What is the Classic Era? And Why?

Eugene's most recent post about dress and hairstyles (notably, Audrey Hepburn's) reminds me of a question Mike posed recently: Why do so many movies and shows perceive the 1950's to 1970's as classic? Mike points to "the current trend to try to create a kind of 'timeless' era, that isn't really specified" and points out that this "'timeless' quality tends to have a late fifties, early sixties feel" (or, as Mike puts it, "Rockwellian").

Mike points to Christmas movies like Polar Express as using this particular time period but also to the following movies:
  • The Incredibles
  • Meet the Robinsons
  • The Iron Giant
He also points out that many sci-fi films re-imagine NOT the current modern age but the '50-70's in the future.

So why is this?

I think one possibility is that these movies are evoking feelings of nostalgia, and nostalgia is always about 40-50 years in the past: 40-50 years ago, life was perfect! Which is nonsense, of course, but it has made me wonder if, in another 20 years, people will be waxing nostalgic about the 1980s and 1990s. (A friend of mine does own a book about mullets.)

I also wonder if the '50-70s are seen as the end of the mechanical age before the digital/computer age came along. And maybe we humans miss the hands-on aspect of the mechanical age--like on Star Trek: Voyager when Tom changes all the buttons on the shuttle to blinking, punchable lights. Way more fun!

In other words, all this nostalgia is nostalgia for the pre-computer/pre-cyber age. Right now, we are inventing a new mythology (The Matrix, Ghost in the Machine, etc.), but before we have a complete new mythology, we have to rely on the old mythology. In about 30 years, laptops will be seen as cute, nostalgic technology, but right now, to get really nostalgic, we have to go back to blinking lights and clumsy robots.

Or it could just be that the 50's-70's do provide classic images, and the 80's (fashion-wise at least) are just a complete embarrassment (and we are too close to the 90's and 2000's to see the trends yet).


Eugene said...

I think half a century is about how long it takes to distill from an era that which is worth preserving. Put another way, fifty years is how long it takes to sort out those cultural artifacts that carbon date the time (like disco and disastrous hair and clothing styles), and those that transcend it. As it tautologically turns out, the things we end up conserving tend to be, well, conservative.

Joe said...

It's not computers as much as it's cell phones, faxing and the internet in it's most basic form and the ubiquity of satellites and cheap jet transportation.

Even through the mid-80s, you could quite easily get yourself lost in the world. By 1990, it became nearly impossible.

In 1975 taking a trip from the US to Japan was an undertaking. Today, it's merely a matter of having enough money for the ticket and it's not that much.

I find it interesting that on both Angel and Buffy, they went to great lengths to avoid cell phones since it fundamentally restructures the drama. They end resorting to the "I don't like cell phones" (which actually works for me because I detest them) and characters forgetting their phone.

I find it amusing when characters in a show go somewhere when they could have more easily just called and in the next edit, they use their cell phone!

(Bones is interesting in that they use cell phones like crazy.)

BTW, if you want to age a movie, look at the phones. It's astonishing how well you can pinpoint the date of a movie through phone style. (One reason: filmmakers tend to use fancy phones which are very time sensitive style-wise. The number of movies that use, for example, good old rotary dialed Bell phones like we grew up with are surprisingly rare.)

Another reason for using the future-from-the-fifties viewpoint is that the future envisioned back then was fantastic. Today, we are a bit more cynical about all these wide-eyed predictions of change. For example, we know flying cars won't happen because they're stupid--people can barely drive regular cars and now you want them to drive flying ones?

I hasten to also point out that nastalgia also tends to be location specific. LA and NY in the 50s and early 60s was truly iconic. Then LA became overcrowded and smoggy and NYC turned into a hellhole. BYU in the early 80s was a vastly different beast than it became just a few short years later.

Silicon Valley had a naive energy that was beginning to vanish in the mid-80s, replaced with a sort of cold soullessness. For that, I largely blame MBAs.

