The 1960s and Counter-Culture In Film

This is a piece written for a history elective class that explored American history in various time periods through film, comparing historical accuracy and artistic license while articulating the essential thematic ideas surrounding that time period. The pictures and captions have been added for this publication.

Each of the films viewed during the 1960s and Counter-Culture unit dealt with certain themes in their own way. Far From Heaven is a period piece showing the hypocrisy of upper-class white society in the 1950s as viewed from the early 21st century. In the Heat of the Night deliberates on how blacks and whites can help each other and should come together for a common good—to solve a brutal murder, in this case. Platoon explores America’s loss of innocence during the Vietnam War and how one man can pull through even though the world descends to madness around him.

Racial issues, being paramount in the Counter-Culture era, tended to be the central theme of each film. Far From Heaven depicted the idealized 1950s New England White Anglo-Saxon Protestant society of doting housewives, fedora-topped working-man husbands, 2.5 unassuming children—with no black people to speak of anywhere. Not that black people (“negroes”) were spoken of anyway. As one character remarked, “There aren’t any negroes in Hartford,” and the camera pans to show the house party is served by a cadre of black caterers. Racial relations tended to be defined by the Plessy v. Ferguson U.S. Supreme Court case stating that “separate but equal” facilities are legal: Blacks were not spoken of in “polite” society, but were seen often times as an entire separate society, not to be infringed upon by either side (the juxtaposition of the two cafe scenes), and even as a second class of people who were to be tended and subject to the care of the more affluent whites. Such care, however, must be limited to an occasional public verbal affirmation of conceptually “supporting” the NAACP. If one shows any more than polite professional distance, she (in this specific case) runs the risk of being labeled a “negro lover,” the butt of every gossip chain, and virtually shunned from the society that she helped to create and proliferate.

“You’re in good hands, Mrs. Whittaker”

In Platoon, racial issues were not as strongly emphasized over other themes dealing with the futility of war and the “lost cause” that was Vietnam. Everyone lives and dies by the rifle in combat, and bullets have no racial prejudice. That being the case, there were instances of animosity between blacks and whites early on, but they were quickly wiped clean after the first patrol. The issue became one of whether or not one was a responsible soldier. Race relations were a distant trouble argued about by people who didn’t understand the concept of survival. Everyone—all the cool kids, anyway—regardless of color, gathered around The Doors and Jimi Hendrix to smoke marijuana and relax from the nightmare in the jungle.

“This was a fucking bomb dropping on Beaver Cleaverville.
For a few seconds, this place was Armageddon!”

In the Heat of the Night had the most obvious exploration of racial relations in the American South, as it begins with an innocent black man being arrested on suspicion of murder and evolves into that black man being quite the competent homicide detective and solving the crime at hand. Southern racial tension tended to be less delicate than the hoity-toity New England-style friendly racism. Sidney Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs has to fight and overcome extreme prejudice and injustice just to do his job. From something as simple as being consistently denigrated as “boy” (to which he epically replies, “They call me MISTER TIBBS!”) to being chased down and nearly beaten to death by a group of drunken rednecks for “being uppity” towards the town boss. Tibbs is the embodiment of black affirmation—he is educated, competent, persistent, driven, and so well-written and acted that he is loved by viewers both black and white as well as being accepted and appreciated by the white characters in the film. Unfortunately, most of the plot deals with his having to overcome adversity: the town mayor demanding that he be taken off the case, threats on his life, not being able to rent a hotel room because of his skin color. The murder victim’s wife is, at first, the only advocate he has, and that’s only because she’s not a local and wants more than anything for her husband’s killer to come to justice.

White and black put aside their differences to combat vampires
in 1960s Mississippi.

Sexuality is another major theme explored in the Counter-Culture era, but not explored much in the films we watched, with the exception of Far From Heaven. There are two major sexual liberation themes being explored within this film. First is the female liberation that Julianne Moore’s Cathy Whittaker forces herself to undergo as her marriage falls apart. She embodies the strong, spirited woman that led the charge when her life was in a downward spiral. Her friends joke about her being a “revolutionary” in college, calling her “Red” in a tongue-in-cheek sort of attitude. She holds herself together even as friends turn their backs on her. By the end of the film, she is the single mother of two children, a ridiculed “negro lover,” and victim of a scandalous affair on the part of her (now ex) husband making her way through the rest of her life—maybe alone, but certainly stronger.

“I understand Mr. Hefner is seeking models
for his new magazine.”

