Saturday, May 24, 2008

compact boom, sure--but fins endure

The 1960 Lincoln Continental had an engine that was 430 cubic inches - the largest in the industry. By '61 this car had hydraulic windshield wipers. They worked off the power steering pump, which was placed directly ahead of the engine so that it, in turn, worked off the crankshaft. Really unusual (and, shall we say, unnecessary). The electric window motors were sealed in liquid rubber and had stainless steel shafts. Each Continental was tested for three hours ("hot tested," meaning: someone drove it hard on the road), after which it was "torn down" for visual inspection. A computer-like device checked every electrical component.

The 1960 Cadillac, on the other hand, was toned down from the '59 model. Thomas Bonsall's The Cadillac Story reports in this context that "the compact car boom was on; big and flashy were no longer 'in.'" Toned down? Big no longer in? Look at that car!

In any case, the folks at Cadillac didn't have to try as hard as before to win the luxury market: Imperial and Lincoln "had both largely self-destructed, and Packard had withdrawn from the highest end of the car-buying game.

But for all the talk of "the compact car boom," luxury models for 1960 still look (at least to us now) like the car of the 50s. They don't yet have that distinctive sixties look. Compare the big black machine above to the Corvette of '62, here at left. In design terms, the difference is epochal.

Does that mean 1960 is still old and '62 is new? In the auto industry, it seems to be the case. To be a little more specific: designers for the high end market still believed in 1960 that their wealthy constituents preferred to look back rather than forward for design, seeking reputation, solidity, proven status. Later these same folks would strive for the opposite values--the new, the untried, the with-it.

More in this sense (new-looking rather than traditional) like the Corvette, the "Corvair" was presented as a car for the 60s. The engine was in the back and it was poorly designed (unssafe at any speed, in fact)--but it sure looks "modern" in the 6-minute feature film (below). (Thanks to Tim Carmody who pointed me toward it.) This was the disastrous design that made Ralph Nader famous.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Robertson Davies says...

"The world is full of people whose notion of a satisfactory future is, in fact, a return to the idealised past."--"A Voice from the Attic", 1960

poem to conquered land: I lay claim to wonder

John Tagliabue published this poem in the August 1960 issue of Poetry magazine. It's our 1960 version of Wallace Stevens's "Anecdote of the Jar." The poem (shaped like a flag, or a boat with a mast) plants its alphabetic flag on American soil and takes dominion everywhere, and, depending on the valuation of the simile, is ironically or not ironically a direct descendent of Columbus's hegemonic gesture. The imagination rules, and brings over a load of bric-a-brac from elsewhere (this poem itself). Poetics is inherently (theoretically and perhaps hilariously) colonialism.

tried to be non-alarmish

Dr. Benjamin Spock (he shall be "Ben" to us, as he was to his family and friends) was the first pediatrician to study psychoanalysis in order to understand children's needs and family dynamics. Somewhat daring there, it seems. But cautious and ratings-savvy in other ways. In February of '60, he was preparing the revise the directions in Baby and Child Care on artificial respiration for yet another edition, so readers could learn the new mouth-to-mouth method. His illustrator would need to do new drawings, and the good doctor was concerned to make sure, for the sake of young kids, that the victim wouldn't "look like an old corpse and make the procedure look like cannibalism or a perversion." So the baby that can't breathe looks so sweet and happy that one wonders what the emergency is.

Ben was later known as a anti-Vietnam dove, of course, and something of a consistent lefty. By in 1960 he was known exclusively as "the baby doctor," super-famous for his accessibly modern, oft-updated book on baby-rearing with its new child-centric approach.

Actually, to Ben, looking back later: "I was a hawk in 1960. I thought we had to be strong to stand up to the Soviet Union." He appeared in campaign ads for JFK and believed in the campaign rhetoric about the so-called "missile gap." The Kennedy people felt Spock was perfect for them: "We figured a lot of mothers would vote for Jack if they saw him with Spock," a Kennedy aide told the Times.

