Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
Post-War America in the 1950s was a time of unprecedented economic prosperity. Millions of young families had children and purchased land to build houses, effectively creating suburbia. The men went to work while the women stayed home to raise the children. America became the richest and most powerful nation the world has ever seen, and people had reason to be optimistic about life. Few visual images capture this sense better than the paintings of Norman Rockwell, which record happy families and safe neighborhoods, and the idealized homespun quality of simple American virtues. “The minutest detail of Rockwell’s charmed vision reaffirms America’s greater purpose. Rockwell himself stated that ‘even if it wasn’t an ideal world, it should be’” (Caputi 6).
In reality, the decade had an equally ugly side. In these early years before the civil rights movement, white America generally pushed aside the growing issues of racism, while black Americans struggled to find equal opportunities as second class citizens. Deep beneath the happy exterior there was a growing paranoia that shaped the decade. America’s fear of communism and an escalating cold war with the Soviet Union led to US involvement in the Korean War, a brutal conflict that resulted in 2 million total deaths, 37,000 of them American. At home, fear of communist influence spread like wildfire. Senator Joseph McCarthy led an all out attack on communism, blacklisting prominent American citizens and further spreading the message that communism was out to destroy all that Americans held near and dear.
This paranoia is reflected in the themes of 50s films. “It has been estimated that no fewer than five hundred science fiction movies were made between 1948 and 1962, many of which fall into the category of “alien invasion film” (Caputi 15). The idea that sinister outside forces were out to infuse and destroy goes much deeper than science fiction. In the classic 1956 sci-fi horror film “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, alien life forms secretly invade a small town. Growing in mysterious pods, they steal the bodily forms of good-natured Americans, and render them emotionless. The film has been read as both an allegory for the perceived loss of personal autonomy in the Soviet Union and as an indictment of McCarthyist paranoia about communism during the early stages of the Cold War.
While it’s true that the 50s were by no means a time of national perfection, I do not desire to necessarily address the true 50s in my work. In 2008 a viewer can understand the irony and humor in an image of a seemingly perfect nuclear family, and wouldn’t need a picture addressing racism, the Korean War or the Rosenberg executions to understand the true 50s. Because I see humor as an essential element to working with these images, I try to avoid overt exploration of social and political issues. This is not to say that the paintings do not speak in these ways. They certainly can, but how they are read depends on the viewer.
Even still, images from the 50s cannot help but be political. In her book “A Kinder, Gentler America” Mary Caputi explores the myth of the 1950s and examines the way nostalgia has infused and transformed partisan politics. She argues that the political right advocates for a return to the 50s as a time of wholesome American family values, while the left sees the decade as a time of cultural censorship and ignorance of social justice. It would be hard to argue against her assessment based on historical fact. I think it would be easy to draw comparisons and make strong political statements with images from the 50s, which is the very reason I try hard to avoid it. I personally find those avenues to be dead ends, even if I strongly agree with the political position.
I’ve come to discover another fine line between irony and kitsch within the subject matter. There are aspects to the 1950s that I abhor. When most people think of the 50s they immediately center on the stereotypical: poodle skirts, saddle shoes, greasers, soda fountains and young Elvis. All these things are the 50s for sure, but I see them as clichéd 50s nostalgia in light of shows like “Happy Days” and movies like “Grease” and “American Grafitti”. Those images speak immediately to a greater 50s collective stereotype, and have a hard time being interpreted in any other way. To me they are as empty and undesirable as the doo-wop music of the day.
In more candid images of families and people interacting, I am able to explore the issues I am really interested in and have only recently been able to articulate. The first concerns mass consumerism, which began in the 1950s and permeates every aspect of life today. I have yet to explore this strongly in my work, but I see great potential for it. In a pivotal scene from his 1957 film “A Face in the Crowd”, director Elia Kazan points to the con artistry of mass media to sell products. In a time of unprecedented wealth and success for the white middle class, media and advertising changed everything.
“Through television, Americans now led a mediated life, interrupted by the gentle (or not so gentle) urgings of advertisers, helping them see their lives in special ways, requiring special needs” (Jennings 334). Today our world remains dominated by advertisement and product, and we continue to spend our money on stuff to bring us happiness. I am very concerned with the extent that American’s find their identity in the products they buy, and there is ripe potential in the 50s images to explore these issues.
“We are now confronted with the problem of permitting the average American to feel moral even when he is flirting, even when he is spending, even when he is not saving, even when he is taking two vacations a year and buying a second or third car. One of the basic problems of this prosperity, then, is to give people the sanction and justification to enjoy it and to demonstrate that the hedonistic approach to his life is a moral, not an immoral one. This permission given to the consumer to enjoy his life freely, the demonstration that he is right in surrounding himself with products that enrich his life and give him pleasure must be one of the central themes of every advertising display and sales promotion plan.” –Dr. Ernest Dichter, Motivations, April 1956. (Ewing 36).
The key issues I’ve explored thus far concern gender and domestic roles within the home, an area of 50s life that has changed dramatically. I’ve come to understand through dialogue concerning my subject matter with friends, family and especially my wife, that my interest in 50s imagery is much more personal than I originally thought. I have been married for almost 8 years, and with young children now occupying our house I’m learning as I go what it takes to be a parent. The process had caused me to often consider my own upbringing.
Author Mary Caputi sees the mythical 50s as a veneer for a more ambiguous reality. “Is it possible that the era of the 1950s itself utilized visual culture in order to project the image of wholeness? Was the era so contented, so happily self-contained to those living in it, or do we tend to misread what is simply the look of completion?” (Caputi 113). This idea of false perfection vs. the reality of day-to-day life as a dad and husband lies at the center of my interest in 50s imagery. For me these images are somehow part of my identity as a privileged white American, whether I like it or not. I do not wish to go back to those times in the least. Rather, I see them as a humorous reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.
