“Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be,” warned the title of the fondly remembered memoir written by movie actress Simone Signoret. But she lied! Nostalgia is always there, always seductive, and always growing because there’s continually more past to draw from and more media to view it on. It develops like a warming blanket made out of a fungus, proving way more treacherous than it was when nostalgia wasn’t so bad.
The danger inherent in nostalgia—just like in anti-anxiety medication—is that it’s so outwardly safe, radiating a comfort level that can insidiously distort the truth and prove positively deadening to the spirit. Obsessively diving back into the joys of yesteryear is guiltily pleasurable, but it interrupts us from dealing with now, preparing for tomorrow, and moving to a better apartment. We love turning to the past because it reminds us of younger days (either our own or our culture’s) and also because we only tend to look at the good stuff and forget that just as much crap came out then as now. By harking back to Ingrid Bergman films and Alfred Hitchcock Presents—or even Britney’s debut singles and Sex and the City reruns—while wearing rose-tinted glasses that crowd out all the hypocrisy, Puritanism, and malaise of those eras, we’re lulled into a sense that everything really was better back then.
Nostalgia leaves out the D-list movies, the exploitation, the racism and homophobia, and the way dysfunction and disease weren’t talked about except in extremely unproductive hushed tones. It gives us the greatest hits of an era minus the horrors that made those hits essential for any aesthete to survive it all.
Last year, filmmakers avidly dug into the dusty, musty treasure trove of faded gems and came up with a slew of highly polished nostalgia nibbles, figuring the public would line up to pay for them. (And they would have if the economy were as good as it used to be!) Eight of the nine Oscar nominees for Best Picture were period films, for chrissake. (And the other one—the family drama The Descendants—could just as easily have been. It didn’t seem moored in any time.) The cineaste’s way out of the horror of today apparently isn’t reinvention and protest; it’s escaping into retroism, the way the ’70s looked back on the ’50s, the ’40s winked back on the teens, and the Cro-Magnons went gaga for any Neanderthal sitcom.
And The Help did manage to make a fortune, mainly because it rewrote the past by giving it a punchline and some modern-day liberal satisfaction. It’s the 1960s if a Hollywood screenwriter were there to re-edit it as it happened.
Similarly, Woody Allen scored his biggest triumph in ages with the charming literary-lite comedy Midnight in Paris, which makes time travel seem so incredibly appealing because the protagonist gets sucked into a glamorous swirl of big names and supper clubs. Who wouldn’t want to go backward if, instead of hanging out with your whiny wife, you’re partying with all manner of historically important cognoscenti, glitterati, and fashionisti? In the film, a fortysomething writer travels back to 1920s Paris and runs into virtually every creative artist and celebrity in town. And he gets to side-trip to 1890s Paris, too, at no extra expense! In the process, he manages to act out a lot of the expected know-it-all jokes about Buñuel, Gertrude Stein, and so on, for those who read New Yorker cartoons or Woody short stories. That’s because any fool knows that it’s not really Owen Wilson doing the traveling. It’s Woody foisting his own obsessions on a younger character, the way he has been forced to do by the reality of movie-land demographics. (I’m getting nostalgic for Woody movies starring himself.)
Woody is misty for a time when fortyish writers were nostalgic for Hemingway and Fitzgerald, so he has simply acted like it’s still happening, and people have bought it out of sheer will. And we can already look back on Midnight in Paris and the lovely time we had seeing it last summer—though I can vividly remember feeling that even if Owen/Woody finally realizes that the present is always better, the movie is peddling the opposite idea with every frosted frame.
But the Oscars’ Best Picture, The Artist, is the most aggressive attempt to rewind the clock since Ted Turner launched his cable channels. It’s not only about the ’20s, it’s also done as if it were made in the ’20s—a silent film about silent films, complete with cute shots of a dog plucked out of a TCM classic. But echoing the ’30’s A Star Is Born and the ’50’s Singin’ in the Rain, it also turns cinema’s transitional period when movies began to talk into the ultimate self-reflexive entertainment, Hollywood happy ending and all. I’m surprised the characters never run into Owen Wilson.
Or me! One of the weirdest periods of my life came several decades ago, when I got a free membership to a video store (remember them?) and, deciding I had to catch up with the entire world canon, set about compulsively renting one old movie after another. It really became a sickness. After I rented every romantic comedy ever made, I then had to see the foreign films, the musicals, and eventually even the westerns. And then I had to see them all over again. I was using the past to avoid total life immersion, and as a result, that’s one era I don’t get too nostalgic for.
But I’ll tell you what really used to be way better: memoir titles! Even if they were dead wrong.