actually released in 1980, but I will keep it here as born of 70's culture. And if we're talking disco, we're talking "Saturday Night Fever". The seventies also gave us films that purported to reflect black urban culture in America: "Shaft", "Superfly" and "Dolemite".

1980's-- The Eighties gave us AIDS. Under the Reagan administration (someone will have to tell me sometime why history has been rewritten around his administration) we saw the rise of the ME generation, a burst of excess and self-centeredness. In film,"Hollywood Hot Tub" is pure kitsch and a great glimpse into the culture that the media tried to push on America. " Also, the youth movement of the sixties and seventies continued with the self absorbed eighties version in such films as "Sixteen Candles", "Dirty Dancing", and "The Breakfast Club".


Forty years there. Obviously, I'm just picking examples to prove a point. When I watch a film made in the thirties, part of the fun for me is to listen to the dialogue for slang and cultural references, to study the interior decors, to watch the exterior shots of cityscapes that are no more, painted over by time and progress.

Thanks for the indulgence. I think I'm to go now and watch Friedkin's "The French Connection", great shots of the New York during the early seventies, and gritty as they come.

18 comments:

Drive-in Maniac said...

I can connect to "The French Connection." What a chase scene. Pattern made for Motowners. But what about "Bullitt," Stewart? It's 1968 and Steve McQueen is revving it up in a Mustang--the muscle car era par excellence, eh?

Stewart Sternberg said...

yep. Bullitt is fine. I almost mentioned it. I love seventies cop films. "Freebie and the Bean" "The Seven Ups" "Across 110th Street" "The SuperCops". They were Starsky and Hutch writ large.

jedimerc said...

Wow, 'The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh'... true disco culture :) (I kind of liked it being a Pisces myself).

The 80's also had some wacky science films (perhaps a reaction to the strange sci-fi films that dominated the 50's) like 'Real Genius' and 'Weird Science'. I liked more of the off kilter films than the 'Breakfast Clubs' of the day...

Ah, and let us not forget Cold War apocalyptic stories out of the 80's too... I was always a sucker for movies like 'Red Dawn', 'The Road Warrior' and more dramatic pieces like 'Testament' and 'The Day After' (remember the stink that caused?)

Charles Gramlich said...

I have a weak spot for "Red Dawn," but definetely a movie dated by the events of its time. I'm struck in watching movies from the 70s and 80s how many plot elements would not work in these days of cell phones.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Oh wow..Red Dawn...and anything with A-r-r-r-r-r-nold. Commando was a real peek at sixties culture. If you have a dvd of it, freeze the shots of the mall and take a good look at what people are wearing, some of the display windows, etc.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Good point, Charles. In some horror films, I'll watch and ask myself: "Why don't they just use a cell phone."

Recently I watched War Games, which was part of that Reagan paranoia thing going on when he called the Soviets the Evil Empire.

Again, a film of its time.

SQT said...

Oh wow, I haven't thought of 'The Fish that Saved Pittsburg' in years. For some reason my brothers and I loved that movie and watched it all the time.

I shouldn't have admitted that.

Lucas Pederson said...

Why is it that the eighties seems to be the terminal beginning of the world's ruination? AIDS. Mullets. New Kids On the Block. Need I say more?
Although I can't complain too much becasue a lot of my favortie bands started in the eighties. Metallica, Guns-n-Roses, ect, ect. I guess it wasn't a total loss.

Stewart Sternberg said...

SQT, no, you should have kept that to yourself.

I don't know about the eighties, I think each decade has its own plusses and minuses.

Dorky Dad said...

So what would they say about our current decade, given the steady stream of slasher movies like "Saw III?"

And I remember "Red Dawn," too: the quintessential early 80s Cold War movie. I loved it.

Christina Rundle said...

I haven't seen some of these movies. I'm going to rent them, as soon as I get a little time. Great suggestions.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Christine, you DO understand that these aren't necessarily good films. Just a warning.

Dorky Dad, these films aren't necessarily a comment about the society, they are rather a little window into the popular culture of that time. This decade? It's hard to say while you are in the midst of it, but you have to pick a film that shows as much of our culture as possible, perhaps set in an environment that gives you peeks at fashion and things around it.

I might pick HITCH as an example. Great shots of New York in this decade, good shots of fashion, and also it taps into the strange dating culture that has come about in the last several years, and the feeling of detachment that people have.

mist1 said...

My cat is a big fan of Trotsky and Lenin. His formal name is in honor of them.

miller580 said...

If you want a slice from the 80's "Armageddon" theme, try "the day after." I think it was a MOW, but I was a twirp back then and it scared the shit out of me.

Red Dawn and Real Genius are two movies that can never be turned off in my house. If TNT is playing them, we are watching them.

Another film that is a retro look back at the 80's is Donnie Darko. I know that it was made in the early 2k's but it is pretty accurate protrayl of a more innocent time.

Let's not forget that alot about culture can be derived from each decades Slasher/horror flicks. These films often critique society.

Don't have sex, for example, or Jason and Freddy might have to hunt you down. I would venture to say that Frankenstein could be a critique on man and science.

jedimerc said...

ack, I forgot War Games on my list... I knew I left some good stuff off (including Red Dawn and Day After as well)...

Claudia said...

man, I have to catch up on my movie watching!

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Nothing has ever replaced "Casablanca" as my favorite film. I know every line, and it never gets old.

"Little Big Man" was wonderful, as was the book. I played "Baby Doll" off-Broadway. Silva Vacarro was played by an actor who was a ringer for James Dean.

Movies capture the essence of a time and place better than any other indicator. There are so many levels within a film that I think God truly IS in the details.

SolShine7 said...

Xanadu, LOL. I haven't seen that film yet but I've heard about its strangeness.