Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Walter Cronkite and the Decline of the Evening News

As a reader pointed out to me, the summer is the beginning of a publishing season as well as a movie season.  As publishers release new nonfiction books, the media has lavished attention on the new volume of Robert Caro’s epic biography of Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power.  This week, however, marks the release of a new work by another popular historian, Douglas Brinkley, who wrote Cronkite, a biography of the late CBS news anchor.  Following upon the “American Masters’” documentary on Johnny Carson, Brinkley’s book will likely give new insight into another giant figure from the pre-cable age and provide a window into the era before 24-hour cable and the Internet, when the nightly network news was the most important source of information for most Americans.

After covering World War II for United Press International (UPI) and working for CBS during the 1950s, Cronkite became anchor of the CBS Evening News in 1962.  At the time, the program was only 15 minutes long, but expanded to 30 minutes in 1963.  Cronkite, along with his rivals at NBC, David Brinkley and Chet Huntley, dominated the evening news market (ABC was a distant third).   Many observers cite the television coverage of the Kennedy assassination in 1963 as the seminal moment when the medium surpassed print.  Cronkite famously struggled to hold back tears as he announced JFK’s death to the nation (See video below).

After trailing Huntley/Brinkley in the ratings during the early part of the decade, the CBS Evening News became #1 in the late 1960s.  “Uncle Walter,” as he was sometimes called, guided the nation through the turbulent decade and like Carson, his Middle American upbringing helped him connect with both rural and urban viewers. Cronkite largely reported the government’s view of the Vietnam War from 1965-67, but grew more suspicious as it continued without a clear victory.  Responding to public disaffection about the conflict, the Johnson Administration went on a public relations blitz about the military’s success in the fall of 1967.  When the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong launched the massive Tet Offensive in January 1968, many Americans were shocked, including Cronkite, who privately declared, “What the hell is going on.  I thought we we’re winning the war.”  He traveled to Vietnam and studied the issue, concluding that the war had reached an impasse.  Returning home, he famously editorialized in a CBS special that “It seems more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam will end in stalemate (Grand Expectations, 680).  Watching in the White House, LBJ supposedly said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America” (Flawed Giant, 506).  Such was the perceived power of one anchor in this era.  Most historians, however, believe Cronkite and other reporters were catching up with the public mood, rather than shaping it (Vietnam, 561).

Intensely interested in the space program, Cronkite routinely covered launches throughout the 1960s.  He became emotional as he narrated the Eagle’s landing at Tranquility Base on the moon on July 20, 1969 (his broadcast before the launch of Apollo 11 can be heard during “Men in Black 3”).  Cronkite dearly wanted to go into space himself and participated in NASA’s “Journalist in Space” program, which was terminated after the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe, died in the 1986 Challenger disaster.

Cronkite led the ratings battle between the Big 3 network news broadcasts throughout the 1970s, retiring in 1981.  After leaving the anchor desk, Cronkite kept a relatively low profile, except for appearing at political conventions for CBS and hosting the occasional special.  By contrast, former rival Brinkley went to ABC and had a second act in television, reinventing the Sunday morning news show with “This Week with David Brinkley.”

The ratings for the evening news have gradually declined over the last two decades, as cable news and the Internet have eaten into their market share.  No anchor emerged as a dominant figure during the 1980s and 90s, though NBC’s Tom Brokaw came the closest.  Like Cronkite, Brokaw seemed to have the heartland manner that many Americans preferred to the urbane (ABC’s Peter Jennings) or the weird (CBS' Dan Rather, Cronkite's successor).

The remaining evening news viewers are older, as can be seen through all the arthritis ads that air during the broadcasts.  I was too young to watch Cronkite as an anchor, but have fond memories of listening to his narration of “Spaceship Earth,” the flagship ride of EPCOT Center.  Though I grew up watching the network news with my parents in the 1980s, I can’t remember the last time I watched any of the three programs.  Just as there will never be another Carson, there will never be another Cronkite.  And that’s the way it is.

