Remember This?!: Movies, The Nostalgic Impulse, and the Trump Presidency
"He's on to us."
Whether you know it or not, movies are training you to think a certain way. Don’t worry; I’m not about to get all "They Live" on you (although that movie does seek to teach us quite a bit about the mind-altering messages that are a constant part of living within a capitalist system.)
Seriously though, movies do indeed fulfill a pedagogical function in society no matter how ridiculous the lessons they teach may be. For instance, "Jaws" taught us to be afraid to go in the water, "Easy Rider" taught us that hippies are people too, and even "Troll 2" taught us that only the power of goodness and a bologna sandwich can stop vegetarian goblins in their tracks (a useful bit of information).
Movies not only seek to teach us lessons, but to instruct us on how to engage with our impulses. They use their specific, emotional art form to teach us how to interact with our urges, our emotions.
One of those urges that movies cater to most in our current entertainment landscape is nostalgia. Who isn’t a bit excited to recapture the magic of childhood and take a journey to the past when they enter the movie house.
Since movies are the lens through which our nostalgia can be enjoyed, there is a set of parameters placed on how we experience it. The ways in which movies curate our interaction with our nostalgia leaves us receptive to two main modes of appeal.
The first popular method that movies use to appeal to our nostalgic impulse is what I am going to call “The Rashomon.” (For those of you that think I’m speaking a foreign language and don’t know what that means, I say to you “I am, it’s Japanese” and “you should really go watch this movie, it’s super good” respectively).
In my mind, this refers to the phenomenon that occurs when filmmakers attempt to capture the feeling an audience had when a movie first came out by telling the same story in a slightly different way.
There was a movie that came out about a year and half ago. It was called "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." Maybe you’ve heard of it. Everyone and their pet Ewok was a little excited about this movie. Some of us may have even woken up at 5 in the morning to start a marathon of the 6 previous films and donned a wookie onsie for the premiere.
Who would do such a thing???
Now, let me preface my next point with a disclaimer. I loved seeing this movie for the first time. It was really a beautiful thing sitting in a crowded movie theatre of likeminded Star Wars fans, half crazed from my day long Star Wars binge being brought to tears at the first sight of the Millennium Falcon, of Chewbacca, and even of more obscure characters like Admiral Akbar. It was a Trap!!! (kind of). By that I mean that I loved this movie so much that I was almost able to overlook the fact that it’s basically the same story as the original. Almost….
There is one moment in this film that continues to nag at me on re-watch as much as it did the first time. Let’s set the scene. The rebel alli-, sorry, “resistance,” is about to begin its final assault on Starkiller Base. We join them as they are looking at holograms of the base’s construction.
One rebel says of the base, “It’s another Death Star.” In response, Poe Dameron, the roguish pilot played by Oscar Isaac, brings up diagrams of both the Death Star and the Starkiller Base and says something to effect of, “Dude, this thing is way bigger than the Death Star!” (I paraphrase).
The holograms of the two even look shockingly close to one another. At this point I was left in a bit of a quandary. I was having a great time at the movies but I could not help being taken out of my experience by the disappointment of “Jeez, Bro, did we really need ANOTHER Death Star? We already had two!”. The movie tries so hard to recapture the feeling of the first film that it forgets to take any new or exciting risks with the plot.
The problem is that the movie doesn’t bother to realize that creating a pure experience of Star Wars in a vacuum would be impossible. Society already knows that the original exists. The new version cannot escape the original’s shadow or its initial impression.
Because of the audience’s knowledge of the previous film and the original Death Star, the threat of the Starkiller base is reduced to a cliché. The world is a different place than it was when the first film came out and it’s impossible to fully go back to pre-Star Wars innocence. And if Disney doesn’t pick up on this, and soon, Jar Jar Bink’s will be the least of our problems.
"There's always a way to blow these things up."
The other way in which movies set the terms of our nostalgic experience is what I am going to call “The MST3K.”model (If you don’t know what that is, go on Netflix, it’s there, add it to your list, pour yourself a bottle of wine and go nuts. It’s really funny). This model takes something that you remember and actively makes fun of it as the remake unfolds.
