Monday, April 27, 2009

2009 divided by '73

Year in the past; window on the present; portent of the future?

Even more than 35 years later, 1973 still casts a feverish glow. There are other years in U.S. history one could plausibly consider as tumultuous (the violent upheavals of 1676, 1776 and 1861 come to mind, as do those of 1968). But there's probably no year at the moment that has such a contrapuntal relationship to our current moment as 1973 does.

Certainly there's a string of specific events one can recite from 1973 that are consequential enough: the Paris Peace accords that officially ended U.S. participation in the Vietnam War. The Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. The Arab oil embargo and resulting energy crisis in retaliation for U.S. support of Israel in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. The Watergate hearings that would bring down Richard Nixon.

Other developments were more subtle, but at least as important in their long-term impact: 1973 was the year United States economy completed the process of going off the gold standard. It's the last year that mens' wages, adjusted for inflation, actually rose. And then there were the cultural landmarks that made a splash -- and generated rippling waves: The feminist manifesto Our Bodies, Our Selves. The gritty chic of Superfly. The willful nostalgia of American Graffiti. The sixties were over; but just what were the seventies?

Some recent works of popular culture focusing on the year 1973 suggest answers. Andreas Killen's 1973 Nervous Breakdown, which came out in paperback two years ago, is a series of case studies on social themes of the year. So, for example, he has a chapter on aviation that includes the economic problems of the industry, the uproar and fascination with hijackings, and the notoriety surrounding Erica Jong's Fear of Flying, all of which were prominent that year. Other chapters explore the economic crisis of New York coupled with the rise of the Sunbelt; the shifts and influence of Andy Warhol's work as he made a cultural transition from the sixties to the seventies, and the upheaval in gender roles both suggested and documented in the Loud family, "stars" of a PBS documentary series that prefigured the reality shows of our time.

Killen is particularly interested in the complex dialectic between an intensifying fascination with fame that he sees in the seventies, coupled with a equally strong fascination with surveillance, conspiracy, and secrecy. These tensions were apparent everywhere from the Nixon White House to radical fringe groups dedicated to overthrowing the government. Taken as a whole, Killen's book makes a persuasive case that in 1973 the United States was a nation on the edge, and that the social order as it was understood seemed illusory to left and right alike.

For some, this prospect of apocalypse was deeply frightening. For others, it was thrilling (both sides of which were discernible in the mania over UFOs in 1973). If you were a returning prisoner of war from Vietnam, the country you returned to was an alien planet. If you were a homosexual besotted with David Bowie, you might finally start to feel at home. I myself was a ten year-old child in 1973, in the middle of a thoroughly unremarkable childhood and largely oblivious to the outside world. Still, I can remember gas lines and television images -- and a father thoroughly disgusted by a liberal establishment he believed viewed firefighters like himself with contempt. I could sense that an old order was passing and a new one was emerging, right in the newfangled progressive classroom in which I was being taught.

This is why, after catching a few glimpses while waiting for my son to relinquish control of our television at the conclusion of Lost on Wednesday nights, I gradually found myself absorbed by the ABC series Life on Mars -- which, I'm very sorry to say, was canceled earlier this month. The series, adapted from the BBC program that ran in 2006-2008, was a hybrid between science fiction and a police procedural in which a detective played by Jason O'Mara is hit by a car in 2008 and wakes up in 1973. Each week O'Mara and a delightful cast that included Harvey Keitel, Michael Imperioli and Gretchen Mol solved a crime in New York City while O'Mara's character tried to figure out what the hell was going on.

One of the things that made Life on Mars so satisfying was the pitch-perfect sense of period detail in costume, music, and dialogue, which as often as not featured Imperioli behaving in off-handedly sexist ways that would get him fired in about twenty minutes if was half as bad today. The look of the show had a kind of sepia overlay that was nostalgic, and yet there was something fascinating and fresh about seeing the signature gestures of the era, like Mol's or Imperioli's hairstyles, or the white loafers Keitel's character wore. At the same time, there were also strange, even creepy overtones in the protagonist's sci-fi backstory that harkened back to Westworld and The Exorcist, two 1973 movies that captured the freakishly dark mood of the period.

And yet, though it really seemed that way to some at the time, American culture was not stretched to the breaking point in 1973. There was a retreat from the pervasive weirdness of that year by the mid-seventies, and the eventual triumph of a figure many at the time considered laughably retrograde: Ronald Reagan. If living and learning about 1973 has taught me anything, it's that the feeling of inevitability you can have in living at a particular moment is, more often than not, itself a historical artifact.

Viewed through the lens of 1973, the year 2009 is curiously bifurcated. The inauguration of Barack Obama has engendered a sense of hope in our government that was entirely missing in 1973 -- or, for that matter, 2005. At the same time, however, our long-term economic horizons seem as bleak as they did in the seventies, with consequences in other domains of American life likely to follow. From this vantage point, it almost seems like history is about to resume its course, that the last 36 years have been an interlude, a dream of the kind from which the character of Life on Mars keeps thinking he's about to awake. I hope I'm wrong. It gives me comfort to believe that I really might be.