Imagine a person that embodied everything essential about your country. Or your generation. Your profession. Your religion. Your social class. Anything can be personified. Fiction writers do it all the time.
“...when we get among masterpieces, we find that (the protagonist) tends to become no more than a function of his environment, a convenient symbol for representing and explaining that environment.” - HL Mencken
The character is the setting. The setting is the character. I don't think any theory of art is universal, but when this one works, it can bring some interesting insights. This essay applies it to six works (novels, films and a TV series) set in 1960 - 1963 which use that period to symbolize innocence and innocence lost: Dirty Dancing, On Chesil Beach, American Graffiti, DC: The New Frontier, The Way the Crow Flies and Mad Men.
Dirty Dancing, a movie about a teenage girl growing up over the course of a vacation, captures this idea in one succinct bit of voiceover right at the start: “That was the summer of 1963 – when everybody called me Baby, and it didn't occur to me to mind. That was before President Kennedy was shot, before the Beatles came, when I couldn't wait to join the Peace Corps, and I thought I'd never find a guy as great as my dad.”
Now, to take a closer look at that line: “when everybody called me Baby, and it didn't occur to me to mind” - We start with a character name blatantly implying youth and inexperience, with an admitted lack of self-consciousness about it.
“before President Kennedy was shot” - JFK's assassination is referred to by many as “the day America lost its innocence” practically to the point of cliché.
“before the Beatles came” Few would argue that the Beatles changed popular music, but what did they change it from? The Billboard charts list the number one selling albums in the US for these years: The Sound of Music - Original Cast Recording (1960), Camelot - Original Cast Recording (1961) and West Side Story - Soundtrack (1962 and 1963). Rock and roll was floundering without a guiding voice. Elvis had spent two years in the army, Little Richard was a minister, Buddy Holly was dead. Some believed it was a trend that had come and gone.
“when I couldn't wait to join the Peace Corps” - This organization was envisioned and brought into being by JFK – a manifestation of the era's hope and optimism, anchored in technology and the spread of the American Way.
“and I thought I'd never find a guy as great as my dad” - Baby's greatest love up to that point is chaste and filial, but she'll soon meet Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze), with whom she'll learn to dance, lose her virginity and witness the aftermath of a back street abortion. Welcome to the adult world, Baby. In the movie's finale Johnny calls her by her real name (Frances) in front of everyone.
Ian McEwen's novel On Chesil Beach opens with the line: “They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.” - pg 3.
This slim novel, set in 1962, spans a couple's wedding night, with digressions into their past, and abounds with references to the many differences between then and now:
“While one heard of wealthier people going in for psychoanalysis, it was not yet customary to regard oneself in everyday terms as an enigma, as an exercise in narrative history, or as a problem waiting to be solved.” - pg 26
“The Pill was a rumour in the newspapers, a ridiculous promise, another of those tall tales about America.” - pg 48
“During that summer he ate for the first time a salad with a lemon and oil dressing and, at breakfast, yogurt – a glamorous substance he knew only from a James Bond novel.” - pg 145
Their honeymoon doesn't go well, just as the coming decade was inconsiderate to those who wished for a world free of self-reflection, birth control pills and yogurt.
American Graffiti came with the tag line “Where Were You in '62?”. The hairstyles, clothes, cars and music are presented in a way that plays up how much they seemed like relics from a bygone era only eleven years later.
The movie tells the story of four friends in a small town on the last night before two of them leave for college. Curt (Richard Dreyfuss), searches for a beautiful woman in a white T-Bird he's glimpsed – emblematic of his yearning for the world beyond the horizon. His night presents various adventures (like being inducted into a greaser gang he has no interest in) that show him he's outgrown his youth.
Near the film's end Curt stumbles onto the legendary deejay Wolfman Jack – a figure described by Dale Pollock in Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas as “a delightful enigma to his listeners; they couldn't tell if he was black or white, thirty or seventy, human or animal... He was the outlaw of the airwaves, the secret friend of a million anonymous listeners." - pg 32. He turns out to be a completely ordinary looking guy, sitting in a control room in Curt's own town, slurping popsicles. In an exchange that didn't make the movie's final cut Curt says “Gee, I've known you all my life, but you're not at all what I expected”. The Wolfman replies “You'll find that applies to a lot of people.”
The graphic novel DC: The New Frontier (2004), written and illustrated by Darwyn Cooke, recounts the formation of the Justice League of America. The title refers to JFK's speech accepting the Democratic nomination in 1960 – an excerpt of which provides the text for the book's nine page epilogue.
Cooke adopts an earnest, deliberately dated visual style, exemplified in the two-volume novel's covers, with the heroes posing mightily, square chins up and capes fluttering in the wind. Starkly contrasting the book's seeming innocence, its subplots include a black superhero in Tennessee who fights the KKK (he's eventually captured and burned alive), McCarthyism, nuclear testing, technological false starts in the space race, and the rising war in Indochina.
