Nostalgia just ain’t what it used to be.
When the poster for American Graffiti (1973) asked the question “Where were you in ’62?” it was marketing a trend, spiked by the increasing popularity of the theatrical musical Grease, for audiences of a certain age to look backward to a time when life wasn’t ostensibly so complicated, when your life was still out there waiting to be lived, to a time when America hadn’t yet “lost its innocence.” The demarcation point for that alleged loss is often assigned to the upheaval of grief and national confusion experienced in the wake of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963, so it was no accident that the setting for American Graffiti’s night of cruising, romancing and soul-searching was placed a little over a year before that cataclysmic event. The interesting thing about Graffiti was the aggressiveness with which that nostalgia for that “simpler time” was sold. It may well be that generations before had pined for the days of their youth, but baby boomers were probably the first to have that longing packaged into pop culture, ready to be consumed.
The marketing for Graffiti itself now looks a little on the quaint side, sans the relentless of the multimillion-dollar campaigns routinely unleashed by studios these days. Promotion of the movie rode primarily on savvy marketing to theaters and, most of all, a hit soundtrack album packed with ‘50s and ‘60s doo-wop and rock ‘n’ roll, stitched together aurally with bits of dialogue and the howling of Wolfman Jack, the movie’s mysterious presence on the airwaves. The album even came with liner notes which touted the movie’s significance both as a work of cinema and as generational experience. And the whole campaign was so effective that when the movie played at the local drive-in in my hometown it sold out an unprecedented seven-day engagement (most movies ran a maximum of four). All my friends, teenagers in the early ‘70s when the movie came out but who were only three or four years old during the time in which American Graffiti is set, loved the movie’s freewheeling attitude and we hastily adopted small-town cruising as a social model for extracurricular fun. Admittedly, the loss of Kennedy didn’t hit we who were still in diapers when the shots rang out in Dallas as much more than a bittersweet postscript, but I’d wager for most of us the movie, even though crafted as a look backward, felt more like one that was about facing possibilities than telegraphing tragedy.
Near the end of the ‘70s director Philip Kaufman adapted Richard Price’s first novel, The Wanderers, which dramatized the same time period as Graffiti, only from the grittier, more racially volatile perspective of gangs in the Bronx. But whereas George Lucas’s movie may have benefited from its relatively narrow focus (one night, one group of friends), Kaufman never figured out how to cohere Price’s episodic structure, and the resulting film, despite some beautiful directed sequences (there’s a sublimely comedic strip poker scene about halfway through that is one for the ages), is tonally all over the map, moving through fits and starts, thin characterizations and inexplicable mood swings. The resonant connective tissue that might have bound the movie’s broad takes on racism, sexism and the boorish fraternal bonds among the central gangs in the story feels like it has gone missing, and consequently the obligatory cultural signposts which provide the movie’s bittersweet coda— the Kennedy assassination, and then a stumbling upon Bob Dylan singing “The Times They Are A-Changin’” in a coffeehouse— has power but also feels more forced than genuinely resonant.
By the time The Wanderers was released to a largely indifferent marketplace in 1979 the commodification of nostalgia that Graffiti capitalized on had already given rise to the popularity of groups like Sha-Na-Na and TV shows like Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, which harkened back to “the good old days” with barely a notion of the social upheaval and strife that characterized the strongest moments of The Wanderers even more than the pop music and fashions did. Grease would also have already had the relatively raw complexities of its original incarnation buffed away on the journey to Broadway and its hit 1978 movie version. And that sort of homogenized cultural commodification, looking back from a generation’s distance with very selective vision at recent decades past, is still a very active template. It’s now practically hard-wired into the way American movies approach social and pop culture history, the phenomenon on the ‘80s-centric Stranger Things being but only one recent example.
But wherever that line of demarcation is drawn— at the quiz show scandals of the ‘50s, the assassinations of the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers and Malcolm X, the Vietnam War, the Charles Whitman shootings at the University of Texas, the massacre at Kent State, or somewhere else-- all that business about America’s “loss of innocence” should be troublesome to anyone who has any awareness of history, either in a national or a cinematic sense. It’s hard to imagine anyone who knows anything about the history of slavery in this country, or the horrifically desperate times endured by Americans during the economic collapse of the Great Depression from 1929-1939, or the internment of Japanese-Americans in camps during World War II, to mention only three examples, even entertaining the notion that America ever had much in the way of innocence to lose. Take a look at any juicy example of pre-code Hollywood moviemaking (1933’s Baby Face, for example) and ask yourself just how innocent the country seemed. Yet despite the plentitude of evidence to suggest that Hollywood films of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s routinely ignored by omission matters of race in American society or, worse, gave ugly or otherwise embarrassing glimpses into the reality of racial division, they could also be trenchantly, sometimes even subversively observant when it came to poverty and other aspects of (white) social reality.
