(The original title, jokingly because I couldn’t think of a good title, was “Steven Steal-berg”.)
In Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Owen Wilson plays Gil, a vacationing screenwriter working on a novel about a man who owns a nostalgia shop. That a screenwriter would have this notion seems about par for the course, as Hollywood has almost completely turned itself into just that: a nostalgia shop. Comic books, toys, cartoons, amusement park rides, old movies and now even board games – it’s all fair game for a cinematic rendering in a way that didn’t exist, or at least not with any real quality, a decade ago.
Gil, of course, magically goes back in time and visits his favorite writers in 1920s Paris, falling in love. For most of today’s directors, it’s not nearly as far a journey. Many just can’t get past how rad the ’80s were, or get over how wizard the ’70s were, when Steven Spielberg made their favorite movies. But in these re-tellings, the memories they are reshaping are too often secondhand themselves, memories that directors like Spielberg, George Lucas, the Bobs (Zemeckis and Gale) or Martin Scorsese originally got from the B-movies, serials and television of their own childhoods. Like the ever-worsening quality of a cassette tape, the further down the generational line you get from the original, the more fuzzy and shapeless things get.
Released under a veil of unwarranted secrecy, J.J. Abrams’ retro monster movie, Super 8, was a case of both the excitement and frustration that comes with the childhood nostalgia picture. Executive produced by Spielberg, Abrams’ childhood idol, Super 8 looked to recreate both the era and the energy of films likeE.T., Close Encounters and The Goonies. In the first half, Abrams gives us the story of a troop of pre-teen filmmakers making an 8mm zombie movie. It featured some of the most heartwarming, refreshing sequences of the summer, watching this everyman group of kids take shape through the trauma of death, crushing on the same girl, a failing film and, oh yeah, a giant, starving alien attacking their town. But it “evoke[s] memories of classic summer blockbusters a little too eagerly for some,” according to the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, and users are forbidden from even speaking of Super 8’s ubiquitous lens flares on the Something Awful forums. It’s in Abrams’ rendering of a malevolent alien searching for food and parts to fix his ship, though, that he fails to become his idol. Going for easy scares, he forgets that Spielberg’s most enduring and endearing images of aliens were of benevolent envoys, not devourers. E.T., his best-known alien, was a friend to Elliott when few others would be. He was based on the imaginary friend Spielberg had as a child, and he inspired openness and caring, not fear. E.T. was a “he,” not an “it.”
Greg Mottola’s Paul at least gets the alien right in his pastiche of wide-eyed childhood action-adventure. Told through the prism of the biggest bong rip you’ve ever taken, Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen) is actually the inspiration behind all of those Spielberg alien movies, and the Man himself even has a vocal cameo. But it’s too much. It’s all nostalgic joke, no nostalgic heart. The story seems to be a vehicle with which to deliver the pop-culture jokes that Mottola, Nick Frost, Simon Pegg and Rogen have been building up over the last 20 years, while setting them in alien-friendly pop-culture locations like Comic-Con, Area 51 and Devil’s Tower. But they don’t actually do anything new with their nostalgic loves, the way Spielberg, Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan did when they spun their memories of cliffhanger shorts and comic books into Raiders of the Lost Ark. The latter’s characters and story bear out all of its inspirations, but with a new cinematic vocabulary. They built something new.
Of course, even Spielberg isn’t immune to criticism when it comes to touching nostalgic favorites. He himself faced the ire of fans in the specter of the “Tintinologists” when his Tintin was released in Europe. According to The Independent, some critics compared it to “witnessing a rape” or said that it was an “airless pastiche” of their beloved Hergé comics. Having felt burned by some of the films that trod on my childhood, I’m sympathetic. But nostalgia is a personal passion. In Midnight in Paris, we learn that pining for lost eras is a fool’s errand – everything and every period seems better than the one people are stuck in … until you get a toothache and realize that Novocain hasn’t yet been invented. This year, many filmmakers could’ve used that piece of wisdom.