Retrospect, nostalgia and media

Almost by definition, movies about youth are bound to be retrospective. Of course, young people do make their own films; and while there is a long (and partly hidden) history here, the advent of digital media has significantly extended the opportunities for young film-makers. Yet almost all commercially produced movies about young people – the films that reach cinemas and broadcast television – are produced by adults. As such, they are bound to view the past of youth or childhood from the perspective of the present. Implicitly or explicitly, this kind of retrospection frequently involves a comparison between past and present, which takes one or the other as better, or as preferable. We create narratives about the ideals or the freedom we have lost, or the misery and oppression we have escaped. We tell stories of ‘coming of age’, of the corruption of innocence or the acquisition of knowledge and enlightenment. Retrospect may entail nostalgia – a sense of wistful longing for a lost past – but nostalgia itself may have several dimensions, motivations and consequences, not just personally but also socially and politically. In this essay, I want to engage with this phenomenon through a consideration of six Hollywood films from the past 40 years: perhaps not all of them would be immediately categorised as ‘youth movies’, but in different ways they all raise questions about this process of retrospection and nostalgia for youth.

The term ‘nostalgia’ was first used to describe a medical condition. It was coined in 1688 by a Swiss doctor, Johannes Hofer, who had been studying the phenomenon of homesickness among soldiers who had been fighting overseas. The term combined the Greek words ‘nostos’ (meaning return to the native land) and ‘algos’ (suffering or grief). If left untreated, Hofer argued, nostalgia could prove debilitating and even fatal, but it was readily cured by returning home. While this spatial sense of the term still applies in the case of refugees or exiles, for example, it was gradually displaced during the twentieth century by a temporal idea. In this modern sense, nostalgia is not so much about homesickness as about a longing for the past, a ‘regretful or wistful memory of an earlier time’, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it; and as such, the focus of nostalgia is often (though not always) on childhood and youth. Contemporary nostalgia is (perhaps surprisingly) less likely to be ‘medicalised’; but it is also harder to escape – and indeed, some have seen it as an unavoidable consequence of modernity.

Obviously, looking back to the past – that is, retrospection or memory – need not entail any desire to return to it – that is, nostalgia. Nostalgia entails a sense of loss and regret. It is not caused by past experiences themselves, but by the comparison with things in the present, and by a sense of the discontinuity between them. Typically, nostalgia focuses on the positive elements of the past; and it derives its emotional force from the assumption that the present is, by and large, worse than the past. However false or illusory such evaluations may be, nostalgia must depend upon personal experience – although some suggest that people can be ‘nostalgic’ for times that they have never known themselves.

In popular commentary, nostalgia often seems to have the status of a guilty pleasure. Its popular appeal cannot be denied, but it is also frequently dismissed as somehow inauthentic or escapist. This ambivalence is also apparent in academic debates. On the one hand, nostalgia is often seen as politically conservative, or even reactionary. Longing for an idealized version of the past – an imaginary ‘Golden Age’ – may be pleasurable (or at least ‘bitter-sweet’), but it can make it harder to face the realities of the present and the challenges of the future. On the other hand, some argue that nostalgia can represent a critique of the limitations of the present, which has a more subversive or critical edge: far from being merely escapist, it can help people adapt to change, or indeed even to challenge official narratives of progress.

NHS nostalgia at the Olympics opening ceremony, 2012

Of course, it is possible that nostalgia may be both of these things at the same time. Politically, for example, it can easily be mobilized in the interests of reactionary political forces, as we have seen in the case of the Brexit campaign in the UK; although the political Left also routinely makes use of nostalgic stories of political struggle or of public welfare provision (for example in views of the British National Health Service). Both socially and personally, nostalgia can serve diverse (and sometimes contradictory) purposes: it may involve a retreat to the past, but it can equally entail a retrieval of elements that should not be forgotten. Nostalgia is inevitably partial: it accentuates the positives of the past, and even idealises them. However, the line between historical objectivity and sentimental nostalgia is not always so easy to maintain. Obviously, much depends upon how we characterize both past and present – and particularly, how we identify and understand the point at which the continuity between them is seen to be broken.

These issues are particularly acute in the debate about nostalgia, but they also apply to memory (or retrospection) more broadly. Here too, this is not just a personal matter. Memory has significant political and sociological dimensions: collective, cultural memory is an important focus of much wider debates, for example about national identity and about the operation of political power. Yet perhaps surprisingly, one aspect that has been less widely addressed here is that of generational memory – that is, how people come to see themselves as collectively defined by age, as members of ‘generations’ that move together through time. As we’ll see, this becomes especially significant when we consider how periods of social change (or the breaking of continuity) are defined in generational terms: the transition from the 1950s to the 1960s is one particular moment that I’ll consider in some detail here.

