Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Profit of Living in the Past

Social media has created this wonderful yet frightening enigma. It has allowed us to relive our past, revel in our history, learn new facts about those things we loved, discover truths that were hidden, and immerse ourselves in the long forgotten but easily accessible.

Although I have been away from my “retro” blog for awhile, I have posted quite frequently on my Facebook page various you tube clips and general minutiae related to those things I hold dear from the sixties and seventies. TV shows, movies, cartoons, comic books and related toys. With so many of the players of the day passing on this year, the tribute clips and quips have been frequent.

One of my Facebook friends, who is a professional in the cartoon/collecting business, recently posted a photo of a frame tray puzzle of a television cartoon that I had acquired as a child and still lives in my nostalgia crate in storage. Seeing that picture created a swell of joy that is very difficult to mimic in anything current regarding media or merchandising. Many of the commenters, probably baby boomers themselves, share that feeling, that bliss that occurs when those simple yet colorful and creative visions appear.

Switching suddenly, I will say that I also have an avid appreciation for all things seventies, especially television and film. This includes media I watched and didn’t really understand, media I loved and completely got, and media that I completely missed.

Growing up in the seventies was a wonderful thing for a kid hooked on TV. You had two things going on. (And you must remember: we had three networks and a public station…some cities had an independent station for reruns or syndicated programming).

First you had repeats of series from the sixties. Among these reruns (usually appearing in early afternoons before the news and on weekends) were all the escapist sitcoms, westerns and action series that were popular during the “Mad Men” era. A lot of these have been remade into mediocre big budget feature films to appease the boomer crowd. These series were broadcast during the sixties. The Vietnam war, history-changing political assassinations, riots, a growing counterculture, a nation re-examing itself.

But prime time television countered with the escapist escapades of hillbillies, witches, spies, and cowboys. The best American television came from the witty pre-Saturday morning cartoons from the early part of the decade or the quality anthologies of drama and suspense (see “Twilight Zone”) And occasionally, there were still repeats from the fifties mostly of “I Love Lucy” and “Perry Mason” and the Beav.

The second thing happening was the revolution in prime time. When CBS decided to “cut down all the trees” and de-ruralize still-popular yet tired programming, they created the golden age of television. While Lucy was still plugging along with the sort-of modern Bradys, Norman Lear and Mary Tyler Moore were the kings of comedy, offending and enlightening with the best comedy writing and acting since Dick Van Dyke ruled the sixties with premium laughs. So with the Vietnam War drawing to a slow close, changes borne in the sixties crystallizing into a new climate on civil and gender rights, Watergate creating a new cynicism in politics, and a postwar economy turning in on itself, the programming didn’t seek to repress but examine current issues. In a thoughtful way.

The latter part of the seventies led to the “t and a” revolution: titillation and innuendo became the standards for adult entertainment, disco replaced the Rat Pack of the variety hours, and crime shows were less gritty and more, well, bouncy. Fortunately, my puberty landed during this time. As I said, it was perfect.

And Walter Cronkite provided the news through both of these decades.

And as I rewatch the original seasons of SNL, I didn’t remember them being THAT subversive. I didn’t remember Barney Miller being THAT incredibly incisive. I didn’t remember Sonny and Cher being THAT hip. But I DO remember Charlie’s Angels being…well, you know.

As for feature films, my parents took me to see the latest Disney comedy or big screen cartoon. Occasionally, a non-Disney offering such as a Pink Panther sequel or Planet of the Apes film would provide a respite from the cotton candy provided by old Walt. Occasionally, I would be privileged enough to encounter a PG film at the multiplex…usually a disaster epic or a Bad News Bears chapter. But the TV networks would show edited versions of the big screen blockbusters. And I remembered seeing these Movie of the Weeks. Choppy pan-and-scan fiascos. I was cheated. As I rewatch these masterpieces now, they are revelations. I dismissed so many of these films because my initial exposure to them was as edited crap and I was too young to understand it anyway. Can you imagine? This was how I first experienced Ashby, Altman, Lumet, Nichols, Friedkin, Pollack, Pakula and early Scorsese, Coppolla, Spielberg, and Depalma. Comedy stylings of Woody Allen and Mel Brooks redacted of bite.

