Saturday, August 25, 2007

Nostalgia, memory, and why the 1965 Mustang was the last great American car

I have no particular memories of the 1960s as the 1960s.

I remember the decade as the decade when I was a kid and I had a very generic kidhood. Cub Scouts, Little League, model airplanes, comic books and baseball cards, Hardy Boys, school days, school days, dear old golden rule days, reading and writing and 'rithmatic, taught to the tune of a hick'ry stick...

I was vaguely aware of Vietnam, but I didn't think about it or worry about it until I was in eighth grade when I was an altar boy serving the funeral mass of a local kid, the nephew of a neighbor, who had been killed not in the rice paddies but in Texas where he was training to be a helicopter pilot, which pretty much meant he was training to be a sitting duck in the air over the rice paddies and that made him a casualty of the War as far as I could tell, but by then Nixon was President, Vietnamization was the word of the day, and Henry Kissinger was promising us Peace With Honor any day now. We were coming to the light at the end of the tunnel at last. It was the light at the opening back where we went in, unfortunately, but our part in the War was winding to its bitter end just as I was beginning to understand its horror.

Before that, though, for all I really knew or cared about Vietnam, the protests, Lyndon Johnson, the counterculture, hippies, yippies, racial tensions, the riots, the music, the fashions, sex, drugs, and rock and roll and for all it affected the daily lives of us kids, I might as well have been growing up in the late 1940s, the 1920s, the 1980s, or now.

So it's odd to me that I can be so nostalgic for the 60s.

But not those 1960s.

Not John Lennon's 1960s.

John Kennedy's.

Which were of course really the late 1950s.

A time I certainly don't remember.

But that doesn't stop me from missing those days.

I miss the music. I miss the fashions, the gray flannel suits on the men and the flouncy dresses on the women. I miss the cars. I miss the colors. After the 1960s, those 1960s, when somebody turned up the brightness and colors became florescent and blinding, designers of all kinds, fashion, interior, industrial, artistic, and graphic, adopted a more muted palette and even in periods when brighter colors have come back in style, they've only been relatively brighter, not as muddy or sombre as the periods immediately before and after.

I want my Technicolor blue skies back.

Late last night, inspired by the Mad Men live blogging at newcritics and the YouTube clip I posted the other day of Robert Morse singing I Believe in You, his signature song from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, I watched the movie How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

And I realized something.

Something that had begun to dawn on me last week when I watched North By Northwest.

I'm not nostalgic for the actual 1960s.

I'm nostalgic for the movie version, which I didn't get to know until long after I'd lived through the real thing.

I was in my twenties when I saw North By Northwest for the first time.

Since then though I've seen it and the other great Technicolor Hitchcocks---Rear Window, Vertigo, To Catch a Thief---and plenty of other movies from the period enough times that the look has saturated my brain to the point that it's spilled out of that part where I file my memories of the movies I've seen and flowed over into that part where I keep my memories of my actual life.

Add to this my long-standing love for The Dick Van Dyke Show, my taste in music---Frank Sinatra in his Nelson Riddle-Capitol-Songs for Swingin' Lovers years---and the fact that I was alive and had eyes and ears at the time, even if I wasn't paying close attention to all that grown-up stuff, and the result is that I now "remember" the early 1960s as if I'd been Rob Petrie, Roger Thornhill, or J. Pierpont Finch.

And I miss those times.

Which is ridiculous.

Given that these are mostly false memories, and given that what is actual memory is actually memories of the time in my life when I developed my tastes for the period, my twenties, and given that a lot of what I miss hasn't gone away because what I'm missing are movies I can watch and records I can play anytime I want, I should either be nostalgic for the 1980s or not nostalgic at all.

But I am and it bugs me.

I hate feeling nostalgic generally because it's a roundabout form of self-pity, but being nostalgic about a time you not only weren't aware of you were living through but which isn't even wholly real is a problem when you're trying to make artistic judgments.

(Won't get into it here, but nostalgia is by definition a feeling inspired by a time that never was, as it's the case that when we're nostalgic we're usually remembering the past in a highly selected and idealized way.)

I honestly believe that movies were better then.

That the fashions were better then.

That the music was, if not better, more varied and more complex in ways that made listening to music a better experience, and at any rate listening to Sinatra on the hi-fi was more pleasurable than listening to Green Day on your iPod.

People looked and moved better then.

Ok, Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint looked better than Brad and Angelina.

And I know it was the point of Everybody Loves Raymond, but Rob and Laura were sexier, funnier, and cooler than Ray and Debra.

The women were prettier then.

The comedians were funnier then.

The President was better then.

I'm convinced this is all true, and yet it's not, because my judgments are tainted by nostalgia and false memories.

But then...

Watching How to Succeed in Business last night I could see signs of coming changes that were I think objectively changes for the worse.

The movie was released in 1967 but the director and designers seemed to be trying to capture the look and feel of seven years earlier when the musical was on Broadway. I think they understood that those 1960s had taken hold and that the musical already a period piece. The set designs, the lighting, the color schemes, even the cinematography, and definitely the sound, not just the music but the voices and the background noises, were meant to recall an earlier and already vanishing New York City. The street scenes were carefully framed so that the cars rush by in the corners and far background of the shots and you can't identify any makes or models that would fix the time period. The men's suits and hair styles were far more conservative than they would have been even in a corporate office in 1967.

The one aspect of the overall design where the late 1960s impinged and the period feel is broken is that aspect where Hollywood designers have always given themselves permission to be anachronistic---the women's fashions and make-up.

You wouldn't call anything any of the women are wearing "mod"---except for a dumb pink vinyl jockey cap somebody who hated her stuck on Michelle Lee's head in one short scene---but the women's dresses generally didn't flounce the way they should have; in fact, they had that stiff, sack-like blockiness that defined women's silhouettes by 1970 and made even trim and pretty young women like my mother look like they were built like shoeboxes and as if they were wearing army blankets decorated with oversized buttons and wide strips of construction paper.

There's no way you can look at what the women in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying are wearing and what Eva Marie Saint wore in North By Northwest eight years earlier and not think, When did ugly become the fashion?

Maybe it's nostalgia or maybe it's just a matter of personal taste, but it just looks to me that between 1960 and 1970 people forgot how to do a lot of things they had known how to do and do well and they've not learned how to get those skills back since.

Times change, technologies improve, societies rearrange themselves, skills and talents that were admirable, that are still remarkable in retrospect, become obsolete, habits and mores and even moralities evolve, devolve, reverse, dominate, or subvert themselves.

An awful lot of life has gotten better since 1960, so much better that it's trivial-minded of me to lament the passing of the three button suit and the mambo, especially since I never owned the one or danced the other.

But help it I cannot, I cannot help thinking that we've forgotten a lot that we didn't need to forget to get ourselves from then to now.

We forgot how to make movies.

Forgot how to design and wear clothes.

Forgot how to sing a song.

Forgot how to dance.

Forgot how to tell a good joke.

Forgot how to build...well, most anything, but especially cars.

All the other losses might be arguable, but I defy you to convince me that America has designed or built a better car since the '65 Mustang.

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