Reliving the Twentieth Century in HD

One of the common quips about the movie industry is that it’s all descended into sequels and remakes.  Yet paradoxically, this is what audiences continue to go to.  Studios bank on known “intellectual properties,” and on a kind of product cycle that keeps certain stories refreshed in the home video market.  The film industry since the turn of the century has increasingly embraced the remake trend so much that they’ve even shied away from calling them “remakes” and instead coined the trendier communication age term “reboot,” which likens the products of the culture industry to computer programs, the old stories somehow reduced to marketing appeal, the ones and zeroes translating to big box office dollars.



But the biggest films, the tent pole productions which devour the budget and resources of Hollywood, are basically all familiar.  Everything from the 1980s and 1990s has returned.  Star Wars, Star Trek, The Alien, Terminator, Predator, Ghostbusters, Jurassic Park, Planet of the Apes, Mad Max, It, Blade Runner, and all those familiar superhero and comic book IPs are all back, Spider-man remarkably remade 3 times in the last 15 years.  On TV, X-Files has returned, even sitcoms like Full House, Rosanne, along with even Twin Peaks, perhaps the least likely revival.  We’re in the grip of a retromania.  The past is in some ways is culturally no longer past, or rather, the recent past and the present have been culturally blended so that things twenty years ago don’t even seem like they were twenty years ago. 



In his book “Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures,” Mark Fisher makes the case that our sense of cultural time has stalled since around the late 1990s, where the culture industry entered into a perpetual present where the production of the present was indistinguishable from the past and by doing so erased the future.  Fisher’s example is the music industry, pointing out that there have not been new musical forms or sounds since the 1990s. Music in 2017 sounds no different than music in 1997.  If a hit song from 2017 was  somehow transmitted back in time to 1997, it would likely pass as something current then.  In fact, it would probably use samples of music composed in the 1990s.  By contrast, music from 1994 has a quality so different than 1974 that it would sound new and alien.  Rather the ubiquitous sounds of a hit makers like Adele, Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire, and the Arctic Monkeys and so forth have a sound familiar to the 1960s, 70s and 80s.  The retro quality of the present is so familiar that the term retro has no significance.  Retro is rather the norm because there is basically nothing new being made.  On the radio, we can recognize a sound of the 1970s or 80s or 90s.  Is there a sound of the 00s or 10s?  People in the 1980s would have never imagined that folks in the 2010s would be listening to music indistinguishable from the 1980s.  What will folks living in the 2030s listen to?  That old twentieth century sound?


As Fisher says, what we are really doing is re-living the 20th century in high definition.  While the forms of music and film has not changed, the ubiquitous availability of media on everything from smart tvs to smart phones has kept the near past in suspended animation, available at the swipe of a finger.  We keep hearing about next new thing with a snazzy nicknames – 3D, 4K, OLED, UHD, VR, 5G – but the media played on all this stuff is all retro.  If only there was a new tv that would upscale the scripts.


We no longer even have a vision of the future.  Things that are futuristic too belong to the past – like Blade Runner, Tron, Robocop, the music of Vangelis, Wendy Carlos and Kraftwerk. Futurism is an activity of the past, and tragically spells out our inability to imagine our own future from a culture disjointed from cultural time.


I’m hard pressed to think of a major film franchise that is really new.  Is there a popular film franchise newer than The Bourne movies or The Matrix?  Which, by the way, is also being brought back by Warner Brothers.  No word yet on the casting of Keanu Reeves, which through CGI, they can make look twenty years younger.  This is the most recent plundering of the late twentieth century – making still living actors like Sigourney Weaver and Robert DeNiro look younger, as if they can go back and fill in gaps in their film cannon – the eighties films they never got to. 


That’s a big theme of all of the reboots – filling in the gaps with prequels and “stand alones,” to tell the stories before, between and after the narratives of the original films.  Star Wars is particularly guilty of this, its revival “The Force Awakens” is an over-hyped almost a precise remake of the original film.  It’s out of a side quest that “Rogue One” was made.  Next up is a film about young Han Solo.  As for Alien, Ridley Scott has busied himself by making a series of films to purge the secret origins out of the mysterious creature.  What once was an enigma of pure chest-popping id has now been explained away in Alien: Covenant.  Same with Planet of the Apes prequels to explain away how the apes grew intelligent and took over.  The mysterious and enigmatic parts of the science fiction that provoked our imaginations it seems writers are racing to fill in, give them explanations. 



But we somehow don’t buy into it – the remakes taking up the crumbs of cultural memory, overshadowed by the original.  We watch remakes and reboots somehow conditionally, somehow knowing “yeah, I know it’s a remake, but …” or, the common refrain, “they did a good job (at imitating the original ballyhooed classic).”  Despite lacking the mystique of the original productions, still we try to spackle in the past.



It seems that that’s a big part of it.  Since there is no cultural present, since we are frozen in a timeless presence, we occupy ourselves with filling in the gaps of the imagined cultural past.  This is the mystique of a musical form like vaporware, or synthwave – the sound of the eighties that sounds more eighties than the eighties.  It’s a key part of Stranger Things, the hit Netflix show that is so full of 1980s film homages of our saturated media memory that its sole purpose is to fill in our the cultural gaps, aptly described as the collaboration that Steven Spielberg and Stephen King never made.  As King said himself in a tweet, “it’s like watching Stephen King’s greatest hits.”


These popular forms can be very good but what is tragic about the situation is there is nothing new.  Where is the new Star Wars?  We are haunted by the absence of the new, by the inability to imagine futures in our society or our fictions, Groundhog Day’d and trapped in a cultural interregnum, a time out of joint.