PRINT January 1988


American Myths

AMERICANS LIKE TO believe themselves unregimented by history, yet we measure our lives by presidents and mark our personal development by decades. For the past fifteen years, the era known as the Fifties—actually the 1954–63 period between the Korean and Vietnam wars—has functioned as a sort of lost paradise, both serious and parodic, within American popular culture. (The consensus is that the Eisenhower-Kennedy years were America's last age of consensus.) As late-night TV spots for anthologies of ancient pop hits define it, the Fifties were “Fabulous.”

The first movie to periodize the Fifties was George Lucas' 1973 American Graffiti, which celebrated the pleasures of aimless cruising and was released the year the Arab oil embargo spelled the end of cheap gasoline (creating its own mythology of shortage). But, innocence writ large, American Graffiti was part of a larger phenomenon. It enthroned a regime under which memory was industrialized and altered so that a generation might be identified by its thrift-shop flotsam. A wave of youthful idylls colored by Fifties nostalgia swept the world, from Paris (Peppermint Soda, 1977) to Budapest (Time Stands Still, 1982) to Tel Aviv (Lemon Popsicle, 1978). Grease ran on Broadway from 1972 to 1980, and the situation comedy that dubbed the Fifties “Happy Days” enjoyed a comparable engagement on network TV. Thus that fabulous era became a second ready-made childhood for kids born long after the decade ended. For the contemporary teenage hero of Back to the Future (1985), “1955” is a hygienic theme park like Disneyland (which, perhaps not coincidentally, opened that very year). This fascination with the Fifties functions almost as a Freudian fetish, suggesting the last thing experienced before a particular trauma. Indeed, American Graffiti deliberately used the disaster of Vietnam as a structuring absence.

This regime of nostalgia dovetailed with the postmodern repetition compulsion, creating a substitute history—la mode retro—that promotes a sense of the present as something essentially secondhand. Human nature being what it is, some of us have been awaiting a Sixties revival since 1973. Although sporadic attempts to bring back tie-die, black light, and acid rock all proved stillborn, signs of reSixtiesization have recently been recognized in the renewed interest in the Vietnam War, the rehabilitation of Dennis Hopper, and the reappearance of tights and miniskirts. But these things never left. What's different is that they've now been theme-parked and given a spurious innocence: the Vietnam War has been repackaged as a half million individual tragedies at the expense of its collective significance (reclaimed as prime-time entertainment opposite the echt Fifties Cosby Show); the miniskirt is revived as window dressing for a sexual counterrevolution; Hopper is redeemed with an Oscar nomination, a publicly reformed substance abuser now safely typecast to appear an unregenerate one. Why stop there? The psychedelic communes are ripe sitcom material. Couldn't there be a hippie antihero as lovable as Happy Days' Fonzie, or maybe a paternal Black Panther (Leave It To Cleaver)?

Still, to reconstruct the Sixties in all their polarizing glory would require a denial beyond even our national capacity for renewable innocence. The Fifties, by contrast, offer an enchanting wholeness. At once pastoral and fabulous, the era has come to seem the golden age of television, the western, and rock ‘n’ roll— mainly because the stressful, hyperstirnulating Sixties (actually 1964–72) were defined by such shocks as the Beatles, The Wild Bunch, and The CBS Evening News. Of course, the actual Fifties were characterized by a number of social upheavals—including the emergence of a rebellious youth culture and the struggle for civil rights. In Back to the Future, these disturbances are imported from the present day to “1955” like a sort of mystery infection from outer space. No wonder our official master of ceremonies lifted the film's mystical tagline for his 1986 state-of-the-union address: “Where we're going, we don't need roads.” When time stands still, the dream of national innocence remains intact.

J. Hoberman writes on film for The Village Voice. He contributes this column regularly to Artforum.