“Mad Men” is a nice show and all, but I’ve been wanting to learn about 1960s advertising without womanizing, boozing and blackfacing interrupting my experience. This past week at Yale, I was in luck. Posters across campus featuring dapper fellows in black suits and cheeky women in yellow dresses invited me to attend a screening of Tim Kirby’s documentary “Selling the Sixties: How Madison Avenue Dreamed the Decade,” with a Q&A featuring producer and Yale 2012 Poynter Fellow Adam Harrison Levy tacked on for good measure. As I walked to the event, I was hoping to soon be in a room full of people in retro clothing chatting over martinis and smoking their lungs black. My fellow attendees’ decidedly contemporary tennis shoes and jeans brought me back to reality — and 2012. No matter. Though “Selling the Sixties” is too short to fully accomplish its creator’s goals, it does a decent job of capturing and trying to explain the zeitgeist of yesterday.
What first struck me about the film — a real slap in the face — was learning that the BBC commissioned this documentary as a way to prepare the Brits for “Mad Men.” As Levy explained, the rights to show many of the advertisements in this documentary were cleared only in the UK, not in the USA. The footage is American, the interviewees are American, but the narrator — a pivotal point of any documentary — isn’t. Denis Lawson is a shining example of Proper British Dialect; kudos to him for not sounding condescending towards a foreign culture. He keeps a distant tone throughout, his words making him sound like a well-spoken but slightly detached teacher. He does know when to use his voice to acknowledge the anxieties of the period, as when he states that the main question of the abundant 1960s was “how to be happy, not how long will this happiness last,” but it’s still odd to hear a Brit tell me about America. His dialect, though it helps with objectivity, becomes a barrier to a full immersion into the narrative.
British narrator aside, the film goes full force into the American Sixties. The content moves in leaps and bounds, touching the ground only for fleeting moments. Even though the narrative is bookended by John F. Kennedy’s brief presidency and largely concerned with only one overarching question, i.e. asking what America’s material consumption really signified, there’s just too much stuff and too many interesting people. George Lois, a former adman and a model for Don Draper, provides funny reflections. Daniel Horowitz, a cultural historian, talks about the pioneering role of Ernst Dichter in exploring consumer behavior and sexualized consumer culture (in one ad, buyers talk about cars’ curves and softness in lingering detail). Joel Meyerowitz, a photographer, discusses Irish, Italian, Jewish and other “ethnic” young men who slammed the industry with bright, quick, sexy ads … and there’s still more! If only the documentary had the time to weave all this together and make a cohesive point.
The structure, though, is serviceable — and sometimes exceptional. The general presentation is, unsurprisingly for a documentary of this style, a mixture of talking heads, still images and archival footage: an interviewee says that the Sears and Roebuck catalogues were like Bibles; we see fingers stroking pages that promised glorious consumption. But then there are the unexpected moments, the truly striking ones, in which some of editor Michael Duly’s work cuts into the mind and into the heart in an instant. Consider the montage of images that accompanies an American-accented reading of Allen Ginsburg’s iconic “Howl” (1955), which equates America’s over-consumption and messy industrialization to the sacrifice-demanding pagan god Moloch. Factory work portrayals transition to a seemingly random shot of woman turning to the right with a slice of cake in her hands. The background sound is a cacophony of ad soundtracks. And the score effectively uses horns to hammer in the idea that a darkness aptly identified by Ginsberg lurks behind the trappings of abundance.
But just when the documentary is about to enter the more turbulent — the more interesting — part of the 60s after Kennedy’s assassination, it stops. Lights come on. Back to 2012.
Here at the Yale of the present, the black hole of midterm preparation sucked in most students, but a couple of us did manage to squeeze the screening into our schedules. But why did we care? We can’t be nostalgic for a decade that we never experienced and that’s so different from our own. Advertising now, Levy said, “is in a more fragmented landscape.” We have more than three channels. We lean on the internet, not newspapers or magazines. But according to Yale School of Art lecturer Jessica Helfand ’82 ART ’89, who includes “Selling in the Sixties” in the curriculum for her class “Studies in Visual Biography,” the 1960s still resonates today because the period parallels our own in very specific ways.
“Beyond the lure of Mad Men, the early 1960s was an era of cautious optimism. Not unlike contemporary culture — the Occupy movements, the Obama campaign for “hope” — it was an exciting time to be young and engaged in a greater good,” Helfand wrote in an email to the News. “And for all the aspirational similarities, we are also two generations transfigured by unprecedented tragedy: the assassination of a young President was, in a sense, the 9/11 of that era.”
If only we had a better Beatles equivalent than One Direction.