Upon re-watching L.A. Confidential, Far From Heaven and The Aviator, I’ve decided to make this miscellaneous Friday post about my favorite decades and how they are depicted in contemporary films. Just so you know, I don’t automatically love any and every film that’s set in the middle of the 20th century. I wish I could but it’s not that simple. An era alone does not make a good movie, considering that, above else, “good” lies in the eye of the beholder anyway.
A film that’s set in the 1930s through 60s does spark my interest though and I’m always curious about the tone the filmmakers chose to present a certain time, and their point of view. It may be a natural thing to infuse a story with contemporary perception, individually crafted by writers, directors, set or costume designers. But it also bothers me at times. Mind you, I know that life in the 50s (to pick a popular example) was not all apple pie and sunshine for the majority of mankind. When has life ever been?! But wouldn’t it make for a complex story to actually show the downsides as well as the upsides of a time, to not only dwell on what (supposedly) went wrong?
You see, I greatly enjoy Far From Heaven for example – the cast is perfection and Julianne Moore is one of the few actresses who actually knows how to tackle the poise of a housewife and mother from the 1950s. She understands there’s more to it than just the petticoat dress and the hairdo. I really wish her preparation and research had gotten her more than “just” an Academy Award nomination. My problem with this film?! It shows the constraints of suburban America and an upper middle class housewife and mother, as well as the realities of a homophobic and racially divided society – a tough job beautifully done. The film does not however reflect on the other side of the coin. The audience is given the impression as if we’ve come a long way since the late 50s and it’s good that way. Granted, regarding the central topics of prejudice and equality we may have moved forward, but we are far from living in perfect times. So while the film is drawing a picture of a decade we are supposed to be happy has passed, it misses to show the bright side of the 1950s away from societal shackles and our contemporary perception of uptightness. It seems to assume to we now know better and have left all those issues behind us in an age darker than ours.
And that’s my issue: it is always so easy to judge bygone times, especially when you only get to hear one side of the story. Unfortunately, it became a habit to ridicule or condemn the values, likes and attitudes of the 1950s in the late 60s and 70s. And although the 80s brought on hysterics and nostalgia about the dresses, ponytails and skirts from that era, the misconception of an entire decade has lasted well into the 21st century. Don’t get me wrong here, the golden 50s had McCarthyism, the atomic scare and asked women to return to their kitchens after excelling as Rosie the Riveters. I think it’s important to mention that while trying to explain where it came from and what it resulted in. But it’s equally important to try and depict the hopes, dreams and traditions of a generation that shaped the changing lives of their baby boomer children.
The 1960s are often seen as a time that brought on all the positive changes we are meant to enjoy today. It is rarely pointed out however who, for example, laid the foundation for those women’s lib daughters and granddaughters who went to college and began to demand working outside of their homes in spite of having families. Films rarely show our grandmothers with the kind of respect I think they deserve. I do not crave to show them as the one perfect generation who did everything right while all we do is wrong – I do wish however that the perception of second wave feminists of their mothers would finally fade and give way to a gentler and more accurate depiction. If we take pride in having come a long way since the 1950s (and I challenge that perception on the grounds of current universal unrest, unless the abolition of common sense and any societal rule of conduct is our final goal), wouldn’t that suggest to also cast away prejudices against those who came before us and learn to embrace their positive lessons instead?!
That’s what I want to see when I catch a contemporary film that’s set in the 1940s, 50s or 60s – a complete picture of times that were just as turbulent, joyous and quirky as ours, but different. After all, didn’t the 60s try to show us that different should not be frowned upon?!