Not in remorse
- The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused - nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
Unlike Larkin though, my mind does blank in remorse at the good not done, the love not given, the time torn off unused. To distract myself from dwelling on those thoughts and of that sure extinction that we all travel to, I tried to read myself back to sleep with Jonathan Mahler’s Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning.
Good book, lousy decade.
New York City in the mid-1970s?
To start with there’s the horror of facing the fact that thirty-odd have passed since then. Talk about time being torn off unused!
But never mind the evil actors creeping around. David Berkowitz hasn’t appeared yet but the story is moving steadily towards the Summer of Sam.
At three AM, it’s just as appalling to be dragged back into the company of obnoxious and pathetic personalities who have faded from the public memory, thank goodness, but who dominated the news back then---Abe Beame, Billy Martin, Bella Abzug, anybody and everybody who thought it was cool to frequent Plato’s Retreat or cruise the abandoned docks along the West Side Piers---and re-watch the rise of other, even more obnoxious personalities who would dominate the news in decades to come---Ed Koch, Rupert Murdoch.
You can make the case that some good things came out of the 70s. There was a lot of great music, although most of it was crowded into the early and late years of the decade, with disco, Heavy Metal, and John Denver and the Electric Light Orchestra clogging it all up in between. A whole slew of classic movies got made, one of them being Star Wars, which supposedly ruined everything for everybody as Hollywood gave up making quality films for adults to devote itself collectively to producing nothing but blockbusters targeted at adolescent boys. Then there were all those pioneering TV shows, M*A*S*H and Mary Tyler Moore and Saturday Night Live and Laverne & Shirley and Charlie’s Angels and Three’s Company and Love Boat and Fantasy Island and…and…um…What was my point again?
But a decade that began with Richard Nixon in the White House and the Vietnam War still raging and ended with Jimmy Carter trapped in the Rose Garden, 51 Americans held hostage in the Embassy in Tehran, and the first cases of AIDS being diagnosed, with Watergate, the Oil Crisis, and double-digit inflation defining the years in the middle, has got to rank as one of the very worst of all the decades in American history that did not include the Civil War, the Great Depression, or World War II.
To top it all off, it was a decade of deliberate ugliness passing itself off as cool. Ugly clothes, ugly hair, ugly furniture, ugly cars.
On a personal level, though, for someone like me, a middle of the night re-immersion in the 1970s is like deliberately giving yourself a nightmare about being back in high school except that all the surreal dream images are actual memories and instead of finding yourself standing in front of the room in your underwear you’re standing there in suede crepe-soled shoes, corduroy bellbottoms, a mustard-colored polyester shirt with collar wings that reach to the shoulders on either side, and a Shaun Cassidy haircut.
For the record, as soon as I started buying my own clothes so that my wardrobe was no longer exclusively birthday and Christmas presents from well-meaning parents and grandparents who assumed I wanted to wear what the other kids were wearing---my poor sisters had it even worse---I ditched the bell bottoms and polyesters for straight-leg jeans and cotton Oxfords with button-down collars so there was no more danger of a lift-off in a high wind.
I stuck with the Wallabees until the mid-80s though.
And I had a pretty good time in high school. College? Not so much. Not to begin with. Which might go a long way towards explaining why I don’t like to stroll down that particular stretch of memory lane.
But here’s the thing.
Another reason I don’t like to remember those times is that I have a very hard time remembering those times clearly.
I don’t mean in the sense of veterans of the 1960s who say, “If you remember the 60s, you weren’t there.”
I mean that two obstacles get in the way of my seeing that time in my life objectively and through my own eyes.
The first is my temperamental proclivity for remembering bad times more than the good. Even in the warm light of midday, my mind blanks in remorse at the good not done, the love not given, the time torn off unused, and given that the 70s were the years of my all too typical protracted adolescence, there’s a great deal of good not done, love not given, and time torn off unused for my mind to blank in remorse at.
But the other one is that I can’t “see” those years in the way I see just about every other time in my life.
There’s too much media blocking my view.
Notice I said “media” not “the Media.”
When I “picture” those times to myself I literally see pictures, the faded ones in the family album---another thing to hate about the 70s, the ruin of color film---and the ones I saw on television.
