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.


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.