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Opinion: Pop culture is saturated with throwbacks to the 1960s right now – but why?

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is in part an ode to the decade – while shows like Mad Men and traces of ’60s sci-fi dystopian themes in literature also highlight how we’re drawn to the era.

Darren Mooney

IT SEEMS WE have the 1960s on the mind.

Pop culture seems saturated with throwbacks to the decade of hippies, free love, bright colours and mind expansion.

There has always been some measure of nostalgia for the decade, but it seems to have exploded in recent years. This is arguably most pronounced in big-screen science-fiction. In 2009, JJ Abrams resurrected Star Trek by taking the franchise back to its ’60s roots. He returned last year with Star Trek Into Darkness.

There are traces of ’60s sci-fi dystopias to be found in the recent spate of young adult science-fiction. Films like The Hunger Games, Divergent and The Maze Runner owe a debt to ’60s classics like François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 or even the visual design of The Prisoner.

On television, Masters of Sex follows the transition of the late ’50s into the ’60s. And then there’s Mad Men and its range of imitators – including the infamous flop Pan-Am.

Even British television is getting in on the act. Sky recruited Curb Your Enthusiasm producer and director Robert B. Weide to write and direct a prestigious ’60s-set Mr. Sloane, starring Nick Frost and Olivia Colman.

Meanwhile, on the BBC, Doctor Who celebrated its 50th anniversary with Matt Smith in the lead role, an iteration of the character heavily influenced by ’60s Doctor Patrick Troughton.

It is interesting to wonder where this recent fascination came from.

A fascination with mankind’s potential

This ’60s enthusiasm and idealism, the fascination with mankind’s potential, quickly gave way to the wry cynicism of the 1970s. Kennedy’s Camelot become Nixon’s Watergate. Counter-culture evolved from free-loving hippies to paranoid conspiracy theorists.

(This ’70s paranoia enjoyed its own wave of nostalgia in the 1990s. In the wake of the Cold War, The X-Files served as an unlikely hybrid of All The President’s Men and Kolchak: The Night Stalker.)

Some commentators suggest that it is simply a matter of timing. Adam Gopnik proposed ‘the Golden Forty-Year Rule‘, indicating that nostalgia moves in forty-to-fifty-year cycles.

However, Forrest Wickman has pointed out that waves of nostalgia are not so rigid. After all, the ’90s were highly nostalgic for the seventies – and ’80s nostalgia is also a trend.

If we are looking to find a particular “moment” for this shift in pop culture towards sixties nostalgie, the election of Barrack Obama in November 2008 would seem to fit the bill. The big summer release before Obama’s election was Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, a film described as “the first great post-9/11 film“.

In contrast, this wave of ’60s nostalgia got into full swing the following summer. Not only did Abrams resurrect Star Trek for a new generation, Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes became a surprise hit with audiences and critics alike.

Much has been made of the similarities between Obama and John F. Kennedy. After all, Caroline Kennedy famously endorsed Obama as her father’s heir while Christoph von Marschall’s popular German biography of Obama explicitly labels him “The Black Kennedy”.

Themes in political campaigns

Obama’s election campaign captured a lot of the enthusiasm and idealism associated with ’60s. It was something that his campaign consciously played. Commentators have remarked on the similarities between Kennedy’s “new frontier” and Obama’s “new foundation”. Obama was a celebrity and icon in a way that no President since Kennedy had been – eclipsing even Bill Clinton.

However, it seems more likely that Obama’s successful election – and the conscious effort to frame it in terms of John F. Kennedy – are a reflection of this nostalgia, rather than a direct cause of it.

Obama’s political victory is often framed as a rejection of the cynicism and pessimism of the Bush era. Whether or not Obama has delivered on this promise continues to be a source of much debate.

There are quite a few parallels to be drawn between the current mood and the atmosphere of the ’60s – which emerged in a large part as a response to the repression and conservativism of the preceding decade, as anxieties and opinions that had long been repressed sought expression and articulation.

It seems like only now, a decade-and-a-half after 9/11, we have the distance necessary to talk about that period of recent history. While the effects still linger – the NSA scandal, continued debates over Guantanamo – it seems that people are willing to move past the immediate trauma and look towards the future.

There are other parallels, of course. The recent unrest in Ferguson or even the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012 suggest that perhaps the United States has not entirely delivered on the promise made by the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1960s.

A wry look at some elements of the age 

After all, a significant portion of modern ’60s nostalgia might be described as sceptical, interrogating and examining the romance of that decade.

Mad Men deconstructs the romantic narrative of the time, asking viewers to confront the realities behind the nice visuals and memorable iconography. Both Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes play out in the ruins (or soon-to-be-ruins) of San Francisco, the city most closely associated with the late ’60s counter-culture moment.

And yet, despite that, there is a conscious effort to reclaim some of the optimism that defined the decade.

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is in part an ode to the ’60s. Borrowing heavily from 2001: A Space Odyssey, it features a run-down and secretly-funded NASA trying to save a world that has forgotten that mankind walked on the moon.

“We used to stare up and wonder at our place in the stars,” reflects Matthew McConnaughey’s Cooper early in the film. “Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.”

The movie’s teaser was composed of images of space flight; its opening shot features abandoned dust-covered toy models of rockets and space ships.

In many ways, it plays out as a tribute to the idealism embodied in NASA, an organisation that has seen its budget and resources cut dramatically since the mid-’60s. NASA has found itself the focus of these debates in the real world, as well.

“Right now, NASA’s annual budget is half a penny on your tax dollar,” Neil Degrasse Tyson told Congress in 2012: “For twice that—a penny on a dollar—we can transform the country from a sullen, dispirited nation, weary of economic struggle, to one where it has reclaimed its 20th century birthright to dream of tomorrow.”

Perhaps this is the heart of the modern ’60s nostalgia – a desire to look forward and upwards in wonder once again. To hope for a better tomorrow.

Darren Mooney has a movie blog, them0vieblog.com . You can get in touch with Darren here. To read more articles by Darren for TheJournal.ie click here.

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