Three Oscar-nominated films of 2011 celebrate the imagined simplicity of film production and exhibition in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

My earlier research on Song of the South fans (and subsequent reactions to the book) raised deeply disturbing questions about general audiences’ ability to engage with the messy and complex contradictions in history—disturbing questions that I naively tried to navigate in a last gasp of the utopic impulses of our “participatory” culture. Song of the South, a racist depiction of the Plantation-era South, has been revised by some today to be a warm, reassuring vision of racial utopia without any grounding in historical fact (either the time period depicted, or the time in which it was made). Too often, audiences conflate personal interpretations of old movies with actually doing historical research—a perfect symptom of a lack of historical consciousness in our postmodern age.

The stunning success of so many 3D digital movies between 2009 and 2011 (including champ Avatar) had less to do with turning 3D into a theatrical mainstay and was more about the hugely successful push to force movie theatres to convert to digital projection.

The Lumière Brothers famously declared that cinema was “an invention without a future,” which becomes re-appropriated in Hugo to suggest we cannot yet imagine what the future of digital/3D cinema will present us. Ironically though, there is an active resistance to imagining the future in favor of a reassuringly nostalgic look back—as capitalism’s greatest strength is shutting down the potential futures of possible alternatives.

A broken man in the wake of the end of silent cinema, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) in The Artist suggests another narrative of individualism — where people are victims of circumstances beyond their control, and have only themselves to blame for not challenging themselves for the better.

The Artist’s sound final sequence features George speaking to us with a heavy French accent, with the perhaps unintended irony of reminding more savvy viewers that cinema was once a truly global language, and that the introduction of sound restricted creative possibilities to the movies as much as it presented them.


Specters of film:
new nostalgia movies and Hollywood’s digital transition

by Jason Sperb

“Each of these [2011 Oscar-nominated] movies [The Artist, Hugo, Midnight in Paris] deal with the conflict of reconciling past and present, and offers its own solution and resolutions that while not always practical, satisfy us emotionally. In each we find the pain of nostalgia, the problem of transition, and the power of, and need for, the past.”
—Andrew Gilbert, “The Death of Film and the Hollywood Response”[1][open endnotes in new window]

Except [these films] don’t speak, and that is the point.”
—Joshua Clover, “Marx and Coca-Cola”[2]

Nostalgia can be less about reclaiming a vanishing past as resisting a threatening future: how to pull back against the endless rush to change, or against the inevitable end of mortality itself? In 2011, a series of nostalgic love letters—The Artist, Hugo and Midnight in Paris—dominated end-of-the year accolades among film critic circles and industry award shows. In their idiosyncratic, ambivalent ways all three cinephiliac works celebrated the imagined simplicity of film production and exhibition in the late 1920s and early 1930s. At the same time, though less celebrated, the year 2011 also marked two key shifts in cinema’s decades-long digital transition—the wide-scale industrial push to end celluloid projection in theatrical exhibition and to cease production of 35mm cameras (Panavision, ARRI). At the technological dawn of a most fully realized “digital cinema” yet—where every aspect of traditional movie-going (production, distribution and exhibition) was now quite often digital—we instead saw an emphatic celebration of Hollywood’s celluloid past by several famous filmmakers intensely invested in the preservation of film history.

If the stark juxtaposition of film’s past with cinema’s future seemed ironic then, it shouldn’t have. Nostalgia, among other impulses such as observing decadence and decay, is always most intense during periods of dramatic cultural and technological upheaval. At those points the perceived reassurances of a simpler past anchor perceptions of an uncertain present (and future).[3] In this sense, nostalgia is really about the lingering specter of death. The awareness that everything must one day end plants the idea that moments and memories lost will never come again. Paradoxically, personal and collective (cinematic) fantasies of a past that often never existed in the first place become the only way to relive it. Thus, it’s easy to see how the dying medium of film—imagining its own mortality in sight—would symbolically resist the inevitability of its own digital mummification by retreating back to a joyous youth. There is certainly something sad, even pathetic, about nostalgia. But, if we assume that nostalgia’s function here is partly to ease the transition to the age of a digital cinema that contains no necessary relationship to the medium of film, if we see such melancholic impulses as only an attempt to hold onto an idealized past, we also risk further de-rooting other, more pressing, histories at work here beyond the most narratively transparent—i.e., the history of early cinema (Hugo) or the history of the transition to sound (The Artist).

