Ever since about “The Big Chill,” countless American films have featured middle-aged folks reminiscing about their idealistic, 1960s youth. Sex, drugs, rock n’ roll – the zeitgeist of the 60s provides a familiar but potent metaphor for many screenwriters. The problem is, more than 20 years after “The Big Chill” and “Return of the Seacus 7,” 30 and 40-something characters are still hearkening back to the 60s. And frankly, the numbers just don’t add up.
Let’s face it, we’ve all seen this scene more times than we can count:
Lame Dad – “What’s the matter, son?”
Tortured Son – “You wouldn’t understand.”
Lame Dad – “Don’t be so sure. You know, when I was your age, I smoked pot, went to a rock concert and/or participated in some kind of protest.”
In 1989’s “Parenthood,” Dianne Wiest’s character shouts “I was at Woodstock” in defiance to her kids’ “you just don’t get me” attitudes. But 15 years later, John and Jane Moviefamily are still trying to convince today’s precocious kids that life was better in the 60s. And magically, mom and dad are still 35-40.
Perhaps the biggest offender was “The Banger Sisters,” a movie whose entire plot turned on an implausible age span. Susan Sarandon and Goldie Hawn could have portrayed ex-groupies from the late 1970s – you know, the people who actually have teenage kids today. Instead, they had to be connected to Jim Morrison and the glory days of the late 60s. True, it’s not impossible for a woman pushing 60 to have a teenage daughter, but I doubt it was the writer’s goal to leave us marveling at the wonders of in vitro fertilization.
More often, these flimsy parallels to the Freedom Rock era are subtle, as in “Tadpole.” That film specifically calls our attention to the age difference between a 15-year-old boy and a 40-year-old woman, then expects us not to bat an eye when those 40-year-olds reminisce about “hippies in Greenwich Village” and Jefferson Airplane concerts. Were those really the defining cultural events of 1977?
Now I’m not the type to scrutinize every frame for goofs, and I’m more than willing to suspend disbelief and absorb the film in general, even if the specifics are a bit fuzzy. But this “We Love the 60s” garbage has to end.
The 60s are to the counter-culture what the 50s were to Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation” – the ultimate metaphor for how things are supposed to be. You want to write a story about people living complacent lives with good old-fashioned values? Set it in the 50s. You want to write about rebellion, social change, individuality? Try the 60s. These are obviously gross generalizations, but on a certain level I understand why feature filmmakers use them. They have as little as 90 minutes to tell their story, so it’s helpful to use symbols that are instantly readable. A quick allusion to one of these eras allows them to make their point and get on with the story.
It’s also easy because the important cultural forces of the 60s have already been canonized, rightly or wrongly. The Beatles, The Black Panthers, the Kennedy assassination – we’re all on the same page. What can we all agree is nostalgia-worthy from the late 70s? Would it really be better to see the proverbial lame Dad reminisce about going to a Bread concert? And wouldn’t the ex-groupies of “The Banger Sisters” be only more pathetic if their glory days were spent shagging the members of Grand Funk Railroad?
But cliche is the most deadly of all cinematic killers, and this particular cliche is a silent assassin. It creeps into films and kills plausibility, and all too often we don’t even notice. Every moment a film immerses us in this false nostalgia is a moment we are not experiencing truth, vision, originality – all the things that make cinema great.
Just as the Baby Boomers have long since left middle age, it’s time for American Cinema to leave this idea of the 60s as our collective youth. The 1970s and 1980s may not have the sex appeal of the 60s, but they were where most of us not wearing adult diapers really grew up.
Don’t trust anyone over 50.