American Hustle – Now and then, them and us

american-hustleStating the obvious a film is a creation. It is an imaginative construction as much as any piece of art although it is usually a collaboration too. I have just listened to an interview with the director of ’12 Years a Slave’, Steve McQueen (also the artist who won the 1999 Turner Prize), and he said that if art is poetry then film is the novel. So with ‘American Hustle’ we have a film which is entertainment, a diversion and a piece of work that makes us engage with a story from recent history seen through someone else’s eyes, the eyes of David O. Russell, the film’s director.

There has been some buzz around ‘American Hustle’ not least various award nominations for the film and some of its stars (so far seven Golden Globe nominations). Critics have talked about possible Oscar winning performances. It is intriguing to see Christian Bale so thin in Werner Herzog’s ‘Rescue Dawn’ and virtually skeletal in Brad Anderson’s ‘The Machinist’ physically transform himself to appear unfit and genuinely overweight so much so even his hands looked bloated with excess. It is fascinating how he still commands the screen even when trying to suppress his energy and star quality by shuffling and stooping. There was also an electric cameo performance by Robert de Niro in a similar vein.

‘American Hustle’ is a film that is steeped in period detail circa 1978 and the well-informed are even praising the shots, angles and cut rate of the film as similar to those of films from the late 1970s. I’ve not been to film school so I’m not versed in the minutiae or technicalities of film making, but I really do look at films. I love to look all round the big screen which is one of the reasons why I don’t like 3D because often the background is so out of focus you can’t see the detail. The selection of period elements for a film depicting a time that many people can remember is tricky. Of course, there are big gesture signifiers like the types of cars, the lengths of women’s skirts/men’s hair or even the overall palette selected for the clothes and interiors, but it is in the details that the film’s visual authenticity is achieved or not.

plunging neckline
Original 1970s plunging neckline dress in lilac by Mary McFadden. 1stdibs
I am a couple years younger than David O. Russell, but I clearly remember the seventies and 1978 in particular as it was the year I left school, took a gap year and started my first job. I know any film is artificial, but the essence of ‘American Hustle’ doesn’t capture my version of 1978 in England – we had lots of colour. It may of course be that New York and New Jersey were a bit grim then and are appropriately evoked and feel right to an American audience. There was a pantomime quality to the film, a larger than life aspect to the acting and the styling, after all it is entertainment. We did have soft jersey dresses and plunging necklines, but the versions of the plunging neckline in this film owe more to 21st century ‘red carpet’ interpretations of this fashion than 1970s dresses.

stan herman pattern
From 1978 a Stan Herman design for Vogue Patterns.
I made the short version in purple jersey.

Looking back to 1978 there were obviously huge differences either side of the pond between Europe and North America that now we hardly notice as so many constituents of modern living such as clothing, technology, food even coffee are global brands. Difference and diversity should be cherished and it would be a pity if multiple versions of the 1970s get swamped by a standardised, received, Hollywood rendering.

Overall the film was enjoyable even if the pacing was a bit slow and it was about 20 minutes too long. It is just a shame that it’s another addition to the one view, visual myth of the 1970s that includes a lot of brown, a layer of greasy grime all highlighted with a few flashes of grotesque glitz.

A couple of family photos from 1978. That’s it.

A&J-1978Colourful 1978 AA

Author: agnesashe

Artisan, blogger and passionate East Anglian working from home.

10 thoughts on “American Hustle – Now and then, them and us”

  1. Interesting post – I thought the same thing about those plunging necklines in the movie – very sexy but not authentic for the times. I was disappointed in the movie – it should have been better because all the parts were their but it just didn’t manage to move from good to great. Love the family photos from the same era – are you there?

    1. I, too, was disappointed in the movie, I agree with you all the parts were there, but the whole was a near miss – it’s just got nominated here for 10 Baftas would you believe. My sister also said it wasn’t how she remembered the 70s as a teenager, but her husband who was in his late twenties at the time thought the film got it right. I guess everyone has their own views and memories.

      Yes, it’s me and my sis in the photo. She’s the one smiling and I’m looking too serious as usual! The dark, out of focus pic was taken by my mother in a hurry when she saw I looked cheerful for once. Oh the joys of a moody teenager.

  2. I arrived in England April 1978. At one stage in autumn I went shopping at Selfridges and let the sales attendants dress me. Ended up looking very much like your photo with the skirts/boots. And yes, the 70s for me may have been halter neck with a plunge, but only to the top of the cleavage. Thank goodness!

    1. Did you find an enormous difference between Australia and the UK then? I remember meeting some Australians who were on a world tour and the only thing I can recall them saying they missed was Vegemite – which, of course, I had never heard of!

      1. Many things were new and unusual. I was a young girl travelling alone on my first trip out of Australia. A few things stand out, for example: How everyone planned outings, with the qualifier “if it is not raining”. I had just lived four years in Adelaide – one of the driest capitals in Australia. Also, people didn’t drop in on each other, even if they were best friends. They rang first to see if it was convenient. Seemed oddly formal to me. And in the London underground there were signs about what to do if there was an unattended package in the train. I would have just picked it up and taken it to lost property, without a thought for the IRA. We had only had our first ever terrorist bombing a month before I left, so I was an innocent abroad. And on my first day of arrival, there were people sunbaking in bikinis in the London parks – even though the temperature was a freezing 13’c. Four years later, if the weather got that warm – I took my gear off too!

      2. You are so right about ‘if it’s not raining’ and I do remember my mother commenting on a friend/neighbour who turned up once without ringing first holding a clutch of magazines to amend for the unexpected intrusion. Gosh – how things have changed.

        As for the IRA business, in 1982 I was at a friend’s flat in Pimlico when the Hyde Park bomb went off. It was a powerful booming sound, but at first we all thought it was a gas explosion. Looking back it was obviously a difficult era, but at the time you just got on with everyday living.

  3. Great post, Agnes. My perspective is somewhat different–I’m a native New Jerseyite who loved “American Hustle.” I thought the film captured the zeitgeist perfectly (we lost about a third of our Congressmen to Abscam), but I totally agree with you about the plunging necklines. Evening wear, perhaps-daytime never.

    1. Thank you so much for commenting. I was dying to know what a true local thought of the film. I had seen that it was based on the Abscam scandal, but had no idea that Abscam was on that scale. I didn’t read newspapers when I was a teenager (oops) and that was the only way to get any in-depth news from abroad. Ah – that neckline, very difficult to wear confidently even for some of today’s A listers let alone us mere mortals.

  4. IRA, PLO, Bader Meinhoff, Red Brigade and the Aldo Moro assassination – the political landscape was littered with terrorist threats that somehow seem to have been forgotten in today’s focus on Al Quaeda and such like. Luckily, none of it stopped my adventuring through Europe.

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