On the other hand, while the fires of women’s liberation are being kindled through Cathy Whittaker, Dennis Quaid’s Frank Whittaker explores a very different kind of sexual liberation. Frank has lost sexual passion with his wife, and has made a habit of “staying late at the office” while the audience (and eventually Cathy) find that he’s been engaged in at least one homosexual affair. Now, being the 1950s, and Frank being an otherwise-upstanding member of the community, this behavior must, obviously, come from a psychiatric problem that Frank (with the help of his doctor) desperately tries to overcome. As the movie progresses, Frank’s repression of his homosexual tendencies causes his marriage and family to fall apart. Eventually, Frank decides to leave his family and pursue a supposedly happy life in a relationship with a cabana boy he met while on vacation in Miami. This, of course, is scandalous because of certain repressive attitudes not only toward homosexuality at the time, but also of what gender roles are played and of the idea of masculinity and femininity. Frank gets violent at the idea of his masculinity being questioned, and strikes his wife, to which she dismisses it as “just an accident” (another idea of sexuality and gender roles: no matter what, the man is right). Although the characters are rather exaggerated, the themes are poignant enough to reverberate into the 21st century.


Apollo 13.5

Our mission was called “a successful failure,” in that we returned safely but never made it to the Moon. In the following months, it was determined that a damaged coil built inside the oxygen tank sparked during our cryo stir and caused the explosion that crippled the Odyssey. It was a minor defect that occured two years before I was even named the flight’s commander. Fred Haise was going back to the moon on Apollo 18, but his mission was cancelled because of budget cuts; he never flew in space again. Nor did Jack Swigert, who left the astronaut corps and was elected to Congress from the state of Colorado. But he died of cancer before he was able to take office. Ken Mattingly orbited the moon as Command Module Pilot of Apollo 16, and flew the Space Shuttle, having never gotten the measles. Gene Kranz retired as Director of Flight Operations just not long ago. And many other members of Mission Control have gone on to other things, but some are still there. As for me, the seven extraordinary days of Apollo 13 were my last in space. I watched other men walk on the Moon, and return safely, all from the confines of Mission Control and our house in Houston. I sometimes catch myself looking up at the Moon, remembering the changes of fortune in our long voyage, thinking of the thousands of people who worked to bring the three of us home. I look up at the Moon and wonder, when will we be going back, and who will that be?

Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Apollo 13

A novelty piece in the old “break-in” style pioneered by Dickie Goodman and Bill Buchanan where song clips replace soundbytes from interviews or dialogue. I downloaded this from AOL in the mid-1990’s, and I don’t recall who uploaded it originally. If you or someone you know created this, please let me know so that I may give proper credit. Thanks!

Hollywood and History

History: Hollywood Style!

The trouble with a history course centered around film is that one has to rely on Hollywood’s warped sense of historical accuracy. Generally speaking, reality doesn’t sell as well as something written by a halfway-creative studio ferret. In addition, directors, writers, and producers often have their own agendas to push through their work, so much of the accuracy gets distorted in the intricate process of filmmaking. However, one does the best that one can do with the arguably massive cinematic library that has been produced in the past hundred years or so. Even so, there are still some good picks and some not-as-good.

Besides being one of the most brilliant pieces of cinema ever created, Unforgiven made a place for itself as a revisionist western. Instead of romanticizing the pragmatic struggle against the elements—taming the land, and carving out a space for oneself on the frontier, the film shows the truth of life in the American wilderness: the lawlessness, the corruption, and the sheer danger encountered in the Old West. Until this point, the Western genre had mainly focused on the shimmering, wide-eyed optimism that almost reverberated tones of original “Go West” advertising campaigns that proliferated throughout the Eastern Seaboard of the 19th century. Gone, now, is the swaggering, lonesome hero in favour of the more historically-accurate pragmatist just trying to survive. In addition to being an excellent film, this—to me—makes Unforgiven particularly effective at exemplifying life on the American frontier and illustrating the historical context of the push westward.

Pictured: Hardened street thugs.

In The Heat of The Night is another particularly brilliant piece of cinema that also quite effectively highlights historical issues prevalent in the time period that it was made and set. Sydney Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs is thrust into the middle of a murder case in a small Southern town, which, adding insult to injury, happens to be quite contrary to the idea of a black man being so competent in the ways of homicide investigation. Initially, Tibbs is arrested on suspicion of murder solely by virtue of his being alone in a train station in the middle of the night with a pocket full of cash—something no innocent “negro” would be able to possess. The folly of the Sparta police department is further exemplified by their constant jumping to conclusions and arresting the wrong suspects while Tibbs digs further into places “he doesn’t belong” such as the local town Boss’s personal life. Tibbs’s struggle to obtain (and subsequently maintain) legitimacy in the eyes of the local police reflects the struggles of black people at large to obtain equal status in the eyes of the white majority not just in the South, but all across the country. At the same time, Tibbs also earns the respect and even the friendship of the chief of police. Eventually, the corrupt, old-world establishment is overturned, and things in Sparta begin to show signs of hope and change for the better just as the sixties and seventies did for the majority of blacks in America.

