Never Let Go: How 90s Nostalgia Took Over Theaters This Weekend

By  · Published on April 10th, 2012

Way back in the summer of 2004, on the heels of the great success of I Love the 80s and (later) I Love the 70s, VH1 tested the bounds and justifications of the nostalgia market by releasing the initial ten-part I Love the 90s. Instead of simply reflecting upon the most memorable and oft-canonized popular culture products and national news events of the 1970s and 1980s (two decades whose iconography had become ever more apparent, stylized, and parodied during its reappropriation in late 90s/early 00s pop culture), VH1 instead attempted (perhaps unsuccessfully) to create a trend rather than merely follow the typical, perhaps “natural” cycle of nostalgia.

Because I Love the 90s aired only a few years after the actual 90s ended, VH1 situated the early 21st century – a time that ostensibly marked a major temporal shift but (save for 9/11) had yet to be self-defined – as a time that uniquely necessitated an immediate reflection on how to understand the 20th century, even the years of that century that were not so long ago.

The experiment was both engaging and bizarre. By 2004, the early 90s had come into stark, VH1-friendly self-definition. Yes, we could all collectively make fun of Joey Lawrence, Pogs, oversize flannel, and Kevin Costner’s accent in Robin Hood, and share in the memories and irony-light criticisms therein with Michael Ian Black and Wendy the Snapple Lady. However, by the time the show reached 1997–99, I Love the 90s seemed less like a program banking off existing nostalgia than one flailing to force a framework of nostalgia onto a collection of years that had not yet come into self-definition through the benefit of time.

“Hey, remember a few years ago?” “Yes, I do, actually. Pretty darn clearly, in fact.”

But that was eight years ago, and the nineties ended thirteen years ago. And for the first time, in 2012 a pop-culture-nostalgia-industry-friendly understanding of the late 90s seems to have come into place – due in no small part to a cinematic bombardment of certain re-releases and sequels. First, there was the ever-so-necessary 3D re-release of Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace. But this weekend, which saw the 3D re-release of Titanic and an American Pie fourthquel, perhaps cements the establishment of a late 90s nostalgia market. But what’s surprising about these latter two releases is that they don’t highlight the 90s via the typical avenues in which nostalgia is most often manufactured and sold on (making fun of previous clothing styles, references to topical events, or the wink-and-nudge musical cue of Celine Dion or Third Eye Blind, for example), but rather the 90s are, surprisingly, highlighted and distinguished most blatantly through their means of exhibition: digital projection.

To be fair, neither Titanic nor American Reunion are 90s throwbacks in the most obvious sense. It will be awhile, I imagine, before the 90s gets the Hot Tub Time Machine treatment. And neither Titanic nor American Reunion take place in the 90s – the former’s setting is exactly a century ago (though Leo’s haircut is so ’97) and the latter’s continuing story brings us decidedly up to the present. But these are no doubt products whose imperative for a re-release and sequelization is based in the assumption that certain audiences not only remember, but cherish and value, the time period of 13–15 years ago. Both films were, to varying degrees, economically significant cinematic events of the late 90s, but they weren’t necessarily their end-of-decade’s Easy Rider in terms of bringing into deliberate light the time of their making. But perhaps this is what makes these films ideal cinematic objects through which the late 90s can be understood through hindsight (as opposed to, say the Austin Powers films, which show a decided awareness of temporal and historical difference). Titanic and American Pie are definitive products of their time, but unspokenly so.

Strange. It wasn’t Scorsese’s Hugo or the ongoing restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoleon, but the fourth American Pie movie that made immediate the troubling reality that film as a technology of motion capture is, as of last year, pretty much dead. Yes, I’m sure that somewhere there’s a 35mm screening of American Reunion, but in most theaters around the country Stifler’s punchable face can be seen, for the first time, in an impeccable and spotless 4K sheen. And it’s the ubiquity of digital technology – whether projecting films in movie theaters or, as Reunion shows, providing smart phones with easy access to videos of Jim’s attempt at seduction – which marks a distinct difference between 2012 and 1999.

We typically think of technological change as gradual, but connecting with cultural products of the late 1990s illustrates that technological change in America has come with considerable speed and as a totalizing force.

The late 1990s were, in retrospect, an odd little in-between stage. The digital was still very much dependent on the analog. By 1999, most American households had Internet, but they more often than not had to get off the phone in order to use it. In 1999, it was not unusual to encounter someone with a cellphone that could do nothing but call other phones. In 1999, movies were exhibited on celluloid and VHS existed. For somebody who was coming of age in the late 1990s, the time period now appears in hindsight to be the last bastion of the pre-Information era came before – a last hurrah in which not everybody had immediate access to all information all the time, while at the same time a new digital era of unknown promise lay on the horizon. Perhaps few scenes from the early 90s illustrate this point better than Jim’s awkward online seduction scene from the original American Pie in which he creates a video that “goes viral” in only the way a video could in 1999 (alternatively, we certainly can’t rely on 90s movies about the Internet to illustrate this point).

Yes, Blink 182, that’s a giant desktop computer you’re looking at.

Titanic 3D makes this point differently. 90s Hollywood films were, in no uncertain terms, intoxicated by the potential spectacle of CGI technology. The cinematic decade “started” in several ways with Cameron’s Terminator 2. But the digitalscapes given to us by Hollywood cinema at that time did not feel all-encompassing. Yes, the sinking of the Titanic as portrayed in Titanic is a spectacle of cinematic technology that only the 90s onward could offer. But the material filmmaking was also made to be just as spectacular. Everything from the elaborate sets to Kate Winslet’s sketched nude figure were situated as spectacle rooted in some sort of index of reality, and anything fabricated digitally was meant to flow seamlessly with the undeniably “real.” This, for me, was what made getting lost in movies from Titanic to Jurassic Park so easy. Even the digital felt real. The bodies falling off the Titanic or the jaws of a Tyrannosaurus Rex seamlessly melded the digital with model sets and animatronics, respectively. And these measured digital miniscapes were projected via celluloid – crackling, living, change-over-ing film that was as visible as it was tangible.

But in Cameron’s 21st century behemoth, Avatar, the digital inflects every frame up to and including its “perfected” digital 3D projection. Everything at the multiplex now has an ever-evident sheen and gloss to it. The technology is so ever-present that these films seem better fit to be admired for their technological advances than to allow audiences to suspend disbelief. And yes, I’m aware that me getting older is a major part of the disparate ways that I subjectively experience the major Hollywood productions of these very different decades (that’s, of course, how nostalgia works). And further, I’m not resistant to the inevitable changes that cinema goes through. But part of me already misses seeing new films in 35mm. It is in this sense that, thanks to Titanic 3D and American Reunion, I now very much have late-90s nostalgia.

Who knows how we’ll reflect on the popular culture of the late 90s years from now. Who knows what trends in fashion will look ridiculous, or what songs will grow to be particularly grating, or if “I did not have sexual relations” will continue to travel through decades like “Where’s the beef.” But it’s quite possible that the primary way in which we reflect on the 90s may not be in these terms at all. Rather, the defining traits of the late 90s might be highlighted instead by technological difference than anything ranging from JNCO jeans to N*Sync. After all, by contrast, technology is in many cases what decades like the 70s and 80s uniquely share. Sure, maybe only a curmudgeonly cinephile like me would bother to notice (much less bemoan) the differences in exhibition strategies that 13 years make, but way back in 1999 you’d have to wait a bit longer for this webpage to load before you could come to that critique in the first place.

Continue Reading Culture Warrior

Or Enjoy a Different Feature