Liberation and Regression in 1970s Movies

I liked the way yesterday’s story about 1970s movies turned out, so I think I’m going to swim in these waters for awhile and see if it leads to anything interesting. I’m going to start by briefly examining two movies at the beginning and end of that era — “Harold and Maude” from 1971 and “My Dinner with Andre” from 1981. While Andre is a 1980s movie, it was written and about life in the 1970s, so I think it’s a solid bookend to Maude.

Harold, the protagonist of his film, begins the movie in a state of ironic nihilism. He is a boy (we never find out his actual age and it’s often hard to tell where in the range from 14 to 28 he occupies) who has no goals or aspirations beyond his affection for funerals and dark love of staged suicide scenes. His mother upsets this balance by asking him to consider a career in the military (where his uncle has some kind of undefined officer position attained by being Douglas McArthur’s “right hand man” — somewhat ironic, because he doesn’t have a right hand.) And then she declares that it is time for him to get married. She arranges three dates via a “computer dating service” to find him the right match, which is actually her right match, since she fills out his dating questionnaire.

Harold’s life is already due for a disruption when he runs into Maude at a funeral, and then is basically stalked by her at another. She too enjoys attending funerals, but we find out early in the film that while the pair has some common traits, they have wildly different worldviews. A traumatic incident happened to Harold in boarding school that led his mother to believe that he was dead … and Harold liked her outpouring of distant affection. He reacted by seeking a return to that state of shocked loss over and over through the staged suicides.

Maude, while fully aware of life’s tragic, temporal nature, sees the human condition as a call to fully embrace living, to ignore legal and moral boundaries, to seek out experiences and find a way to liberate yourself from the persona you’ve created to cope with life’s difficulties. This is a clear, full expression of Nietzsche’s philosophy. But Maude is more than that, she is also the personification of the 1970s cultural ethos — it’s as if the culture declare: we have taken the first and biggest steps towards political liberation, now it is time for personal liberation. The movie tells us that even a rich white straight male can and should be liberated.

This is an extremely hopeful movie, despite its numerous references to suicides (and Maude’s own suicide.) As the credits roll and “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out” plays on, you feel that everyone can learn to love more openly, ignore family expectations, keep cultural institutions at an ironic distance, and become the authors of our stories.

I don’t believe “Harold and Maude” influenced the cultural much — it was a box office bomb in its initial release and took many years for it to catch on, buoyed in large part by midnight movies that turned it into a cult classic. It was, however, a perfect reflection of how the culture was adapting to the end of the 1960s. The final episode of “Mad Men” captured that mood as well — with Don Draper escaping New York for an EST retreat in California, then suddenly getting the idea for a Coke commercial that celebrated multicultural peace and togetherness by the mutual purchase of a fizzy, sugary beverage.

Given the state of the world in 1971, it might have seemed more appropriate to have Harold drive his hearse-guar over the cliff in the final scene. The world seemed to be unraveling. The Vietnam War didn’t just drag on, it had been expanded into Cambodia and Laos. War protesters were gunned down in Kent State, then turned to more radical alternatives afterwards, leading to a string of terror bombings across the nation. The Pentagon Papers were released, detailing how thoroughly Americans had been lied to throughout the war.

Yet, on personal level, people were feeling a certain freedom in the early 70s that was unique, and in many respects extremely positive. Women were entering the workforce at a pace that even exceeded the early 40s when so many men were enlisted for World War 2. Many gay men and women finally felt safe coming out of the closet. Because of greater access to the birth control pill, young people didn’t feel the need to marry and start families so early. All of these were positive and unsurprising cultural shifts among young people.

What really drove the mass cultural change in the 1970s, however, was the generation older than the Baby Boomers, those who were already married and had small children, but also wanted in on the liberation. These young mothers had just as much right to careers as women younger than them. This was another positive outcome.

