A Hooker Named “Nostalgia” by Rotting Corpse
As it is with most pop-culture these days, I came late to Netflix’s Stranger Things party, having just finally watched the series nearly six months after everybody else raved about it. I was certainly aware of the phenomenon. I mean if you use the internet, how could you ignore it? Barb memes have popped up like dandelions and those kids seem to be on every network talk show simultaneously. While I’d like to say I consciously avoided spoilers in order to have the most genuine experience possible, the truth is I didn’t really care.
This isn’t me trying to do some, “I’m going to simply be a contrarian because I’m soooo cool,” thing. I’m way too old for that shit. When Stranger Things came out in July of 2016, I was crazy busy and not really tuned in to what was going pop culture-wise. (Ask me how many summer movies I saw last year. Go ahead. Ask me.) I heard plenty though. For a hot second in early August, it seemed Stranger Things was all anybody could talk about.
What I heard was this, “Dude! You have to watch Stranger Things! It’s so awesome. It’s a crazy mash-up that pays homage to all the great 80s movies of your childhood like Poltergeist, The Goonies, and E.T.! It’s total Spielberg porn! It’s the best Stephen King movie ever made! You’ll love it! It’s so nostalgic.”
My reaction would be to smile politely and not ruin the raver’s enthusiasm by explaining how utterly and completely sick I am of “nostalgia.”
Before we get too much further, rest assured that I’m not going to take a dump on Stranger Things. It’s great. I loved every second of it. It’s well written, well-acted, fun, scary, and yes, everything fantasy fans of a certain age (read: over 40) loved about the films of their youth. At eight episodes, it’s pacey while being measured and taking its time. The casting is nigh perfect, particularly the kids who could have made this thing a nightmare if they’d been even the slightest bit off. The Duffer Brothers, who created the series and directed most of the episodes, should be commended for recreating 1983 in such a complete, accurate, and loving way. The cars, hair, and wardrobe are as much a star of this thing as anything. The writing and structure is just top notch, and by the time the plot holes start ripping open like alternate-dimensional gates in the last half, I was too emotionally involved to let it ruin the experience.
And yes, the homages are awesome. Will Byers disappearance has echoes of Poltergeist. Winona Ryder channels every overwrought Dee Wallace mom role from the mid-80s. David Harbour’s Sheriff Hopper is a Chief Brody from Jaws clone right down to his classic Ford Bronco. The kids are Elliott and his friends from E.T. mashed-up with The Goonies. Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven is the Star Child from V meets E.T. meets The Boy Who Could Fly. (How’s that for an 80s deep cut?) Matthew Modine is the evil scientist who thinks he’s good from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Charlie Heaton who plays Jonathan Byers actually looks like a young Stephen King. I am not the first to note these things.
The one homage nobody seems to be mentioning is how Natalia Dyer’s Nancy is pretty much exactly Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy from A Nightmare on Elm Street. From the long skirt, sweater and boots, to the high school classroom angst, to buying and building a bunch of homemade traps so she can go into the dream world, I mean the upside down, and bring out Freddy, I mean the Demogorgon. Her douchebag boyfriend Steve even crawls through the window the same as Glen from Elm Street did and even has Johnny Depp’s haircut from Craven’s masterpiece. (Those who rave over the Scream references? How dare you, sir? How dare you.)
I mentioned plot holes, and Stranger Things certainly has them, though I guess they’re more logic holes than anything. I bring this up because part of the simple joy of the series is that because it’s this throwback to films of the 80s, I forgave the flaws of it the same way I now forgive the flaws of most of the “classics” from my youth. What I loved about Stranger Things is that it was not cynical, ironic, or post-modern. Actually, I take that back. It was so post-modern that it somehow ended up not being post-modern at all. It was just pure, earnest adventure/horror storytelling.
That said, ask yourself this: If Stranger Things would have taken place in 2016 and utilized a modern style and structure would it have been as good? If it was in essence the same story and beats without the 1980s setting and tropes, would you have loved it as much?
It’s an unanswerable question, but asking it gets at the root of our pop culture nostalgia problem which is best illustrated by bringing up that most sacred and yet most dread work of geekdom; that which can open a great Lovecraftian chasm of eternal internet arguing by mere mention of its name: Star Wars.
