Nov 10, 2007
New York in the Fifties (2001)
I read Dan Wakefield's book New York in the Fifties many moons ago, and remember it to be a nice little treat, if not as revolutionary as it could be. And that is precisely my thought of this documentary, which uses Wakefield's book as the template, adding interviews and archival footage.
The central thesis of this film is that all of the revolutionary acts of the 60s had their seeds in the 50s, in the Big Apple, which was the exodus for those who didn't buy the white picket fence dream. As such, within the memoirs of such interviewees as Joan Didion (her novella "The White Album" is the for me the definitive impression of the end of the 60s), Robert Redford, filmmaker Ted Steeg (the man who gave us Coffee House Rendezvous, a lovely educational film I've raved about incessantly), musician David Amram, and writer Nat Hentoff, we are given whispers of women's rights, equality, and most of all, the general sense of acceptance and community in the period. If the 1960's were drugs and rock and roll, with music being the communicative device of the period, the 1950s were booze, jazz, and literature was the language of the people. As such, the film turns startlingly personal, with interviewee Dan Wakefield candidly discussing battling his own demons with alcohol. In that sense, the era of the "three martini lunch" had its casualties, too.
But also there is some terrific archival footage of author James Baldwin, Jack Kerouac on the Steve Allen show, and some hilarious excerpts of Norman Mailer talking about womens lib and its alleged lesbianism! I am curious why Mailer wasn't an interviewee. His was such an important voice of the decade, and also a vital example of how an author became a celebrity outside of the printed word, it would have been interesting to hear his take on things. Instead, the filmmakers used some footage of Mailer, in what I believe to be the 1970s! Ironically, I watched this film at about two in the morning Friday night. In a few hours, Mailer would pass away at the age of 84.
Betsy Blankenbaker's film is a joy to watch. While we learn how revolutionary the decade really was, it was a comparatively quiet revolution. As such, this documentary replies in kind, by gently whispering that message.