Robert Dallek, Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973 (New York, 1998)

Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York, 1997)

James Patterson, Grand Expectations, the United States, 1945-1974 (New York, 1996)

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

"Men in Black III" and 1969

To my great surprise, I am recommending “Men in Black III” as a fun summer diversion.  A significant improvement over the weak “MIB II,” (2002), Josh Brolin’s uncanny impersonation of Tommy Lee Jones (Agent K) energizes the film and gives it a fresh feel.  Brolin plays the young Agent K, as Will Smith’s Agent J must travel back to July 1969 to prevent K’s death and save the planet.  In the aftermath of this week’s depressing “Mad Men” episode, “The Other Woman,”  “MIB III” is a refreshingly upbeat and humorous take on the 1960s, closer in spirit to “Back to the Future.”  As a result, the film is replete with references to one of the most exciting years in recent American history. (SPOILERS TO FOLLOW)

The 1969 World Series victory of the “Amazin’ Mets” is pivotal to the storyline.  In a diner, J and the young K encounter disgruntled New York Mets fans, frustrated that their team is experiencing another disappointing year.  K doesn’t believe J when he tells him that the Mets are going to win the World Series, as the team is well behind the Chicago Cubs in the National League East standings and have never had a winning season since their arrival in Queens in 1962.  Another character, Griffin, who has the power to see possible futures, shows them how it happens when they all go to Shea Stadium.

Indeed, the “Miracle Mets” came from behind to win the World Series that year, chasing down the Cubs because of their great young pitching, led by future Hall of Famer Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman.  Another future Cooperstown inductee, Nolan Ryan, played a smaller role as a reliever.  After winning the division, the Mets defeated the Braves in the first National League Championship Series and then upset the heavily favored American League champion Baltimore Orioles for the title.  The movie accurately reveals that the Orioles’ Davey Johnson flew out for the last out in the five game series, ironic given that he managed the Mets’ next world championship team in 1986.

The film features a number of smaller historical touches.  Smith returns a black power salute to a man at a party held by Andy Warhol in Manhattan.  The black power movement gained momentum in the second half of the 1960s as many younger militants became disillusioned with Martin Luther King’s non-violent approach.  The most famous black power salute occurred in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, when U.S. track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their firsts during their medal ceremony after winning the gold and bronze in the 200-meter race.

During the film’s climax, K and J must place a shield around the planet to prevent an alien invasion.  When the agents ask Griffin how to deploy it, he tells them it’s “just one small step,” a reference to the famous line Neil Armstrong uttered when first walked on the lunar surface, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”  K and J battle to place the shield on the top of the Saturn V rocket that will launch Apollo 11 to the moon with Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins aboard on July 16, 1969.  Once the agents are successful, the timeline is restored (Doc Brown would be proud!).

In a previous post, I said  “Men in Black III” was highly unnecessary and that the film’s release would seriously test Will Smith’s box office clout.  The movie proved to be entertaining while the weekend gross reveals that even after a three-year absence, the actor formerly known as the “Fresh Prince” remains the only Hollywood star who can guarantee a hit film.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

"Mad Men," Season Five, Episode 11, "The Other Woman"

Second-wave feminism and gender return to primacy in this week’s “Mad Men” episode, “The Other Woman,“ as Joan, Peggy, and Megan assert their independence in very different ways.  Though it is now 1967, the season began in 1966, when Betty Friedan and several other feminists formed the National Organization of Women (NOW), the leading feminist organization of the era.  Meanwhile, Sterling Cooper acquires the Jaguar account, their biggest catch since the lead characters embarked on their own in season three (1963)

Though Don has opened many professional opportunities for Peggy over the years, he has routinely condescended to her and taken her for granted.  After he is ungrateful again when she saves an account, it is finally too much for her to take.  Freddy Rumson, who also helped facilitate Peggy’s rise, tells her she should leave and let Draper know that “you’re not some secretary from Brooklyn who’s dying to help out.”  Reaching out to Don’s rival, Ted Chaough, she proposes a salary number and he offers more to ensure her hire.  When Peggy gives notice to Don, he tries to convince her to stay.  Previously, his entreaties had kept her on board, but she asserts her independence and leaves the firm.

Don is equally dismissive of Megan’s acting career.  When there is a possibility she might garner a part that will require her to leave New York City for a couple of months, Don is furious and tells her to “forget it.”  Don had been similarly unhappy about Betty’s modeling career, first getting her to quit her job when they got married and preventing her from working again when another ad firm recruited him in season one.  Understandably, Megan is upset by her husband’s attempts to quash her dreams.   “Just keep doing whatever the hell you want,” Don yells at her as she walks out.  Later, Megan tells Don she’ll choose him over her career if she must, but will hate him for it.

