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Hollywood’s Retro-Fueled Nostalgia Trip

27 Feb, 2012 By: John Latchem

Tick, Tock, Turn Back the Clock …

Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, which just won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, tells the story of a young artist who finds himself entranced by the romanticized atmosphere of France in the early 20th century. I can’t think of a better microcosm for Hollywood in the past year.

Let’s begin with last night’s Academy Awards ceremony, which in addition to Allen’s award bestowed 10 trophies upon two films built around French silent films.

Voters swooned around The Artist, a French film from a creative team previously best known in America for a pair of James Bond spoofs (among those who knew them at all, that is). Jean Dujardin, a superstar in his native land, plays a silent film star who finds himself unable to adapt to the advent of talkies. Does its win for Best Picture constitute a vote of protest from Hollywood in the face of its own struggles to adapt to an evolving medium? In this case, of course, it’s the plethora of new filmmaking technologies that seem to have democratized the industry, putting less emphasis on the traditional movie star and forcing studios to turn to new gimmicks such as 3D. And that’s not to mention the evolving home entertainment sphere, with the struggle between Blu-ray and digital delivery as the future platform of choice for the theatrical aftermarket.

In embracing the past, the Academy chose a silent movie for the first time since Wings was given the top prize at the inaugural ceremony in 1929. (Coincidentally, Wings was recently released on DVD and Blu-ray for the first time by Paramount.) It’s also the first Best Picture winner to be produced in the classic 4:3 ratio since 1955’s Marty. If not for Schindler’s List in 1993, it would be the first predominantly black-and-white film to win since 1960’s The Apartment. Take that, modern cinema!

On the other end of the scale is Hugo, which celebrates the past with thoroughly modern production values and dazzling use of the 3D form. Martin Scorsese paints a loving tribute to the spirit of artistry found in early silent films, particularly those of French film pioneer Georges Méliès. To celebrate how much cinema has evolved since those early days, Scorsese even converted some of Méliès’ most famous scenes into 3D. Take that, classic cinema!

What Scorsese’s film glosses over is how Méliès was ruined by rampant piracy and his own inability to adapt to the emerging business models of his new industry, which came to be dominated by Thomas Edison and his Machiavellian alliances to control most distribution channels. Instead, the film blames a changing cultural climate following World War I for Méliès’ downfall, as audiences supposedly turned their backs on anything “fun.”

Hopefully, modern Hollywood will not be so similarly oblivious to its own shortfalls.

But, it seems, in these cynical times, Hollywood is pining for a return to a simpler era of creative achievement unburdened by commercialism, when art for art’s sake was enough of an accomplishment. After all, it’s a lot easier to blame the audience when things don’t work out.

Hugo and The Artist haven’t exactly scored at the box office, but that doesn’t mean nostalgia doesn’t sell. Of the top 12 films of 2011, 10 were sequels and two were based on comic books. And both of those, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, are entries in the Marvel Films series that tie into the upcoming The Avengers.

Even looking at the top 25, most have some sort of nostalgic kick to them. One of the central themes of Bridesmaids (No. 14), for example, deals with how friends can find themselves drifting apart despite trying to hold onto what made that friendship work to begin with. And Super 8 (No. 21) is just an homage to Spielberg films of the 1970s and 1980s, with its own subplots of characters having to let go of the past.

And let’s not overlook The Muppets, which may be the ultimate nostalgia trip, as it reminisces about earlier “Muppet” movies as its characters try to re-create an episode of “The Muppet Show.” (Half the dialogue, it seems, is some variation of “I loved you guys when I was a kid.”)

And therein can be found the dichotomy in which Hollywood finds itself: a gap between artists who don’t want to be judged by an audience that prefers the safety of familiarity in the absence of fresh ideas, with the studios caught in the middle, facing a changing technological landscape that makes it that much harder to monetize their product.

If everyone is living in the past, is anyone looking toward the future?

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