Another point is that the 1950s were a fluke in history due to many factors, especially a world war and changes in BIG technology, like jet planes and cars.

Joe said...

Another theory: cable TV changed everything. Not just 24-hour news, but 24-hours that had to be filled with something, so it was filled with hysterical people.

We were remarkably free as children and nobody thought anything of it. Mention it now and people think our parents were insane and horrible (even people who grew up in the same era!) Playboy used to be on the magazine racks, nobody bothered carding anyone when buying beer.

That dramatically changed in the mid-to-late-80s. The moral hysteria of the late 80s is remarkable. It was there before, but it wasn't enacted into laws until then (the drinking age was changed to 21 nationally in 1984.) It's not just the LDS church that went crazy. Ironically, the solution was, and remains, to worship childhood, to almost make it a cult. The irony is that our childhoods, in my estimation, were free because we were allowed to be adults, or at least adultish, not because we were forced to be kids.

Now it's essentially against the law for a 16 year old to act, behave and live as a responsible 19 year old.

Kate Woodbury said...

Cellphones is totally the thing that gives X-Files away. Scully's bob-cut is fairly timeless; Mulder's FBI look is fairly timeless. (Suits work in any time frame.) The settings are fairly timeless and original.

And then Scully or Mulder will be standing somewhere and one of them will pull out a cellphone, and you just have to start laughing: the thing is the size of a small house. Okay, maybe not a small house . . . a small Cuisinart Mixer. They would look cooler if they would just use walkie-talkies. Shoot, Star Trek characters look cooler with their communicators.

Like with Asimov's beeping computers, sci-fi is only rarely as prescient as its claims.

Regarding freedom--I am continually amazed, watching Columbo and other older shows, how much is allowed without people getting all freaked out all over the place. It's very refreshing.

As some fantasy writer pointed out once, the first thing a fantasy book about children does is get rid of the parents. Which may be one reason the Narnia books still engage kids.

(Plus the Pevensies follow through on their decisions. Fantasy books where kids simply endure things and then wait for the parents to show up doesn't work for me.)

a calvinist preacher said...

Given that certain eras become 'classic', I don't think the nostalgia explanation quite applies.

What I think renders an era classic in our view is a sense of stability and, if you will, ideological consensus. That doesn't mean everybody really was alike in the '50s, but there was an air of stability about it in the U.S. In its way, Mad Men is a comment on that era - that the air of stability and consensus was really an illusion and they were just as messed up as we were. There is truth to that, though I think it underestimates the number of true believers. The Civil Rights movement and VietNam tore the lid off that illusion, however.

Similarly, during the 1920s (also after a world war), there was a "return to normalcy" and that era is also a kind of classic era, even though the seeds of the coming Great Depression and Second World War were germinating everywhere.

One might make a similar case for Victorian England, or the antebellum U.S.

It is that stability and consensus, however illusionary it might be, that draws us repeatedly back to these classic eras.

Kate Woodbury said...

I think there is a lot to the idea that certain eras have the appearance of consensus. A few months ago, I had a very interesting--well, bizarre--conversation with a student who was insisting that people today should be taught morality in such a way that we could be more civil to each other the way people were in the 19th century. Historically, I have my doubts about 19th century civility, but speaking as a religious person, I assumed she was speaking from a religious point of view.

She wasn't--necessarily. That is, she was religious, but she believed that this miracle of consensus was going to be achieved through teaching ethics.

As a libertarian, I tried to point out that in order to achieve what she was talking about, you would have to have an America that was, culturally at least, run by white Protestants. To the degree that it existed, the consensus of that time was a consensus that certain behaviors/ideas were true/right/good/acceptable/normal. In terms of day to day living, people outside of the consensus weren't sued; they were pressured. In order for that pressure to work, the culture had to have agreement. No agreement=no pressure. This is why teenagers can pressure within groups because they have agreement on what the social mores of their particular group are. Outside of the group . . .