When JFK flew in for a campaign stop in Youngstown, Ohio, Ben drove over from Cleveland to be ready to greet the candidate. Waited on the tarmac, entered the plane, chatted with Jack, and was supposed to shake hands with Spoke as they both left the plane. But there was such a crowd, and JFK waved so happily at them, that he forgot to do the handshake. So Ben went to the campaign hotel and had a photo taken with the Senator.

Back on that plane in Youngstown. Upon seeing Spoke, JFK had said: "My wife is a great fan of yours."

He was never (according to him) a pacifist. We should have gone in against Hitler long before we did. And he supported NATO and even the Korean War. But this new war in Indochina was different and he sought some role in the peace movement. By the middle and end of the 60s, he was completely in it. But in 1960 he was worried about what the mothers who read his book would think. SANE (the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy), its officers then seeking a reputation, invited Ben to be a sponsor of them. He said no. This is what he wrote:

I am in agreement with [your] policy.... But when I was first asked to participate in its work a couple of years ago I declined on the following basis: I have no expert knowledge at all about the relationship between radiation and health... If I were to take any official part in the work of the Committee I think that many parents would assume 1) that I was, to some degree, an expert and 2) that as an expert I was alarmed by the present dangers of irradiation.

To put it another way: I have tried as parent educator to be non-alarmish and I was to save my influence to use in areas in which I feel I have competence.... As you can see from my protesting I feel ashamed to turn you down, but I have to. I hope you ... will forgive me."

Sources: Lynn Z. Bloom, Doctor Spoke: Biography of a Conservative Radical; Thomas Maier, Dr. Spock: An American Life.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Cage sans radio on TV

The exact date seems to be uncertain, but at some point in January 1960 John Cage actually appeared on the TV game show, I've Got a Secret. Thanks to Tom Devaney for pointing this out to me, and to WFMU for capturing the video (from re-runs?). Click here to view the video (on YouTube - where it's been viewed a remarkable 110,000 times as of this writing and has received a 4-out-of-5 star rating, and 346 comments from viewers).

Cage is permitted to perform "Water Work" in its entirety. While there are a number of condescending comments about Cage's music, on the whole the show treats him with respect. They even decided (spontaneously?) to give up the usual game format (four panelists try to guess what Cage does).

The composition was meant to include the sounds of five radios playing, but you won't hear them in this performance. It seems that two unions could not agree on which of them was supposed to plug the radios into the wall sockets, and of course it was forbidden, in a TV studio, for Cage or any other non-union person to plug them in. So no radios.

Friday, May 9, 2008

TV in '60: which Steven Douglas is that?

Two thousand live dramas for television were produced in the period from 1947 (the debut of NBC's Kraft Television Theatre) to 1961 (when CBS's Playhouse was cancelled). Two thousand! Alas (as Gary Edgerton notes) fewer than 100 of those 2000 are available in archives to be viewed and assessed by critics. We'll never know, from these works of art themselves, how the decline toward the year 1960 happened. Of course in sociological and economic terms, we know a lot about why 1960 was a crucially dismal year in TV's slide downward toward what Kennedy's FCC chief, the New Frontiersman Newton Minow (great name!), called "a vast wasteland" in his famous May 1961 speech.

Perry Mason on CBS peaked just after '60. It ran from 1957 to 1966 and was a top-20 show pretty much the whole time. In 1961-62 it reached number 5 on the charts. "The triumph of Perry Mason," wrote Thomas Leitch, "is a triumph of formula."

1960 was the year in which TV Westerns started to fall. They had become so prominent and so much a part of TV culture that it must have been hard to believe at first that this was really happening. But it had been a brief run, really. There were sixteen Westerns in 1957-58, 24 in '58-'59, a peak of 28 in 1959-60. Then 22 in 1960-61. Ten had been in the top 30 in 1957-58, only 8 in the top 30 in 1960-61.

The Untouchables first aired on October 15, 1959. The Twilight Zone ran from October 2, 1959 to September 18, 1964. The Andy Griffith Show debuted in our year, on October 3, 1960 (it ran until halfway through 1968, which is simply hard for me to fathom).

