Thursday, November 25, 2010

Nostalgia Film as Ideology

"...Nostalgia art gives us the image of various generations of the past as fashion-plate images that entertain no determinable ideological relationship to other moments of time: they are not the outcome of anything, nor are they the antecedents of our present; they are simply images. This is the sense in which I describe them as substitutes for any genuine historical consciousness rather than specific new forms of the latter." - Fredric Jameson, Interview (1986) in Flash Art.

"Nostalgia films restructure the whole issue of pastiche and project it onto a collective and social level, where the desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past is now refracted through the iron law of fashion change and the emergent ideology of the generation. The inaugural film of this new aesthetic discourse, George Lucas's American Graffiti (1973), set out to recapture as so many films have attempted since, the henceforth mesmerizing lost reality of the Eisenhower era; and one tends to feel, that for Americans at least, the 1950s remain the privileged lost object of desire- not merely the stability and prosperity of pax Americana but also the first naive innocence of the counter-cultural impulses of early rock and roll and youth gangs. With this initial breakthrough, other generational periods open up for aesthetic colonization (e.g. Polanski's Chinatown, Bertolucci's Il Conformista)... [Nostalgia film] approaches the "past" through stylistic connotation, conveying "pastness" by the glossy qualities of the image, and "1930s-ness" or "1950s-ness" by the attributes of fashion, as for example, some Disney-EPCOT "concept" of China."

"Every position on postmodernism in culture—whether apologia or stigmatization—is also at one and the same time, and necessarily, an implicitly or explicitly political stance on the nature of multinational capitalism today." -Jameson (1984), "Postmodernism; Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism", in New Left Review

I must confess that I had an early (ages 8-12) fascination with nostalgia films about the 1950s before I had any inkling that they were, in the sense described above, nostalgia films. The Sandlot (1993) was a film that my family owned growing up, which I watched more times than I can count. Grease (1978) and Stand By Me (1986) were staples as well. Or, take Back to the Future (1985): think of the contrast between downtown Hill Valley in the 1980s (run down, with homeless people lying about) versus the 1950s. My thinking at the time was that the 1950s and early 60s was an era of "cleanliness", tight-knit communities, small neighborhood shops, block parties, stability, innocence and all the rest of it. I recall often wishing that I'd grown up "then".

It is striking, then, how much films of this sort shape contemporary consciousness of what we take to be the past. I'm not sure, but I wager that schools didn't have "decade day" before the 1980s. Would it have been possible, or even made sense, in the 1920s to hold a "decade dress-up day"? Could there have been intelligible, ostensibly distinct, stereotypes corresponding to "1910s-ness" or "1890s-ness"? My guess is that the answer is no. So what is it about the present state of affairs that makes possible the reification of decades into "glossy images" that track shifts in fashion? It seems to me that any answer we give must take seriously the third Jameson quote above.

There is, to be sure, a serious question here about how to critically understand the post-war era (e.g. as arising out of the reconfiguration of global capitalism and power relations after WWII, the emergence of a "consumer society", changes in the forces of production, a decline in class struggle, ruthless repression of the Left, violently enforced conformity, elimination of the memory of the 1930s, etc.). But critically understanding nostalgia film requires that we ask a different question: what was it about the ideological/political pressures of the early 1970s (and, to some extent, the decade and a half that followed) that cultivated this need to retrieve a "lost past"? Moreover, in what ways can we understand the objects of desire in nostalgia film as a projection of such pressures and needs?

Succinctly put, the question cannot simply be: were the 1950s/early60s really like that? Neither should it be: should we want to return to it? Our question must be: what is it about contemporary societies such that this nostalgic image, whatever its historical veracity, is the American "privileged lost object of desire"?

There are a couple of obvious things to say. The global economic landslide of the early 1970s marked the decisive end of the "long boom" of the postwar era. It marked a rupture, a tectonic shift in the conditions that grounded the social formations and cultural configurations of the 1950s and early 60s. If the active, conscious revolt of the late 1960s was a determinate negation, the early 1970s represented a structural, subterranean shift in the basic center of gravity. Suddenly the arrangements upon which postwar prosperity had been built no longer created the conditions for continued profit accumulation. Stagflation set in, and unemployment skyrocketed. The 1973 oil crisis struck at the heart of the manufactured obsession with ostentatious automobiles.

Unsurprisingly, this shift in the global conjuncture meant that the old ideological repertoire of postwar American capitalism went into crisis. The old ideological stabilizers were being undermined by new events; the old legitimating devices weren't able to do their work when faced with the landslide of the early 1970s.

But as Marxists are aware, ideological shifts don't immediately, mechanically accompany shifts in the economic structure of society. As Zizek noted after the 9/11 attacks, "On September 11th, the USA was given the opportunity to realize what kind of world it was part of. It might have taken this opportunity -but it did not; instead it opted to reassert its traditional ideological commitments: out with feelings of responsibility and guilt towards the impoverished Third World, we are the victims now!" Something similar accompanied the erosion of the postwar era (although I would want a less univocal and more internally conflicted analysis of "America" than Zizek offers). Rather than question the very ideological coordinates of the postwar era in light of counter-veiling evidence; the temptation was to cling hopelessly to the manufactured objects of desire appropriate to that anachronistic ideology.

