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On Nostalgia and Its Use in Film

Nos-tal-gia (noun) : a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.

From the Greek words: nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain).

Memory is a beautiful thing. I can remember times of such enriching happiness and times of immensely crushing loneliness, times when life was doing exactly what it was meant to do, whether I liked it or not. I think back on my past friendships, the first time I heard my favorite song, driving all the different cars I called “my car” throughout various stages of my life. I remember watching my favorite movies with my family and friends, engulfed in the greatest personal pleasure I would ever experience: sharing a good story with good people, people who I knew would like this thing I had discovered, because they liked what I liked. As a film lover, and now professional film curator and exhibitor, I've discovered running themes and emotions in my choices of favorite films. Escapism has never been a solely cinematic venture, but boy howdy do movies pull it off swimmingly. My memories of these films, as well as my anticipation of future works, will always rely on my nostalgic nature as a viewer, because a film is equally about what the viewer brings to the table, as is the story and how it is executed. Thus is reality. It simply is.

And nostalgia is no different.

The effects of nostalgia are inherently bittersweet, which is why the capitalization and over-production of films and other works of art utilizing this emotion are being met with such backlash. There's a certain sense of ownership to some of these things, and while some forms of this may be conducive to experiencing art, others can make you completely misunderstand The Last Jedi, which means you lose. You lose a good movie because it wasn't what you wanted it to be, because in your mind you love Star Wars and this ain't why you love Star Wars. It's completely understandable, but not necessarily the healthiest of outlooks. Putting it more tenderly, it can seem as though these things are making a very personal and private feeling become less special, practically ripping the soul out of an emotion you hold very dear. The existential functions of nostalgia are what allow us as individuals to feel connected to the world and others around us, leading to a better representation of our view of the world and how we would like to be seen as a part of it; a mutual acceptance of what is and what is loved, what has been, what can be and what will never be again.

Before going on, yes, I will admit that there are negative attributes to the excessive use of nostalgia in film and television. The list can go on and on, and many people are very quick to write that list in their war for what they perceive as originality in the arts. While I understand this point of view, (and do quite much agree with many of the points), I think the truth of nostalgia, and its impact on cinema and pop culture, run quite a bit deeper than examples garnering the proverbial cold shoulder. Reboots. Remakes. Prequels. Adaptations. Reboot-quels. We're drowning in them. But I won't explain the needed product-monetization of business (which is very much where these types of nostalgic driven works are coming from). For the people in charge with all the money get to dictate what gets made, how and when, and for whom. That's just the way it has always been, and presumably always will be. In the world of big budget filmmaking, new is a risk. But this is an entirely specific platform in a gigantic world of various levels of cinema production. Just because it's louder, bigger and more present than others doesn't mean it's the definition of what movies are today. That would be silly. And recently, however slowly, the scales seem to be tilting toward the favor of original artists getting to take a crack at mostly sure-fire hits reinterpreting older characters and models (you need look no further than Blade Runner 2049, Thor: Ragnarok and, again, The Last Jedi for evidence of this).

People have been using nostalgia (or complaining about its use) in art for what seems like practically forever. A nostalgic culture backlash is something every generation goes through at a certain point or certain age. In a world built on social media, Netflix algorithms and pop culture references, it's no surprise that the things we like will be used to sell products being created specifically for the sole purpose of selling as many of them as possible. That's how making money works. Ironically, these very things that act as fuel for the now, will eventually be the things that bring the trend to a head, much like clothing, books and other forms of art have in past generations dealing with nostalgic culture overkill. Memories are a very easy product to market and sell, as your investment in them is already sewn in; they barely have to try and sell you this stuff. You already like it, sort of! In the present period example, geek culture became such a fundamental influence on artistic culture, because it was the one place people who didn't feel like they belonged could feel just that, surrounded by peers who “got them.” In this landscape of over-connectivity and the saturation (or bastardization, depending on how you look at it) of self-worth, it's no real surprise that more and more people would find solace in these sorts of ideals and hobbies, such as video games, comic books, movies, etc. Products of pure escapism, endless fantasy, however brief. And you'd be fighting a silly battle to try and argue how this would be a bad thing for society. The connective tissue of a social interaction that is predicated on a common love for something is not false, but communication and understanding at its most transparent: “Hey! You're interested in the same things I am. Let's be friends and learn from one another!” The same can be said for experiencing different things and engaging with people of different interests, but that fact doesn't negate the former. It's not an ultimatum until an individual decides to make it one for themselves.