And the other side to that coin are the grind house flicks from the time period. The ones that Quentin Tarantino has championed as massive inspirations. I NEVER, ever heard of most of these. They came to drive-ins or seedy soft-porn houses and were never even shown on television. I know why. As I examine these seedy films now, I see that Corman element: violent sexploitation…the blacksploitation flicks, the gruesome horror flicks with aging ex-film legends, badly filmed sex comedies with cameos from all of the out of work character actors from the sixties sitcoms…were MORE subversive than the shock film of today that only strives to gross out or disgust rather than pierce into the darkest reaches of your psyche. I recently watched “Coffey” with Pam Grier and found more social comment and wry humor wrapped up with the low budget bad action violence and cheesy sex scenes than in most films made today by committee. Quentin was onto something.

Case in point: “Soldier Blue”. Without going into the plot, this 1970 western, starring a young Candice Bergen, was directed by a man who had done lots of television and was never known as an auteur filmmaker. The cover looked non descript. The first part of the film was almost standard Western fare of the time. Beautifully, colorfully shot, cheesy acting, bad makeup, contrived situations, background hippie ballads with cartoony underscores. I imagine that the PG version made for television ended there. But I realized that the Unrated version, the version that warned audiences in London about stomach-churning, the version that US audiences rarely saw, concluded with a gruesome, realistic battle scene that Private Ryan’s opening minutes look tame. What started out as an almost Apple Dumpling Gang family outing morphed into a stupefying gore-fest designed to shock audiences into the reality of war, genocide and discrimination in an age of cultural upheaval. This was no “True Grit”. It was almost Kubrickian.

Speaking of Kubrick, he owned the cinema of this period with his few masterpieces: “Lolita”, “Dr. Strangelove”, “2001”, and “Clockwork Orange”. And Roman Pulanski owned the ennui, with his gut wrenching urban horror sidelining his own twisted near misses with the brutality of Charles Manson. Peter Bogdonavich, who so brilliantly used his Corman sponsored experiments to create one of the most explosive indictments of the simmering violence (a la Charles Whitman) in “Targets” would turn out to be a master film historian, utilizing the new Hollywood to pay tribute, creating new black and white classics among his overblown duds.

Yet Blake Edwards is one of my favorite directors. In the sixties, he was box office king. His original two Pink Panther films, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, “The Great Race”, “The Party” and “Operation Petticoat” were, to a kid like myself, colorful slapsticky eye candy. Watching them now, I see the undercurrent of sophistication and a subtle examination of provocative subjects. After the box office failure of “Darling Lili” (with his wife, Julie Andrews..also a BO bonanza with Mary Poppins and Sound of Music), his career hit the skids in the early seventies. Due to the huge popularity of the new Pink Panther sequels in the late seventies, he was able to reestablish his creds and make “10”, answering to Hollywood’s new acceptance of a bawdier yet mature foray into comedies (see “Animal House”). His 1981 film (shot in ’79), “SOB”, remains an annual viewing to me. That film is his F.U. to the Hollywood that spat him out. “SOB” stars his wife, old Hollywood stars and , yes, sitcom stars form the sixties. It looks and feels like one of his sixties farces. And as the main character cajoles his Disney-fied actress wife to go topless in his new feature (to redeem himself)..Edwards has created, what to me, is a film that is a capstone to the entire saga of my boomer TV and film experiences.

And just yesterday, we lost the director Mel Stuart. He directed “Willy Wonka”…the original. I saw it on the big screen in 1971 and memorized the songs (I still have the lp) and reveled in the colors and comedy. But underneath, I remember the fright and terror during that boat ride, the chills of Gene Wilder’s sarcasm and neurosis. Rewatching it as an adult, I realized I was watching something very special. When I realized that Mr. Stuart followed this up with a documentary about the Wattstaxx music festival…interviewing black leaders of the day with hilarious and insightful comments (Richard Pryor among them), delving into the most pressing social commentary of the times, a no holds-bar examination of race relations…it was then that I realized how special the seventies were.

I could branch off into dozens of topics from here regarding the quality of film and television in the seventies, the independence of producers, writers and directors in the day, the ironic affection for the cheesy lunchboxes and comic books and grindhouse previews of the day…it’s all part and parcel of the same dynamic so many fanboy boomer geeks like myself can relate to.

What sometimes seems like “living in the past” is actually another way of appreciating and understanding where we are today. With all of the changes going on in front of us. With no subtlety, no nuanced perspectives, no intelligent discourse. We are hungry for a past than can, and will, inform the future.

Before you decide to spend a week’s paycheck to see a 3D remake of a seventies classic, just watch the original at home.

Before you decide to waste hours of your life in front of the TV watching “reality series”, think about picking up a season of “All in the Family” to see dysfunction reflected with humor and insight rather than noise and brainlessness.

Before you turn on Fox News or MSNBC to engage in the manufactured culture wars, find a documentary from the sixties or seventies…and learn something.