And My Three Sons also came on the air in '60: September 29, to be exact. Its fans saw 369 shows by the end (1972). It's Don Fedderson's epic family saga. A single dad, his wifeless state mostly a repressed secret. Pipe-smoke wisdom from Fred MacMurray, named--without an iota of political or historical relevance--"Steven Douglas." Or maybe a political irony: Stephen A. Douglas was of course one of the greatest orators ever, a bombast in the pre-modern mode; our 1960 Steven Douglas was a shoulder-shrugging understater of domestic punditry, a model of modest self-sacrifice for "my boys." Of course in another sense MacMurray's domesticated Douglas and our 19th-century Douglas put the same twist on the American version of Protestant capitalism: the historical Douglas advocated a democratic doctrine that emphasized equality of all citizens (of course for Douglas only whites were citizens), in which individual merit and social mobility was not a main goal. What counted implicitly was one's natural standing and the nation's job was to make it possible for people like 1960's Steve Douglas to do what he does and remain in a position to do it, so that Mike, Robbie and Chip (and later Ernie) can grow up without becoming delinquents and freaks and the gone wife's father and later "Uncle Charlie" can continue to get free meals in the suburban manor.

Meantime, while the father's social mobility declines in importance, on January 21, 1960, the day after JFK was sworn in (new era!), Playhouse 90 was forced to cut back from weekly to twice monthly.

On election day, November 8, 1960, there were 90 million TV sets in the U.S., nearly one for every two Americans. The Kennedy-Nixon debates were watched by 66.5 million viewers! They were the first such debates of this sort (aired on TV but--more--really made for TV) and they remain to this day the highest-rated presidential debates ever. The last debate earned a 66 rating. Note too that the viewership went up from the first to the third debate, as word got out about how exciting and important they were - not down as is usually the case. (In RatingsWorld this effect is something like what you see for the seventh game of a World Series, like Red Sox-Reds in '75. As the quality of contest itself became clear, excitement grew.)

Newton Minow (I still can't get over that name) didn't just say that TV was "a vast wasteland" when he spoken at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Washington on May 9, 1961. Here is a little more context. He told industry executives to "sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit-and-loss sheet or rating book to distract you--and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland." As Gary Edgerton in The Columbia HIstory of American Television unironically observes: "[T]he association's membership had never before heard anyone make a literary allusion to T. S. Eliot when discussing television."

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

your inner Kurtz

The reviews of Peter Matthiessen's short World War II novel Raditzer began appearing in late January '61. I can't find a publication date but I'm just going to say it's in late 1960. Matthiessen was 33 at the time. It was his third novel.

There's a Raditzer in every outfit circa 1944: the sniveling, weird little screw-up who can't pull his weight and adds to others' burden. Then there's Charlie Stark: sane, socialized, from a wealthy family. Stark wanted combat duty but was turned down, rejected a commission and ended up drafted onto this troop transport.

It turns out that Charlie Stark's war is as much (internally, emotionally) against the existence of the Raditzer type as against the Axis. It's a war between disgust and compassion. Compassion wins; Stark claims that Raditzer is his friend.

But Raditzer is an awful man, and eventually his lying and bragging get him thrown overboard - by real war-weary folks who have no Starkian ambivalence. Stark hurts from having connected himself (in large measure unconsciously) to badness.

Raditzer arranges for Stark to meet a cafe girl in Hawaii. In such scenes the priveleged naive at-sea Stark is pushed toward obsession and danger.

What's in it for us? Just another war novel written in '60? (Why so many? I've speculated on this previously.)

Well, Stark's Pacific tour of duty is prepared for completely - long before Raditzer enters his life. You see, Stark has been a student of art (ring the loud gongs of recognition here)...a student of art, you see, and he is compelled by the works of Paul Gauguin. He's obsessed with Polynesian symbols of love and hate, of life and death. In effect he's gone to fight World War II in the Allied navy for the wrong reasons - "wrong" in the geopolitical sense; wrong in the sense the conventional adjusted well-off American should comprehend and repress. Stark has gone to find - he's Conrad's Marlowe - the heart of his aesthetic and sexual darkness, lured there by art rather than by the nobility of the American adventure against fascism and imperialism. Stark is the aesthetic imperialist who needs Raditzer to bring him to the point of recognizing his (Stark's) own evil.

Ah, art. It'll bring out your inner Kurtz every time.