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