The 1950’s – an era synonymous with new hope. In postwar America, citizens were no longer gripped with the wartime mentality and were freed up to engage in other ventures. They were encouraged to explore the multitudes of opportunity that a victorious nation offered. And today, we can look back through those pastel-enhancing glasses and daydream about the carefree nature of a world without a tech-interface, the Real Housewives of Anaheim and pugnacious, orange, fat-cats getting mad at other people for moving to a safer place (see: Syrian refugees). Cinema has presented Eisenhower’s America as quaint wonderlands where charming people meet at Malt shops and wear their letterman jackets in un-ironic ways. Think of Back to the Future (Zemeckis, 1985) and all the old 50’s tropes they practically suffocated their audience with.
But audiences caught on to the heavy “cheesy” factor of the era and soon films began parlaying that into premise. Gary Ross’ film Pleasantville (1998) is just one great example of revisiting the era and exposing its tackiness. In the film, Tobey “emo Spiderman” Maguire and Reese Witherspoon get transported through their television to a “Leave it to Beaver” era town, where they upend the current moral institutions which – in their eyes – are holding them back from discovering all the necessary joys life has to offer. But this is exactly the predicament we encounter when reliving the 50’s on screen: this juxtaposition of the “glory days” and “old-fashioned values” are both encapsulated in a blissful, post-war decade.
This has translated a few different ways in the world of cinema. I only started thinking about it the other day when I wandered into a local two-screen theater and saw Indignation (Schamus, 2016). The film itself is an interesting foray into the strict moral milieu present on college campuses back during that decade. It is also a film about the worst reaction to a blowjob by a straight adolescent man. The demure and adorkable Logan Lerman plays Marcus, a sheltered New York Jewish boy who leaves his nervous parents and heads off to college in serene (and surprisingly picturesque) Ohio. One of the primary purposes for this sojourn is so that he is able to avoid the draft into the Korean War, where apparently his entire graduating class has gone to die. After arriving at school, he becomes enthralled with a girl named Olivia Hutton (played by a very classically 50’s looking Sarah Gadon – I mean damn, this girls eyes alone belong in an old Elia Kazan film). Everything seems pretty kosher for young Marcus, until he takes Olivia out on a date and she decides to reward him with a little fellatio. Like I said, at it’s simplest, it’s a film about the worst reaction to a blowjob – and when I say worst, I mean worst. One thing leads to another and events in the film spiral out of control which lead to Marcus’ conscious awakening.
This “realization of identity” or “coming to terms with oneself” is a trope of films that represent the decade. In the post-war era, most Americans were trying to establish a concrete identity for themselves. And what better place then college to truly help shape ones identity? The problem with discovering ones individuality at the time is that rebellion wasn’t really an option. Yet, it was ubiquitous. All of the films in this post are about people in that era going against the status quo. One might argue that it is just to be expected of cinema reflecting on any piece of history: why else would it be interesting? But even in the 50’s, there were a myriad of films made to capitalize on this rebellious attitude. Look at films like The Wild One (Benedeck, 1954) or Rebel Without A Cause (Ray, 1955) or any number of Westerns made during that time. It’s all about sticking it to the man. With Indignation and Marcus’ case however, we see the consequences of such actions. Marcus’ type of rebellion isn’t cool in the traditional sense. He’s not in a physical struggle or a fight against the establishment, he’s in an ideological crisis. He’s an anti-social jew at a Christian University, who’s just embarked on his first sexual adventure. He’s really pushing against the social standards of the time. I mean, we’re talking about a time where the Catholic Legion of Decency has tremendous box office sway. And what happens to our friend Marcus? He goes to war and is killed. Talk about disillusionment. As good as Marcus had it, things could still somehow go awry for him all because he operated the way he wanted: contrary to the agenda of the time.
When cinema reflects on the 1950’s, it glorifies an era for its place in history while simultaneously criticizing it for it’s harsh societal expectations. Granted Indignation was adapted from the Phillip Roth novel of the same name, so it’s not exactly revisionist in its interpretation, but as a part of contemporary cinema, it says something unique about that time. It’s not alone in that.
After watching Indignation, I was reminded of one of my favorite films about the era: Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). The film was also adapted from an older piece of writing, but it has it’s own nuanced interpretation of the glamorous nature of the 1950’s. While Marcus’ character is born into a modest lifestyle, the characters in The Talented Mr. Ripley are apart of a much more elite crowd.
Let’s start with the fact that everything in the film is beautiful. The dialogue is beautiful, the locations are beautiful (the Italian coast? I mean come on), the cinematography is beautiful and the freaking actors are next-level beautiful (Jude Law looks like he’s in Dolce and Gabbana ad the entire film). What better way is there to glamorize an era than to make everything you’re looking at beautiful? And the lifestyle these people partake in is especially beautiful. As soon as Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) is sent off to Italy to retrieve the lavish playboy Dicky Greenleaf (Jude Law), he is thrust into a life of luxury – the likes of which he has never seen. But just as with Indignation, this glamorous facade masks an internal struggle. Behind Tom’s jazz-crooning evenings and his desire to all of the latest designer pants is a man who’s ultimately unsuited for the era. In his case, he has an adult male issue, in that, he’s attracted to them – especially the one who has introduced him into the sweet life. But, in all honestly, who could blame him? I mean it is the late 90’s Jude Law! Was there ever a better example of a man?
