WEIRDLAND: Adam Curtis documentaries, Fifties Nostalgia

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Adam Curtis documentaries, Fifties Nostalgia

Hypernormalisation (2016) by Adam Curtis, is titled after a term coined by the Russian-born Berkeley professor Anton Yurchak to describe the dying years of the Soviet Union. The film’s core thesis is that, somewhere around the mid-1970s, politicians began to realize the “paralyzing complexity” of modern society was too confusing and alarming for most citizens to grasp. In response, they “constructed a simpler version of the world in order to hang onto power,” spreading propaganda narratives that would eventually come back and explode in their faces. In the 21st century, Hypernormalisation concludes, we are paying a steep price for all this smug self-delusion and toothless political theater. The cyber activists behind the Occupy movement and Arab Spring uprisings soon found themselves out of their depth in the dark, messy, bloody arena of real-world revolution. Western politicians have become ensnared by their own simplistic fantasies, leaving a power vacuum for would-be demagogues like Putin and Trump to fill with their cynically warped versions of reality. Source:

It felt like a kiss by Adam Curtis (2009): The story of America's rise to power starting in 1959, it uses nothing but archive footage and Amercia pop music. Showing the consequences on the rest of the world and in peoples mind. Americans, Curtis’ text tells us, “had found a new world to conquer inside their heads.” The film crescendoes to adventures in psychedelics and self-actualization, as the definition of “freedom” devolves into a lack of limit on consumption. And then comes the dark side: self-loathing, psychotherapy, self-destruction.

As Jeff Smith argues, Hank Williams’s self-destruction via substance abuse can itself be read as a commentary on the decadence of the American society represented in The Last Picture Show (1971) as past its prime and already in an advanced state of decay, leaving the movie’s young protagonists nothing to look forward to but ‘‘a life of quiet desperation, desolation, and death.’’ Fredric Jameson describes American Graffiti as the ‘‘inaugural film’’ in a new wave of cinematic nostalgia. Peter Bogdanovich’s much bleaker The Last Picture Show (1971), is a nostalgia film that locates the end of the good old days as early as the film’s setting in 1952 and 1953, associating the premature death of Buddy Holly in 1959 with the premature death of Hank Williams Sr. on January 1, 1953.

It is certainly the case that the most prominent nostalgic visions in recent American culture have focused on the 1950s, and the ‘‘mesmerizing lost reality of the Eisenhower era.’’ One major reason for the seeming desire of the 1970s to be nostalgic: the large first generation of baby boomers, who grew up in the long 1950s and graduated from high school at the end of that period, had now spent years in an adult world punctuated by the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the difficult economic times of the 1970s.

One of the most telling means of representing that nostalgia involves the phenomenon of time travel, in which a character or characters from the film’s present is transported back to the 1950s. Time-travel films have become an important genre of postmodern science fiction, but movies such as Zemeckis’s Back to the Future (1985) and Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) are hardly science fiction at all. Instead, they merely posit time travel of various sorts as a possibility in order to allow them to transport characters from their own present time into the setting of the 1950s. 

American Graffiti seeks, in an almost allegorical fashion, to parallel the transition of its protagonists from the simpler days of childhood to the more complex days of adulthood with the concurrent shift in American society from the sureties of the fifties to the more uncertain times of the sixties. The film clearly portrays this transition as a loss. As Jeff Smith notes, ‘‘The particular selection of songs serves to romanticize the late fifties and early sixties as a lost Golden Age.’’ By 1962, as John Milner notes, the good old days, even of rock music, are over. Thus, complaining about the new surf music, he concludes that ‘‘rock ’n’ roll’s been going downhill since Buddy Holly died.’’ —"Postmodern Hollywood: What's New in Film and why it Makes Us Feel So Strange" (2007) by M. Keith Booker

In February of 1974, Crawdaddy magazine featured a story by Tom Miller. The cover of the magazine carried the headline Who Killed Buddy Holly? The story alluded to an investigation of the accident undertaken by members of Watergate Senate Committee counsel Sam Dash’s staff. There were names of bus drivers and ticket-takers who had contact with the singers in their final hours and details of the accident itself. Superimposed on an illustration accompanying the article was part of the first page of the Civil Aeronautics Board’s aircraft accident report from September 15, 1959. I soon realized that Miller’s Crawdaddy story was a clever blend of fact and fiction. 

Besides the tragedy of the plane crash, the tour seemed doomed from the start. It seemed an odd proposition to me that singers of this magnitude would subject themselves to such treatment. I was determined to learn more about the Winter Dance Party tour. I placed an ad in the Mason City Globe-Gazette in early 1976, seeking information from people who may have been at the Winter Dance Party concert at the Surf Ballroom in nearby Clear Lake on February 2, 1959. In the front passenger seat, Buddy Holly was trying to persuade Roger Peterson to get the plane into the air. Reluctantly, Peterson switched on the plane’s landing lights and turned the Bonanza into the wind.  

Whatever we may think of rock ‘n’ roll, we’ve got no choice but to admit rock ‘n’ roll is part of our national culture. Musical considerations aside, most of us could live happier without that nerve-jangling piano, that neurotic sax, and those jack-hammer rhythms. Rock ‘n’ roll has got to go. —Downbeat magazine, September 19, 1956

Backstage, DJ Bill Diehl recalls, the musicians were excited: "I can still see Buddy Holly going over and talking to Ritchie Valens. I saw him patting him on the back and talking to him and they’d peek out and look at the crowd. I’m sure Buddy was telling him to just relax and don’t be nervous. Buddy was kind of a parent figure. He was this tall, slender fellow making sure that the lighting was right, that the band instruments were right and that all the speakers were working. He was a very, very thorough fellow." Bob Hale (a local radio emcee) sat at a table in the Surf Ballroom lounge, sipping hot drinks with J. P. Richardson and Buddy Holly and discussing their three pregnant wives. Holly was disappointed to learn that Clear Lake didn’t have a place where he could get his laundry done.—"The Day the Music Died: The Last Tour of Budddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens" (ekindle, 2012) by Larry Lehmer

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