The 1950s may have been represented by "the silent generation," but in New York City, the 20-somethings were anything but.
Thanks to Neflix, I had a chance to watch the 2001 documentary "New York in the 50s," produced by Betsy Blankenbaker, in her 30s at the time she did the film. She was enamoured with the era and was able to put this film together with the help of New York writer Dan Wakefield, who had attended the same Indianapolis high school as she did, only 30 years before. He wrote a good nonfiction book on the subject, "New York in the 50s" and was one of the producers of the movie.
A lot more was going on in the city at that time than gets publicized. We hear about the beats, but they were actually merely a fraction of the action at the time and were not totally embraced by the other writers, according to Wakefield. Anyone could crank out unstructured stream-of-consciousness narrative, said one. The city had a vibrant writing community, with authors such as J.D. Salinger, James Baldwin and Norman Mailer being some of the big guns.
The movie features some good interviews with -- or references to -- such people as Joan Didion (Slouching Towards Bethlehem), Robert Redford (the sole actor interviewed), Jackson Pollock, William F. Buckley, Steven Allen, Dan Wakefield, Nan Talese, Helen Weaver (a writer/girlfriend of Jack Kerouac), Calvin Trillin, Mark Van Doren (a hugely popular poet and college prof), Ed Fancher (publisher and founder of the Village Voice), Nat Hentoff, Ned Polsky, Lynne Sharon Schwartz and Gay Talese.
Betsy, the producer, said this was her first film, and she was attempting to cover a vast area on a limited budget. So, she had to focus mainly on one area, the writing community, even though there was a lot going on in painting and the arts, the stage, music (jazz) and TV. Each of those subjects deserves its own film.
She said she was surprised at the high price of archival footage, so she was limited in the footage she could use in the film. But I did see some good shots of Greenwich Village and Washington Square and its famous arch and fountain, a magnet for impromptu guitar strummers and poets.
Wakefield noted that while the 1960s got much of the attention for innovation, it was the 1950s that set the tone.
This was a very informative documentary for me. I learned about some authors I'd like to check out further, such as Wakefield, and others I'd like to revisit, like Didion and Baldwin ("Giovanni's Room" was recommended by one of the interviewees). They described NYC during the era as a very open, encouraging place.
For those of us who missed it, this film is a good look at a special time and place in our history.
....Karl in High Point, NC
- "New York in the 50s"