Sunday, August 19, 2018

Representations of the 1970s in contemporary film and television, and some more words on Presentism.

I try to watch as many contemporary representations of the 1970 as I can: such representations are, in their own way, a form of costume drama. Of particular interest to me as of late are episodic series that are set in the 1970s.

Showtime's I'm Dying Up Here,  and NetFlix's Mindhunter are two that are the most notable, or that I have been able to watch.

Mindhunter is a serial, episodic work created by David Fincher and Charlize Theron. Thus far there has been one season with another on the way. I'm Dying Up Here is also episodic and to date there have been only two seasons when there really should be more, if only for aesthetic, that is, narratological reasons, rather than commercial/qualitative reasons.

Every single work set in the past is usually committed to or another sort of presentism. Presentism is hard to define but you could say it is closely related to progressivism in a moral or political sense. That is, because presentism is a dominant view of our age - more than in ages past - and because there is in our current moment an enormous amount of artistic work set in the past, presentism is inevitable. The most presentist work in the contemporary period to have been set in the past was of course MadMen, which reads like an aesthetic treatise on the virtues of presentism. There is a debate and discussion to be had over whether presentism ought to be avoided or celebrated, and whether it even can be avoided.

I, for one, am generally against presentism, and believe it ought to be guarded against even if it is the most natural thing in the world, and, well, universal (if only because one must live in one's present). The presentism I have in mind with regard to works of representation sometimes takes the form of glaring anachronisms.

The first time I encountered a maddening form of anachronistic presentism was during the girls' bathroom scene in Linklater's masterpiece Dazed And Confused where the girls discuss something they call a "male pornographic fantasy" in the context of a discussion of the television show Gilligan's Island - using a jargon and a level of conceptual abstraction that reminded me more of a college media studies class in 1992 than the high school girl's bathroom Texas small town in 1976 where the picture is meant to take place.

The question of what concepts people did or did not have, what language they would have likely been able to use or would have been available to them to use (all of these series, for example, use catchphrases, vernacular, slang, jargon and vogue words which did not exist in the eras that are meant to be represented, though some are more "guilty" than others) is an under-examined question.  In truth none of us can really know with exact certainty about some behaviors, interior feelings and concepts in the past. The only way we can know the exact sound and appearance of people in the past is through two visual mediums: fictional representations made in the past as performed by actors in dramatic art like films, and any documentary footage from the past showing non-actors going about their daily, untutored business. Aside from these what remains are written accounts which don't have the same exactitude as visual or verbal documents of an actual period of time.

But, setting this qualification aside, we can nevertheless get a partial sense of the past through all sorts of ways- both written and visual - and in ways that are more accurate than not. What presentism does is in some sense deny this altogether, in part because it has an ever present moral analysis of the past rather than a disinterested observation of it.

I have often argued that in the 1930s you could find people on the street who sounded and acted like Myrna Loy or William Powell did on the screen and in this sense their appearances on the screen should be considered realistic, however unreal a thing a Hollywood movie was (particularly at that time and in that genre) or how unordinary ("larger than life") those two movie stars of the time appeared. It is merely that nobody acts like William Powell or Myrna Loy now. This is the same case as if young women stopped sounding and acting like Zosia Mamet on Girls fifty years from now to such a degree that said future viewers, upon seeing the show for the first time, might claim that her onscreen behavior is unrealistic or unbelievable.

If you fast forward from 1992's Dazed And Confused to today's Mindhunter, I find an enormous amount of such anachronistic material in the casual conversation of the characters. Usually it takes the form of characters being too knowing about things rather than the unconscious figures they more likely were. Did people use the word "inappropriate" as synonym or code for grave moral offenses in 1977 as much as they do now? I'm Dying Up Here is particularly egregious in this regard. The character seem on the verge of saying "awesome" a lot of the time and beginning sentences with a slow"so": modes of speech and behavior that are utterly of 2017 and I would bet were nonexistent in 1973. Another verbal gesture, committed by one of the youngest characters in the story more than once, is a loud "Seriously!" belted out whenever she feels exasperation at another's action. This is a hallmark of contemporary, real-life speech. I seriously doubt it was "a thing" in 1974.  All of the character use the word "fuck" all of the time too and that word's universality and frequency is very much a feature of the present moment.

Another notable example of a very good show that nevertheless exhibits some anachronisms is David Simon's and George Pelecanos' The Deuce on HBO. In the case of this series this historical inaccuracy occurs mainly terms of the sounds - the dictions, and cadences - of the millennial actors' voices, which are sounds no similarly aged person in 1972 ever would have made. This is but an effect of the fact that actors are of a generation who simply sound a certain way -  the sounds you hear on Girls - and there is apparently no attempt to change this as is sometimes done in terms of geographical accents.
I'm Dying up Here

I'm Dying Up Here is also salvaged not only by its art direction, which has as much faithfulness to the 1970s as seems possible at this time, but by the excellence of its acting, which reaches Cassavetes (!) styled levels of intensity, temporality and subtlety of meaning. The entire cast is so good but Melissa Leo, Ari Graynor, and Brad Garrett come to mind most immediately. There is a dramatic integrity and richness that overrides any of the presentism I mention. The writing is nowhere near as good as the acting, but like most episodic television, it really is the kind of quality writing that you would have found in the best studio narrative pictures from forty or fifty years ago but which the studios today seem hell bent on not delivering in any place outside of your home or your physical person.

