Nostalgia Farming, by Alexander Miller
Romanticizing the past and calling out your references is sewn into the cultural vernacular of television and filmmaking. Somewhere along the line homage devolved into common mannerism, and imitation is no longer a form of flattery, but a springboard for (less) creative minds to spin yarns that capitalize on our sentiments by exploiting the past and pander to our nostalgic sensibilities.
This aesthetic evocation fosters a pop culture-infused landscape in television and movies. It’s a form of regressive pandering that compromises originality and the title I feel that best summarizes this derivative milieu is nostalgia farming.
It’s a recurring case in television and movies; studios and filmmakers are scratching around and
harvesting the seeds of yesteryear and are farming it out to a wanting public who seem to love their nostalgia a bit too much. The most obvious and successful offenders would be the Duffer Brothers, who have seduced masses with their retrofitted and articulately tailored Stranger Things. But this trend goes deeper.
Stumbling on the recent sensation, I was so caught up in ferreting out what the Duffer Brothers were culling their material from I was blindsided by the fact that this was nothing more than a well-intended but lazily conceived repurposing of piecemealed science fiction, fantasy, and horror. It’s this unsubtle degree of pandering that’s shaped out of the over-informed programming and over saturated internet/geek culture that is all too comfortable to wade in a bath of nostalgia. And the success of Stranger Things is indicative not only of an audience that’s gobbling up eighties drenched material but the production models adopted by services such as Netflix and Hulu feel mechanized and bereft of creativity.
Now programmers and studio executives (mostly streaming services) can read every crevice of your digital footprint, shading their content to suit the algorithms and the viewing history of subscriptions.
In a Den of Geek article, “In Defense of Nostalgia,” Alec Bojalad wrote, “Whatever information Netflix is pursing through at HQ shows the contents of your TV-watching soul… And the contents of our soul, it would appear, are nostalgia.”
So it’s obviously no coincidence that we’ve seen rebooted versions of Full House, MST3K, Bill Nye the Science Guy, The Magic School Bus, and Will & Grace, and with innovative titles such as Fuller House and The Magic School Bus Rides Again, should we ready ourselves for “More Cheers” or “Another Fantasy Island”? It might be a basic observation to point out that if someone has the urge to revisit one of their favorite shows, the best way to fix that jones is to watch the show, not clamor for a rebooted version of it? But as evidenced on the large and small screen this is the age of reboots and remakes, which is a lesson likely learned from the film industry.
There’s nothing wrong with influences or culling material from beloved sources but recently it feels like, in the wake of Joss Whedon, Quentin Tarantino, and J.J. Abrams establishing themselves as modern stylists unafraid of wearing their influences on their sleeves, less dimension is given to shaping material in an original fashion. Some of this is chalked up to heightened modernism, but the atmosphere surrounding contemporized cinema, and our consumption of the varied reboots, remakes, and so forth is a result of their evocation of the past.
In addition to the front-running influence over so many filmmakers mentioned here, we are on the eve of Spielberg’s much anticipated Ready Player One. Anything from Spielberg is a celebratory event, and the film seems to be forged by the many components of pop culture it might serve to substantiate or reinvent this pattern of allusive glad-handing given his impactful presence and innovative reputation. It’s impossible to weigh in on a film that is yet to be seen, but Spielberg is one of the better examples of how to pay homage with an eye and ear for originality, and his hybrid balance of art and populist entertainment has cultivated a unique filmic identity as a creative force who is also skilled in the business of the movies.
Being objective means that one has to accept that filmmaking is a business and if a revised idea, no matter how well-worn, still makes money then, for someone, that’s a job well done. And in the case of nostalgia farming, one of the most effective examples of this method arrived in one of the most beloved series’ of our cultural pantheon, Star Wars. We waited decades to return to a galaxy, far, far away after we suffered through the prequels we had The Force Awakens in 2015, Rogue One last year and now with The Last Jedi, which I’m sure will be fine. Because The Force Awakens and Rogue One were fine; I had a fun time at the theatre, even bought them on Blu-Ray, but it’s hard not to think that these films, as nice as they are, feel a little too, “fine”? Since the acquisition of the Star Wars universe, it seems like Disney’s always efficient business acumen has molded these films with a tactful mind where referential fan service (given the power of nerd rage I don’t fault them) and adhering to a clean and economic formula that yields a good product.
But that’s precisely what these new Star Wars feel like: products. They’re fluently entertaining but there’s no rough edges, no soul. The evidence of this manufactured franchise in part stems from the studio’s response to an oversaturated media influence. The formula is to counter any negative criticisms of previous films, stir in some gritty modernism, incorporate some humor via quips and creatures, after all you need to make some toys, bring in some new faces, resurrect some old ones (literally, in the case of Rogue One and Peter Cushing) and leave an open end for a sequel.
It might seem like problem-shopping to say that the most significant weak spot in the new Star Wars series is the lack of any space to make a negative criticism but could it be that’s because there’s nothing there to criticize? They made sure of that, and the proof is in the almighty tomato score and the roar of geek culture throughout the internet. And Disney rebranded Star Wars not by altering the material but contorting our nostalgia for a beloved series, three new films in nearly three years is fun, but it feels like Star Wars has lost its essence.
Rogue One and The Force Awakens are the (relative) upsides to the problem; the downside is 2016’s Ghostbusters, the two Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles entries, two Smurfs movies, and the bulk of the live action Disney films. That’s only scratching the surface with a ton of punching robots and reboots and remakes in the grinder.
At the end of the day, the cultural pandering that is nostalgia farming impedes originality by compromising filmmakers who, instead of coursing their careers, take the money dangled by major studios. And in the business of making movies, for every unoriginal big budget project that gets greenlit, is money taken away from smaller, more original films that probably won’t get made. This pattern is more than bad filmmaking but cultural/developmental regression, wadding in the past keeps us from the present, and it goes beyond decadent self-indulgence as the entertainment industry digs into the business of nostalgia to make bad movies we don’t need. Nostalgia farming is emblematic of generational complacency, stemming from a stagnation of independent thought and individuality.
But no one seems to mind because, hey, there’s a new Star Wars movie every year, Stranger Things is a hit, and every superhero ever committed to print will get a franchise or streaming series.
On deck, there are rumors of a third Gremlins outing and a follow up to The Goonies and Bill and Ted might even make another bogus journey or excellent adventure; regardless of what those two do, I think I might sit it out.