1960s Cinema: America At Odds With Itself

Its important, when viewing a film, to find out where it comes from. As has been said, time and time again, films are indicative of the time in which they were produced, but what also must be understood is the time beforehand. Of course, in American society we understand that the 50s was an era that was ripe for popular culture. Even films today attempt to examine the complexity and disillusionment that is so characteristic of this decade. As a result, the films of the 1960s can be split up predominantly into 2 major categories. Although this is an oversimplification, for argument’s sake, the first half of the decade seemed to be much of a continuation of 50s ideals and attitudes. For instance, even though the beach party movies were alive and well in the previous decade, they continued into the 1960s as well. This attitude seemed to suggest the age-old philosophy of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. However, as the era saw continuing hostility against staples of 1950s culture, such as the inherent sexism and the need for conformity, Hollywood began to fight back the only way they knew how, by producing a new set of films. To understand films of the 60s, even with its own set of new issues, was in many ways reactionary to the previous decade.
One of the earliest films in this new decade to challenge the traditions of the 1950s, was made by legendary Billy Wilder as early as 1960. The film in question, The Apartment, exposed many of the questionable morals and going-ons of the typically unassuming and supposedly innocent business man. Billy Wilder, has always been known to be a rather daring writer and director, but with this film he explored office politics, sexism, and adultery, which were typically topics of discussion that wouldn’t be as explicitly discussed as they are in this film as early as 5 years before. What is perhaps even more shocking is that, these topics were the subject of comedy. It’s essentially common knowledge, in this day and age of South Park parodies and Saturday Night Live skits mocking presidential candidates, that if a topic is to be taken seriously, it must be joked about first. There’s no way somebody even as talented as Wilder could dive into these topics, that Americans had been working so hard to ignore all these years, in a serious manner and come out on top. This points to another area of Wilder’s intelligence in making this film. He was so in tune with what the American public would take away from this film and what they would put up with. Without serving up a high dosage of morality or ethics, he does force people to ask themselves hard-hitting questions that would have almost uncertainly otherwise gone unasked. He forced people to confront the social injustices that they had simply grown complacent with. All the while, and perhaps most alarming, he did it while making people laugh. Underneath Wilder’s rage or dissatisfaction with the state of office politics, whatever emotion he may have been feeling, he managed to channel the absurdity of reality in this film. It’s hard to say what made people laugh at this movie, whether it was the ludicrous nature of the truth or just discomfort, but this film did phenomenally both commercially and critically. Wilder’s own personal complexity is brilliantly illustrated in this film in one of the most memorable scenes of 1960s cinema. When C.C. Baxter comes across Fran in his apartment, after overdosing on sleeping pills, what ensues could be a heartbreaking and melodramatic portrayal of a woman at the end of her rope. Rather than deliver us the expected, Wilder plays it for a comical piece. In most instances in the film, Wilder opts for comedy, but still manages to allude to a stronger underlying emotional vulnerability in his characters. Furthermore, the film’s conclusion is far from the idyllic ending of pictures of the 1950s. While it is unquestionable that C.C. and Fran do what is right for them, there’s no way that that would even be consider an option in earlier films. Even though both of them quit their jobs in order to be together and to finally escape from the trappings of the corporate world, there is no real happy ending for them except their companionship. Interest in another job or another way to make a living is never referenced, but the two of them are together. While this is all well and good, it’s very outside of the definition of success for the time. In most films, the guy gets the girl, complete with the dream house and the dream job, but in The Apartment, Wilder’s truly auspicious offering besides the girl, is an escape from the corporate world.
A more incendiary response to the values of 1950s cinema, was Roman Polanski’s 1968 horror classic, Rosemary’s Baby. While the films of the previous decade encouraged conformity and more importantly, a sense of belonging, Rosemary’s Baby shuns away from it. It tells the story of Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse, who move to a new apartment in hopes of getting Guy more work. Like the classic wife of the 1950s, Rosemary is almost always more than happy to give up anything to better her husband. Throughout the beginning of the film, Rosemary seems to follow in the footsteps of the Donna Reed’s and June Cleaver’s of the world. However, as the film progresses, she begins to feel alienated and isolated from those around her. She begins to have these nightmares in which Satan is raping her, but even though she voices her concerns to her husband, he dismisses them and when she breaks down in hysterics in front of the neighbors, he even goes so far to admonish her. Guy represents, on the surface, a very typical male of these types of films. He exercises tough love and is always firm with her, but when times get tough, he’s always quick to reassure Rosemary of his love for her. What Guy really is representative of is the new male. Women were becoming more empowered and men like Guy began to feel threatened by this increase of female power. Guy’s typical response to Rosemary’s increasing hysteria and paranoia is to quietly dismiss them. By not giving them validity, he is controlling the power as best he knows how. By the end of the film, it is apparent that Rosemary’s hysterics are not due to a hormone imbalance as her doctors have told her, but that she is pregnant with the anti-Christ. Rosemary’s very worst fears are confirmed when she finds that Guy is part of this grand conspiracy. He has helped bring the spawn of Satan into this world in an effort to advance his career, thus establishing his dominance, not only as the male in the relationship, but by creating a situation where he essentially determines the fate of his wife and newborn, effectively rendering Rosemary to the weakened role of the female. Even in the film’s conclusion, when Rosemary finds the coven worshipping her newborn, the sight of her child weakens her. She succumbs to her womanly intuitions and mothers the child, even though she knows what he is. Another aspect of the film that is crucial to the film’s climax is this idea of the group. Where in earlier films, the group is the desired outcome, Polanski and Rosemary’s Baby author, Ira Levin, seem wary of the group. The sense of belonging is still promised in the film, but it is at the price of their newborn to a cult of Satan worshippers. This idea of community that was so ingrained in the culture of the 1950s is suddenly revealed as a horrifying concept in the late 1960s. Polanski seems aware of a variety of traditional values from the 1950s, but he forces his audience to question them. It is with horror that filmgoers watch as Rosemary joins the group and cradles the newborn son of Satan.
The 1960s film industry can still be seen today as an adverse reaction to the ideals and values perpetuated in 1950s cinema. Although these films exist in their own right, they must be seen as products of the 50s as well. The Apartment challenges the workplace in a comical manner, but brings some valid arguments to the table. Although the film’s conclusion may be unrealistic in its frankness, it shows progress from the earlier decades. It shows that people have a commitment to themselves and those they love, just as much as they do to a job. Rosemary’s Baby shows a very different side of the 1950s. It illustrates the horror inherent in the ideas that were commonly accepted at the time, including men’s unquestioned dominance and the role of the group. While both of these films explore very different facets of the culture, they serve to question what people had for so long refused to examine. With The Apartment and Rosemary’s Baby, these films represent the first mainstream and accessible criticism of American culture. These films remind even modern audiences that to idealize our nation’s history is irresponsible. Even in today’s world, there’s much progress to be made. However, speaking of the past, both these films exist as renowned and well-loved cultural artifacts, reminding us that to err is human, but to not question is reprehensible.


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