loaded question: is nostalgia out of control?

It’s a classic Onion headline: “U.S. Dept. Of Retro Warns: ‘We May Be Running Out Of Past.’” Literally classic: it’s from 25 years ago. Its prescience goes beyond the satirical: we do indeed seem to have run out of retro, because we’ve been so mired in nostalgia for the past decade that 20 years ago barely feels past. It feels impossible to be nostalgic for, say, the 14-year-old Iron Man when we’re still in the midst of an ongoing cycle of Marvel movies.

(FYI, I first referenced this bit of brilliance from the Onion a decade ago when, in January 2012, I asked: “Have we reached a point of cultural stagnation?”)

Almost all of the movies that have topped the annual US box office since 1999 has been a sequel or based on pre-existing popular IP. (One of them is a sequel — Finding Dory — to one of only two original movies in that list: Finding Nemo. The other original, Avatar, is about to spawn its own sequels.) There’s a shocking sameness to the past 20 years of popular movies that is nowhere near as evident when you look at the decades before that… but plenty of those 80s and 90s movies are also now getting revisited.

Worse than sequels and reboots dominating the movie and TV landscape is how, way too often, those sequels and reboots feel like little more than winking callbacks and in-jokes (see: Jurassic World Dominion and Obi-Wan Kenobi). These do-overs don’t advance their overarching stories: they look back rather than move forward.

So: Is nostalgia out of control?

I feel like if it is, this may be partly down to the forces that prompted last week’s Loaded Question: Is fandom out of control? One new example of the clash of out-of-control fandom and extreme nostalgia: Kim Kardashian did permanent damage to a vintage Marilyn Monroe dress she wore on the Met Gala red carpet last month.

What do you think?

ETA 06.15.22: The brilliant thinker Umair Haque, in his latest essay at Eudaimonia & Co, “Life Feels Terrible Right About Now — And It’s OK to Admit It,” has this to say that feels relevant (emphasis mine):

Maximizing misery. It seems to be what our society exists for at this point. Hey, can I exploit you, trick you, con you, get you in some way? Can I take your money? Can I take your self-esteem, your sense of meaning, your pride, can I crush your spirit, and replace it with heart-stopping dread and a feeling of being really, really small?


That’s the feeling of a downwardly mobile society, and you can literally feel it everywhere. From the way that Zoomers seem to have gone numb, as a kind of defense mechanism. To the apathy and resignation that meets politics. To the way culture is one giant escapism now, instead of a search for meaning. You can see it in the incredibly grim economic statistics, which say crazy, crazy things like “billionaires got so much richer during the pandemic they could’ve ended world hunger several times over — but everyone else is getting poorer, at light speed.”

This feels like a good explanation of why nostalgia seems to be so rampant now. Everything is awful, and doesn’t seem likely to get better, so looking forward won’t make us feel good. So all that’s left is looking back (and, by extension, looking back with rose-colored glasses).

(You can also discuss this at Substack or Patreon, if you prefer. You don’t need to be a paying subscriber to comment, but you will need to register with either site to do so.)

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Tue, Jun 14, 2022 10:09pm

I’m not sure…let me consult my Magic 8-Ball.

movie lover
Wed, Jun 15, 2022 12:07am

There’s a shocking sameness to the past 20 years of popular movies that is nowhere near as evident when you look at the decades before that

True, nostalgia wasn’t quite as bad in the 80s and 90s. I wish we could go back to those days.

movie lover
reply to  Bluejay
Wed, Jun 15, 2022 1:18am

I was going to “upvote” that joke, but it would only encourage you.

movie lover
reply to  Bluejay
Wed, Jun 15, 2022 2:27pm

Joking aside: I feel like this is a complicated question with a lot of interconnecting answers. The increasing presence and stridency of fandom is one. The laziness and greed of studios is another; it’s easier (and more of a sure profit) to make a sequel to please a pre-established fanbase than to risk putting out an untested original. But it’s not like there’s a bright dividing line between today’s era of sequels and the past decades; I grew up in the 80s and 90s, and I remember a LOT of sequels to Star Wars (including the Ewok Adventure cash grabs), Star Trek, Superman, Indiana Jones (including the Young Indiana Jones TV show), Back to the Future, Jaws, Rocky, First Blood, Piranha, Police Academy, Short Circuit, Die Hard, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Friday the 13th, Cannonball Run, and on and on. Many hit films were spun off into TV shows and cartoons too (Ghostbusters, Rambo).

