restricted access 1964: Movies, the Great Society, and the New Sensibility
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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 110 the sense of novelty energizing the Democratic platform and to forestall fears, fostered by his own more advanced age, of reversion to an Eisenhowerlike paternalism. This led to an unusual emphasis on social change and innovation in his public address. The quintessential policy of the Johnson administration, the Great Society, was framed as something like a new New Deal, and when Johnson unveiled this program in a famous speech in May, he adopted a style of millennial oratory in a timely dedication to a new age. In this speech, Johnson adapted the frontier metaphor of his predecessor to more progressive uses in turning it to the question of domestic crisis rather than to that of global conquest: “Today the frontier of imagination and innovation is inside [our] cities and not beyond their borders.” In its sense of crisis, the Great Society speech is nearly unprecedented in peacetime American oratory—and, though the conflicts in Vietnam were escalating , it was peacetime if only in the sense that no wars had been officially declared. Yet Johnson speaks to his audience of “the turmoil of your capital ” and salutes public “indignation” as a source of positive change. He cites a “catalog of ills” that includes poverty, racial injustice, economic overexpansion , urban decay, suburban sprawl, and pollution. Where previous generations might have counseled a conservative retreat to older values in the face of such problems, Johnson appealed to the force of the new as the means to move beyond them, reciting a litany of its potential forms: “new visions,” “renew[ed] contact with nature,” “new techniques of teaching, to find new ways to stimulate the love of learning,” “new concepts of cooperation ,” “new country,” “new world.” Johnson’s forward-looking mix of moderation and progressiveness in the Great Society speech, reacting against an increasingly radical Republican conservatism, enabled the quick accomplishment of key domestic initiatives in the course of the year, including the War on Poverty with its subtending social programs, the consolidation of Housing and Urban Development as a cabinet department, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act, one month after the speech. Johnson’s vision of the new was hardly identical to the sensibility of cool, and in fact, when Johnson warns that the loss of community “breeds loneliness and boredom and...


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Subject Headings

  • Motion pictures -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Motion pictures -- United States -- Plots, themes, etc.
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