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Nostalgia and the Academy Awards

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The Academy Awards are one week away and, at this point, it looks like the big winners will be the French silent movie tribute “The Artist,” the American tribute to French silent movies “Hugo,” and other films, like “The Help” and “Midnight in Paris,” set in or obsessed with the past. Clearly, this year’s Oscars are all about nostalgia. But why? In The Los Angeles Times, Neal Gabler locates the origin of this trend in the neurotic minds of Hollywood executives who, he writes, are “full of self-loathing”:

“We tend to think that the denizens of the film industry luxuriate in the popcorn movies they deliver to us, that they love the bombast that is now the primary reason people go to the movies. Indeed, the stereotype of the movie mogul is still a man or woman who cares more about money than prestige, and who boasts, as a writer once remarked of Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn when Cohn said a movie wasn’t any good because he kept wiggling in his seat, that the whole world is ‘wired to his ass.’ They are us — only richer.”

Gabler believes that as the movie industry’s offerings have gotten dumber, its need for respectability has intensified. That led to the situation we have now: where, Gabler explains, the studios pump out only two kinds of movies: blockbusters and “anti-blockbusters.” These films, like “The Artist” or “Hugo” or “War Horse” don’t just steep in the world of the past, they celebrate the past in order to denigrate the present. “The Artist,” for example, is a story about the tragedy of innovation. Its hero is a silent film actor at the top of his game. When Hollywood introduces sound, and the actor — the artist! — refuses to make the transition, he is nearly destroyed. But even more importantly, the beauty of silent film was destroyed, and it’s that beauty that “The Artist” seeks to resurrect and honor.

Gabler has certainly identified a legitimate trend amongst this year’s Academy Award nominees. He’s a smart guy too; Gabler wrote “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination,” one of the finest biographies in recent memory. But I’m not sure he’s reading this trend correctly. Is the nostalgia amongst a wide swath of 2012 Oscar nominees a reaction against mainstream Hollywood or an expansion of it?

After all, cinematic nostalgia was not simply limited to awards pictures last year: it was the predominant theme in all kinds of films. Just about everything Hollywood makes these days is indebted to something that has come before. It might be something based on an old television series or or a landmark series of books or a toy popular with children in the 1980s. Don’t forget all the prequels to sci-fi classics or comic book movies. Then there’s the big-screen adaptation of the old cartoon and the big-screen adaptation of the old cartoon and, of course, the big-screen adaptation of the old cartoon. Even so-called “original” films look like prior works, from Steven Spielberg movies to James Bond adventures. The trick is the same every time — take an existing property with a built-in fanbase and gussy it up with new effects to capture the imagination of a new audience and recapture the imagination of the old audience who loved it even before it looked good.

Gabler says that the Oscars’ “sudden burst of nostalgia” may be “a demonstration of the self-contempt of an industry that is finally tired of itself.” But the same impulse fueling a film like “War Horse” — which Gabler cites as an example of an old-fashioned anti-blockbuster — is basically the same impulse fueling a film like “Cowboys & Aliens” — a new-fangled action spectacular. Like “War Horse,” “Cowboys & Aliens” is indebted to the works of John Ford (as well as the works of other nostalgia icons like George Pal and Ray Harryhausen) — and like “War Horse” it’s also about “primal communions” between boy and father, man and horse. “War Horse” might be soppy melodrama and “Cowboys & Aliens” might be a noisy bore, but the cloth they’re cut from is not all that different. And both came from the same man: director and executive producer (respectively) Steven Spielberg.

Maybe Hollywood is full of self-loathing; in my experience, most people and most industries are. But I’m not sure the presumed popularity amongst Oscar voters of “The Artist,” “Hugo,” and others is indicative of that self-loathing. It seems equally likely that nostalgia’s Oscar dominance this year simply reflects nostalgia’s dominance across all kinds of filmmaking disciplines. Most of the nostalgic movies mentioned above were huge hits; I selected them from this list of the highest grossing films of 2011. If we looked back over the past couple years, we’d find similar results. Old is the new new. And money is still money.

What do you make of all the nostalgic films at this year’s Academy Awards? Tell us in the comments below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

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Comedy Bang! Bang! returns to IFC with back-to-back episodes on Friday, June 3rd at 11P.

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Earwolf

It’s been (Barenaked Ladies style) seven years since Comedy Bang! Bang! premiered on Southern California’s Indie 103 radio station as a music and variety show, then known as Comedy Death-Ray. And in those seven years, host Scott Aukerman has evolved the radio show into a podcast, a TV series, and a comedy mainstay for fans of surreal, offbeat humor. To celebrate the special occasion, Scott invited fan favorites Jason Mantzoukas, Horatio Sanz and Paul F. Tompkins, as well as a slew of popular characters and segments, to CB!B!’s 7th Anniversary Show.

Click here to listen to the 7th anniversary show on Earwolf. And just a reminder, Comedy Bang! Bang! returns to IFC for a fifth season on June 3rd with back-to-back episodes on Fridays at 11P ET/PT and 11:30P ET/PT. Season Five will feature “Weird Al” Yankovic as the new bandleader and a bevy of guests like Kevin Bacon, Kristen Schaal, Tony Hale, Aubrey Plaza, T-Pain, and more.

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That ’70s Show Reunion Photo Proves the Kids Are Still Alright

Catch That '70s Show Mondays & Tuesdays starting at 6P on IFC.

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The stars of That ’70s Show had their own throwback reunion as Fez, Jackie, Kelso, Donna, and Hyde recently got back together for a candid on-set photo. Posted to Laura Prepon‘s Instagram account, actors Wilmer Valderrama, Mila Kunis, Ashton Kutcher, Danny Masterson, and Prepon posed on the set of Netflix’s The Ranch — which stars Kutcher and Masterson as brothers who manage their family ranch. Older and wiser but no less striking, the cast seems to have weathered the ’80s (and the ’00s) very well.

Keeping this from being a complete That ’70s Show reunion is Topher Grace’s absence, but this photo works as a reunion of the cast from the post-Eric final season. With The Ranch renewed for a second season, we could be seeing more ’70s reunion moments. Maybe Tommy Chong will stop by?

Family #that70sshow 💓💓

A photo posted by Laura Prepon (@lauraprepon) on

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Catch IFC's Shark Half-a-Day marathon this Memorial Day starting at 6A.

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As we approach beach season, it’s important to remember some safety tips for dealing with our bloodthirsty friends from the deep. For instance, did you know there’s a breed of shark whose diet consists entirely of helicopters?

To celebrate IFC’s Memorial Day “Shark Half-a-Day,” a tasty, binge-worthy 12 hours or-so block (who needs an entire week?) airing of all of the Jaws franchise films, IFC’s “sharks-pert” Jason Alexander is sharing his possibly-not-entirely-accurate knowledge in all-new IFC promos. Who knew Jason was our nation’s foremost expert on shark-related trivia?

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Shark Half-A-Day: Monday, May 30th starting @ 6am
Jaws
Jaws 2
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Additional Jaws marathons:
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Friday, May 20th starting @ 8pm

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