In a very disturbing plot line, one of the Jaguar officials goes all “Indecent Proposal,” proposing a quid pro quo; let him have a night with Joan and he’ll support their efforts to win the account.  When Pete smarmily floats the idea to her, Joan is furious.  After thinking it through, though, she agrees to the arrangement in exchange for a five percent partnership share.  Don goes to Joan’s apartment and tells her it isn’t worth it, but it is already too late, though Draper doesn't know it.

“It’s not a game.  It’s my career,” Peggy tells Chaough, sounding much more like a modern career woman than the traditional secretary we first met in season one (1960).   Though she is sad to leave the firm, she smiles as she gets on the elevator to leave for the last (?) time.  Joan is now a partner and Megan tells Don she is not going to fail at acting.  In their own way, they all represent the embryonic feminist movement of the late 1960s (though it might be a stretch with Joan), which would gain momentum throughout the remainder of the decade and into the 1970s.

note: earlier version suggested that Don got to Joan's before she was with the Jaguar official.  Thanks to readers for pointing out my mistake.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

"Mad Men" Season Five, Episode 10, "Christmas Waltz"

Paul Kinsey returned to “Mad Men” after a three-year absence in last night’s episode, “Christmas Waltz.”  After leaving the advertising world, he has joined the Hare Krishnas, one of several “New Age” religions that emerged as part of the era’s counterculture.  Though relatively few people actually converted to the Hare Krishnas or other Eastern faiths, those that did reflected some Americans’ search for a deeper spiritual life as well as the evolving religious landscape of the 1960s.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the prosperity of the postwar era opened up many new opportunities for young Americans (see raised in this era of affluence did not have to worry about indoor plumbing, as Don Draper did growing up during the Great Depression.  While the Old Left of the 1930s focused on strengthening labor unions as well as economic issues such as the minimum wage and safe working conditions, the New Left of the 1960s was less focused on financial concerns.  “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit,” noted the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in their 1962 manifesto, “The Port Huron Statement.”  The students sought structural changes in American society, saying, “The questions we might want raised -- what is really important? Can we live in a different and better way? If we wanted to change society, how would we do it? -- Are not thought to be questions of a "fruitful, empirical nature," and thus are brushed aside.”

Being raised in “modest comfort” created the necessary conditions for people to experiment with the counterculture.  “Mad Men” has shown this dynamic in a limited way.  Remember Don hanging out with his beatnik mistress and her friends in Greenwich Village in season one? Kinsey was always the recurring character most at home in the counterculture as he grew a beard in the early 60s, a relatively radical statement at the time.

Though most Americans remained Protestants, Catholics, or Jews, others followed Kinsey’s path of joining a newer religion, at least in terms of its American presence.  Such faiths included the Tibetan Buddhists, Zen Buddhists, and Muslim Sufis.  Though a minority, they drew significant media attention, in part because many of their converts were highly educated.  In 1968, the Beatles brought scrutiny to these groups when the Fab Four traveled to India to commune with Mahrashi Mahesh Yogi, though they eventually left, in part because the Mahrashi wanted a share of their sales. 

Similarly, Kinsey’s girlfriend, a fellow Krishna, wants to prevent Harry from shopping Paul’s television script, fearing he might leave the temple.  Kinsey has an idea for an episode of “Star Trek,” which premiered on NBC in the fall of 1966.  Though Paul describes the show as a “hit,” Harry corrects him, saying it will be fortunate to be renewed for a second season given its competitive time slot (the original “Trek” struggled for three years on NBC before it was canceled).  In the episode, the Hare Krishnas look just like an advertising firm, as Kinsey’s girlfriend wants to keep him in the spiritual flock because he is their best recruiter.

Nevertheless, the emergence of the Hare Krishnas was part of a broader religious upheaval in the U.S. during this period.  From the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s, 1/3 of Americans left the faith of their youth. (America Divided, 229) The mainline Protestant denominations began their gradual decline while the Catholic Church lost members after the liberalizing reforms of Vatican II.  Though reporters highlighted the Eastern faiths, more and more Americans quietly embraced evangelical Christianity in the 1960s, the beginning of the growth of religious conservatism that would be central to American life in the last quarter of the 20th century.

