The Age of Imitation: A Primer of New American Nostalgia, 2007-2017

“…the more it’s around […] the more I feel like that it doesn’t work anymore…now that nostalgia is everywhere, now that the past never goes away, you don’t have the chance to be nostalgic for it.”

-Katey Rich, Fighting in the War Room, January 2015

“We get it, you’ve watched a bunch of movies. Congratulations, dick.”

-Easton Dubois’ MUBI comment on Grindhouse, July 2011

Numerous films produced in the last ten years have intentionally imitated genre films popular in the 1980s. These films range from mere surface imitations to works of intentional homage to works that use nostalgia as a platform for narratives that seem to exist ‘outside’ of time. To disclose, the title of this essay is a variation on L’Ère du soupçon (“The Age of Suspicion”) an essay by Nathalie Sarraute from 1956. Sarraute, who in the 1950s originated the nouveau roman (‘new novel,’ or ‘anti-novel’), describes in The Age of Suspicion an “immeasurably expanded present” in fiction. Conscious imitation of the past in the present thus represents an ‘absence’ of time. These films, which I will call ‘New American Nostalgia,’ are in a unique position with regard to how a certain generation of filmmakers and audiences engage in nostalgia for the 1980s. The way in which this generation engages in it differs dramatically from how previous generations did.

Nostalgia takes many forms, so I will focus on films that attempt to immerse the viewer in an experience comparable what one might have had while watching genre films in the 1980s, rather than on films that merely recreate the 1980s. An example of the latter would be the show Stranger Things. The first scene of Stranger Things takes place in a rec room basement. In the background, the viewer can see a theatrical one-sheet for John Carpenter’s The Thing  (1982) on the wall. The function of this poster is twofold: First to indicate to the viewer quickly (together with the clothing and furniture) that the story is set in the early-to-mid-1980s, and second to inform the viewer of the filmmakers’ awareness of The Thing‘s popularity and influence through the late 2010s, despite being a financial disappointment and being reviewed negatively when it was originally released in the summer of 1982. In other words, it is far more likely that the poster signifies the show’s creators’ admiration for The Thing in the 2010s than it does the show’s characters’ admiration for The Thing in the 1980s. Because of this (and other reasons), I would qualify a scene such as this as a ‘non-immersive’ experience. The appearance of the poster represents a ‘revisionist’ history of sorts on the part of the filmmakers, and carries with it over three decades of discovery and rediscovery on home video and television airings (I first saw it on a late night airing sometime in the late 1980s), development of a devoted following, and reassessment by critics. The presence of the poster in the scene speaks more to the popularity of Carpenter’s film in the present than it does to its mere existence in the past, and reveals more about our desire to reimagine popular culture than it does about popular culture as it actually was.

A phrase such as ‘New American Nostalgia’ takes its cue from James Quandt’s now largely maligned but essential essay “Flesh and Blood: Sex and Violence in Recent French Cinema” which first appeared in Artforum in 2004. This article coined the phrase ‘New French Extremity,’ which was at the time a disparaging remark made by Quandt on the state of French cinema. Yet it has come to be known as a shorthand term when referring to certain violent and often subversive films produced in France at the turn of the millennium (regardless of whether or not one’s opinion of those films is positive of negative). What I propose is the phrase ‘New American Nostalgia,’ which, unlike Quandt’s original intention with his phrase, one might use without regard to one’s opinion of those films.

New American Nostalgia is a trend that has come and will eventually go, since trends (or as cinephiles prefer, ‘waves’) are by definition short-lived. They are also not specific to any time or place: American westerns and musicals in the 1950s, European giallo films in the 1970s, French cinema-du-look and American slasher films in the 1980s, Japanese horror resurgence and New French Extremity in the late 1990s, and American ‘found footage’ horror in the 2000s are a few examples. New American Nostalgia coincides, roughly, with a similar trend that exists in Europe: Cattet and Forzani’s Amer (2009) and L’étrange couleur des larmes de ton corps (2013), Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (2012) and The Duke of Burgundy (2014), Basset’s Horsehead (2014), and others either emulate or take aesthetic cues from the European fantastique tradition begun by Vadim, Bava, and others.

