5 Ways To Make Pop Culture Nostalgia Not Totally Suck
We've come a long way, folks. Nostalgia, once considered a serious mental disease, is now a Facebook marketing strategy used to sell T-shirts of leather-vested juice bowls saying "Punch it, Chewie!" For better or for worse, entertainment's main source of fuel is the perpetual churning out of previously successful properties, making Star Wars movies and TV show revivals as common as dental checkups.
But not all pop culture nostalgia is a dumb money grab. Like swords and bear traps, it's how you wield it that truly matters. So why do some attempts work while others fall painfully flat? Well, let's look at the recent Goofus and Gallants of TV and film to find out. Hey, you remember Goofus and Gallant? What about Highlights? Do kids still read Highlights?
An Old Property Needs A Reason To Come Back (Besides Money)
I wasn't thrilled when I found out that they were making a new season of The X-Files. It seemed gratuitous and nonsensical to watch a TV show from 14 years ago lurch back to life like a greedy Frankenstein. This was especially upsetting because, while fun and charming in the '90s, rampant conspiracy theories are less escapist in our post-9/11 internet world of brave Truthers. The Agent Mulder of today is that same asshole getting booted from a memorial Facebook page for "just asking questions."
But here's the thing: To my surprise, the new season of X-Files was well aware of this fact. And instead of trying to copy its '90s glory, the revival addressed my concerns head-on, with Alex-Jones-type characters and Mulder being confounded by smartphones. It wasn't perfect, but reviving the show started making sense to me while I watched it. Mulder didn't really fit into the internet age, and that was exactly the point. And audiences agreed, as the new season set record ratings which sometimes surpassed those of the original series. Fans were pleased, and David Duchovny got a much-needed safety net for his folk rock career. Everybody kind of won.
I'm not saying that Fox wasn't motivated by money, or that they wouldn't have brought the series back had it not made sense, but the revival did make an important decision to justify its existence beyond "Hey you loved this show once, right?" And it is important, because we've seen what happens when someone drags a show out of the '90s for no good reason beyond fond memories ...
The ratings for Fuller House dropped 62 percent in its second season. Why? Because audiences realized that it had nothing new to say. All the characters and storylines were in the exact same place we left them. Danny was still on his "Wake Up" news show, Joey was still lugging a terrifying woodchuck puppet, Kimmy was still the annoying comic relief. It was as if they had all been suspended in ice over the decades. So what's the point? What dire financial situation could the actors have been in to justify such a ghoulish act?
If we're going to drag everything we loved from our childhoods out of retirement, it's super crucial for the writers and directors to figure out a good reason to do so. Indiana Jones, for example, was a hotshot punch-fessor revealed to be at odds with his crotchety father. It makes poetic sense that when we brought him back, he would have a son with the same irksome qualities that he once did. Spielberg was even clever enough to include mirroring motorcycle chases which end with a father appalled by his son's actions.
"I'm just appalled by everyone now, actually." -- Harrison Ford
There's a lot wrong with that last film, but it amazingly didn't feel unjustified in its return. But hey, maybe you're not bringing back a whole TV show or film franchise. Maybe you only want to punch up your terrible movie with some killer '80s and '90s references. Well, about that ...
Pop Culture References Need To Make Sense Within The Plot Of The Story
The first thing we learn about Peter Quill is that he was a child of the '80s and loves his Walkman. It's literally the first shot of Guardians Of The Galaxy, and it sets up the entire tone of the film. Every song, every ironic or hilarious or meaningful track, has a reason to be there because the film establishes right away that they're all connected to the character. This is amplified in the sequel, in which the song "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)" becomes interwoven with the plot, and according to the songwriter himself, it managed to breathe new life into this random '70s hit. That's deeply motivated nostalgia brought on by great fucking writing. I'm making one of those chef-kissing-hand gestures as I write this sentence. That's how great it is.