“People buy things because it makes them feel better,” says Don to Megan after they see a play critical of the consumer culture.  “We reject the material world in favor of the recognition of one’s true identity,” says Kinsey to a confused visitor/recruit to his temple.  Such were the competing visions of American life in the 1960s.  After last week’s Facebook IPO, I don’t need to tell you which vision triumphed.

Sources: America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s, Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin (New York, 2012), p. 229-246.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Johnny Carson and Late Night TV Today

To mark the 20th anniversary of his retirement from “The Tonight Show,” PBS’s “American Masters” series aired a fine documentary on Johnny Carson earlier this week.  This special reminds us again of the decline of mass culture, as Carson’s “Tonight Show” was the last late-night program that most Americans watched.  Over the last decade, a plethora of shows have emerged on both the cable and broadcast networks that appeal to particular audience niches.

From 1963-1992, Carson was virtually the only game in town on late night television, dominating the ratings for his entire stint.  Over the years, numerous challengers tried to displace him, including Dick Cavett, Alan Thicke, and Pat Sajak.  His only real rival throughout most of this time was Ted Koppel’s “Nightline,” which began as a nightly program during the 1979-1981 Iranian hostage crisis.  “Nightline,” though, was a news program, not another talk show.  Toward the end of his reign, “The Arsenio Hall Show” emerged as a real contender, foreshadowing future late-night programs aimed at younger, urban viewers

Through the years, Carson created indelible characters like “Carnac the Magnificent,” was a fine interviewer, and had the ability to sustain a monologue even when it was bombing with an audience.  It seemed that his Nebraska upbringing gave him the ability to simultaneously appeal to viewers in urban areas as well as Middle America.  Like Walter Cronkite, the dominant news anchor of the era, he wielded cultural power far greater than his successors.  The PBS special shows David Brinkley saying that it was a rule of thumb in Washington that once Carson started telling jokes about a particular politician that his career was over.

By providing them with a platform, Carson also jump-started the careers of a virtual who’s who of comedians from the last twenty-five years including Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld, and Ellen DeGeneres.  Airing weekday nights at 11:30 p.m. I have fond childhood memories of staying up late to watch Carson, even though I did not find him particularly funny.  In fact, I preferred to watch Leno’s monologues once he became the regular guest host, as he seemed more relevant and hip (yes, there was a time when Leno seemed hip).

Famously, a knockdown battle ensured when NBC chose Leno over Letterman as Carson’s replacement in 1992, likely to Carson’s chagrin.  Letterman took his talents to CBS, where the two have battled for talk show supremacy ever since, with Leno usually winning the ratings battle, though Letterman has tended to come closer with the younger demographic.

Like other television time slots, the late show market has fractured since Carson’s departure.  Rather than a majority of the audience watching “The Tonight Show,” Republicans and older people prefer Leno while Democrats and younger people prefer Letterman.  Moreover, the emergence of Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” and Stephen Colbert’s “Colbert Report” on Comedy Central over the last decade has given cable a central part in the competition.  Though it airs before Leno and Letterman, “The Daily Show” has come close to surpassing the older comedians in the ratings with younger viewers.  Many observers expect Stewart to do so this year, as the 2012 election will likely give a boost to the “Daily Show.”

As I noted in a previous post, one should not get too nostalgic about the pre-cable age of television.  See Carson, like Cronkite, probably had too much influence.  The creativity that has ensued with the arrival of “The Daily Show” and other programs has given us options that are frequently more entertaining.  Still, the common culture that the U.S. had as late as the 1980s is gone and isn’t likely to return.  There will never be another Carson.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

"Mad Men," Episode 9, "Dark Shadows"

The increasing openness of American society in the 1960s is the main theme of “Dark Shadows,” as the growing presence of Jewish Americans takes center stage.  The episode reveals that the traditional Protestant establishment is declining in power as the descendants of the turn-of-the-century Ellis Island immigration claim a larger role in Sterling Cooper as well as the nation as a whole.

Nothing demonstrates this dynamic more clearly than Roger Sterling’s efforts to woo Manischewitz, a Jewish winemaker that is aiming to reach out to a non-Jewish clientele, or as Sterling calls them, “normal people.” During dinner, the owner’s son reveals that his father doesn’t like yachts because the last time he was on a boat he was in “steerage,” a reference to the fact that he came to the U.S. on a ship from Eastern Europe and/or the Russian Empire.  This was a common experience for Jewish immigrants and other newcomers to America, as many came to the United States through Ellis Island between 1882 and 1924. 