Although it is probably one of my new favourite films, and certainly worth watching for its cinematic merits, There Will Be Blood showed less about the pragmatism and pioneer spirit of the Westward Movement and more about the corruption and deceit of “Big Oil” and the megalomaniacs that allegedly run such “Big” industries: oil, steel, the railroad, and even modern entities like broadcast media. To me, the movie was more an allegory about the dangers of rampant, unchecked capitalism which came about after the West was “won.” Prime example is the fact that the plot is mostly set in the early years of the 20th century and centers around a man who doesn’t simply wish to survive, but who wants to build his own little revenue empire and—quite literally—wipe out all his competition. Daniel Day-Lewis’s Daniel Plainview did, at first, embody the pragmatic and individualist mindset of the Old West (note his surely-excruciating crawl back to town after breaking his leg in a mining accident), but as time moved on, his wealth and power began to corrupt him until he became a twisted wreck of a man with no family beating a clergyman to death with a bowling pin. “I’m finished!” Finished growing (as a country), and finished exploring (as a people).

“How, Chief! Heap-big White Man bring-um your lines. Your motivation be-um non-threatening, still-face, and help-um White Man win-um White Girl. Ug.”

The Last of The Mohicans probably sits at the top of my short list of films that did not effectively communicate the historical era they were intended to highlight. The Last of The Mohicans felt more like it belonged on The Wonderful World of Disney alongside Davy Crockett and other purely adventure serials. In addition to being a particularly sub-par film overall, the plot focuses mostly on how insipid the British are. In fact, the only real example of the pragmatism and willingness of the American spirit is in Daniel Day-Lewis’s Hawkeye providing a foil to the British army commanders. Hawkeye emphasises retreat and regrouping that will allow American settlers to tend their homes and farms in opposition to the British mandate that all able-bodied men be conscripted to fight the French (who ultimately win, anyway). Overshadowing the clash between the two ideologies and adding fuel to the already hot fire, is the apparent cockfight over the attraction of the female lead—both sides trying to wrench power in order to demonstrate their prowess and win the hand of the trope maiden. The only thing that makes this melodrama even remotely about early America and the Westward movement is the fact that it incorporates Native Americans into the plot and setting. Unfortunately, they are—as Mark Twain eloquently put it—“Cooper Indians,” one-dimensional characters that really only serve as an enhanced setting element. If this were a science-fiction film instead of a “Western” (when it really isn’t, it’s a melodrama), then the Mohawk would be Star Trek’s “red shirts” and the Huron are Star Wars’s Stormtroopers. Both are essentially faceless and serve only to advance the plot and provide some level of authenticity to the weak battle scenes.

Milkshake Thief

As noted before, There Will Be Blood, is not only my favourite film sampled in this course, it is also on my list of all-time favourites. The cinematography is unparalleled at capturing the desolation of early California and the music resonates just enough to send a chill down your spine. Outside the dialogue, the viewer already knows that there is something not to like about Daniel Plainview, and, as the plot develops, he understands why the film imparts such a creepy vibe. Within the script, the film has already spawned such quotable lines as “I drink your milkshake!” and “I’m finished!” while the overall tone of the film warns us of the dangers associated with “big” industries and unchecked capitalism.

Throughout the course, the film I liked the very least was Far From Heaven. As a retrospective period piece, the film took a harsh look at “WASPy” New England society in the 1950’s, and deconstructed it to study the human element behind the masks of propriety. The characters where highly stereotyped, and it just felt like watching some kind of dance by grotesque caricatures. In the end, there was no feeling of sympathy for any of the characters, no sense of development, and certainly no sense of loss from the deconstruction of their lives. Everyone just lives on, moderately content ever after. Such lukewarm films serve no real purpose except as an exercise in cinematography, which is what the film felt like—an internship piece for a budding director of photography.

Pizza Hut’s “BOOK IT!” Celebrates 30 Years

If you grew up in the 1980s and early 90s like I did, chances are you probably participated in the single greatest literacy campaign this side of Six Flags’s “600 Minute” program! As you’re probably aware, Pizza Hut’s “BOOK IT!” campaign was formulated to get kids to read by exchanging 6 books read (of a nominal length) for what equated to a stack of platinum coins for an 8-year-old in 1991: a Pizza Hut personal pan pizza. It was the height of hedonistic decadence for a pre-Clinton-era child coming along in the not-yet-suburban landscape of west Cobb County, Georgia–the ability to choose any pizza on the menu and have it all to yourself. Even the ritual of it had a certain mystique that I can play back in my head like it happened just the other night.

