Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Knowing Wink of Nostalgia

Yesterday I was half tempted to put my head in the oven and be done with it. Okay, not really, but after watching this:

it did seem like a good idea. Go ahead and watch it if you have not yet seen it before you read yet another screed from me, calling out, no, begging for originality.

Now do not get me wrong, I am still looking forward to this film (though honestly, not close to the same degree), but the level of pandering in this preview is down right revolting. That Indy is first portrayed in silhouette, a shadow of his former self I am sure, should tell you everything about the intentions of this film. It is as much about the aged men who made the film as the characters that populate it. I guess this is what one should expect when the producers and director are stars, and demand that you remember it. They can not handle giving up the stage even for the good of the story.

Indiana Jones is an icon. The trailer even shows us this via use of the silhouette. Everyone knows who he is. Yet just as fast as Indy can crack his whip, the viewer is flung back to his earlier adventures (better times), as seen with clips from his earlier films. Do we really need this? Do they really think the viewers will have forgotten? Do they not remember the letters and outcry from the fans over many years demanding them to make another movie? And granted I am using this preview as a springboard, as this sappy pandering to the audience is not a crime perpetrated solely by the three headed monster that is Lucus/Spielberg/Ford. With that said.... that they feel nostalgia is the best (or is it easiest) way to market this film is disturbing at best.

This story has taken nearly 20 years to make it to screen since Indy's last adventure. With that much lead time I am under the impression that they worked out a script that truly captures the essence of the 1st and 3rd films (the less we talk about the second the better). Though this preview shows next to nothing about what we are to expect, it relies on our good natured memories of enjoying the past. It counts on the pulse of nostalgia to jolt the audiences' hearts to beat ever faster. My biggest problem with this is the trend that as we inch forward into the future, far too many commercial amusements are seeking to reinvigorate past products to recreate the past rather than plant seeds for the future. And the revival, or is it resuscitation, of this franchise is exactly that, looking backwards and discovering memory is a far larger harbinger of tickets sold than the creation of something new.

I guess what pisses me off the most is that this confirms everything I try and deny about much of the media I consume. They are all products and will be marched out in new dress any time a new audience can be identified. Another prime example of this is Transformers. As a kid they were fresh and new - and most importantly: totally exciting. Simply put they were cars and planes that could become robots. And really, robots are totally cool. So this was an earth shattering story telling device. I read the comics, watched the cartoons and played with the toys. Of course, over time the mold that was so successful had to be changed as new characters had to be introduced - one has to sell more toys! This only muddied the field, making sure that what was once special become commonplace. But rather than toss the damaged brand on the scrape heap for old media products, they were put in cold storage. Then when given enough time they re-incubated and birthed anew for a new generation to discover along with their parents to fondly remember, which i assume makes opening the pocket book a bit easier: nostalgia sells!

I am just so sick of this. Simply put this stagnation and looking backwards is a product of the current climate in America. I look to other areas of the world and their touchstones for awareness in everyday life often look like this, this, or this, etc. While the rest of the world looks ahead, we confined to look to the past. This is not a compelling sign that our influential status in the world will last. Compared to the rest of the world's creativity and what appears a boundless hope for the future, our backwards looking forecasts an ominous outlook. Our cultural output, in this crucial time of beckoning globalism, is staid and lackluster. We are pumping out cultural forms that resemble nothing more than Communist block rigid sterile architecture. And as those forms crumble under the steam shovels of progress, the culture from which they came long dead, what are we to think of the prospects of basing our one true global import on it directanalog, nostalgia?

The audience is not afraid to be challenged. If the stories are compelling, new pantheons and myths are welcome. Case in point: The Matrix. The first film was fresh and looked fantastic. The characters and action spoke to us, we shared their fears and dreams. The next two happened and style superseded substance and the the magic was gone. Outside the direct entertainment world we crave newness. Look at how we adapt to new products/services/platforms/wtfever in the cellular and/or computer world. Yet when it come to entertainment we get extremely stilted products that are forced into situations that recall a past that supposedly prompts desire. WTF, seriously WTF?

There is a product in Alan Moore's Watchmen called Nostalgia. It is a fragrance that is advertised with copy reading "where is the essence that was so divine?" and "oh how the ghost of you clings." I am not sure if this was the first time I started to notice the effects nostalgia had on buying patterns, but it certainly was the epiphany moment. It is extremely hard to compete with memory. One could say: "memory is all we are," and could easily make a strong case for it. So why do I find the practice of using it as the base for marketing so wrong? Well simply put, it is too easy. In the preview above, Indy is portrayed as a caricature of his past performances. He acknowledges his age and his long absence by complaining of his eye sight and that 'this used to be easier'. This is nothing more than slapping the back of the fan, placating him/her, lulling them to sleep -- lazy storytelling.

To subjugate one of the better characters ever created for film to an endless loop of self referential mirror games should be a criminal offense. The exact fans that are being pandered to are the ones that simply do not need it. They are the ones with the previous trilogy at home on VHS and DVD, and if they were early adaptors, LaserDisk. They are already excited about this film and will be in line to see it on opening day. So I ask how is this preview helpful. It speaks to the subset of the audience that does not need to be spoken to. Yet the ones who are not scheduling a day off on opening day are left a bit puzzled as the preview gave not an inkling of what maybe in store for them, if they even choose to see it. Again the limits of nostalgia are blatantly obvious.

One of the genius things about Moore's Watchmen is that while he was easily taking a shot at nostalgia in the story, he also scheduled his product to be replaced with a new line of fragrances called Millennium which is described as "projecting a vision of technological Utopia, a whole new universe of sensations and pleasures that is just within reach," and advertised with the phrase "this is the time, these are the feelings." He saw the power of new forms able to rise out of the bleak shadow of looking backwards for inspiration. Yet even today, twenty years later Hollywood is producing a film based on his book, helping to further their diet based on the regurgitation of the past and lack of creativity. Jolly good show that.....

So I ask, what is the reason behind the overuse of nostalgia? I say it is easier to reuse than to create, but am open to other suggestions. Go....

1 comment:

bultrey said...

Hello sir.

Excellent essay. Shockingly I found myself agreeing with most of your points. As to why nostalgia is used so frequently as a marketing tool (not only in film and television as you so eloquently point out, but in music, too), I have a simple answer. Humans are rapidly becoming lazier and originality is hard.

Why humans are becoming lazier could fuel another 10,000-word essay and hours of discussion, I'm sure. Maybe it's because of the lack of original content to stimulate our brains. And so it goes...