On the truths behind, but also the limitations of, one of our prominent national narratives of the 1960s.
Nearly half a century later, the 1960s continue to occupy a central place in many of our national conversations. Partly that feels particularly true these days because we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of events like the March on Washington and the “I Have a Dream” speech; but mostly it’s because of just how defining and yet how controversial the decade was and remains. One whole subset of narratives of the 60s has to do with the question of what has happened to the decade’s ideals in those five decades since, and more exactly with how the baby boomers and hippies who fought for and tried to embody those ideals have shifted away from, and in some narratives betrayed, those beliefs. Pop culture has long portrayed ex-hippies through that lens: from a single moment like the line “Out on the road today I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac” in Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer” (1984); to an entire film like Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (1983), which depicts a group of 60s college friends reuniting decades later and confronting their adult lives after one of their group commits suicide.
It certainly seems fair to say that as the hippies and the baby boom generation matured, they evolved, as of course any individuals and groups do; such evolution doesn’t necessarily equate to a betrayal of our earlier selves, but does require that beliefs and ideals grow and likely shift as well. The 1980s sitcom Family Ties did an excellent job engaging with those questions, examining a pair of ex-hippie parents as they navigate adult and family responsibilities (particularly in relationship to their yuppie, Reagan-idolozing son, famously played by Michael J. Fox). But it’s also fair to say that in many cases, including Kasdan’s film, complex political or social questions are largely simplified and downplayed, reduced to a backdrop of things that these characters once believed but that are no longer relevant to their contemporary lives. Given that precisely none of the broad issues with which the hippies engaged—poverty and inequality, racism and injustice, war and the military industrial complex, corporations and consumerism, the environment—have gone away in the five decades since, such reductions don’t seem accurate to how the group has evolved. And in his first film, The Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980), John Sayles depicts those questions with far more complexity and depth.
Like Kasdan’s film (which seems to have been at least somewhat inspired by Sayles’, although Kasdan has denied having seen it), Secaucus is certainly interested in how its group of ex-hippies have evolved individually, socially, romantically, professionally, and so on in the decade and more since their 60s lives. But Sayles’ title refers to a particular political incident from that earlier decade, one in which the group were arrested for protesting; and since the film’s reunion marks the first time the group has been together since that moment, this history of activism and idealism becomes one of the recurring threads of their conversations and interactions. They come to no more of a consensus about the legacy of those actions and beliefs than they do about any aspect of their present identities; but they also acknowledge how formative those 60s moments and actions have been, and thus are significantly less dismissive of the value of their activism than many such ex-hippie characters and voices in our culture. Secaucus is far from a perfect film, but it’s well worth seeing, not least for this still largely unique complication of a dominant national narrative.
Next film tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other films you’d especially AmericanStudy?
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