by Jesse Walker
06 , 2005
| Like wine and garbage, decades change as they age,
adopting new flavors, textures, odors. At first they seem almost
like part of the present. Gradually, differences begin to appear,
in style and then in attitude. You catch an old episode of Homicide,
and you find yourself noticing the hairstyles -- funny, they didn't
look odd the first time you saw the show, way back in 1994. Then
you flip through an old magazine, and you're startled to see prominent
Republican pols preaching peace and warning of the dangers of
the imperial state. Did Jack Kemp really call
Clinton's Balkan war "an international Waco"? Did Democrats really
support a president who declared, "You
can't say you love your country and hate your government"? What
country was this?
But by then the memory of the actual decade is fading, and soon
it's been replaced by a few iconic clichés. Everyone knows the
standard '60s montage set to the strains of Hendrix or Buffalo
Springfield. The '70s in turn were reduced to Nixon, disco, gas
lines, and wide lapels. They don't have a '90s montage yet, but
wait another 10 years -- it'll get here.
Finally, something splits open: The era is so distant, so alien,
that when you look past those familiar icons you see a landscape
where every little thing seems faintly strange. The most ephemeral
cultural detritus becomes fascinating. Everything is an artifact.
The 1970s have clearly reached that stage, to judge from Other
Cinema's DVD The 70s Dimension. Half the disc is a series
of old commercials and public service announcements, collected
here by the filmmakers Matt McCormick and Morgan Currie. A few
are famous -- if you've never seen that tear trickling down the
face of Iron Eyes Cody, the
Sicilian kid from the bayous who spent his adult life pretending
to be an Indian, then here's your chance to watch the PSA that
is his most lasting contribution to cinema. But mostly they're
forgettable; or, rather, they were forgettable at the time. Air
them today and they'd certainly stand out. These days the government
doesn't allow cigarette ads on TV at all, and if it did the advertisers
probably wouldn't attempt anything so easily lampooned as these
shots of a smoker snowmobiling. Behind him there's a jingle: "He's
an independent guy/He likes to set his own kind of style/Doesn't
care what's in or new..."
That's the first commercial in the package, and for a while the
DVD seems geared toward fans of archaic propaganda. The second
spot announces that it wants to clear up any questions about "how
hot dogs are made and what goes into them." (Turns out that "a
good hot dog is a particularly wholesome food.") Another clip
promotes the People Mover as a transit panacea, a conclusion that
will come to a surprise to the citizens of Detroit, who have shelled
out millions for what may be the country's most useless public-transportation
system. A Marine recruitment ad mostly promises cute female companionship.
One Tab commercial seems especially designed to make feminist
But there are straightforward segments as well, promoting everything
from toaster safety to the Bahai faith. Still other items seem
absurd or surreal. Jack LaLanne bubbles over with enthusiasm for
the "twistaway twister." There's a strangely transfixing PSA from
the U.S. Department of Agriculture, featuring eggs on a conveyer
belt and a merry electronic soundtrack. Wonder Bread attempts
to associate itself with "the rich and fabulous people." ABC urges
us to watch Starsky & Hutch ("You'd never know they were
cops -- unless you broke the law!"). Muhammad Ali starts to read
a pitch for a boxing special, then starts improvising instead.
One entry offers no narration, no titles, just close-ups of furniture;
it feels less like an ad than an inanimate fetish film.
The second half of the disc reassembles industrial, educational,
and advertising films of the era into six experimental shorts.
This program is curated by the filmmakers Craig Baldwin (Tribulation
99, Sonic Outlaws, Spectres of the Spectrum) and Noel Lawrence
(the man behind the inspired J.X.
Williams hoax), and if you're familiar with their work you'll
have a general idea of what to expect. Ever since Rick Prelinger
put his archive of ephemeral films online and invited independent
directors to borrow freely, there's been a glut of movies like
this, but that hasn't kept some of them from being exceptional.
(I'm especially fond of Prelinger's Panorama Ephemera and
Bill Morrison's Decasia.) All of the efforts on this disc
are watchable, and some are better than that; the best -- certainly
the most visually inventive -- is We Edit Life, created
by Vikki "People Like Us" Bennett.
The back cover of The 70s Dimension describes the decade
as an "impossibly innocent world," a description belied not only
by any half-decent history of the period but by the contents of
the disc itself, which are anything but innocent. But that's another
part of the process of decade-decay: the projection of naivete
onto everything that came before us. It'll happen to this era
too, as our children look back on those ridiculously rosy days
when reality TV wasn't compulsory, the Internet couldn't eat you,
and the streets weren't crawling with vat-grown clones of Saddam
Hussein. I can't wait for the DVD.
Walker is managing editor of Reason and author of Rebels
on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU