Post #14: Whose Nostalgia Is It Anyway?

Post #14: Whose Nostalgia Is It Anyway?

By Vincent Tomasso
Orignally published Sunday January 18 2015

Josh Larsen of FilmSpotting (episode #519) cited nostalgia as a major characteristic of 2014 in film. In particular he mentioned The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson’s faux-WW II picture that Larsen called “A comedy about the tragedy of nostalgia.” I wonder whether Guardians of the Galaxy also fits into the same category. For most, that film’s soundtrack, Awesome Mix Vol. 1, which consists of popular songs from the 1960s and ’70s, is enough evidence for many that Guardians is evoking nostalgia.

But this music didn’t bring me back in the way that, say, the soundtrack of Boyhood did. As a child of the late ‘80s and ‘90s whose parents didn’t like the Awesome Mix tunes when they were younger, none of the tracks were familiar to me--other than perhaps “Hooked on a Feeling”, which I was vaguely aware of through the dancing baby sequences in Ally McBeal. (Marvel seems to have been aware that my generational cohort was left out in the cold, so tried to force-feed us nostalgic longing with the release of Awesome Mix on cassette tape). I doubt I was alone in my lack of nostalgic connection to the music, nor did had I encountered any of the characters before. For these reasons I became curious about how Guardians had to manufacture nostalgia in contrast to pre-2014 Marvel properties that haven’t had to.

In 1996 Madan Sarup and Tasneem Raja argued that “the nostalgic impulse is an important agency in adjustment to crisis” (Identity, Culture, and the Postmodern World, p. 97). The superhero film strikes me as a particularly fitting illustration of what Sarup and Raja are talking about. The first superheroes were created around the time of the Depression and World War II as America’s response to economic, social, and political crises around the globe. The second wave was created in the early 1960s with social upheavals just on the horizon. The current superhero fad in film is related to the crisis of 9/11, as many scholars have discussed. Nostalgia is an inherent part of the way superhero films are constructed now: their characters are often culled from previous decades, even if their storylines are new.

Figure 1: Cap re-enacts a scene (left) from his first comic-book appearance (right).

Figure 1: Cap re-enacts a scene (left) from his first comic-book appearance (right).

The Marvel films prior to Guardians focused on characters who were very familiar from comics dating back to the 1940 and 60s as well as in popular media: Captain America (first appearance 1941), Thor (1962), the Hulk (1962), and Iron Man (1963). These films interact with the 30+ year narrative histories of each character in very complex ways, but I can’t get into the intricacies of each in this post. Suffice it to say that each entry tickles its audience’s nostalgia bone by referring to plotlines and characters from the earliest incarnations. For instance, Cap punching out an actor playing Hitler in Captain America: The First Avenger refers to the cover of Captain America Comics #1 (1941) (figure 1). But this is a subtle nod, and characters and their appearances are nostalgia enough; the films themselves don’t go to lengths to create nostalgia. Of course Cap provides double nostalgia dose as a figure from World War II (and so his first film is what theorist Frederic Jameson would call a “nostalgia film”) who also became part of Marvel’s Silver-Age Avengers along with Iron Man, Hulk, and Thor in 1964 (Avengers #4).

Guardians is different than previous Avengers entries, though, in large part because the protagonists of the film aren’t familiar, even to those fairly well-acquainted with the Marvel Universe. Furthermore the composition of the team roster in the 2014 film dates back only to 2008. Marvel’s Guardians originally appeared in 1969, which makes the concept almost as old as the Avengers who’ve already gotten films, but the only character in the film with any connection to the ’69 team is Yondu, at best a supporting character (and a few shades away from an antagonist) in 2014’s Guardians. The rest have some history in the Marvel Universe dating back to the ’60s and ’70s, but only as minor (at best) characters. Ironically, in Groot’s first appearance (Tales to Astonish #13, 1959) he’s trying to kidnap an entire town for his planet to experiment on. Fortunately, he’s defeated by wood termites!

