Sunday, 29 January 2012

Nostalgia for Film: Trend on Trial

This month, I've seen French film The Artist and new play Travelling Light at the National Theatre.

Both loving homages to the history of film.

It seems there's something of a cross-media trend for looking back to the golden age of cinema.

Other works adding to the movement include Tacita Dean's installation, FILM in the Turbine Hall (a celebration of analogue filmmaking); and Martin Scorsese's latest offering, Hugo, which, like Travelling Light, is about the birth of cinema.

Now, to an extent, nostalgia is always going to be popular among theatre / filmmakers. It's safe, reassuring and hugely evocative. Why else would costume dramas, biopics and recent-past-based sitcoms / dramas have such large audiences?

But I can't help wondering if you can simply explain away this current craze for chronicling early cinema with "nostaglia wins".

Travelling Light was heavy on what JC calls Life-On-Mars quips: knowing nods to the wisdom of the audience when an unsuspecting character says something like: "If only I could move to America. No-one there would be bullying me about budgets and who to cast in my film…" and those of us in the auditorium can chuckle knowingly, feeling clever that we know more than those "schmucks" on stage. It's a fun device used sparingly; but one I felt wore slightly thin in the production I saw on Thursday.
Damien Molony and Lauren O’Neil in Travelling Light at the National Theatre. Photo by Johan Persson
As Pete Hammond points out, the tough economic climate does seem to have created an longing for watching rosier versions of ourselves.

Talking about the Oscar nominations, Hammond says,

"This year, at the top of most pundits lists... are... the kinds of movies that might have worked in the Great Depression of the 1930s, when pure entertainment ruled the roost and Shirley Temple and Astaire and Rogers were must-sees. It’s as if people are trying to use movies again for escape from the harsh realities of living in this modern, difficult world."

This is certainly true of Hugo and The Artist. But I think there's got to be more to it than simple nostalgia.

A second theory is that the movies and cinema are simply at the "right age." At more than 100 years old, have they suddenly reached a magical point where a medium simply stops being "new" or "now", and people are able to take a step back and analyse. Something like Dryden and Pepys being able to perform literary criticism on Shakespeare's plays 100 years after his those works were new. It might be a factor...

But aren't we usually told that today, fashions run in 30-year cycles? That when the kids grow up and finally get into position of power in fashion houses, film studios and design spaces, they create work that's a nod to the time when they were young and first inspired by fashion. Isn't that why they made Grease (set in the 1950s) in 1978? And The Sound of Music (set in the late 1930s) was made in 1965?! And of course, that 33 years Sam Tyler jumps in Life on Mars, conveniently both reassuring and strange for a modern audience. It's perhaps the reason Henry Holland's 80s-inspired clothes are hot right now, and hipsters are all wearing those too-short, baggy-at-the-hip and skinny-round-the-ankle trousers Mel and Kim wore on TOTP. (BTW, they're really unflattering.)

So this cross-genre nostalgia for early film doesn't quite fit this wait-30-years-and-repeat trend. There has to be other reasons for it.

Tacita Dean's Tate Modern Installation,
Photo by Eddie Mulholland
Now Tacita Dean's been quite explicit about the motivation behind her hugely popular Tate Modern work. She's concerned about the decline of film, as digital technology takes over and photochemical labs close down. She told the BBC:

"I suddenly realised we are just about to lose this really beautiful medium we created 125 years ago. Digital is also a fantastic medium. It's got massive potential. But I love film and I don't want to lose my ability to make film and it looks like I probably will."

It seems that in the dying moments of film's existence, writers, artists and directors are paying homage to the medium: Steven Spielberg has said, "its years are numbered, but I will remain loyal to this analogue art form until the last lab closes."

"No matter where the cinema goes, we cannot afford to lose sight of its beginnings", says Martin Scorsese in the same article.

But I can't help thinking that while the perilous future of analogue film is a motivating factor for the guys at the top of the industry, it's not really something the average cinema-goer thinks about.

The final reason I think there's this new interest in the origins of film, the tools involved, the quirks of its history (like the change from silent films to talkies) must be the current democratisation of filmmaking.

With the development of technology -- a camera on every phone, simple editing tools available for free online, a near-universal platform to get your masterpiece seen -- an interest in how your predecessors went about making their "moving pictures" must have more appeal.

Part of the mystery of filmmaking has gone. With plays, art and film about film, particularly analogue film, that magic can be protected. The recent cluster of plays and films about films retain their fascination by turning to bewitching characters (like My Week With Marilyn as well as The Artist and Travelling Light), using tried-and-tested techniques from yesteryear, holding up a mirror to a happier past, as well as pulling on our universal love for nostalgia.

Combine all those factors together, and I think we're getting to the bottom of this current trend. It's a winning formula, and I'm certainly not complaining; I, too, am fascinated by the history of "moving pictures", the industry, where it's going, and where it's been. And if it results in more thoughtful, creative filmmaking like The Artist; well, that's got to be a good thing.

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