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Frank Gruber

But Always Strong

By Frank Gruber

I hope everyone had an enjoyable Thanksgiving. It was a slow news week in Santa Monica -- that's something to be thankful for. It was so slow I'll continue my outside-the-Santa-Monica-box musings from last week.

At the conclusion of last week's column I said that out of a strong field of Democratic presidential candidates, I preferred Barack Obama because I liked his two books and because he had served time in the Illinois legislature. Those aren't the only reasons.

I also like Obama because I'm a bit tired of my own generation -- I was born in 1952, in the middle of the Baby Boom -- and its self-referential, not to mention self-righteous (and that goes for both the left and the right) politics that stem from the epochal conflicts of the sixties.

Going back to the 2000 election, I've been saying that politics today is a continual rematch of the arguments people used to have around the dinner table, or even the Thanksgiving table ("Thanksgiving," November 22, 2000), about Vietnam.

After September 11 and on the eve of 2002 I thought that a bipartisan foreign policy might be reborn ("Looking for a Silver Lining," December 28, 2001), but that dream lasted about a month -- until President Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech.

We Boomers are a quarrelsome bunch. Barack Obama, who was born in the last year or so of the Baby Boom, talks about our quarrels as if they were in the olden days -- something his mother was involved with.

I don't have to go any deeper about this in this column, because the erstwhile conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan has written an article in the December issue of the Atlantic in which he endorses Obama as the one candidate who as president could, in perilous times, move the country on -- finally -- to a post-Vietnam politics.

The article has received a lot of attention and there are already counter-arguments being posted on the web. For one, Americans do have some substantive beefs, and not only about foreign policy. Abortion, for example, might not be an issue that's going to suddenly resolve itself when one generation supplants another.

When you get down to it, what I like about Obama is that I agree with him about most things, and I particularly like the fact that in the fall of 2002 he foresaw the problems that would arise from invading Iraq and spoke out against what he called a "dumb war."

So it's not that I don't believe there are issues worth fighting over. But just as a feel-good "bipartisanship" shouldn't be a goal in and of itself, there's no reason to celebrate partisanship if it is ineffective especially since, speaking from a liberal point of view, the rancor of the past several decades has been a disaster for my side.

I am hoping that some of the anger and vituperation and moral posturing (again, from both left and right) might be diluted when the original culture warriors stop waiving the bloody shirt and start writing their memoirs, and reality-hardened and less moralistic Gen-X'ers take over.

Speaking of memoirs by culture warriors, I'm going to plug a friend's book, because it's right on topic for this column. The book is called Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back, and the author is Frank Schaeffer. The long title gives you a good idea of what the book is about, but the full read will interest left-wing Santa Monicans who might wonder what it's like to grow up as a Baby Boomer with a different set of values, even more fervently held.

Frank Schaeffer hasn't quite "switched sides" (he's no David Horowitz of the right), but he's reached a point of what I'll call skeptical equilibrium that I would recommend to anyone trying to evaluate the past half-century.

And speaking of evaluating those years, we are now at or approaching critical distance. Recently two movies have been released that feature some of the seminal voices of the sixties -- the soundtracks, so to speak.

One is "Across the Universe," by Julie Taymor (screenplay by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais), which molds the music of the Beatles into a musical drama with archetypal sixties characters, and the other is "I'm Not There," by Todd Haynes (screenplay by Mr. Haynes and Oren Moverman), which dissects (into six separate characters) the life of Bob Dylan.

Both movies use expressive filmmaking and narrative techniques that are the antithesis of documentary film, but both try to describe what the sixties were about. Or at least what the sixties were about if you were white and middle class and rebellious, i.e., if you were quintessential Baby Boom material.

I thoroughly enjoyed both movies, but it's interesting that Ms. Taymor (born 1952) and Messrs. Clement and La Frenais (both born 1937) made a more or less "heroic" film lionizing the counterculture and the sixties' signature emotion -- love -- while Mr. Haynes (born 1961) and Mr. Moverman (born 1966) made a movie that was much more skeptical of all things sixties, including Mr. Dylan.

Dylan in the movie is much more of an anti-hero than he appears to have been in real life, at least judging from D.A. Pennebaker's famous documentary, "Don't Look Back," or contemporary footage contained in Martin Scorsese's recent four-hour documentary, "No Direction Home."

But then perhaps "I'm Not There" is truly Dylanesque. What was always so great about Dylan was his multi-level ambiguity, such as how he could write a song that was pointedly political and achingly romantic at the same time:

You say you're looking for someone,
Who's never weak, but always strong,
Someone who will die for you,
Whether you are right or wrong.

Both the Haynes film and the Scorsese documentary spend a lot of time on the anger Dylan engendered in his folk music fan base when he went electric in 1965. I don't think it was a coincidence that 1965 was also the year of the big build-up of American troops in Vietnam. As I said, the music was part of the soundtrack.

Getting back to politics, there is telling moment in "I'm Not There" when the character who plays a composite of Dylan's early-sixties girlfriend and his first wife watches Richard Nixon announce on TV the signing of the Paris Accords in 1973. At that moment her marriage with the "Dylan character" is breaking up, and she reflects that the War had shadowed the entire nine years of their relationship.

Indeed. Vietnam has shadowed more than that.

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