However, by contrast, New American Nostalgia is woven through with the sale and purchase of nostalgia itself, the kind David Brooks describes in his 2000 book Bobos in Paradise. In that book, Brooks proposes that a new liberal elite emerged in the late 1970s that combined capitalist enterprise with 1960s counterculture, resulting in subsequent generations of consumers being sold products that were popular with previous generations. An example of this would be the Volkswagen New Beetle, which was introduced in 1997 and discontinued in 2011. Consumers who drove the VW Beetle throughout the 1960s eventually became executives of companies such as Volkswagen in the following decades, and developed an ‘homage’ to the decade in which they came of age by re-branding a cultural staple.

While homage itself isn’t new, it depends largely on Derrida’s ‘always already absent present’ -the notion that what constitutes the present is by necessity comprised of elements (a ‘spectre’) of the past. Thus a work of fiction recalling the past cannot carry out the author’s intention without the viewer having some knowledge of that past. For decades, homage has been a platform for some of the most successful American films. George Lucas made his fortune on works of nostalgia for pulp fiction of the 1930s: Star Wars (1977) cannibalizes Flash Gordon serials while Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) cannibalizes Republic serials.

No discussion about New American Nostalgia is possible without acknowledging Quentin Tarantino. There are dozens of things one could say about Tarantino, but for better or for worse he is largely responsible for mainstreaming this kind of film with North American audiences. Tarantino’s films had always been works of pastiche, cannibalizing story elements from -to use Peter Strickland’s word- ‘disreputable’ (or at least minor) genres that no longer exist: the yellow novel, blaxploitation, wu xia, westerns, and so on. The implicit acknowledgement of Derrida’s ‘always already absent present’ begins, arguably, with the ‘double feature’ of Grindhouse in 2007 in that it was an attempt to ‘recreate’ the viewing experience of a double feature of disreputable genre films -fake previews, old filming formats, etc. This desire to recreate a mid-century viewing experience reaches its apex with his 2015 western The Hateful Eight, the production and promotional campaign for which relied heavily on a gimmick: The film was shot in Ultra Panavision 70-millimeter film and was to be screened in a limited number of theaters retrofitted with anamorphic projectors for a 2.76:1 aspect ratio, a process that had not been done since 1966. Superficially, Tarantino is also responsible for the notion of stunt casting and for retrofitting certain technical elements found in a film -primarily cinematography, typography, and music.

Nostalgia specific to the 1980s doesn’t account for the countless films made since the late 2000s that have functioned as an homage of a kind to genre films from the 1960s and 1970s. Anna Biller’s Viva (2007) and The Love Witch (2016) recall European sexploitation films such as Camille 2000 (1969) and midcentury studio comedies such as Bell Book and Candle (1958), respectively. Ted Geoghegan’s We Are Still Here (2015) cannibalizes Fulci’s ‘gates of hell’ films from the 1970s. Mickey Keating’s Darling (2015) is a composite of Polanski’s Repulsion (1967) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth (2015) and Sophie Takal’s Always Shine (2016) have narrative and stylistic precedents in Bergman’s Persona (1966), Altman’s ‘dream’ films from the 1970s, Hancock’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1973) and Paulsen’s Savage Weekend (1979).

