[1957] Peyton Place

Miles Davis released seven albums in 1957, including “Birth of the Cool,” which is decidedly cool. Its parts continue to reinvent themselves almost 60 years later, because the kind of cool borne from post-WWII and post-bebop jazz trickled through American culture, organically and counter-culturally. No amount of appropriation could commodify this album and no amount of projection could have predicted its or Miles’ lasting influence. Jazz happens organically, by definition, while film does not. It is redundant to label “Birth of the Cool” as a compilation, because, as countless reissues of jazz why demonstrate, the “take” chosen for mastering was and is one of many. Film, while confined to the bounds of its medium, does not have this luxury, so it is slightly disingenuous to compare Miles Davis to Peyton Place, surely a combination of best takes and very plotted points.

The calculated style is not bad in any way, and in fact the karmic dissonance between Jazz and Film in the late 1950s allows the audience to take the lid off the fabric of the culture. Each year that passes now represents in historical decay (up until the mid-1990s or a little later) as the timestamp of culture represents the only thing we know about moral goodness or artistic prowess. Peyton Place is a near three-hour culture marble that dings around the moral spectrum, hoping to land somewhere near the moving-center target; its characters are direct representations of lust and envy, of purity and defiance, and its plot is one of resolution. And if ever a hanging diminished seventh existed, then Miles would have called it on purpose. If Peyton Place was a jazz musician, it certainly would not have. 

Nothing intrinsically suggests that plot neatness represents boredom and satisfaction, but nothing, too, refutes it. While the film concludes on “good over evil,” that the whole visible town immediately concurred is disingenuous. Dr. Matthew Swain’s moral metaphor probably represents a regression to some sort of standard, either as the source material dictates (it doesn’t) or how the screenwriters and producers saw a fitting ending (more likely). It is hard to say that this style was typical of 1957, but it is more culturally relevant to say that the style was representative. It would too be easy to say that film expectation has evolved over 55 years, but it hasn’t. Instead, the storytelling has become more raw in a sense. Sexual assault is often not implied, but demonstrated. A fast woman is often nude on-screen and a murder often graphic. Realism was and is important, but neatness still represents a timidity and undermines storytelling, even as shock and awe becomes commonplace. Shock and awe in jazz are often represented as an unexpected symbol hit, or as Miles discovered just two years later on “Kind of Blue,” the sort of mellow acid that can last decades.

A near three-hour running time dragged this film from moral circle to Möbius strip. At times the “point” seemed to instruct that this situation was either good or bad in an overly simplistic manner, seemingly in perpetuity. Nuance, as it has become clear, was not common in older films: with limited budget for production, stringent directors and producers would often need to be cautious to not introduce unsustainable plot points that would require an expensive trick or impossible CGI moment. Peyton Place had no room or need for this sort of film-making, as the audience is stuck in what seemed like a feedback loop with limited and obvious moral markers. The brute-force-mores method probably worked in a prudish 1957 America, but it has not aged well. Though: Jazz seems to work well in a perpetual loop if the ideas worked, as Kamasi Washington’s 2015’s 3-hour epic “The Epic” demonstrates: this album is a product of decades of forward-thinking feedback and a pulse on the next beat. Peyton Place falls flat because of its unsustainable metaphor, refusal to be messy and consistent regression to mean morals. Sure, its producers had no way of knowing what would come, morally and technologically, but it continues to be curious how some media age, and some are born, and die, cool.

Most audiences continue to remember 1957’s 12 Angry Men as the year’s stalwart in film even today, but it was another epic, The Bridge on the River Kwai that will be remembered as 1957’s Best Picture. Along with Sayonara and Witness for the ProsecutionPeyton Place is an ultimately forgettable and deeply uncool representation of how short film had come up until that point and how far film has come since the birth of industry and of cool.

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