5. Dazed and Confused (Richard Linklater, 1993)
Richard Linklater is perhaps best known for his romantic trilogy of films starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy: Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight, which are seen as an important alternative to typical Holywood rom-coms. But before “Before” there was Dazed and Confused, an upbeat coming-of-age story about teens in a Texas high school.
Set in 1976, it is based entirely on Linklater’s experiences, up to the point that he kept some of the names of his former classmates. This ultimately led to a lawsuit by some of his classmates, alleging that they felt damaged because of the way they were portrayed in the film. His motivation in making the film is not only a wish to portray his own past, but to present it in a way he remembers it to be, differently from conventions of teenage films.
It follows a group of freshmen and seniors during the last days of a school year, and their interactions. The older kids are forced to rethink their life decisions and face the fact that just maybe they don’t have it all planned out, while the younger ones are striving to be cool and accepted. It featured a young cast most of whom were at the starting points of their careers, like Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, Adam Goldberg, Matthew Mcconaughey, and Rory Cochrane.
What ensues is a vivid throwback to the mid-seventies, with a nostalgic attitude towards the youthful energy and non-conformism, as well as the rock subculture, shown by way of a soundtrack consisting of 29 period songs, from Aerosmith to ZZ Top. Rumor has it that just claiming rights to use the songs took up one sixth of the film’s budget, which testifies to the dedication the crew had in reconstructing this period.
4. American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973)
Before the Star Wars era, George Lucas was launched into stardom by his deeply personal story about two friends from a small California town, who are reexamining their lives and choices during a night out in the summer between high school and college. The clean-cut 50s are over, but the psychedelic 60s with their deep political undertones haven’t exactly started yet.
The two, Curt and Steve, are set to leave town to go to college on the northeast. Despite having gotten a hefty scholarship, Curt still isn’t set on leaving his family and friends, whereas Steve can’t wait to leave even if that would mean leaving behind his girlfriend Laurie, who is also Curt’s sister.
American Graffiti was an unexpected success when it came out, especially at the box office. It seems to have touched a nerve with Americans, after a decade dominated by war and civil rights struggles. That’s not to say that the characters in the film are careless, but rather that their problems fade in comparison to what will arise later.
Those who have seen both this film, as well as Dazed and Confused, are aware of the influence of Lucas’s film on the latter. Not only that they’re thematically similar, but they also rely on similar tropes to elicit nostalgic sentiments from the viewer.
Its success was not limited to the generations who personally experienced the hot-rod racing, cruising, and early rock and roll. Judging from internet comments, those who grew up much later seem to regret not living in these times, longing for a simpler life and the fun they wish they had.
3. Good Bye, Lenin! (Wolfgang Becker, 2003)
There are cases in which nostalgia becomes explicitly political. While some may fondly remember the styles or culture of the past as superior to the present ones, others may associate the good side of past with a particular regime. That appears to be the case across the entire former communist bloc, and in what was once East Germany it even got a name – Ostalgie (German portmanteau: East plus Nostalgia).
Made 13 years after the German reunification, Good Bye, Lenin! reevaluates the progress made, by juxtaposing a mother and her son with differing world views in a sentimentally comic situation. The narrative is centered around the final days of the Berlin Wall and the communist system in the USSR-influenced German Democratic Republic, as well as communism generally.
Alex (Daniel Brühl), a young man living with his mother in East Berlin opposes the opressive regime. His mother, Christiane (Katrin Sass) is, on the other hand, an ardent believer in the system. Which is why, upon seeing him getting arrested during a demonstration, she suffers a heart attack and falls into a coma. During the following months communism gives way to capitalsim, the two republics move toward reunification – all while she’s still out.
Ultimately, she awakes mentally and physichally fragile, which is why the doctor tells Alex that it is imperative that he keeps her from shock that could cause another heart attack. Knowing that if she learns how the system she loves has broken down, Alex concocts an illusion where the GDR is still alive and kicking, but gradually opening up for influences from the west.
