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Nostalgia at the Brink

Nostalgia at the Brink

The French Dispatch, Last Night in Soho, House of Gucci, Licorice Pizza, and Ghostbusters: Afterlife take direct aim at our obsession with the past.

For a people whose foundation rests on breaking away from tradition, Americans have allowed nostalgia to occupy a bizarrely secure place in our culture. But over the past two decades, it has become both pejorative and pleasure. Funko POP! vinyl figurines featuring characters from properties ranging from the 80s band Poison to Presidents Kennedy and Reagan to Fast Times at Ridgemont High have become a $700 million business as they grace the desks and bedroom closets of functioning adults across the nation. Online T-shirt sites with muddy copyright permissions peddle wares with reproductions of heyday-of-the-Rust-Belt souvenirs and esoteric pop-culture references, their customers grasping for that knowing nod or passing compliment from a stranger on the street or colleagues on an afternoon Zoom call.

Despite this universal reach, nostalgia has allegedly become fused to Right-leaning ideologies, Trump’s reliance on the word “again” and inroads in reviving America’s manufacturing economy a mere dog whistle for white supremacy under the guise of midcentury reverie. On a less reactionary front, America’s guilty obsession with the past serves as what Gary Cross refers to as a “consumed nostalgia” existing to foster an “exuberant individualism” within online and in-person subcultures that have become a hallmark of global capitalism. Still, all this living in the past may merely be a coping mechanism for millennials to distance themselves from the post-9/11 world, which, as Angela Watercutter wrote in Wired on the 20th anniversary of the attacks, explains why nostalgia stops in 2001 with only properties that bridge the gap between 90s Clinton hedonism and the War on Terror like The Sopranos and Sex and the City prone to resuscitation two decades later.

While critics seize upon the inherent conservatism and deference to consumerism of those who live in the past, nostalgia’s dirty little secret is that the edifice of the contemporary left rests entirely on its foundation. AOC and Elizabeth Warren’s tweeted platitudes are little more than the dorm-room Marxism of ‘68 with a Chanel gloss. Cultural studies academics bemoan Hollywood’s lack of originality, but lap up the latest Star Wars and The Matrix entries with the lay people as they pad their CV’s with presentations at lofty sounding yet poorly attended conferences. Even the CRT that serves as the newest flashpoint for parents across the country is little more than an amalgamation of 60s French poststructuralist philosophy and 80s legal theory, the cultural studies equivalent of a Mad Men and Stranger Things mashup.

Whether attempting to obscure the staleness of contemporary progressive thought or ingratiating itself so as not to raise the ire of the fringe Left, pop culture has remained tragically uncritical of such connections (Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood… stands as a lonely exception). Despite their emperor-has-no-clothes capabilities, culture making and fandom remain content to roll with The Weeknd’s latest 80s synth groove or play Spot the Cameo in the new iterations of Saved by the Bell and Home Alone.  Yet, as movies released exclusively in theatres have made a much-needed resurgence, a quintet of films meant for the big screen and released within weeks of each other has provided a cogent interrogation of nostalgia and the complicity with it in which even its fiercest critics engage.

In returning to live-action for the first time since 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson scaled back his ambitions with The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun, the closest film the director has made to a cinematic short-story collection over the past twenty-five years. Focusing on the French outpost of a midwestern newspaper with 60s literary expat Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray) at the helm, the film is, as most of its reviews regurgitate, “A love letter to journalists.” Yet, it shares no DNA with the journalism hagiography subgenre that emerged sometime after Trump called the Fourth Estate “the enemy of the people”—competent yet empty period pieces like Spielberg’s Pentagon Papers tribute The Post (2017) or Jay Roach’s Roger Ailes #metoo hitpiece Bombshell (2019). Rather, Anderson imbues the film with a sense of loss: for long-form journalism with a distinct voice, for writers whose analytical acumen evades listicles and Twitter, and for a culture open to multifaceted understandings of people.

Establishing this mournful tone, Anderson spends the three main sections of the film (and a ribald preamble that finds Owen Wilson as “The Cycling Reporter” parodying both travel reality TV and Francophile pretension) excoriating the self-righteous culture class and its warmed-over 60s outlook. The first entry details a conniving art dealer (Adrien Brody) manufacturing a phenomenon when he meets a crazed inmate (Benicio del Toro) who paints expressionistic nudes of a female prison guard (Léa Seydoux)– a marketing ploy that brings together the artworld elite and the French prison system with tragicomic results. Anderson positions the second story as the heart of the film that follows famed journalist Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) and her budding relationship with student revolutionary Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet) whose protests she’s covering, a portion that provides Anderson an opportunity to meditate on the moral failures of political activism and its dubious asceticism incongruent with the desires of the youth it exploits. Krementz openly flouts the myth of journalistic objectivity with an honesty Don Lemon could never achieve, writing about her admiration for Zeffirelli’s enthusiasm despite her belief that the “touching narcissism of the young” deludes so many activists into believing they are inciting meaningful change. Anderson concludes with a quadruple-frame narrative about a journalist (Jeffrey Wright) covering a scandalous kidnapping of the son of a small-town police commissioner (Mathieu Amalric) during a swanky dinner party for his officers, yet another sincere example of the director’s career-long depictions of the working class that critics distracted by his tweeness and Eurocentric style tend to neglect. By film’s end, Anderson has captured the moment when failed 60s politics and journalistic ethics manifested into the insufferable ouroboros it has become today.

