Off the top of my head, here’s my list of dramas, and a couple of documentaries, that capture eras long since expired. It’s a rather New York and California-dominated list, but these films are time capsules not so much of cities that have undergone striking transformations in the last 45 years, but of American liberal worldviews and attitudes that have transformed since the early 1960s:
1. North By Northwest and Vertigo: Alfred Hitchock’s twin late-‘50s classics, showing a Manhattan and San Francisco, respectively, from the late 1950s that would both be utterly upended by liberalism in the coming decades. The lush North By Northwest, with its combination of New York City, the classic 20th Century Limited, giant ‘50s cars and Cary Grant at his peak is a particularly memorable time machine.
2. Gimme Shelter: Perhaps even more than Woodstock, this film captures the primitive ethos of the late 1960s like no other. And the dialogue has a uniquely McLuhan-esque ring to it, utterly capturing the stilted “whoa, heavy, bummer, man” jargon of the period. Try to tune out the rock music and just listen to dialogue next time you watch to see what I mean.
3. FM: The sunny, groovy side of ’70s Los Angeles and its peaceful easy feelin’ music, even as the barbarians of punk rock were waiting at the gate.
3. Annie Hall and Taxi Driver: the yin and yang of New York in the mid-1970s. Woody’s film in particular is one of the quintessential mid-1970s moments; Scorsese’s spot lights the dark underbelly of Manhattan during the Lindsay years, and Time Square at its nadir, before Rudy Giuliani revitalized the city. At least for a time.
4. The Last Days of Disco: Whit Stillman’s film, set in the waning days of disco and a very different Manhattan of the early 1980s than the Brooklyn depicted in Saturday Night Fever.
5. Wall Street: Manhattan’s financial world in the mid-1980s, or at least how we all imagined it to be.
6. Law & Order: The First Year: As Ed Koch famously said when he was voted out of office in 1989, “the people threw me out, and now the people must be punished.” Long before it became a liberal soap opera, this TV show in its earliest year effortlessly captured the horrors of the Dinkins era in New York.
7. And The September Issue, and New York in 2007. In 2006, I linked to one blogger who wrote that “Americans Hate their Fabulous Economy.” We can see just how fabulous it was – or at least seemed, via DVD and Netflix. If Americans want to scale those heights once again and not just relive them via our TVs and computer monitors, we’ve got our work cut out for us.
But in the meantime, what are your favorite time machine movies, whether they’re documentaries or fictitious productions? Unlike the closed loop world of the dead tree magazine industry, we encourage you to discuss in the comments below.