I was reading an article about the cultural tastes of the older generations. At some point our taste (in music, in the specific article) calcifies and we prefer to listen only to the sounds that we enjoyed in our youth. This being so, most of us have a moment in time that we see as defining. We see the events of this moment as shaping not only our own lives but the culture in which we live. While the feeling is universal, that actual moment will vary, being different for each of us. I believe the article called out the late-teens or early-twenties as the age for which we develop this nostalgia.
At the risk of dating myself, I find the years 1984 and 1985 to be particularly defining. First off, it helps that George Orwell not only placed his dystopian novel in the year 1984, but titled it the same. That left all of us in the first few years of the decade talking seriously about the arrival of this dystopian future and the extent to which it had already come about. The year saw a remade version of the film (same name) come out while the novel was on the required reading list for many a school.
I’ve read the book before, but it was a long time ago. My perspective likely drifted since that reading and I probably would need another go-through just to remember how the novel relates and differs from the film experience. The novel’s copyright expires January 1, 2021, less than a year away and counting down. Maybe I should read it again once the content, itself, is free from government control.
Up until I started watching, I was sure that I had also already seen the 1984 version of the film. After having watched, I’m pretty sure I haven’t actually seen it. I probably intended to when the film was released and somehow that aspiration turned into a vague recollection that I already had.
The book is a product of the desolation and destruction left behind by the Second World War. Orwell did not believe that free, Western Democracy would survive the war or, once the war ended, the ensuing Cold War. The book specifically reacted to the Tehran Conference and the notion that Allied victory would see the post-war world divided into zones of control. While partially correct (the world would see multiple wars fought across the post-war demarcations, such as in Korea and Vietnam), the full-scale war between superpowers never took place. One might also wonder how much Orwell’s own struggle with disease (tuberculosis) helped create the tone of utter despair within his novel.
Volumes have been written about the book, its context, its predictive ability or lack thereof, and its implications for the present society, whether that be present-day 1984 or present-day 2020. I’ll mostly stay away from that bigger picture so as to focus on this movie version.
At roughly this same time, 1982 had seen the release of Blade Runner and its imagery and style were redefining what the future might look like from 1984’s present. Oddly enough, that future is now the past. At the time, though, it seemed entirely plausible that we’d be living in an over-populated, corporate-controlled hell where our western culture had been almost entirely swallowed by the dominance of all things Japanese. Conflict with the Soviet Union was anticipated to follow paths as in Red Dawn or The Hunt for Red October (both 1984).
By contrast, the imagery of Nineteen Eighty-Four (the film), is the standard “war-torn Europe” pastiche. Was that a plausible future to us in 1984? Yes, if for no other reason than it was common within this exact context. Compare, for example, with the imagery of Pink Floyd – The Wall, also a 1982 film. It all fits the then-current archetype of World War III, conventional war version.
What about today, in the eyes of the “average” entertainment consumer? No world where progress was brought to a near-halt by the Second World War can possibly feel “futuristic” today. Nor can a story where Soviet and/or Nazi totalitarianism simply became ubiquitous. Even the imagery is all wrong for “perpetual war,” a state that we should feel quite familiar with. The fact is, the vision of a “war-torn Europe” has passed almost entirely out of human memory. There are very few still living who experienced the Second World War as an adult. Even the number that were old enough to have coherent memories of that time is rapidly dwindling. Thirty-six years on, the film has become a historical piece – depicting something from the 1940s – rather than the futuristic warning that it was intended to be.
The other bit of imagery from the film that surprised me a bit was the quantity and character of the sexual content. Part of it was I probably wasn’t quite ready to “get” the book when I first read it and so didn’t properly digest the content. Part of it is that any language from a 1940s novel is not going to produce quite the same impact of an actual big-screen beaver shot.
The sexual imagery in this film dominates the screen. Furthermore, it is a kind of sexual imagery that one is not going to see in the present day. It is explicit without being “sexy.” Like the shattered buildings and unhealthy-looking populace, it adds to the sense of despair rather than distracting from it. Similar scenes in a modern film would show a lot more writhing and humping but nowhere near the anatomical accuracy. There is a new Victorian prudery at play that has redefined what is acceptable even within what is meant to push the boundaries of our sensibility.
The sexual focus is interesting in another way. As I said, I never thought of the story as primarily about sex. When I read the book, this was a facet of Winston’s “rebellion” but I wouldn’t have seen it as dominant. In the film, their revolution is primarily a sexual one. Julia (although this probably isn’t as clear in the movie as in the book) has no aspirations to revolution beyond forbidden acts of sexuality and sensuality. In Orwell’s words, she is a “rebel from the waist downwards.” Winston challenges the government’s new world order at a more intellectual and philosophical level but, as he acknowledges that he will eventually be caught and reprogrammed, his main goal is that he will retain his love for Julia no matter what is done to him. The sexual focus in 1984 is probably related to the experience of those behind the movie of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. I see a very different context today.
