Movie Time Travel and the New Nostalgia

“How far back do you want me to go?” asks the cynical heroine of 2012’s time travel rom-com, Safety Not Guaranteed. Her name is Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and like the women of Lena Dunham’s Girls, she’s an ironic, bitter, college-educated intern whose ponytail falls into the toilet when she’s stuck replacing TP rolls at the office. She represents the “new” nostalgia, longing for a time before… dead-end internships? How far back do we need to go, indeed?

When was that time again? When sharp, qualified women got internships that led to bright, fruitful careers? There’s always been someone changing the toilet paper rolls after all. Or worse, scrubbing the toilet. I guess she’s imagining a time when the college degree was supposed to save you from menial work. Has it ever held that kind of safe guarantee for minorities?

In Darius’ case, she and her time travel paramour Kenneth (Mark Duplass) only want to get back to 2001, a conspicuous year, no doubt. We never learn if the month is September or not, but either way, they don’t want to change anything “big”. In Darius’ case, she’ll be less snarky to her mom and try to save her from an act of random violence. At any rate, the desire to go back, the nostalgic urge, is self-centered. It’s not about saving the world (or changing it). It’s about returning to a zone of barely remembered individual happiness that may not have been there in the first place.

The nostalgic impulse is by nature, bittersweet. It signals the urge to return, but the precise destination is always a bit fuzzy. The term originates in the 17th century as a diagnostic for homesickness, attributed to the malaise of soldiers at war away from their homeland. It literally means “longing to return home,” although the home longed for is usually a vague feeling rather than an actual locale.

Every culture (and subculture) has its own version of nostalgia. At the last century’s turn there was an upsurge of nostalgia for, remember this: World War II? A spate of movies, led by Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, Windtalkers, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, etc. swept across the big screens. Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation (about the boomer’s parental units) topped the bestseller lists for a few years, along with Stephen Ambrose’s popular war histories. In culture, swing dancing became popular as did The Gap and khakis, informal military wear.

This particular nostalgia imagined that there was something “classic” and pure about life in the ’40s and ’50s, when “men were men”, when the nation banded together to win the war, and when the American dream was apparently viable. Brokaw always remarked that the “Greatest Generation’s” greatest feat was to build the highways. And no one complained! (See also “Archie Bunker and America’s Argument Around the Dinner Table” by W. Scott Poole.)

But the ’40s and ’50s were horrible times for lots of people. Nostalgia is never a return to the actual time. It’s a specific reconstruction of the past, a rewriting of it, to soothe present-tense anxieties. Boomer lust for WWII was a simultaneous lame tribute to dying vets (Happy Father’s Day! Here’s another copy of “The Greatest Generation!”) and a slap in the face to their slacker kids, Generation X. Gen-X failed to get real jobs and in general, to care whether they did or not.

So what’s the “new” nostalgia all about? I’ve seen it turn up in several recent films.

In Looper, time travel happens so that the younger man can kill his old man self and then “retire”, living the high life in a penthouse apartment until his pay-off money runs out and his self-murder date swings around. The nostalgia in this movie is not about the young adult party lifestyle. It goes much farther back, toward childhood, and the faded, unknowable memories of toddlerhood, a time before cognition. It’s a fact of memory that no one really remembers anything before age two.

In Looper, this loss manifests in the tragic figure of an angry toddler who will grow into a deadly gangster. The movie visits him on a farm where he lives with his mom (Emily Blunt). The child is furious with her for abandoning him as an infant. Though she returned and tries to make amends, the boy uses telepathic powers to punish her and anyone else who inspires a tantrum.

Notably, the film sets these sequences apart from its futuristic cityscapes. Instead, we move to a farm and a cornfield. The setting locates a desire to travel back, not only to childhood, but to a pre-industrial world. The farm suggests pre-suburban existence. Blunt’s character chops wood with an ax, blistering her hands. Though we’re late in the twenty-first century, farms still operate as if it’s the olden-y times.

Farm life, extolled in the current “green movement, suggests a time before the highways, the shopping centers, the suburbs and the modern conveniences that sprang up in the post-war mid-century. This sprawl, and its untrammeled interest in consumerism, is part of the global climate crisis that has taken prominence in the last decade.

