Friday, August 7, 2009

Hair Growth

Last night, in what might be an act of supreme parental misguidedness, my wife and I watched a DVD of "Hair" with our kids. Now, I never saw the original stage version. I was too young, I guess. I remember talk about naked people on stage, how shocking, though not necessarily bad, that nakedness was. But when the amazing, joyful movie version came out in 1979, I did see it. I was in high school. I saw it with my dad.

Yes, my dad. He liked it, too. My high school friends thought that was funny, thought it was too subversive for parents. I bought and still have the LP of the soundtrack. I'd liked the music -- mostly its energy and spirit.

My wife remembered the film fondly too, and so we thought we'd share that joy with our two young daughters. All right, there was an ulterior motive.

You see, last week was their school's annual talent show. Kids volunteer to audition various acts. Though not all proposed acts end up in the final performance, no child who wants to be in is left out. Some get assigned to ensemble numbers. Our daughters didn't come up with an act in time to audition, so they got to be part of the opening number, which included 8 or 10 kids between the ages of 5 and 12. Two years ago, however, my older daughter did a solo act where she performed most of the "Modern Major General" from Guilbert & Sullivan's "Pirates of Penzance." She'd got the idea from the video we'd rented of the Kevin Kline version.

After this year's talent show, I began thinking how we ought to introduce our daughters to more musicals. Perhaps new ideas and acts would be sparked, but if not, well, they like to sing and dance and might enjoy them. They also enjoy having long hair -- especially my older daughter, who is 9 and whose hair is very long indeed. Plus she's very into the Beatles, and tie-dyed T-shirts are in with her crowd. So naturally, I thought of the "Hair."

It's rated PG. Would it be rated PG today, or something harsher, stricter? The references to drugs and sex were embarrassing for us parental types, to say the least. ("What's cunnilingus, Mommy? And what's LSD?") My wife and I found ourselves muttering things like, "People did things in those days because they didn't know any better." Or "Drugs weren't as bad for you back then. Now they are stronger, much worse, and you should never take them." I believe our girls know better than to copy what they see on TV. In any case, we tried to focus their attention on the nifty dancing, the spirit of the Age of Aquarius. (My favorite song, actually, is the energetic, nonconformist "I Got Life," a rallying cry sung in contradiction to the fussy, formal society lady's scolding, "You've got some nerve, young man!")

But beyond the sex and drug references, how much has changed in the 26 years since the movie came out -- let alone the 36 or so since the stage version? And perhaps more importantly, how much has not?

The hippies in Milos Forman's masterful adaptation are beautifully decked out in multicolored plummage. The men's long hair isn't ratty or tangled, and thus not "natural" at all. It's fluffy and feathery, more 70s than 60s, I suppose. They have no visible means of support, perhaps having more in common with today's homeless -- except for the clothes and hairdos. But I'd forgotten the ironic ending.

If you don't want the end to be given away, don't read the next paragraph or two. But I figure it's an old enough movie I'm safe.

Berger (Treat Williams), the lead flower child, partly on a lark and partly I think out of a sense of nobility or loyalty to his friend Claude (John Savage), frees Claude from boot camp for one afternoon so he can meet up with Sheila (Beverly D'Angelo) and the rest of the gang -- frees him by taking his place in the barracks. Berger cuts his hair, dons Claude's uniform, and attempts to fill in. His timing is unfortunate, though, because in that brief interval the entire unit is shipped out to Vietnam, and certain death. We see the young men in uniform, in perfectly straight lines, marching into a military airplane, filing into a vast darkness that represents death. As the movie fades to peace marches, people singing "Let the Sunshine in," we get a quick glimpse of the hippie gang without him -- 3 couples, a small boy and a baby now -- looking at Berger's grave. My 9-year-old daughter, already in tears because Berger, the coolest hippie, has to go off to war when he doesn't want to, suddenly finds it unbearable. "Oh God. They had to show that! I was hoping, you know, they'd show him coming back OK from war. But not that!"

In fairness, I have to wrestle with my own knee-jerk desire for my daughter to never cry or suffer at all. It is a sad scene, and her tears are appropriate. I know that. I know sorrow is a valid emotion she must learn to live with. And I must learn to live with her living with it. After she cried a while and we got the kids to bed, I started thinking: Did Berger have to die? Did he have to atone for his sins -- drug use, car stealing, and generally disrupting civilized life? All done with great charm, granted. Nevertheless, would you really want someone like him and his buddies invading your private party, say, and dancing on the furniture? Did he somehow deserve to die? If so, is the film version of "Hair" more of an old-fashioned morality play than its creators had intended?

In the end, however, I decided no, the film is not making a conservative statement. It's not saying that the wages of sin is (are?) certain death. Rather, it's about wartime. Death is commonplace in times of war. An everyday reality. As we know today. A lot of innocent people died in Vietnam and are dying now in Iraq. That's what the peace protests were about. Are about.

Look, we can't let our mourning -- our longing for the company of those who have died -- ruin our present, take over our lives. But at the same time, it's important to be disturbed by the randomness and meaninglessness of death, especially death for a cause that's questionable to some of us.

Still, I find myself wondering: Do our current peace protests against President Bush and the War in Iraq have the social consciousness of those during Vietnam? How willing are we to be radical, to face our society's unpleasant challenges?

Perhaps I'm not putting this well. Stay with me.

Another example: "Hair" has a couple of songs about race. Especially fun is the matched set, "Black Boys" and "White Boys" (yummy chocolate-covered treats, delicious and smooth as silk, respectively). Could you get away with something like that today? In our political correctness, we're supposed to be totally colorblind. We recognize the contributions of different cultures -- African, Asian, Latin -- but do we dare even acknowledge the potential tensions in race relations? It's not cool even to talk about it like that anymore. All that's supposed to be in the past. The bad old days before Civil Rights. Well, that's good, but how much are we burying our heads in the sand, smug in the belief that we've put all those tensions behind us? That we're not the racist culture we used to be. We're enlightened! All that stuff is quaint. Or are we just avoiding the issues, allowing them to smolder beneath the surface?

I'm not entirely sure our kids were ready to deal with any of these issues, especially not in light of an overall happy musical about dancing around with long hair. But maybe it's not so bad for them to have to be aware of the struggles that have come before and are still relevant today. The struggles for freedom and liberty, for free expression, for love and connecting, which seem to go against the struggles for civility, fidelity, a sense of order. I worry that our society has gradually become as repressive as, if not more repressive than, the bad old 1950s. More inclusive, perhaps, but how comfortable are we at honestly facing the still-current, ongoing realities of inequality, injustice, war, racial friction?

As the saying goes, the more things change the more they remain the same.

What do you think?

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