February 7, 2012

Oscar nominees’ ‘New Nostalgia’

It’s hard to watch this year’s batch of Oscar nominees without presuming that filmmakers would rather be anywhere but now.

They’d rather be in Paris with a visionary Georges Melies at the dawn of filmmaking (“Hugo”). Or in Los Angeles in the late 1920s, as Hollywood made the transition from silent film to talkies (“The Artist”). Or in the ‘50s, when 70 mm prestige pictures were unabashedly bighearted and pretty (“War Horse”). Or in the ‘60s, when well-meaning message movies could be uncomplicated and unsubtle (“The Help”). They’d even rather be in 2011 Paris, wondering whether being in 1920s Paris would be as satisfying as it is romantic (“Midnight in Paris”). They’d rather be anywhere else — assuming that a little movie history is involved.

But let’s call it the New Nostalgia.

Because unlike the Old Nostalgia (gauzy, soft-headed), and despite notable exceptions (“The Help,” “My Week With Marilyn”), the New Nostalgia is not cheap or content to be dew-eyed and sentimental. It’s not about mere homage to fading sensibilities or needless remakes or period epics. It’s not about a cultural malaise and filmmakers with nothing new to say. The New Nostalgia, despite every dyspeptic bone in my body, is not necessarily a bad thing — particularly in thoughtful hands, like those of Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg. The New Nostalgia is about dipping into movie history to rediscover the joy of moviegoing itself.

Paul Mariano, co-director of “These Amazing Shadows,” an acclaimed documentary from last year about the National Film Registry, told me that a lot of this year’s Oscar pictures seem rooted in vintage Hollywood because there’s a new appreciation among audiences for the value of film history. But that sounded 1) overly hopeful and 2) not quite in line with the box office; some of the truest examples of the New Nostalgia (“The Artist”) have fallen flat financially. It also presumes that the New Nostalgia is rooted in a larger zeitgeist. Which it’s not; this is a moment generated primarily by filmmakers. The New Nostalgia is personal, and eager to capture not just the look of a beloved era but the swoon and sadness it can install.

Indeed, what’s newest about the New Nostalgia is that even the swoon — in “The Muppets,” for instance, a film entirely about returning to the joys of a simpler era — is delivered with a wise heart and a melancholy, an underlying sense that encouraging love and appreciation in new audiences may already be too late. If this is nostalgia, it’s nostalgia in the original sense of the word — a word coined by Johannes Hofer, a Swiss medical student in the late 17th century who was noting the heartache in soldiers yearning for their past.

Of course, coincidence and practicality should not be underestimated in any trend: Letty Aronson, co-producer of “Midnight in Paris” (and younger sister of Woody Allen), told me, “You know, (’Midnight’) was written several years ago. I went to Paris, hired people, then the money wasn’t there (to make it). In the ensuing years, France instituted a tax rebate, and it was generous. That’s why we made ‘Midnight’ now.”

On the other hand, coincidence and subconscious desire can seem like two sides of the same coin, and what’s going on in these films — in the velvety John Ford-inspired vistas of “War Horse,” in the shimmery ‘80s synth soundtrack of “Drive,” even in those pensive, Robert-Redford-circa-1972 shots of Brad Pitt in “Moneyball” — is a hope that our filmmaking past can inspire a meaningful future.

“I think these films share optimism,” said Rick Carter, the Oscar-nominated production designer of “War Horse.” “But it’s a complex, wary optimism. Not a fresh-to-the-world optimism. In fact, that word, ‘nostalgia,’ your word, suggests something shallow, and the films we’re talking about look to the past not only for literal context but what’s back there, in filmmaking, that can resonate in the stories we tell now, using technology we barely harness.”

What he means is, as with so many aspects of early 21st century life, this sudden longing is partly spurred by a concern that a cold, alienating digital future will replace the warm, recognizable pleasures of the past.

Those shots of Pitt may be largely quiet, but you can picture the director, Bennett Miller, behind the camera shouting: “That’s what a movie star should be.” “War Horse” wears its broad heart on its sleeve, but Spielberg is clearly reminding: “This is what heart looked like.”

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