Many white-collar industries, such as the financial world, were largely closed to Jews because of the country club prejudice espoused by Sterling throughout the episode.  As a result, the first-generation of Jews often had to go into business by themselves or with family members.  Educational doors were often closed as well, as Ivy League universities created quotas to limit the number of Jews attending their institutions. 

After the unifying experience of World War II, with many immigrants and their children serving abroad or sacrificing at home as part of the national effort to defeat the Axis powers, anti-Semitism began to diminish.   In 1946, polls conducted by the American Jewish Committee revealed that 64 percent of people had heard negative talk about Jews in the previous six months.  By 1959, only 12 percent had heard such remarks (Dinnerstein, Anti-Semitism in America, p. 151).  The academic quotas gradually faded away and major firms opened their doors to a new generation during the postwar period. In “Man Men,” Sterling Cooper is clearly late to the party, only hiring Michael Ginsberg in 1966.  Even Sterling noted in a previous episode that most firms already hired Jews.  In a New York Times piece written before the debut of the second season, creator Matt Weiner foreshadowed the show’s evolution, saying, “The story to me is about the onset of a subversive ethnic point of view that has not poked through to Sterling Cooper.  They’re dinosaurs.”(NYT, June 22, 2008)

Indeed, “Mad Men” has now reached this stage, as Don Draper now must compete with the upstart Ginsberg, whom the firm wouldn’t have hired a decade earlier.  Draper is clearly threatened by his younger colleague’s talent, to the point of not showing Ginsberg’s idea to a client so as to ensure they will take his own.  When he confronts Don about this omission, Ginsberg says, “I feel bad for you.”  Though Don responds that “I don’t think about you at all,” he is either lying to Ginsberg or to himself.

The new generation of Jewish Americans was by no means homogenous.  Some, like Roger’s soon-to-be-ex-wife, Jane Siegel, were very assimilated.  Others, like Ginsberg, who was adopted by a traditional Jewish father, appear closer to the immigrant experience.  Some have noted that Weiner is portraying Ginsberg as an almost Woody Allen-like stereotype (Allen’s career was just beginning to take off in the mid-60s). 

One shouldn’t exaggerate the openness of 1966.  The nation had only eliminated Jim Crow a year earlier with the passage of the Voting Rights Act and blacks, as well as women, hardly faced an even playing field in the workplace. Still, as Roger and Don are discovering, it is a greater challenge to be successful when institutions don’t exclude large pools of talented people.

"Blue Bloods" and 9/11 (Part 2)

The season two finale of “Blue Bloods,” like the 12th episode of the season, ”The Job,” features direct echoes of 9/11. See .  In the finale, entitled “Mother’s Day,” New York City police commissioner Frank Reagan (Tom Selleck) must deal with the possibility of a major terrorist attack on the Big Apple.

The Secretary of Homeland Security tells Reagan that the government has credible evidence of a direct attack that will occur in the city in the next 24 hours (Call Jack Bauer!)  Reminiscent of season three of “24,” Reagan surmises it will be a biological attack.  Intelligence suggests a terrorist cell has obtained a deadly strain of the flu, a threat that also appeared in the short-lived “The Event.”

As regular readers are aware, I have written extensively about 9/11 and its impact on popular culture.  Recently, I have focused on the move away from fears of another terrorist attack toward the long-term impact of 9/11 on the people left behind, such as Kiefer Sutherland’s Martin Bohm on “Touch” (who is a single father because his wife died in the World Trade Center) and Jim Caviziel’s Mr. Reese on “Person of Interest” (he has psychological damage from fighting the war on terror for amoral government agencies).  Programs are now focusing on fears of conventional crimes such as robberies and murders rather than concerns about spectacular terrorist attacks.

The “Blue Bloods” finale doesn’t fit neatly into any of these categories.  On the one hand, the episode features genuine apprehension about another attack, though as a viewer I did not feel the same set of urgency as I did watching the early seasons of “24.”  In fact, the threat almost seems more of a device to develop certain aspects of the character’s personalities as much as anything else.  Part of this comes from the difference between “Blue Bloods” and “24,” as the former is more about the Reagan family than it is about the ongoing police investigations in the show. I believe it is also because the nation has gone over a decade without another attack as I didn’t experience the same sense of foreboding as I did watching season two of “24,” which aired in 2002-03 and centered on terrorists trying to detonate a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles.  I realize this is a little na├»ve given that real-life law enforcement just foiled a potential attack last week. 