The plot climaxes with various government agencies and superheroes uniting to fight a large, mobile, sentient island known as "The Centre," which controls people's minds and expels dinosaurs from its depths. In the special features of the animated movie adaptation Justice League: The New Frontier (2008) Cooke reveals that the Centre represents communism – an ethnocentric view of America's opponents in the cold war right in line with his description of the Justice League in the novel's afterword:
“The world will always have dark corners, and black and white comes in thousands of shades of grey, but here are seven people, good and true, come what may. They have the power to enslave the world, but work tirelessly to keep it free. They don't succumb to envy, greed or jealousy, and their sense of purpose is driven by an unshakeable faith in mankind's basic good. They are, in the best sense of the word, childlike. It is the very essence of the term superhero.”
Straightforward morality and childlike heroism feature largely in Anne Marie MacDonald's novel The Way the Crow Flies which opens with a characteristic note of early 1960s optimism: “The sun came out after the war and our world went Technicolor. Everyone had the same idea. Let's get married. Let's have kids. Let's be the ones who do it right.” - pg 3.
We meet eight year old Madeleine McCarthy, moving into a Canadian Air Force base in Southern Ontario in 1962 with her family. Her mother Mimi is gorgeous “Like Jackie Kennedy” - pg 4. Her father Jack, soon to start as a senior administrator on the base, is handsome and capable, as if drawn by Darwyn Cooke. The pseudo-crisis in the novel's first few chapters involves Jack inviting his new neighbours in army housing over to their place for a barbecue, leaving the details to his suddenly flustered wife. She musters the support of the other Air Force wives, turns the event into a potluck supper, and all is well in the world.
The territory gets darker a month later when Jack is asked by a friend in the Secret Service to watch over Oskar Fried – a German rocket scientist and Eastern Bloc defector (later revealed as a war criminal – a fact known and tolerated by his American handlers), soon to be settled in London, Ontario. The assignment requires absolute secrecy, with Jack's Air Force superiors kept in the dark, as well as his wife. His first contact with Fried happens during the Cuban Missile Crisis, snatches of news related through Jack's car radio, on the pages of his morning newspaper and on TV punctuating the narrative and reminding us of the relationship between the personal and the political. Concurrent with this, Madeleine's world takes a turn for the sinister as she and a few classmates are repeatedly kept after school by their teacher. His punishments (for unnamed transgressions) get progressively stranger until they've become outright sexual abuse. Madeleine's too young, confused and guilty (or rather, too innocent) to tell anyone, and the incident doesn't surface until later in life.
Jack's involvement with Fried soon prevents him from coming forward as the only witness capable of confirming the alibi of his neighbour's teenage son, falsely accused of murder. Jack burns at the injustice of this but finds himself powerless in face of his Secret Service contact's argument:
“I'll tell you what the worst-case scenario is, Jack... A number of our people – brave people, agents-in-place – begin dying in the Soviet Union, far from your precious conscience. Fried's information about Soviet intentions and capabilities vis-a-vis their strategic missile program – test results, blueprints, organizational structure – becomes worthless; the press has a field day with the story of Nazis at NASA and government funding is cut, crippling our bid for the moon, to say nothing of the implications for Western intelligence, and the fight for supremacy in certain technologies that keep you safely at your fucking barbecue.” - pg 455 – 456
He goes on, relating his experiences as an Air Force pilot in WWII:
“I killed hundreds and hundreds, perhaps thousands of people. But I didn't do it secretly and I never saw a single victim. You don't at that height, it's called the morality of altitude. And I got a medal for it. You are being asked to jeopardize one person. The difference is, you know him. I didn't know the women rushing to the shelters when the sirens went, I didn't know their children, who died under buildings or stuck to the roads when the tar melted, I didn't know the people in hospitals and churches, or the ones who ended up in the canal, I don't don't delude myself that they deserved what they got and I don't indulge in a lot of pointless guilt and virtuous hindsight. I did my fucking duty, Jack. It's time you did yours.” - pg 457
“Jack has never been afraid to do the right thing. But it's difficult sometimes to recognize it. Show me the right thing and I will do it. Where is up? Where is down? He longs to talk to Mimi, but he must not involve his wife. She didn't join the armed forces, he did.” - pg 458.
Jack's old life, like Madeleine's, is over.
The slow death of the old world is a major theme of the two time Emmy Award winning drama Mad Men, set in a Madison Avenue advertising firm in the early '60s. They handle Nixon's presidential campaign. They advertise cigarettes, and almost every character smokes in every environment – offices, cars, elevators, hospitals. Every episode has at least one element (lack of seat belts, unselfconscious littering, children playing with plastic bags over their heads, their mother only concerned that the dry cleaned clothes from the bags aren't wrinkled) which impresses the viewer with how different so many things were then, and how smoothly those things were woven into the fabric of everyday life.