Looking at many of these 2011 “nostalgia films,” Andrew Gilbert has taken an ambivalent approach to the larger industrial impact of Hollywood’s digital transition. Acknowledging the importance of film nostalgia today, Gilbert also insists that “the change is good; digital is cheaper and quicker.”[4] This democratic logic is in some ways sound. If a flood of low budget digital movies becomes more economically feasible, opening up more avenues (in both production and distribution) for more filmmakers, the hope is that more interesting, maybe even more original, movies will emerge without the pressure of appealing to a mass audience in order to recoup escalating production and promotional expenses. Nostalgia, Gilbert argues, becomes merely a way for the studios to alleviate the tensions inherent in an uncertain, but perhaps profound, moment of industrial change—Hollywood’s “answer to the crisis of this [digital] evolution.”[5]

Yet power relations as described here pose the problem inaccurately. Rather than simply reacting to a transition over which it otherwise has no control, Hollywood is as much to blame for the crisis in question. Meanwhile, the point is not that studios are trying to find a solution so much as they are trying to naturalize the shock of an arbitrary technological change they themselves have forced in the name of economic opportunism. “Harsh economic times and the affordability of digital media” are definitely central factors in pushing the film medium out.[6] Yet the bigger mistake is in failing to foreground the extent to which “harsh economic times and the affordability of digital media” are not two separate phenomena but have instead maintained a mutually-destructive relation over the last several years.

Scholarly discourses on the innovations of digital cinema have still not come to grips with disturbing questions regarding the negative impact on labor forces and economic conditions as a result of the digital transition—what does it mean to be a post-industrial, information-based economy? Film is (was) a labor-intensive medium. Yet while it is fair to celebrate some of the money saved as a result of the cheap economics of digital video cinematography, digital Internet distribution, and even perhaps digital theatrical exhibition (for some), it seems fair to ask at what cost? Many aspects of making movies with the medium of film cost more than with digital, yet that’s also because more people were previously employed—from film developers to union projectionists. The transition in the United States from a manufacturing to an information-based economy necessitates more specialized jobs, but for fewer people.

Studies on the digital transition have not yet given full consideration to the impact of innovation on larger labor practices—especially, within the “digital sweatshops” of Hollywood. This crisis came to a head during the Oscar Protests surrounding the abuse of digital VFX and animation workers who contributed to the award-winning Life of Pi (2012).

At the same time, even those highly skilled jobs suffer from the decreasing value of labor in the late capitalist marketplace, as demonstrated by the 2013 Oscar protest (since repeated in 2014) around the treatment of effects artists and animators working on Life of Pi (2012). Studios saved money by moving to digital production and distribution, but this has not translated to lower ticket prices, for instance—indeed, quite the opposite in an age of IMAX and 3D ticket inflation. And what of the audience’s own labor in an age of participatory culture and crowdsourcing, when studios increasingly rely on uncompensated fan production (blogs, videos), the free hype of social media, and other digital avenues to promote high-profile movies at minimal cost?[7] As I’ve discussed previously,[8] there are disturbing long-term economic questions in the age of digital cinema—how the digital transition affects the economic viability of film archives, celluloid manufacturers, and independent movie theatres, all of whom risk extinction under the crushing financial burdens which only rise as film itself becomes increasingly rare and thus more expensive.

Hugo (2011) expresses a profound nostalgia for machines—clocks, automatons, trains—an ironic relationship to the material age in a movie entirely built by the immateriality of digital technologies.

