Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): A Quick One - 1969

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Quick One - 1969

[As December, and with it 2008, comes to a close, let me take a moment to look back on several recently viewed (but undiscussed) movies. Each "Quick One" will be a paragraph, with the open invitation for you to keep the discussion going by leaving comments.]

An offbeat, overlooked movie from the late eighties - at which point the baby boomers were on the cusp of middle age and the sixties were just recent enough to seem familiar, long enough ago to foster warm nostalgia. This was the time of "The Wonder Years," Field of Dreams, and the Beatles catalogue hitting CD. To my pleasant surprise, 1969 (directed by the writer of the widely-considered-sentimental-hogwash On Golden Pond, unseen by me) is initially a kind of anti-myth. Much as I love the nostalgic wallowing of boomers (and I do, kind of - my parents were of that generation, and their photo albums provide endless fascination), it's refreshing to be reminded that not everyone was tripping on Haight-Ashbury. At first glance, 1969 has all the generational touchstones. There's pot-smoking, LSD-dropping, passionate student speeches against the war, riots on campus, hitchhiking through the countryside, older brothers going off to Vietnam, the moon landing on TV. But each of these touchstones is gently subverted and we're surprised to discover that Scott (Kiefer Sutherland), who looks like a hippie, is sex-shy and nervous about drugs, while Ralph (Robert Downey, Jr.), who freaks out on acid and is the more openly rebellious of the two friends, wears the letterman jacket of a jock, and is, homesick, the first to bail out of Scott's free-spirited cross-country jaunt. When Neil Armstrong steps onto the lunar surface, only the uptight father (Bruce Dern, much more at home in this context than as an acid trip guide/guru) is in front of the TV to shout an unconvincing, "Yeah!" However, despite its charm, plot is not 1969's strong point and we wind up with embarrassing speechifying and a pathetically trite denouement: old'uns & young'uns joining forces to oppose the war (though there's never any discussion of the issues at stake; it's just taken for granted that Vietnam is "wrong"). Just stop the film at the point when Winona Ryder, cute as hell, flashes a peace sign at a passing convoy of soldiers. Did I mention she was in this? Actually, this scene exhibits a mixture of romanticism, ambivalence, and ambiguity which the remainder of the picture sadly eschews. Would have been a good closer.

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