Now of course, this is skirting the issue that seems to have American culture in an uproar, in that the excessive use of nostalgia-based branding is diminishing the value of both the past and present, which I wholeheartedly agree with. Excessive use of anything can do that, but with nostalgia, this overkill level of production actually turns what is perceived as nostalgia as a selling tool into something else entirely: pandering. Nostalgia is meant to give rise to an emotional connection between artist and consumer, the art itself being the canvas on which this connection can be heightened and explored. Sometimes an artist will use traditional motifs and themes, as opposed to reinterpreted characters and stories, to communicate a sense of ease and familiarity. These are the things in stories which some would call cliché or cheesy, but I would argue this is a miserable soulless outlook on what is meant to be a communicative approach to making the emotion of the story land. Reinterpretations of foundational traditions can lead to an original story feeling warmer and more articulate in its execution, and is sometimes the best way to form something entirely new that feels old. It's weird, but true. Nostalgia used in a traditional sense is meant to strengthen the forced wonder of memories and retained information being tickled and glorified. And there's nothing wrong with that; it is just another brush on the artist's tray, a stroke designed to be a connective understanding of a thing/time/place/idea and its relationship to you.

Though nostalgia can easily blind experiences and fuzz memories of film and art, this is arguably its very purpose. There are countless films (and very good ones, at that!) that have used nostalgia as a selling point, not through the use of recognizable characters and scenarios, but through a specific place in time. Happy Days and The Wonder Years both romanticized different periods of time from when the production of those television shows took place. The same can be said throughout the decades of cinema: American Graffiti, Grease, A Christmas Story, Back to the Future, The Sandlot, Forrest Gump and The Iron Giant, just to name a few. These films take the reflective route of nostalgia, cashing in on wide audiences’ longing for a period in time that is no more (the counter of which would be restorative nostalgia, which tends to attempt to redefine a specific period by removing unwanted faults inherent with the time. These can be fairly innocent, like Titanic, or wholly monstrous, like The Birth of a Nation). While these films do their own individual levels of “sanitizing” certain aspects of the 1940's through the 1980's, their main objective is to connect the present (which always seems grim) with the romanticized past, where the grass is always greener because no one can play there anymore.

Being aware of what films you consume, and understanding what their purpose is, affects how you yourself are changed by the film, which is arguably the goal of most art. Nostalgia is an easy target in a world where the internet is filled with people both willing to speak honestly, or simply gripe contrarian opinions in an attempt to seem superior than what they perceive as the status quo, both of which are healthy means for discussing film and art as a whole. An understanding of both the self and the world, how art is produced and the things it is produced for, is key to differentiating honest discourse from the cynical, pessimistic nature of anti-nostalgia temperament. (As a rule, people who don't seem open to learning more about a subject they disapprove of are usually full of poo. Write that down.) The time when we are young is the time we come to define who we are, so naturally the things we like begin to form as a part of our identity. Art that we admire in our youth is neurologically embedded in our mind to be enjoyable. As our tastes grow and become more honed, we may discover the enjoyment of these works might have been uninformed and, sometimes, flat-out wrong from an educated mindset. That doesn't mean they can't be enjoyable. That would just be lying to ourselves for some reason, usually as a means to self-ascribe to our wanted perception of belonging to a chosen social group. There are loads of reasons to not like nostalgia, but claiming you are never nostalgic is an exercise in stupidity; trust me, when you and your ex's song from years ago comes on the radio, you feel it, and there's no controlling or arguing with that.

