How Will We Remember the 1960s?

by James Wallace Harris, 5/16/21

Anyone who knows me, or reads my blog, knows I’m obsessed with memory. Even before my memory access speeds began declining I’ve always felt a desperation to hang onto what I learned even though I know most of it slips naturally away. I guess all those tests in school gave me a complex about poor recall.

Memory has many fascinating aspects, especially all the ways our memories fool us. We believe things are true because our memories tell us they’re true. Even when confronted with conclusive evidence, we often prefer what our memories tell us to external facts. All through my sixties I’ve been examining what I thought I remembered from growing up in the 1960s. Too often, the impressions I’ve maintained have proved wrong.

Because of an online discussion about science fiction in the 1960s my instant recall told me there must have been several hundred great science fiction novels published during that decade. However, as the discussion progressed my memory had trouble dredging up all those great titles.

My memory gave me the illusion there were enough wonderful science fiction novels published in the 1960s to fill a huge bookcase. Where did that impression come from? I assumed because my memories told me I read hundreds of science fiction novels I loved while growing up. Were those memories true? Thinking about it now I realized there are a number of ways to double check my brain’s records:

  • Look up the actual number of successful SF books published in the 1960s
  • Recall and list all the books I remember reading in the 1960s
  • Recall and list all the SF books from the 1960s I read in later decades
  • Research the memories of my contemporizes about what they read
  • Find out what books young science fiction fans read today from the 1960s
  • Read what literary scholars studying the 1960s consider the best SF books

I realized that my initial reaction to the online discussion was I wanted young people to replicated what I found great in the 1960s. That’s a typical old person hope, but it’s completely unrealistic. Newer generations are busy consuming all the books coming out in their own decade. What they read from past decades is always very minimal.

In other words, younger generations and scholars get a distillation of the past. Not only that, but they are going to interpret the past by current day mindsets. The chances of them experiencing what I remember is very small. So why do geezers want their cherished past persevered? Is it to validate their own memories? Is it the hope of keeping the things they loved alive across time?

For whatever reason, I want the essential aspects of the 1960s remembered accurately by history. The trouble is I’m not sure I correctly remember the 1960s myself. I’m probably not. Maybe what I’m doing is trying to write my own correct history now that I’m older and working on my wisdom skills.

For the purpose of this essay I’m using science fiction novels as one tiny test case of remembering the 1960s. I have a model in my head built from memories of what the 1960s were like. I’m interested in the mental models people are constructing today about that decade. Even focusing on this one microscopic piece of pop culture leaves many problems regarding memory to consider.

Is my white male American viewpoint of the 1960s science fiction too limiting? Do my contemporaries who were women and minorities remember 1960s science fiction differently? Bookworms growing up in Russia, China, Brazil, Vietnam, etc. will have experienced a much different decade than I did. For the purpose of this essay, I’ll focus on the U.S., however Great Britain plays a large role in my memory too. I also read fanzines back then where readers from around the world, including countries where English wasn’t the standard language, reviewed books. But this only provided hints of what science fiction was being published in foreign countries.

The online discussion I mentioned above got started because we read a link to “An Uneven Showcase of 1960s SF,” a 2019 review from The Los Angeles Review of Books covering The Library of America’s two volume set American Science Fiction: Eight Classic Novels of the 1960s, which remembers these eight novels:

  • Poul Anderson, The High Crusade (1960)
  • Clifford D. Simak, Way Station (1963)
  • Roger Zelazny, … And Call Me Conrad (This Immortal) (1965)
  • Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon (1966)
  • R. A. Lafferty, Past Master (1968)
  • Joanna Russ, Picnic on Paradise (1968)
  • Samuel R. Delany, Nova (1968)
  • Jack Vance, Emphyrio (1969)

Our group was asking: Are these books really how literary history will remember 1960s science fiction? Personally, I don’t believe any of them will make it to the long term pop culture memory of 2050. However, Library of America does give us a clue with their other published science fiction books. That’s because their famous uniform volumes focus on authors and not works. So far they have published sets on these SF writers:

PKD also produced significant work in the 1950s and 1970s, but it seems his 1960s novels are the most remembered. Le Guin’s career covered decades but her most famous science fiction came out in the 1960s and 1970s. Vonnegut is also mostly remembered for his 1960s novels. Bradbury was mainly famous for his work in the 1950s, and Butler for work in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Library of America will not be the sole arbiter of who remembers science fiction from the 1960s, but I do believe they have made good guesses so far, at least for American Sci-Fi. But using Library of America and the SF authors they favor, are these then the science fiction novels future readers will remember 1960s science fiction by:

  • The Man in the High Castle (1962) by Philip K. Dick
  • A Wrinkle in Time (1962) Madeleine L’Engle
  • Cat’s Cradle (1963) by Kurt Vonnegut
  • Martian Time-Slip (1964) by Philip K. Dick
  • Rocannon’s World (1966) Ursula K. Le Guin
  • The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) by Philip K. Dick
  • Planet of Exile (1966) by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • City of Illusions (1967) by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) by Philip K. Dick
  • The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut
  • Ubik (1969) by Philip K. Dick

Of course this leaves out works by the most famous science fiction writers working in the 1960s, the so called Big Three of SF:

  • A Fall of Moondust (1961) by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Fantastic Voyage (1966) by Isaac Asimov
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) by Robert A. Heinlein
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) by Arthur C. Clarke

Actually, The Big Three of SF writers were more famous for their work in the 1950s. Probably the single most remembered work of science fiction from the 1960s is Dune by Frank Herbert, and that’s because of all the movie versions. But growing up in the 1960s the two most famous new writers were Delany and Zelazny. Will any of their most famous novels be remembered? They each got an entry in the LoA set, but what about their other 1960s novels?

