American Cinema of the 1960s: Themes and Variations

American Cinema of the 1960s: Themes and Variations

American Cinema of the 1960s: Themes and Variations

American Cinema of the 1960s: Themes and Variations


The profound cultural and political changes of the 1960s brought the United States closer to social revolution than at any other time in the twentieth century. The country fragmented as various challenges to state power were met with increasing and violent resistance. The Cold War heated up and the Vietnam War divided Americans. Civil rights, women's liberation, and gay rights further emerged as significant social issues. Free love was celebrated even as the decade was marked by assassinations, mass murders, and social unrest.

At the same time, American cinema underwent radical change as well. The studio system crumbled, and the Production Code was replaced by a new ratings system. Among the challenges faced by the film industry was the dawning shift in theatrical exhibition from urban centers to surburban multiplexes, an increase in runaway productions, the rise of independent producers, and competition from both television and foreign art films. Hollywood movies became more cynical, violent, and sexually explicit, reflecting the changing values of the time.

In ten original essays, American Cinema of the 1960s examines a range of films that characterized the decade, including Hollywood movies, documentaries, and independent and experimental films. Among the films discussed are Elmer Gantry, The Apartment, West Side Story, The Manchurian Candidate, To Kill a Mockingbird, Cape Fear, Bonnie and Clyde, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Midnight Cowbody, and Easy Rider.


The Eve of Destruction

“What happened in the sixties was no one's deliberate choice, but one of those deep-seated shifts of sensibility that alters the whole moral terrain,” writes Morris Dickstein (x). Of course one might say the same of any decade—the 1930s, for example, brought the Great Depression and the international rise of fascism, the 1940s World War II and the Atomic Age, the first decade of the new century 9/11, and so on, each event requiring a radical rethinking of the world and our place in it. Still, the 1960s are frequently regarded as a special, unique period in American history, and not just because of the romantic patina cast over the era by the Baby Boomers (of which, for the record, I am one). For the profound changes of this particular decade brought the United States closer to social revolution than any time in the twentieth century.

“We all want to change the world,” sang John Lennon in “Revolution,” released on record in late 1968, the same year that saw real revolutionary fervor in places as diverse as China, Prague, Paris, and Quebec. The push for self-recognition by Third World colonies appeared as soon as the decade began, with the insurrection against French rule in Algiers. Several nations gained their independence from colonial oppressors in the 1960s, including Algeria in 1962 and Kenya and Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia) from Britain in 1963 and 1964, respectively, while Singapore and Biafra seceded from other countries. The decade also saw a growing resistance to South Africa's apartheid policy and the founding of the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1964. In the United States, an era of consensus built by the national effort of World War II and reinforced during the Red Scare of the 1950s was shattered in the 1960s, replaced by a plurality of voices demanding to be heard, all growing increasingly militant if not violent as the decade progressed. If the decade began with the unfurling of the new fifty-star American flag, it came to a close with flags and draft cards being publicly . . .

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