In with the old, out with the new
“That’s what the present is. It’s a little unsatisfying, because life’s a little unsatisfying,” Owen Wilson’s Gil explains to his 1920s-era love interest near the end of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. After longing to live in the “golden age” of early twentieth-century Paris for most of the film, Gil comes to realize his nostalgic escapism is more a threat than a source of salvation, as it hinders his potential for personal progress and genuine contentment.
If 2011 is any indication, then Hollywood seems to be suffering from a similar outbreak of nostalgia. The ordinarily forward-thinking film industry has begun to look backwards, attempting to reclaim the former glory of the cinematic form.
This February’s Academy Awards, from its ceremonial proceedings to its winners, clung to conservatism. Unfortunately, however, in the midst of Billy Crystal’s old-school hosting style and the Academy ‘s apparent adoration of old-world methods and storylines, innovation and creativity fell by the wayside.
Michel Hazanavicius’ Best Picture-winning The Artist proved an old-fashioned silent movie, however silly and one-dimensional, could still captivate today’s starry-eyed critics; and Martin Scorsese’s five-statue winner Hugo suckered audiences into accepting film history lessons and Dickensian plotlines in lieu of strong filmmaking. Even beyond these big winners, though, the Oscars hinted at a significant shift in the attitudes of the so-called “liberal elites” of the movie industry.
Many of the year’s heavy-hitting blockbusters bought into this nostalgic trend. Stephanie Meyer’s neo-propaganda piece, the penultimate installment of the Twilight series, broadcasts the sanctity – and steaminess – of matrimonial sex, and advocates an endearingly modest code of personal and sexual ethics. While the year’s other top grossers strayed a bit from these chauvinist and fundamentalist Mormon messages, sci-fi and adventure hits such as Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Adventures of Tintin and Super 8 all draw from the big-budget thrillers of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.
Just as 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark capitalized on the public’s nostalgia for the exciting serials and war epics of the pre-Vietnam era, films like Super 8 use the seemingly carefree settings of the late ’70s and early ’80s to simultaneously thrill young people and transport older audience members to their childhood years, when adventure flicks such as The Goonies and E.T. were popular.
Even as these new films extract from the old, they also have the opportunity to recreate and reinvent tired and outdated formulas, concepts and characters.
Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, for example, may look like an amalgam of 1940s-era battlefield epics and Black Beauty-esque horse dramas at first glance, but the film’s quirky structure, awe-inspiring special effects and ambivalent attitude toward war allow it to both embrace the past and seize the opportunities of modern filmmaking.
Similarly, this year’s Chronicle revisits two age-old themes – the corrupting nature of power, la All the King’s Men; and the acquisition of super-powers by a seeming weakling, la Spider-Man – and melds them together within the framework of the ‘found-footage’ filming style made popular by The Blair Witch Project.
Like War Horse and this past winter’s The Woman in Black, Chronicle fuses, twists and distorts elements of the past, and in doing so crafts a creative and “new” work of art.
Despite the fact Midnight in Paris seems to stand in favor of evading escapism and limiting nostalgia, much of the movie’s appeal stems from its transportation of the audience from the woe-filled present to the magic of 1920s Paris. As long as it doesn’t destroy progress or stifle creativity, a nostalgic look backwards may be just what the doctor ordered for the film industry.