Regardless, “Blue Bloods” continues to be an excellent drama even though it airs on Friday nights on CBS, a time slot clearly aimed at the show’s (and network’s) largely 50-and-over audience.  I wonder what that says about me?

Monday, May 7, 2012

"The Avengers"

I enjoyed the “The Avengers,” though not nearly as much as my Facebook friends who commented on it.  As with several other films and television shows I’ve discussed in recent months, the Joss Whedon-directed comic book film suggests a move back to a pre-9/11 perspective in pop culture.

First, “The Avengers” does not feature the angst and introspection of the recent "Batman" and "Spider Man" films.  For that matter, it contains less character development than Whedon’s cult television shows, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1997-2003) and “Angel” (1999-2004).  While not nearly as silly as the 1990s Joel Schumacher-directed “Batman” flicks, “The Avengers” is much more of a traditional action film than recent comic book movies.  As a friend pointed out, that may be because other filmmakers explored the various characters in their own films.

Furthermore, the climax (SPOILERS) of the film occurs in New York City and shows the villains destroying huge portions of Manhattan in comic book fashion.  I dare say that Whedon would not have portrayed the scenes in such a flippant way five years ago, when memories of the World Trade Center attacks were fresher.   Indeed, “The Avengers” destruction is more akin to the NYC mayhem seen in pre-9/11 films such as “Independence Day” (1996) and “Fight Club” (1999).

As the summer continues, it will be interesting to compare these aspects of “The Avengers” to other popcorn movies like “Amazing Spider Man” and “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Sunday, May 6, 2012

"Mad Men," Season Five, Episode 8, "Lady Lazarus"

The generation gap of the 1960s plays a major role in this week’s episode of “Mad Men,” “Lady Lazarus.”  Don’s isolation from the changes of the 1960s, a central theme of season five, comes further into view. 

The evolving rock n’ roll music of the decade has figured heavily in recent episodes and this dynamic continues, as a client wants Beatles music for an ad based on scenes from the Fab Four’s 1964 film, “A Hard Day’s Night.”  While the younger members of the firm like Michael Ginsberg spout off the names of bands that could serve as stand-ins, Don appears completely flummoxed.  “When did music become so important,” he asks Megan.   “It’s always been important” she responds as Don says he has “no idea what’s going on out there.”  Later on, Don listens to music that he thinks sounds like the Beatles, but Ginsberg says it’s thirty years old and hurts his ears.

Meanwhile, despite her success with the Heinz account, Megan is unhappy with advertising and quits the firm to pursue her dream of becoming an actress.  Don pretends he’s not upset, but is clearly unhappy about this turn of events.  “She’s following her dream,” he says with a tone of condescension, “I was raised in the 30s. My dream was indoor plumbing.” 

The exchange reveals a key difference between Depression-era Americans and younger people who grew up during the affluent 1950s.  Those who suffered through the privations of the 1930s experienced limitations that gave them a different perspective from those who came of age during the Eisenhower era, as the economic boom of the postwar years gave people options that were simply unimaginable a generation earlier.  By the mid-1950s, teenagers had as much disposable income as families had before World War II; compare Don’s incredibly poor rural upbringing with the opportunities that Sally Draper has in the prosperous suburbs. 

This divergence would become key as youth protests grew over the Vietnam War and other issues in the late 1960s.  When students at elite campuses like Columbia University protested the inequities of American society, many older Americans saw them as spoiled, self-indulgent and unappreciative of their opportunities.  “Listen, the boys that are on the college campuses today are the luckiest people in the world,” President Richard Nixon would say a few years later in 1970.  Nixon, whose poor childhood mirrored Don Draper’s, expressed his frustration that the antiwar protesters were “going to the greatest universities and here they are burning up the books, storming around about this issue, I mean—you name it.  Get rid of the war and there’ll be another one”

Speaking of Vietnam, the war appears in a couple of news reports in the background.  Listening closely, the television news mentions various events from the conflict, with American ground troops in their second year of combat.  Though a majority of Americans still supported the war, disaffection was growing despite the Johnson Administration’s repeated declarations of progress.  At the end of one segment, the television news reports Vermont Senator George Aiken’s famous suggestion that the U.S. simply “declare victory and go home” in October 1966.