Steeped in 60s culture but substituting Anderson’s idiosyncratic comedy for the tropes of the psychosexual thriller, Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho is no less critical of the 60s veneer that pervades pop culture. Chasing her dreams while repressing the same mental illness that led her mother to suicide, Ellie Turner (Thomasin McKenzie) moves from her rural English village to study at the London Institute of Fashion. But when she rents a room in the titular district to evade her bullying flatmates, she finds that the voices in her head provide her with a portal into the Swinging Sixties London that has obsessed her since her youth. Enamored with the aspiring singer Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), Ellie begins to emulate her in contemporary times while making nightly jaunts to the past. However, the more time Ellie spends as a voyeuristic interloper in Sandie’s life, the faster her pristine world of 60s fashion and vinyl begins to unravel amid the era’s seedy underbelly of sexual exploitation and violence. Never a filmmaker shy about his pop-culture obsessions as he’s proved most thoroughly in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and this year’s documentary The Sparks Brothers, Wright takes a distanced view of nostalgia in Soho, reveling in Taylor-Joy’s towering screen presence as he adorns her in inspired period costumes that the Academy would do well to honor at Oscar time while she sings 60s staples like Petula Clark’s “Downtown.” Yet, Wright is a savvy enough filmmaker to undercut such iconography with McKenzie’s grounded performance as Ellie realizes that the period on which she founded her identity is riddled with repressed tragedy and mistrust that her antagonistic interactions with a weathered lothario played by British acting legend Terence Stamp typify. As Wright’s film reaches its satisfyingly twisty conclusion, it implores its audience to learn the lessons of the past without isolating itself from the future in a cocoon of reassuring superficialities.

In contrast to Wright’s metaphoric use of fashion in Soho, Ridley Scott’s preoccupation with the nuances of the industry in the 80s and 90s is the primary focus of his true-crime melodrama House of Gucci, the fulcrum that unleashes the scenery-chewing of Al Pacino, Jared Leto, and Lady Gaga. A The Godfather-lite saga mining the rise, fall, and eventual murder of Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) that his ex-wife Patrizia Reggiani (Gaga) orchestrated with her psychic (Salma Hayek), the film is one of the weaker entries in Scott’s filmography and a steep decline from October’s The Last Duel (our review here). Apart from Driver’s consummate work as a young man torn between making his own way and honoring the legacy of his iconic father (Jeremy Irons), the film teeters on the edge of parody, more akin to a Saturday Night Live episode co-hosted by Leto and Pacino with Gaga as musical guest than a project that would attract such talent. Nonetheless, it deserves credit for showing the unseemly side of 80s and 90s fashion obscured by the era’s sleek print ads and Hollywood dress-up montages as well as for dispelling the trashiness of tabloid TV that exploited stories like Gucci’s assassination before becoming a billion-dollar business in the wake of O.J.’s Bronco. Scott rarely finds much compelling to say in 150 minutes, but his refusal to succumb to the era’s basest MTV aesthetics in the film’s not-quite-successful Shakespearean gravitas makes his recreation of the two decades that have most captured the pandemic zeitgeist worth experiencing.

House of Gucci spent most of the fall as an awards-season frontrunner, but over the past few weeks, Licorice Pizza, the latest film from Paul Thomas Anderson began to cement its place on year-end lists by substituting the gestures at serious cinema Scott makes with a listlessness and whimsy that slink it toward profundity. As the grown-up wunderkind of the American indie, Anderson revisits the same period setting as his breakout film Boogie Nights (1997). But, having firmly proved his artistry the first time around by dissecting the San Fernando Valley’s porn industry, the director is free to explore the defining period of his youth from a more detached perspective. Anderson centers the film on Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a marginally successful child actor in the Valley whose gusto and optimism pique the interest of Alana Kane (Alana Haim of the indie rock sister trio Haim) when she meets him while working as a school photographer’s assistant. Though the film is deeply funny thanks to its picaresque structure, Anderson rejects sentimentalizing the 70s, the likely reason he has earned condemnation from both the TikTokers accusing his not-quite romance of endorsing pedophelia and the Asian groups flabbergasted that the film’s striving blowhard restaurateur (John Michael Higgins) would display casual racism aimed at his revolving door of Japanese wives.

