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The 70s Dimension
reviewed by Jesse Walker

November 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But by then the memory of the actual decade is fading, and soon it's been replaced by a few iconic clichés.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 heads explode.

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.

Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason and author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press).

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