  • The Dream Master (1966) by Roger Zelazny
  • Empire Star (1966) by Samuel R. Delany
  • Babel-17 (1966) by Samuel R. Delany
  • The Einstein Intersection (1967) by Samuel R. Delany
  • Lord of Light (1967) by Roger Zelazny
  • Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny

There were many novels I loved or remember reading great reviews from back in the 1960s that were missed by the Library of America set. I’m not sure how famous they are today, or if they are still worthy of reading:

  • A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) by Walter M. Miller Jr.
  • Flesh (1960) by Philip Jose Farmer
  • Rogue Moon (1960) by Algis Budrys
  • Venus Plus X (1960) by Theodore Sturgeon
  • Catseye (1961) by Andre Norton
  • Dark Universe (1961) by Daniel F. Galouye
  • Time is the Simplest Thing (1961) by Clifford Simak
  • Little Fuzzy (1962) by H. Beam Piper
  • The Dragon Masters (1963) by Jack Vance
  • Lords of the Psychon (1963) by Daniel F. Galouye
  • The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963) by Walter Tevis
  • Davy (1964) by Edgar Pangborn
  • Simulacron-3 (1964) by Daniel F. Galouye
  • The Wanderer (1964) by Fritz Leiber
  • All Flesh is Grass (1965) by Clifford Simak
  • Bill, the Galactic Hero (1965) by Harry Harrison
  • Destination: Void (1965) by Frank Herbert
  • The Genocides (1965) by Thomas M. Disch
  • The Age of the Pussyfoot (1966) by Frederik Pohl
  • Earthblood (1966) by Keith Laumer and Rosel George Brown
  • Make Room, Make Room (1966) by Harry Harrison
  • Mindswap (1966) by Robert Sheckley
  • The Witches of Karres (1966) by James H. Schmitz
  • The World of the Ptavvs (1966) by Larry Niven
  • The Butterfly Kid (1967) by Chester Anderson
  • Camp Concentration (1967) by Thomas M. Disch
  • Chthon (1967) by Piers Anthony
  • Lords of the Starship (1967) by Mark S. Geston
  • Restoree (1967) by Anne McCaffrey
  • Soldier, Ask Not (1967) by Gordon R. Dickson
  • Those Who Watch (1967) by Robert Silverberg
  • Why Call Them Back From Heaven? (1967) by Clifford Simak
  • Dimension of Miracles (1968) by Robert Sheckley
  • Dragonflight (1968) by Anne McCaffrey
  • Hawksbill Station (1968) by Robert Silverberg
  • The Last Starship From Earth (1968) by John Boyd
  • The Masks of Time (1968) by Robert Silverberg
  • Of Men and Monsters (1968) by William Tenn
  • Past Master (1968) by R. A. Lafferty
  • Rite of Passage (1968) by Alexei Panshin
  • The Andromeda Strain (1969) by Michael Crichton
  • Bug Jack Barron (1969) by Norman Spinrad
  • Fourth Mansions (1969) by R. A. Lafferty
  • Macroscope (1969) by Piers Anthony
  • The Pollinators of Eden (1969) by John Boyd
  • The Ship Who Sang (1969) by Anne McCaffrey
  • A Specter is Haunting Texas (1969) by Fritz Leiber
  • Up the Line (1969) by Robert Silverberg

And what about British invasion SF writers who made such a big impact on the genre in the 1960s:

  • The Trouble with Lichen (1960) by John Wyndham
  • The Wind from Nowhere (1961) by J. G. Ballard
  • A Clockwork Orange (1962) by Anthony Burgess
  • The Drowned World (1962) by J. G. Ballard
  • Hothouse (1962) by Brian Aldiss
  • Greybeard (1964) by Brian Aldiss
  • The Dark Light Years (1964) by Brian Aldiss
  • The Whole Man (1964) by John Brunner
  • The Squares of the City (1965) by John Brunner
  • Colossus (1966) D. F. Jones
  • The Crystal World (1966) by J. G. Ballard
  • Earthworks (1966) by Brian Aldiss
  • The Watch Below (1966) by James White
  • Chocky (1968) by John Wyndham
  • The Final Programme (1968) by Michael Moorcock
  • Pavane (1968) by Keith Roberts
  • Report on Probability A (1968) by Brian Aldiss
  • Stand on Zanzibar (1968) by John Brunner
  • Barefoot in the Head (1969) by Brian Aldiss
  • Behold the Man (1969) Michael Morecock
  • The Jagged Orbit (1969) by John Brunner

