Making some sense of the Sixties


January 21, 1991|By Michael Hill

"Making Sense of the Sixties" tries to do that, in large part, for TTC those who did not live through that era, an aim that explains both the strengths and weaknesses of this ambitious PBS documentary series.

Co-executive producer Ricki Green of Washington's WETA saiat a recent press conference that part of the motivation for making the series was hearing questions from her own children about this most turbulent of decades.

Thus the documentary, which will air two episodes on threconsecutive nights starting tonight at 9 o'clock on Maryland Public Television, Channels 22 and 67, might sound to those who remember these years as if it has the tone of a junior high school lecture.

That approach gives "Making Sense of the Sixties" a certain basic clarity, but at the same time the series tries its best to be comprehensive, leading to episodes that are confusingly cluttered.

And, even as you fight your way through the barrage of information, you can't help but complain about the editing decisions. How, for instance, can you cover the politics of 1968 and not mention Eugene McCarthy? Or how can a segment on campus turmoil ignore what happened at Columbia University?

The series is at its best in its first and last episodes, the ones that look at the causes of what happened in the '60s and the results. That's because these are the ones that are not afraid to take a point of view, to deliver some basic analysis.

The other four episodes, which cover the decade in something of a chronological manner, are hampered by their pseudo-academic objectivity which keeps the narration from developing a theme that would help "Making Sense of the Sixties" live up to the promise of its title.

The first hour, called "The Seeds of the Sixties," examines the '50s, the world that nurtured the baby boomer kids who would rebel in the next decade. Using some amazing school instructional films, the hour effectively documents the pressures conform that faced kids being raised by parents who saw conformity as a refuge from the decades of depression and war that had just ended.

These social rules were developed at a time of unprecedented affluence that the depression-era parents lavished on their children. It turned out to be a volatile mix, set off by the civil rights movement that instilled in the nation's white youth a sense of idealism and a confirmation that breaking the rules was sometimes the right thing to do.

Part two, "We Can Change the World" looks at the first few yearof the decade when John F. Kennedy's election and the continued gains in the civil rights struggle gave the baby boomer generation a sense of its own power.

Tomorrow night's two hours are divided by what was seen as a counter-culture schism at the time -- that between the so-called cultural and political revolutions. "Breaking Boundaries, Testing Limits," the first hour, is about the cultural aspects, focusing on the essential elements of sex, drugs and rock and roll.

Peace and love was an operative phrase, the one that bridged the gap to the political types who are the focus of the second hour, "In a Dark Time." This looks mainly at the year 1968, an amazing 366 days with an unbelievably dynamic and fast-changing political situation, punctuated by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy that added a layer of desperation and despair over the still-strong belief in an ability to change the world.

Wednesday's opener, "Picking Up the Pieces," does just that ait is a rather disjointed compilation of a variety of themes and topics that hadn't made it into other episodes, occasionally showing how the promise of 1960 was widely dispersed by the time four students were shot and killed at Kent State a decade later.

The final episode, "Legacies of the Sixties," concludes that, for the most part, the social changes the decade wrought, in sexual attitudes, in the women's movement, and such, are the most lasting.

The producers of the program stayed away from standararchival footage and music, to avoid the cliches of those icons, instead using mainly images from independent filmmakers and relatively unknown songs. While this does enforce a fresh look at these years, missing are too many pictures and music that were too dominate at the time to ignore.

The strength of the documentary is in its use of witnesses, a variety of people of a variety of ages who took a variety of journeys through these years. Their stories give insight and perspective and remind you that this documentary will come closest to doing what its title says by inspiring conversations about what the decade means, important conversations as we begin a new decade once again debating the proper role of America and its military might.

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