A couple of years ago, Bruce Sheridan, chair of the film program at Columbia College, noticed a curious thing happening. A few of the film majors who interned on the Chicago production of "The Dark Knight" had started making their student films and, as expected,Christopher Nolan's brooding, zeitgeisty, state-of-the-union-address of a superhero epic was a big influence. Less expected was the sort of movies it inspired. Film students have always gravitated to the shadows and stark lighting of classic noir; and Batman is the most noir-y of superheroes. Sheridan planned to see lots of noir. What he got were wide open urban spaces.
"The noir thing was still in there; only it was sublimated by what felt like the qualities you associate with the classic western — basically, they were making urban westerns, with the city as unharnessed wilderness."
A clever, thoughtful reaction.
Or, to be less generous, you might say what students saw in "Dark Knight" was not a challenge to make similarly provocative, of-the-moment films but an opening to try on the sensibilities of more hallowed eras.
The Columbia College student films of 2010 anticipated the Oscar season of 2012: Think "Hugo," "Midnight in Paris," "The Artist," "The Help," "War Horse." (And that's just for starters.) Every year about this time, prognosticators take the temperature of a disparate group of Academy Award nominees and cobble together their best arguments for what the latest group says about contemporary filmmaking or Hollywood or the culture in general — and most years, it's an exercise in wishful thinking. And yet, sorry: It's hard to watch this year's batch without presuming that filmmakers would rather be anywhere but now.
They'd rather be in Paris with a visionary Georges Melies at the dawn of filmmaking ("Hugo"). Or in Los Angeles in the late 1920s, as Hollywood made the transition from silent film to talkies ("The Artist"). Or in the '50s, when 70 mm prestige pictures were unabashedly bighearted and pretty ("War Horse"). Or in the '60s, when well-meaning message movies could be uncomplicated and unsubtle ("The Help"). They'd even rather be in 2011 Paris, wondering whether being in 1920s Paris would be as satisfying as it is romantic ("Midnight in Paris"). They'd rather be anywhere else — assuming that a little movie history is involved.
But let's call it the New Nostalgia.
Because unlike the Old Nostalgia (gauzy, soft-headed), and despite notable exceptions ("The Help," "My Week With Marilyn"), the New Nostalgia is not cheap or content to be dew-eyed and sentimental. It's not about mere homage to fading sensibilities or needless remakes or period epics. It's not about a cultural malaise and filmmakers with nothing new to say. The New Nostalgia, despite every dyspeptic bone in my body, is not necessarily a bad thing — particularly in thoughtful hands, like those of Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg. The New Nostalgia is about dipping into movie history to rediscover the joy of moviegoing itself.
Paul Mariano, co-director of "These Amazing Shadows," an acclaimed documentary from last year about the National Film Registry, told me that a lot of this year's Oscar pictures seem rooted in vintage Hollywood because there's a new appreciation among audiences for the value of film history. But that sounded 1) overly hopeful and 2) not quite in line with the box office; some of the truest examples of the New Nostalgia ("The Artist") have fallen flat financially. It also presumes that the New Nostalgia is rooted in a larger zeitgeist. Which it's not; this is a moment generated primarily by filmmakers. The New Nostalgia is personal, and eager to capture not just the look of a beloved era but the swoon and sadness it can install.
Indeed, what's newest about the New Nostalgia is that even the swoon — in"The Muppets,"for instance, a film entirely about returning to the joys of a simpler era — is delivered with a wise heart and a melancholy, an underlying sense that encouraging love and appreciation in new audiences may already be too late. If this is nostalgia, it's nostalgia in the original sense of the word — a word coined by Johannes Hofer, a Swiss medical student in the late 17th century who was noting the heartache in soldiers yearning for their past.
Of course, coincidence and practicality should not be underestimated in any trend: Letty Aronson, co-producer of "Midnight in Paris" (and younger sister of Woody Allen), told me, "You know, ('Midnight') was written several years ago. I went to Paris, hired people, then the money wasn't there (to make it). In the ensuing years, France instituted a tax rebate, and it was generous. That's why we made 'Midnight' now."
On the other hand, coincidence and subconscious desire can seem like two sides of the same coin, and what's going on in these films — in the velvety John Ford-inspired vistas of "War Horse," in the shimmery '80s synth soundtrack of "Drive," even in those pensive, Robert-Redford-circa-1972 shots of Brad Pitt in"Moneyball" — is a hope that our filmmaking past can inspire a meaningful future.
"I think these films share optimism," said Rick Carter, the Oscar-nominated production designer of "War Horse." "But it's a complex, wary optimism. Not a fresh-to-the-world optimism. In fact, that word, 'nostalgia,' your word, suggests something shallow, and the films we're talking about look to the past not only for literal context but what's back there, in filmmaking, that can resonate in the stories we tell now, using technology we barely harness."
What he means is, as with so many aspects of early 21st century life, this sudden longing is partly spurred by a concern that a cold, alienating digital future will replace the warm, recognizable pleasures of the past.
Those shots of Pitt may be largely quiet, but you can picture the director, Bennett Miller, behind the camera shouting: "That's what a movie star should be." "War Horse" wears its broad heart on its sleeve, but Spielberg is clearly reminding: "This is what heart looked like."
Sheridan told me: "I've tried to figure why this happening, why no one is blazing trails, only going back. I think they're working in older sensibilities because their options, ironically, have exploded with digital (filmmaking), so every reference, every era, is available, ready for mimicking. And rooting yourself in the past takes away the uncertainty you feel when blazing trails." He was talking about his students. I had to remind myself he wasn't talking about Hollywood.
Just before Christmas, I sat on a warm couch at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and watched time pass. I watched for three hours — four and a half 41/2 if you consider that I left the couch, caught a bite and returned for 90 minutes. I wasn't alone. A guy next to me left and brought back a sandwich, which he ate surreptitiously. We were watching an art installation, Christian Marclay's "The Clock," though after a year of "Hugo," "War Horse," "The Artist," "Drive," and"Super 8,"it was as much a movie of 2011 as those films were.
"The Clock" is both an actual clock and a movie. Marclay edited together thousands of movie clips featuring clocks and time — characters checking the time, characters saying the time, shots of clock faces. The film runs for 24 hours; the time in the real world is the time on the screen. At 4:30 p.m., say, Jane Seymour tells Christopher Reeve that she has to leave because it's 4:30 p.m.; a moment later Matthew Broderick is calling his lover, and a digital clock on the bedside table shows that it's 4:32 p.m. And so on. Marclay, who was awarded best artist at the Venice Biennale last year for "The Clock," bumps silent films into Adam Sandler, Richard Gere into submarine dramas. The effect is hypnotic and prismatic, and a number of things happen:
You become keenly aware how time presses on, how time compresses and film history folds in on itself.
I described this the other day to Tomas Alfredson, the Swedish director of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy"and the vampire picture "Let the Right One In." We were speaking on the phone. He was sitting in a cafe in Paris. He listened, then said, "Where I am I can see this huge billboard for perfume. It is contemporary, but it is in the style of the 1920s, though it's the style of the 1920s as seen by the 1970s, in a sort of soft lens."