Nostalgia for the Early 1990s

It’s been twenty-two years since America emerged from the conservative natured eighties and began a seemingly liberal decade under the Clinton administration.  In many ways, the republican dominated eighties fought hard to revive the basic principles of America in the fifties, though they may not have succeeded, they left an undeniable mark on our culture.  The films of John Hughes embraced this cultural nostalgia, and Christopher Columbus only reinforced similar morals with a string of family friendly blockbusters.  This cinema I speak of doesn’t interest me too much, for it is always the art born out of conflict that is arresting and probing of its audience.  One such an adventurous filmmaker would be Tim Hunter, who undermined teen film conventions with the pessimistic River’s Edge.  His work, as well as that of Abel Ferrara, quietly paved the way for the even more subversive filmmakers of the late eighties and early nineties who would retaliate against the white-washed escapism that dominated eighties cinema in America.  The filmmakers of this more subversive cinema, at least in my opinion, would be Jonathan Demme, Hal Hartley, David Lynch, Gregg Arraki and the entire movement of transgressive cinema that came out of New York at this time (primarily Richard Kern).

Films like The Living End, Wild At Heart, Miami Blues, Trust, and Something Wild all have an over arching narrative theme in common.  Their central protagonists are on the run, and naively searching for a freedom in America that no longer exists (in this respect, all of the above mentioned filmmakers are in some way indebted to Two Lane Black-Top).  Author Barry Gifford was perhaps the originator of this formula, in so far as its contemporary manifestation is concerned, when he penned his novel Wild At Heart (the source material for Lynch’s film of the same name).  Regardless, this narrative construct or device speaks to a desire, known to be futile, to find a saving liberal grace in America.  There was a hope to escape the oppression of the Bush administration and the Hollywood mainstream in favor for an artistic freedom and political open-mindedness that is wholly American in ideal yet un-American in practice.  The nation was being torn apart as the first Gulf War concluded, with gang wars and race riots in L.A., anti-homosexual sentiments, teenage suicide on the incline, etc.  These films have a hope which the filmmakers know is doomed and can therefore do nothing other than allow their films to follow a tragic trajectory designed to illustrate this belief.  Even the positive resolutions of these films seem hollow and temporary, as if acknowledging the plasticity of the “Hollywood ending”.  These films have become touchstones in American culture, regardless of how relevant they are today strictly because they articulate the public consciousness of America in the early nineties.

Now you may be wondering why I bothered to bring up any of this let alone write about it.  The fact of the manner is that the nineties are the last time I can think of in which so many diverse filmmakers grappled with similar issues and personified a unique national mindset.  In the years that follow, film seems to have gotten more and more obese with passé’ concepts and a hemorrhaging of political propaganda.  There have been great American films, sure, but no concise coordination, no absolute truth to be hinted at.  Rather filmmakers seem to be more concerned with either preaching their own political agenda or cashing in on the latest fads (chart Scorsese’s career since The Last Temptation Of Christ for a prime example).  I am simply of the opinion that a unity amongst filmmakers on a national level in regards to cultural identity is preferable to the jumbled and overly competitive mess that exists today.

-Robert Curry

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