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Friday, December 30, 2016

At last, the 1950s come to life

Over the years I have been very critical here of recent attempts to dramatize the 1950s, such as Masters of Sex (which I discussed in detail), Mad Men, and the film Carol.  The new Amazon series Good Girls Revolt, while set somewhat later (1969), has also failed to impress me.  The writers and directors do not understand, it seems to me, that while today we reject many of the customs of that era--especially as regards relations between the sexes--almost no one living through that era did.  Too often, the protagonists of these shows look like 21st-century characters who have time-traveled back at least half a century and chafe under the social controls they find there.  Now, however, a new team has managed to do what all the others could not.  And ironically, they have done so in a production that does not claim to paint a true picture of that period (actually, in this case, the early 1960s), but which instead presents an alternative vision of history.  That is the Amazon production, The Man in the High Castle, based on a 1962 novel by Philip K Dick.  The premise of the novel, as you probably know, is that the Germans and Japanese won the Second World War, and the action of the series is divided between the New York area (the capital of the Nazi-ruled eastern half of the country) and San Francisco, which along with the whole Pacific coastal region is ruled by the Japanese.  The Rockies, which the first season visited briefly, are a neutral zone. The series uses superb Japanese and German actors to great effect.  I will do my best to say what I have to say about the series without giving any critical plot points away, and I highly recommend that readers watch it.

By 1962, the war has had very different effects on the two coasts.  The Pacific States remain occupied territory, partly because of the strict racial views of the Japanese.  The entire American population is terrorized and sullen, and remains at the mercy of the occupiers' whims.  The situation in the eastern states is entirely different--they are part of the greater Reich.  They have evidently been thoroughly ethnically cleansed of both Jews and black people, and the population has been screened for proper racial characteristics--but the citizenry appears to be generally loyal, despite the presence of a small resistance movement, and, critically, quite happy.  Large, clean suburbs have evidently sprung up, just as they did under Truman, Eisenhower, and JFK.  Procreation has become a duty to the Reich, and women are fulfilling it enthusiastically--just as most of them did in real life without any official exhortation to do so.  Families evidently see themselves as part of a team, and the husband is the coach.  Nearly every adult chain-smokes cigarettes.  This was virtually the only point that suggested to me that the writers might not have done all their research.  While Americans and Europeans did smoke very heavily in the early 1960s, they might not have had Hitler won the war.  He intended to ban smoking when the war was over, and while that might have been utopian, he might certainly have curtailed it.  Another slip involved cars: the streets are filled with genuine American monstrosities from that period, and nary a single Volkswagen is to be seen.  In fact, Beetles had become a familiar site in 1962 America even though the Germans had lost the war, and would surely have been more common had they won.

The inhabitants of the Reich, essentially, take their society's values for granted, largely because their regime won the greatest war in history.  And that was the situation in real life in 1962 as well--on both sides of the Atlantic.  Western Europe absorbed many of the values (and products) of the United States because the US had emerged from the war as the unquestioned leader of western civilization.  And indeed, I came away from watching the second season (which spends far more time in the eastern states) wondering whether the experience of going through the Second World War, in which tens of millions were mobilized and millions died, was more important than whether or not one wound up on the winning side.   Whoever won that epic conflict enjoyed national and international prestige which is unimaginable today, and commanded the respect of virtually everyone within its sphere of influence. The same thing, of course, also happened in the USSR and much of the Communist world, even though the atmosphere in Eastern Europe was far more similar to that of the Pacific states in The Man in the High Castle.

Nor is this all.  The role of the younger generation is also very cleverly handled.  We see a harbinger of things to come, not in New York, but in the upper reaches of Berlin society, where the plot takes one of the main characters late in season 2.  There we meet young Berliners comparable, in a way, to the undergraduates at UC Berkeley just two years later.  They have everything they could possibly want, but they are not content simply to carry on the roles their parents have laid out for them.  Deprived of any real initiative of their own, they take refuge in casual sex and pharmaceutical recreation--specifically, LSD, originally devoted by German scientists in mind control experiments.  The Awakening of the 1960s had not yet begun when Dick wrote his novel, but the team of 11 screenwriters listed in the credits know what was around the corner and they foreshadow it brilliantly.  Once again, they suggest that the same dynamic would have transformed western society no matter who had won the war.  And perhaps these episodes help answer a question that has bothered me for years: why Berkeley undergrads in the fall of 1964 eagerly embraced Mario Savio's analogy between their status and that of disenfranchised black Americans in Mississippi.  Despite all their advantages, they felt they were living in a world that was not their own.  Of such generational dynamics is history made.