Or from the rest of the world

  • Solaris (1961) by Stanislaw Lem
  • Planet of the Apes (1963) by Pierre Boulle
  • Hard to Be a God (1964) by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
  • The Second Invasion from Mars (1967) by Arkady and Boris Strgatsky
  • His Master’s Voice (1968) by Stanislaw Lem

If you were born after the 1960s, especially after the year 2000, how many of these novels have you read, or have even heard about? Years ago, I wrote an essay about what I thought might be the defining science fiction novels of the 1960s. At the time I guessed these dozen would be remembered:

  1. Solaris by Stanislaw Lem (1961)
  2. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein (1961)
  3. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962)
  4. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1962)
  5. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1963)
  6. Dune by Frank Herbert (1965)
  7. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (1966)
  8. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein (1966)
  9. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (1968)
  10. Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner (1968)
  11. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1969)
  12. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)

I stand by these twelve for now, but I believe in the long run, only a few, if any, will be remembered by the reading public in the 2060s. Dune has the best chance of being remembered, but will it really go the distance? It was #35 on PBS’s The Great American Read, the only 1960s SF novel on the list, so that’s one indicator.

Do we remember the pop culture of the past because of the artists or their works? We remember books by Charles Dickens and Jane Austen from the 1800s, but did their stories stick to us first, or was it something about Dickens and Austen that make us read their work? I believe “Eleanor Rigby” survives because we can’t forget The Beatles. That Baby Boomers love of The Beatles was passed on to their children and grand children.

Even with one hit wonders like Little Women (#8 on the PBS list), I believe Louisa May Alcott is why we remember her book. Somehow her powerful personality anchored her in time. Ditto for literature of the 1920s. Don’t we really remember the novels of the 1920s because of our fascination with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Lawrence, and Joyce? Or do their biographical reputations grow as more readers consume their books?

My guess is the current public’s sense of 1960s science fiction comes down to Philip K. Dick and all the biographical attention he’s getting, and because so many of his stories have been filmed. Back in the 1960s, Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke were the Big Three of SF, mainly because of their successes in the 1950s. Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress are still remembered today, getting special editions and new readers, but my hunch is Heinlein’s appeal is fading, and as a teenager in the 1960s he was my J. K. Rowling. In other words, my cherish memories will not be how literary historians remembers science fiction the 1960s.

I just don’t see modern bookworms hanging onto to most 1960s SF writers today. In terms of literary cults, I’d say Ray Bradbury might be next after PKD, and possibly Ursula K. Le Guin. Dune is the major SF novel from the 1960s, but there seems to be little interest in Frank Herbert. Look how Tolkien has become legendary as a figure of literary interest. I consider that a clue to future literary remembrances. If the public doesn’t also take an interest in an author, I think it’s less likely their books will be remembered.

At the last World Con a Hugo award was given to a speech that’s erasing John W. Campbell’s reputation. Will Heinlein and Asimov be next? As much as my memories tell me that Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke were great, I’m not sure the collective pop culture memory feels the same way. This makes me sad, but I’ve got to come to terms with it.

When I take the time to think about what I actually remember, and compare those memories to external data, I realized I did read hundreds of SF during the 1960s, but the vast majority of them were first published in the 1950s. I joined the Science Fiction Book Club in March of 1967 and often got its two main selections. At best that could have been 60 new titles, but sometimes the main selections were 1950s reprints, so I figure the number was smaller, and I didn’t read every book. Thinking about things, I read many 1960s SF novels after the 1960s, in fact I’m still reading for the first time SF books from the 1960s. But even with all them, I could not assemble a list of hundreds of great SF books from the 1960s.

My memory was mostly wrong. I was able to find just under a hundred titles for this essay. I’d bet that between 1,000-2,000 SF novels were published during the 1960s, which sounds like an impossible lot, but it takes only two years nowadays to publish that many SF titles.

Memory has always been a distillation process. Each night we forget most of what happened the previous day. I don’t think the Library of America picked the most memorable eight SF novels to remember the 1960s. But then every science fiction fan who lived through the sixties will recall a different eight titles. And it would be unfair for me to want my eight favorites to be the ones remembered. However, I’d really love to know what eight SF novels from the 1960s will be remembered and read in the 2060s. Who will be the Jules Verne and H. G. Wells of the 20th century?

Update: 5/25/21

Because of a comment below by my old friend Jim Connell I realized asking a 15-year-old SF fan today about 1960s is like asking me back in 1965 what I thought about science fiction from the 1910s. At the time I had not even read A Princess of Mars or Tarzan of the Apes, or even The Skylark of Space. Over the next fifty-five years I would eventually read several novels, both literary and science fiction from the 1910s, but I can’t say I’m intimate with the pop culture of that decade. I’ve read 9 of the 70 books listed here for the 1910s, and know of several more from movies and reading about them.

Thus my memory of science fiction from the 1910s gives me roughly an idea of what younger people might know about science fiction from the 1960s.

