Nostalgia and Popular Culture
It’s no secret that nostalgia dominates popular culture today—deeply influencing how media are produced, promoted and received. And yet deeper considerations of the term itself—its definitions and implications—are often left unexplored in favor of easy dismissal. Nostalgia is often used in a negative context—both as a way to disregard overtly sentimental evocations of the past, and as means to romanticize a period of time that often never existed as such in the first place. Indeed, these notions are often apt, and the nature of nostalgia as an innocent, often child-like, and even debilitating vision of history’s complexities too often takes precedent in popular culture today. Yet, nostalgic impulses can also be reflexive, fragmentary and even at times future-oriented. As such, this course will explore the various aesthetic and industrial functions that nostalgia plays in media today with careful attention to both its conservative and progressive uses. We will think about how nostalgia overtly shapes the style and narrative structures of various media, but also how it intersects in subtler ways with questions of distribution and reception. This will be largely a theory-oriented course, with readings by writers such as Svetlana Boym, Fredric Jameson, Richard Dyer, Christine Sprengler, Vera Dika, Paul Grainge, Linda Hutcheon, Pam Cook, Annette Kuhn, and others. Screenings may include, but are not limited to, The World’s End, Mad Men, Daughters of the Dust, Chinatown, King of Kong, About Schmidt, The Artist, Going Attractions, Boardwalk Empire, Twilight Zone, Detropia, Wild Strawberries, Star Trek, Grand Budapest Hotel, Lost in Translation, and so forth. Some more questions we may consider include: how do films "represent" nostalgia? Do they offer images of an idealized past, or do they explore a character(s)' own struggle with nostalgia? How do these texts negotiate nostalgia for a genre, a franchise, or a star? How does mediated nostalgia affect public and private understandings of history? How do films, intentionally or otherwise, activate feelings of nostalgia through circulation and/or repurposing?
The final grade will be determined by shorter papers, a research essay, group work, and participation.
Required Course Materials
Assigned readings will be posted to Canvas
By the end of the term, you should be able to: 1) theorize the concept of nostalgia in a variety of media contexts; 2) consider the representational, affective and industrial aspects of nostalgia; 3) differentiate between public/private, reflective/restorative, and other forms of nostalgia; and 4) discuss the aesthetic, cultural and political value of nostalgia as represented in films.
The Films of Billy Wilder
Modern conceptions of many noted auteurs from Hollywood’s “classical” era tend to be dominated by ambitiously visual directors, those (Hitchcock, Minnelli, Ford, Welles) who largely distinguished their films from the studio norm through the use of striking innovations in how films could look. Less visually-oriented directors from the period—such as Billy Wilder—have often been regulated to second-tier status in the pantheon of Hollywood directors, despite the fact that just as many studio classics from the Golden Age (1930s-1960s) bear their names as any other. While the compositional impact of his films shouldn’t be underestimated (Double Indemnity, for instance, set the template for noir iconography), Wilder nonetheless was first and foremost a writer. His films privileged visual efficiency in the service of witty and often cynical dialogue, which he co-wrote with a number of collaborators, including Charles Brackett and I.A.L. Diamond. Like many Hollywood directors, Wilder was a European émigré—a Jewish filmmaker who fled the rise of Nazi Germany early in the 1930s. Most of his family was left behind, many of whom died later at the concentration camps. To a point, this may help to explain the deep cynicism which underlines much of his work; yet Wilder’s films often buried that bleak view of the world within a more playful relationship with some of the lighter genres of Classic Hollywood—romantic comedy and screwball farce. And within his body of work is a fascinating historical glimpse into the contradictions of modernity, gender identity, the cultural logic of capitalism and media institutions in the mid-20th Century. While this course will attempt to cover Wilder’s entire career, the primary emphasis will be on the most noted films from the height of his Hollywood fame. These may include: The Major and the Minor (1942), The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951), Stalag 17 (1953) Sabrina (1954), Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960), One, Two, Three (1963) and The Fortune Cookie (1966). The assigned readings will be posted to Canvas.
The final grade will be determined by shorter papers, a research essay, presentations and participation.
Required Course Materials
Crowe, Cameron. Conversations with Wilder. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.
Phillips, Gene. Some Like It Wilder: The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 2010 (*-available through NUCat as an e-book).
Additional readings will be posted to Canvas
1) Identify some of the major thematic and stylistic tendencies in Wilder’s films; 2) study the biography of Wilder, his collaborators, and the production histories as they shed light on some aspects of this body of work; 3) engage with some of the broader cultural and industrial contexts which shaped the films’ production and reception; 4) reflect on, and challenge, some of the basic tenets of auteur theory.