The real American society of 1962 differed critically, of course, from what we see in The Man in the High Castle.  The Reich is exclusive, ruling both despised racial groups and "unworthy" physical or mentally deficient people out of the national community, while the United States had become more inclusive as a result of the war, with eastern Europeans more assimilated, and black Americans gradually securing basic rights.  But the US showed the same pressure to conform, in dress, hairstyles, diet and drinking habits.  That was where western civilization had been going at that time, and the experience of the war, when all men wore uniforms, had accelerated the trend.  But a contrary trend was about to erupt.  The two young protagonists of the series are also trying to move outside the simple black and white categories of their world--and more than once, their attempts to follow their own moral compass wind up alienating all sides.

Last but hardly least, the international situation in The Man in the High Castle mirrors the actual situation of 1962.  There, as in real life, the two victorious nations--Germany and Japan, instead of the US and the USSR--are experiencing a falling out that threatens a new great war.  There are explicit and implicit echoes of the Cuban missile crisis in the drama that plays out.  As in real life, the critical conflicts divide those who see history as an endless struggle, and those who believe that the world now needs a period of peace.

The series, in short, is great history--which is why, I predict, it does not foreshadow new events on the horizon right now.  The first half of the twentieth century was a great age of authority and huge common enterprises.  Ours is the reverse.  While President-elect Trump can talk like an authoritarian, I suspect that state authority will continue to get weaker, not stronger, under him--and that the same trend will continue around the world.  The mid-1960s remain one of the great turning points of history because they changed the individual's relationship to his family and the broader society in which he lives.  Since then, individualism has gained steadily in every realm of life.  The question before us is how far individualism can go before it becomes impossible for modern society to function, and the answer to that question is not yet clear.


Unknown said...

"The question before us is how far individualism can go before it becomes impossible for modern society to function, and the answer to that question is not yet clear."

I really like this conclusive sentence because I agree with it. Individualism looms large in the splintering of American society and, thus, its view of government. While the world becomes more unified with communications interconnectivity and global commercialism, Americans have become more centered on themselves as individuals. The more individualistic people become, the more god-like they feel. How can a person's ideas, however uninformed or false, be wrong when one American is "just as good as" any other American, and therefore, every American's ideas just as good as another's? This is how Truth dies (has died), and Faith ascends. When faith, the belief in the unseen, competes equally with fact and reason in decision making then we have entered "Alice's" world. And that world has no definitive timeline from past to future. We will have to wait and see where events take us and that is an uncomfortable world in which to live.

Bozon said...


Thanks for this post. The 50s. I usually think of some of the classic films of the 50s.(I think of them as classic, but in the longer scheme of film, even they are not, really, that classic. Or is it just me?)

I also thought to say something about the individualism paragraph, apart from the above.

Unknown has started a sort of proto conversation. Call it, say, overlapping solipsism.

The terms is, for me (maybe I am being too individualistic here), one which is difficult to consider outside one of many various contexts in which it has been used in the past.

It has connoted, and been paired with or against other terms, in such widely diverse notions as civil libertarianism, romanticism, anarchism, agnosticism, humanism, atomism, solipsism, behaviorism, liberalism, genius, rebellion, toleration, naturalism, equality, fascism, atheism, elitism, etc. It is a long list...

All the best

Roger Bigod said...

LSD was synthesized for a Swiss drug company with the expectation that it would be a cardiac and respiratory stimulant. Wickipedia has a summary.

Jeff said...

Mad Men is set entirely in the 1960's, with the exception of a few childhood flashbacks to the 1930's.