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Ready Player One Reminds Us That Not All Nostalgia Porn Is Created Equal

on April 02, 2018, 11:20am

This past Friday, Steven Spielberg’s homage to Steven Spielberg, Ready Player One, hit theaters across the country. You may have seen a few trailers for this movie — not a film, mind you, a movie — featuring some of your favorite geek culture icons from the ‘80s and ‘90s: the Iron Giant, Doc Brown’s DeLorean, and a whole bunch of Star Wars shit. I’m a law student by day, and my first thought upon hearing that Ready Player One would become a film was, “How many millions of dollars will it cost to license all this intellectual property?” My second thought was, “Will this be hardcore nostalgia porn?”

That was the major criticism of the source work, Ernest Cline’s 2011 script treatment novel. Cline had written mostly for the screen before penning RPO, and it shows in the book’s choppy prose and breakneck pace — the story, despite its many flaws, is a page-turner, and was seemingly begging for a visual adaptation on a massive scale. But upon finishing the book, a reader is left with a profound sense of emptiness. This is because Cline spends literal pages listing his favorite video games, films, television shows, songs, ad campaigns, and other pop culture trivia from the Carter and Reagan years, and he’s created a world in which having this knowledge makes you a god.

Ready Player One is a male nerd’s masturbatory fantasy, and the novel’s supposed warning about the dangers of living in virtual reality seems more like a forced nod, a shout to mom through a closed bedroom door that, yes, you’ll turn in your college applications tomorrow; now, stop interrupting this Fortnite match. CoS’ Dan Caffrey writes that Ready Player One the movie does little better on this front. This isn’t to say that nostalgia porn doesn’t have its place in our cultural oeuvre, nor is it to categorically deride mindless, uncritical fun. But on the whole, it’s important to demand that Hollywood deliver projects of substance. And most of the time, films that exhibit nostalgic tendencies won’t be as obviously nostalgia pornographic as RPO. Notable successes of the past couple years like La La Land and Stranger Things, for example, sit in a hazy area.

That’s why I’ve developed this handy guide to determine whether you’re watching good nostalgia or nostalgia porn. The goal here is to make you a more informed consumer of nostalgia, ensuring that you don’t overdose on that sweet, sweet rosy retrospection. Through a peer-reviewed scientific method, I’ve developed a four-tier spectrum. At one end is hardcore nostalgia porn; at the other end is hearty nostalgia. In the middle are soft-core nostalgia porn and “shades of gray.”

pizza Ready Player One Reminds Us That Not All Nostalgia Porn Is Created Equal

The threshold question to clear the hardcore nostalgia porn boundary is quite simple: Would the narrative be passable if the nostalgic references were removed? The regular porn equivalent of failing this rule would be a video in which a woman answers the door for a pizza delivery man, checks that the pepperoni is in fact only on half, tips the guy, and sends him off on his merry way. That’s not a story anyone wants to watch; it’s hardly a story at all. Ready Player One isn’t quite that egregious, but it’s pretty clear that the story would fall apart if bereft of its precious references. The romantic plot arc is half-assed and inevitable, the good and evil lack nuance, and while the visual possibilities of a film set in a virtual reality are fascinating, they’re not enough to bind us emotionally to the work without some deeper (or, at the very least, Matrix-level) exploration of the underlying ontology.

It’s hard to think of many other movies that totally blow by this boundary. Season 1 of Stranger Things strayed close to it at times, but the series was saved by the sheer charisma of its cast, and Season 2 resolved a number of the narrative and character flaws that jeopardized ST in some critics’ eyes. But one cultural category deserves a blanket warning in this area: sequels, films in which the nostalgia is not for a particular time but for a particular work. Take away Austin Powers in Goldmember’s regular callbacks to jokes from the franchise’s earlier installments, for example, and you’d be left with a supremely boring attempt at a sex-and-poop comedy. A closer call is The Force Awakens, which clearly followed the narrative beats of the original Star Wars and leaned on self-reference to rally the audience — who wasn’t exhilarated to see the Millennium Falcon unveiled again? But the bittersweet perspective offered by an older Leia Organa and Han Solo, combined with the freshness and spunk of Rey and Finn as protagonists, rendered TFA a worthy addition to the Lucasverse in its own right. And it would’ve made for a solid story even if it were the first entry in the saga. A sequel that can’t narratively stand on its own legs is a sequel that zombifies a series, a sequel whose budget robbed an original idea of a green light — a net negative for the cinema world.