But then something in the culture shook loose and an avalanche started. In his book “Make Love, Not War: The Sexual Revolution, An Unfettered History,” David Allyn described the rapid cultural shift that happened across generations this way:

During the sexual revolution of the 60’s and 70’s people told the truth. They told the truth about their sexual histories. About their secret desires, About the ways they had been pretending to conform to societal norms. Not everyone told the truth all at once, of course. But when a few key people became authentic about their sexuality, others were inspired to follow suit. Eventually, more and more people told the truth about themselves, until there was a critical mass or “tipping point.” It turned out that “nice girls” were having sex before marriage, that teenagers were yearning to have homosexual relationships, that some married couples were interested in more than just monogamy. When enough people told the truth, the life of the nation was transformed.

What makes the term “sexual revolution” so confusing is that it has two meanings and inspired the adoption of two separate sets of ethos that pushed and pulled in tandem and against one another in that era. Allyn wrote:

Part of the reason that there is still so much confusion surrounding the sexual revolution of the sixties and seventies is that the term “revolution” has two meanings: It can denote a calculated contest against the status quo (as in the “French Revolution”); or a sudden, unexpected period of social transformation (as in the “Industrial Revolution”). The sexual revolution of the sixties and seventies involved both elements. There were direct attempts to topple the legal and political pillars of the existing moral regime. There was also an unplanned reconfiguration of American culture, a result of demographic, economic, and technological changes that took many Americans by surprise. Sometimes these two aspects of the sexual revolution operated in tandem, forcefully pushing the nation along one path; sometimes they operated in opposition to each other, pulling the nation in two different directions at once.

It’s the social transformation part of that equation where “Harold and Maude” lives, even if the movie really has very little to say about sex. It’s possible to imagine an alternative 1970s where this drive towards individual transformation and growth retained some elements of the sexual mores of the previous era and focused instead on spiritual or artistic growth. However, in retrospect, maybe it’s too optimistic about humanity to think it can ever take advantage of its freedom, at a mass level, in a way that will lead to free expression and open minds without significantly changing the sexual behavior of people, at least in the short term.

Friederich Nietzsche was a bit naive in this respect as well. His conception of the ubermensch — or overman — wasn’t about a powerful political or business leader (as his work has been polluted and bastardized by the likes of the Nazis and Ayn Rand.) His ideal New Man, who will overcome our religion-poisoned past, is an artist. Nietzsche loved music and musicians most of all and probably felt his greatest personal failure was his mediocre musical talents. His books were intended to inspire creators to dream big and create works that can redefine our world. So, like Maude, Nietzsche envisions a world of free artists rewriting what it means to be human.

So when we arrive in the late 1970s in the world of “My Dinner With Andre,” we are actually sitting in on a conversation between two people that Nietzsche would consider the ideal form of a future human being — a playwright and a stage director in New York, two people who have devoted their lives to expression living in the cultural center of those productions.

And when we meet these people, they are exhausted and nearly defeated. The 1970s, this decade with so much hope for inner growth and expression, had turned out very badly for the type of people you might expect would get the most out of this new freedom.

Wallace Shawn, who in the 1980s would become something of a cultural icon because of his role in “The Princess Bride,” was best known in the 1970s as a writer of small, realist dramas that were mostly staged Off-Broadway. He had a decent number of hits in the 1970s, but by the time this movie was made, his creativity was stilted and he was finding it difficult to get his work produced.

Andre Gregory was a stage director who had a number of successes in the 1970s, but at a certain point lost all faith in his work and decided to quit the profession. His epiphany brings to mind Liv Ullman’s character Elisabet Vogler in “Persona,” who one day onstage is overcome with disgust at the artifice of her work, rendering her mute and unable to perform anymore. But instead of retreating into silence, Gregory goes on a very 1970s kind of quest in search of theater-like experience around the world that evoke the kinds of emotions he used to be able to create on the New York stage.

One of the difficulties in watching “My Dinner With Andre” is making it through the first half of the movie, which is a nearly unbroken monologue by Gregory about these bizarre experiences. Shawn makes no effort to engage him in a dialogue about these adventures, he just coaxes him to keep talking about his weird group frolics in the forests of Poland, his trek to the Sahara Desert with a Japanese yogi, trying to figure out how to stage “The Little Prince” and several other sojourns that I don’t remember off hand.