Despite being candid about the flaws of the system, this film plays along the lines of nostalgic accounts of life in East Germany. Contrasted to the uncertainties of the capitalist West, is the security of the communist East. Contrasted to the self-centered westerners, are the family-and-friendship oriented easterners. Perhaps it’s not owing to the regime, but it’s their struggles that made them stronger.
2. Amarcord (Federico Fellini, 1973)
What happens when the past that we long for is our own? How do we remember it? Do we embellish it or do we try to approach it objectively? Italian director Federico Fellini made his own attempt in a semi-autobiographical film about a boy growing up on the Adriatic coast in 1930s Italy.
At this point, Mussolini might be indulging in his fantasy to rebuild the Roman Empire but the boy, Titta (Bruno Zanin), couldn’t care less. He is discovering sexuality, the central object of which is the town belle, Gradisca (Magali Noël). Sexual exploits seem to be the primary interest of most village men as well.
In this portrayal of Italians as permanent adolescents, Fellini manages to tell us something about the fascist rule and its effect on the people, but what we’re left to enjoy is a series of lighthearted vignettes portraying the life in Titta’s village.
Fellini’s answer to the questions from the passage above comes in his trademark style. The way in which he presents us everyday life in Borgo San Giuliano can by no means be called realistic. Its inhabitants are grotesque and their interactions are surreal. But such is the nature of memory, Fellini tells us. When we watch the world around us, not only do we see it through our own unique glasses, but in trying to remember what we know from it, we willingly or unwillingly distort it to fit our preconceptions.
Although the times Fellini longs for are marked by fascist rule, it could never be concluded that he misses the regime itself. Not only was that system doomed to fail, but it was ruinous for Italians as well. What he yearns for and celebrates, instead, is the cheerfulness of youth. Fellini’s film is the purest form of personal nostalgia, one that is focused entirely on one’s experiences, as opposed to feeling nostalgic for objects other than the self.
1. Russian Ark (Aleksandr Sokurov, 2002)
Undoubtedly, this film’s technical achievements will be the main recommendation for people to see it. This is the only film ever made in one single take. More precisely: an hour and a half long single take. What is most impressive is perhaps that around 2000 actors and extras hit their marks and picked up their cues without error after only two attempts.
The virtuoso behind it, Aleksandr Sokurov, is present in the film world since the mid-seventies, and is perhaps most remembered for his trilogy of films about powerful political leaders of the 20th century: Hitler, Lenin, and Hirohito. History has proven to be a limitless source of ideas to him, which is perhaps most evident in Russian Ark.
It was entirely filmed in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, and it serves as a testament to the city’s 300-year-long history, showing us both historical and fictional characters in various interactions. The events are seen through the eyes of the unseen narrator, and another ghost-like but visible figure of a French Marquis. Their presence also serves as a running commentary on the action, and their opposing standpoints are supposed to guide us in our assessment of the on-screen happenings.
As a matter of fact, the viewer is inclined to agree to the narrator whose voice actually belongs to Sokurov himself, given that his French counterpart is most of the time dismissive of Russians and their culture as inferior to western. This cultural racism which he exhibits is refuted not only by statements from the narrator, but also the remarkable acts that they witness.
The film’s obviously symbolic name is telling. It is an artist’s view of a nation’s culture, heritage, and tradition, which should and must be preserved in this sea of life upon which we float. It is deeply sentimental in its portrayal of the imperial past, and resolutely silent when it comes to its inglorious communist days, as well as that which came later.
By preferring splendor over oppression and persecution, and locating the former exclusively in prerevolutionary times, it carries a message of both national pride and sadness that the glory days are (for now) over.
Author Bio: Ivan Maksimović is a recent anthropology graduate from Serbia, currently doing an internship in a museum. He views film as an important outlet for ideas, especially those regarding social problems.