Entertainment » Graham Gordy

Nostalgia's creeping hold on pop culture



Nietzsche said, "Nostalgia is the blank check issued to a weak mind," and if he were alive, based solely on that quotation, I think he would be really pissed that Hollywood remade "The A-Team" as a film this summer.

And "Wall Street." And "The Karate Kid." It's 2010. What's going on? Neither the TV show nor those two movies were particularly good the first time around (if you don't believe me, go back and re-watch). The answer is, for the same reason they remade "Charlie's Angels," "Starsky and Hutch" and "Mission: Impossible" a decade ago: Because some studio executive in his mid-30s had a memory of these shows and of a simpler time in his life and he thought he should inflict his nostalgia buzz on all of us by trying to recreate a $100 million toy for himself.

Yet the audiences for these movies aren't the people who loved the shows or films. They aren't the ones who share the executive's nostalgia buzz — those people are at home with their kids watching "Madagascar 2" on Blu-Ray. The audience for these movies is made up of people who go to movies on Friday nights (i.e., 14-to-25-year-olds), and 14-to-25 year-olds only know Mr. T as the weird old guy who does those "World of Warcraft" commercials.

This nostalgia buzz is dangerous, and not just for studio executives. For someone of my particular generation and place, if a person said, "I'm heading home to play 'Radar Rat Race' on my Commodore 64, eat some Pop Rocks, and watch Hacksaw Jim Duggan wrestle The Iron Sheik," I would probably laugh until Crystal Pepsi came out my nose. It would seem brilliant to me because it would be wrenching something from the recesses of my adolescent mind and I would re-experience the pleasure of a time in my life when the result of a WWF match was the most significant thing I had going that day. But it's not brilliant; it's just forgotten. It's false heat. References like that generally produce a laugh. It's a nostalgia laugh. It's not "funny ha ha" and it's not "funny strange," it's "funny exclusive." And it's precisely this exclusivity that leads us toward esteeming these things more highly than we probably should. It leads us toward deluding ourselves into believing that these things are more complex than they are, and that they're worthy of not just overwrought praise, but study.

"Murder She Wrote" was a mediocre old TV show (which is proven by the fact that Cabot Cove was tiny and there's no way you have a murder there every week and still maintain any kind of cute, doddering population). But if you look at "Murder She Wrote" long enough, it's a Rorshach; you'll find new meaning and themes because that's what the human mind does: finds connections and ascribes meaning. Does that mean you're supposed to write your master's thesis on "Murder She Wrote"? No, it doesn't.

So, nostalgia is dangerous because we over-esteem it, it's dangerous because it makes us forsake the present, and it's dangerous because we bypass the promise of what we are for the memory of something we never were.

At best, "The A-Team" and "The Karate Kid" and "Wall Street" are orgiastic in-jokes; at worst, they are in-jokes attempting to serve the old through nostalgia and the young by trying to legitimize a studio's normally cynical summer offerings with the appearance of something more valid because it came before.

Which brings me to the Nietzsche quotation. It's not really from Nietzsche. You have to admit that it dressed up the column a bit, though, didn't it?

So, enough with the remakes. Enough with the painfully-specific referential humor. And let's quit over-praising the mundane just because it's obsolete, I beg you. Otherwise, in 15 years, I'll be helping my son write a paper on the cultural merits of "Temptation Island."

Graham Gordy is a screenwriter living in Little Rock. This is the debut of his new bi-weekly column for the Times.

Comments (4)

Showing 1-4 of 4

Add a comment

Add a comment