First off I want to thank the blog Cedar Lounge Revolution for finding and posting this fascinating film (the original post is here). Originally I was just going to reblog that post, but then I realized I had enough of my own commentary on this odd little film to constitute a full article.
Above you will find embedded a 21-minute film entitled 1999 A.D., which was produced in 1967 by Philco-Ford Corporation–better known as Philco, a leading manufacturer of stereos and TVs through much of the 20th century. This film was evidently created to commemorate Philco’s 75th anniversary. It purports to depict what the makers, and Philco, seem to think middle-class family life will be like in the year 1999, then thirty-two years in the future. Far from being simply a bit of kitsch laughable for how far-off its predictions of the future (now past) are, 1999 A.D. is a fascinating glimpse into the expectations some people in the 1960s had in the future, and why they might have held them. As I’ve said before, cultural depictions of the future tell you a lot more about the time they were created than they do about the future. Yet at the same time, as was the case with the 1989 film Back to the Future II that “predicted” the world of 2015, sometimes these depictions come surprisingly close to being accurate, at least in some ways.
According to Philco-Ford in 1967, the liberated, educated woman of the 1990s would be good for little else but hanging around the house like one of the Stepford Wives.
But if you look carefully at 1999 A.D., you’ll see a whole lot of assumptions that Philco had, or wanted viewers to have, about the future. The one that stands out above all else is the depiction of gender. Cedar Lounge Revolution pointed out that the female character, Karen, is carefully cast in the role of “wife, mother and part-time homemaker.” The movie spends a lot of time showing us exactly how content Karen is and how much leisure time she has, preferring to primp flowers on her kitchen table and fawn over her obnoxiously milquetoast (and suspiciously well-behaved) 8-year-old son. As you might expect from a 1960s vision of the future, the movie drools with barely-concealed anticipation over all the electronic “labor-saving” devices that render Karen superfluous. She doesn’t have to cook; a machine that Star Trek would eventually label a “replicator” fixes the family’s meals for them, though she carefully monitors their calories. She doesn’t wash dishes; the film says the dishes are disposable. She doesn’t wash clothes; in 1999 evidently all our clothes were supposed hang in automatic laundry closets. And the film is very careful to state that she used to be a teacher of fine arts, but now prefers to stay home. What message is this sending about the empowerment of women?
Indeed, one question that mid-20th century depictions of the future and their emphasis on “labor-saving” technology could never answer was this one: what is Karen being “saved” to do, exactly? The film shows her shopping online, using a system that looks pretty similar to Amazon–though the bills go to her husband. Beyond this, her pursuits consist of the aforementioned flower-primping, playing the piano with her son and taking him to the beach. Future technology has “liberated” her from household chores, but contemporary (1967) sensibilities forbid her from making any real use of all the free time she now has. It’s not like the movie would dare to show us Karen using her time to start a business, get an advanced degree or (gasp!) run for President. The blunt-force sexism of the film is pretty unmistakable.
Evidently home decor fashions were not expected to change much in 33 years. Look at that shag carpet! Who would have had this in their house in 1999?
For his part, though, her husband Michael doesn’t seem to be doing much better. At least he has a job, evidently working on some Mars colonization project, but 1999 A.D. shows him basically as little more than a 1960s Don Draper with some slightly more high-tech equipment. But like Karen, Michael is pretty much tyrannized by all this amazing “labor-saving” technology. A financial computer reminds him, minute to minute, how much he owes in taxes. A health computer barks exercise orders at him. His wife, consulting her calorie-counting computer, tells him what he may and may not eat for lunch. The actor playing Michael seems less uncomfortable than the poor woman who had to play Karen, but it still looks like a pretty bleak and sterile life, although Michael has (of course) the typical male suburban escape of going to play golf with a buddy–in Mexico City. This date is arranged through picture-phones, a staple of 1950s-60s futuristic kitsch and an easily achievable technology, except somehow we’ve decided that we don’t really want picture-phones. Camera phones, well, that’s another kettle of fish.
Note also the social assumptions 1999 A.D. makes. The future will be mostly white, preferably suburban, definitely English-speaking, straight, cis and “all-American.” Family or social life in 1999, in this film’s estimation, won’t have progressed much beyond Leave it to Beaver which by 1967 was already a decade in the past. I suppose Philco-Ford couldn’t sell many nifty TVs by depicting dystopian situations like political assassinations, imperialistic boondoggles or even the unthinkable nightmare of a white nationalist reality star being elected President, but the most hopeful thing it dares to show us, besides all those household appliances, is the Moon landing. Indeed, 1999, in this iteration, looks pretty damn boring.
In real life, pop music of 1999 wasn’t really that much better than what was predicted in the movie.
Still, you’ve got to love the film’s final scene. The neighborhood crowd, all resplendent in their barely-disguised 1960s eveningwear, gather at a friend’s house for drinks and a big-screen TV presentation of some home video of an ear-splittingly atrocious singer from Puerto Rico. Aside from making me think instantly of the Trolololo guy, the video presentation led me to one inescapable conclusion about the brave new world as Philco-Ford envisioned it in 1967: the future sucks! Thankfully 1999 is seventeen years behind us now. But, oh crap, in real life we’ve got something else to worry about that no one would have dared put in a movie like this, even though they did know about it: the threat of climate change.
Thanks again to Cedar Lounge Revolution!