JWH

Which Came First – the Emotion or the Hormone?

by James Wallace Harris, 3/26/21

This essay began when I asked myself: Do emotional states stimulate hormone production or do hormones flowing first cause us to experience an emotional state? Does happiness increase energy, or does energy increase happiness? Our mental, emotional, and physical states are all interconnected. As I get older I’m trying to figure out how to increase all three even though aging seems to be reducing them equally. I’m wondering if working on any of the three will cause a corresponding increase in the others.

Eventually, we all go looking for the Fountain of Youth. Some want to look younger, others like myself, want to feel younger. I quit believing in magic when I was a kid, so whatever is the source of vitality it should be discoverable by scientific observation. My current amateur theory is youth and vitality come from chemistry, but I also assume aging affects the efficiency of the chemical processes in our bodies.

Most people want to believe in mind over matter, but is there any evidence to support that belief? Can positive thinking overcome entropy? Or do positive thoughts come from robust chemistry? We all know hyperactive oldsters, but does their energy come from force of will or thriving endocrinology? If we’re low energy beings because of our wimpy hormonal system, can we fertilize them with right thinking, positive emotions, or good eating?

I’m pushing myself to write this essay. The whole time while I’m writing part me is begging to be allowed to go eat and watch television. But I’m still writing. Is that because willpower has empowered by want, or is it because I stoked my chemical furnace with good food and a nap this afternoon?

Does our state of mind set hormones in action that create our feelings, or do hormones generate our feelings which dictate our state of minds? Lately, I’ve been trying to observe my feelings and mental states. I’ve even wondered if changes in my brain chemistry in the past year is making me more aware of my feelings and thoughts. Other reasons for increased contemplation is I’m feeling old, tired, and worn out, so I’m spending more time just relaxing, and that’s leading to increase cogitation and self awareness, but not productivity.

What I want is to be more active. I can’t tell if that’s wishful thinking since I’m turning seventy this year and decrease activity is natural with aging, or if I could be more active if I thought the right thoughts, or felt the right emotions.

Has the stress of living a year in pandemic isolation drained my vitality or is my diminished energy just coinciding with normal aging? Life is complicated. There are no quick and easy answers. However, I’m not ready to give up. I’ve been retired from work since 2013 and easy living might also be a factor in my decline. Of course, we do have to be logical. How many aging people gain youthful vitality as they progress in years? How many retired people start doing more?

I’ve never thought of myself as an emotional person. Whenever I’ve seen people getting wildly excited at parties, sporting events, and rock concerts I wondered why I wasn’t jumping up and down and yelling too. I’ve always considered myself a happy person because I don’t get depressed. But then I don’t get exuberant either. If I was more emotional would that give me more energy?

I can energize myself somewhat by artificial means. I gave up drugs a half century ago. I’m slightly tempted again because old age seems like the perfect time for uppers and cocaine, but I know that would only accelerate my decline. I also gave up caffeine decades ago for mental clarity. And in recent months I’ve given up refined sugar, which might explain my current low mental states. But I’m also feeling better physically since I gave up sugar, and I’m losing weight, so I hope in the long run eating healthier will translate into more mental energy.

When I said I could energize myself artificially, I meant with music, books, movies, and television shows. Sometimes a nap and some good music leads to gung-ho thinking that inspires actual activity. Or has my lunch digested while I slept stimulating hormone flow leading to roused thoughts and finally feeling inspired to get up and do something? It’s a subtle distinction.

Whatever refuels my tank doesn’t do it for long.

For example, when I play “Here Comes the Dawn Again” by Billy Vera and the Beaters real loud, I feel physically stimulated. That also turns up the flow of emotions.Then my thinking speeds up. After that I feel like getting up and doing something. Has music increased hormone activity? Or did music increase my thinking which increased hormone activity? Is this a bit of evidence for the power of positive thinking?

Writing this essay is energizing me – to a degree. I can’t quite call it a jolt of youthfulness. I also feel myself draining my battery as I write. I wish drugs weren’t so self-destructive because I feel like doing a Kerouac and chewing benzedrine cotton from a broken inhaler to write more.

Now that I’m older I feel more emotional, but still not highly exaggerated emotions like I see in other people. We all have different levels of energy and emotions. Are highly emotional people more active people? I have observed that some of the most emotional people I know are also the most active.

Instead of mind over matter, could it be emotions over matter? Or is there a direct relationship, more emotions means more mental activity? If that’s so I’ll have to find a way to increase both. However, I’m still trying to decide if more mental activity increases emotions, or if more emotions increase mental activity.

JWH

REWATCHING: Strange Cargo (1940) and Papillon (1973)

by James Wallace Harris, 3/9/21

Movies often appear to teach us about history, unfortunately, we tend to remember their lies rather than their facts. Why do we prefer movie history over scholarly history? Why do we love glamourize characterizations of real people with fudged biographies? Yet, don’t we also relish that statement “Based on a true story” when the film starts rolling? Are believable lies more entertaining than historical facts? The easy answer is most moviegoers couldn’t care less about real history, they just want to react emotionally to a good story.