I really don't see how ethics all by itself could possibly accomplish that type of social monitoring, and I'm not sure I want it to. I definitely don't want the law to do it!

Speaking as a writer, time periods with apparent consensus are easier to write about--hence, Star Trek where all the alien cultures are uniform.

a calvinist preacher said...

To teach morality - ethics - in such a fashion would require, as you note, a cultural consensus on what is in fact moral. More than that, it would require a common vocabulary of morality. What, exactly, does she consider "civil"? What makes her think anyone else means the same thing by that word?

There is a Dutch philosopher by the name of Herman Dooyeweerd who, among other things, saw in history a series of crises of faith. He did not flesh it out entirely, nor was it a core concept within his thought, but he did see that certain givens periodically were called into question, resulting in a kind of societal upheaval. The Renaissance/Reformation were civil and religious events of this nature, closely tied to changes in economics, trade, and communication. So also was the collapse of Rome and the rise of the Roman Catholic Church as a trans-national government of sorts in the 7th century.

With World War I, the enlightenment mindset - humanism will lead us onward, science is wonderful, technology is great, we're all good Christians, etc. - collapsed as all these wonderful things came together to almost wipe out an entire generation. This hit Europe far more than it hit us in 1918, but after VietNam, it was increasingly difficult for Americans to believe in the evolving utopia, either. In many ways, the Enlightenment Dream died in the United States in 1974 with Nixon's resignation.

Your student's desire is really for a time before the crisis came and the old faith in man became untenable. She is insightful in seeing that this would take us to the time before WWI. And it's understandable that she should long for it, as establishing a new consensus is a difficult and painful process within a culture that often takes decades, but we cannot go back. We must weather the storm. Time only moves in one direction.

Kate Woodbury said...

I agree that we cannot go back. I've never really understood (at a gut level) the attraction of utopias. As Buckaroo Banzai says, "Remember: no matter where you go, there you are."

However, the longing is, as you say, understandable. I think where the conversation got odd, for me, was where she insisted that most people know what is right and what is wrong.

Actually, I kind of agree with this. To a truly amazing extent, a democracy functions on the assumption that most people will try or will pretend to try to be honest in their day-to-day transactions. (It also functions on the belief that people will look out for themselves; the two things are not automatically incompatible.)

However, when I pointed out that the APPLICATION of morality is not something that all people agree on (even the two people having the conversation), well, she accepted my point but didn't think it would change the development of a consistent morality.

And to me, application is (almost) everything. Like with civility, we can all agree that courage is important, but what exactly does that MEAN? Does it mean engaging in civil disobedience? Does it mean going to war? Does it mean being a pacifist? Does it mean being belligerent and holding to one's principles at all costs!? (Is anyone else getting tired of the political ads in their state?) Does it mean holding to one's principles/personal integrity despite pressure to do otherwise? Is it physical? Mental? Spiritual?

At the same time, of course, I wouldn't want people to give up on courage just because the application changes, and I'm not a big fan of "all morality is in the eye of the beholder" arguments (for example, I will argue strenuously against post-modern analysis which seems as devoted to perpetuating the idea of non-applicable morality as to spotting it).

So there's a built-in tension to the problem.

Which is likely why, as Joe mentioned, "the solution . . . is to worship childhood, to almost make it a cult." Right now, pedophiles are the big evil. And well, yes, they are. But they are also an evil that EVERYONE can agree on. It is one consensus that only strict constitutionalists will bother to gainsay.

I won't gainsay the consensus that pedophiles are evil, but I do admit that it totally annoys me how often politicians will use "our children" in their arguments: "We have to do this for our children!" "Look what the other guy is doing to our children!"

And yet the application is still vastly different, so the "our children" stuff cancels itself out. I mean, both pro-lifers and pro-choicers use that argument. And the application is not the same. (On the other hand, I would argue that many people fall between the politically drawn lines on this and other issues, so there's a silent majority based on a sort of consensus. Ah, the silent majority! Okay, I won't go there.)