In reading Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, Joshua Clover sees a nostalgically reassuring allegory for labor in the age of digital cinema, wherein increasingly we have a workforce whose jobs are replaced through technological innovation. In Hugo, he notes, everybody is trying to find their place, their function within a larger mechanism (i.e., their job). The emphasis on machines in the movie such as the clocks and the toy automaton is ironic, since

“automation is what replaces living labor, increasing productivity but undermining the very source of surplus value until every process is nearly perfected, nearly everybody is out of work, and the economy is in crisis.”[9]

In short, the persistent utopic notion that digital’s short-term cost-cutting benefits are somehow a solution to harsh economic situations, rather than one key cause of it, may be precisely the root of the larger problem. Yet Hollywood’s solution so far has not been to idealize a better future still to come as much as to romanticize the industrial changes of the past, to pin hopes on the idea that economic problems will work themselves out because, such nostalgic logic goes, “they always have.”

In trying to understand popular culture’s peculiar relation to the past, history is thoroughly intertwined with nostalgia. This is not to say they offer the same perspective at all, but that it is practically impossible to separate one from the other in understanding how popular culture mediates our relationship to the past. In this sense, I argue that some iteration of postmodernism remains a viable mode of analysis in discussions of our present cinematic historical consciousness. For Fredric Jameson, the “nostalgia” mode of films has referred to the ways in which cinematic depictions of the past relied more on pop culture clichés than with understanding the contradictions and ambiguities of history. He was interested at the time he wrote in movies such as Chinatown (1974), with its noir-ish cinematic vision of the 1930s, and American Graffiti (1973)—a cliché of 1950s Baby Boomer teen culture. Both films relied on stylistic conventions of the past.

For Fredric Jameson, American Graffiti (1974) was a perfect example of the postmodern “nostalgia” film—a work more interested in a romanticized stylization of 1950s white Baby Boomer nostalgia than in the complex cultural and political contingencies of the actual time period.

Equally important to Jameson, however, is how the films offered an aesthetic and cultural reflection of economic changes in late capitalism, where the idea of “historical consciousness” is defined in part as an (in)attention to questions of market changes and labor practices which create a context for images too often de-rooted from their historical origins in the postmodern age. Such cinematic visions of history—both old films still circulating, as well as contemporary depictions of the past—are undoubtedly affectively rich (meaning, they possess the potential to provoke any number of possible responses from the viewer). But these same images are inherently meaningless as representations of the past—simulacra, pastiche—without the various contexts that might create historical consciousness.

On their own, Hugo and The Artist fail to maintain a coherent critique beyond the passive Hollywood endorsement of capitalism typical of most mass-marketed films—an ideological muddle directly extending from their reactive sense of history as pastiche (here, Jameson’s distinction from the older form of parody is important, which possessed a political urgency he sees lacking in the neutrality of pastiche).

At the risk of misunderstanding, it’s also important to acknowledge how we still have access to “history”—in spite of the nostalgia mode—through enough time, research and labor. As a film historian myself, I certainly believe in this ideal. But it’s equally true that such intensive work is very rarely done in a moment of popular culture when personal interpretations of old films become equated with studying film history. This is something, for example, that my previous work on such de-rooted fan defenses of Song of the South sought to demonstrate.[10] Criticisms of Jameson’s notion of pastiche have all argued that individual agency still allows for an engagement with history in spite of the de-historicizing pastiche of the nostalgia image.[11]

Richard Dyer, for instance, insists that “pastiche allows us to feel the historicity of our feelings,” through acknowledging the felt presence of the past, through the juxtaposition of the knowing imitation (the pastiche) alongside the original text being imitated.[12] In this regard, Dyer might argue that The Artist still creates an opening to understand film history by recognizing the difference between its own present pastiche and the original era of late silent film techniques it perfectly imitates. This reading indicates a perfectly legitimate possibility, and yet it privileges an ideal, active spectator in a consumer culture that too often thrives on passivity and inattention. And going forward, such nostalgic mythologies as in The Artist and Hugo can over time too easily take on a life of their own. In understanding how history is thus (not) “represented” in commercial cinema, this use of the word “nostalgia” (as opposed to more reflexive works, such as Sunset Boulevard [1951] that both highlight and criticize nostalgic impulses) seems appropriate to articulating a past that often is shaped, distorted, ignored and even replaced, by the prejudices and arrogance of present ideologies.