Dickie is basking in the leisure of the postwar era: vacationing in a country that had been defeated only ten years prior (look how nice it is without all the facism!) and worrying only about where he might get his next jazz fix (the music only some in the haute couture can really appreciate). But Tom struggles. He likes leisure! He likes yachts! He likes Jazz! He might not have Dickie’s lifestyle, but he sure will go out of his way to become Dickie if that’s what it takes to be apart of it. The problem with Tom is, he still feels lost, no matter how hard he tries to be found. It seems like, on the page, Tom is a perfect fit for the era. The problem is, being attracted to a man, even – and I shudder to think it true – Jude Law, was simply not fathomable at the time. What a shame. And once again, we have a story with a idyllic time period as a backdrop where the main character has some characteristic which is a bit inappropriate for the era, forcing them to either conform or rebel.
Given the two options, I think the storyteller will most often go with the more interesting one. But, just as before, choosing to rebel comes with it’s consequences and in this case, they’re also going to be pretty brutal. You see, when you’re not really allowed to express your desires openly, you’re left only with subtle gestures and hints on which you are supposed to determine attraction. And if you’re wrong you could really offend someone. So when Tom Ripley presents his homosexual problem to Dickie on a boat at sea, things go south pretty quickly and he’s presented with the two options again: conform or rebel, only, in this case, rebel involves killing the man you’ve been in love with for the entire story. And it only gets worse from there, because Tom isn’t really allowed to be himself, he instead becomes someone he knows is accepted: Dickie. And thus, he finally finds a way to be comfortable in his own skin, only it’s in someone else’s.
That’s the thing about the 50’s in cinema. The era glistens on the surface, but as the adage goes,“all that glistens is not gold”. Now, both Indignation and The Talented Mr. Ripley are adapted from novels which were written from people who lived through and experienced the era. Perhaps they were trying to make transparent some truths that weren’t previously examined when they wrote the source material. Nevertheless, cinema is responsible for the visual representation of said source – and in doing so, they were really able to bring to life the romanticization of an era. All the beauty and glory that we associate with that era was somewhat posthumous. In other words, the authors had a responsibility to capture the internal struggles, but it was up to the filmmakers to put those into a context. And that they did. They managed to seduce us with the glimmer of a more simple (and somehow more decadent) time, when everyone was beautiful and everything was enchanting, and then spoil us with a slap in the face of disillusionment: life was actually pretty rough for those who didn’t fit the strict ideological mold of the decade.
Which brings me to a bit of a postlude. With a decade long gone, we as humans do what we do best in rewriting history and make the past the best place to live. But, perhaps these interpretations bring a nuanced view on even the current era.
One of these films was last year’s Brooklyn (Crowley, 2o15): a film that also took place during that era, where the beautiful nature of that era was present, but also a film that took a different approach for the outsider. In this case, the outsider was a literal outsider in Eilis Lacey, an immigrant from Ireland who seeks to find a better life for herself in a land of opportunity. The “new hope” that America offers is ever-present, but not without its consequences. Life for Eilis is hard, but unlike Tom Ripley or Marcus, her problem is a bit more opaque. As an immigrant, she isn’t exactly accepted by her new country right away. In fact, things get so difficult for her that she is given an opportunity to opt out and return home to a fairly prosperous life in Ireland. But, she doesn’t. Instead, defying the decade, she bears the weight of her problems openly and they begin to dissipate all on their own.
And thus, the era of new hopes finds it’s cinematic representation – without any caveats. All these films do exactly what films do best: transport us. In this case, they transport us like a time machine to a decade long lost in the earth’s rotation. In revisiting this era through cinema, we treat it like the discovery of treasure. Everything shines and sparkles, but all of that gets a little old (and now we’re coming full circle) pretty quickly. What’s more interesting is the truth and to uncover the difficult nature of being an outside thinker is a severely socially stratified time. Things changed for Eilish that really didn’t for Marcus or Tom. And granted, Marcus tried to express himself and was punished. I’m definitely not saying it would have gone well for him had he been more open about his beliefs. I think the cinematic representations of the 1950’s Indignation and The Talented Mr. Ripley act as a cautionary tale, where as Brooklyn finally offers us a glimpse of hope. In any instance, the era that was so cherished for it’s leisure and possibility harbored its own restrictions that left a mark on a celebrated generation. If there’s anything cinema has to offer to the dialogue, it’s that underneath all the wonder and joy, the possibility for a great future doesn’t come without a price.