This is the second post in a short thread about some cultural baggage that we carry around from the sixties. Here is a link to the first post — it’s about becoming cool.
So becoming cool is a great sixties storyline. It starts with loss. But where does the story go after that? Stories from the fifties led up to a happy ending. Even stories that touch on moral ambiguity, like Rear Window, end happily. Good people lived well. Like Doris Day. They even died well, bravely and without a lot of fuss (as John Wayne would expect).
In the early sixties, you still see happy endings, for example in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But at a certain point, the sixties storyline challenged that standard.
I would argue that making that challenge was a logical step. If the story focus is “me” (becoming cool), then the ending should be about “me” too. Not some sort of morality play. We move from Doris Day to “The Happening” and celebrate a moment of heightened engagement. One stepped out of time.
Just listen to Dancing in the Streets to get the idea. Martha sang, “Are you ready for a brand new beat?” Folks in the sixties were ready. And it was a wild beat, as you can hear from Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane. If you feel a bit more soulful, how about dropping everything and heading to San Fransisco? Scott McKenzie did. Or just California Dreaming with the Momas and the Pappas. Just a few examples of stepping out of time, or as Lou Reed sang Takin’ a Walk on the Wild Side. There are many, many more. It is an essential sixties storyline.
How does this look in film? The hip film, “Blow Up” is about a murder. Ir is it? The hit film, “Easy Rider” is about being free on motorcycles. Or is it? In both films, one can easily get lost in the events of the story rather than any sense of morality or learning about those events. And that was the point.
Was something gained? Freedom, of course. And what did extended freedom offer?`Well, asking that question misses the point. Sixties culture was about opening the door. It was less about assessing what would happen next. Thus the climax of the film Harold and Maude is about an act of freedom, not the meaning of it. Similarly, when Jim Morrison sang “you know that I would be untrue …” he fit into the scene rather well. Being free could also mean being free of shame or guilt. One was supposed to suspend judgments like that as long as the party lasted.
Not for the faint of heart. But like it or not, Morrison had a point. In this millieu, one has to accept the dark side. And BTW, you can pretend that you step out of time, but you really don’t. Time remorselessly moves on. And the more you celebrate being out of time, the further time moves on without you. The wider the disconnect becomes. And this leads us to the last great sixties storyline: the great hangover. I think Johnny Cash sang about that as well as anyone in his song Hurt. But Johnny’s lament was not the first. Traffic sang “Feelin’ Alright” back in 1968. While waking up, one might lament that the experience seemed unreal, as in The Windmills of Your Mind or in MacArthur Park. And for some, there was a sense of innocence lost, as Simon & Garfinkle sang about in The Boxer. One might say that these expressions of guilt or waking up to reality or lost innocence are about transcending cool. Coming back to earth.
So we have moved from becoming cool (She’s Not There) to being cool (The Happening) to transcending cool (Hurt). Great sixties storylines. I have argued that these stories still resonate today. In my last post in this thread, I will say a few words about that.