January 17, 2014 6:36 pm

When life was lived in three dimensions

‘Expect Christian Bale’s hairpiece in “American Hustle” to walk away with an Oscar all of its own’
Christian Bale, right, and Bradley Cooper in 'American Hustle'©AP

Christian Bale, right, and Bradley Cooper in 'American Hustle'

There is something about the opening scene of American Hustle, winner of three Golden Globes last week and nominated for 10 Oscars, that makes it clear why the culture of the 1970s is making something of a comeback. In a few moments steeped in richly comedic pathos, we are taken back to a time that was both more innocent, and more sleazy. The middle-aged Irving Rosenfeld, played by Christian Bale in hefty-method mode, is attempting to make himself presentable – attractive, even – by means of a hairpiece on his head.

He manoeuvres an unconvincing tuft of dark fur on to the barren dome at the top of his head, with the aid of some glue. He arranges, with no little delicacy, various strands of his own, thinning hair above and around the tuft. With some last-minute twists and tugs before the mirror, he affords himself a tentative expression of quiet satisfaction. He is ready to face the world.

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Peter Aspden

Rosenfeld’s hairpiece has already become the talk of the movie world. Expect it to walk away with an Oscar all of its own. One of the joys of the film is to follow its crazily reimagined manifestations over the course of the action. You can’t take your eyes off it, as they used to say of Garbo. We are laughing at it, of course. But there is something almost tender about it too, this preposterously transparent measure of inept disguise.

It is all very 1970s. The unpolished decade, the era of make-it-up-as-you-go-along, getting by as best you can. An age that revered posers, but didn’t mind if the poses frayed a little around the edges. When the ultimate feat of technological trickiness was a tape that could self-destruct, or a television that could be powered by remote control!

I think we miss all that. We miss the bathos of bad dancing, bad trouser-width, bad bugging of the US president’s political opponents. Ironically, we were witnessing the best that popular culture could offer: The Godfather, Blood on the Tracks, investigative newshounds, rumbles in the jungle. But we weren’t really up to it. We floundered in a haze of dissatisfaction, hung over from the previous decade’s parties, not yet ready for the onslaught of slickness and coffer-filling that was to come.

I thought of all this when I came across a report by the forecaster JWT Intelligence, which focused on cultural trends for 2014. In the main, it says, we find ourselves in something of an existential dilemma (my words, not theirs), both welcoming and resisting the growing omnipresence of technology in our lives. We are in an age of impatience. The on-demand economy, and the ability of e-business to respond to it, is making us more, rather than less, intolerant of delay. Same-day delivery is the mantra of quick-fire online shopping. Most products can be delivered in a day; but we are also expecting hyper-speedy resolution of more complex matters, like fulfilling relationships, or cures for diseases. The result is frustration.

. . . .

Yet we also “rage against the machine”, wanting to restore human values to our increasing dependence on technology. Rock bands – always the place to look for an enlightened way forward – are beginning to insist that people put their phones away during concerts so that they can live their experience in proper 3D rather than mediate it through a three-inch screen.

We rail against tradition; we revere tradition. We want to break apart the old world while we rest against the eternal verities that have made us who we are. Gay marriage is the perfect example of this mash-up, revivifying an old institution with progressive social attitudes.

We are proud to be imperfect. Last October, says the JWT report, an Austrian grocery chain, Billa, launched its own label of “nonconformist” produce called Wunderlinge, a neologism which roughly brings together the words for “anomaly” and “miracle”. We have had enough of things looking immaculate, or rather the pressure for things to look immaculate. We are embracing flaws, things that don’t look quite right.

All of which brought me back to Irving Rosenfeld, his small-time American hustle, and his big-time delusion that he could ever have a good hair day. This was a time that hated undue haste, was a little contemptuous of the super-efficient, suspected anything pristine, and wallowed in its faults and limitations (just ask the International Monetary Fund). A time when we didn’t need reminding that life was to be lived in three dimensions.

That is why we love Rosenfeld and his hairpiece, and that funny yet febrile scene in the disco, those out-there outfits, the shady local politician who is both on-the-make and a go-to guy. Nothing was quite straightforward in the 1970s, and part of our full-haired, teeth-whitened, upright and uptight time could do with a little more of that.

peter.aspden@ft.com, @peteraspden

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