The 70s Puzzle

I have been watching a lot of movies made in the 1970s recently, which isn’t a chore, that decade might have been the artistic apex of American moviemaking. But what made for great movies also made for a very strange time to be alive, especially if you were a child.

In this context “That 70s Show” is either the stupidest or most brilliant TV show ever devised. The argument for its stupidity is that it had nothing to do with how life was actually lived in that decade, other than the fashions and haircuts. The way people behave on the show is purely a mix of the 1950s and the 1980s.

That is the argument for the show’s brilliance, because there was this tension in the 1970s between what was going on and what it wished itself to be. No decade has ever been more nostalgic for another as the 1970s were for the 1950s. There was “American Graffiti,” “Happy Days,” “Laverne and Shirley,” “Grease,” and whatever the hell Sha-Na-Na was. While the artistic output of movies remained strong throughout, there was a major turn at the half decade mark towards escapism that started with “Jaws” and gained rocket fuel with “Star Wars.”

Despite all of the nostalgia and escapism, movies of the 1970s did an incredible job of documenting the massive cultural shifts that were taking place at that time, even in the form of movies set in other times. “Cabaret,” for example, was about pre-Nazi Berlin, but its celebration of the artistic and sexual experimentation of that era was a clear warning to 1970s audiences — don’t get too cozy with all the new freedom you are experiencing, there are dark forces behind it. We should have listened to that message more closely.

Darkness oozed out of 1970s period movies. “Patton” might have been a World War II biopic, but it was clearly intended as a commentary on the still ongoing and disastrous war in Vietnam, as was the Korea-era comedy “M*A*S*H.” “The Godfather,” “The Sting,” “Paper Moon,” “Chinatown” — all of them were about decaying values and con-men, but audience at the time clearly recognized the Nixon administration and all of the other American institutions that were rapidly losing public trust.

To see the 1970s from a distance can be pretty fun. To have lived and grown up in it was quite another adventure. It really seemed like an era without childhoods. Families were breaking apart right and left. Drug abuse was rampant. Pornography was everywhere — it could even be glimpsed from highways in the drive in movie theaters. Murder rates were two to three times higher in major cities compared to now. The so-called lawlessness of today was nothing compared to that age of riots during blackouts and fans exploding onto fields of play after major sporting events.

What puzzles me about the 1970s now is that there were excuses at the time that everyone accepted, but that don’t make as much sense anymore. We were told that this is what happens after a country loses a war. Or after a lawless President gets caught. Or when there are hard economic times — defined then by inflation and gas lines. Major social changes had just happened — Stonewall and women’s rights, the sexual revolution. People hadn’t adjusted to it all.

For many years that argument seemed to make sense to me. But having lived the last 20 years of American life, it now seems ridiculous. The Iraq War was just as traumatic as Vietnam in important ways, especially coming so soon after 9/11. We had a massive economic collapse in 2009 and are experiencing an even worse one now. Social change has been far more rapid in our era than that one. The gay marriage decision, MeToo and Black Lives Matter have reshaped the cultural landscape at breathtaking speed.

And yet, with all of this change and a horrendous global pandemic … and the worst President in our history who combines the worst features of Nixon and Carter and still has a lot of venality and stupidity left unaccounted for … we’re actually doing ok in this country compared to how people behaved in the 1970s.

Teenaged pregnancies are way down compared to then, as is drug abuse. Divorce rates are lower. Sexually transmitted diseases are far less prevalent. The kids in general are alright. If anyone is losing their shit right now it’s the same Baby Boomers who were responsible for much of the bad behavior then.

It might be time to take another hard look at the 1970s to figure out just what it was all about. In the 1990s, there were some attempts by Gen Xers to revisit that era in books and movies like “The Ice Storm.” But even those pretty much took the excuses of the era at face value. They were just overwhelmed and couldn’t help themselves, they told us. Maybe it was something else. Maybe, for example, the lead in gasoline was far more damaging than we assumed.

There were deeper social pathologies at play than the first round of explanations can cover. Once the rules started to break down, everyone felt obliged to rush the stage, like fans of The Who in Cincinnati. A weird group psychology had taken hold that trampled an entire generation of children.

Thankfully, we have not returned to those times. Maybe we should study more closely why that happened so we can make sure future children are shielded from a recurrence in future generations.