Thursday, February 19, 2009

What Happened to America?

I've always been interested in the past. I'm constantly imagining what it would be like to live in certain eras or years. As an artist, the best way to bring that alive is to see what people saw in the past. So the most efficient and fascinating way to explore past worlds is visually, through footage.

Naturally, the past that is easiest to relive in my position is recent American past, so the times I'm most interested in are simply America from about the time of WWII to 1980. Exotic and strange to me, yet familiar enough to comprehend and put into context.

This interest has led to a philosophy, a largely aesthetic one, that goes by the slogan, "What happened to America?" I did not invent the slogan. But that fact proves right away that there are others who subscribe to it. The slogan was invented by my friend while we were watching "Breaker, Breaker" a Chuck Norris movie in which he plays a truck driver. Apparently it was filmed in 1977 and it features lots of those 'flat-nosed' semi cabs. While watching we were both taken aback at how much cooler everything looked back then. My friend exclaimed, "What happened to America?"The proper annunciation is to say the phrase with some disgust, but also exclamation. Suddenly my philosophy had a voice.

I mean, what happened to America? Every era since WWII in America looks so good, has so much personality, takes so many chances. What do we have today? Boring fearful style and bad rehashes because we can't think up our own looks. I'm not a particular fan of the 1980's, but the era had it's own look that could be great at times. If I had to put a number on it I'd say things stopped looking good around 1992 or 3. The age from about 1954 to 1978 is the real hot zone for me.

I realize that part of this idea can be chalked up to a sort of nostalgic way of thinking (even though I was born in 1980). Perhaps in 2034 I'll realize that the 1990's and 2000's were very distinctive looking times with as much beauty and aesthetic charm as any time. But, I don't thinks so. I also wonder about other connections with the philosophy. Isn't the pop music era of 1954-78 also better than anything we've had since? I mean, when Weezer and Radiohead are your era's rock geniuses, it seems to me you're digging at bedrock with your fingernails. And I look at it historically, too. The 50's were not boring! Historically they were a very interesting time, a very definite and beautiful age. The 60's were extremely exiting and chaotic. The 70's were more cynical, but also an important, definite era. The 80's had their flavor too, but they start to feel a little like a bad version of the 70's. The 90's are definitely a lame version of the 80's. The 00's take that sort of postmodern blandness produced in the 90's and makes it the new battle cry of the millennium. More like whimper.

Can you believe how cool 1950's rock 'n' rollers looked? Hippies were insane in the greatest way. Boy, everyone lost it as far as style and fashion goes in the 70's and I love it! What happened to America?

It might also be mentioned that the way collective memory works, how we all understand an era to be, doesn't fit neatly into decades. I'd say the 50's are really 1953-1963. The 60's, 1964-1972. The 70's 1972-1981. And the 80's, 1982-1992. After that it really doesn't matter.

I can really dig old footage of any kind. A great book about what things looked like in the suburbs of the 1950's is a photo book called "Suburban World". It is a collection of photos by a totally non-artistic amateur photographer in Bloomington MN, a growing Suburb between the 1950's and 60's. His name is Irwin Norling and he's great at being there and documenting things as they were with no ambitions to color reality. Being there is 97% of photography, no offence to photographers who's compositional and technical talents are always important. If you think 1958 in a Minnesota suburb is not dark and subversive, take a look at this book.

What else does a guy like me enjoy? I recently satisfied my desires for a hotter America with DVDs. I got a whole lunchbox full of old educational filmstrips. Boy are they beautiful, scary, hilarious, and fascinating! Does scratchy 35mm film ever look great! No one would even attempt to make a filmstrip with cars who talk safety in a cloudy heaven-like set. Nor would anyone now make a filmstrip with a talking chalkboard stick figure named chalky who teaches manners. It's the world's loss.

I also got a season of the show Emergency. I always enjoyed firefighting and rescue squads from childhood, so the show is mega entertaining for me. But the price of admission is paid by the street scenes and vehicles alone. And how about those outfits and hairdos? And the fire trucks and rescue squad---hot! Maybe it's just the technicolor, but those trucks seem to be painted a very, very bright scarlet which no longer exists. What happened to America?

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