What, then, distinguishes nostalgia specific to the 1980s? There are unique differences between the generation of filmmakers that produced Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark and the generation that produced House of the Devil and It Follows. The latter generation is the last to grow up watching films on videocassette and the last to know what life in North America was like before the arrival of the internet, which allowed unprecedented and practically unlimited access to films not available anywhere on magnetic tape or disc. Before this, viewers were limited to watching films via physical media: film projected on a screen in a cinema or VHS. It is also the first to experience ubiquitous use of DSLR -which throughout the 2000s largely supplanted physical reel film as the medium of choice among filmmakers in the US. Nostalgia for the 1980s is also rooted in the arrival of DVD in the late 1990s, a medium that eventually rendered VHS obsolete (the last videocassette was produced in 2004). Despite this, VHS currently has a status among enthusiasts comparable to that of vinyl records. An element of pageantry is inevitable under a business model that re-brands nostalgic objects such as Volkswagen Beetles and vinyl records, and distributors have re-branded VHS cassettes for niche markets under the guise of nostalgic pageantry.  In 2010, Magnetic Releasing Films sent VHS promotional screeners of House of the Devil to journalists. On April Fool’s Day in 2015, Vultra Video, a Syracuse-based video distributor, posted a fake advertisement for a limited edition VHS release of It Follows.

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Magnet Releasing Film’s VHS screener for House of the Devil.
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Vultra Video’s Fake April Fool’s Day advertisement for a VHS cassette of It Follows.

While certain films may not intend to ‘recreate’ the 1980s genre film, they contain specific design motifs that recall the 1980s genre film. Motifs such as typography and music function as a mnemonic ‘shorthand’ of the past in this case. They appear briefly and register quickly for the viewer, standing in for a larger image world. Adam Wingard’s The Guest (2014) features a character who creates a mix CD comprised largely of songs from the mid 1980s, including tracks by Love and Rockets and Clan of Xymox. The end titles of The Guest are comprised of the Albertus typeface, which John Carpenter has used in all of his films beginning in 1982 with The Thing. The end titles of Kolsch and Widmyer’s Starry Eyes (2014) are comprised of the typeface ITC Benguiat, created by Ed Benguiat in 1978 and appearing in numerous media targeted at young children throughout the 1980s. Both typefaces seem designed to recall popular culture of that decade.

itc benguiat choose your own adventure
ITC Benguiat in The Cave of Time (Edward Packard, 1979)
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ITC Benguiat in Starry Eyes (Kolsch and Widmyer, 2014)

Going further than surface design, certain films adopt entire narrative and stylistic schemes popular in 1980s genre films. Not only does Ti West’s House of the Devil (2009) feature typography and diegetic music from the 1980s, it is set in 1983. The film gives careful attention to visual culture -articles of clothing, hairstyles, decor, objects ranging from wax cups to rotary phones, etc.- from the first half of that decade. Keeping Derrida’s always already-absent present in mind, the viewer will notice that the image world depicted and implied is not exclusive to the year 1983, but is the culmination of all years leading up to 1983, or at least stylistic precedents from the previous decade. Consider the character of Megan (Greta Gerwig), who in the film exists as a college student in 1983, but whose baseball shirt and teased hair suggest those of Farrah Fawcett, who appeared on Charlie’s Angels from 1976 to 1981. In other words, the production design is not predicated on the idea that everyone in North America woke up the morning of January 1, 1981 and decided that the visual culture would immediately change and suddenly ‘look like the 1980s.’ Noticeable stylistic change is gradual. One might compare West’s film to J.J. Abram’s Super 8 (2011), which is in several ways its opposite in that it goes to great lengths to remind the viewer that the film takes place in ‘the late 1970s’ with little regard for any popular or visual culture that existed before that time: Coca-Cola’s ‘Have a Coke and a Smile’ campaign, the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown in March 1979, no popular music released before 1976 on the soundtrack, and so on.

FARRAH FAWCETT-MAJORS
ABC Network publicity photo of Farrah Fawcett, January 1976.
greta
Greta Gerwig in a simulacrum of December 1983 in House of the Devil (Ti West, 2009).

