Finally, Some Films That Don't Make the 1960s Look So Groovy

A new crop of movies skips the usual rosy nostalgia to portray the decade as a time when young people were directionless and uncertain—much like the other decades that came after it.

CBS Films

While it’s likely entirely coincidental, it’s nevertheless fitting that the Coen brothers’ latest movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, has its initial release on December 6. That was the day of the Altamont music festival in 1969, at which four people died and about which Ralph J. Gleason wrote: “If the name ‘Woodstock’ has come to denote the flowering of one phase of the youth culture, ‘Altamont’ has come to mean the end of it.”

The 1960s are often remembered in pop culture for the “youth culture” Gleason wrote about—the wave of hippies, drugs, rock and roll, passionate activism, and social revolution we see in films like 1969 and Forrest Gump and catch the tailwind of in Almost Famous. But this year, the 6th brings an anniversary and movie that both serve as reminders that the storied optimism and magic of the era did, indeed, end, and was perhaps has been exaggerated to begin with.

Llewyn Davis’s eponymous main character (Oscar Isaac) is a ’60s folk musician leading a fragile existence in New York. The film takes place in the weeks before Bob Dylan’s first performance in the city in early 1961, capturing a moment before the East Village music scene became the center of a cultural movement. Llewyn Davis is, along with David Chase’s Not Fade Away and Olivier Assayas’s French film Something in the Air, the third film in a year to look back at the 1960s with skepticism rather than with stereotypes and backward-looking romanticization. All three remind audiences that, contrary to the story often told in retrospect, some people faced private tragedy and inner turmoil even in the open-minded, happy-go-lucky 1960s, and many came out just as lost as when they entered. They tell stories about quests for artistic glory, but fame and success come only to characters in the background, if at all; what we get instead are close-up portraits of youthful aimlessness. And the fact that they’ve been released to the world in the midst of a flurry of hand-wringing over the aimlessness of Millennials reveals these films to be both rooted in history and contemporary.

Inside Llewyn Davis’s main character is not destined to lead an artistic movement, even if he has the views for it: Though he’s secure in his convictions, Llewyn is insecure in life. He wanders from couch to couch in New York like a man in permanent limbo. The characters around him can seem archetypal and cartoonish at first, until you realize that we’re seeing them through Llewyn’s eyes, filtered by his preoccupations and rigid determinations of how the world should work. For example, when Jean (Carey Mulligan), his friend, fellow musician, and sometime lover, shares that she might one day like to settle down in the suburbs with kids and that playing music may just be a way to get there, Llewyn tells her, “It’s a little careerist, it’s a little square, and it’s a little sad.”

These characters—which, besides Jean, include a heroin-addicted jazz musician (John Goodman) and a pair of Upper West Side benefactors—in turn offer brief glimpses of how that world views Llewyn: skeptically, and sometimes as a nuisance. At one point, a Chicago club manager explains why he’s hiring a rival musician and not Llewyn: “He’s a good kid. He connects with people.” It’s a description in direct contrast to Llewyn’s near constant state of tension and anxiety, of distant apprehension toward a society that he can’t find a place in. Clearly, Llewyn doesn’t have the charisma or the ambition to create the change he’d like to see in society; he searches for a revolutionary triumph, but his puttering assures that he’ll fall short.

Something in the Air and Not Fade Away depict characters with equally heartfelt commitments—to anarchist politics and to rock and roll, respectively—and both films are as skeptical about them as Llewyn Davis. They carefully portray these allegiances as part of their characters’ youthful wandering—as the characters’ attempts to find their own way in life, rather than as enduring beliefs.

Of the three, Not Fade Away­ manages to be both the most sympathetic to its character’s cause and the most scathing about the actual possibilities of its success. We meet Douglas (John Magaro) as a high school senior in 1963, right before the fall of Camelot gives way to the British Invasion. Douglas starts a band, and while Chase treats the band members’ enthusiasm and smug self-assurance somewhat dismissively, he takes their escapist drive dead seriously by giving it validation from an adult character: In the film’s most devastating scene, Douglas’s father, Pat (James Gandolfini), with whom Douglas has a turbulent relationship, confesses his own dissatisfaction with small-town New Jersey life, his regret at missed opportunities, and his brief thoughts a few weeks earlier about running off to California with a woman he just met.

Pat, of course, stays put, and it’s Douglas who takes off for L.A. to study film. But through the father, Chase shows empathy for the son, even as he steadfastly indicates that the future he is aiming for may be more fantasy than reality. Pat’s statement that “real life’s too much like what it seems” is one the film both accepts and rues, and it tints the film’s vision of the ’60s as a moment that offered new visions of liberation that could only ever be half fulfilled. Like Llewyn in relation to the folk movement, Douglas remains an outsider to the rock-and-roll world that showed him the possibility of a different, more exciting existence.

Something in the Air’s Gilles (Clément Métayer) faces a similar predicament, one best expressed by the film’s French title, Après Mai, or After May—a reference to the May 1968 student riots that were at first the most hopeful expression, and then the most disillusioned, of the revolutionary 1960s in France. The movie begins in 1971; Gilles and his high school friends are still embroiled in the leftist politics of the time. But Assayas pointedly portrays nothing of the wider implications and consequences of their protests and graffiti scrawls—he shows no officials considering their demands and no changes in their school’s policies, let alone in society at large. Whatever energy existed in 1968 now has been stuffed into a bubble where the remaining players argue over Maoism, Communism, Trotskyism, and Anarchism.

Assayas doesn’t judge his characters harshly (as with Chase and Don’t Fade Away, there’s a strong autobiographical element here). Their commitments are not portrayed as insincere, but they do seem arbitrary, easily replaceable when a new passion presents itself. Gilles and his friends all begin as passionate revolutionaries and then, much like Douglas’s wandering to L.A. and film school, get swept up by other interests: painting, new lovers, movies, or eastern mysticism.

Llewyn Davis, then, profiles a man being left behind by the start of a movement, while Not Fade Away portrays one unable to realize all the invigorating possibilities that once seemed open to him; Something in the Air, meanwhile, portrays a group of friends who arrive just too late for the party. All these films provide counter-narratives to the rebellious enthuasiasm so often associated with the 1960s, instead offering stories about young people without a chosen purpose.

In giving voice to that view, much in these movies speaks directly to worries about Millennials. All three films feature characters concerned about creating new identities and throwing off their privilege (parents’ occupations come up often), complaints about useful careers (“They’re giving college credits for making movies now?” Pat berates Douglas in Not Fade Away), and doubts about naïveté. These issues aren’t much different from those raised about today’s younger generation, who are persistently contrasted with their elders, and subsequently are faulted for their seeming comparative deficiencies, deemed incapable of growing up, and characterized as narcissistic, callow adults unable to fend for themselves. Millennials are “an amiable, tech-savvy, yet minimally employable crop of Americans who will ultimately need more subsidies than a dairy farmer” and have “contrived a new level of inertia,” is one way of putting it.

In contrast to such dismissive opinions, then, it’s tempting to see these movies as acts of commiseration from one generation’s great artists to their younger cohort—a figurative pat on the back telling young people not to worry because they went through the same thing; a bit of sympathetic universalism, assuring them that to feel aimless and lost in your art and your life is not a result of when you were born but of being born at all.

But that's not these films’ sole message. Their creators still have a rebellious streak—one that won’t let them believe the hype about their own generation, either. It leads to a separate message, cautioning younger viewers: “Whatever success we gained was stumbled upon, so do yourselves a favor: Ignore our judgments and advice.”