Film Studies: That old familiar numbness. It all began in the summer of '54

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In the summer of 1954, 50 years ago, you could look at the world and say it was the domain of old men - Eisenhower, Adenauer, Nehru, Churchill, Mao Tse-tung were all in charge, and all had been born in the 19th century.

In the summer of 1954, 50 years ago, you could look at the world and say it was the domain of old men - Eisenhower, Adenauer, Nehru, Churchill, Mao Tse-tung were all in charge, and all had been born in the 19th century. Maybe the greatest modern jazz was being played in America, but hardly anyone was listening to it. Charles Ives died in 1954, much of his music unplayed. But somewhere in the great machine of history a dissonance was beginning.

A fat-faced guy from Michigan, nearly 30, had been labouring for several years to be a country and western singer. Without a jot of success. So in 1952, he got the idea that a new audience might be coming, young and angry, ready for a strong beat, the violence of the electric guitar, the howl of a saxophone. So this fellow called his new group, Bill Haley and His Comets. But how many kids got the pun in the name? And when a record called "Rock Around the Clock" was released in the spring of 1954, it didn't do very well.

But in the summer, someone said, "I don't know. That music is kinda like these young people. There's something menacing to it." Later on, a dispute would break out over the credit for this. The director Richard Brooks said he had chosen the song - though he omitted to buy all the rights. Closer examination suggests that it was the son of Glenn Ford, the lead actor in the film.

Blackboard Jungle, it was called, and Ford was the tough, idealistic teacher who has to get a gang of inner city high-school students to respect education, not rape the women teachers or smash up another teacher's Stan Kenton record collection. (If you did the film again now, you'd have to let the kids be listening to Parker.) The kids included Sidney Poitier, Vic Morrow, Paul Mazursky and Rafael Campos. As if, in 1954, a high school in the United States was ever one where that racial assortment joined forces!

Still, Blackboard Jungle was controversial. The studio making it - MGM - were warned that it might be anti-American, and it was in the summer of 1954 that the American Communist Party was outlawed. But they persisted with the project and when the film opened in the spring of 1955 it started with Haley's hoarse voice calling out: "One, two, three o'clock, four o'clock rock!" Bill Haley, fat-faced with a kiss curl, was mocked later. But make no mistake about it, that song was electric on that film and it was only then that it started to sell.

In the summer of 1954, a depressed, waif-like kid from Indiana, a kid in spectacles, and with a reputation already for being difficult, was given the role of Cal Trask in East of Eden. His director, Elia Kazan, told James Dean to put on some weight and get himself a sun tan so that he would look like a Californian country boy raised on the farmlands around Salinas. And in that summer they filmed East of Eden and Kazan listened patiently to the comments of the old-timer Raymond Massey, who felt that Dean was impolite, untrained and unpredictable, and Kazan told Dean to do whatever he could think of to throw the older actor off his stately timing and to get under his skin.

By the end of that shoot, the people at Warner Brothers were excited. They hyped every film they made, of course, but the young people at the studio - especially the young female typists - had gone crazy over preview screenings. James Dean was difficult - heaven knows what would happen if he had to work for a director he revered less than Kazan. But already Nicholas Ray was lining Dean up for a second film, another high school story, in which Dean would stand for a generation who felt misunderstood by their parents. He was 24, admittedly, and if you're still in high school at 24 you have to be pretty dumb. But in 1954, "young" was anything under 30, and "Deanagers" were being talked about in the press.

And in the summer of 1954, a truck-driver born in Tupelo, Mississippi, grew his black hair longer and went into the Sam Phillips studio where anyone could record a song for a few dollars. The kid played guitar in a rudimentary way and he sang, or he shouted, and one of the three songs he did was "That's All Right". Sam Phillips listened to it and reckoned that perhaps he had found the commercial idea he had been looking for. That project does not speak too well of the US in 1954, but Phillips was only reckoning to make a killing in the vicinity of Memphis if he could find a nice white boy who might sound like he was black. And Elvis Aaron Presley did seem to be a sweet kid, always thinking of his mother and giving the girls a terrific, older-brother grin. Not that you could necessarily count on every girl keeping her legs crossed once he started singing.

Well, it makes a nice nodal point, and there are larger historical tendencies that go with it: like the way easy birth-control accelerated the melodrama of being young; and the way that teenagers became a new market force, the thing that would save the movies just as television was gaining its domestic stronghold. That was another part of 1954-5, along with the mounting agony of no civil rights for black people. And if Dean, Haley and Presley became known in those years, that doesn't mean there weren't others - some of whom you may find more admirable: Brando, Little Richard, Charlie Parker (who died in 1955, known only to a very few Americans), and Hemingway and Faulkner, both gone by 1961.

What started me thinking about the summer of 1954 was two things: first, the way it seemed natural and proper then for there to be a whole series of cultural links between music, painting, movies, writing and so on, and the world at large; and the way in the mid-Fifties it seemed right and proper for someone like Norman Mailer to lament the numbness of Eisenhower's America, the way nothing was happening to deter the steady drift whereby any cultural appetite was taken up by... shopping.

It's worse now, of course, in that the old men are younger - Bush, Blair, and all the others, they're still in their fifties. The movies, our popular music, our writing are but vestigial forms. You don't feel that many artists feel linked to their times except through sour, sardonic gesture. Is it that the terrorists, the insurgents, the killers have become the artists of this numb age, the age unable to work out whether, if there is a nuclear incident before the American election, it would be best to hold off that election or proceed with it. "That's All Right" is now a kind of mocking assent, whereas in the mouth of Elvis Presley it seemed like a recognition of life itself.

In the summer of 2004, you have to hope and pray that a great new dissonance is coming. Or is that just the fateful sound of ticking?