Monday, January 4, 2010

The Sixties at 50

On Mad Men, Nine, An Education, and the quicksilver flow of time

I've been thinking about the early 1960s a lot lately. To a great degree, this is because of Mad Men; t
hough season three finished months ago now, I've been plugging holes in my knowledge of the show in recent weeks by watching old episodes on DVD. Like a lot of people, I marvel at the strange combination of duplicity and integrity in the show's protagonist, advertising executive Don Draper, whose sense of male prerogative, like that so many characters on the show, is both alluring in its unapologetic self-assurance and repellent in its self-indulgence. At a time in which many men are experiencing a crisis of confidence, particularly in the job market, the hugely successful, yet alienated Draper seems to be a measure of both what men have gained (a more emotionally centered style of fathering) and lost (relative economic security) in the wake of the women's movement. Though not named or depicted in any explicit sense, feminism has been gathering force in the most recent episodes, as Don's wife Betty, to cite only one example, discovers both that she's been betrayed along with a growing confidence in her own powers.

These themes of sexism and gender empowerment also surface in Nine, the new film musical of the 1982 play. The movie, directed by Rob Marshall, stars Daniel D
ay-Lewis as Guido Contini, a Federico Fellini-esque figure trying to refocus his talent through a revolving array of women in his life, among them actors played by Sophia Loren (his mother), Judi Dench (his costume designer colleague), Fergie (his childhood introduction to the joy of sex), Marion Cotillard (his long-suffering wife), Penelope Cruz (his mistress), Kate Hudson (an American journalist trying to bed him) and Nicole Kidman (his muse of the moment who, in the film's turning point, also makes clear that she's looking to play a role that requires more than standing on a pedestal). The milieu is Rome in the mid-sixties -- coincidentally the setting of a recent episode of Mad Men. Guido Contini is literally worlds away from Don Draper in temperament, yet both men are in creative professions that they feel entitle them license of various kinds. Nine eventually gets around to seriously critiquing this view, but the movie takes a little long to get there. It ultimately affirms monogamous domesticity -- but with the crucial difference of implicitly updating that affirmation in a vision of gender equality. It's that equality, not the affirmation of domesticity, that defines the difference between the mid-20th and early 21st centuries in terms of sexual politics.

Gender roles and constraints are also themes of yet another recent story of the early sixties, Lone Scherfig's An Education, with a Nick Hornby screenplay based on the memoir of Lynn Barber. This time the point of view is female, as a sixteen year-old girl in 1961, anticipating the spirit of what would become Swinging London, chafes against the constraints of her overbearing parents and her private school and embarks on a relationship with an older man and his friends. They introduce her to a world of jazz, dog racing, and not quite innocent mischief. While these alluring companions turn out
not to be who they appear, their increasingly obvious limitations don't change the critique of patriarchy that remains at the center of the movie. As such, this film, like Nine, ends up affirming what might be termed liberal family values: hard work, education, heterosexual monogamy. Of the three works discussed here, only Mad Men truly unsettles our view of the past and challenges us to really evaluate contemporary common sense, which is probably why it's likely to endure. It is, in short, a great work of history.

Yet none of this is what I meant to talk about when I sat down to write this post. Instead, it was the remarkable compressed sense of historical time in the early 1960s. To greater (Mad Men) or lesser (An Education) degrees, the global catacylsm of World War II was the backdrop of the era; Mad Men periodically flashes back to Don's childhood during the Great Depression. I kept thinking, as I watched the glorious, sun-dappled footage of Rome and Anzio in Nine, that a mere generation earlier these places had been pulverized -- or, at any rate, theatened to be pulverized -- by invading armies and airplanes. In a fraction of a lifetime, young people in the Western world experienced a existential shift in which the premise of everyday life changed from mere survival -- John Lennon was born in the London Underground during the Battle of Britain -- to an expectation of liberation captured nowhere more brilliantly than in the music of the Beatles (and, more specifically, a song like "She's Leaving Home," which might well be the unsung subtitle of An Education).

As subsequent events would show, the truly awesome sense of possibility that defined the sixties could prove crushing when frustrated, as it so often was. Whether viewed in terms of economics, gender relations, or any number of other lenses, he world looked a lot less promising in 1975 for most people than it did fifteen years earlier. And the pace of social change in the years since, while real, has never seemed quite as dramatic. We measure our lives in neatly measured units of days, weeks, months, years, and decades. But time has a way of moving at its own pace. We may make, and even be responsible for, our own history. But it speeds up and slows down in ways at which we can only wonder.