Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Back to the 50's

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2009)

If we judge only by what we see in movies (not a sound approach towards understanding much of anything, but let’s go with the concept for now), it’s easier to sum up the essence of the 1950’s than of any decade since. The rise of corporate culture; suburbanization; men in grey flannel suits. The substantial dissipation of what independence women gained during WW2, in return for bigger kitchens, Tupperware and modern gadgets. The baby boom. The Cold War and McCarthyism; paranoia; conformity. Sexual repression. Cheating. All waiting to be blown open in the 1960’s.

Revolutionary Road

It’s not solely a backward projection: some of the best movies of that era all but burst under the tension. I’m thinking for example of Douglas Sirk’s films (Written On The Wind, All That Heaven Allows) and the non-musicals of Vincent Minnelli (The Cobweb, Some Came Running). Currently, it’s difficult to find any representation of the 50’s not filtered through this prism. Mad Men is the gorilla, by all accounts sparsely watched, but much cited (and, on at least two shows I’ve seen, easily parodied). It’s almost as difficult to find any review of Sam Mendes’ new film Revolutionary Road that doesn’t mention Mad Men.

Revolutionary Road is based on a novel by Richard Yates, which most reviewers seem to have read (or maybe they’re just good at faking it); I must admit I haven’t. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet play Frank and April Wheeler, married in the early 1950’s, with dreams of being special (for him, living in Paris and finding himself; for her, becoming an actress). A few years later, they’re in the suburbs, where she raises their two children and he treks off to a job he can barely explain, let alone stand. She rekindles the Paris idea: sell up, cross the ocean, she’ll support him while he becomes the man he should be. He goes for it, if more cautiously, and they consume themselves in planning, all the more invigorated by the incomprehension of everyone around them. No question they’ve appropriately diagnosed their malaise, but hasn’t Paris too often represented the abstract, unattainable ideal?

The film is accomplished and engrossing, but limited. Director Sam Mendes is much acclaimed (and won an Oscar for American Beauty) but his approach to cinema seldom seems to me very inspired or intuitive. Revolutionary Road too often feels removed, somewhat academic. The two stars, both often superb elsewhere, here conform to a theatre director’s idea of great cinematic acting. The film’s heart is quite claustrophobic and even repetitive – a great deal of it takes place between the couple, in and around their home – and Mendes can’t find much of a way to vary this material. The film’s last five minutes, which should be tragic and stunning, feel like a collection of accessories trying to hide the blandness of the main outfit.

Unrepresentative character

The movie often feels oddly empty: key settings like their home or Frank’s office don’t possess the layering we’re used to from, again, Mad Men. But at this point the film starts to get interesting despite itself. After all, our fascination with the 50’s isn’t (or shouldn’t be) purely nostalgic. The decade actually was a time of general growth and economic prosperity. Lifeplans and ambitions were better balanced against actual resources. Small things meant more; technology and popular culture hadn’t yet gone crazy and started us all eating at ourselves. Yes, there was repression and misery. Attitudes are better informed now. But then, we’ve bought ourselves an even bigger bag of troubles instead. Is it any surprise if we start fetishizing the era?

Revolutionary Road withholds this easy pleasure. Mendes is nowhere near as accomplished a stylist as Todd Haynes, who produced a much richer take on the period in Far From Heaven (and who perfectly depicted another kind of sterile living in Safe), but he does maintain an effective eerie chill. At least on film, the outlook of Winslet’s April is the easier to understand: without even as much daily diversion as Frank has, and more a prisoner of her biological role, she can’t stand it. But Frank’s relationship to all this is perhaps more complex and intriguing. Todd McCarthy in Variety noted the character “has no latent artistic ambition, despite his wife's belief that he does or should, nor even any sense of careerism.” This, he said, “makes Frank Wheeler a rather equivocal, unrepresentative character.”

As best as I can tell, McCarthy’s bases his acid test for finding Frank “unrepresentative” largely in the more engaged protagonists of Mad Men and in the (very good) 1960 Strangers When We Meet (which starred Kirk Douglas as a frustrated architect). He later labels the 50’s as the “best time to be alive in the United States for the greatest number of people – not for minorities, obviously” and cites a “lifelong hipster friend” who’s assured him “it was all happening in the ‘50’s.” Well, no doubt for some. But I doubt the lives of the silent majority were marked by much “hipster” activity, nor seriously undermined by unfulfilled latent artistic ambition. Frank and April are a relatively affluent couple, with space and money and choices. Poor, hand-to-mouth people couldn’t afford to have Frank and April’s problems. They had their own of course. But maybe those would be unrepresentative.

Our Move to Paris

In the last decade or two, people who had the resources followed through on their equivalent of April’s move to Paris – except they did it by staying put and building monster homes, by loading themselves up with possessions, by changing their lives into a complex series of rituals within which they could get happily fat and complacent. But now we’re finding it doesn’t collectively work out if we all move to Paris that way, and it didn’t make us generally any happier anyway. Most of us know, on some level, we have to learn making do with less. But how do you maintain the equanimity to go back to Nowhereville, day after day, when you’ve become addicted to your idea of the bright lights?

Frank may not be representative of what we hope for, or what we delude ourselves we actually are, but he’s surely more representative of how we survived to this point: by doing our duty, making compromises, and anyway not being that individually special in the first place. The horrible prospect before us is that we were never really meant to be this active, this liberated, to possess this many options, and that economically, environmentally, it’s a slow (until it started to seem frighteningly quick) group suicide. If there’s a current answer for us in movies, it might not lie with the heroes, but with the ones we’ve always dismissed as losers, representing nothing except the fact of being there, somehow quietly getting by.

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