Sexism abounds, but even more noticeable is the fact that the women don't seem to mind, or even notice. In season one, episode six, Joan, the office's head secretary and queen bee, leads the secretaries into a conference room to try a new line of lipsticks, the male copy writers watching them behind one-way glass to generate ideas, having abandoned their own efforts with the sentiment “I don't speak moron. Do you speak moron? Let's hand it over to the chickens.”
Joan instructs the women: “It's called brainstorming.”
Secretary (with wide eyed sincerity): “That sounds intimidating. Is it like a test?”
Joan reassures them, the lipsticks are revealed and the women squeal and giggle, with no gleam of intelligence or play acting behind their simpering femininity.
Mad Men's popularity has manifested in some interesting ways. Oprah regular Gayle King dressed in a period costume and did a skit with the cast on set, never addressing the fact that there are no black employees at the firm other than the elevator operator. Banana Republic has a Mad Men inspired line and sponsored a Mad Men modeling contest to win a walk-on part in the show. Plenty of my Facebook friends have used the website www.madmenyourself.com to come up with cartoon approximations of themselves in that era and posted them as their avatars. And a number of women I know swoon for main character Don Draper, despite the fact that he's a relentless philanderer, and about as emotionally closed off as his era allowed (or encouraged) him to be.
So what's the appeal? One friend said Don's attractive because he's such a man. He wears a suit like he was born in it. He has a real job and does it excellently. He doesn't aspire to be a permanent adolescent like so many modern men (Seth Rogen and Adam Sandler spring to mind). It also doesn't hurt that he's smokin' hot. But I doubt any woman lets him go right on being unfaithful and uncommunicative in her fantasies. And those who envy Joan's wardrobe probably wouldn't accept the accompanying tacit assumption of inferiority to men. The difference is that the women on the show aren't burdened by a knowledge of their miserable position. The men don't think there's anything wrong with smoking two packs a day, having three martinis at lunch, or referring to women as “the chickens”. They're not only certain their way is correct, it would never occur to them to question any of it. They're innocent. They're undifferentiated. They're a function of their environment.
The dark side of the Kennedy years is well documented – the lynching of Medgar Evers (and others), the start of the Vietnam War, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the erection of the Berlin Wall. The dark side of the personal world comes across in the works I've been citing – unsafe illegal abortions, sexual abuse, infidelity, the absence of self-examination, completely accepted prejudices. These stories describe people having their illusions burst, moving from innocence to knowledge and coming face to face with the harsh realities that were there the whole time. That's the nature of growing up.
In Disc Two of the Kosmic Consciousness interviews, Ken Wilber states that our centre of gravity – the moral average of the culture – is rising glacially. We're more evolved now than in 1960, as these stories go to great lengths to illustrate. But I'm curious to know how movies, TV shows and novels in 2060 will portray us. Nothing will give us the hindsight of those looking at us from fifty years in the future. But do any current works personify us as a society? Here's a possibility: Harry Potter.
The Harry Potter books came out of nowhere, the product of a first time author, and have garnered a popularity unprecedented in literary history. I can't think of a book (much less a series of them)(whose page count runs well into the thousands) that's found such a large readership with children, and simultaneously with adults. JK Rowling's literary craft alone can't account for this phenomenal success. These stories resonate on a symbolic level.
Harry is the orphaned child of two magicians, his innate abilities strong enough to impress his wizardry professors from his first day at school. This works as an analogy for our First World affluence, passed down to us from ancestors, slaves, slaughtered aboriginals and the continued servitude of the Third World. It also captures some of our cultural wish fulfillment: being the best at something from day one, with no long, dull, humbling apprenticeship. But even with his automatic advantages, Harry has much to learn.
Harry being an orphan, neglected and resented by his adoptive family, corresponds to the erosion of extended families and communities, a source of personal and societal discord described in Gabor Mate and Gordon Neufeld's book Hold On To Your Kids.
Harry is far from perfect. We see his anger, impulsiveness and selfishness throughout the series. But he discovers the same thing Jack does in The Way the Crow Flies: morality isn't black and white. He finds out the similarity of his enemy Voldemort's beginnings to his own. He learns of his mentor Dumbledore's admitted flaws. He discovers the youthful callousness of his own father. And most importantly he comes to see the hidden love and vulnerability at the core of the stern and previously supposed evil Professor Snape, whose heroism and selflessness aren't revealed until the saga's end.
So maybe fifty years from now artists will characterize us with these same elements: a wealth of unearned resources, a need to learn how to harness and use them properly, a lack of the guidance provided by traditional support networks, a gradual dawning of the fact that no individual can be painted in simple shades of good and evil, and an eventual realization that there's much to be gained from seeing the world from any given person's point of view – even those we'd been inclined to despise and distrust.