I mentioned what I termed a new Victorian prudery. Sexuality, perhaps mostly male sexuality, is on many fronts being deterred. The massive depopulation of the Second World War and the even greater depopulation imagined by an Orwellian future aligned the needs of the State with the values of the religious right*; the need to build cultural and military strength with a vibrant and growing population. Thus the Ninety Eighty-Four State’s suppression of sexuality, to the 80s eye, would be seen as clearly anti-progressive. In actuality, totalitarian governments, in the years leading up to 1984 , were more likely to institute population limitations. Today, this has become an accepted part of what’s wrong with sex – it’s bad precisely because it tends to make babies.
In other words, among the Orwellian trends we are currently subject to, one of them seems to be the suppression of human sexuality – albeit in a very different direction than what Orwell imagined. This may be more profound in today’s world than then Orwell’s insight into the neuro-linguistic programing effects of political correctness. Winston is defeated when his eternal feelings for Julia are taken from him. Mankind is defeated, not when we cease to question the powers that be, but when we can no longer express our natural and inherent nature. Politics truly conquers all when politics can overcome genetics.
One final thing that surprised me when watching was the opening credit nod to the Eurythmics. I didn’t know they did the soundtrack for this film and I certainly didn’t know it was controversial. At the time, the Eurythmics were peaking commercially with their 1983 release of Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This). Their single Sexcrime (Nineteen Eighty-Four) was not quite as successful in the U.S. as it was in the UK, but it was popular in dance clubs. I never associated the song with the movie. Indeed, why would I? While I now connect Annie Lennox with movie soundtracks (courtesy of The Lord of the Rings), this would have seemed an oddity in the 80s. Furthermore, the Eurythmics’ electro-pop sound does not fit at all with the dystopia past/future of Nineteen Eighty-Four. This was a significant problem for the director. While the film’s production company, Virgin Studios, had commissioned the Eurythmics to do the soundtrack, director Michael Radford felt that the dance pop sound did not fit into his artistic vision. He had scored the movie, both with songs and musical background, with the compositions of Dominic Muldowney. Late in production, Virgin inserted Eurythmics recordings in place of the orchestra score. Virgin also released an Eurythmics album, which they sold as the soundtrack to the movie. Muldowney’s songs still remain prominent in the film, particularly his creation of the nationalistic anthems for Oceania. Radford and Muldowney were very unhappy with the decision and said as much.
In the intervening years, rights have shifted and the past has been rewritten. In 1999, a new soundtrack CD was released. It was titled Nineteen Eighty-Four: The Music of Oceania, and contained Muldowney’s score only. At that same time, the film was re-edited to restore Muldowney’s “cues” where they had been replaced with Eurythmics electronica. Currently, DVD versions might contain both edits** of the film. I’m not entirely clear about which version I watched. I think I probably saw the Eurythmics version in that I was thinking that some of the mood music was a little weird. I’ve read that the streaming version uses the Virgin cut, but Amazon’s interface does not readily provide those details. I guess the lesson is that, whichever version I saw is the right version and it always has been the right version.
Now, when it came to music, rock and pop, this mainstreaming of the newest sounds sometimes seemed like a wild exception rather than the rule. The early 1980s was heavily dominated by the artists of the previous decades. Look at the chart-toppers of 1984 and 1985 an you’ll see (if not the intact bands, at least the members of) The Beatles, Yes, Kenny Loggins, Genesis, The Commodores, Stevie Wonder, Ike & Tina Turner, King Crimson, REO Speedwagon, Dire Straits, and Jefferson Airplane. One would be forgiven for thinking it was still the early 1970s. At the same time, many of the bands that I would think of as “the future” of rock were either releasing their first albums or coming into their own commercially. In fact, looking at the musicscape of 1984 and 1985, I see several iterations of musical future as my own taste evolved.
Enjoying so this whole timeline-generating process and having been pleased with the music-and-events format I indulged in for 1968, I decided to make one for 1984. In doing so, I realized that the events I so strongly associate with this time are actually spread (mostly) across 1984 and 1985, so my musical timeline covers a two-year span.
One more thought and a caution to readers.
As loaded up my timeline with so many music videos, I realized I was pushing against some limits, at least in terms of the way my timelines interact with Firefox. The way the Knight Lab software works, it is loading the multi-media into the browser memory to display it. With dozens upon dozens of music videos involved, computer resources quickly become overloaded. This seems to persist even after closing the tab containing the timeline – one needs to shut down Firefox altogether, a action that itself becomes difficult due to the huge memory usage.
*I mean neither “religious” nor “right” in the American sense. The leftist wave of the sexual revolution attacked a prudery that, as in Victorian times, was closely tied with Christianity. In the modern world, the religious can fall on either side of the political divide (fundamentalist Islam is far more restrictive than almost any Christian sect). Likewise, “conservatism” here means only the emphasis on traditional norms. Non-Western traditions seem to be acceptable to the left.
**The change also removes a post-directorial saturation edit which Virgin had made against Radford’s wishes.