Recently, partially as a respite from the nonstop barrage of depressing news coming out of my TV, radio and phone, I sat down in front of a sparkling HD print (transfer? restoration? unsure of the proper terminology here) of Gold Diggers of 1933 recently procured by my DVR from Turner Classic Movies. My current interest in/hunger for anything Busby Berkeley had been tweaked by the taste I’d indulged on New Year’s Eve via the compilation doc That's Dancing! (1985), and as I hadn’t seen GD33 in perhaps 30 years I eagerly settled in for some kaleidoscopically choreographed escapist fun. And as I watched it I began to really understand something about the entertainment of the day that had always been somewhat academic before—the reality that audiences in the ‘30s used to flock to extravagant spectacles like this as a way of taking a 90-minute retreat from the oppressive reality they faced the other 1350 minutes of the day, in exactly the same way Gold Diggers of 1933 was functioning for me in that very moment.
Yet for being an ostensible bit of fluff, the movie is still surprising in the way it jumbles fantasy with sobering social consciousness right out of the gate. Berkeley kicks off the movie with a staging of “We’re in the Money,” featuring a young and sassy Ginger Rogers knocking out the tune amid images of glittering lucre and the usual lavish extravagance of a typical Berkeley production number. Two minutes in and audiences are immediately reminded of the movie’s historical context, situated as it was four years into the approximately ten-year run of the Great Depression, and that teeming coffers of cash were the last thing people who came to see this picture in 1933 had at their disposal. Those folks wouldn’t have needed reminding of their dire straits, of course, and that’s one of the things that’s bold and striking about this “frivolous” entertainment, that it openly acknowledges and engages with the troubles of the world while managing to conjure a sublime and comforting bubble of escapism at the same time. (This thematic refusal to shy away from real life is, of course, a hallmark of Berkeley’s work across the board.)
That the movie ends not with optimistic affirmation and a neat tying-up of the its various romantic entanglements, but instead with its Broadway show’s big finale, “The Forgotten Man,” a spectacle dedicated to the dirt-scratching trials of a citizenry, faithful in the previous war, but bedeviled and ignored and brought down by economic disaster, might be even more remarkable. The number is powerful, of course, weightier than the content of the rest of the show staged by the cranky producer played by sourpuss nonpareil Ned Sparks, and it amounts to a curiously solemn note on which to wrap up such an otherwise effervescent picture, one that was hardly likely to have inspired much happy whistling as audiences headed out the doors from the theater lobby and back to their considerably less sparkling lives.
Even so, in presumably much the same way as audiences in 1933 must have embraced it, I somehow found encouragement to be taken from seeing Gold Diggers of 1933 which went beyond the emotional bump to be gleaned from its glittering charm, sassy performances and eye-popping staging, and this at a time when we’re not four years into a national crisis but, relatively speaking, more like four minutes into one. Busby Berkeley’s audiences, who would soon enough face the specter of Hitler once they got some dough back in their pockets, somehow managed to appreciate a dose of social reality mixed in with their singing-and-dancing fantasias. It was a sobering and heartening realization that the appeal of Gold Diggers of 1933 could and did go beyond simple longing for days when times (if you believed most movies) were simpler and more appealing. Busby Berkeley managed to honor the real economic concerns of everyone who might have seen it in its time while also suggesting that it was okay to let go of their concern, if only for a little while. This was what movies could do a little over 30 years after they were born. Eighty-some years later I’m left to wonder, with generous doses of optimistic anticipation in counteraction with the inevitable dread, how our great popular artists, the ones we know already and the ones who will hopefully emerge, will address or otherwise synthesize the realities of our suddenly up-ended world in the enlightened age of Trump.
