This is the Oscars’ year of nostalgia — or at least that has been the pronouncement among observers. There is, of course, “The Artist,” a silent film set in the silent film era. There is Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo,” which is the story of the rediscovery of one of the early pioneers of the movies, the French director George Méliès. There is Woody Allen’s"Midnight in Paris” in which the protagonist slips through a hole in time into the Paris of the expatriate ‘20s.
There are Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse,” which borrows the cinematic syntax of John Ford and feels like one of Ford’s 1950s Cinemascope epics, and “The Help,” which has the sensibility of a 1960s social issue movie. Even “The Descendants,” Alexander Payne’s film about a middle-aged man whose life is shattered and who must come to terms with his disillusion, is redolent of smallish, personal 1970s and 1980s filmmaking.
But if Oscar voters are waxing nostalgic, as they clearly are, that raises the question: Why now? What is going on that makes them long for yesteryear? And the answer just might be that what is going on is a form of masochism.
One of the dirty little secrets of Hollywood is that it is full of self-loathing. We tend to think that the denizens of the film industry luxuriate in the popcorn movies they deliver to us, that they love the bombast that is now the primary reason people go to the movies. Indeed, the stereotype of the movie mogul is still a man or woman who cares more about money than prestige, and who boasts, as a writer once remarked of Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn when Cohn said a movie wasn’t any good because he kept wiggling in his seat, that the whole world is “wired to his ass.” They are us — only richer.
But even though it is true that the people who run Hollywood love the grosses that a superhero movie or a high-tech thriller or a teenage sex comedy bring into the studio coffers, the industry has had a sense of reserve and higher purpose that goes back to the movies’ early days. The very first movie moguls, Louis B. Mayer, William Fox and the Warner brothers, to name a few, didn’t gain traction in the business by talking down to their audience but by talking up to it. They eschewed cheesy movies for more elegant fare — pictures like the religious epic “Ben Hur” for MGM, the Dickens’ adaptation “Oliver Twist” for Fox and Oscar Wilde’s “Lady Windemere’s Fan” for Warners. They raised the movies’ status and their own in the process.
Though it certainly hasn’t neutralized the lust for money, now that Hollywood’s executive suites are occupied by Ivy Leaguers and MBAs who report to giant international-minded media conglomerates, the lust for respectability has only intensified. One can see that attitude on display every Oscar time when the industry rewards what it regards as its best, which is why British films typically fare so well. The Brits, by Hollywood logic, are a class act, and handing them Oscars is proof that Hollywood itself has taste. It may make a lot of junk, but it doesn’t mistake that junk for art. Junk, not even high-grossing junk, doesn’t win Oscars. High-minded movies do.
And that is where the self-loathing comes in. There aren’t too many executives in Hollywood who love wearing the label of panderer, not too many who like being regarded as money-grubbing boobs. As the critic Richard Schickel once put it, American movies are made only for teenagers or for Oscars, and most execs would probably prefer the latter. Alas, those teen movies are what keep them in their offices and keep Hollywood purring. But it doesn’t mean that they like it that way.
As true as that was in the past, this dichotomy seems to have been especially true last year when the teenage movies weren’t very good and didn’t exactly set the box office on fire either. One could say that they even reached a tipping point in 2011 — a point where the bombast turned to noise, the special effects to exhaustion, the plots to unimaginative confusion. So the Oscar nominees may not be just a demonstration of a sudden burst of nostalgia. They may be a demonstration of the self-contempt of an industry that is finally tired of itself and of the movies that have defined it for two decades. This doesn’t mean that they will retreat from teenage blockbusters. It just means that they are using the Oscars to stage a small protest against the sorts of movies they feel we the audience sadistically forces them to make.
The proof of what one might call “anti-blockbusterism” is not only the form of these movies or their setting but their subject. “The Artist,” which was praised upon its release and then scolded for being a big stunt, is not just a silent film. In telling the story of a silent movie star who becomes an anachronism when sound is introduced, “The Artist” is, among other things, a movie about innovation and limitation — essentially about the limitations of innovation. If one takes sound to be a metaphor for every technological change in the movies, “The Artist” speaks to our obsession with the new and our casual dismissal of the old, though it also addresses how technology transforms the very cosmology in which we live. Honoring this production — made by the French, no less — is Hollywood’s way of giving itself the finger.
Similarly, “Hugo” isn’t just a Jean Renoir wannabe set in 1930s Paris where people love the movies. It is a film about the magic of the movies — especially the old-fashioned magic that could be conjured through the simplicity of costumes and sets and stop action rather than through computer-generated images, and it is about how quickly we forget the past in the sweep of the present. Like “The Artist,” it attempts to rediscover the past, a stripped-down, nontechnological past in which the connections to film were emotional or spiritual and not just physical. In effect, in celebrating early movies, it is also a rebuff to contemporary ones, its own 3-D notwithstanding.
One could say the same thing about “War Horse.” This is a decidedly old-fashioned movie in which even the palette resembles the Technicolor of the 1950s, and it is clearly meant to replicate the emotional tonality of those old films as well as their look. But Spielberg has also made a film about very primal communions — between boy and horse, between boy and father — that belie so much of modern blockbuster filmmaking where action supplants feeling. His nostalgia, oddly enough, is for the kind of movie his own movies helped destroy.
And in “Midnight in Paris,” while the seduction of the past certainly expresses nostalgia for a bygone era, that nostalgia is for the sparkling vivacity of that era compared with our own predictable and dull one. Not for nothing is the protagonist a numb Hollywood screenwriter searching for inspiration. Allen may finally be skeptical of the idea that the past is always better than the present, but the film is nevertheless a tribute to art that mattered — to art that did more than diddle. It too rejects Hollywood.
This is, then, a special kind of nostalgia — the nostalgia of retribution. These movies are less about a lost past than they are about an unsatisfactory present. In modern Hollywood, it is easy to hate what you do. This year the Oscars are giving folks there a chance to say so.
Gabler, author of “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination” and other books is a senior fellow at the Norman Lear Center at USC; he is writing a biography of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.