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Nostalgia and the Academy Awards

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Photo: "War Horse," DreamWorks, 2011; "Cowboys & Aliens," DreamWorks, 2011.

Are this year's nominees a reaction against mainstream Hollywood or an expansion of it?

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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