Nostalgic For Nostalgia
February 22, 2011
From Kane to Crystal Skulls, And Beyond the Post Modern
A few years ago at Korea’s Pusan film festival, painter-turned-curmudgeon Peter Greenaway declared cinema officially deceased. Time of death: September 31, 1983, the result of “remote control zappers” being introduced to living rooms across the globe. “Cinema is [still] predicated on the 19th-Century novel,” Greenaway lamented.[i]
The Prototype: Faceless Inquirer reporter Jerry Thompson wanders the long corridors of a vast warehouse, his search for “Rosebud” having come to an anti-climactic end. Massive stacks of crates sprawl towards an impossible vanishing point. They disappear into stygian obscurity faster than they can be counted thanks to the cinematic trickery of an elegant matte painting.
The Parody: Forty years later, Indiana Jones stashes the Arc of the Covenant in an equally vast warehouse for safekeeping. Though the MacGuffin has changed, the matte painting is virtually identical. Steven Spielberg has conjured the ghost of Orson Welles, visually equating Kane’s fate with the fate of the world. In true postmodern fashion, Spielberg imitates “dead styles, [and speaks] through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum… the imprisonment of the past.”[ii] Rather than attempting to create an aesthetic representation of his current (1981) experience, Spielberg falls back upon a forty-year-old image to conclude his film. The parody is charmingly ironic given the subject matter—Jones has quashed the potential threat of a tangible historical relic and the world is once again safe because we have locked up history and forgotten about it.
The Problem: Thirty years later the warehouse lights flicker on once again. A crowbar pries open a large crate, clumps of excelsior brushed aside. Within: The corpse of the Roswell Alien, and the start of a new adventure for our intrepid archeologist. The act of unearthing the mythic, extraterrestrial relic evokes the resurrection of the Jones series itself, the lore and mythology of which is similarly steeped in America’s consciousness. One need only mention the word “Roswell” to evoke images of aliens and government conspiracy, just as the sight of a dusty brown fedora screams “Indy”. .Boasting a familiar structure and recognizable faces, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull attempts to pick up where the original series left off. But the overwhelming consensus is that the film scarcely glimpses the artistic success of its predecessors. Aesthetic considerations have changed, yet we are still in the same damned warehouse!
While I would consider Citizen Kane’s technical execution to be modern, the fountainhead of a plethora of groundbreaking cinematic techniques that have since been canonized and subverted, the title character is perhaps the first postmodern man on film. Devoid of personal identity, Kane is unable to focus on his own present because he lacks the ability to formulate an aesthetic representation of his own experience. His life is pastiche. He is an obsessive collector of things past. He builds Xanadu, a gaudy monument to history, the grotesque architectural mishmash of one hundred different styles that he does not understand. “Twenty-five thousand bucks [is] a lot of money to pay for a dame without a head,” says a cynical reporter in reference to one of Kane’s numerous Venuses, a fragmented historical cliché purchased by Kane for no particularly personal reason. He is “condemned to seek the historical past through [his] own pop images and stereotypes about the past, which itself remains forever out of reach.”[iv] Kane’s narrative follows in suit. The viewer cannot connect with Kane’s past anymore than Kane could. In a Rashomon-like fashion, the viewer is subjected to numerous conflicting accounts of Kane’s life from a variety of Mercurial characters, ultimately learning nothing in the process. The sled is a red herring; we gain no insight into Kane’s history by watching it burn. It is a stereotype of the past, like a headless Venus, forever out of reach.
In his essay, Postermodernism and Consumer Society, Frederic Jameson states that nobody has a “unique private world and style to express any longer… [because] only a limited number of combinations are possible.”[v] The concept of unique self-expression no longer exists (or perhaps such autonomy never did) and as a result, artists and writers no longer have a clear objective. There exists now in Hollywood an overwhelming sense of loss. We have become nostalgic for nostalgia, mining the past because, like Kane, we are incapable of achieving aesthetic representations of our current experience. This is not news; Jameson notes that it is precisely the self-consciousness of this process that comprises the shift from modern to postmodern, the birth of a new realism sprung from “the shock of grasping that confinement.”[vi] The new difficulty lies in the fact that this “shock” has now become canonized like all of the modern movements before it. Imagine the Kane/Jones warehouse as a film vault, and within each crate are rolls of 35mm, and on each roll is an image of the film vault, and so on into infinity like an Escher etching.
The shocking discovery that there are no new stories initiated a new mode of aesthetic representation, which has since become an old story. Society is desperately grasping at canonized remnants of an illusory past because the current horizon is unclear. One need only consider the unfortunate “remake phenomenon” that has swept cinemas over the last decade. Hollywood has become obsessed with regaining something lost. Take, for example, the creative failure of the much-anticipated Star Wars Episodes 1-3. Lucas followed his previously successful formula to the letter: A space age Saturday afternoon serial updated for present-day viewers via state-of-the-art special effects technology.
Technical advances in special effects cannot be overlooked. The matte paintings, miniatures, and analog opticals of the original series by no means feel ‘real’ by today’s standards. If the new episodes of Star Wars and Jones employed such creaky technical methods, a modern audience would be unlikely to suspend their disbelief in favor of old-school charm. Yet the injection of CG technology into both franchises has proved equally unpalatable and feels like an aesthetic violation. The world collectively cringed at a karate-chopping Yoda, and watched in silent horror as silicone simians leaped from tree to tree alongside Shia LeBeouf. The resulting paradox suggests that Lucas and Spielberg should have left well enough alone.
Beyond technical considerations, one might reason that the new Star Wars and Indiana Jones installments failed simply because the characteristic art objects of the long-extinct serials that the franchises sought to re-invent no longer resonate nostalgically with today’s audience. No one under the age of forty remembers Flash Gordon. Why then do the original movies still satisfy people of the new generation, born long after Luke detonated the Death Star for the first time and Indiana Jones unleashed the wrath of God?
As society becomes increasingly fragmented, we look evermore towards the media to tell us what we have in common. Eventually, all we have in common is the media. And the discovery of media’s limitations, the death of the subject and the potential canonization (and subsequent obsolescence) of postmodern nostalgia, indicates a terrifying sense of isolation. It is not difficult to imagine this isolation spawning a kind of psychosis in which, like a nightmare vision of artificially intelligent machines, we are all driven mad by excessive self-knowledge of our own construction.
Perhaps a solution lies in forgetting. We might collectively assent to regress, to press a mental reset button and transpose ourselves back to a time when the essence of art need not be concerned with its necessary failure. We might become like the child who demands to be read a favorite storybook over and over, each time riveted by the same passages and terrified by the same pictures as if it were the first. And do it all again.
[i] Clifford Coonan, Peter Greenaway Says Cinema Is Dead, http://www.variety.com/index.asp?layout=festivals&jump=story&id=1061&articleid=VR1117973711&cs=1 (Oct. 2007).
[ii] Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” The Continental Aesthetics Reader, ed. Clive Cazeaux (New York, NY: Routledge, 2000) 286.
[iv] Jameson, 287.
[v] Jameson, 285.
[vi] Jameson, 287.