From authentic 50s diners to renaissance fairs, it seems that wherever we turn, someone is cashing in on the notion that the past is something to be experienced again. To do so, one must make the past attractive, or at least highlight its more alluring aspects. Still, what works for some, doesn’t work for all: not everyone would let a tear of joy if they were to see Marylin Monroe and Elvis Presley “in the flesh”.
When we feel a longing for the past, it is usually because we feel that there is something amiss in the present. Nowhere was the idea so succinctly conveyed as in a scene from Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die! This may seem incidental, given that the film is not about nostalgia at all, but rather a fictional account of an actual historic event, the assassination of Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich, brutal ruler of Nazi-occupied Chechoslovakia – otherwise known as the Hangman of Prague.
In the film, we see an old university professor and Czech patriot, Novotny, who unwittingly hosts the assassin himself for dinner. There is a constant shortage of food, which is why the professor’s family eat turnips and cabbage despite their evident wealth. When his wife jokingly complains that her husband wants the food to be served in their best china “just to retain the memory of the good old days,” he replies with a laconic remark: “Not in the memory of the good old days, but of the bad new ones!”
Faced with an awful and unbearable present, man is compelled to envision alternatives. The most obvious choice is to remember a happier past of their own, which usually coincides with one’s youth, the apex of man’s strength and energy. Yet, there are cases when we delve deeper in the past, leaving our own experiences behind and entering the collective memory in our search for better days. We start imagining the past that never really existed as such.
Building upon the snappy retort from Lang’s film, this is a list of 10 films which, wittingly or unwittingly, say something about the present by portraying the past, or certain elements of it, in a sympathetic light. It is not meant to be all-encompassing, neither would that be possible. Rather, it is illustrative in demonstrating how different the natures of nostalgia can be.
10. Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011)
One of Woody Allen’s most acclaimed films of recent years, Midnight in Paris is at the same time a sincere examination of his own nostalgia. It doesn’t matter that Owen Wilson is tall, blond, and infinitely more handsome than Allen – nobody would be fooled into thinking that he plays anyone other than Allen’s alter ego (as he himself did in most of his films – think Mickey from Hannah and her Sisters having the worst time of his life at a punk show).
Wilson’s Gil is successful as a Hollywood screenwriter, but at the same time unfulfilled. He is deeply unsatisfied with the world of today, and nostalgic towards the 1920s, which were a golden age in his eyes. However, his dissatisfaction mostly stems (as the viewer will promptly realize) from the relationship with his fiancée Inez. She doesn’t support him in his desire to write a novel about a man who works in a nostalgia shop, doesn’t want to live in Paris, and is generally shallow and materialistic.
Before finally admitting to himself the reason for his unhappiness, Gil will have tackle the demons of his imaginary past. As a matter of fact, he will do so quite literally, by being transported to his personal nostalgic utopia – 1920s Paris.
In the course of the film, we see how much of Gil’s nostalgia is unfounded, and merely an escape from his everyday personal issues. Doing so, Allen criticizes the need of people (himself included) to escape from the present by indulging in the past. Nonetheless, there is some truth in his views (after all, nobody expected Allen to be too hard on himself), which might encourage viewers to reaffirm their nostalgic views.
9. The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011)
It is probably accidental that two films depicting the same era were both released the same year, and each does so with a high degree of sentimentality. Alike Midnight in Paris, Hazanavicius’s film does not romanticize the past, but rather lets us do it instead. The central theme is how technological progress might hurt those who stick to the old ways.
In a fast-moving business that is show business, the stakes are especially high, and today’s winner could be tomorrow’s loser. Such fate has fallen upon the protagonist of this film, George Valentin, played by Jean Dujardin. A star of silent movies, he will have his position usurped by talkies and a young promising actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) who was originally his protégé.
The Artist’s success at the box office can testify to the appeal that portraying this era has with the audience. But it’s not just the subject matter. In style, The Artist completely emulates silent films of the early 20th Century. It was filmed entirely in black and white and a 4:3 screen ratio, and has no sound effects (aside from two instances of postmodern tampering).
Therefore, it is a love letter to Old Hollywood, and features many references to silent classics and their creators. But the idea that audiences would rush to see a silent film in 2011 in such numbers probably wasn’t on Hazanavicius’ mind. Which is why its success triggered a wave of similar-themed projects like a Broadway musical about the life of Charlie Chaplin.
It also tells us that people harbor nostalgia for this era, and Old Hollywood in particular. It seems that everything was easier in those days, or at least glamorous enough!
8. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014)
Adapted from the eponymous novel by Thomas Pynchon, the notoriously reclusive author, Inherent Vice is one of the least appreciated Paul Thomas Anderson films. It has polarized the audience and frustrated some critics, failing to meet their expectations of a period-piece comedy thriller in the vein of American Hustle. However, its portrayal of the 60s counterculture, while critical at times, is so melancholic, so visceral, that it exhibits one of most sincere and un-ironic sentiments of nostalgia.
From the beginning, we are following P.I. Larry “Doc” Sportello, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who was approached by his ex-girlfriend looking for someone to investigate a possible kidnapping scheme against her current boyfriend, a real-estate magnate.
