2011 at the Movies – A Nostalgic Mess
One major theme transcending Hollywood this year was, well, Hollywood. Hollywood made 3 huge films this year that are odes to movies themselves. They deal with nostalgia for particular time periods and many have called them “love letters” to particular people, genres, and time periods. Although I do love the movies, all 3 of these fell short for me. This post will discuss why they didn’t work for me and why they should not be receiving the awards and acclaim that they are currently getting. It will be more from a perspective of someone who has seen these films, so don’t expect too much plot recaps to happen (but I have tried to make it as spoiler free as possible for those who haven’t seen them).
The first is Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, his first 3D and kid’s film all in one. Hugo almost feels like a propaganda piece for the preservation of film (as Scorsese is a huge advocate for this) and I felt like I was spoken at rather than brought inside the story. Critics often criticize films that try too hard to give a message or lesson as it often makes it feel heavyhanded. Here all the stakes ride on whether or not the two children can get these films preserved in order to redeem an old artist. If this isn’t a film screaming “I’m a message movie!” then I don’t know what is. In between his case for us to care about the preservation of film (which is perfectly viable on its own) there are several plotlines involving the films central character. None of which really feel like anything but filler for what Scorsese really wants to get to. The climax of the main character’s main storyline is nothing but a plot device leading to the aforementioned message: movies are important, so we should preserve them. In between all this, Scorsese fills in the blanks with random characters inside a train station who get just enough time so that you know who they are, but never really care about them. Much time seems to be spent creating the atmosphere of this train station, only to leave it behind, making it feel like a waste of time. Most critics have gotten swept up in the nostalgia and the magic of the movies, but have disregarded that the film in front of them has little of what they love.
The second film is Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, a throwback black and white, silent film set in the late ‘20’s. Many have fell utterly to its charm and stylistic niche while ignoring the fact that the film has many problems. The biggest of these problems is the fact that it revels in itself. It gives us 2 characters who are selfish, self-seeking charmers who get by on a smile and a wink. They can flirt around with whomever they please, don’t have to respect their peers, and live rich and elegant lifestyles all because they are stars. When the main character begins his downslide out of the spotlight and the photographer’s lens, it wants us to feel bad for him. It acknowledges that yes, he is selfish and stubborn, but in the end the way it is all fixed is by him regaining the attention once again. It shows us just how vain fame can make us, but only celebrates that fame. Throughout there are shots of billboards and newspaper articles celebrating the famous actors, which only reminded me of the awful celebrity culture we have today. At one point, one of the main characters is hospitalized and another visits them. When walking in, this character is greeted by 2 awestruck doctors. They are awestruck at this movie star, yet they are the ones who save lives on a daily basis, hasn’t our priority gone off track a little bit? The Artist does not really contain an artist in it at all, but rather spoiled children who are really, really charming. (NOTE: The content of this film really takes away from the visual style and editing. Hazanavicius really does craft a wonderful film and Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo are absolutely fantastic, but the self congratulatory-ness of it all was too much for me. When this wins Best Picture it really will make sense, Hollywood congratulating itself on congratulating itself.)
The third film that banks on nostalgia, for a place that existed long ago, is JJ Abrams Super 8. Super 8, is essentially an ode to Steven Spielberg. It features a group of kids trying to put together a film, when a train crash happens releasing a government secret into this small town. The government quickly arrives to try and hide what has happened leaving the town confused at all the chaos that ensues. This is the kind of film that features a mystery only kids can solve, because, as we all know, adults are dumb. As all the incompetent policemen try to figure out what is happening, the kids try to complete their film (at times hilariously using real events as footage) and somewhat accidentally solve the entire mystery. SPOILER: Oh and of course there is the obligatory “the alien isn’t mean, he’s just been treated bad and wants to get home” conclusion that feels pulled from every movie ever. There are things that are very good about the film, the whole government cover up vs. the small town is done just as well as I’ve seen it, and there is a war zone set piece that is probably the best I saw all year, but rather than building on this, Abrams stays in tribute mode reveling in the Spielberg 80s era rather than writing what could be a fantastic film.
I understand that it is nearly impossible to create anything new nowadays. Everything has been done before and after that it has been done again, but in what way will writing movies to remind us about other eras of movies ever last? 5 years from now will anyone be talking about the brilliance of The Artist? Sure it’s fun, but is limited only as far as our nostalgic fuzzy feeling will take us. When someone else makes a competent black and white film next year, will we label that film of the year? I suppose it does speak volumes of our culture, always looking toward the past. In that era things were so much better, but now that the economy is down or now that we have lost our values or now that whatever, things are so much worse… These 3 films only reflect the mindset that is on constant repeat in our thoughts. One film I found that does deal with these thoughts in a contemplative way, while containing all the charm and brilliance of The Artist is Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.
Rather than trying to honor some genre or period by creating a film that cannot live up to the genre or period, Allen criticizes those who choose to live in a world outside the present. He confronts the notion of “the good ol’ days” and shows that even people who lived in these “good ol’ days” thought that the days before them were better. For those who spend their time dreaming of another age or another place, Allen assures us that the most we can make of our lives comes from this moment and this place rather than some distant time. He does this in a way that still honors the past (in his case Paris in the 20’s) and all that happened, but shows that ultimately reveling in the past will lead to an empty life. Many critics argue that the best scenes take place when Paris is transformed to the 1920’s (which is true), while the rest of the film is never better than your average romantic comedy. While I somewhat agree, the resolution and lessons learned still resonated with me just as much as the magical parts. Allen’s dreamy, magical comedy filled with romance pays tribute to the past in a way that is unbelievably special, while acknowledging the need to be grounded in the present, something that Hugo, The Artist, and Super 8 all fail to do. Nostalgia may rekindle some old feelings, but it alone will never reach the level of greatness that critics and awards groups are attributing to these films.