How do we make sense of movies that were made today, but represent the past, representing the past. Movies like Grease, which “look like they take place in the 90s, but have actors that act like it’s the 50s, represented by the 70s’.” Movies like Ida (2014), Titanic (1997) or The Joy Luck Club (1993), are interesting pieces of film because they are made today, but also represent two different time periods. Ida is a film set in post WWII Poland in the 1960s, but it’s really talking about the effects of the 30s and 40s. The Joy Luck Club is about stories of mothers and grandmothers living in the 1910s to 1930s China, but the present day stories woven within the film, are from 1993. They both were made in the last thirty years, and represent the two different periods of the past, and thus are movies about the past, and an even more past, as if they’re flash backs inside flashbacks. Titanic has the same sort of effect on the viewer. It’s was made in 1997, but is dealing with a tragedy that happened over 100 years ago. In addition, to the lens when it was made, viewers today have their own 2016 lens on it. How well do these movies hold up with two or three time periods layered on at once? I think Ida and Titanic are still great films; the Joy Luck Club however, can seem dated especially with the style ’93 of dress and hair. But the scenes when they go back to China in the 1910s and ‘30s are very realistic, maybe because today, we’re more removed from that period than say, the 90s.
In contrast, what do we make of films that were made long ago, but represent an even more past (Gone with the Wind, 1939)? Well clearly, they’re dated in some ways (some more than others), but yet still hold up today in other ways (either they were made recently and are still being talked about, or made in the past and dubbed as a classic). What does it take to be a historical fiction classic, what does it mean to represent the past now, and what did it mean to represent the past, in the past?
Some movies don’t even have to represent 2 time periods at once like The Joy Luck Club and even Titanic (the 90s and also the 1910s), but movies that just take place in one time period, but were made in the last thirty years (Mona Lisa Smile 2003). Each year there is historical fiction movies made, and each year we try to capture the past using art work, historical fiction/fiction novels, and real life stories as our guide. And directors, at least today, try to do that time period justice, such as the huge success of Downtown Abbey that unlike Gone with the Wind, which though has great performances, is extremely dated when it comes to representing true plantation life.
Marie Antoinette (2006) directed by Sofia Coppola, though one of my favorite movies definitely romanticizes the past, and even uses a modern music score and adding Converse sneakers, which doesn’t seem right, but I give the film makers kudos for trying. The music in the 2013 The Great Gatsby (directed by Baz Lurman) movie, I think does a great job with incorporating modern music and details, but the CGI mansions really fall flat. The scenes when we as the audience know the props are really there, is when the movie works the best. But is that the answer to making a historical fiction classic, today? Must we incorporate film techniques and cultural references of today to make a note worthy film? Well, I don’t think so. Ida which is in black and white and a slower paced movie, clearly paying homage to 1960s film making and the weight of trauma can be, is a great movie without all the glitz of today. Marie Antoinette which tries the same thing with a lot of silence and ‘deeps thinking’ scenes doesn’t execute them as well because the movie itself is too loud. Of course the Versailles court was loud, but Coppola really amps it up to emphasize the ridiculousness of it all. But we already know it is ridiculous, so the serious shots don’t really get that big of a pay off. That is a technique of her film making, slow quiet awkward scenes, which are welcomed sometimes, but other times can be boring.
Now I want to focus on is the 1950s, a period that has been highly romanticized, but was also a very self aware, which we don’t seem to be focused on enough. Many people during the 1950s saw TV shows like Father Knows Best, the cookie cutter houses of Levittown, PA and the WWII prosperity and didn’t want the 50s to be seen as this ‘golden age’ in history, because it wasn’t. There was racism, classism, and a binary gender conformity that was really detrimental to the LGBTQ+ community. Flannery O’Connor writes many short stories entailing how the ‘good and proper’ morals of the 1950s actually hurt others. The Twilight Zone reached its peak at this time and in the early 60s to deromanticize the time. Death of a Salesman (1949) by Arthur Miller clearly states that working hard in America and getting the ‘American Dream’ is a falsehood.
Mona Lisa Smile (2003) and Revolutionary Road (2008) both attempt to try to capture that despair and hopelessness of that time period, and both were made in the 2000s. But I have to say that though Mona Lisa Smile tries its best by even having the other main character not go to Law School, but choose to get married. This falls flat because Julia Roberts doesn’t understand that, that was her choice. The student who marries chooses to go live her life with her husband and that’s what she wants, but because Julia Roberts sees that as a failure rather than respecting a conscious decision, the film doesn’t capture the time period. Roberts is the ‘dreamer’ in the movie, clearly ‘ahead of her time’ and is making us side with her because we know the past. But she and the audience should really just honor the characters’ decision and move on.
Revolutionary Road does such a better job because even though Kate Winslet’s character is the dreamer and is ahead of her time, she has to pay for the consequences of being that archetype in that time period. We feel her true pain and suffering. She goes truly insane because of the mundane-ness of the American dream that she got handed to her. She doesn’t end up going to Paris, but rather suffers silently until she explodes. That is a way better pay off and has a much bigger impact because you don’t know where the story is going, and all the characters are in that time period and not trying to persuade the audience that ‘our’ way is better, but instead we, the audience, are in that time period with her. The film doesn’t need to shout and tell us that, those times weren’t as good as we thought, because it shows us.
The past is a foreign country and though we are only tourists, doesn’t mean that we don’t have a say on how history is remembered. We have a duty as film and art makers to do the past justice as best as we can.
23 year old English major and ESL Teacher. Currently living in Fortaleza, Brazil. Feminist and kill joy with a cause.