In fairness, Don doesn’t seem completely out of touch with the new realities, as he reluctantly embraces Megan’s pursuit of her new career.  While he will never be confused with AIan Alda, Don sounds almost feminist, declaring, “Why shouldn’t she do what she wants?” adding,  “I don’t want her to end up like Betty… or her mother.“ Thrilled by her husband’s acquiescence, Megan cooks dinner and gives him a copy of the Beatles’ “Revolver” album (1966) and tells him which song to play.  He starts to listen to John Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows,” but stops the record halfway through.  With its Timothy Leary-inspired lyrics of “turn off your mind, relax and float downstream,” it is clearly not Don’s kind of song.  Maybe Roger would be interested.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Rise of the Summer Movie Season

With “The Avengers” opening as the first blockbuster film of the summer, it is an opportune time to focus on the emergence of the summer movie season.  Over the next several weeks, Hollywood will bombard us with one big-budget film after another and the fate of the movie studios will hinge on their success or failure.  Though now a fixture of American culture, the summer months have only been the center of movie activity since the 1970s. 

In the late 1960s, the movie studios found themselves in serious financial trouble.  Attendance had declined precipitously over the previous two decades, largely because of the rise of television.  With the emergence of the baby boomer generation and the youth culture, Hollywood studios handed control over to a group of young directors in the hope they could tap this new market.  The “New Hollywood” of the 1970s was born.

Directors like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese took advantage of this opportunity to produce memorable films like “The Godfather” and “Taxi Driver.”   Many film scholars see the 1970s as the heyday of American film, witnessing a creativity and sophistication not seen before or since.  For instance, the best picture nominees for 1976 included, “All the President’s Men,” “Taxi Driver,” “Network,” and “Rocky.”  Somehow, “Rocky” won.

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, the pioneers of the summer blockbuster, also emerged during this time and in some ways, helped to usher in its end.  With the unbelievable commercial success of Spielberg’s “Jaws” in 1975 and Lucas’ “Star Wars” in 1977, studios realized that young people would go to the same film over and over again during the summer.  Furthermore, the unprecedented merchandising associated with “Star Wars” showed that movies could also serve as promotions for other products.  The summer movie season was born, with studios releasing their biggest films during kids’ school vacation. The movies reversed their financial decline and attendance consistently grew for the next two decades.

Over time, the season has evolved.  In the 1980s, one or two films dominated the summer box office.  I vividly remember the summer of 1983 and the concomitant release of “Return of the Jedi” and “Superman III,” with both playing in the same two-theater complex in my hometown of Sarasota, Florida.  Simply by having those two films, that theater dominated the summer box office. Though summer films had large opening weekend grosses in the 80s, they also built their audiences over several with word-of-mouth, as “E.T.” was the #1 film in the country for 10 weeks in the summer of 1982, with its gross peaking in the third week. “Back to the Future” remained at #1 for 13 weeks in 1985 (Shone, Blockbuster, 197).  When I wanted to see a particular movie as a kid, my mother frequently told me that I could wait because it would “be playing all summer.”

My mother can’t say that today as the studios rely heavily on the opening two weeks for the lion share of a film’s earnings.  With the growth of multiplexes, studios discovered they could get people to go back to the theater week after week to see different films.  Today, it is rare for a movie to remain in the  #1 slot for more than a couple of weeks.  Furthermore, Memorial Day weekend used to be the traditional start of the movie season, but at some point the 1990s it started to commence earlier in May. 

Though there is always a danger in nostalgia, I believe Hollywood has also become more conservative in its approach to blockbusters. Back in the 1980s, “War Games,” “The Karate Kid,” and “Gremlins” became big summer hits, even though they had no previously known big stars and were not based a on a best-selling novel or comic book.  As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has pointed out, all but two of the top 25 films of the 2000s were part of a pre-existing franchise (NYT, June 22, 2010).  With the kind of spending required for major films, no studio exec wants to take a chance on something that isn’t a sure thing with a built-in audience.

Though “The Hunger Games” has propelled the box office this year, movie attendance had steadily fallen over the last decade.  With the rise of better home entertainment options, many choose to watch films at home.  One thing remains the same, though, as Hollywood’s profitability will be determined over the next three months.