New York in the 50's
Screenplay : Betsy Blankenbaker (based on the book by Dan Wakefield)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 2001
Betsy Blankenbaker's documentary New York in the 50's is not, as the title suggests, so much about a particular time and place as it is about a specific group of likeminded people who, for a few short years, came together in a way that could not be imaginable in any other time or in another other location.
The entirety of the United States is generally thought to have been deep in repression and complacency throughout the Eisenhower era. New York, the film makes clear, was different. Rather than being a place of domesticity, it was a hot bed of artistry, innovation, and personal social rebellion. Individual seeds that would later flower into the mass revolts of the late 1960s were already spreading roots in the Big Apple after 1955, as beatnik poets and jazz musicians questioned conventional morality and conservative politics. It was a time of heavy drinking and community building, and everything was interpreted through psychoanalysis. Writers were gods and writing was seen as the calling of every politically minded individual. It says something about the film that, of the 30 artists who are interviewed, there is only one filmmaker (Ted Steeg) and one well-known actor (Robert Redford).
New York in the 50's is based on the 1992 autobiographical book by novelist and journalist Dan Wakefield, a native of Indiana who escaped to Columbia University in 1952 and found himself living the I-can-make-it-on-my-own life in New York for the next decade. While Wakefield spends more time on camera than any of the other interviewees, he is not the subject of the film.
Rather, he is a conduit through which flows the colorful stories of bohemian life in New York from roughly 1955 (the year "Rock Around the Clock" hit the airwaves) to 1963 (the year Kennedy was assassinated). Archival footage of such New York-based literary giants as James Baldwin, J. D. Salinger, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Norman Mailer (who, in the presented footage, is delivering a rant that constituted part of his famous "orgasm debate"), as well as Columbia professor Mark Van Doren and sociologist C. Wright Mills, is interspersed with interviews of Wakefield's contemporaries, most of whom were involved in either journalism or publishing.
The film, although relatively short at only 72 minutes, packs in a good deal of information. Blankenbaker, a Miami-based writer who first met Wakefield when she took a creative writing class he taught at Florida International University, keeps the film visually interesting by constantly it in motion--it's always moving through archival photos and film footage of New York. She gives a strong sense of time and place by interweaving the visual nostalgia with the spoken remembrances of those she interviewed. The result is ultimately more limited in scope than the title of the film would lead one to believe--with the focus being mainly on writers and artists who lived in Greenwich Village--but it is still a fascinating slice of modern history.
©2001 James Kendrick