Until today, my only source of knowledge about the penal colonies in French Guiana came from fiction. In popular culture the French penal system in Guiana is remembered as Devil’s Island, but from Wikipedia I learned the penal colony of Cayenne was based on three islands off French Guiana and three locations on the mainland. The actual Devil’s Island only held about a dozen prisoners at any time, and maybe no more than 50 over its history according to one source. The Wikipedia entry was far more fascinating than anything I learned from watching any of the films about Devil’s Island I’ve seen.

The evolution of the French prison system would take many books to explain why France created the horrors of its Gulag in the New World. These terrors are painted with impressionistic cliches in movies because what moviegoers want is the thrills of prison escapes. The actual history of injustice is of little interest to mass audiences. Whereas the reasons why an enlightened nation would kill tens of thousands of its citizens with brutal torture should interest us far more than why a few men make an exciting escape.

My knowledge, like most people’s comes from a handful of books and movies. The most famous of which is the 1973 film Papillon based on the 1969 autobiography of Henri Charrière of the same title. Charrière claimed his book was 75% true, but researchers over the years have found more and more evidence to suggest it was mostly fiction, if not all. However, just the merest whiffs of the fading myths from Devil’s Island is enough to inspire writers and screenwriters, while they ignore volumes of meaty history. Aren’t we accepting the smell of the cooking over the meal?

I first watched Papillon as a movie rental in the late 1970s or early 1980s on VHS tape on a TV with a 25″ screen. I was in my late twenties. I regretted then not having caught it at the movies when it came out in 1973 because it was cinematically beautiful. It was also tremendously exciting. I liked both Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman performances. I had also loved Steve McQueen in The Great Escape (1963), one of the most exciting movies of my childhood. With both films I read the book based on them immediately after seeing the movie. Both films were about escaping prison. At the time I wondered if Steve McQueen had been typecast as a great escape artist. Papillon, like The Great Escape, impressed me by what the men endured in prison, and the efforts they made to escape. Looking back I realized that in the sixties when watching The Great Escape I wanted to escape my childhood, and fifteen years later when I saw Papillon I wanted to escape my job.

When I watched Papillon this week I wasn’t really interested in the Steve McQueen character at all, but sympathized with Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman). At 69 I realize there are no escapes from life, but it must be endured to the end. The final scenes with Dega working his gardens and tending his pigs on Devil’s Island was something I could completely understand and relate. I do admit that visually the recreations of the prisons and Devil’s Island in Papillon look very much like the photos I’ve seen of the real places. The film and film locations are stunningly beautiful, and feel historical.

This time while watching Papillon I wondered about why the prison existed, why the cruelty, why the extreme inhumanity? How could they keep men in solitary for five years. How could any human survive that? I wanted to know the reality and history of this penal system. This time I knew the film was a caricature sketch based on a complex lie Henri Charrière sold the world based on his hyper realistic life experiences. Movies goers were only getting a few parts per billion of the real facts.

The first time I watched Strange Cargo (1940) was probably in the 1990s on Turner Classic Movies. It made an odd impression on me, but then Strange Cargo was an odd film for its time, an MGM’s take spirituality. The story is about Verne (Clark Gable) who escapes from the French penal system in Guiana with Julie (Joan Crawford), Moll (Albert Dekker) and other hardened criminals along with a strange Christlike figure named Cambreau (Ian Hunter). Cambreau is both mystical and supernatural.

These escapees weren’t on Devil’s Island, but one of the larger prison islands that had a civilian population – which is how a woman is included in party. Like in Papillon, the goal is to acquire a boat via bribery and make for the mainland. Both stories involve treacherous travel through a jungle and then an arduous sea voyage with minor characters dying along the way. In Strange Cargo, Cambreau helps each character who dies with a spiritual awakening. Both Verne and Julie resist Cambreau powers until they very end of the story by being hard independent individuals.

The first time I watch Strange Cargo I was more caught up with the escape story, and felt the mystical side of the tale to be a bit sappy. I was happily married, and worked in a university library. I liked my job and the people I worked with, but still I felt trapped by having to put in my 9-to-5 hours. Again, the theme of escape was the overriding motif that moved the story along.

Decades later, retired and freed from my sentence of work, I am much closer to death, and the mystical angle of Strange Cargo was far more appealing to me this time, even though I’m an atheist. And this time around I was far more sympathetic to M’sieu Pig (Peter Lorre), a pathetic creature so desperate for Julie to love him. Pig is a snitch, small and ugly, completely loathsome to Julie no matter how nice or helpful he is to her. Pig is the only character that Cambreau can’t help.

Strange Cargo doesn’t try to us teach history, and I think it’s a more successful because of it. Yet, Strange Cargo does preach another kind of truth, which I don’t believe, yet admired. Some of the greatest spiritual works of history have come from souls enduring prison and finding enlightenment. Strange Cargo is almost surreal in its black and white beauty.

