Sunday, February 13, 2011

Voices and Images of Cultural Change: The Historical Impact of Television, Music and Cinema on Culture and Consciousness

Typical American family from the 50s in front of television set
Television made its major appearance in society during the era referred to as the “Golden Age of Television.” Television offered a lot of potential and was considered a drive for innovation and progress. The media was being created; cameras had the opportunity to bring us images that had never been seen before. It was hailed as a new Renaissance, yet this time around it was not books that brought about change, but rather moving pictures on a screen.

But did the tube really bring about a revolution? When we think of the 50s and the movies and programming of the era, we may feel a certain letdown, yet the period more than ever planted the seeds of a divisive rupture with the more traditional past in terms of beliefs and values. The baby boomers, mere kids at the time, already felt the desire to rebel against their parents.

It is no wonder that James Dean became the symbol and inspiration of the younger generation. He, in fact, embodied the new misunderstood and under-appreciated generation that thirsted for radical change. James Dean is a magnificent actor, but it was his attitude and, moreover, his timing that made him instantly famous. He would not have had the same impact at another time, while in his generation, he represented what many still did not dare to say or express. His untimely death, although an accident, had become the fixed symbol of a hopelessly stuck generation.

Strangely enough, the television screen seemed too small to reflect those issues; people still flocked to the dark and secret intimacy of the big screen as shows like I Love Lucy or sections of Kids say the darndest things did not provide much intellectual thought. Cinemascope, the 3D experience of the past, was bigger than life and could not be experienced in the comfort of one's home. There was a promise of a revolution in the air that would affect almost any area of life.

This momentum arrived during the wild and roaring sixties. Although there was a cinematic rebellion in terms of the French New Wave and such American classics like Bonnie and Clyde, the revolution was mostly in the homes and streets. Demonstrations and public mischief abounded, while mind-altering drugs made their first appearance. Television was still dormant in those days and mostly used as a distraction from life in the form of innocuous entertainment, such as Lassie, Bonanza, and Candid Camera.

Notwithstanding, the Beatles managed to use the medium effectively with their legendary appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show to cause the never before seen or experienced sensation called Beatlemania. Yet soon enough, they decided to drop their clean-cut image and realized that they felt at home in the loud rebellious crowd. In fact, if there was any art that reflected the feelings, desires and struggles of those times, it was embodied in the wonderful music and artists that hit the scene in those years.

The 70s may have been anti-climatic and disappointing in comparison, at least on a musical level. The generation seemed to either lose track or get sidetracked or just lose steam. Either way, music became comfort food and a number of TV shows provided mindless and formulaic entertainment. Series like Charlies Angels, Six Million Dollar Man, and Starsky and Hutch are good example of action series that are politically insipid and harmless, although series like M*A*S*H were a welcome exception. People in general did not want to think about important issues; they just wanted to relax after a day of work with potato chips and a beer in hand. In other words, not that different from today's reality.

However, there were still jewels in this period, again on a cinematic level. A string of more realistic and politically conscious cinema hit movie theaters in the United States. Movies by Sidney Lumet brought back the revolutionary consciousness, both as reminder and call for action. Dog Day Afternoon, for example, brought issues to the daylight that were lurking in the American psyche of the post-Vietnam generation and criticized mind and crowd control via the state government.

A more exuberant statement about the tube and its followers was made in his next movie Network, where Lumet showed us where we were heading with sensationalism and how empty and shallow our lives were to become as a result. Its famous catchphrase "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" rings true even in today's society. 

Other movies like Cimino's The Deer Hunter showed a restless yet experimental push for personal and political freedom of expression, which, however, may have come to a screeching halt with Cimino's own epic failure Heaven's Gate that pushed his movie studio to the brink of bankruptcy and pretty much destroyed his career.

Then came the 80s and bright flashy colors and lifestyles made it to the foreground. It was mainly a revival of the late baby boomers, but it was the breeding ground for Generation X about to make its mark in the next decades to come. The greatest credit or revolution if you like, was the advent of MTV videos. This, in fact, changed the music experience by intertwining music with images, and a new art form was born. It was back in the days when rap was still cool and actually had something to say.

There was still little of interest on the tube. The shows, such as The A-Team and MacGyver did not have too much to offer; well, MacGyver was at least educational in the sense that you were learning a little bit about chemistry. At the same time, kids were bombarded with badly drawn, formulaic, pointless and violent shows like He-Man, Spiderman, and Transformers with little, if any, educational value. 

From the ashes of the cultural revolution, the landmarks and pitfalls of cinema and the banality of television arose the X-Generation that was suddenly bulldozed and overwhelmed by the onset of the new era of the Internet, the ubiquitous alternative to the "boob tube."

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