Friday, April 25, 2008
Tonight I watched the epic Texas film "Giant". This film has the look and feel of a larger than life old style epic with hundreds of extras (both people and livestock), big name stars, grand locations and a running time of almost 3 hours. This was the first movie from my 50s film list I had a tough time getting through. It is very slow with many long uncut scenes of dialogue. The story also takes place of 35 years, so the actors age and there are lots of establishing scenes that could have been cut but weren't. For 95% of it the film feels like an epic romance about Texas, but in the end it builds to a anticlimactic ending about racism against mexicans in Texas. It's weird. I'm glad I watched it, because it is a much beloved film from the time, but like "The 10 Commandments" and other historical/biblical epics from the 50s, it just keeps going and going. The premise of the film could be a great remake today with some scene restructuring and drastic editing. The slow pace was all I could think about as I watched it. I can't say I was crazy about "Giant", but it absolutely spoke to a 50s mentality so it was worth it.
Monday, April 21, 2008
In the special features of the DVD, there's a great extra about "A Face in the Crowd" explaining the deeper meaning. Elia Kazan was an early member of the communist party in the 30's (as were many in Hollywood who saw communism as an answer to social justice), and during McCarthyism he became a key figure in the infamous trails. He ratted on other Hollywood communists because by the 50s he had come to believe that communism was evil, and the next day he took out a full page ad in the New York Times encouraging others to come forward and defending his actions. This backfired in a huge way, and overnight he went from being the most respected director of his day to public enemy number 1. His career was never the same. The success of this movie no doubt suffered huge Kazan's reputation at the time. What makes the movie great is the core prophetic message of the dangers in mass media. Kazan is absolutly taking shots at Joseph McCarthy and the emergence of the modern political system through scenes with Lonesome Rhodes and prominant politician.
The scenes depict the characters working out a strategy that includes appearing on TV holding a dog, acting laid-back and approachable, and publicly using the nickname Curly to appear normal to the masses. Kazan is saying that in the TV age, getting elected is all about looking good on TV, gaining mass appeal, and associating ones self with popular figures. Does this sound firmiliar in 2008? If it doesn't, perhaps closer attention needs to paid to the election. This strategy of TV appeal is core to modern electioneering. These were issues that were new to people in the 1950s with the boom of mass media and consumerism. Kazan's method of working with emotions in his actors plays perfectly to his point, and makes this film way ahead of it's time. Now that I've told the entire plot and meaning, I suppose I've given a little bit away- oh well, go watch it anyway. It's great, and it looks fantastic shot in glorious black and white.
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
Here's my latest painting that I've been working on this last week. I was drawn to this photograph for several reasons. First I thought it was funny how these businessmen are all standing and taking notice of something we can't see through huge awkward dark-rimmed glasses. Second, I was drawn to the complex shapes created by the fabic of the suits. It turned out to be a lot more difficult than I thought, and I ended up treating it more as a practice painting for faces. There's a good chance I'll go back in and alter a few things....
Monday, April 14, 2008
Saturday, April 12, 2008
I'm hard at work on my second canvas now. I told myself after painting the desert lady that I should try to avoid complexity. After hours of looking for just the right image, I settled on a picture of a group of businessmen. It's a great photo, but very complex now that I'm into it. It's coming nicely but taking a lot of time. I should have it posted sometime next week. I also watched "North By Northwest" today, the last Hitchcock thriller on my 50s list for this semester. It's been great to have an excuse for watching old films I never had seen. Hitchcock's movies are truly amazing- there's not much more to say. This one fits the action movie mode, but it full of great suspense with stunning visuals/camera shots. It's still hokey in a way that all movies from the period somehow are, but it manages to still work in 2008. I couldn't help but notice the abundance of sexual innuendo in this movie. In the context of the squeaky clean 50s, it took me by surprise more than a few times. Look for a new image soon.
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
I watched "Rebel Without a Cause" tonight. While it falls far short of other films I've watched recently (except for "Bodysnatchers") in terms of the camera placement, lighting and color, it's a film that's more about the era than anything else. There is also no denying the star power of James Dean. Half the time he looks like he doesn't even care and yet he's the entire picture. He really is great- I can't tell if he's trying to underact or not. Either he's a brilliant actor or he is who he is on screen. The story line is sometimes silly and the fact that the whole film takes place over 24 hours ads to that. It's an interesting character study film, because pretty much everyone is in the wrong. There really isn't anyone to identify with, and that's kind of the point. In the end, it's a picture about irrational kids and the dumb stuff they do, and it's become iconic for 50s Hollywood. On the DVD there are some old Warner Bros. promotional films from 1955 including an interview with James Dean. He talks about the dangers of drag racing and reminds the "youth of today" to be careful behind the wheel. Slightly ironic.
Saturday, April 5, 2008
Tuesday, April 1, 2008
After spending a lot of time working on my recent paper, I watched 2 films to get back into creative mode. "Vertigo" is an amazing movie- to say Alfred Hitchcock was ahead of time is a gross understatement. The story, the characters, the way he structures a shot, the incredible opening credits and dream sequences- this movie is the complete package. It's every bit as exciting today as it must have been in 1958. It also features stunning on-location shots of San Fransisco, and I will definitely re-visit the film for specific stills I can use. As for "Invasion of the Body Snatchers", things couldn't be more different. It is everything Vertigo isn't, but at the same time, it really does represent everything about the 50s. The story is fast paced and filled with outlandish dialogue, but the look and feel is everything 50s. Even though it's very corny, I'm really glad I watched it. It's much better than a lot of B movies and is the definitive sci-fi film of the day.