Papillon gives us a story of survival, but Strange Cargo is about transcendence. Both are classic inspirations for stories, but like I said, when I was young I wanted escape, but at this end of my life I’m more interested in transcendence. As an atheist, I believe transcendence is only found on this side of death, and I could read that in Strange Cargo better than Papillon even though it was simplistic and heavy handed. However, this time I thought the spiritual thread of Strange Cargo was artistic, and moving.

Further Reading:

JWH

REWATCHING: The Birds (1963)

James Wallace Harris

It’s funny, but we rely on our memories for everything, but studying the functionality of our memory system shows they’re completely unreliable. When I started this rewatching project I intended to explore how I was a different person from the first time I saw a movie and who I am now when I just rewatched a film. I figured by comparing my current experience to my memories I could unearth the differences between myself then and now.

Rewatching The Birds has caused a lot of confusion. I only have vague memories of seeing the movie the first time, and I am not even sure when that first time was. Before I started writing this essay I assumed it was in the 1960s, and it may well have been. I thought that because my memory of seeing The Birds the first time are memories of talking about the horrifying bits with my friends at school. All of us were excited by the bird attacks, and none of us talked about the actors or the story.

The Birds came out in 1963. I was in the sixth grade during the first half of the year, and the seventh grade for the second half. However, I also thought I saw it on TV first, but The Birds didn’t have it’s U.S. television premiere until 1968. By then I was in high school and working five nights a week at a grocery store, so I don’t believe it was then. During 1962-1963 we lived on base at Homestead Air Force Base, and I often went to the base theater, even by myself. It was just fifteen cents for kids. I even remember seeing adult films like Town Without Pity (1961), The War Lover (1962), and The Manchurian Candidate (1962). The first two I saw by myself and actually liked them (sex and B-17s), but the third I saw with my mom and sister and was bored (politics). So it’s possible I saw The Birds there. I do know in the 6th and 7th grades it became common to stand around with buddies on the playground and discuss the movies and TV shows we had seen the night or weekend before.

One reason why my memory of The Birds is iffy is because up until very recently I never really liked Alfred Hitchcock films. I liked his TV show back in the 1950s, but the tension and intrigued he developed in his films didn’t appeal to the younger me. My friends and I were thought the bird attacks and their creepy gatherings were uber-cool, but that’s my only lasting impression. When I rewatched The Birds the other night, all the attack scenes felt very familiar, and all the scenes of characters relating to each other didn’t.

This time I was amazed by how gorgeous the cinematography looked. I also spent a lot of time amused by Melanie (Tippi Hedren) having to wear the same light green suit for most of the flick (she didn’t bring a change of clothes when she went to Bodega Bay and ended up staying the weekend, a weekend from hell). This time around I was caught up in the interplay between Mitch (Rod Taylor) and Melanie, between Melanie and Annie (Suzanne Pleshette), between Melanie and Mitch’s mom Lydia (Jessica Tandy), and between Melanie and Mitch’s sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright). Melanie had a weird personality, almost off putting, but as she adjusted to each person she met becoming a better person for it. All that personality meshing was something that was invisible to me as a kid.

When I talked to my old buddy Connell about this movie today, he said he spent a lot of time as a kid studying people trying to figure them out. He was mystified by other people’s behaviors and struggled to understand the world by understanding why people did what they did. I don’t remember doing that at all. I was very self centered and mainly concerned with what amused me, and what I wanted. I was closer in age to Veronica Cartwright when I saw the film and probably would have reacted to the bird attacks pretty much like her character did in the movie. She was mostly frightened but did stay focused on her new pet lovebirds. I was mostly frightened of the world around me but ignored unpleasantness by staying focused on pleasures and desires.

In 2021 The Birds was an impressive film. A few weeks ago I watched Vertigo and I’m changing my mind about Hitchcock. I plan to rewatch Rear Window soon. This time around I didn’t find the birds particularly interesting, instead I admired the sets, costumes, cinematography, but most of all the characters. All aspects I ignored as a kid.

The main problem I had with the film this time was with the birds themselves, they had no motive or justification for doing what they did. Hitchcock said later that the birds represented nature turning against us, but even that seems too vague. In Daphne du Maurier’s original short story, “The Birds,” her isolated English village eventually learns the birds were attacking everywhere. I wished Hitchcock had featured that in his version of the story. It would have satisfied my science fictional sense of things.

I now feel like I’m a whole person, although if I live to be ninety, I might disavow that when watching The Birds again. I believe the first time I saw The Birds I was a very incomplete person, even though I smuggly felt like a little knowitall.

When do we become a whole person? I’ve always assumed I was unformed and only vaguely a person before age four and five, which is when my memories start filling in. But I also felt I ran on instinct rather than awareness until about age twelve or thirteen when I started thinking about things. I was probably eleven when I first say The Birds.

I saw a lot of movies from age five to twelve, mostly those made in the 1930s and 1940s, with some 1950s B-features. During the 1950s and 1960s, old movies ran on television during the afternoon after school, on the weekends, and at night after primetime. Becky, my younger sister, and I loved to stay up and watch all-night movies during summer vacations. I think my mom let us because we’d sleep till noon and stay out of her hair, and then play outside until it got dark. Like I said, I started going to the movies on my own when I was ten and in the fifth and sixth grade. The base theater played several a week, it was cheap, and only a bike ride away. I’ve seen thousands of film, and I wonder now just how much they shaped my personality, and my evolving personality judged them.

