Reading this feature will feel like a predictable trip down memory lane. It won’t be the first article anyone has read that wags a finger at modern cinema’s exhaustive, almost cliched, use of nostalgia. Everyone has experienced it. The collective cooing whenever R2-D2 mutters some more electronic garble in a Star Wars movie, or the air of expectation when the likes of Blade Runner (1982) and It (1990) have sequels or remakes in the works. For those who go to the cinema often enough, this will sound very familiar.
Sometimes, the blast from the motion picture past is more subtle and broad. La La Land (2016) had no in-your-face relics, but instead is a tribute to the musicals of the 1950s and ’60s. The Artist (2011) is a romanticised celebration of the silent movie era, while Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation (2016) actively challenges the legacy of the infamous KKK film of the same title made 100 years before.
When a historical eye is cast over films since the millennium, something becomes increasingly clear. The predictable strategy from producers of using nostalgic throwbacks starts to look like just one aspect of a defining characteristic of 21st century movies – a characteristic born from cinema’s large quantity of revered masterpieces; and how contemporary cinema is forever bound to this legacy.
Unlike using nostalgia, which works by being glaringly obvious, the spectres of cinema’s past are nearly invisible despite residing right in the heart of any great film. Many directors and writers grow up watching their cinematic idols perfect their craft on the big screen, so it is understandable (and perhaps expected) that some of what they see can filter through into their own creative projects. However, unless viewers talk to the filmmakers themselves, such mystical inspirations are nearly impossible for the audience to grasp. They simply hover silently in places where they may never be noticed. They truly are ghosts.
Captain America: Civil War (2016) provides an excellent example. The early scene where Tony Stark is confronted by a grieving mother, thereby establishing Iron Man’s moral course of action for the whole film, directly echoes a scene from Jaws (1975) – a film more than forty years its senior. For in Jaws also does a mother robbed of her beloved son confront a protagonist (Roy Schneider’s character), and that confrontation sends the character on a particular trajectory. It is a mirroring that Civil War directors Joe and Antony Russo were perfectly aware of, as they revealed in the Blu-Ray extras, and yet it went over most viewers’ heads at the time. Observe, in all their unobservable glory, the haunting ghosts of cinema.
The audience and film community also contribute to the hanging presence of history. So many discussions of movies today only make sense and communicate meaning effectively by referencing other movies. All those titles listed earlier are perfect examples of this – most recently It (2017), which has received favourable comparisons with A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) among other things. To try and discuss any of these films without talking about other films is nearly impossible. Everyone is always comparing, judging and evaluating, based on personal cinematic experiences. Audiences owe our ability to talk about movies to the lingering sensation of history.
Nostalgia does play a part in this process of historical ghostliness; it just happens to be the most recognisable and gratifying manifestation of cinema’s past. The delicacies of script writing, direction, character building (think how many women in science fiction resemble Alien’s Ripley) and, as mentioned, the personal experiences of filmmakers all allow these ghosts to move around unnoticed by the masses. They are immortal. Omnipresent. Unseen. Movie-goers will come to suspect what has been the case all along. No matter how seemingly original or high quality an individual movie is, it is forever haunted by the presence of history.
What should be made clear is that this is far from a criticism of film. For a start, even more ‘traditional’ forms of creativity are arguably in a similar situation – just try discussing great portraiture without bringing up Da Vinci. More importantly however, the fact that the past is such a large part of the present highlights just what an incredible rich past cinema has.
To chronicle the history of film is to chronicle the shared history of audiences all over the world. Old cinema was almost overwhelmed with stardom and quality. The aptly named ‘Golden Age of Hollywood’ did not surface from a pool of cash grabbing and mediocre talent. Amazing actresses like Julie Andrews, directorial behemoths like Alfred Hitchcock and some of Western culture’s greatest icons like Marilyn Monroe are not, and should not, be forgotten. Audiences certainly haven’t.
Classical Hollywood cinema quite rightly makes itself known in the present, having influenced numerous filmmakers from the 1970s onwards, who in turn have affected the creative minds of today. Such a rich legacy cannot be shaken off without being completely detached from classic Hollywood and the shared history of all cinema audiences – and why would anyone want to be like that?
No. To say that film is infatuated with its own history is actually to pay tribute to just what a wonderful, accessible and significant form of expression cinema has developed to be. Nostalgia is just this in its most vulgar expression. The talents that the film industry has graced in its history light up the eyes of future generations, and in turn find ways to return to this world and express themselves again, be it in films or discussions of films.
Rather than being forever stuck on this earth, historical figures of cinema descend back to Earth and grace everyone with their presence whenever we absorb ourselves in a great film. Classical cinema returns to the modern age as a nearly invisible but never absent presence, enlightening the experience of both making and watching movies. Cinema is haunted for sure, but not by ghosts. It is haunted by angels.
Image: Ivy Pottinger-Glass