Navigating Nostalgia

There have been dozens of articles that argue that this year’s Oscar race indicates that Hollywood is feeling nostalgic. Some of the leading contenders for Best Picture, including Hugo, The Artist, and even Midnight in Paris all offer plots about returning to the early days of cinema or recovering some other lost past. There’s probably some validity to this point, but I’m a little more skeptical when we address the question of what this trend means, what it says about Hollywood, movie audiences, or others who might be caught up in this wave of nostalgia. Neal Gabler’s Los Angeles Times column is most explicit in tracing this trend, arguing that even films like The Descendants evoke a filmmaking style more akin to ’70s character studies, making them fit into this trend.

First, I wonder if the nostalgia trend is anything new. Last year’s Best Picture winner, The King’s Speech, fits perfectly within this idea of nostalgia, even to the point of celebrating an “older” media technology, radio, for its ability to unify a nation, something that now seems impossible in the era of media fragmentation. Other nominated films include True Grit, a remake of a classic western, Toy Story 3, a sequel to an animated film that many young adults grew up watching repeatedly on DVD, and The Kids are Alright, a character film similar to The Descendants. In a sense, I think Gabler stretches his concept of nostalgia too thin here by including these ’70s-style character dramas, in part because there are usually several that come out annually, and some get nominated while others (such as The Ides of March) don’t.

Second, I’m growing increasingly skeptical about what anyone means by the term, “Hollywood,” especially to suggest a group of people who share a distinct set of tastes or beliefs. A glance at industry reports will show that the studios, once managed by the moguls that Gabler has discussed so eloquently, have been replaced by so many competing interests and production practices. So, even while Gabler acknowledges that “Hollywood’s executive suites are occupied by Ivy Leaguers and MBAs who report to giant international-minded media conglomerates,” it’s really difficult to generalize about how taste is cultivated within these groups.

But I think where Gabler seems to misread the nostalgia trend is when he argues that these films reflect a “self-loathing” in the industry. That doesn’t seem quite right to me. Instead, I’d argue that Hugo is not only a celebration of the magic of Georges Melies but also a retelling of cinema’s origin story, turning film (or, more accurately, the movies, in this post-celluloid age) into a special effects medium from its very origins. Even the Lumiere Brothers’ first public screening, which included a film of a train coming into a station, becomes a special effect, especially as it is touched up with 3D technology. It is certainly a celebration of cinema’s past (in much the same way that The Artist might be), but it also seems to be about how those early films helped foster a love of movies and moviegoing that continues to this day.

But if there is a connective tissue between these films and others that are marked by this type of nostalgia, I think that Matt Zoller Seitz is closer to the truth when he argues that many of these films are nostalgic for an era of tactile media. Noting the continued fading of film as a medium, and even of physical storage media such as CDs and DVDs, he points out that these films  (and TV shows) reflect “a fear that the virtual world is displacing the real one.” There are other issues at stake as well, including the sense that an era of recession and austerity has produced a sense that we are living in degraded times (a point that Matt touches upon), but I’m skeptical of the idea that this is tied to a self-loathing about the present moment of entertainment culture. Instead, there seems to be a recognition that something is in the process of being lost without any clear sense of certainty about our cinematic futures.

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