Through the various lenses of nostalgia, countless filmmakers have created a common practice of dissecting the past whilst simultaneously romanticizing it. Pieces of media that successfully maintain a critical lens stand few and far between.
Film academic Marc LeSeur’s 1977 essay Anatomy of Nostalgia Films: Heritage and Methods dictates that nostalgia falls into one of two categories, restorative or reflective. The former attempts to recapture an imagined past and is often used in politics (think MAGA hats). Whilst the latter is wistful and escapist (often relying on iconography) making it the more popular choice to use in almost all forms of visual media.
Unsurprisingly, the term “nostalgia porn” has received increased use in recent years due to the influx of nostalgic pieces of media (think IT and Stranger Things) all of which are particularly reliant on the pop culture iconography of a Reagan-era United States. But prior to the contemporary fascination with the neon-soaked ’80s, the media and public have fallen into the trap of nostalgic romance with almost every other decade.
There’s been an exhausting amount of debate over the length of the nostalgia cycle. Some theorists state it’s length as being exactly 20 years, others 40. But the most agreed upon length of time is 30 years, being the length of average human generations. This length of time allows children to become working adults and more importantly, evolve from former media consumers to media creators. Combined with the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia, this causes emerging filmmakers to idealize the past of their childhood in their own media creations.
Currently, we lay helpless as we are force-fed intense nostalgia porn for the 1980s in almost every form imaginable. This is only just beginning to die off as we head into the ’20s and thus edge into 90’s nostalgia. Said transition is already evident in the faux grunge fashion styles reaching high-street clothing stores.
Although easy uses of nostalgia reduce countless pieces of media to cheap imitations and homages, the practice is not a new capitalist invention. In the ’80s there was plenty of nostalgia for the ’50s. Take ’80s titans such as Happy Days and Back to The Future, which present picturesque, cookie-cutter versions of the 1950s.
Aside from the rose-tinted worlds of restorative and reflective nostalgia, there exists a much rarer third category coined by video essayist Lindsay Ellis as “deconstructive” that looks at the past through a critical lens. Examples of this are few and far between but as Ellis herself notes in her video IT, Stranger Things and The Upside Down of Nostalgia, a perfect example is Brad Bird’s 1999 debut The Iron Giant.
Despite being a family film, The Iron Giant is one of the most successful deconstructive texts of all time. It is not too ambitious in it’s messaging and remains consistently aware of its audience throughout, whilst maintaining the wonder of nostalgia for the period. The 50’s style animation is reminiscent of contemporary artists such as Norman Rockwell and Edward Hopper, who served as inspiration for the film’s own animators.
Like in many other 50’s set pieces of media, the film features a focus on communism, isolationism, and patriotism. The Iron Giant is unapologetic and anything but subtle in its criticism of 50’s America. Both dialogue and visuals are used extensively to convey the American army and general publics own homogenization. Suits, military and waitress uniforms mirror the apparent analog societies of Russia and China that the officers and government are so intimidated by.
As for dialogue take the army and agent Kent Mansley’s paranoia over the giant’s existence and where it came from, resulting in Mansleys outburst at Hogarth in the diner.
“The Russians? The Chinese? The Martians? Canadians?! I DON’T CARE! All I know is we didn’t build it, and that’s reason enough to assume the worst and blow it to kingdom come!”
Contrasting the army and Mansley is beatnik artist Dean, who is lightly stylized towards a more 90’s aesthetic. His position as an outsider in the town again demonstrates 50’s fears of the unknown, even when that unknown is just someone clad entirely in black. It’s his position as an outcast that allows Dean to immediately see the lack of threat that the Giant possesses. It’s also with his help that Hogarth is able to initially hide his new friend from the paranoid army.
While The Iron Giant does not succumb to direct references often and is more inclined to recreate the atmosphere of the era rather than particular touchstones, a rare exception is one that is handled beautifully. Hogarth shows the Giant a Superman comic, in which his new friend identifies with the mechanical villain more than the hero. To this Hogarth responds that he can be whatever he chooses to be.
