Sunday, August 03, 2008

Through the Looking Glass, Light and Dark

I remember how excited my teachers were about the 1976 election, Jimmy Carter vs. Gerald Ford! They were energetically engaged and loved talking about it, especially at lunch time. Hanging out with the adults thrilled me, in turn, and kept me interested in the bigger world ever since.

Nowadays, I'm thoroughly enjoying this year's election season, energetically supporting Barack Obama, and also looking at today's world refracted through three series set in the relatively recent past: AMC's Mad Men (early 1960s), CBS' Swingtown (1976), and HBO's Generation Kill (2003).

The question each series asks, at least implicitly: how much has changed?

In many ways, it feels like two steps forward, three steps back.

There have been changes in civil and human rights laws and official practices, but social attitudes are still all over the map. Gender issues, race matters, environmental approaches, politics, governmental policies foreign and domestic -- ragged and fraught with peril, to say the least.

I maintain that Swingtown is sweet and relatively happy in exploring different kinds of flexible social arrangements, with usually comic complications. A far darker consideration of American social life among the white upper/middle classes, by contrast, is Jeffrey Eugenides' novel, The Virgin Suicides (1993).

One has to dig around Eugenides' work to find specific details about Grosse Pointe, Michigan, on the verge of change, circa 1976. The outer world is, at the time, beginning to crack from its insularity. (From what I can decipher, the novel seems essentially "true" except for the "virgin suicides," which are fictitious. Some of the characters can be traced to specific real people. An easy example, for now, is "Mr. Tonover," a clear nod to Mr. Overton, a retired science teacher who taught at the high school from which Eugenides graduated in 1978.)

Swingtown may be closer to playfully satirical relief. Certainly, it's got a happier feel to it, more wistful about the 1970s. Given what's followed between then and now, an understandable longing.

Today's Rune: Harvest.


Charles Gramlich said...

Yet, I was reading today some translated Egyptian love poetry from the days of the pharohs, and it sounded just like today. Some things never change.

JR's Thumbprints said...

I wonder what characters from Middlesex can be traced to real people.

the walking man said...

Meet the new boss...same as the old boss...won't get fooled again!

I wonder how much has really changed, morals got tighter and looser, but it has always been this way if you look at regional attitudes, fashion has changed colors and cuts but nothing really new that hasn't been before. Politics have changed faces and the "Newts" are still among us just not as vocal. Detroit is still losing substantial population and politicians are still sucking the tit of public fundage.

Honestly? I don't see any water ahead that Joe Average hasn't treaded before.

Lana Gramlich said...

How much has changed? Well, I guess it's safe to say there's a LOT more crack & crystal meth use these days. Other than that, I don't see much difference. I'm cynical that way, though...

Lana Gramlich said...

Oh, & more incidences of deadly violence at schools.

Carl said...

Good Job! :)

Mark Krone said...

Aside from the banishment of ashtrays and the disappearance of IBM typewriters, the atmosphere these days must be less sexually creepy for women, though since I am not one, I may be wrong. Much of the harassment takes place behind shut doors and around corners, so it is hard to know until someone says they've had enough.

One or several of the characters in Mad Men is apparently based on my late father, who was a well-known art director at Doyle, Dane and Bernbach, the agency that did the VW and Avis ads in the early 1960s. He designed the ads and worked with a copywriter for the content. He was not pleasant to be around most of the time but I doubt that he was boorish to women. Cheap comments and furtive pinches were not his style, though he was a horrible husband.

One thing that I can safely say about him and his fellow ad men is, they took themselves very seriously. They knew their ads were having an impact not only with consumers but on the culture. My father would say things like, "we started a revolution" -- grandiose stuff like that. This was at a time (1960s) of actual political chaos here and abroad and I remembering picturing him in his Madison Avenue office, at his work board in front of the two barcelona chairs and his desk where he rarely sat and then picturing college students at Kent St or demonstrators patcipating in Prague Spring and thinking that he was full of bullshit.

But then again, he was an ad man and like one of Norman Mailer's book titles, Advertisements For Myself, these ad guys were salesmen who often worked harder on selling themselves than any of their products.