But, and this is where the Jameson bit above is particularly interesting, the mode of interaction with this "past" is one in which the "image of various generations of the past as fashion-plate images... entertain no determinable ideological relationship to other moments of time: they are not the outcome of anything, nor are they the antecedents of our present; they are simply images". Here, Marx's analysis of the fetishism of commodities is operative in the background. Rather than encountering the past in all of its material complexity, we see only various objects on a shelf, shorn of history or ties to social relations. This is only more perverse when we note that the objects in questions are ostensibly about the past.

Another interesting question for me here is how race fits into this picture. It's clear that there is something deeply racist about the entire ideology of nostalgia here, insofar as it wears its white-exclusiveness on its sleeve. That is, the ideology simply couldn't be a fantasy for black people- it isn't even aimed at convincing black people to want such a return to this "idyllic past". The result is that the ideology doesn't even see black people as subjects in need of convincing here; they are non-persons who are best blotted out of this fantasy entirely. Seeing them as subjects to whom white American must justify themselves would be to accept the gains of the struggles of the 1960s; but this nostalgic ideology, of course, in part seeks to forget such struggles entirely. So, it's not that the ideology has an active anti-black theme per se, the ideology entirely erases and blots out blackness.


JM said...

I think Zizek should've given post 9/11 a break back there. They can't think intellectually when their loved ones were freshly dead.

JM said...

Furthermore, the reason for clinging to objects was that the world trade center was a landmark and for those who grew up on the idea of a city being a place of opportunity and hope, they can't help but attach their emotions to it.

t said...

"I think Zizek should've given post 9/11 a break back there. They can't think intellectually when their loved ones were freshly dead."

I don't think Zizek's remarks were meant to apply to the families of victims of 9/11 in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.

What he's saying applies to the problem of how to make sense of the attacks after the dust cleared. Whereas there should have been a serious re-thinking of the role of U.S. foreign policy and power abroad, this isn't what happened.

As we now know, Washington made use of the fallout from the 9/11 attacks to put into practice it's foreign policy wish list. Instead of questioning, say, the role of U.S. power in the Middle East, Washington and the mass media gave the most brazen defense of strong-arm imperialism that we've seen in recent decades.

Instead of reflecting on the impacts of U.S. power abroad, the traditional "survivalist" narrative was trotted out: "we're the real victims in the international arena", "we must do 'whatever is necessary' to make the world safe", etc. etc.

The rest is history. Dissenters were blasted for being "un-american", Muslims were scapegoated, the U.S. rushed into a haphazard invasion of Iraq amidst global uproar. This wasn't inevitable after the attacks occurred- but that it happened clearly represents a serious failure to re-think the basic coordinates of U.S. power in the international arena in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Incredible though the towers were, architecturally and technologically speaking, I wouldn't be so quick to unproblematically ascribe to them that meaning. They were built at one of the lowest points in NY history. The city was bankrupt, the big banks launched a coup against the city by refusing to roll-over its debt, unions were smashed, infrastructure crumbled, living standards for working class New York plummeted. The decades that followed, to be sure, provided opportunity and hope for some, but at the cost of gentrifying neighborhoods and expunging working people from Manhattan (which, today, threatens to become one big gated community for the rich). Saying that the towers unproblematically meant "opportunity and hope" seems to close to Giuliani/Bloombergian triumphalism for my taste.

JM said...

Okay, sorry for misunderstanding. The one time I went to New York City, three years ago, I liked it personally but with the closing of CBGBs, I can understand the issue of Manhattan turning into a full wealthy people only community.

JM said...

I also must say that I'm quite fond of the original Back to The Future movie despite the unfortunate touches of 80s conservative era political incorrectness (the handling of Biff raping Marty's mother, etc.) That said, I'm glad to hear you're a fan of David Lynch- I too enjoy Blue Velvet and Eraserhead, my mom used to watch Twin Peaks too.

Richard said...

Nostalgia may well be an essential feature of cinema. It is a prominent feature of the works of many of the great directors, their crews and casts. Fassbinder, Godard, Jia Zhangke, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Josef von Sternberg, John Huston, even modernists like Fritz Lang and Eisenstein, all manipulated nostalgia in the service of their art. Even some of the brilliant Japanese directors of the post-war period known for their lack of sentimentality, like Imamura (in his pre-1990s films) and Oshima, rely upon it to some extent to engage the audience.

Fassbinder, Hou and Jia, just to name three, relied on it extensively to critique the social experiences of the characters that populated their narratives. After all, Fassbinder was inspired by the 1950s melodramas of Douglas Sirk. Like Fassbinder, Wong Kar-wai, the Hong Kong arthouse director, lays in on thick (see, for example, "In the Mood for Love").

So, it would appear that the problem is not the presence of nostalgia per se in film, but the mendacious and coarse exploitation of it to the extent that it induces people to reminisce about a past that never existed. Of course, there are usually political and social motivations for doing so.