American Cinema of the 1960s: Themes and Variations

By Barry Keith Grant | Go to book overview

1964

Movies, the Great Society,
and the New Sensibility

JAMES MORRISON

Armageddon was cinematically forecast this year in On the Beach, based on Nevil Shute's 1957 novel about nuclear holocaust. But aside from the cool, sly fantasy of annihilation at the climax of Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, the year passed without the arrival of the impending apocalypse. Instead, as Andy Warhol declared, “Everything went young in 1964” (Warhol 69). This pronouncement coincided with the release in January of Bob Dylan's epochal record The Times They Are a'Changin.' That elegiac folk anthem would become an all-purpose evocation of the era ever after, but it was not until later the same year that Dylan produced Another Side of Bob Dylan, his “first cool album” (MacAdams 260). Dylan may have heralded the rise of the first full-fledged “age” of the cool, but it was only after cool as style had begun an irrevocable decline, when its best-known paragons were already, in Lewis MacAdams's words, “struggling to remain cool” (223). Maybe that conflict was what made Dylan's off-center elegies edge into wistful paradox: “Ah, but I was so much older then,” as he sings in “My Back Pages” on Another Side, “I'm younger than that now.”

American movies had never really been cool in this sense, and their earlier, tentative efforts to claim that mantle only showed, for the most part, how inimical their sensibilities were to the free-wheeling pop avantgardism of postwar hipster culture. Even so, despite the continued insularity of Hollywood filmmaking, American movies of the year are largely about Hollywood's responses to the shock of the new, the same clash of generational styles, of young and old, the novel and the entrenched, that shaped the wider culture of that time.

The assassination of President Kennedy produced a malaise that initiated the year, squelching many of the new hopes of the decade's beginning but giving rise to a restless agitation that only further stimulated the cult of the new, while infusing it with the kind of melancholy strain heard in Dylan's dirges. Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, was eager to build on

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