“It’s delicate, but potent,” Don Draper says, describing nostalgia as a “pain from an old wound.” Nostalgia has been the word of 2011 when it comes to the content produced by the American film and television industry. Content that has allowed us to return to time periods that have passed has reached an all-time high. The trend of nostalgia and vintage has grown tremendously in the past decade, fueled by the increase in computer and internet usage which as allowed us consume our past at a faster pace than ever before.
We can download and stream our Nickelodeon cartoons from the 1990s faster and easier than before, as if these antiquated children’s programs were from a time that no longer exists. This trend crept into mainstream thanks to the rapid pace in which teenagers and other Millennials became a massive demographic that took to new media and the devices that utilized them.
However, 2011 seems to be the year that entertainment journalists and bloggers have finally caught up with what has been happening for close to a decade. This is because content about nostalgia has increased to epidemic levels. Reboots, remakes, sequels, and prequels seem to have dominated the box office in space only, the American film industry claims that 2011 is roughly half a billion dollars below last year’s figures. The top ten grossing films of 2011 in America are all apart of a franchise, three of which (the bottom three) are intellectual properties that extend back to 1960s or earlier. Past the top ten, the list looks more like 20th century America never left.
Films such as The Adventures of Tintin have taken an internationally beloved character and placed him directly on the silver screen for the first time. Then there are examples such as The Smurfs, The Muppets, Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, The Lion King (3D), The Green Hornet, Sherlock Holmes are all just a few of the films released that take advantage of a loved franchise from yesteryear. Of course socially aware films such as Midnight in Paris and The Help are also films that dabble in the nostalgia trend, except these two films explain that past decades are not nearly as warm and loving as one would have thought.
There is nothing wrong with looking at our past. In fact, its important to prevent ourselves from falling into the same problems by learning from the past. Now we must also look forward, because that is the only way time moves.
The last time American media has such a love affair with nostalgia was in the 1980s as the growth of movement conservatism took over the American government and elected one of the highest paid actors of the 1950s, Ronald Reagan. It comes as no surprise that a perverted idea of nostalgia existed as Reagan stated in his 1986 State of the Union Address, “Where we’re going, there are no roads”. There may have not been roads when Reagan was young, but America was indeed looking back to the 1950s and created a sugar-coated portrayal of days that looked simpler.
Back to the Future explored life in the 1950s, where soda jerks served high school football players and their girlfriends to crooning radio stars, and televisions began to dominate dinner table conversation. The 1950s were one of the most prosperous decades for the White American middle-class as manufacturing jobs had increased drastically. A 90% tax on the highest income earners helped redistribute wealth to the majority of working Americans, allowing them to purchase homes, cars, televisions and other items of leisure like no other generation before. What Back to the Future does not explore is the sweeping racial tensions and the cold war that existed all around them. Lest we not forget the Korean War that was pushed aside by the media and the government. Never mind the rampant teenage delinquency from a Silent Generation that was not at all silent and refused to be left behind. The film even explores how silly it is for a nation to have elected a former actor as the president. The film’s scenes in 1950s Doc asks Marty McFly who the president is in his home time period. Marty answers honestly: “Ronald Reagan.” “The actor?” Doc replies shockingly. It is a perfect example of filmmakers who were aware of how extremely nostalgic the 1980s were, but it also questions how worried the American public may have been about their present, and as the Back to the Future II portrayed: even frightened of their future.
While Back to the Future gave us the plasticised 1950s, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet gives us the truth. The 1950s were disparate and lacked the unity and conformity that the public had thought existed. It was a better representation of a time where nuclear war was always at the brink and not being perfect probably meant you a communist. Thanks to Back to the Future, America prefers to remember the 1950s as a wholesome time when things were apparently easier. The Tree of Life does a fantastic job of showing the difficulties of human beings existing in a modern suburb in the 1950s. It was both glamorous and harsh. Midnight in Paris explored this the best in 2011. Owen Wilson’s character has found a way to travel back to Paris in the 1920s and begins rubbing elbows with the artists and expatriates who populated Paris during this time. Wilson’s character never wants to go back, he believes that he has found himself in the best time period of all time. But as a new romance explains, that this was not his time. Lastly, The Help showed us that Southern women enjoyed privileged lives while their Black maids were paid paltry salaries and did not have the foundation to fight for more pay, respect, or freedom defecate on just any toilet.
Mad Men premiered on July 19, 2007 just as the world was about to endure a financial crisis that shook everything we had known. The show explores the world that had so perfectly been explained in The Feminine Mystique and Man in a Grey Flannel Suit. The 1960s was a time for change and continued resistance of said change. Men ruled the advertising world and were drinking and smoking themselves to death. President Kennedy called the Communist bluff and the civil rights movement was growing rapidly. It was a lovely time.
Don Draper sells the Kodak Carousel not as a glitch-free slide projector, but as a machine that constantly allows us to return to the moments we loved, over and over again. While Mad Men is a fictional television show, this moment exemplifies the capitalist methodology when it comes to taking control of your wallet, nostalgia. But Mad Men is not the enemy here. PanAm and The Playboy Club are. They were blatant attempts to capitalize on the momentum of the early 1960s that Mad Men had portrayed. Meanwhile, original post-post-modern single-camera sit-coms such as Community linger in mid-season hiatus.
Films about yesterday have always existed and always will. But what happened in 2011 was egregious. Fresh content became difficult to find week in and week out, and only a few films approached new, original, or fresh ideas with relevant plots and issues. The gross amount of nostalgia that exists in mainstream cinema has been portraying the forgotten wounds of harsh times, the oughts. The oughts can be considered a lost decade to some. Fortunes built up, or even having recovered from the Dot-com bubble and post-9/11 recession were deleted by 2008. American film has been attempting to escape from the most treacherous fact produced at the end of the Aughts: America was no longer the economic power it once was. This is what American filmmakers and their audiences have been escaping from.
But now we must move forward. We must recognize that the days we had cherished were surrounded by the same uncertainty that still exists. It is my hope that 2012 brings a renewed sense of freshness to American theaters, although 2012’s line-up so far does not look good. Titanic will be released again in the third dimension, as if the ship sinks differently with more visual and implied depth. There is no doubt that the major studios will continue to produce more franchised products. Are audiences even demanding it? Or is it being forced down our throats? Like oil or any non-renewable energy source, we will reach a point in which extraction and production will have reached maximum, and production thereafter will be in decline. Perhaps 2011 was Peak Nostalgia—and it is my hope that 2012 will bring fresh and original films that will at least attempt to represent how our world exists today.Today, there is a massive movement to remember materials of the past. The vinyl record has again become a popular form of distributing music and millions are rediscovering the dusty SNES game console that still works if you blow on the cartridge the right way. But these materials conceal the truth. The games were as pixilated as a low-quality Netflix instant stream.