Of course, media play a vital role in all this. Memory is partly, perhaps increasingly, mediated. We make sense of our personal life histories in the context of wider representations of historical change, both factual and fictional. Yet the media may also serve diverse and ambivalent functions. They may provide opportunities for collective remembering and the formation of identity, for the recovery of hidden histories of resistance as well as serving as means of political or ideological manipulation. Here again, much of the criticism has focused on the issue of representation. For example, the ‘heritage industry’ that emerged particularly strongly in the UK in the 1980s – in the form of high-budget costume dramas on film and television, as well as visitor attractions and merchandising – was widely accused of promoting a sanitised, idealized view of British history. For some critics, ‘nostalgia’ was merely a cloak for conservative or reactionary politics, and indeed for rampant market economics. Yet for others, ‘heritage’ offered an opportunity to recover a more genuinely popular, even politically progressive, version of history.

In the US context, critics of postmodernity (most notably Frederic Jameson) saw the apparent ‘nostalgia boom’ of the 1970s and 1980s as somehow symptomatic of a kind of collective amnesia – a denial or repression of history that was characteristic of the broader ‘depthlessness’ of postmodern consumer capitalism. Others, such as Fred Davis, interpreted it as a reaction against the progressive social changes of the 1960s. I’ll return to these arguments later; but it’s worth noting that there have been ‘nostalgia booms’ in quite different times. For example, the art and literature of mid-Victorian Britain – the pre-Raphaelites, the Gothic Revival, the Romantic fiction of Walter Scott – was arguably suffused with nostalgia for earlier times (which, of course, the artists had not experienced themselves). Nostalgia is by no means a new, or necessarily modern, phenomenon.

Meanwhile, as Paul Grainge suggests, the apparent preoccupation with memory and nostalgia in contemporary media is at least partly a function of economic and technological changes in the media industries. The rise of multi-channel television in the 1990s found executives with hours of schedule time to fill; and re-runs of TV or films from earlier decades offered a relatively inexpensive way of doing this. The new channels were increasingly targeted towards segmented, niche markets; and ‘nostalgia’ provided a fairly straightforward way of re-packaging existing content to particular age groups. In more recent years, especially via YouTube, we have become used to an enormous media archive being instantly available online, funded only by advertising and the sale of users’ personal data. Grainge argues that, as such, the apparent increase in the availability and consumption of media images and objects from the past is not necessarily a symptom of changes in the zeitgeist. Nor indeed, does it necessarily reflect a growing nostalgia, a sense of loss or yearning for the past.

Even so, these changes do seem to promote a changing relationship with the (mediated) past – albeit one that may well be more complex, ambivalent and self-aware than a mere wallowing in nostalgia. Yet even this may not be quite so new. As Simon Reynolds has shown, popular culture (or, in his account, popular music) has always been ‘addicted’ to reworking its own past. It’s possible to look back to ‘fifties revivals’ in pop music in every decade since that time; and with the recycling and sampling made possible by digital technology, and with the advent of MTV and then YouTube and Spotify, the musical past and the present have become increasingly blurred. The past, it would seem, is no longer lost: it can easily be retrieved at the click of a mouse. Yet whether this amounts to historical amnesia – or rather to its opposite, a kind of obsession with history – is certainly debatable.

In this essay, I explore these broader issues through a discussion of three pairs of Hollywood films. These films all feature youth, and they are all set in the past. Yet the reason I have chosen them from among a myriad of other possibilities is that they all explicitly address questions to do with retrospect and nostalgia. The films are quite heterogeneous, but they are all to some extent about the relationship between the present and the past. In my view, none of them is merely or straightforwardly nostalgic: indeed, in different ways and to different degrees, they seek to question or problematise nostalgia, or explicitly move beyond it.

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.

The first four films come from different periods, but they all focus, explicitly or implicitly, on a particular moment of change – an apparent break in continuity – between the 1950s and 1960s. In the process, of course, they also reflect the times (in the 70s, 80s or 90s) in which they were made. The final two films are also retrospective, but of a different period; and they provide an opportunity to assess how far some of these broader arguments can be generalized to later generations. At the same time, there are numerous points of connection and comparison across and between these films, not least in terms of their references to other media and popular culture: Dazed and Confused, for example, makes a great many references to American Graffiti, while both films, along with Badlands, refer back to earlier films like Rebel Without A Cause (1955). As this implies, memory in these films is highly, and self-consciously, mediated – an issue that is most explicitly and dramatically addressed in Pleasantville, which takes its characters back to a rather different television version of the 1950s. Meanwhile, gender emerges as a key dimension here, to some extent reflecting changing gender relations across the historical period they represent, and in which they were made.


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