It seems that films of the 1960s were unique to the decade in a way unlike any other time period. Everything about most of them reflects, in one way or another, the changes that were taking place in American society, and in Hollywood as well. More than anything, and as will be examined below, the style of 1960s films usually presents a kind of effort, and one very much marking a desire to break with the past and reflect new, counter-culture feelings. The ’60s film is over-the-top; it strikes the audience in a way asserting that its usually bright, colorful style alone is a statement because, reflecting the times, it has a young and hip message to convey. This being the case, subject matter was important, but just as important was the need to emphasize the fact that a message was being sent out. To that end, the ’60s film usually relied on off-beat and unusual visual elements to challenge the audiences. Put another way, the movies of earlier decades, as well as of today, are marked by varieties of intents, which also go to varieties of style and presentation. In the 1960s, Hollywood seems to have been desperate to keep pace with the radical changes of American culture, and what is consistently evident, then, is that sense of effort.
The Graduate is a perfect example of this effort. If it was embraced as daring in its day, it seems today to be an exercise in “making a point.” For instance, the confusion and isolation of young Ben is expressed blatantly in the early party scene, and in an exaggerated style. Mostly assaulted by unwanted advice, Ben moves in a fog through the guests, who loudly offer advice directly to the camera. The camera makes caricatures of these guests, as one famously urges, “plastics,” to Ben. The message is painfully clear; Ben is a sad soul and a youthful victim in an artificial world ruled by greedy adults. A more modern film, Thank You for Smoking, is equally hard on the falseness of modern life, but it takes an approach through humor. There is a message of redemption and real values, but it is not so overtly pushed at the audience, and it relies more on a steady application of cynicism to make its point.
Less obvious than The Graduate is Cool Hand Luke, and for a very simple reason. Even though Cool Hand Luke seeks to make a statement about the abuses of authority in America, the crucial difference is that it centers on an anti-hero. In a sense, this is an extension of the 1950s “bad boy,” but with a ’60s style and emphasis. Luke is the anti-hero and rebel, but the film nonetheless makes it clear that he has depth, and even a kind of wisdom. When he sings “Plastic Jesus,” the other men are silent and respectful, so several points are strongly made. Luke is not bad, only misunderstood, and then the song itself vindicates his seeming to be bad in a false world. As tough as Luke supposedly is, in this ’60s film he is really relatively innocent, and this is another case of the decade’s style as too obviously making its points. Today’s movies are by no means so eager to present rebels and outcasts as decent people; in fact, they are more inclined to coldly examine deviant pathologies, and completely discard sympathy. Completely contrary to the agenda of Cool Hand Luke is Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy, as its visual style is also remarkably different. Luke is a victim, something of a rebel, but still a hero with whom the audience can identify. Park’s hero is nothing more than a man who lives a tortured life as an outcast and as a victim of another kind, but there is no real sense that he is meant to appeal to the audience in any way. It is interesting that the greater stylistic and visual beauty of Oldboy centers on such a hero, whose life is far darker than that of Luke.
Lastly, Bonnie and Clyde may be said to go even further than The Graduate in deliberately promoting a social message. Bonnie and Clyde are actual outlaws, thieves, and murderers, yet the film uses a lush visual style and an intimate narrative to present them as sympathetic. For example, a key moment is Bonnie’s reading to Clyde of the poem/song she has composed about their lives, and about how misunderstood they are. It may be that only in the 1960s, when films were so eager to glamorize rebellion, could such a statement be made. That is to say, the movie does not only seek to add human dimension to the criminals; it glamorizes them. Modern films, again, prefer to more clinically present such characters. A movie like American Gangster definitely presents sympathetic sides of its gangster hero, but this is never allowed to overshadow the criminality. More exactly, modern films treating the same subject are more inclined to present, not a point of view, but an entire landscape of reality.
In reflecting on the last chapter of Patterson’s Eve of Destruction, the thought that comes foremost to mind is that he could not have chosen a more perfect year in which to note the state of the nation. 1965 was, as Patterson reveals, an extraordinary year by virtue of precisely where it stands in American history. All the major social and political events, as well as the tides of feeling running through the culture, combine to give an impression of a society at the brink of powerful change. Contrast is the key to the year and to Patterson’s story here. It seems remarkable, for instance, that the same year which witnessed the huge success of The Sound of Music could also contain the first stirrings of potent, anti-war protest. It is remarkable that the force of Dr. King’s impact in Selma could precede worsening issues in black voter registration drives. Americans were buying more than ever, Americans were supporting Johnson’s policies, yet discontent was clearly rumbling under the surface. In every aspect of 1965 discussed, there is this consistent awareness of one force colliding with another, or a collision as waiting to happen.
What all of this translates to is an impetus to view the optimism Patterson talks about as something other than optimism. More exactly, the sense given is one of desperation, or a kind of urgent hope in America that, as long as certain forms are maintained, everything will be fine. Patterson subtitles the chapter, “The Rise of Unease,” and this is the prevalent note struck. If a spirit of optimism was in the nation in this year, it was one hanging on by a thread. The disregard by the government regarding Civil Rights progress, in fact, seems to reflect the evolution of feeling about the Vietnam War. Put another way, it was inevitable that both major issues could not be contained within the space of a year without gaining in drive. Even if more Americans, and nearly throughout the year, applauded the U.S. in Vietnam, there must also have been a sense that “the clock was ticking.” The changes to American society in the years immediately following 1965 were, in short, too immense to have simply arisen from the moment. By 1969, the country would be in turmoil, and particularly over the war, just as racial issues held at bay by promises would take center stage. All of this known, then, and as indicated by Patterson himself, 1965 was not so much a year of optimism as it was the year marking a final and desperate hope that American stability and prosperity could go on as imagined.