During the film’s climax, the Giant sacrifices himself by soaring into the sky to divert the missile tracking him away from the town and therefore saving everybody watching below. It’s as he flies away that he utters the word superman and broke a million hearts.
The family-friendly message delivered by The Iron Giant is that difference need not be scary if you listen and are receptive to it. Instead of attempting to make audiences yearn for the “greater” days of 1950’s Americana, Brad Bird warns of the eras intolerance and intense xenophobia.
In the latest season of the behemoth Netflix series Stranger Things, the show (shallowly) explores the political landscape of the Reagan led 80’s while slightly abandoning it’s prior dark tone in order to maintain a neon and synth fuelled atmosphere. Scenes in the previous season hinted at the era’s politics without trying to make any direct commentary or take any firm stance. For starters, the upper-middle-class Wheeler family sport a Reagan picket on their lawn whilst Dustin’s single mother opts for a Walter Mondale one.
Carrying on the pseudo-commentary is the third seasons narrative heavily borrowed from ’50s media. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers-esque plot follows the mind flayer building an army of… zombies? There isn’t much explanation but there is a hell of a lot of communism references.
Stranger Things latest season reads as extremely pro-Reagan. There’s the new setting of Starcourt Mall, plenty of Russian bad guys and a commy zombie army threatening the whole town’s existence. While there is a brief reference to the mall wiping out small business in the first two episodes, this is forgotten about soon enough. Instead, the mall is cool and the hive of all cool ’80s activities. This includes, of course, a cinema to allow a reference to 1985’s biggest release, a small indie film called Back to the Future.
The show may be attempting to satirize the pro-capitalist and Reagan vibes of classics like Ghostbusters, but these attempts fall empty. Instead, they make the entire show appear to be those very things.
Through the use of instantly recognizable 80’s iconography and much sanitization, the Duffer brothers have successfully created an imaginary world that satisfies both those who grew up in the ’80s and those with a distanced adoration for it. Middle-aged viewers are able to relish in the glory of their youth while forgetting the ignorance of the time.
A commonly lauded aspect of the latest season was the shows decision to lean into its more soap opera aspects. The season’s intense focus on the importance of love, trust and relationships were at the loss of potentially more horror elements in an exchange that felt severely uneven.
For all of it’s preaching about acceptance and differences, the show remains very much homogenized. Despite being a great character and one of only two non-white characters in the main cast, Lucas is made into a human butt of the joke and is consistently sidelined.
Lindsay Ellis mentions that the show is devoid of the casual racism, sexism, and homophobia of the real 1980s, making it much more palatable to contemporary audiences. This is in stark contrast to The Iron Giant‘s consistent satirical portrayal of American xenophobia and intolerance.
The ’50s and ’80s are unsurprising choices of decades to idealize. LeSeur states that the periods often subjected to nostalgia are those of stability and are typically immediately prior to periods of war and disruption. Although the ’50s and ’80s had their own sociopolitical and economic stresses such as the cold war and AIDS crisis, they pale in comparison to the deluge of media focusing on cataclysmic events such as the Vietnam war. Additionally, the cookie-cutter imagery of the ’50s and ’80s make the day to day lives of the decades appear more peaceful and idyllic.
Stranger Things is much more celebratory of its set decade than The Iron Giant and more than occasionally suffers for it. The show was one of the first recent pieces of media to cause the resurgence of the nostalgia porn term and its homages often feel shallow and vacant. Opposingly, The Iron Giant feels like a successful warning against the romanticization of the past while still providing that warm fuzzy feeling that nostalgia is so beloved for.
While nostalgic media is warmly welcomed by all and can be a fantastic vehicle for deconstructing various issues of the past, most forms of visual media tend to simply rely on empty homage to appeal to our rose-tinted glass sensibilities and idealized versions of an imagined past.
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