When Quill introduces himself to Ronan the Accuser’s troops as “Star-lord. Y’know, the legendary outlaw?”, he is met with a sneering lack of recognition. This mirrors the audience’s reaction to a group of characters who were brought together as the Guardians in 2008. Hardly enough time for almost anyone in the audience to be nostalgic about them.

Figure 2: Quill’s tape deck on the Milano. Note the Alf and Garbage Pail Kids trading cards on the right and the troll doll on the left.

Figure 2: Quill’s tape deck on the Milano. Note the Alf and Garbage Pail Kids trading cards on the right and the troll doll on the left.

Figure 3: Star-Lord’s dance-off victory over Ronan the Accuser.

Figure 3: Star-Lord’s dance-off victory over Ronan the Accuser.

Given this inherent difficulty in evoking nostalgia in Guardians, the strategy of director James Gunn was to make the concept of nostalgia the central element of the film. Quill teaches his non-human companions about ’80s Earth culture (he tells Gamora about Footloose), peppers his conversation with pop-culture references (he calls Rocket “Ranger Rick” and tells Drax that Earth is “a planet of outlaws: Billy the Kid, Bonnie and Clyde, John Stamos…”), listens to a Walkman with songs from the ’60s and ’70s (apparently Gunn’s original contribution according to an interview with Jeff Goldsmith), and named his ship Milano after ’80s TV star Alyssa Milano, on which he’s installed a tape deck (figure 2). None of this is particularly nostalgic for me, and I wish Marvel had stuck with scriptwriter Nicole Perlman’s idea (as revealed on Scriptnotes) to use references to Star Wars. With the Disney/Marvel/Lucasfilm merger, why on earth didn’t this happen?!

The film itself enacts Quill’s nostalgia on a broader level with visual references to ’80sfilms such as Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielburg 1981) when the Orb incinerates one of the Collector’s assistants on Knowhere, and Footloose (Ross 1984) when Quill distracts Ronan by dancing to “O-o-h Child” (figure 3), which results in the villain’s defeat

But Quill’s nostalgia for Earth culture is itself premised on his mom’s nostalgia, since she made Awesome Mix Vol. 1 for him before she dies in the film’s first scene. The film thus acknowledges that the mashed-up pop-cultural past of Earth is owned by multiple constituencies. Nostalgia is embedded in the fabric of our lives to the point that “nostalgia” doesn’t necessarily mean our own desires for a past that we ourselves experienced.

Figure 4: The Collector (first appearance: 1966) is consoled by Cosmo the Space Hound (first appearance: 2008).

Figure 4: The Collector (first appearance: 1966) is consoled by Cosmo the Space Hound (first appearance: 2008).

The film’s Taneleer Tivan (AKA The Collector) is another embodiment of nostalgia in the film. In his headquarters on the galactic outpost Knowhere, he houses items from previous Marvel films, like a live Chitauri (from 2012’s The Avengers) as well as obscure characters from the Marvel Universe’s attic such as Adam Warlock--or his cocoon, anyway (first appearance: Fantastic Four #66 in 1967). The Collector is a metaphor for the Marvel Universe itself, and his bruised and bandaged appearance at the end of the film (figure 4), as well as the fact that several of his acquisitions have been freed from their confinement--including Seth Green’s Howard the Duck--symbolize the topsy-turvy, irreverent approach to the past that Guardians takes.

All of this adds up to a jumble of artifacts from the past in a film that looks like a futuristic sci-fi romp, but is in fact set in our present. Through this, Guardians speaks to the complexity of modern nostalgia, acknowledging the powerful draw of the past while also moving productively beyond it. Guardians is a film about nostalgia, about the different kinds of past that inform us, that make us who we are. Science fiction is said to estrange us from our own experience of the world--it de-familiarizes the familiar. I recognized Awesome Mix Vol. 1 as songs of the American past, and for that reason Guardians accomplished what it wanted: a past informing the present but not suffocating it. One of the final shots of the film is Quill opening the gift that his mom gave him on her deathbed: Awesome Mix Vol. 2. Through the events of the film Quill is able to accept his past and move on. And so he moves on...to 1967 with Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s hit “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” playing as the Milano leaves Xandar for “new” adventures.

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