It's not exclusively required to justify an already-quirky film's idiosyncratic soundtrack (see Tarantino, Quentin), but it's quite nice when it happens. Another recent example is Baby Driver, which as far as I can tell always has an in-scene reason that a song is playing (thanks to the main character always wearing headphones).
What isn't fun or acceptable, however, is when a film shoehorns in a bunch of songs that are in no way motivated by or appropriate for the story. You know, like this:
Yeah, we got it, Suicide Squad. People enjoy old music. While nothing in the drab story and tone called for it, this film managed to cram in songs by Queen, the Rolling Stones, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Animals, the White Stripes, and many more. The reason was crystal clear, as during post-production, Warner Brothers became worried that the movie wouldn't hold up to their ads and fucking hired the trailer company to work on the final cut. Meaning that the desperately pandering soundtrack was crammed in at the last second in an attempt to make it more appealing. The result was the cinematic equivalent of painting Garfield on the side of a murder van. It's like blasting Oingo Boingo over a screening of Monster's Ball. It's like putting a clown nose on a dead dog.
It all comes down to having a clear motivation. A film like The Lego Movie delighted us because the story about creativity and individuality fit perfectly with the childhood toy brick format ... whereas The Emoji Movie was the transparent conjuring of studio executives screaming "Please like us and give us money!"
We crave authenticity and respect for the nostalgia being thrown at us. And this is why ...
Audiences Can Tell When The Filmmakers Didn't Grow Up With The Source Material
If you're not aware, the upcoming Spielberg film Ready Player One is based off a book jam-packed with '80s pop culture references -- many of them about movies that The Berger himself directed and/or produced. When asked how he plans to handle this in the adaptation, Spielly revealed that he was planning to cut all of the nods to his own films because he felt it was "too self-referential."
Hey, here's a question: Why not just ... not make the movie, then? Like, if a director has to cut elements of a story because he doesn't feel personally comfortable making it, shouldn't another director do it instead?
Seriously. You put droids next to the Ark of the Covenant, but won't stick E.T. next to Duke Nukem?
Look, I love Steven Spielberg like all my dead pets' ghosts combined, but if you're making a movie about '80s nostalgia, shouldn't you get someone who actually experienced and cherished that emotional connection? And if you don't think it matters, consider the fact that it absolutely matters.
Besides being garbage, one of the key faults of Pixels was that it's a movie about video games aimed at teenagers which only included games people in their 40s used to play. It's fundamentally out of touch in its premise, and was dead in the water before it even cast Adam Sandler. The new Ghostbusters had a similar problem. While I'm sure he loves the originals like we all did, director Paul Feig first saw those films in his 20s. He didn't grow up watching The Real Ghostbusters whilst eating The Real Ghostbusters cereal. For him, Ecto Cooler wasn't a childhood reward so much as a terrible booze mixer. That obviously doesn't disqualify him, but it certainly doesn't help when the goal is to reach a younger generation who carry an insane amount of reverence toward the original films (despite how garbage Bill Murray thinks the sequel was).
It seems oddly basic to say, but when a film or TV show is rebooting something (as opposed to making a straight-up sequel) and aiming at the people who loved the original, you really need to get someone who understands that love. If you need examples of this going right, look no further than two recent video games: Alien Isolation and Friday The 13th: The Game. The latter of which might be the greatest movie-to-game adaptation ever.
I'm dead serious. Despite being glitchier than a drunk Neo, the Friday The 13th game is the best goddamn game version of a horror movie I've ever played. It's a motherfucking national treasure. And it was made (along with Isolation) by young developers and writers who consulted the original creators and set out to recapture what brought them to the franchise in the first place. They cherished everything, down to the little details of the characters and environments. In fact, the Friday The 13th developers were so diehard that they secured the license to the series merely by having an impassioned conversation with the original film's director.
That's what love is, you guys, and it pays off. Why do you think Stranger Things is one of the best examples of nostalgia done right? Because the creators set out to pay tribute the era in which they grew up and loved. But obviously, that's not the only reason Stranger Things is so wonderful ...
