Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: Understanding the Past Through Summer Blockbusters

By  · Published on May 31st, 2011

Movies have a strange relationship with history, that’s for certain. On the one hand, they have the ability to bring to life, in spectacular detail, the intricate recreation of historical events. On the other hand, films can have a misleading and even potentially dangerous relationship with history, and can change the past for the benefit of storytelling or for political ends. And there’s always the option of using films to challenge traditional notions of history. Finally, many movies play with history through the benefit of cinema’s artifice. Arguably, it’s this last function that you see history function most often in relationship to mainstream Hollywood cinema. In playing with history, Hollywood rarely possesses a calculated political motive or a desire to recreate period detail. In seeking solely to entertain, Hollywood portrays the historical, but rarely history itself.

Tom Shone of Slate has written an insightful piece about a unique presence of that historical mode all over the movies seeking to be this summer’s blockbusters. Citing X-Men: First Class, Super 8, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Cowboys & Aliens as examples, Shone argues that this is an unusual movie summer in terms of the prominence of movies set in the past. However, while such a dense cropping of past-set films is unusual for this season, these movies don’t seem to be all that concerned with “the past” at all – at least, not in the way that we think.

The Past is Perpetually Present

Shone argues that this preoccupation with the past is a result of the (literal) dearth in what cinema sees as our future, as evidenced by anything from Wall-E to the most recent installment in The Terminator franchise (and, I would argue, non-summer movies like Book of Eli and The Road): if Hollywood says that all we have to look forward to is Dystopia, where’s the fun in that? The era of saloons and 8mm cameras becomes fodder for popcorn fare instead of the era of hoverboards and…other future stuff.

It’s not like the past is a rarely-tread area for Hollywood. For example, four of last year’s top twenty domestic grossers were films set in one past or another (True Grit, Clash of the Titans, The King’s Speech, and Shutter Island), it’s simply that none of them were released in the summer. Of course, The King’s Speech is the only one amongst these titles that had any direct intent of attempting to portray history itself as narrative. Most of these films were operating in Hollywood’s conventional historical mode, for “the past” in Hollywood cinema works more like a movie star or a genre rather than anything else: it brings forth automatic associations of what type of film it will be based on knowledge of previous films with a similar temporal settings.

When one thinks of films set in the past, a period drama might come to mind (Shone riffs on Merchant/Ivory productions), but that’s because these are the most oppressively obvious of past-set films through their spectacle of history (with the rich and restrictive costumes, the past is present in these films to the point of almost literally suffocating its cast). But the past itself in mainstream productions is hardly unusual. It becomes simply another convention amongst many. This is why I find it interesting, but unsurprising, that Shone doesn’t mention another big past-set film released this summer: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides – part of what is perhaps the most lucrative past-set summer franchise in history. The omission is telling because we don’t typically think of the Pirates series as past-set, though it so obviously and undeniably is. But the film’s vague past-ness is part of its convention. The history surrounding the events of the films is irrelevant, as is the exact years in which the franchise takes place.

Left: 1970s Kids, Right: Spielberg’s 1970s Kids

The Past Blinded Me…With Science

As Shone points out, even the non-Dystopian futures that summer audiences are given are motivated by nostalgia, as evidenced by Star Trek. This past winter, Tron Legacy gave us a science fiction present enamored with the past. One gets the sense that in recent Hollywood science fiction, especially when taking into account a film titled 2012, the imagined future has indeed caught up with the present. But more importantly, this future is inextricable from the past.

What’s interesting, then, about the four films listed is that one further step has been taken with respect to science fiction convention: formerly future-set science fiction has now been collapsed onto the past (and yes, the two superhero films listed also owe a lot to science fiction). Such is most obviously the case with the way Super 8 is being promoted: as a film that is not set in the 1970s as much as it is set in a specific understanding of that decade informed by its science-fiction cinema like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The setting of Super 8 is only an attempt at history in terms of our existing understanding of that history through cinema. Super 8 is not set in the 1970s as much as it is set in “Spielberg’s 1970s.”

Likewise, Captain America is not a movie set in the 1940s as much as it is a movie set in the 40s we know through WWII adventure movies. X-Men: First Class’s relationship to the early 1960s seems to be made conventionally so through a combination of that era’s espionage thrillers and the sartorial trends of Mad Men. And of course, Cowboys & Aliens is set in the Old West, a mythical setting determined by so much popular fiction to the point that the genre has become a force wholly separate from its temporal setting. Historical settings in such films are, in a sense, already persistent in the very history of mainstream cinema.

This isn’t a strict loyalty to historical authenticity we’re talking about here. If you want that this summer, go to the nearest big city and see Meek’s Cutoff (and you should, it’s great). When we talk about “the past” in blockbuster Hollywood cinema, we’re essentially talking about an perpetually present understanding of the past through cinema, either in movies released at the time of the film’s setting (Super 8) or previous movies that have taken place in that setting (Cowboys & Aliens). Past settings are often genres unto themselves. To put science fiction in such a setting is to only combine genres.

Final Thoughts

Shone argues that these four films represent a temporal mash-up in blockbuster filmmaking in continuation of the likes of other anachronistic fare like Sherlock Holmes. But in films like these, anachronism is hardly unique. Sure, Cowboys & Aliens is a decidedly odd amalgamation of genres, but it still comes with the expectations of each genre, and westerns alone haven’t always been steeped in a loyalty to history. “The past” in cinema can be treated similarly to “the future”: as a vaguely defined place where fantasy can reign and creative freedom can roam. Inglourious Basterds was an unconventional WWII-set summer blockbuster mainly because its overall tone and structure abandoned conventions of the WWII genre, less so because it overtly played with history (many movies play with history, only a few do it self-consciously). Likewise, the past-set movies of this summer, like any “fresh” genre retooling, are not really evidence of a new anachronistic preoccupation with decades past, but are instead a slight tweak on a past we as filmgoers already know all too well.

Keep exploring the past by reading older Culture Warrior entries

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