I argue that both stylistic iterations of postmodern pastiche in Hugo and The Artist nostalgically re-imagine an era before the sound transition as a metaphor for the shift from analog to digital technologies. Nostalgia for film in the age of digital cinema must be considered, at least in part, as an attempt (conscious or otherwise) to hide those destructive capitalistic tendencies underlining the digital transition within reassuring narratives of individual perseverance, industry tradition and technological inevitability. As a means to easing the transition from one period to the next, they look back to the last instance of truly profound economic and aesthetic change in the movie industry as the result of technological innovation. The transition in the 1920s was about more than just adding “talking” to otherwise silent images. The painstaking incorporation of dialogue, music and sound effects had a profound impact on what kind of cinematic stories could be told, how they could be told, by whom, and to whom. Sound radically changed filmmaking far more than subsequent experiments in color, widescreen, 3D and so forth.

And, yet, so what? What does that historical parallel between silent and digital cinema ultimately mean, ideologically? “Beyond their meta-cinematic nostalgia,” Clover writes, both Hugo and The Artist “speak to something larger. Except they don’t speak, and that is the point.”[13] While it’s seductive to imagine the present fascination with nostalgia for film history as one last rallying cry for the dying medium of celluloid, such a melancholic haze conceals far more than it illuminates. For example, Hugo was part of the prominent wave of Digital 3D movies released between 2009-2011 (including box-office champ, Avatar) which existed in large measure to simply force the market-wide conversion from 35mm projectors to Digital Cinema Packages (DCP), since none of these often highly lucrative titles could be screened on film. This was an extremely expensive undertaking for movie theatres, whose longer-term financial costs are cloudy at best—especially for independent and art cinemas. In addition, questions remain regarding maintenance, obsolescence, and the larger labor force.[14] In short, we should be mindful of how deeper economic problems are ignored, or worse, naturalized, in the present through these de-rooted fantasies. Such films envision a past where technological change is always inevitable, always incorporated irrespective of market forces, and always overcome through the power of individual perseverance.

Archaeologies of the future

“It was like a new kind of magic. I asked the Lumière brothers to sell me a camera, but they refused. You see they were convinced that movies were only a passing fad and they saw no future in it, or so they said.”
—Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), Hugo (2011)

In Hugo, looking back on the early days of his filmmaking career, Méliès (played by Kingsley), humorously noted during a particularly nostalgic flashback, that the Lumière Brothers, essentially the inventors of cinema, “were convinced that movies were only a passing fad and they saw no future in it.” It’s a not-so-subtle reference to one of early cinema’s great historical ironies, referred to by cinephiles throughout the decades. “The cinema is an invention without a future,” Louis Lumière supposedly declared at the dawn of movie history. The historical parallel in Hugo, meanwhile, is no doubt partially a wink to the future of movies in the digital age. It implies that if film survived, and even thrived, in the 20th Century, then certainly digital cinema (in whatever form) will thrive in the 21st. The anachronism, though, is readily apparent in this film’s own unapologetic nostalgia. In many ways, Hugo is much more about understanding the present developments (digital cinematography and 3D exhibition) in the film industry through past future(s)—the then-unimaginable potential of early cinema which even Lumière couldn’t see—than about actually imagining the still unrealized futures of digital cinema. Indeed, for all the utopic industrial rhetoric about the imagined promises of technological innovation, discourses about digital cinema are rarely really about the future, just as retro impulses of postmodernism are partially about shutting off future alternatives to capitalism.

Jameson’s discussion of these temporal contradictions and anachronisms in postmodern depictions of the past were focused in particular on the “nostalgia film,” which was less about personal usages of the term and more about a particularly stylized view of the past with little interest in historical documentation. In this scenario, the word “nostalgia” is perhaps misleading but nonetheless apt, since it is above all else more about the present’s romanticized fantasy of the past than about its unresolvable uncertainties. If this idea of postmodern pastiche seems itself dated, one needn’t look any further than The Artist.