And then there's the fandom variety of nostalgia, which I think is the specific form that most people today seem to have a problem with. And I get it. Totally. I would much rather have a never ending slew of risky, original content (which, there already is a load of, just sayin') than be beaten over the head again and again with rehashes of this, and sequels to that, but this arguably misses the point of being mindful of what types of films you choose to consume. For example, I do not watch the Marvel movies over and over again (or go to see each new one in the theater when it's released) because I used to love the characters and the comic books. I go because I love THESE versions of the characters and the movies are GOOD. Alternatively, I loved Transformers and GI Joe when I was younger, and I've only seen 1½ of all those movies because I think they are trash and they don't make me care. Simple. I still have the original cartoons and my memories of playing with toys to satiate my own personal need for those particular franchises. The thing that existed then still exists after the introduction of the new reinterpretation. And though it's true that some franchises can become shrouded in shit due to the continued returning-to-the-well Hollywood finds so fun, I'd say most works worth their salt are untouched by the attempts of rebranding; if Indiana Jones can survive Temple of Doom (which I love) AND Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (which hates me and you), anything else worth anything should be in the clear.

And then there's this year’s Easter Egg of all Easter Eggs: Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One, a competent enough movie which I'm starting to feel more and more may have been in on a joke that it wasn't particularly interested in communicating with the audience. While the virtual-reality retelling of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is movie escapism in its most apparent form, the film also serves as a love letter to fandom, and a cheery exploration of what it represents and how it affects different people. For one, the villain in the movie is the capitalization of nostalgia through media personified: a man whose only goal is to be able to turn as much of a profit as possible off of a believably attainable product, not by increasing the fun and wonder of the product, but by sealing off aspects of it for private, more expensive use, and layering its template with spam advertising, a notion which was firmly kept at bay by its previous owner. This is what big budget Hollywood movies, just like this one, are doing more and more these days. Ready Player One read to me more like a commentary on these tropes and references than another installment in the “pat-yourself-on-the-back-ya-nerd” category. There are clear examples of Spielberg (not so sure about the writers) pushing this question of reality and nostalgia throughout the thrilling set pieces and even more so in the quieter moments. Halliday, the VR's original creator, is a very odd proxy for not just one specific man or idea, but a culmination of years and years of knowledge and art; something I would think Spielberg would relate to, even on the most humblest of levels. By using the very mold they have come to see bastardized (and let's not forget, Spielberg birthed the very first ”blockbuster” of today's standards with 1975's Jaws) to communicate the flaws and follies of relying on these things too heavily, whether for personal growth or financial gain. The film is explaining the intricacies of these money-making taboos by reminding us why this easily exploited human feeling is so important and relatable, both in actuality and something bigger: its purpose, the influence these things have on the young and how they teach lessons to people who are growing up to become their own heroes of their own story. How well the movie communicates these ideas will vary from viewer to viewer, mindset to mindset, but that’s just the lens I was seeing this story projected through.

There's a reason our current nostalgic climate tends to focus on the 1970’s-90's, as opposed to the 1930's-50's. We yearn for the feeling we once had, when an idea that we love was exciting and fresh, and no amount of new and original content will ever be able to fill that mysterious void, just as new relationships never completely fill the void of past ones. These two things are very different concepts, and as far as connective storytelling goes, both are needed, effective and have their place. Don't worry, there will be nostalgia for this present time, and no matter how bad you think it might be, you'll have to understand that it's probably not being made for you. But that doesn't mean you can't still enjoy it if it makes you remember a time when you let yourself enjoy things.


Mike Burdge


Founder of and programmer for Story Screen. Lover of stories and pizza in the dark. When he isn't watching movies, you can find him reading things about people watching movies. He lives in Beacon, NY with his cat who is named after Kevin Bacon's character from Friday the 13th.




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