Such posturing reception aside, Licorice Pizza is a fierce and heartfelt indictment of Hollywood exploitation under a lazy-summer aesthetic, especially in its uncompromising portrait of the industry’s parasitic reliance on the young to maintain its relevance. Despite their optimism, Gary and Alana face a tough world that desiccates their dreams, a fact of life most poignant in the scene where Gary awkwardly auditions for yet another commercial role he has outgrown before a casting director (played by Anderson’s partner Maya Rudolph) tosses him a pimple-cream commercial script as a cold read, an opportunity that cracks his confidence and reduces his delivery back to the realm of the amateur. Gary and Alana spend the film surviving the wreckage of their plans, sometimes together (almost creating a waterbed empire with Bradley Cooper’s manic, Streisand-dating movie producer as their most high-profile client), usually apart (Alana’s feeble acting career capped by a night on the town with a lecherous daredevil actor based on William Holden and played with all-too-rare humor by Sean Penn). Still, an air of melancholy fills every frame. Anderson implies the 70s that so inspired his filmmaking style weren’t the mythical decade film scholars and historians make them out to be. He also suggests that, despite Gary’s relentless drive, the future doesn’t look much better–a feat Anderson achieves by casting the son of his frequent collaborator, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, as his lead. In Anderson’s world, we remain mired in failure, a truth only made palatable by not denying the rawness of our relationships and refusing to hide among the detritus of decades past.

From its first pre-pandemic trailers, Ghostbusters: Afterlife seemed the franchise reboot most indicative of consumed nostalgia’s tendencies with its sly nods toward the original and brazen repackaging that maximizes appeal for both reminiscing parents and the under-18 demo. After all, the film displaces the original team with Kid Ghostbusters led by child actor Mckenna Grace and Stranger Things player Finn Wolfhard and throws in “Sexiest Man Alive” Paul Rudd to round out the supporting cast. Directed by Jason Reitman—the son of original Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman and the filmmaker behind Juno, Young Adult, and Up in the Air—the film also functions as a reset from the PC disaster of 2016’s all-female Ghostbusters reboot that failed to click with audiences despite its status as a solidly entertaining entry in its own right. Such heavy baggage aside, Afterlife not only manages to avoid the trappings of fanboy allusions and retreaded plots but also serves as a meta commentary on rebootmania.

Like The French Dispatch and Licorice Pizza, Afterlife maintains a somber undercurrent as it builds its plot around the death of Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis), who devolved from Ghostbuster to the eccentric “dirt farmer” locals deemed him after he cut ties with friends and family and moved to Oklahoma (Ramis’s sudden death in 2014 prevented a perpetually in-development sequel from coming to fruition until now). As a result, Reitman seems more concerned with what cultural relics the popular imagination leaves to decay in its nostalgic remembrances—what texts, people, and schools of thought get lost in the gloss. Begrudgingly accepting the farmhouse that is her inheritance, Egon’s grown daughter (Carrie Coon) wrestles with her anger at the father who abandoned her as she worries that her eccentric child genius, Phoebe (Grace), shares the same traits as the man she holds most responsible for her failed adulthood. At the periphery, the three remaining Busters nurse their resentment over Egon’s seeming betrayal and the mundane lives they now lead as a bookstore owner (Dan Aykroyd’s Ray Stantz), an academic (Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman), and a venture capitalist (Ernie Hudson’s Winston Zeddemore). By rooting nostalgia for the original film in a study of how the ramifications of its events reverberated through multiple generations, Reitman finds a third way forward for the reboot, avoiding just passing the torch to younger blood or simply shoehorning nods to the original into the narrative. Despite the return of fan favorites Gozer the Gozerian and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man (this time as an adorable, bite-size army), Reitman refuses to allow his audience to regress to a happier time as a coping mechanism, crafting a film about the search for nostalgia that also justifies indulging in it.

While these five films traverse genre and budget level, they indicate a break with the incurious onslaught of reboots and revived properties that have come to dominate the entertainment landscape. The filmmakers do not work in a unified movement or even share aesthetic traits. However, each is established enough not to beg for a blockbuster payday or brandish their encyclopedic pop-culture knowledge for the sake of legitimacy (all have multiple Oscar nominations except Wright who seems content to keep mashing up low genres to critical raves and cult status). If anything, their work lends credence to the enduring relevance of Gen-X’s outlook as its overly medicated, pop-inundated successors seem incapable of rivaling its artistry or putting away childish things in the face of the homemade existential threats the slackers have warned us all about for years.

The French Dispatch is now playing in theatres, on Blu-Ray, and available for digital rental on all major platforms.

Last Night in Soho is on Blu-Ray and available for digital rental on all major platforms.

Licorice Pizza is now playing in theatres.

House of Gucci is now playing in theatres.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife is now playing in theatres and available for digital rental.