Behind the scheme are, supposedly, the magnate’s wife and her boyfriend. Sounds confusing? That’s just the first ten minutes or so. Like a black hole, the plot starts to attract characters and their own personal histories in increasing speed which seems to be intentionally made to confuse the viewer and possibly give him a headache.
The plot strings (or tatters) do eventually connect, no matter how ridiculous they may seem at times, but that’s beside the point. One might choose to pay no mind to it and focus on the characters instead, as well as their interaction. And the message of the film might just get across.
See, this is L.A. in 1970 and Doc is a hippie. That means that he’s generally kind, not concerned much about money, hygiene, and bourgeois manners. And he’s also stoned out of his mind most of the time. His ex – Shasta (Katherine Waterston), used to be a hippie too, but now seems to have drifted to another world, a world of shorter hair, tailored costumes, and slick cars.
And it is not just her, the dream of the 60s seems to be dying, with peace and love being empty words just thrown around at anybody without a hint of deliberation. It is this deep sense of melancholia that oozes out of practically each scene.
Despite outlandish characters with equally outlandish names in hilarious situations, most of the laughs elicited by the film will come with a healthy dose of cathartic tears. It is not only that a promising past is being contrasted with the money-driven, cold, and apathetic future, but that this promise is fading just before our eyes.
7. Chariots of Fire (Hugh Hudson, 1981)
Nothing evokes good feelings like an inspirational true story. After the First World War, when some empires fell crumbling, Great Britain stood stronger and larger than before.
These were times of great optimism for Britons, and this optimism is felt by the viewers as they witness the efforts of two men on their way to represent the United Kingdom in the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. Their respective stories are not limited to this event only, but they also encompass the arduous struggle that enabled them to get there. It is a true testament to the human spirit.
The two track runners: Abrahams (Ben Cross), a Jew, and Lydell (Ian Charleson), a Scottish Protestant, have entirely different backgrounds, which shape their motivations accordingly.
The first sees his talents as instrumental in defeating the prejudices of the society, while the other is a devout Christian who believes that God made him this way, and that to run means to truly celebrate Him. Being as successful as they are, they are chosen to represent their country in the Olympic Games, a responsibility they meet with great resolution.
On the other hand, the years in which the film was conceived and produced were ones of rising unemployment and inflation. Far from being “Great”, Britain was at this time dubbed the “sick man of Europe”, a term originally given to the deteriorating Ottoman Empire in the mid-19th century.
For two hours, viewers frustrated by the state of ruin around them could indulge in a fantasy in which their country is strong again, its class-based system is impregnable, and its culture superior. Even the prejudice that Abrahams encountered wasn’t strong enough to discourage him from serving the country.
In fact, it is he who misinterpreted good-natured criticism from his college masters as Anti-Semitism, when they disapproved of his choice of hiring a professional coach in order to improve his running technique. What they actually did was state a common notion for that time that professionalism ruins sport, yet another illustration of the different ways of that time, and possibly an opportunity for the writer to tell us, modern day people, how they were actually right.
Besides being a hit back in the day, the impact of Chariots on British culture was perhaps most telling around the time London hosted the Summer Olympic Games, thirty years after its release. Not only was the film (and its iconic score) referenced throughout the ceremony, but also in campaigns such as The Sun’s TV spot titled “Let’s make it Great, Britain”.
In it we see a rendition of the famous beach-running scene from the movie. Whereas in the original we saw dozens of college students dressed in identical white running gear, The Sun’s version had people from all walks of life, a milkman, a chef, a dentist, firemen, people black and (mostly) white, all running for the glory of their country. Thirty years later, the message is practically the same.
6. Sense and Sensibility (Ang Lee, 1995)
Period dramas seem to be enjoying a constant degree of popularity. The usage of the term itself might be confusing at first. Although, by definition, it is a piece of historical fiction set in a specific era in the past, there seem to be some tacit limitations in practice.
Ask anyone what their favorite period dramas are, and soon enough you’ll have lists of stories filled with forbidden love, corsets, aristocrats, equestrian sports, and an occasional top hat or two. On the other hand, it would be rare to find somebody who would call, say, The Name of The Rose a period drama.
A classic of British literature, Jane Austen seems to have provided plenty material for film adaptations. As a matter of fact, some of her books have been adapted many times over, but few have reached the popularity and acclaim of Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, released in 1995. Based on a screenplay by Emma Thompson, who is also starring, it has won numerous awards and much praise from critics and moviegoers alike.
In its essence, it is a story about two things: love and money, and how they intertwine in early-19th century Britain. It centers around three sisters and their mothers who are suddenly impoverished by strict rules of inheritance which prefer men over women. Their struggle ensues, but it is much more lighthearted than what this summary suggests.
It also illustrates one of the most complex points of nostalgia. One can portray negative aspects of a past as well, but still be selective and highlight more attractive sides. Aside from the idea of love, which seems to have a certain weight to it, there is an aura of idyllic country life embodied almost entirely in the character of Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant).