2009 or 1959?

The art historian Pamela M. Lee (not to be confused with the bodacious Pamela formerly Lee Anderson) writes in her book Chronophobia, “The sixties are endless.” And often it has felt we have been living under the great cloud of the sixties — its many storms and shifting winds — for example the significance of whether our Presidential candidates served, dodged or were imprisoned during the Vietnam War. An illusory feeling that the country went wrong after the golden decade of the fifties.

But aren’t we already fooling ourselves when we freeze the picture-perfect moments of that forgotten decade — obscured by the rage and dissolution of the years that followed?  

I am given pause by the coincidental (or is it) appearance of both the AMC series Mad Men and the film adaptation Revolutionary Road, which take the fifties as their focus. Though technically the former is set in 1960 and the latter was published in 1961, both works are just as much about coming to terms with the former years than about what is to come.

Why now is there an interest in a revival of the 50s? With the coming Presidential inauguration is it a chance to look back at the period before the U.S. seems to run off the rails and imagine “a more perfect union”? Obama as an erasure of the sixties and a re-vision of 1959? Or, like with Mad Men, do the 50s allow us to re-write a period of our history, still highly mis-understood, and continually perceived as some sort of “golden age,” with a 21st-century point of view, which in turn only re-creates and reifies the caricature.

I have not yet seen the screen adaptation of Revolutionary Road, though I did not like the book version. So I will be back to let you know my thoughts on the film, and let me know what you thought of it.

For further disclosure, I am writing my dissertation in art history on the period of 1954-1961 in Brazil so the 50s as a subject greatly interests me and will therefore be a recurring topic on matterful.

I end with another quote from the historian Alan Trachtenberg. “The decade of the fifties has come down to us as an age of conventionality and meretriciousness, a time without great drama or credible heroes. Tacky suburban houses, ostentatious autmobiles designed as marauding fish, men in gray-flannel suits, television quiz shows that turn out to be faked (even a distinguished university professor among the culprits), and glass-sheathed skyscrapers — the new clean look of corporate power — are among the era’s tangible symbols, each representaing something decptive, something hidden, something denied. Contradiction is a better description of the period than conformity.”

Posted by: mariola

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