Culture Rover

#151 - It Was Forty Years Ago Today

The recent PBS American Experience documentary, The Summer of Love, made by Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco, tries to squeeze an explosion into an hour.

It's an impossible task, but at their best, Dolgin and Franco provide flashes of new insights in what ultimately becomes the familiar narrative: the Summer of Love itself was a failure, but the larger values and forces generated in that psychedelic swirl of San Francisco '67 ultimately transformed American culture.

The new perspectives that Dolgin and Franco provide are important. One of the most moving interviews in the documentary is with Sandi Stein, a teen runaway whose face bears the marks of suffering, but whose stories suggest that the Haight-Ashbury saved her life despite it all. Stein's interview reminds us that we should remember that the Summer of Love dream of a different world provided a crucial portal for many. These participants were sometimes able to replace grim experiences at home and no future in the "straight world" with a life they found worth living.

Another effective move is to interview a longtime Haight-Ashbury resident who remembers how her quaint neighborhood was destroyed by the influx of young kids aspiring to become hippies, dreaming a utopia that ruined her daily route to her bakery and candy store (its own kind of utopia). This interview busts through the myopic lens of nostalgia that casts everyone in the H-A as a newly-arrived hippie. This was a neighborhood before it became a Mecca.

Best of all, the documentary challenges simplistic notions of the "counterculture" as a movement outside of larger historical forces. The move to "drop out," the desire to step into a new "Frame of Reference," as Haight-Ashbury avant-garde theater anarchists the Diggers put it, came from deep within the belly of the postwar beast, roiling as it was with the ulcer-producing combination of abundance and anxiety (an acid combination to rival LSD itself). The hippie effort to light out for the territories turned out to be located not at the extremities of American society, but rather at the heart of the American Experience. The core was at the margins.

The problem is that Dolgin and Franco do not go a step further in developing this argument. The realization that the motivations and desires of the hippie counterculture emerged from the dominant admixtures of postwar society itself has led many to dismiss the summer of love as nothing more than a marketing campaign from the get-go: a conquest of cool, an expansion rather than a rejection of the core ideas and feelings in American capitalism. A confrontation with this more recent argument about the summer of love is not to be found in Dolgin and Franco's film.

Unwilling to go that far, Dolgin and Franco instead revert back to the positions of typical sixties commentators such as Peter Coyote and Theodore Roszak. These positions boil down mostly to: we didn't change the world at first, but ultimately we did. The acid soaked through the suits eventually.

We are back in the old, unresolved dichotomies that haunt studies of the sixties counterculture: cooptation vs. resistance; commodification vs. politics; complicity vs. authenticity.

There was something new about the summer of love, but it eludes these binaries. The question remains at the end of the PBS hour: what was that thing that could not quite be explained, yet was so essential to the summer of love?

At one point in The Summer of Love, Joel Selvin, the excellent chronicler of San Francisco pop music history, remarks, "I cannot explain to you what it's like to be in a crowd of five-thousand people on LSD, with the Grateful Dead, also on LSD, leading the crowd through a series of improvisations."

We get to the edge of words here. But that edge was precisely what the summer of love was about: an edge between commerce and politics, a boundary between the inside and the outside, a dance at the brink of the old and the new.

Frustratingly, neither Selvin nor Dolgin and Franco themselves quite begin to explain in a new way. At the point where nostalgia gives way to interpretation, the documentary leaves off. The impossible historicization of the incandescent explosion that we call the summer of love awaits new improvisations beyond the binary.

08 May 2007

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