Director Betsy Blankenbaker’s documentary New York in the Fifties (2001), which I am watching as I write, has me feeling a little sad. Maybe it is a strange rendering of what people might otherwise call a midlife crisis, that moment when you feel a sharp sense of lost opportunity, whether deserved or not. Whatever it is, time got away from you — that feeling — and angst awaits.
But in this case there’s a sense of emptiness for a period impossible to experience fully, or not experience in the first place, because it is a period that precedes me by a decade or two.
This film is a pastiche of comment, memory, and anecdote told by artists and writers who in fact did experience 1950s New York, the place where things happened. And because I wasn’t there, my interest relates more to my values and desires than knowing any specific experience. Think of infatuation, unrequited, that nags like a meaningful loss nonetheless — a strange mix of interest, curiosity, and admiration — and you’re getting close.
And like anything — especially a loss that isn’t a loss — you have to work with what you’ve got. So I’ll shut up about it and continue.
New York in the Fifties does plod along and rambles a bit, which I am channeling quite well here, and it does offer wonderful insight into a dynamic period. At the very least, the footage of old New York really shines and it is a lot of fun to watch regardless of your interest in the artistic and intellectual history of 1950s New York.
However, if you don’t pay attention to the history, you will miss the layer of this story that matters most.
The film, mostly through first person interviews, conveys a sense of intellectual intensity that existed then and that I doubt has existed since. It is reassuring to think that once upon a time people gathered to meet and drink over a discussion of books, music, and ideas as much as people today meet to watch football and realities shows. There’s something smart and sexy about a more bookish past, regardless of how naive romance might skew the picture.
For the most part this film is as advertised and it is about New York in the 1950s, but author Dan Wakefield — who wrote the book New York in the Fifties (1992) which may or may not be a companion piece (I haven’t read it) — is cast as both an acolyte and a survivor, whose New York experiences serve as a guide throughout the film. His story increasingly melds into the film’s narrative.
Wakefield begins — briefly, anyway — as a clear and sober voice in that narrative, one that crescendos toward a celebration of the sordid, which I think is disguised as an expression of freedom. I find this to be a bit cliché, by the way. Haven’t we all been there? Sexual freedom in particular I find more tiresome than meaningful in this story. It seems overplayed in a self-gratifying way and an almost inappropriate swagger in an era when sexism was more likely to lead to sexual exploitation than liberation. But what do I know? Perhaps 1950s Greenwich Village broke away from it all.
Sexuality deserves comment, of course, but Wakefield and the film lingers on this topic in a self-serving manner. It distracts from the overall documentary, and when it becomes semi-autobiographical. TMI.
But then…well…of course the film relies on Wakefield’s book and experiences — the film’s raison d’être, it is his story (or is it?) — so perhaps I am missing the point. Nevertheless I find myself wishing the film didn’t focus on Wakefield as much as the New York scene generally. As poignant as Wakefield’s story is, especially his brush with utter loss and his rise from it, I want New York to be the story. Unfortunately, I think this biographical element weighs on a story that would otherwise move more quickly and effectively with a little less biography. Are we talking about New York in the 1950s or Wakefield? The film crosses back and forth too freely. (I’ll look for the book.)
In the film I would like to see more discussion of the politics, especially the looming change in politics and society that is discussed only in the final segments of the film.
The 1950s really don’t end as an era until the later 1960s, after all, and the commentators haphazardly offer opinions explaining that change (e.g., the death of Kennedy, the Beetles, rock music). Separately I don’t think these explanations say much.
Which brings me back to the intellectual intensity that New York in the Fifties presents well. I get a sense that a shared culture of books, ideas, and debate might have been more safe in a place and time surrounded by conformity and familiarity, something the film neglects. That conformity defines the rebellion. It is important to keep that in mind. The friction created by the change rubbing against stability caused the pressure that would eventually erupt — more like a volcano, indeed violent at times — than explode like a bomb.
I live in that post-eruption era today, the post-1960s, and this is an era constrained by today’s materialism, pop culture, and increasingly ephemeral celebrity. I’m not sure there’s really a contextual identity out there anymore. We inhabit multiple tribes rather than exist in anything like a shared common culture. Maybe that’s a good thing, maybe not. Whatever it is , the stasis that enabled thoughtful indulgence in ideas — even in a context of rebellion — is lacking, especially in the political landscape.
Rather than change, we choose. In that mode the need to dig into ideas, debate, and effect change is rendered pointless. If you don’t like what is happening, do something else, with someone else, and maybe even somewhere else.
Change is a process that never stops and there is nothing inherently bad about it. We can pass judgement — make choices — about what is good and bad, however. Sensing that once people thoughtfully engaged these topics where they don’t today should raise a sense of angst and loss in people, but you have to be there to feel it. As the decades pass, I think we lose our awareness of change. It isn’t all that meaningful anymore. We’re the frog in a pan of water being brought to a boil and don’t sense it.
There’s a lot to unpack in this transition of cultural priorities and New York in the Fifties provides at least one good baseline for comparison. Seeing what was might give hope for what might once again be.