This is the model perpetuated by films such as "21" and "22 Jump Street" and, seemingly, the upcoming "Bay Watch" film. This version of nostalgic interaction says, “Hey, remember that thing you loved back in the 80’s? It was actually pretty stupid and we have totally moved on from it but, let’s all have a laugh at its expense, shall we?”
I would like to turn to the aforementioned film "21 Jump Street" for an example. The film begins with the Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill characters being reassigned from their old posts to a new unit that requires them to go undercover as high school students. Hill and Tatum are surprised that such a unit still exists. Their boss informs them that it was newly reinstated because the department has run out of ideas and has to keep “recycling old crap from the 80’s.”
This scene teaches the audience how it should feel about both the source material and the remake. First of all, it casts the source material as “crap from the 80’s.” We are to look back on the original "21 Jump Street" with a kitschy and infantilizing eye. It is nothing more than a fun product of its time, a curiosity.
This scene also allows the remake to cover its tracks. It wants to make sure that you know it’s in on the joke. We wouldn’t want to ACTUALLY remake something that stupid would we? That would be silly. This type of appeal to nostalgia displays irreverence with the source material and lets us all in on a good laugh about how stupid the thing we originally liked was all along.
So what’s the point of all this?
Remember when I said that movies have the power to teach us things? There is something dark that comes from how movies have trained us to recognize and respond to our nostalgia. We crave it, we seek it out, and we are especially susceptible to anything that scratches the nostalgic itch within us.
Therein lies the problem. Movies have left our society vulnerable to the exploitation of the nostalgic impulse by the very methods we enjoy so much in films. The case and point of this phenomenon is our orange skinned, flaxen haired, used car salesman of a commander and chief.
I know about ya’ll, but I’m super tired of #winning.
Donald J. Trump ran on a platform all about nostalgia. He wanted to “Make America Great Again”. He was selling an America of the 1950’s, an America that no longer exists. Much has been made of the “forgotten men and women” that voted Trump into office. Many of their reasons are assumed to be a loss of manufacturing jobs to regulation and/or immigrants.
The sad truth of the matter is, that those jobs are not coming back, especially not because of “The Donald”. The world has moved on. More of these jobs are being lost to automation and a change in the industrial landscape than other perceived causes. Even if Trump would bring some semblance of this old America back, it could never be the same. At the very most, his rhetoric created feelings of warm fuzzies in a certain set of Americans.
His supporters are like the people sitting in the Star Wars screening, cheering when the Millennium Falcon enters hyperspace. They loved what he was selling because it reminded them of world they thought was better. That’s all it can be, a pleasant but hollow memory that will always be tainted by a more advanced reality.
He cannot take us back in time. He can do this no more than Force Awakens could make us forget that we have already seen a movie about a scrappy young Jedi from the desert who sets out to destroy a planet sized battle station.
The MST3K brand of nostalgia has also left us, as a society, vulnerable to a Trumpian leader. One of the aspects of Trump that was most attractive to his base of voters was his reputation as a “straight talker.”
Trump became famous for his off the cuff and brash mode of speaking. He made his base forget the carefully chosen words of past Presidents and to admire him for his proclivity to “speak what is on his mind.” We are now a far cry from Kennedy’s stirring and rhetorically eloquent “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” and now we’re stuck with…. Well…
There is a reason that traditional politicians talk they way they do. Our leaders are supposed to be people we look up to, aspire to be. To take the carefully chosen and constructed language from the position of President represents the degradation of the office. This is similar to the way that films like 21 Jump Street and its successors treat their source material.
They have allowed us to grow accustomed to the active mocking of the past as something to be appreciated and revered. Trump is a dumbed down spoof of our past presidents. It can be entertaining yes, but there is something to be said for eroding the cultural respect for civility and candor.
Nostalgic impulses will always be there and are not within themselves harmful. As you go forth into the world, waiting in line for tickets to the sequels and remakes to the properties of your youth, be conscious of how much you are effected by your nostalgia. Enjoy it by all means, but do not be governed by it.