The good news is that unlike regular porn, which only briefly flirted with substantial narratives in the early ‘70s before a Supreme Court ruling and the rise of home video encouraged it to cut right to the sex, nostalgia porn often does have a good story line. This is why we need more criteria for our analysis. The next factor to consider is why the nostalgia is present. If it’s there simply to make us yearn for the past, we’ll call that soft-core nostalgia porn. If it delivers a critique or at least a re-examination of its subject matter, that’s hearty nostalgia.

One of the best nostalgia films of all time is Toy Story 3, the capstone on Rotten Tomatoes’ highest-rated film trilogy. TS3’s brand of nostalgia is somewhat unique in that its source is both its temporal removal from its two forebears and its conscious aim at millennials who first met Woody and Buzz Lightyear as children. Unlike other sequels, its nostalgia is character-based, not reference-based. But although the movie’s plot is built around the age-old quest for eternal youth, it packs an emotional wallop because it never lets its viewers indulge that fantasy. Andy’s going off to college — nothing will change that, and the best we can do is to derive joy from passing our memories and our toys along to the next generation.

Meanwhile, The Sandlot, charming as it is, doesn’t have much of anything to say about the past other than making everyone miss the carefree summers of junior high school. It’s perhaps the archetypal example of nostalgia porn, dependable for a dopamine hit on every rewatch but serving little other purpose. Stranger Things, too, falls prey to this stage of the analysis. The show’s constellation of kid actors was radiant, and their performances rightfully earned ST high praise, but the reason they became transcendent stars is because we the viewers endeavored to imagine living in Hawkins, Indiana, in 1983 with Mike, Dustin, Lucas, Will, and Eleven as our crew of friends. That yearning, and not the outstanding acting or tight plot, was the core of Stranger Things’ appeal, and that’s why it’s soft-core nostalgia porn. This isn’t to say that SCNP is worthless — entertainment can sometimes just be entertainment, and Stranger Things was really good entertainment! — but if this brand of nostalgia was the only one present in the cinema landscape, the past would be a calcified husk, and a night at the movie theater would invariably be as escapist as a night logged into the OASIS.

The third and final factor we’ll consider in our analysis is whether the nostalgia should’ve been more critical of its subject. If so, we’ll call this “shades of gray,” after the film series that’s really just porn masquerading as bad romance flicks. It’s really not fair to label these works full-on nostalgia porn; they do more than just elicit yearning. And like soft-core nostalgia porn, shades of grays can be very good films. But something about them misrepresents a key element of the past in a way that shouldn’t be overlooked by a critical viewer.

One could argue that the vast majority of nostalgia falls into this category, because the current composition of Hollywood’s writers and directors ensures that most nostalgia tales come from the perspective of a straight, white man. The quintessential example of shade of gray, however, is La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s beautifully shot daydream that saw itself become an unwitting villain in early 2017. La La Land has a fleshed-out plot independent of its nostalgia, and its nostalgic motive isn’t an unbridled, desperate desire to return to some bygone past; yes, Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian would happily take a DeLorean back to the early 1940s and then rip out the flux capacitor so as to trap himself there, but the film is critical of him for missing opportunities in his blind pursuit of jazz. But there is a real issue with La La Land, and that is its near-erasure of the rich, largely African-American history of jazz music. There’s no hint of irony in Sebastian’s poetic waxes about the power of his chosen musical genre — we’re pretty clearly getting those thoughts straight from Chazelle’s mind — and therefore the film’s nostalgia is both clearly stunted and clearly unintentionally so. Intent would render the film a critique of its own characters; instead, we end up with a work of privilege steeped in a romanticism that many modern filmgoers can’t (and likely shouldn’t) find blithely alluring.

So, there you have it: your handy guide to nostalgia. Use it, or don’t. Maybe you prefer Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” standard for what qualifies as nostalgia porn. As long as you’re taking some step to know what you’re getting yourself into as a viewer, you’re doing your job and keeping Hollywood honest.

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