Don't Only Reference Old Pop Culture -- Steal From It
Okay, let's talk about Stranger Things. I know you want to. Season two is nearly out, and the trailer has been a glorious flood of 1984 pop culture invading your every orifice like a psychomagnotheric slime river. So what has made Stranger Things such a great piece of '80s nostalgia? Well, ironically, it has nothing to do with the era in which it takes place.
No, really. Had Stranger Things been made exactly the same, but took place in 2016, it would still fill your brain with kid memories of watching John Carpenter and Stephen King films in your friend's rec room (because his dad knew how to keep his drunk-ass mouth shut about it). Because it's not about what year is being portrayed, but how they are portraying it.
It's not the references that are invoking your heartache for cool '80s dad whisky-breath, but the way Stranger Things pays homage to the styles of those movies. The Duffer Brothers are copying the cinematography, character types, and settings from the storytelling techniques of the '80s ... down to the title font (which was created without CGI, I might add).
It's the gore you loved in The Thing mixed with the childhood romp from Stand By Me meeting and harboring a supernatural creature like E.T. peppered with an alcoholic sheriff straight out of Jaws. It's the dark lighting from Alien mixed with Spielberg's downplayed oners and the music of John Carpenter. It has nothing to do with the era it takes place in, but rather the era it's mimicking. Don't believe me? Check out its modern-set example:
From rotary phones to bizarre seashell computers, It Follows goes out of its way to take place in no specific year. And yet if feels distinctly '80s because of its use of nostalgic synth music, Evil Dead-style 360 shots, and hilarious slasher movie logic. It invokes a specific decade by imitating the filmmaking as opposed to cramming in specific references. When ramped up to a million, this is of course the directing style of Quentin Tarantino, whose films are essentially collages of shots and music from a blender of old films. When done with the restraint and focus of Stranger Things, it can be extremely powerful. And it's the antithesis of Ready Player One's "cram as many '80s and '90s characters you can" approach, which the internet seems not too fond of.
If you're thinking to yourself, "Well isn't just copying older films wildly uncreative?" then you probably don't realize that this is how it's always been done ...
At Some Point, You Need To Stop Referencing Nostalgia And Become It
Think of nostalgia like training wheels on a bike. It'll get you around for a few years, but there comes a point where everyone starts laughing at you for still using them, and you'll be forced to walk to high school and it'll rain that morning and you'll fall in a puddle and everyone will think you shat yourself so you hide behind the Subway and the manager comes out and tries to cheer you up but he turns out to be really abrasive and then you have to go to the next town's Subway to avoid him but it's a long way to walk and you don't want to risk it with the training wheels.
Point is, if any filmmaker seemingly "milking" nostalgia pisses you off, keep in mind that it's how every great creator started. Do you think Stranger Things and Fringe ripped off The X-Files? Well, The X-Files ripped off The Twilight Zone. And The Twilight Zone ripped off a bunch of radio shows.
Do you love Indiana Jones and Star Wars? Well, those films were made to imitate James Bond, old movie serials, Flash Gordon, and Westerns. But none of this work can ride too long on nostalgia alone; at some point, there also has to be an original and compelling story. Anyone can charm audiences with Guardians Of The Galaxy's delightful retro soundtrack and Han Solo spunk ... but it takes a really good director to make Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 just as great by continuing to build the characters and world from the first. Anyone can make a TV show that takes place in the '80s, but it takes real talent to make you crave the next installment.
That's why James Gunn and those Duffer boys will likely be the Spielbergs and Lucases of tomorrow. And 30 years from now, some new sexy young storytellers will mimic their work and invoke nostalgia for 2017 ... which will be extra impressive since we'll all be living in aquatic marauder huts and drinking recycled urine at that point. Not because of climate change; we'll just really be into Waterworld by 2047. That movie is a slow but powerful burn. Just you wait and see.
Talk to David about Waterworld (and ONLY Waterworld) on Twitter.
Is there such a thing as truly good nostalgia? YOU TELL US.
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