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Award-season films feel ’60s nostalgia

Ripe dramas unfold amid changing times, mores

Do you take advantage of the new freedoms?” purrs sexy next-door neighbor Mrs. Samsky in the Coen brothers’ 1967-set “A Serious Man.” The question looms large over a number of this year’s award-season films, many of them set either on the cusp of that moment of revolutionary change in the ’60s (“An Education,” “A Single Man”), during its heyday (“A Serious Man,” “Nine,” “Pirate Radio”) or as its gleam began to wear off and turn darker (“The Damned United,” “The Lovely Bones”).

While it might be mere coincidence to see a confluence of films set during that mythical moment in pop-culture history — beginning around 1962 with the Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Cuban missile crisis and ending around 1973 with the end of the draft, the unraveling of Watergate and the dawning of disco — the current cinematic wave suggests there’s probably more going on than mere happenstance.

For one thing, the epoch marks a definitive period of coming-of-age for many of the films’ creators. Joel and Ethan Coen, for example, 13 and 10 respectively when their movie takes place, have called the film “semiautobiographical,” drawing their inspiration from the context and community in which they grew up.

Maury Yeston, the executive producer of “Nine,” who also wrote the music and lyrics for the original stage version, admits the film is “about my coming-of-age and being gobsmacked by a Fellini film that changed my life.” (Fellini’s “8½,” on which “Nine” is based, was released in the U.S. in 1963 when Yeston was 18.)

Likewise, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens were all born around the same time as the protagonist of “The Lovely Bones,” which begins in 1973. “I was exactly (protagonist) Susie’s age,” Walsh says. “It was an easy point of reference because we lived through it.”

Even “A Single Man’s” Tom Ford, who was only a child during the decade, identifies the era as “the moment when I was forming opinions about what is beautiful and what is not, and I think that resonates with a lot of people.”

If personal histories influenced the making of these films, there is also the sense that the ’60-’70s period still holds an enduring allure — and resonance — for contemporary filmmakers and audiences.

“There’s a certain fascination with that period,” says Ford, whose debut film follows the psychological journey of a gay man grieving the death of his lover in 1962. When “A Single Man” takes place, Ford says, “We’re on the brink of enormous change, with the civil rights and women’s liberation movements coming, where everything is held together by appearances.”

While “A Single Man” could be set in any era, Ford acknowledges that his character’s isolation is heightened by the fact that he’s a homosexual during a moment when such an identity was still hidden (a subtheme in the Emmy-winning “Mad Men,” also set during the New Frontier) — “even though right below the surface, literally, two years later, there’s this explosion of color, form, shape, and everyone is getting naked and growing their hair long.”

Like “A Single Man,” Lone Scherfig’s “An Education,” based on a memoir by Lynn Barber, is set in the early 1960s, in “that strange void,” says Scherfig, “between the postwar period and when London became swinging.” The story subtly parallels its young protagonist’s sexual and emotional coming out with the country’s own cultural shift from restraint to rebellion. “The most important prop was the hand-built Bristol car,” explains Scherfig, “which takes us to the West End, where the future is starting to take shape.”

If “A Single Man” and “An Education” reflect the beginnings of that seismic cultural change — “A Serious Man,” though set in 1967, also suggests the more gradual social transformation in a place like Minneapolis — “The Lovely Bones” embodies the era’s cynical end.

The film is told from the viewpoint of a teenage girl who is raped and murdered. Writer-producer Fran Walsh explains: “Susie carries into the film this tremendous optimism and lightness which is cut dead by Mr. Harvey. If you look at the end of the 1960s, at what the Manson family did, along with Vietnam and Watergate, all those things contaminated and soured the idealistic notion of what could have been — and that certainly plays into the story.”

This tension between innocence and cynicism, perseverance and resignation, order and chaos, informs all the films. As Focus Features exec James Schamus, who wrote and produced Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock” and distributed “A Serious Man” and Richard Curtis’ 1967-set “Pirate Radio,” says, “I do think there is something speaking to a class of filmmakers about freedom and the anxiety in that freedom.”

For “Nine’s” Yeston, it is these decades-old conflicts that are particularly resonant for our contemporary time. “I think our current era and our current worldview recapitulates the 1960s,” he says. “There was this clear division between Eisenhower and the ’50s going away and a new sense of values, a new leader, JFK and a new era dawning. And now, of course, we have a new liberalism and a new Kennedyesque figure in Obama.”

If we are reliving a similar moment in our national history, Schamus believes it’s one that we have yet to fully comprehend.

“I don’t think the American culture has honestly absorbed the potential of what was happening in the 1960s,” he says. “Late capitalism shut it down as a stylistic detour, and there’s very little understanding or acceptance of how deep were the structural changes — everything from male-female relations to gay liberation to what happened last November at the ballot box. These are things we all owe to the ’60s.” And as this recent cycle of films suggest, adds Schamus, “We’re still working it out.”

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