Nostalgia is inextricable from culture. The remembering of art is almost as important as the art itself. And among all this remembering is the inevitable feeling that the art from eras past is better than today’s art. This issue was distilled in Woody Allen’s delightful “Midnight in Paris,” that seemingly ubiquitous summer release: When you realize the people from the eras you romanticize were nostalgic for earlier eras, your nostalgia seems fatuous.
With all the detritus coming out of Hollywood now, it’s easy to say movies are worse than they’ve ever been. But this position loses credibility considering that, throughout the history of movies, critics have thought the films coming out during their time have also been the worst ever. To take one example, in 1980 the famed and contentious critic Pauline Kael wrote an essay entitled, “Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, The Numbers.” This was the year that produced such classics as “Raging Bull,” “The Shining” and “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back.”
The simple answer is that Hollywood has always, and almost exclusively, made bad movies. With rare exceptions, Hollywood has always trafficked in the banal, the derivative and the conventional. For years, the film industry was saturated with formulaic Westerns with the same plots and archetypal characters. From this quagmire of filmic chaff, only the cream of the Western crop has survived and been canonized, which skews our perception of the actual quality of the majority of these films and fuels our nostalgia for them. The ’30s screwball comedies of which I am a fervent and unashamed fan largely follow the same formula — most of them were mediocre.
The recent abundance of sequels is often cited as a sign of the decreasing quality of movies. However, while more common now, sequels have been made since the early days of Hollywood. “The Thin Man,” a brilliant film from 1934 starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, was followed by five forgettable and increasingly tepid sequels. Film franchises are seen as unimaginative and cynical, a sign of the film industry’s increasing avariciousness, but they are not a recent invention.
Much has been made by critics (myself included) about the recent rash of remakes in Hollywood. “Footloose,” “The Thing” and “The Three Musketeers” came out in the same two-week period. But again, Hollywood has been remaking movies for years: “Scarface” (1983) is a remake of a 1932 film by Howard Hawks, director Leo McCarey remade his own 1939 film “Love Affair” in 1957 as “An Affair to Remember,” “The Magnificent Seven” (1960) is a remake of the famed Japanese film “Seven Samurai” (1954) by Akira Kurosawa and “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964) is a remake of another Kurosawa film, “Yojimbo” (1961). Though the number of remakes has increased in recent years, this is mostly due to the increasing wealth of material to remake, rather than any declination in Hollywood’s principles.
So the current lack of quality in Hollywood movies, the sequels and the remakes, are part of the definition of the film industry. The reason the past always seems richer in artistic quality is that only the great movies are remembered. The trick is to find those great movies in our own time. Just as Pauline Kael overlooked “The Shining” and “Raging Bull,” we may be overlooking some great films in getting bogged down with nostalgia.
That’s because there are great movies being made now, movies that can measure up to the canonized classics, and will become canonized classics. Among the miasma of mainstream movies are brilliant films like “A Serious Man” by the Coen Brothers or Pixar’s “Wall-E” — movies that will be remembered alongside the greats. Also under-appreciated are Mike Leigh’s “Another Year,” Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere” and Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg,” three beautiful films that didn’t get their due attention but are just about as good as movies get, in any era.
This is not to mention films being made overseas — in Korea, the wealth of cinematic creativity is flourishing unlike anywhere else. Directors like Park Chan-wook (“Thirst”), Bong Joon-ho (“The Host”) and Kim Ki-Duk (“3 Iron”) are making films of unsurpassable originality and vigor. The imagination of these filmmakers pushes film to its limits, and their movies represent the present standard in the world of cinema.
These are the films that will be regarded as classics in the future. Romanticizing a past era, or disparaging the current one, distracts from the great art of the present. If we appreciate the great films of our own time, we won’t have to be nostalgic for them in the future.