I know all those old 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s movies imprinted on me, especially the ones most suited for kids, like the Tarzan movies, westerns, and science fiction. But I also loved old 1930s black and white flicks from MGM and Warner Brothers. Maybe those movies from simpler times worked well with my simple mind. Many of my friends my age tell me they can’t watch old movies. Hell, I know a lot of people who think old movies means those from the 1980s and 1990s. I love films all the way back to the 1890s.

Even though I admired The Birds this time, it wasn’t really aimed at who I am at this stage of life. Nor did I particularly enjoy it. I enjoyed watching myself watch it, which is why I’m writing about the experience. Most movies and television shows seemed aimed at a young audience. There’s a fair amount of content suitable for middle-aged folks, but I don’t find much storytelling for young geezers like myself in their last third of life. I can pretend to be a kid again, or remember adult issues from middle life while enjoying movies aimed at those audiences, but they’re starting to get harder to watch, even tedious.

It’s much harder to find shows that I love. Three that come to mind are Black Sails, Belgravia, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Strangely, all deal with history. Links are to my reviews. I find it odd now that I never wrote about my enchantment with Mrs. Maisel. I’m not sure if there are any overlapping aspects to these show that reveal why they appeal to my late sixties mind. A few months ago I wrote about three film comedies that grabbed my attention (Genevieve, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and Bachelor in Paradise). Beside trying to understand who I was when I was younger by the films I watch, I realize I’m also trying to figure out who I am now by what I like to watch.

Cognitively I can analyze what I must have been like as a kid. I was poorly educated. I was sensitive to the suffering of others but I was burdened by prejudices. I feel I spent most of my K-12 and college years deprogramming my original upbringing. At eleven, I hadn’t started watching the news or reading newspapers, so my worldview was based on fiction I saw on television, at the movies, or read in books. Most of that fiction was not very sophisticated. I believe The Birds was a sophisticated horror film that was over my head in 1963.

The Birds is now considered a cinematic masterpiece, and I might have agreed with that during my middle years if I had seen it again then, but now it’s mostly an artistic curiosity, appealing for what it teaches me about time and my changing personality. My favorite character was Annie, who had to watch Mitch, the guy she loved, fall for Melanie. My feelings for her were so much stronger than my feelings for a story about creepy birds.

JWH

p.s. Sorry to be pounding out so many posts so quickly, but I’ve been laid up with a bad leg and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to write when I felt like sitting at a computer again.

REWATCHING: The Graduate (1967)

James Wallace Harris, 3/3/21

I’ve heard older folks often say, “I’m the same person I was at 19 on the inside.” My wife has a family story about an uncle in his eighties who said, “I feel just like I did at 19, but something is terribly wrong with my body.” I’ve always taken it for granted I’ve been the same person my whole life, but is that true? The other night while watching The Graduate, a film I hadn’t seen since I was sixteen back in 1967, I began to doubt that. The movie was exactly the same, but who I was at sixteen and who I am at sixty-nine are two different people.

I’ve decided to watch and review a series of films I’ve seen before to help me remember who I was at different times in my life. We all experience the illusion that we’re the center of the universe and find it hard to empathize with all the people around us. We forget they see reality from an entirely different perspective, one where we aren’t the center, but they are.

There is a word, “sonder” in The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows that I find most useful right now, so much so I believe I should quote it’s definition here:

sonder
n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

Most folks at a certain age have the revelation of sonder, where they realize the human beings around them live in their own fully realized universe that doesn’t include us. Our own lives are so complicated that we struggle to imagine the complications that others endure. It helps to stop and contemplate what people around you are feeling, seeing, thinking, and all the background details that went into developing their unique perspective. Watching The Graduate I sondered my younger self. I also sondered that every character in the film should have a fully developed backstory if their characterization was to be realistic.

Here’s the thing, who I was at sixteen was a different Jim Harris, or a subset of who I am at sixty-nine, because those intervening fifty-three years changed me drastically. However, the characters Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) and Elaine Robinson (Katherine Ross) should be exactly the same. Because I reacted to them differently at sixteen and sixty-nine reveals I’m different. Partly, that’s due to how I sondered those characters at sixteen and sixty-nine. We can never know what it’s like to be another person because telepathy doesn’t exist. Our best effort is to always extrapolate and speculate on what other people are like from our own experiences, which may never be equal to what others experience.

