For now, I would like us to travel back to a different time and a place, a more innocent era of American history. It is the early 1960's and the country is booming in more ways than one. The suspicion, fear and cultural revolution of the later part of the decade are still well ahead of us, the economy is in full swing and the moral, cultural and religious values of the country are firmly in place (a few dirty beatniks aside). Doris Day and Rock Hudson rule the box office, The Everly Brothers sit at the top of the Billboard Top 100 and a new and handsome president has just taken office, promising to lead the country to a more progressive and just society and after that even to the moon (for what purpose was - and still is - totally besides the point).
Now, this era of American history is hardly known for great cinema. Great art both influences, revolutionizes and represents the culture out of which it arises. In all fairness and with the advantage of hindsight, American popular culture in the early 60s represented a people in a kind of drugged stupor, perhaps in some ways similar to the Athens of Socrates' times, the inhabitants of which he described as "sleepwalkers." This pleasant siesta would not last, of course, leading to one of the most exciting, horrifying and artistically interesting eras of American art and culture. Yet the films of this era hold an interesting appeal, a window into a culture dominated by materialism, conformity and complaisance before the poisonous aspects of this condition had fully taken hold. Many of the Rock Hudson/Doris Day comedies, for example, as artistically uninteresting as they are, are a kind of fascinating historical document and at their best moments they even hint at the cultural unrest that was bound to explode a few years later (one can only take so much of Doris Day and Rock Hudson, both literally and figuratively).
On top of that, there is a kind of contagious mellow groove to many of the films of this era, like walking into a really fancy cocktail party in Manhattan where everyone is superficial, boring and morally suspicious but the martinis are cold, the food is great, the music expertly chosen and the women beautiful. One could be forgiven for simply throwing the philosophical life to the wind for the evening, pouring another drink and ambling up to the nearest plunging neckline.
The cinematic equivalent of such a night would be the films of Elvis Presley, among which are some of the most guilty pleasures of the entire history of cinema. Each of the King's films is more stupid than the one before it, based on the barest resemblance to a script and wallowing in such vacuous hedonism that one can see a direct spiritual link from some of these films to the good people of Jersey Shore. Yet there is also plenty of good humor, some remarkably able filmmaking and often hilarious supporting roles. And Elvis is a bona-fide movie star, a ridiculously charming and friendly presence, one which has the mellowing effect of a nice glass of Chianti. None of this is exactly the stuff of great art, but it can make for a remarkably interesting and enjoyable film experience. Most of Elvis' films were directed by a slew of talented but unremarkable men who were hired based on their ability to keep their mouth shut and take orders from the studio and Elvis' infamous commander-in-chief Colonel Parker. As such, Elvis' body of work can almost be analyzed in light of the auteur theory (with the King being the auteur in question) since they all exhibit very similar qualities, they're almost tonally identical and share the same cinematic style down to the smallest detail. Elvis would try to introduce little nuances into his character and most often these would be erased by Parker or the director in question but one can see a great deal of unmined potential in Elvis' acting, especially in his near-classic performance in Jailhouse Rock.
I recently rewatched Elvis' Blue Hawaii, an especially mindless example from the Elvis oeuvre. Directed by Norman Taurog, an interesting chap for many reasons, one of which is that he directed Elvis in nine (!) films. Taurog also holds the record for being the youngest director ever to win an Oscar (the very forgotten Skippy - 1931). The plot is identical to most of Elvis' other films. Here he plays a GI returning from Italy (what he was doing there is never fully explained) to his home in Hawaii, quickly resuming a life of carefree surfing and hanging out with his buddies on the beach. He has a girlfriend too but mostly he likes hanging out with his native buddies who form a bizarre band and are as queer as a three dollar bill.
The Elvis films have some great homoeroticism and this one goes all out with the King in good form wearing swim trunks that will blow your mind in untold ways (the film is crying out for a 3D re-release; James Cameron take note). The great Roland Winters plays Elvis' mellow and very drunk dad who owns a local fruit company and Angela Lansbury is absolutely hilarious as his stuck-up, upper-crust mother. Lansbury is so carefree and awesome in the role she enters into Nicolas Cage/Dennis Hopper/John Hurt territory here, affecting a Southern accent so over the top it would put Foghorn Leghorn to shame.
Elvis' folks are ridiculously rich and they want him to go to work for his dad's company, but Elvis is more inclined to be his own man. None of this is supposed to be very dramatic. Elvis doesn't really appreciate how superficial and materialistic his parents are but he doesn't make a big deal out of it. He's very respectful towards them (like all good American boys at the time he calls them sir and mam) but he'd just prefer to do things his own way. There's a moment in the film that almost exactly mirrors a similar scene in Rebel Without a Cause. Elvis' parents have kind of been hinting that he's dating "below his position," since his girlfriend is half-native. They're also trying to push him into the business. James Dean, in a similar situation, famously yelled "YOU'RE TEARING ME APART!" releasing years of pent-up generational angst, giving voice to thousands of young people everywhere who were staring the existential ennui and meaninglessness of post WWII America in the face. And what does Elvis do in this situation? He simply shrugs, kisses him momma on the cheek and jumps into his car to go party with his Vaseline-happy beach buddies. He's kind of a rebel insofar as he decides to get his own job and move out of his parents house to a groovy little hut on the beach, but all of these proceedings take place in the most mellow-yellow way imaginable.
Elvis captures many of the aspects that made him such a paradoxical public persona perfectly in his performance here (how's that for alliteration!). Elvis became the prophetic symbol of the baby-boomer generation, opening up a world of music and expression for that new and elusive social class of the teenager. It was through Elvis' music that the conservative elements of America's culture suddenly realized that young people outnumbered their elders 5 to 1. In his sexuality, irreverence and joy he blazes the path to and prefigures the sex, drugs and rock n'roll that was soon to commence, the inevitable response to the assassinations, lies, materialism and violence that marked the decade.
But Elvis was also a deeply old-fashioned and conservative person, someone who could never totally align himself with the cultural revolution of the 60's. In his music and films and in his very person he represented a passage from one generation to another, from one worldview to the next, with one foot on each side of the divide that threatened to tear America apart. As such his films are not only a ridiculously fun and silly pleasure (they do demand a certain level of intoxication to be fully appreciated) but also a fascinating historical document, a glimpse into a moment in history where America was submerged in the waters of seeming security, material comfort and progress (at least for those born with the strange privilege of being both white and male). America would emerge out of this era into one of great turmoil and unrest but before the storm there was the placid calm of tight swim trunks, Mai Thais, and oiled beach musicians.
Elvis showing a young woman some Hawaiian hospitality