Thursday, June 18, 2009

Returning: Back to the Fifties?

By Bernie Quigley

- for The Hill on 6/18/09

My reclusive near neighbor up here, J.D. Salinger, has successfully prevented a Swedish author from publishing a book that resembles his 1951 classic, Catcher in the Rye. The Salinger original is a near perfect picture window of the America northeast in the post-war period. So why did the Swedish publisher want to go there anyway?

Worth looking at in light of the upcoming movie, Nine, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, a film in homage to the great Federico Fellini and his masterpiece 8 ½ which reflects on the same period. For decades 8 ½ was considered among the top five best movies ever. And like the Salinger book, it is likewise a specific artifact of the period.

So what’s going on with that? Auto buffs will note that the Germans are reproducing today an almost total replica of the sweetest car ever made, the silver-grey 300 SL Gull Wing, a 1954 coupe with doors which flip open from the roof which was the fastest car of the day.

Maybe it’s only the Euros. But I noticed, flipping through the channels, that in the big ethnic communities like those in Chicago, the Catholic Church is successfully returning to the Latin Mass and to all of the evocative artisanship they left behind almost 50 years ago. The Church is trading back sociology for the sacred. The Dan Brown books and movies like the current Angels and Demons evoke the old days as well. I can’t see that it can be anything but good news for the Vatican.

The smell of the prayer book lingers through the ages and the Latin remains in secret but in a conditioned reflex somewhere in the psyche. People dream of the old church and its talisman sometimes comes to dreams in the shape of a gold coin. In one dream forum, a woman who had been experimenting with ad hoc hippie religion, told of a dream that a friend gave her one of those chocolate coins covered with gold paper that we put in the children’s’ stockings at Christmas, while the Pope gave her a gold coin. No doubt some of us have been dreaming of Gull Wings as well.

There was a sturdy tradition and authenticity to these things; something which remains and prevails and re-surfaces when the gold paper money fails to negotiate.

Truth is this has been growing up here for a few years. Round about 2001, we in the Boston region started returning to the true old-timey Boston religion. We started watching baseball again. Many of us hadn’t really paid attention since Ted Williams went fishing in 1960. But when the Red Sox won the pennant under a full eclipse of the moon a few years back, I received enthusiastic calls from as far away as Australia.

In that same period there suddenly appeared what might be considered a new movie genre; master film portraits of masters, like Pollock, Capote and the most recent; Ron Howard’s masterpiece, Nixon/Frost. In the Nixon movie Frank Langella gives a performance for the ages in portraying the man who probably more than anyone represented the 1950s well into the 1970s. The movie is structured like a great fight or samurai contest and there is a telling detail near the end. After the third interview with the Australian broadcaster David Frost, Nixon leaves, beaten by Frost by a late round TKO. As he walks to his waiting car he spots a woman holding a dog. He stops and walks over to her and asks, “Is this what you call a dachshund?”

It references a zen tale about samurai detachment: a master is going to his execution but he stops the procession to smell a flower budding through a hedge. The Nixon portrait by Howard, an enthusiastic Obama supporter, is portraiture of the samurai politician by a samurai director. And that is the quality of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Truman Capote and Ed Harris’ Jackson Pollock in both subject and artist. They are all samurai. They were and are unsurpassed at their crafts, and that is why they and these others are now resurfacing.

It is interesting that this began just as the first term of George W. Bush was about to get underway.

Ten weeks into his Presidency The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd wrote: “Bush II has reeled backward so far, economically, environmentally, globally, culturally, it’s redolent of Dorothy clicking her way from the shimmering spires of Oz to a depressed black-and-white Kansas.” “What’s next,” she lamented. “Asbestos, DDT, bomb shelters, filterless cigarettes? Patti Page?”

No. History is taking form and filtered them out. It is separating the wheat from the chaff and leaving only mastery. It was here all the time, hidden under the burden of the ephemeral present. But as another samurai from the 1950s, William Faulkner, who was relatively unknown before 1949 once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”