I still have vivid memories of the first time I saw The Graduate back in 1967 when I was in the eleventh grade. Debbie Hall, a cute dark-haired girl who was my chemistry lab partner, had told me all about the movie with such excitement that I felt I had to go see it. And I wanted to impress her. I attended Coral Gables High School, but I wasn’t like most of the students there who were from rich families like the Braddocks and Robinsons. We lived in a poorer section of Coconut Grove, before it became chic. I went to the school library and read about The Graduate in Time Magazine. The article treated the film as some kind of phenomenon. That really made me want to see it. The buzz was the The Graduate was the first movie aimed at the Baby Boomer generation

Even though I was sixteen and could drive, and worked at a grocery store making my own money, I didn’t have a car yet. This was a particularly poor time for my family, and we only had one old car, a beat up old clunker from the previous decade. I was embarrassed to be seen in that old car. I told my dad I had to see The Graduate for school and he drove me over to the Miracle Mile in Coral Gables and dropped me off at a theater there. I was glad then he didn’t want to come in. I was also embarrassed to be seen with my dad too. But now I wish he had because I’ve spend most of my life since he died when I was eighteen trying to figure out who he was. But dad drove off to go to the Grove VFW Club to drink.

Over a half-century later I watched The Graduate again, this time on a 65 inch 4K TV that I couldn’t have imagined back in 1967 even though science fiction was all I read. In the 21st century, the experience of watching The Graduate was much different from when I first saw it as a high school kid in the 20th century.

Back then I thought Benjamin Braddock’s parents (William Daniels, Elizabeth Wilson) were pushy, smothering, meddling, and oppressive – the bad guys of the show who wanted to convert Benjamin into a sellout robot. This time, I saw them as good natured folks who wanted their son to get on with his life and make something of himself. Young people today probably won’t understand this, but a common phrase from back in the 1960s was “The Generation Gap.” We told ourselves never trust anyone over thirty, and we felt the older generations wanted us to conform to their way of thinking. We feared that as much as they feared communism. To my generation, our parents kept trying to get us to sleep with a pod (see Invasion of the Body Snatchers for the reference.)

Benjamin was like my snooty Coral Gables High School classmates who lorded their fancy clothes and new cars over my poor attire and carless condition. One of the reasons I liked Debbie Hall so much is because she defended me from Bruce, a rich kid who sat behind us in chemistry. Bruce berated me for not wearing the right clothes. Obviously, he was trying to impress Debbie and I was a zero in his universe. But I liked how Debbie was aware of the class distinctions and put him down. Bruce had obviously already fallen asleep with a pod in his room.

Benjamin, a recent college graduate, was right on the cusp of becoming adultified. That was why he was so surly and angry. Being seduced by Mrs. Robinson meant more than just getting laid. At the time I had only been on a handful of dates and had been too shy to even try to kiss a girl, so sex with any female, even an older mom thrilled me to the bone.

But that’s the thing I realized at sixty-nine about myself at sixteen. I didn’t try to sonder Benjamin, Mrs. Robinson, or Elaine in that Coral Gables theater over a half-century ago. I didn’t try to imagine their backstories or perspectives on reality.

In 1967 The Graduate was tremendously exciting, but my younger self was only unconsciously reacting to various elements in the movie. The sex excited him. The beautiful Katharine Ross excited him. The red Alfa Romeo 1600 Spider excited him. The Simon and Garfunkel songs excited him. The abundance of jokes made him happy. And I left the theater pumped with a sense of rebellion. Even though Benjamin didn’t have long hair, The Graduate felt like it was counter-culture anthem, giving the finger to the over thirty generations.

In 2021 I saw The Graduate as a very different person. The whole time I was watching the movie I kept trying to sonder the characters, but all I could extrapolate was insane contradictions. Good fiction is due to writers creating fully realized characters that are believable. It’s as if they sondered real people and used enough details from their lives to let the audience also imagine being those fictional people.

In 2021 I could see that Benjamin and Elaine were from well-to-do families that had controlled their lives. That both of them had little experience thinking for themselves and as new adults were confused by what they should do. However, beyond that, there were few clues about them in which to speculate.

There is nothing about Mrs. Robinson that makes sense. There is no reason to believe she’d want to have sex with Benjamin. Both dads were little more than comic pawns in the plot. And once Elaine knows that Benjamin has been sleeping with her mom, there’s little reason to believe she’d want to have anything to do with him. Even without knowing Benjamin had been humping her mom, I never saw any reason for Elaine to be attracted to Ben. And when Benjamin tells his parents he’s going to marry Elaine and then admits that Elaine knows nothing of his plans and that she hates him, we know Benjamin is a clueless unrealistic fool. As an adult viewer, The Graduate falls apart. I now see it as a series of unrelated gags that don’t make a coherent whole.

Except for the ending. After Benjamin and Elaine find their seat on the back of the bus and we look into their eyes for many moments, I saw something I don’t remember seeing at sixteen. In their eyes we could hear them think: “What the fuck have I done! What am I supposed to do now?” It’s obvious why I didn’t see that doubt in their expressions in 1967 when I was sixteen – I didn’t want to. I wanted to believe there was an escape from growing up.

In 2021, at age sixty-nine, seeing that last scene, I suddenly sonder the writers of The Graduate. They wanted a hit movie, to capitalize on the Baby Boomer generation, but they knew their revolutionary rhetoric was just to make a buck, so they gave us wink-wink at the end, saying, you can rebel against the status quo kid, but you’re ain’t going to get away with it.

We didn’t, did we?

JWH