Directors take fresh look at familiar decade
When Carey Mulligan signed on to play the sophisticated English schoolgirl in “An Education,” she immediately had to set her friends straight on what kind of ’60s movie she was making.
Yes, it was set in London, but in suburban Twickenham, not the West End. And yes, it was set in the ’60s, but the decidedly swing-free 1961, which made the film as much a coming-of-age story for the decade as it was for Mulligan’s 16-year-old heroine.
“It’s a little period of English history that hasn’t often been depicted,” says “Education” director Lone Scherfig. “I remember Ken Loach telling us in film school that if you want to steer clear of cliches, go back and research. When you do that, you come up with a more faceted image than what you typically find in film.”
“An Education” stands as one of several movies this season to revisit the ’60s and examine that tumultuous decade from new angles. It’s a group that includes Joel and Ethan Coen’s “A Serious Man,” the screen adaptation of the Fellini-focused musical “Nine,” Tom Ford’s character-driven drama “A Single Man” and true-life soccer story “The Damned United.” Throw in Ang Lee’s “Woodstock” and you have a ’60s saturation perhaps not seen since the Age of Aquarius.
“It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?” marvels Maury Yeston, who wrote the music and lyrics for “Nine.” “It definitely speaks to the times we live in right now. All these movies were written when we were reconnecting with the idea that there is a social responsibility for our actions. It’s an intersection of two eras, allowing the luxury of going back and revisiting times and ideas with fresh eyes.”
The Coens, whose semiautobiographical “Serious Man” echoes their own Jewish upbringing in Minnesota, stop short of saying there’s any kind of movement afoot. And where Yeston sees similarities between the time periods, the brothers zero in on the differences.
“This movie wouldn’t have interested us 20 years ago,” Joel Coen says.
Adds Ethan, laughing: “It wouldn’t have even occurred to us 20 years ago. It’s the distance that makes it interesting. We’re so far removed from that time period that it now seems exotic. It’s just such a different time.”
While the Coens were listening to Jefferson Airplane to relieve the tedium of Hebrew school, Ford put his own personal spin on his adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel “A Single Man.”
Former Gucci creative director Ford hired “Mad Men” production designer Dan Bishop for the movie, set in 1962 Los Angeles, but also brought in furnishings and paintings from his own Los Angeles Neutra-designed home to differentiate “A Single Man” from what you may see on the AMC series.
“I think all of these movies are personal to the degree where they’re adding their own idiosyncratic touches,” Ford says. “When we look at a decade, we open a magazine and think, ‘That’s how it looked.’ But unless people throw out the contents of their homes every three or four years, that’s not going to be the case. It’s always a mix of things. So, if nothing else, these movies reclaim the ’60s from stereotypes that have piled up over time.”
“Damned United” director Tom Hooper saw his film as a chance to document a working-class England that has largely vanished in the wake of the convergence of big business, celebrity culture and sports.
“You usually see the ’60s through the prism of the counterculture and what the fashionable, cutting-edge elites were doing in London,” says Hooper, who has delved into historical revisionism many times, most recently with the HBO miniseries “John Adams.”
“Cinema perpetuates certain visual myths of time periods,” Hooper continues. “I think, with regard to the 1960s, we’ve reached the point where it’s time to challenge and subvert those myths.”