Retromania is the title of a new book by Simon Reynolds. I haven’t read it but it’s about “pop culture’s addiction to it’s own past.” Indeed, most new pop music does seem awfully familiar. Like a lot of people over 30, the first time I heard Lady Ga Ga’s “Born this Way” I immediately thought of Madonna. Looking at her does nothing to dispel the notion. What’s going on? By definition isn’t “pop” supposed to explode…out of nowhere?
I’ll never forget something my former creative partner, Mark Faulkner once told me in regard to his preference for modern architecture over older forms: “Why would anyone want to live in the past?”
It’s a good question (and one pertaining to far more than living arrangements). And the answer is a lot of us. The other day I read a story in the Chicago Tribune (the paper version) about four different area trend setters who make their hay on antiquated, lo-fi technology: buttons, magazines, cassettes and vinyl recordings. Trendsetters living in the past…
The surprise sleeper movie of the summer is Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, a love letter to Paris but also to the recent past, in this case the Paris of Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. The main character in the movie, played by Owen Wilson, is a jaded screenwriter who yearns for a more romantic time in the most romantic city in the world. He wants to uproot his highly lucrative career in Hollywood (writing crappy blockbuster movies) and move to Paris, where he might finish his novel (not screenplay) about the caretaker of a nostalgia shop. There are layers and layers of “oldness” in the synopsis alone! Woody Allen, by way of his protagonist, pines for the “good old days,” or as Michael Kammen put it “history without guilt.”
This is not the first time Woody Allen has explored better times (Zelig) and it won’t be the last. Allen adores the past. And so do we. Though the contemporary (and mostly unfortunate) trend of reality TV is manifest, many of us make special exceptions for shows like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire. The clothes were better. The sex was better. Men were men and women were women. And so on…
Nostalgia makes us feel good. And the examples are everywhere. I myself live in a renovated Victorian home. Unlike my former partner, I like the feel of old wood and the way the sun looks coming through a stained glass window. Parked on the street out front are Ford Mustangs, Dodge Challengers and Chevy Camaros; all cars that experienced halcyon days decades ago but are now back with a vengeance.
The first blockbuster movie of the summer: Super 8.
In marketing parlance, we sometimes call this “retro chic.” At least that’s the phrase I used when talking about campaigns we did for Altoids and Johnny Walker. For GM, I wrote: “This is the new generation of Olds.”
Fetishizing the past for commercial purposes is big business. Fashion mines the 60’s and 70’s for its bold prints and collar shapes. A perfect pair of imperfect Levis can cost several thousand dollars. We all have and wear favorite tee shirts emblazoned with logos and messages from the recent past. Seeing us an alien might think Led Zeppelin and Adidas were modern things. And the alien would be right…sort of.
This could easily turn into a college dissertation. As a matter of fact here’s an excellent essay on the topic from the University of Virginia.
While I enjoyed parts of it, Super 8 bugged the crap out of me. The same way a lot of movies do, particularly big budget sci/fi and horror pictures. There’s too much melodrama. Why on earth does a movie about an alien life form trapped by the air force and freed by a rogue scientist have to have a subplot about a motherless kid and his struggle with dad? I get that this links to the alien’s desire to “go home” but do the filmmakers have to pummel us over the head with it? Besides, producer Steven Spielberg already turned this trick with ET. His remake of War of the Worlds got bogged down over a father and son relationship as well. It’s shameless in Super 8.
Yet, you keep on responding to it. All three films are blockbusters. Would they not be big hits without treacle-laden lessons in paternity? It’s a good question. I concede that ET was a game-changing masterpiece. But a nastier War of the Worlds and a scarier Super 8 would have made me happier.
That’s right: happier. I firmly believe forcing modern family dysfunction into horror movies to make them contemporary is a cheap trick gone way too far. The original War of the Worlds was scarier precisely because we were not distracted by a father trying to hold his family together, let alone Tom Cruise.
Night of the Living Dead, arguably the scariest movie ever made (and most certainly a game-changer) created a completely dysfunctional family out of disparate characters trying to survive. The bonds made and severed (literally) while trying to survive an undead outbreak were far more contemporary than if we were worrying about, and in turn, fairly certain about the family unit remaining intact in the end. Spoiler alert: Most everyone dies. Some are lucky and they don’t get back up again.
I’m not railing against happy endings…or am I? I’m just weary of treacle where it isn’t needed. A father and son against all odds is great fodder for a story (pun intended). It can even work in horror. Anyone read or see The Road?
In Children of Men when the world’s lone baby is revealed I choked up too. It’s a great and necessary scene. The key is that it served the story, slamming home the horror. Not the other way around. In my opinion, putting an alien in a movie about a father and son (Super 8) is ass-backwards.
And don’t tell me filmmakers need the hugs and kisses to attract women. In Alien (another masterpiece), Sigourney Weaver’s character is not validated by the love of a good man or child. Her Momness does not require a crying, scared child. The female Alien “bitch” was ample stimulus.
Sometimes I think it’s me. Product of an early divorce, fiercely independent, I am repelled by melodrama. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate good drama. The Shawshank Redemption, Terms of Endearment, Heartburn, Ordinary People…all excellent dramas. And that’s where you find them: under “drama.” When it’s crammed into a good thriller I get sad for all the wrong reasons.
It only ran once, for Hallmark
In terms of advertising, I adore good drama because it usually means there’s actually a story attached. Hallmark Cards typically excels at delivering drama. United Airlines used to. Certainly there are others. But like most of you, I bristle at smarmy vignettes that attempt to capture drama with cliches. Fortunately, for us, the vignette is very passe. Right now, the It Gets Better Project is a fine example of appropriate use of drama.