Briefly… We all loved Star Wars as kids. We wanted more Star Wars movies. We finally got prequels. They were weird, and forced, and terrible. They didn’t hit any of the familiar beats. We crucified George Lucas. He sold the whole thing off to Disney and gave us all the middle finger. Disney made a new Star Wars sequel. It hit all the familiar beats. We all loved it, and yet… we didn’t.
Actually forget Star Wars. Let’s go another route.
I saw A Nightmare on Elm Street for the first time in 1985. I was ten years old. (Do the math, kids.) I was staying with my cousins and their crazy dad Biff, a weird right-wing hippie with an absolute gonzo sense of humor. I’m sure most adults found him borderline insane, but kids loved him. It made sense since he was a basically a giant kid in a man’s body. Biff just couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen Elm Street. Now, I had watched a handful of horror movies before (it was the peak of the slasher craze). But I hadn’t seen anything like this. The effects. The surreal strangeness. I loved every terrifying minute of it, the way I’m sure ten-year-old kids aren’t allowed to love something like that anymore. When the movie was over, I went to use the bathroom and when I came out, Biff jumped at me with four butter knives taped to his fingers. I screamed like a girl. Had I just not used the bathroom right beforehand, I would almost certainly have pissed myself. Biff laughed. My cousins laughed. I laughed too.
I bet you I’ve told that story a thousand times. It’s a great memory from long ago. But that’s all it is. That’s all it can ever be.
I remember the first time I saw Star Wars, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Pulp Fiction, and Transformers: The Movie. (The 80s animated bloodbath, not the Bayhem version.) I remember what I was doing the first time I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I remember where I was when the space shuttle Challenger exploded, when the Berlin Wall fell, and when the Gulf War started. I remember the color of the sky and the song that was blasting from a car that drove by the day I lost my virginity. I remember the smell of the girl who first broke my heart. I remember every detail of the moment I first met my wife, from the cut of the shirt she was wearing to the shine of her backlit hair from afternoon sun through a plate glass window, to the curve of legs that seemed to go on forever before disappearing into her short shorts.
I remember these and many other firsts. And while those memories are vivid and emotional, I can never have those “first times” back.
That’s what we crave in our culture, isn’t it? The experience of the first time. I suppose folks with children almost get that experience when they show their kids their favorite movies for the first time. (How fearful I would be that the kid would hate it!) Nostalgia is an emotional lens into the past, but one that distorts. It’s like CGI Princess Leia in Rogue One; we want it to look real, but we know it’s not. We know no matter how hard we try we can’t cross that uncanny valley and have Carrie Fisher back, or the first time we saw Star Wars back. Or our youth back.
When fans of a certain age pay money to see the new Star Wars, or the Star Trek reboot, or any other of the hundreds of remakes we’ve seen in the past decade, we’re like what I imagine young widowers are going to a prostitute who looks like their dead wife. We’re going not for sex, but for companionship. We’re going for the illusion that the bad things didn’t happen. That maybe we can recapture the spirit of the first time, to convince ourselves we haven’t gotten old and the world hasn’t changed. For a moment, we put on our nostalgia glasses and the past almost seems reachable, but it’s a junkie’s logic. You’ll never have the high of that first hit.
The prostitute metaphor is an apt one because Hollywood trades on nostalgia now. They invest oodles of money in 30+ year old properties in hopes of having a “sure thing.” I was going to go into the details about the evolving world of movie and TV finance, youth culture versus the middle aged establishment (which I’m now a part of), and how the internet has ruined just about everything, but that seems too much weight for a sunny Friday.
So I’ll leave you with this: Embrace Stranger Things, not because it hearkens back to “better movies from a better time” but because it’s simply good, fun, and unpretentious storytelling. And don’t let anybody (even me) make you feel guilty about wallowing in nostalgia. A little bit is good for you anyway. Besides, forgetting the past dooms the future because all these things go in cycles. Know your history. Explore of the history and evolution of our culture.
Just remember this: respecting the past keeps us honest but dwelling in it is unhealthy. It prevents us from moving forward, from finding new firsts to join the old.
EDITOR’S NOTE: rottingcorpse is Lonnie Martin, an independent filmmaker and DMV native whose latest film ‘The Last of the Manson Girls‘ is it’s own nostalgic 1970s throwback and will hopefully be playing film festivals this year.