On the flip side, while past decades did produce great original stories (that then went on to spawn sequels, naturally), one could argue that even in our current franchise-saturated landscape there’s still space for new, non-franchise stories to have an impact (including on streaming media): Jordan Peele’s horror films, Squid Game, Parasite, Ted Lasso, Game of Thrones, and so on. Pixar, Disney Animation, and Marvel are interesting cases to me, in that, while they certainly have established fanbases and operate within established genres, they still produce individual stories that I think should count as new. Wall-E and Inside Out are originals. Frozen, Moana, and Raya are originals. And while all live-action Marvel stories share a universe, Moon Knight and Ms. Marvel are absolutely unlike each other and are stories that haven’t been told onscreen before.

So it’s not that sameness/nostalgia isn’t (or can’t ever be) a problem, but I think it’s less cut-and-dried than might appear at first glance. There are bigger social factors to consider too; maybe nostalgia is a form of escapism, the world being what it is these days (but the world seemed terrible in the 70s and 80s too). There’s also the question of whether our stories are actually serving a different purpose, one that’s ritualistic and as old as humans are: to be touchstones that we return to again and again to give our lives structure and stability. In other contexts, we don’t see it as a bad thing to reach for the familiar: we reread books, listen to songs over and over, go to Shakespeare plays we already know front-to-back, order favorite foods and cook traditional comfort meals, attend yearly family gatherings, celebrate religious or cultural festivals — all of these essentially boiling down to doing the same thing again and again, maybe with slight variations, often with lots of other people, for a sense of continuity and community. So while, yeah, maybe nostalgia-driven sequels and franchises don’t necessarily fulfill our need for new stories and ideas, maybe they’re fulfilling a different need that’s worth paying attention to.

movie lover
Thu, Jun 16, 2022 2:31pm

On Ribbon of Memes, we’ve been running through the 1980s and 1990s, and we’ve definitely got a strong feeling of lots of sequels there too. In my mental model of big-budget film financing, there are a lot of accountants who really don’t understand creative stuff at all, but try to analyse the chances of a film’s success: it’s got this big popular star, it’s got that recognisable name, and the more of those things it has the more likely it is to get made. I think one answer is to stay clear of the big-budget films, which by their nature are going to be the most conservative form of media because they have the most money to lose.

And yes, escapism, absolutely. Governments of all stripes have moved in a more authoritarian direction, and a handy way of getting that to work in a democracy is to keep people scared: they are out there, terrorists, child molesters, whatever, so vote for the strong men who will keep you safe. And Facebook gets its ad clicks the same way, by making people scared and outraged. It’s very unhealthy for people to be in that state for months and years at a time, and it’s no surprise at all that they don’t have the emotional resources left to engage with even more hard stories.

movie lover
Thu, Jun 16, 2022 7:01pm

To the way culture is one giant escapism now, instead of a search for meaning.

I don’t know. I mean, I get what he’s saying, and he does have a point, but he’s also painting with a VERY broad brush (and assumes that one can’t find meaning in “escapist” fare — as if the sociopolitical themes in Star Wars, X-Men, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, etc, don’t resonate with their audiences). And to a certain extent this is a case of a situation that’s been around for a long time, but people complain about it as if it’s new. Haven’t we ALWAYS heard complaints about popular culture being too unserious and escapist, even when we ourselves were kids?

Here’s Gene Hackman in an interview from 1985, talking about how his latest film had to be distributed by a small independent studio…

“because everyone else passed. (Studio executives) perceived it as a picture whose upside (how much money it could eventually make) is not that high. It’s too much bother for them even if it does make it. They’re all brainwashed with big Ghostbusters and Spielberg kind of pictures. That’s why you can’t get a small picture made anymore.” Hackman ventures a theory as to why Hollywood shies away from these films. “I think because they’re so chancy. Everybody wants the blowout film that makes $150 to $200 million, like Star Wars, that kids return to again and again…”

And here are choice quotes from a CS Monitor article from 1984:

Our current binge of escapism and introspection marks another such period, say Cagin and Dray, as new video systems make inroads on theater attendance. Also important is a deeper, but related, phenomenon: the fragmentation of American society in recent years. I agree with this view. Although the authors don’t pursue their argument quite this far, it seems logical that the self-obsessed ”me generation” should find its way to a technological boom centered on private, homebound entertainments. Cable-wired TV sets, video games, and cassette movies are enormously different – culturally and psychologically – from a social, community-related activity like traveling to a neighborhood movie house. Theatrical films are still a going enterprise. But they are expensive and must promise to attract sizable audiences if they are to be made and distributed. Hence the flight away from risky projects, unsettling subjects, and controversial comments… The blame for today’s movie blandness goes partly to the habits and mind-sets of viewers. And it also goes to the latest generation of filmmakers. Though steeped in film-school education and technical adventurism, many are so limited in outlook that their movies aren’t about life, but about other movies, fondly remembered and relentlessly rehashed.

And yet this is an era we remember as one of creativity and originality! “Culture today is worse than the culture I grew up with” is an eternal, eternal argument. :-)

last edited 12 days ago by Bluejay