My father worked overnights at a plastic bag factory in Marietta. The first night he had off after getting my Book It! certificate was Pizza night. My parents and I would pile into the 1989 Ford Mustang that we had and ride for what seemed like an hour through the dark and the rain (it rained more often back then, or so it seems). In reality, it was only about 6 miles with a travel time of roughly 15 minutes to the Pizza Hut in Marietta’s deteriorating Westside. I don’t think I was old enough to notice how sketchy the neighbourhood was at the time, or maybe I simply didn’t care (because pizza). Pops grumbled about heartburn and cholesterol, but I think he and mom both endured it for the sake of reading.

The rain would be at a relatively light, but steady shower by the time we arrived at the Hut. We’d park as close as possible and dash to the door, which was faster said than done when you’re in the back seat of a sports car even at my small size. Inside, the warmth of the ovens and the heady smell of pizza power instantly dried the rain-soaked jackets and jeans we came in wearing. Back then, a hostess seated you and orders were made at the table, like a “real” pizzeria. On the way to the table, I would catch a glimpse of the trio of arcade cabinets in the lobby to see if there was anything new (not that it mattered, I would play anything).

I remember the checkerboard tablecloths and the low-hanging red stained-glass lamps over the tables. I remember the rain tapping at the window and the headlights flashing by along Powder Springs Road. I remember the shining Big Star sign across the road on top of the hill. I remember the neon green fire engines of nearby Marietta Station 4. I remember thinking that green firetrucks were weird. I remember Pops looking at those engines, too, with a romanticism and longing. I remember Mom nudging him just a little with a “Keep going, Benjie, you’ll get there.” They still loved each other then. They were still making it work.

The hostess came to take our order; she was our waitress now. It wasn’t a Friday, so the place wasn’t busy. I presented my Book It! certificate: “One supreme personal pan pizza, please” I would squeak. I was shy, but precocious. My over-sized glasses and bucktoothed smile complemented my awkward demeanor.

“What would you like to drink?”


“Is Pepsi okay?”

“Do you have Dr. Pepper?”

At some point after our orders were taken, Pops would slide a dollar bill over the table to me. “Here, buddy, go get a high score on one of those blinker machines over there.” The machines were 50 cents per play, the standard price for a few years now, but continues were only a quarter. I had to make a decision: P.O.W. or Ikari Warriors? I studied the looping attract screens, read the instructions printed on the cabinet, and mimed the controls. Video games were serious business; if I didn’t claim a spot on the high score table, I might as well not even mention going to Pizza Hut because of the ire it might draw from one of my more affluent classmates! I chose P.O.W.

It ate my quarter.

Dejected, I turned to my second choice. I played Ikari Warriors as far as I could on one credit, which was about halfway through the first stage. On a whim, I turned to the Ms. Pac-Man cocktail table in the corner. I discovered I was good at it. There were not bombs or tanks to drive, but there was something refreshing about that old game that I took with me back to the table and I carry to this day. Don’t knock the classics. They may not be as fancy or as sophisticated, but sometimes–just sometimes–the old ways are the best ways.

Quarters spent, I would come back to the table. Our pizzas would show up a few minutes later. I piled crushed red pepper and Parmesan cheese on the small circle of flavour before me. My parents looked on in confusion and disgust.

“He gets is from Daddy,” my mother would proclaim. My Popie taught me the value of pepper and spice in proper cooking. I might have taken it a bit too literally back then, but I still judge a pizzeria based on whether or not those two little jars are sitting on the table. And the lighting. And the tablecloths. Pizza Hut may not have been the best pizzeria around, but it was my pizzeria. That greasy, buttery crust piled with peppers and olives was the best damned pizza in Creation. The fact that I got it just for reading–that, my friends, is what makes memories.

This Is the First Weekend in America With No Saturday Morning Cartoons

The end of an era.

Saturday morning American broadcast TV was once animation’s home field. Filling a cereal bowl with artificially colored sugar pebbles and staring at the tube was every kid’s weekend plan. Not any more: For the first time in 50-plus years, you won’t find a block of animation on broadcast this morning. It’s the end of an era.

Read the rest

Ben Thompson on National Rivalries

We haven’t had a good arch-nemesis since the Soviets… al-Qaeda is too ethereal, China is a MFN, and Zombies aren’t real. It’s depressing.

Ben Thomspon (@BadassoftheWeek)