No wonder our current cultural nostalgia longs for a pre-industrial halcyon. We now obsess over the loss of local farming, simple tools, hard work and daily eggs from the henhouse. Consider the recent urban agricultural fad to bring animal husbandry back into cities in such liberal bastions as Madison, Wisconsin, Seattle, Washington and of course, Portland, Oregon. These movements seek to revive pre-industrial and early twentieth century lifestyles that were already naturally “green.” One of Portlandia’s most trenchant skits notes that it’s not really the ’90s that hipsters are after, but the 1890s. The actual historical conditions of the 1890s are irrelevant. Nostalgia selects the most compelling details, in this case: canning, chickens, and mustaches.

In Safety Not Guaranteed, Darius’ boss, a 40-year-old Tucker Max type, seeks out his high school girlfriend, who happens to be an urban chickenist. She tosses corn-feed sexily and he falls hard, rejecting the shallow values of urban Seattle for the “purity” of rural zones and home-cooking.

Darius and Kenneth, when they finally take off in their time machine, do so from a secluded lake. They also perform most of their time travel combat training in the woods or on the beach. Nostalgia, and time travel, is figured as environmentally pure.

Films always offer the fantasy of time travel, as the medium itself plays with time, usually condensing days, weeks or even years into around 100 minutes. We usually think of time travel as the domain of science fiction, but historical films fulfill the same sort of promise, the ability to hang out in the past, to reconsider it, through a visual portal.

Even films that dwell in the future, like portions of the recent Cloud Atlas, tend to have the look of days of yore. The beachy, “green” planet at the end of Cloud resembles a hybrid future: technologic and agrarian at once. Halle Berry’s futurist heroine may have wires embedded in her head like a regular cyborg, but she’s also decked out in hand-made macram√© and seashells. She obviously “buys” locale. In fact, the closing beach planet in Cloud Atlas looks a little bit like the beach paradise in Moonrise Kingdom, the most overtly nostalgic film of 2012.

Moonrise Kingdom is also a time travel film, in its own way. Its narrator, played with sincere irony by Bob Balaban, appears to have traveled in from the future. Early on, he announces that a “famous” storm will “strike in three day’s time.”

The film only seems to long for 1965, the year in which it is set. It takes place on a fictional northeastern island, inhabited by whites who “summer” there, far from the social unrest besetting the rest of the US during that year. However, in focusing on the Boy Scouts and outpost living, the film shows a nostalgia less for 1965, than for the pre-urban time that scouting itself fantasizes about.

The Boy Scouts of America were founded in 1910 as an antidote to two emerging cultural trends: the notion that women had too much influence over boys now that dads had jobs outside the home and the lack of “frontier” in modern, city life. The Boy Scouts sought to rescue boyhood, and thus masculinity, through a regimen of camping and outdoor ritual. In a 1914 annual report, a boy scout leader wrote: “The Wilderness is gone, the Buckskin Man is gone, the painted Indian has hit the trail over the Great Divide, the hardships and privations of pioneer life which did so much to develop sterling manhood are now but a legend in history, we must depend upon the Boy Scout Movement to produce the MEN of the future.”

Moonrise Kingdom seems to lust for a similar jamboree, imagining an island of adorable, sterling manhood.

The new nostalgia signals the ultimate rejection of millennial anxiety, postmodernism, irony and the future. The new nostalgia longs for a pre-industrial, green world, a time that imagines the urban before it succumbed to pollution and was beset by decay. Of course, all of these associations are ahistorical and fleeting. They are ideas that suggest a vague and painful longing for something that never quite was.

Moonrise Kingdom’s fictional New Penzance Island was once home to the also-fictional “Chickchaw” Indian nation. The film makes light of this aspect of American history by sticking in “cute”, absent Indians. Where have they gone in this version? Killed? Peacefully departed? Balaban’s narrator delights in the quaint history of the Indians’ territory and their “migration”.

Nostalgia always cherry picks, as this film does, the most romantic details, ignoring the grime, the violence, the history, or as the beach folk in Cloud Atlas might state it, “the true true”.

Our latest nostalgia revels, perhaps even more than prior versions, in the fake fake.