It is important to recognize that the 1970s is innately and inherently interesting from a dramatic and representational point of view because the entire era was committed to the willful elimination of restraint and the maximization of expression of all kinds and at all costs.

This means that the 1970s is a very useful foundation for visual artists, including filmmakers. Put simply, it is never boring.
opening credits, The Deuce

The 1970s itself was a gift the era gave to future posterity. For great contrast it is most instructive to compare those series set during the 1990s, which was an era inexplicably dedicated to a willful nondescriptness.

I agree with the theory that says that the 1990s were simply part of the 1980s rather than an independent period, and one of the founding ideas of the 1980s was this idea of recovering one's senses after the perceived excesses of the previous era, and getting back to some tradition of some kind. Now if this is your primary goal in life this has certain repercussions for how you will look to future generations and what you will be able to accomplish. If you make a dramatic production about, say, the Lewinsky/Clinton scandal, then it is incumbent upon you to represent the late 1990s which is, objectively speaking, a really dull project compared to representing, say, the Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs match of 1973. In 1973 there was nobody in culture, least of all the people in the milieu of that event, dedicated in the slightest to being nondescript or generic. 1998, however, is the apotheosis of this long 1980s project of trying to make culture be a neutral backdrop to the ostensibly important matters of daily life. Nondescript style became the dominant religion of those years, and you can get a taste of this by looking at any mise en scene of a Seinfeld episode.

One of the many interesting things about the two shows is that they exhibit the differences between the early and later 1970s, differences that are considerable. Part of this is the enormous middle to late 1960s influence on the early part of the 1970s from which the much more commercial consensus culture of the late 70s was quite a departure. The earlier 1970s show is photographed in vivd, quite strong colors. The latter 1970s of Mindhunter is concerned with the cars the characters drive more than their fashions or architecture, but is photographed in a very dark, almost unlit fashion. Here is an entire blog post dedicated to all of the various 1970s vehicles painstakingly represented in the show.

Ensemble of I'm Dying up Here
Holt McCallany, Anna Torv and Jonathan Groff in Mindhunter
Mindhunter, my last example, is the best of all that I have seen, at least from a filmmaking perspective. This depiction of FBI researchers in the year 1978, straddling the disciplines of law enforcement, psychology, science, as they attempt to comprehend and face the difficult evils of a most peculiar subset of criminals, is so valuable in its insight, in its aesthetic power, and as character driven drama, that it is one more example of the supremacy of episodic television in our current moment over other visual dramatic forms and that the project of cinema itself is very much in evidence. Mindhunter is very much a work in progress in that there has been but one season, but I believe that in its rigorous elimination of scenes of violence or action as classically understood in works in its (action or thriller) genre and in its complete focus on the attempt to understand human evil at a certain point in our history, it makes for some exemplary television.

What the supremacy of episodic television that you stream at home means is not something upon which I can fairly speculate. (It also raises the idea that we might be seeing a return of a certain kind of nineteenth century novelistic form - albeit in a new guise - that had been dormant for much of the 20th century. But that is a subject for literary historians and critics more than others).

I must admit that this might have little or nothing to do with the 1970s, though I do note that filmmakers are going back to the 1970s more now that was the case, say, a decade ago, and this interest in the 70s era means the 70s decade might have more to do with current aesthetic trends or currents than a perspective not informed by a sense of historical eras could comprehend as fully.

Of course all of the preceding will be of interest only if you accept that an older period can be represented or reconstructed with any degree of fidelity, and, moreover,  that to do so is germane to the meaning of the dramatic representation as a whole. Also, the ability to accept these propositions  varies with the work. Mindhunter is in so many ways a work not about the era in which it is set but about what are actually timeless matters - surprisingly so, in a pleasant way.

On the other hand, all film is visual and having to stare at people with certain kinds of clothes and hairdos getting in and out of certain kinds of cars and dwelling in certain kinds of buildings is not something you can underestimate - if only because you are forced to look at it for even basic comprehension. If for no other reason, that is why the question of period details might be as important as some arcane discussion about the prevalence of psychological damage general to the profession of comics or the history of forensic police work in late 20th century America.

And, finally, you also have to accept some manner of discontinuity between one period and another such that people really have marked differences from one age to the next, and there is not simply one unbroken, human story seamlessly linking the succeeding ages. If you lean, as I do, towards discontinuity, you will be less prone to presentism.

But as partisan of the discontinuity thesis as I am, I recognize too much discontinuity results in ethical incoherence and valuelessness. The list of human universals is many. (See Donald Brown on this point in his book Human Universals). But we should never lose our sense of alienation from the past so that we not simply turn it into another form of the present. I have always been inspired by the famous Carlo Ginzburg quote:

The historian's task is just the opposite of what most of us were taught to believe, He must destroy our false sense of proximity to the past because they came from societies very different from our own. The more we discover about these peoples' 'mental universe' the more we should be socked by the cultural distance that separates us from them."

It is hard to argue the same for the arts because a good deal of the arts is simplicity or explicitly embarked upon seeing similarities between things, empathy being but one, overemphasized, tool in this regard. In that sense presentism might be not unavoidable but necessary. But I do want to argue that at least some of the arts should be allied with Ginzburg's  project in history. Not all movies and books should be the same in their sensibility though in an age as presentist as ours I should learn to expect or accept that this might be an area more for theory than practice.