Anghus Houvouras on whether we’re drowning in nostalgia…
Yes. We absolutely are.
There’s the short version for anyone who doesn’t feel like putting any additional thought into the subject. I’m nothing if not considerate.
We are currently adrift in a sea of the familiar. Living in an era of entertainment avarice where our fondest wishes came true, and like every story about wish-fulfillment we refused to consider the consequences of getting everything we ever wanted. We wished for a steady downpour and are now struggling to find breathable air as we’re pushed against the ceiling of our sinking vessel.
Nostalgia is the enemy of creativity. It’s the reason we are wading through the brackish wake of entrails and innards left by the slaughter of the 2016 summer movie season. A disaster so epic that the combined might of Dwayne Johnson, a re-animated Charlton Heston, and a hedge fund managed by Warren Buffet couldn’t clean up all the red ink.
Sentimentality is the ruination of cinema. Somewhere deep with the bowels of our fandom exists the flawed belief system that we want our creative works to provide us with comfort. To give us concentrated, regimented doses of soothing sameness. Nostalgia is safety… nostalgia is warmth. It is engineered reminiscence. Calculated conformity to a preexisting paradigm which requires nothing of the viewer. In fact, it practically begs you to shut down the portion of your intellect that challenges new ideas and dive into your vast reservoir of memories to fill in gaps.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with the concept of nostalgia, when used as a creative compass it steers us into murky waters. There’s also the issue of its concentration. In small doses there’s no danger. But when so much of our pop culture landscape is constructed with building blocks composed of our past, we begin to indulge our inner child to the point of ludicrousness. Our inner children are gorged on the comfort food spoon fed by Hollywood studios.
Nostalgia gives us unsalvagable disasters like Terminator: Genisys. But it also gives us average tripe like Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The more nostalgic we are for something, the more forgiving we seem to be of its unoriginal origins. And it’s not only the sequels, prequels, and reboots that are stroking our familiar pleasure center. There are entire projects that aren’t simply nostalgic in nature but a composition made from nostalgia.
I had a weird experience with Stranger Things, the hit Netflix series that been the darling of pop culture landscape since it first debuted. Like many of you, I enjoyed watching Stranger Things. It’s a fun, inoffensive, puddle deep piece of sci-fi fun that harkened back to the stories of my youth. The entire project felt constructed at a molecular level to evoke nostalgic memories of a diverse slate of 1980’s memories. Goonies, Back to the Future, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Alien, Nightmare on Elm Street to name a few. It was about halfway through the series that I began to notice… something.
I started to see the seams. The show began to feel less like an original narrative and more like a Frankenstein monster of familiarity. At its best the Duffer Brothers’ hit show was a loving paint-by-numbers piece of nostalgia. At its worst it was the same kind of reference heavy narrative that created unmentionable barely there comedies like Scary Movie and Meet the Spartans.
I know. Harsh, right? But the model is the same. The only difference is the care and detail of the stitching when constructing your creative creature. Obviously there’s a lot more love in something like Stranger Things than Scary Movie 5, but the core conception is thematically similar enough to be disturbing.
The concept of homage is nothing new. It has existed since the advent of the motion picture. All great filmmakers take inspiration from those who came before. Some of the best have mastered integration. An artist like Quentin Tarantino is able to take dozens of works from the most obscure artists and weave it into an exhilarating work.
In terms of nostalgia, there may be no one better at spinning gold from historical hay than Tarantino. He’s living, breathing proof that there are those capable of swimming in an endless ocean of sentimentality and never sink. The rest of his peers are in a different place. We’re getting to a point where filmmakers are judged less on the originality of their content but how well they execute the pre-established nostalgic manuevers. For this example I’ll go back to The Force Awakens.
I balked at The Force Awakens the moment they introduced The Starkiller Base. From the moment the film opened there were obvious call backs to the original Star Wars, but once they unveiled a bigger, badder Death Star, my brain shut down, flabbergasted by the fact that they were going back to the well on the most popular franchise in cinematic history. Surely this extremely derivative plot point would set the internet ablaze with incredulity. And yet… it really didn’t. People just shrugged and made comments like “It was better than the prequels”.
That was the moment I realized how comfortable audiences are becoming with ambivalence. The idea of being challenged or taken someplace new is less important than delivering something that falls within their expectations. Defying them no longer holds any value.
The blame can’t squarely be heaped upon the studios who are making these uninspired choices. It must be equally shared with the vocal fans who loudly cry whenever a film doesn’t meet their exact expectations. This seems to come up a lot when someone is adapting a well-known property. Something that might as well be called ‘The Zack Snyder’ principle. There are those whose ass crack becomes sandy when creators stick too closely to the source material a la Watchmen and others who get chaffed inner thighs when they deviate too far from the source material a la Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
For me, I’ll always appreciate those who take liberties with the source material, because I can’t spend another decade watching comic book adaptations that stick so close to the original material that my brain has to check off the boxes of the stories which I’m already familiar.
The danger of nostalgia is the comfortable lull it puts us in. Like the oxygen mask in an airplane calming us into a sedentary state before the inevitable crash.
If the blockbuster film is ever to recover, we need them to be better. We need to snap out of this coma of contentment for films of the familiar. The idea of ‘turning off your brain’ to enjoy studio tent pole films has always been a repellent phrase, but it’s fast becoming not only a mandate from the studios and a fan base who prefers the warm blanket of nostalgia over the riskier proposition of something new.