Have you noticed the nostalgia boom lately?
If a TV show or movie was remotely popular 20 or 30 years ago, they are being rebooted, remade and remarketed to new and old fans. In fact, there are close to 100 movie reboots and remakes in some stage of development.
We could explain it away as simply Hollywood lacking creativity or being risk averse, preferring to spend money on the safer bets of known quantities. Sure, another Transformers movie will be devoid of any artistic value, but they’ll be lots of explosions and enough tickets purchased to make a profit.
Filmmakers and studios assume, most often rightly, that someone who grew up watching a character will pay to see them again, even though significant time has passed and there’s no guarantee it will live up to the previous incarnation. Hello, Star Wars prequels.
So why do we buy the tickets? Why are we not clamoring, as we do in most other avenues of life, for something new? Why is nostalgia ruling our entertainment? Quite simply, it’s the only place we grant the past room in the present.
Almost universally, we declare—without proof mind you—new is improved. If something is new, it is automatically better than what preceded it. Culturally, we have embraced what C.S. Lewis dubbed “chronological snobbery,” the idea that anything that has gone out of favor with society is therefore discredited.
But movies are not that way. Old, if done in a new way, is good. Studios have caught on that most viewers idealize their childhood experiences and entertainment. You remember those times and you want to get back, even if for a couple hours in a theater.
For some, those characters represent the only fond memories they had as a child. Watching Transformers on Saturday morning was the only place they felt safe. Going to the theater to see Star Wars provided a means to escape to a galaxy far, far away because your home was somewhere you needed to escape.
So we gladly welcome the past into our lives if it can be safely contained in a two-hour block. In some ways, it’s like the peep shows of previous generations. Viewers sit in darkened buildings and expose themselves to something they would never want to be caught doing in the light of day.
But now it’s not nudity or perversion (that’s on full display), today we want to keep the past contained. History is granted admittance in our lives if it is safely transmitted and dispensed by the modern world. Otherwise, it would be too dangerous, too risque to allow the past free reign in our culture.
We fear the past because it contains tradition, so nostalgia becomes our substitute. Nostalgia allows us to enjoy the past from a safe distance, protected by the screen.
We can’t be accused of ignoring those who come before us because “Look, we’re remaking Robocop.” But we refuse to grant tradition admittance to modern society. It’s too demanding.
Whether society wants to admit it or not, we are acknowledging G.K. Chesterton was right about tradition when he called it “the democracy of the dead.” He’s right and it scares us away from tradition and into the safety of nostalgia.
In Orthodoxy, he wrote:
Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. … Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.
But that’s exactly what we refuse to do. We want to reject the wisdom of our fathers. Tradition has no place in our culture because, like the prodigal son, we want the stuff from our dad without any strings of his presence.
So past, give us all the nostalgia you have, we say. We will take your “Throwback Thursdays” and your Ghostbusters reboots, but we are going as far away from you as possible, just in case you try to slip in some traditional values and morality.
But our thirst for nostalgia alone will not satisfy. It cannot grant us a readmittance into those previous seemingly carefree days of the past. And it will not provide us with a foundation on which to build our lives in the present.
In trading out tradition for nostalgia, we removed all of the past that could be offensive to our modern sensibilities. However, that also gutted from it the power to question us and our actions. Nostalgia cannot lead to our betterment, because it cannot Paxil withdrawal symptoms. Nostalgia can only cuddle; we must have tradition to challenge and convict.
Nostalgia is not wrong, it’s just incomplete and, as such, a poor substitute for tradition. It cannot grant the past a real voice in the present. It merely provides a way for us to accommodate everything else to our present whims.
The solution is not to end all nostalgia entertainment. (Though it might not hurt for Hollywood to at least attempt something new.) The solution is to allow the past a true vote, to grant tradition its place, and learn from those who went before us. Except Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, that’s irredeemable.