Going beyond the adoption of entire narrative and stylistic schemes, certain films use those schemes as a platform for modernist genre cinema. David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2014) is such a film. Mitchell’s film forges new imagery and narrative out of Derrida’s spectre of the past. While the titular ‘it’ that follows the protagonists is not unlike the shape in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) or the robot in James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984), Mitchell’s antagonist becomes an allegorical signifier for the protagonists’ own aging and dying -bolstered by literary references to Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot and Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and not dissimilar to the medieval allegory of Death and the Maiden. While the image world of It Follows is distilled in part from photography by Gregory Crewdson and the mid-1980s pastels of Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Mitchell’s film also complicates its temporal setting by placing furniture and technology from the 1980s -such as cathode ray  televisions and rotary telephones- with articles of that are contemporary to the time of the film’s making and even imagined technology. An example would be the film’s imagined ‘clamshell’ electronic reader device used by Yara to read The Idiot.

Further, while the color schemes of Jackson Stewart’s Beyond the Gates (2016) mimic those of Gordon’s From Beyond (1987), and while its narrative recalls that of Takacs’ The Gate (1987) and is bookended in a manner similar to Barker’s Hellraiser (1987), the film conflates nostalgia for the 1980s horror film with a particular tactile experience of watching a film -specifically watching films in one’s house on videocassette. The narrative of Stewart’s film has to do with the two sons of the owner of a video rental shop, and the opening credits are shown over the spools inside a VHS cassette player. Like It Follows, however, Beyond the Gates is set in an undisclosed time -characters reminisce about VHS and VHS board games (distinctive to the late 1980s and early 1990s), though the film does not have much regard for modernity vis-a-vis the reminiscence of VHS itself. The film is set in what appears to be the ‘present,’ yet the narrative proceeds according to the trappings of an 1980s genre film due the always-present past in the form of a videocassette.

from beyond pastels
From Beyond (Stuart Gordon, 1987)
beyond the gates pastels
Beyond the Gates (Jackson Stewart, 2016)

In creating image worlds that exist ‘outside of time,’ Mitchell and Stewart not only acknowledge the spectre of the past that never goes away, but distill new narratives from it. This is not unlike what Edmund Burke implied in his 1757 treatise A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful regarding likeness and newness: “When two distinct objects are unlike to each other, it is only what we expect. Things are in their common way, and therefore they make no impression on the imagination. But when two distinct objects have a resemblance, we are struck, we attend to them, and we are pleased. The mind of man has naturally a far greater alacrity and satisfaction in tracing resemblances than in searching for differences, because by making resemblances we produce new images…”

While filmmakers and viewers can play stylistic match games to no end, the ‘immersive’ experience is in part predicated on simulacrum -the difference between merely reimagining events from the past, as Super 8 or Stranger Things do, and recalling experiences from the past, as House of the Devil or The Love Witch do. House of the Devil and Biller’s films are shot on 16- or 35-millimeter film. With DSLR having supplanted photographic film and with the arrival or high definition video television in the last twenty years, cinema and television practically resemble each other a majority of the time. Since very few feature films are now shot on film, one could see the nostalgia of Biller’s films or House of the Devil as a means of parsing and distinguishing film from television, given the increased viewership of television, greater use of streaming services, and drops in North American box office every two to three years since 2005 (yearly box office totals for the United States increased steadily from 1992 to 2004, and have either dropped or remained stagnant ever since). In this sense, New American Nostalgia is not dissimilar to the introduction of wider aspect ratios for cinema in the 1950s, which was done in order to compete with television. Surprisingly, the number of feature films that are shot on 35mm each year is increasing -from about 40 in 2014 to 64 in 2015, though these are mostly shot by an older generation of loyalists.

Watching Beyond the Gates, however, is not the same experience as watching The Gate or From Beyond.  I remember seeing The Gate at a multiplex in eastern Pennsylvania in 1987 and watching From Beyond sometime in the mid-1990s on VHS, which are two experiences distinct from the viewing experience in 2017 -on both the front and back end. The viewer does not see events that occurred on the set and were photographed in the 1980s, merely a simulation comprised of props, photography and music. Screening House of the Devil on a DCP projector in a theater with stadium seating and surround sound derails attempts at recreating the experience of seeing a film in the 1980s.