Friday, May 25, 2012

Bond and Skyfall (by way of Nostalgia)

During a recent research presentation, I gestured towards the next phase of my current project, Haunted Nerves, which will focus on the key role of nostalgia in so many of today's blockbuster transmedia franchises--namely, Prometheus (Alien), Transformers, Tron, GI Joe, Star Trek, Terminator and so forth. In its very early stages, Haunted Nerves is an attempt at historicizing the modern era of digital cinema, with "history" being largely defined here by the digital's negotiation (or lack thereof) with affect, labor consciousness and nostalgia.

The recent trend towards this deep affective investment in the past goes beyond just the obsession with serialization, sequels, transmedia storytelling and other forms of brand expansion. I'm tempted to argue that they point towards a new iteration of Jameson's "nostalgia film," a type of movie that he saw as more invested in stylistic (mediated) conventions of the past than the past itself (the most famous of his examples, perhaps, being Chinatown, a recycling of noir-ish iconography and motifs and symbolic shorthands--Roosevelt, Seabiscuit--in place of any investment in documenting everyday life in late 1930s Los Angeles).

The idea, though, wasn't just an aesthetic description of the media text, which is where much of the use value of Jameson's work on the postmodern migrated over the years. What was lost in pastiche and nostalgia was a space for historical consciousness and, by extension, political critique. The modern (digital) iteration of the "nostalgia film" then might operate in similar fashion--dependent upon surface signifiers of "pastness" rooted in pre-existing transmedia brands, and with little investment in a kind of historical consciousness beyond self-referential franchises.

Why then "nostalgia"? Its here where I think Sean Cubitt's work on the "Event Film" might be telling. Cubitt provocatively suggested that the modern blockbuster has no investment in reality--not a Baudrillardian claim that reality doesn't exist per se, only that Hollywood is indifferent to it, favoring the reassuring (depoliticized) fantasy worlds that posited themselves as above critique precisely because they're not interested in claiming to be about "our" world. Cubitt then posited the re-occuring, timeless theme of "undying love" as that which affectively anchored these otherwise detached and elaborate fantasies for real audiences.

Yet I'm wondering if nostalgia might be equally relevant in making these purely digital worlds, often spread across immense media landscapes, recognizable and reassuring for modern audiences. The best example, I think, may be Tron: Legacy (2010), a media text which depicts an elaborate sci-fi world unlike our own, and that doesn't make any narrative or technological sense internally. Its very continued existence as a contemporary franchise only works as nostalgia. But that's another story for another day.

I've been thinking about this lately because of my own research on the commodification of nostalgia (both Haunted Nerves and the earlier Disney book), but also because so much of my interest in event films from last few years has grown explicitly out of nostalgic impulses. I've wanted for years to do something with the waves of generational nostalgia that seems to have sustained some franchises in particular for decades--namely, GI Joe, Star Trek and James Bond, all of which can trace their popularity at least as far back as the 1960s, but which also seem to have periods of success that have come and gone over that time. One short answer--as I discuss repeatedly throughout Disney's Most Notorious Film--has something to do with how so many parents raise their kids, knowingly or otherwise, on their own nostalgia.

Speaking of Bond, one of the first images released from the forthcoming Skyfall (above) was deeply rooted in nostalgia, as producers once again brought back the famous Aston Martin DB5, which has made several appearances since its debut in 1964's Goldfinger, which rightly remains the quintessential Bond film (even though I am as personally fond of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, From Russia with Love and Casino Royale--the latter being the only one in the last thirty years that comes close to the greatness of Bond in the 1960s. One might also notice in the image above that its the exact same license plate number--BMT216A--as in the original Connery classic. More subtly too, though, the landscape behind Daniel Craig and the car are also deeply evocative of the same barren, hilly Swiss landscape that Connery was driving around five decades ago (right).

Although much of the promotion for Skyfall so far, such as its underwhelming teaser trailer, doesn't seem as overtly nostalgic (there is, after all, more than one target audience), its not at all insignificant that there is presently a major push to get consumers to buy the 50th Anniversary Blu-Ray collection, which includes every Bond film ever made. Without exception, Sony uses every new Bond film as an excuse to re-release "new" versions of old movies onto home video formats as a way to both promote the new theatrical release and to continue milking consumers for every dime the old franchise can still grab. Bond blu-rays were originally released in tandem with 2008's Quantum of Solace, and some manner of similar re-release strategy has stretched back over the last 10-15 years.

Of course, its too cynical to only focus on the transparent money grab--though the whole thing is pretty disgusting, particularly in its strategic withholding of certain titles in order to force people to buy the whole thing just to get one or two films still missing from the library. But I've got bad news for Sony--I'm not spending $200 just to see On Her Majesty's Secret Service in high definition. Of course, I'm sure the plan is to release them all separately in another year or so, anyway, once they've gotten all the cash out of the 50th Anniversary edition they can.

But less cynically, the constant obsession with releasing old Bond films onto DVD and Blu-Ray with each new theatrical release speaks to other considerations as well--for one, it highlights how the appeal of Bond in the contemporary moment always coexists with a deeper nostalgia for the entire, accumulative franchise. And, for other, it reminds us again that "newer" media and their various platforms are always largely anchored by the nostalgic remediation of older properties instead of anything truly "new."

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