Reeling in the years: retrospect and nostalgia in youth movies

Almost by definition, representations of youth are retrospective: they are made by adults, looking back from the perspective of the present. Retrospection may entail nostalgia – a sense of wistful longing for a lost past – but nostalgia may have several dimensions, motivations and consequences, not just personally but also socially and politically. In this essay, I explore these issues through a discussion of three pairs of Hollywood films from the last 40 years. The first pair consists of two well-known, and quite contrasting, films released within a few months of each other in 1973: George Lucas’s American Graffiti and Terrence Malick’s Badlands. Both are set several years earlier, in the late 1950s or early 1960s. The second pair are two time-travel films, in which the characters themselves ‘return’ from the present to a period in the late 1950s: Francis Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) and Gary Ross’s Pleasantville (1998). The final two are both directed by Richard Linklater, a director whose work often reflects a preoccupation with the passing of time: Dazed and Confused (1993), set in 1976, and the much more recent Everybody Wants Some!! (2016), set in 1980. These films are quite heterogeneous, but in different ways and to different degrees, they seek to question or problematise nostalgia, or explicitly move beyond it.

You can download the whole essay (without illustrations) by clicking here, or if you want to read the illustrated version, click on the subheadings to read the different sections:

  1. Retrospect, nostalgia and media
  2. American Graffiti
  3. Badlands
  4. Peggy Sue Got Married
  5. Pleasantville
  6. Dazed and Confused
  7. Everybody Wants Some!!
  8. Conclusion
  9. Sources and references