Are Films Better When Seen Through the Past?

I came across an interesting article today from the folks at Film School Rejects that commented on a previous Slate article (god bless the internet) regarding the state of history and film. More specifically the article delves into the often murky relationship between movies and the representation of historical subject matter. Both articles recognize the increasing number of films, especially 2011 summer blockbusters, that use past events or eras as the cultural context for their plots, citing that films set in the future often tell stories of despair and demise on a global scale. So, why the emergence of so-called “nostalgia” pictures? Are audiences growing weary of a future that seems laced with nuclear warfare, environmental apocalypse, and the sacrificing of children to The Man (I for one am pretty excited about The Hunger Games, dystopian futures be damned)?

I have some theories of my own as to why filmmakers continue to ponder and utilize the past, rather than focusing on present or future events.

1. Our perception of time moves more rapidly.  Technology has progressed faster in the past 20 years than it has at any other time in human history. As a result, perhaps filmmakers, artists, and visionaries alike are finding it difficult to construct what it is they believe the future will look like-because it always seems to be upon us every minute of the day.

2. The past is already defined. One of the downsides of setting a movie in the future is that an entire new world, society, environment, and structure usually needs to be created, and explained to the audience. It’s a hell of a lot easier to use a specific era in history as a backdrop for a story, simply because enough time has passed for present day audiences to associate specific values, ideas, feelings, etc, to a certain era in history. For instance, a film like Super 8 which is set in the 1970s, gives the audience the perfect backdrop to understand the appearance  of aliens in the movie. In the 1970s, the space program was relatively new, the idea of space as the final frontier was an exciting adventure, and the concept of extraterrestrial beings was extraordinary. It’s within that sense of naivety and wonder that the audience can grasp the events of the film unfolding. I think it’s also safe to say that Spielberg is capitalizing on an older audiences experiences with films such as E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. They will remember seeing those movies for the first time (as kids), having a close connection with the characters, and will inevitably relive those moments while watching Super 8.

3. Sometimes, it’s just more believable. This summer, Captain America will be one of a few Marvel films to be released. Originally, Captain America the comic was written during WWII, and the film by all accounts appears to be remaining faithful to that story. In addition to simply staying true to the original story, I feel that portraying Captain America in any other context (that is, any other time period) would likely be silly. Sometimes the use of a certain era in history is justified to keep the essence of the story intact. For those familiar with the comics, an image of Captain America fighting Nazis makes more sense than Captain American fighting Bin Laden. This is because Nazis have become an international symbol of evil that should be eradicated at all costs. There’s no slippery slope when we speak of the evils of WWII. Now mostly everyone can agree that terrorism and its proponents are evil, but little can be done in the way of real social commentary on the subject as it relates to Captain America and the value system surround his character because we are still living in the present climate of terrorism.

Ideas of evil aside, characters like Captain America and the X-Men seem more extraordinary in the backdrop of the 1940s-1960s. Because of the advances in today’s technology, the idea of a Captain America, or a group of gifted mutants doesn’t really seem that far fetched. Even aliens are losing their mystery. But through the lens of the 1940s, or the 1960s and 70s respectively, Captain America, the X-Men, and the aliens in Super 8 take on a more powerful characterization that just couldn’t be accomplished if the story was set in today’s world. What can I say, it just doesn’t hold the same fascination.

4. Rewriting history is cool. Honestly, sometimes using history as a backdrop, and then rewriting to make it better, or the way it should have happened, is kind of awesome. I’m reminded of a film review penned by Roger Ebert about the film Elizabeth. He was referring to a point in the story where the filmmakers took creative license and had one historical figure kill another very high profile historical figure for the sake of the plotline of the film. Ebert’s response: It didn’t happen like that in history, but it should have. It’s this kind of wish fulfillment that gave us movies like Inglorious Basterds, Amadeus and Elizabeth to name a mere few. The rewriting of history also inevitably gives us an interesting view on our current understanding and interpretation of historical events, and also, how we as an audience view that time period at one given point in history. There’s a reflexive power at work here that serves to give history a symbolic, albeit creative, makeover while simultaneously turning a mirror at the present.

5. Films set in the present, no matter how good, can never make comments on the present. I word it this way because films like The Social Network and Casablanca will always be remembered as truly great films, but neither one makes any social commentary about the state of events in the world at the time of their releases. Casablanca was made in 1942, and was about WWII, and The Social Network was made in 2010 and was about the rise of Facebook, a tool we still use and are still trying to understand its impact on society. We know that WWII made a lasting impact on the world, and at the time, people probably understood that that war was going to change the world even before it ended, and the same goes for Facebook. We know it already has changed the world, but the films themselves do not explain how. Which is why, if your goal as a filmmaker is to make a social comment, it’s best to use the lens of the past. Films set in the past that use universal themes transcend time and space and give us some perspective, or at least comparsions about our own present experience.

6. Future films are speculation. Films set it the future can only be speculative. There’s no true audience enlightenment, just a kick in the pants that says usually says what we are doing now could have possible negative repercussions if we don’t change our behavior. The funny thing is, we often never do, or the change is slow moving. Films set in the future try to alter our present experience by changing behaviors (but it never acknowledges any importance that present experience may have for us regardless of whether it is a good or bad thing. There’s always something that needs to be changed), while films set in the past make us reflect on our current state based on what came before.

I apologize for my pontification. But I found this topic to possess many moving parts that should be explored. I urge readers to seek out the Film School Rejects article as well as the original Slate article-and please, tell us what you think!