Sentimental JOURNEY Hollywood reinvents the '50s that never were

April 24, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

To the men and women who lived through the First World War, the summer of 1914 is remembered as the most temperate, the loveliest, the fairest in history. Never were the winds more zephyr-like, never the flowers so gay, never the sky so blue, the grass so green.

The only problem is that it wasn't so. Author Paul Fussell, uncovering the theme of the great summer in his examination of World War I memoirs, went back to the newspapers of the period and tracked the weather reports. He discovered the May, June and July that preceded the guns of August were not remarkable in any way.

Clearly, a generation had invested its emotional poignancy in a fable, but a necessary one. The horrors that came after made the banality that came before seem ineffably pristine, an exemplar of vanished innocence, a paradise lost.

I mention this because something of the same principle -- though much more trivial -- seems to be gripping the American motion picture industry, now run by baby boomers turning the cusp into their 40s.

For them, the late '50s and early '60s have become the lost lTC summer of 1914 -- the last summer before the war. Only our war wasn't a conflagration that devoured a generation so much as a series of disillusionments that really ticked off a generation: the assassination of JFK, the escalation of Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, napalm, and so on, through Watergate.

As a genre, the sentimentalized 1950s-1960s memoir probably began (as do many genres) with its one true masterpiece: "American Graffiti," from the George Lucas who went on to invent the "Star Wars" trilogy. Lucas, something of an innocent genius himself, re-created one magic night back in '62. He idealized it, possibly because he alone had such a childhood, growing up in a one-horse northern California town where all the teens cruised the strip at night in souped-up convertibles.

What is remarkable about "American Graffiti" is that it was almost without irony. It didn't seem to represent, as did so many films that came after, a conscious urge to go back to simpler times. It was too pure and apolitical for that; there was nothing faux or precious about it. Like so many masterpieces, it was completely unself-conscious.

Its astonishing success not only enabled Lucas to go on to his sci-fi movies, but spawned a legion of imitators, including a sequel that bombed miserably but has since picked up a little cult heat.

But the next remarkable, back-to-the-past landmark was a good deal less innocent. Film-crafted to the max, "Back to the Future" was Bob Zemeckis' exquisitely clever and witty parable about a boy who went back in time to become father to the man who fathered him. But Zemeckis' deeper point was its most problematical: It was based on the sentimental assertion that things were somehow "better" then -- simpler, sweeter, more direct, less complicated.

Society in some way "worked" in ways that it does not today. A key moment occurs when six gas station attendants race out to service a car that has pulled in for gas. It got a big laugh in 1984, when you pumped your own gas and had to beg someone to check your oil.

Others followed in swift profusion, including "Peggy Sue Got Married," "Stand By Me," even "Grease." There's a specific "southern" subset, with pictures like "The Man in the Moon" and "Shag." Even the past few weeks have seen two, Joe Dante's "Matinee" and David Mickey Evans' consummately phony "The Sandlot." Only Michael Caton-Jones' "This Boy's Life," just released, offers an honest look at the era.

Yet, as a veteran of that age, I can testify clearly that the films -- even the good ones -- are almost universally hogwash. They postulate a yesterday that never existed, a peace and tranquillity that at the time we took for oppressive conformity. Intellectual discourse was permeated with fear of McCarthyism, an invisible racism gripped American life, women were either babes or mommies and nothing else, and everyone ate red meat three times a day, while smoking Winstons, which tasted good like a cigarette should. Ask anybody who lived in the '50s what they were like, and the almost universal response is, "No fun at all."

What is going on is a kind of generational denial. It's as if a small group of filmmakers, disaffected with their current lives and beset with career and personal crises, insist on inflicting upon us revisionist versions of childhoods neither they nor anyone had. But don't take my word for it. One only has to venture to actual films of the period to see how deeply dishonest a view of America and society the revisionist '50s films are pushing.

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