The Artist is typical postmodern pastiche—the 1920s cinema (aspect ratio, no dialogue, Black and White look, etc) is the decade, and vice versa. There are certainly some clever moments (“Please, Be Silent”) but they don’t have any particular historical significance. And they are too often likely to be lost on audiences that are generally passive, uninformed or, at best, inattentive — taking The Artist entirely at face value.

The film concerns the initial failure of a major movie star from the silent era, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), to survive the transition to sound, finding himself quickly left behind by both an industry and a love interest, rising starlet Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), who have made the adjustment to a fundamentally new type of cinematic storytelling. A textbook instance of Hollywood pastiche in its representation of the silent era, the film reproduces the style of a black and white movie as a substitute for history. Hazanavicius wanted to make a silent film in part because of its inherent focus on the image as the primary means of storytelling.[15]

As a particularly acute instance of postmodern nostalgia, The Artist makes no distinction between silent black and white movies from the late 1920s and the decade itself—in other words, the image was the decade, and vice versa. Moreover, the use of actual Hollywood soundstages from the 1920s during production gave the film an added “realism,” noted cast member John Goodman in a making-of video—an ironic choice of words (as in, sites of cinematically-staged authenticity are equated with historical authenticity). In both cases, there’s no (historical) space outside that cinematic surface. Yet simply defining The Artist as pastiche in the digital age is perhaps the easiest, and certainly less urgent, half of the question. The film thoroughly de-historicizes the very same moment in time that it so lovingly mimics. Its deeper mythology involves a fantasy of triumphant individualism in the face of uncontrollable economic hardships—while Valentin reinvents himself and survives the transition, many real-life Valentins in the movie industry (on and off-screen) did not. Clover notes the irony of The Artist’s depiction of the end of the 1920s:

“Valentin, fictional star of the late silent age, is left behind by the advent of talkies—which in a fudged timeline falls on the day of the market collapse inaugurating the Great Depression. He is doubly displaced: by industrial advances, and by the collapse of the labor market. [ . . .] Technology and the market have left him behind.”[16]

The absence of history, meanwhile, is directly tied to its representation of labor. The Artist fails to say anything on the matter—in more ways than one—other than to offer the easy solution in the end. Then Valentin magically finds a new talent, dancing, and a thus a new job to pull himself out of his own great depression. Certainly, there are potentially sly historical jokes. At the end, Valentin finally speaks with a heavy French accent, humorously highlighting how spoken words in movies weren’t relevant yet—that more importantly, silent cinema in that regard was a truly global language. The irony is profoundly and unintentionally sad, reiterating how English became the dominant language of the 20th Century in part due to Hollywood’s post-world war domination of the marketplace, while also at times marginalizing non-English audiences and filmmakers.

Accumulatively, technological innovation—the long march from a manufacturing to information-based economy—has not created more jobs than it’s eliminated. It has not aided workers in production as much as it has made their physical labor increasingly obsolete. In this regard, many economic aspects of digital cinema are no different. “Newer technologies, newer automatons, promise some sort of restoration that doesn’t come,” Clover writes, “how could it, when these very same developments are the instruments of destruction?”[17] And the negative impact of the sound transition as depicted in The Artist wasn’t simply confined to a few high-profile movie stars. “In the 1920s,” Bruce Goldstein notes,

“the smallest theatres couldn’t afford the cost of wiring for sound, and many of them went under—particularly after the market crashed in 1929.” [18]

Goldstein’s larger point here is to use the early sound transition to highlight the impact of the digital age on the economics of theatrical exhibition today, a lurking historical parallel worth investigating further.

One of the untold stories of the sound transition in the late 1920s is how many theatres were forced to close as a result of not being able to afford the upgrade in equipment — an eerie parallel to a similar impact in the age of Digital Cinema Packages.

Go to page 2

To topPrint versionJC 56 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.