New York in the Fifties makes the case
that while the rest of the country was living
out its Ward Cleaver fantasies and repressing
anything darker, New York was actually
experiencing a renaissance of sorts, specifically
because it was the destination of choice for
anyone looking for more than suburban blandness.
New York in the Fifties, based on Dan
Wakefield's book and directed by Betsy Blankenbaker, focuses primarily on New York's bustling literary scene at the time, with authors and poets like Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Keruoac, and James Baldwin receiving a good deal of discussion. There is a definite bohemian flavor here: Uptown jazz giants, like the great Count Basie Orchestra, are
mentioned, but most of the emphasis is on
Greenwich Village and the literary movement there.
The film isn't the most in depth look
at the scene and it does gloss over a number of
subjects rather quickly (the running time is well under 80 minutes), but the notable list of folks interviewed, including writers Gay Talese, William F. Buckley, Nat Hentoff, and Joan Didion, as well as Robert Redford, helps paint a pretty vivid picture. They speak passionately about a time when many of them were first introduced to the complexities of the world. They trace the roots of the sexual revolution and the civil rights era of the next decade to key events in the 50's and feel that by staking out a part of New York they played a part in preparing the country to the vast social changes that were to come.
There are stylistic deficiencies to the film, however, in conveying these ideas. When one interviewee dates the sexual revolution to the release of "Rock Around the Clock" the song doesn't play but rather a nameless stock instrumental does. The film is low budget and that may have prevented licensing a song like "Rock Around the Clock" but without it there is something missing. Similarly, the focus most of the subjects have on their little corner of New York robs the film of a broader perspective. A look at the 50's segment of Ric Burns' New York: A Documentary Film shows that there was a lot more going on in New York during that decade than a few disaffected writers living in a small community.
Regardless, New York in the Fifties has a tight focus and serves as a good introduction to the personalities and ideas of that generation.
The interviews are conducted on video and look ok, if unexciting. The archival footage varies in quality, but mostly looks good. The film is full-frame.
The 2.0 audio is fine.
An interview with the director and a trailer are included.
New York in the Fifties is not definitive by any stretch, but like any documentary about any aspect of New York (A Great Day in Harlem covers the same time period but has an even more focused aim) it helps to fill in details on the whole.