But if Busby Berkeley could spotlight the conscience among some of the brightest confections studios of the ‘30s and ‘40s had to offer, then Hollywood’s overall selective ignorance when it comes to dealing with race should be seen as even more maddening and disgraceful. For every appearance by Louise Beavers (Imitation of Life; 1934) or Ethel Waters (Pinky; 1949) or Juanita Moore (Imitation of Life; 1959), there were far more regrettable misuses and abuses of performers like Butterfly McQueen (Gone with the Wind; 1939), Fred “Snowflake” Toones (Remember the Night; 1940, The Palm Beach Story; 1942) and of course Stepin Fetchit to offset any illusion that Hollywood was regularly affording anything like basic dignity to people of color on the silver screen. And once again, given the none-too-faint reverberations of white supremacist philosophy informing the actions of the new president, it’s worth wondering, what does the popular nostalgia for classic movies mean in a time when the insistent battle cry of the Trump campaign, and now the Trump administration, is to somehow make America great again? That campaign slogan has always had an air of insidiousness about it: When exactly, not unlike how the nation supposedly lost its innocence, did the moment occur in which America cased to be “great” in the first place? Because clearly that slogan has regressive implications for blacks and Asians and Native Americans and gays and transgender people that are markedly different, and a whole lot less sunny and optimistic, than might be the case for white Trump supporters, so pinpointing that time carries with it a lot of very scary weight.
Last year, during the outrage of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign and the attempts by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to ensure ongoing expansion of racial and ethnic diversity among its membership, some friends and I were exchanging thoughts on the situation via Facebook. The tenor of the conversation was outrage over complete lack of color among the 20 acting nominees, as well as resistance that was being registered in some quarters to the changes initiated by AMPAS president Cheryl Boone Isaacs in order to promote not only diversity within the Academy but also within the nominees. For what it’s worth, this is a duty which I felt then, as I do now, belongs more squarely on the shoulders of those in power to green-light projects who must be convinced that a movie which wants to tell, say, the heretofore untold story of three black women and their roles in the NASA space program and John Glenn’s successful Earth orbits in the early ‘60s, would have popular appeal across several different demographics. (Thank you, Hidden Figures.)
However, during the conversation one of my friends wondered openly about the obsessiveness of some of the devotion to classic movies embodied by the popularity of Turner Classic Movies. What if, he suggested, the nostalgic reverence for pictures from the period predating the ‘70s, when a period of “blaxploitation” cinema gave way to a more open, confrontational engagement with racism and a more multicultural attitude apparent in casting and storytelling that can be seen in present-day cinema from all over the world, was speaking to something less pure and virtuous than the commonly held “values” concomitant with the notion of a period of “American innocence”? What if underneath at least some of that nostalgia for the relative and perceived simplicity of classic Hollywood fare was a longing for a day when race wasn’t much a subject Hollywood cared to address, when black and Asian and Native American faces (or caricatures) appeared in sinister, subservient, or otherwise demeaning roles if they appeared at all, when darkies and Japs and redskins in the real world knew their place and to stay there?
At the time, before Trump’s campaign had emerged as anything much more than a weird circus attraction (or distraction), this notion seemed to me kind of alarmist, and maybe just a little bit paranoid. But the question has stuck with me over the past year, and it’s prompted me to consider my own appreciation of classic Hollywood with yet another refraction through my usual critical prism. It’s hard for me to imagine that the folks I see every year crowding the hallways of the Chinese Theater complex in Hollywood for the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival are there in any way to celebrate a time when white folks just weren’t often required to acknowledge or deal with “the Other” in our big-screen entertainments, except of course on terms that served to reinforce our various societal comfort zones and our prejudices. But then again, it’s hard for me not to imagine, by actively campaigning and clamoring for a time when America was once “great,” when progressive movements that have, under previous administrations, made life considerably better for POC and LGBTQ communities and, by extension, everyone else didn’t exist, that people who supported Trump aren’t at least tacitly advocating for a return to a happier time when whites didn’t have to worry about their dominance in society being constantly undermined by all those folks crammed in the margins. (And of course for many such advocating is way beyond tacit.)
No, nostalgia just ain’t what it used to be, not when the world seems suddenly more unstable than ever, when Trump and white supremacy-spouting advisors like Steve Bannon are calling the shots and sycophants like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan seem bent on clearing the decks so that their shared agendas might most easily be pushed through. So what does it mean in 2016 to look back with longing on a classic Hollywood period which more than ever seems like such a different world than the one we find ourselves warily navigating through right now? What does our nostalgia for this period in our national and international cinema actually mean? I’m not at all certain I know the answers to those questions, but as with any meaningful and right-minded inquiry I won’t ignore the need to look for them, and I’m exceedingly glad that someone has had the consciousness to even ask.