In the second half, however, we do get a bit of a culture clash and we also start to see that Gregory himself is conflicted about the value of his excursions. He recognizes the privilege at the heart of them and accepts Shawn’s criticism that there’s a dangerous cult-like nature to the way the people behave in these circumstances.

The movie, however, serves as a fitting conclusion to the 1970s cultural ethos, because it perfectly describes the state of exhaustion that existed in the country after this decade of liberation had played itself out. Gregory and Shawn agree that by the end of the 1970s, people seem to be asleep. They can’t see the world around them anymore, they have retreated into nostalgic escapism — or worse, desired a regression to simpler times with simpler life choices.

For an artist, this is the worst possible atmosphere. People go to the theater (or to a movie) in hope of being put further asleep, so they can more fully escape the reality around them. Gregory tells Shawn that it isn’t even worth trying to stage a realistic play that attempts to wake people up, because all it will do is reinforce the misery all around them — the murders, the left-behind — and even this will push them deeper into their slumbers.

The movie ends with two choices about how the culture could move forward out of this state. To Gregory, the answer is somewhat akin to what the 1970s started to do, but ended up getting sidetracked into sex and drugs escapism — seek out consciousness-changing experiences that force you to see the world around you. He likens this to going to Mt. Everest, taking in the awesome beauty of nature and having a shared experience of something bigger than ourselves.

Shawn mocks this idea — saying its privileged and impractical to tell people to visit Mt. Everest. Why not tell everyone to pay attention to the cigar shop next door? Get to know the life inside that shop and your consciousness might be woken up.

Gregory believes that humanity is too far gone to see that cigar shop, that capitalism has taken hold of us and put us on a conveyor belt towards robot status. He even pleads with Shawn to get rid of his electric blanket, that it gives him too much comfort and keeps him from sharing essential parts of humanity that must touch discomfort and a shared sense of what it is like to be cold.

That argument really offends Shawn, who loves his electric blanket and generally thinks there’s nothing wrong with comforts. And if people aren’t woken up by his plays? That’s ok too, as long as he’s allowed to keep writing them and earn a living to support the life he has chosen, filled with moments of little joy.

As the movie ends, the characters allow us the option of retrying the 70s again, hoping to catch the right experiences this time, or moving on to the 80s, pursuing comforts, trying to cut our own bargain with the material world.

Shawn ends the movie riding home in a taxi, noting all the shops in Manhattan along the way and the personal meaning each one of them hold for him. This tells us that he took something important away from the dinner and sees more clearly now.

Watching the movie nearly 40 years later, however, we know that both Gregory and Shawn failed. The door to the 1970s was shut and bolted very quickly. But the hope that we could strike a bargain with the material world barreling down on us was naive as well. Those shops Shawn viewed are all gone now, replaced by chain retailers aimed at high end consumers.

Even worse, people like Shawn don’t live in Manhattan anymore. The successful ones may live in Brooklyn, but more likely Hoboken or Jersey City. The slightly less successful are writing plays as one of three or four gigs, trying to do meaningful work while paying the bills with a freelance article here, a few weeks of Uber driving there. Most people like Gregory and Shawn gave up trying to make a living as artists a couple decades ago and are entrenched in corporate jobs, pretending their quarterly internal comms shows are just as meaningful as that play they’ve been hoping to write.

As it turns out, Gregory was exactly right — capitalism has put all of us to sleep. And now it’s made the world sick, and we are holed up in our houses, trying our best to keep working to keep paying the bills and keep pretending everything is normal while the stock market again approaches all time highs and billionaires are gobbling up the remaining assets middle class people have to unload to stay afloat. They’re competing to build rockets to Mars while we have kitchen table debates weighing whether it’s worse to risk having your children infected with a deadly disease or fall farther behind in their education.

Sadly, the great promise of the 1970s failed. We did not achieve personal liberation in large part because we walked away from political liberation and thought we’d done enough for now. The rich and the powerful took advantage of this inward turn, started recapturing money and power and haven’t looked back since.

I’ll be writing about some more 1970s movies in the days ahead to examine how and why this happened.