Instead of being able to call to mind my own memories I seem only able to conjure up documentary evidence that events I ought to have memories of actually happened.
I can look through my mind’s eye and see up and down the street I lived on when I was in kindergarten. I look through my mind’s eye for the street I lived on when I was in high school and see the photographs in the family album. I can look through my mind’s eye and see the blonde coming up the aisle on our wedding day. I look through my mind’s eye for the girl I took to the senior ball and I see her in the snapshot I used to keep in my wallet, posed in her parents’ living room before I arrived to pick her up, so I’m not even in my own memory of my own senior ball.
When I try to remember what I thought and felt about Watergate, I see Sam Ervin and John Erlichman verbally jousting on the TV set in the school library annex.
When I try to remember what Mom and Pop Mannion looked like back then I see Bob Newhart and Suzanne Pleshette, which as anyone who knew them when can tell you isn’t all that farfetched. Newhart has always been my first choice to play Pop Mannion in the movie.
My inability to actually remember the 70s has always troubled me because there are a lot of nice things that happened I would like to be able to look back upon and take pleasure in remembering. There are good people who have since passed out of my life whose kindnesses and friendship I should never forget.
And it would be helpful, not to mention more enjoyable, if I could read books like Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning with both more objectivity and a more personal engagement.
I think I have a plan for dealing with this.
Fight media with media, fiction with fiction.
My idea is that instead of simply resisting the archival sort of images that keep getting in the way of the “real” images of actual memories, I might be able to jog more of those actual memories by reminding myself what the 70s actually looked like as they happened by watching a lot of movies from the period.
But only a certain sort of movie.
Obviously not movies like Chinatown or McCabe and Mrs Miller.
But not ones set in the then present that were overly stylized because of their genre---like The French Connection, The Exorcist, Jaws, even The Goodbye Girl and Rocky.
And not movies that tried too emphatically to capture the spirit of the moment or say something about the issues of the day. Nashville, Coming Home, The Candidate, Network, Shampoo, Deer Hunter, Saturday Night Fever, and Taxi Driver fall into this category. Good as those movies are as movies, trying to get through them a sense of what it was like to be living in the 70s is like trying to get a sense of what it was like through a museum exhibit or an entry in an encyclopedia. There’s a didactic note in all of them and the filmmakers use the 70s as a prop to help explain…the 70s.
Which is why I wouldn’t put All The President’s Men in the group.
All The President’s Men is about current events, of course, but its focus is actually on Woodward and Bernstein as reporters as working stiffs not agents of history. It’s a movie about doing a job. In a way, Watergate is the movie’s McGuffin, its excuse to tell the story and the story is how these two guys go from door to door and office to office chasing down clues to a mystery their job requires them to solve.
The 70s as an historical event or a series of unfortunate historical events are almost irrelevant. They’re just there because they’re there. The camera can’t help taking them in but nothing much is made of them. They’re the given, which is how people living through a particular time period tend to see it, which is to say they take it for granted.
And that’s what I’m looking for. Movies in which the 70s are taken for granted. Movies that present the clothes, the cars, the furniture, the affects and mores, the way people saw them at the time most of time, as just there.
Topicality and topical references and in-jokes don’t automatically exclude a movie from the list. It’s a matter of degree and approach. And all genre pictures aren’t exercises in style.
So a film like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore which was topical at the time because of the effect of Feminism on many women’s lives would still make the list because an early 70s version Feminism itself isn’t the reason for telling Alice’s story, not the way an anti-70s Feminism is pretty much the excuse for Kramer vs Kramer, which is only one reason that piece of sentimental claptrap is off the list.
By the way, follow the link up there, then let me know if you were surprised to be reminded who directed Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
Meanwhile, What’s Up, Doc? has to be scratched because it is so self-consciously a throwback to the screwball comedies of the 1930s that nothing on the screen actually looks contemporary, it all looks made-up for laughs, even the jet planes. But The Hot Rock, which is genre two-fer, a farce and a heist movie, locates itself comfortably and naturally in 1970s era New York City, without any of the self-consciousness or self-congratulation of either Annie Hall or Manhattan, two movies that have to go on the list.
Here’s my list so far:
The Hot Rock.
The Bad News Bears.
So, your turn. What movies would you put on the list? Which ones would you take off?