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Why nostalgia movies leave us dazed (but not confused)

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Where were you in ’62?

I know where I was the first time I encountered that line. I was standing outside my downtown movie theater (this was the era before the multiplex), reading it on the poster for American Graffiti. The year was 1973, I was a freshman in high school, and I recall as clearly as if it were yesterday that the exotic, far-off year known as ’62 — the era of greasers, sock hops, and cruising — might as well have been 1862. It really seemed that long ago.

Amazingly, though, it was only a decade before — or, to be exact, 11 years. Since that encompassed most of the years that I had spent on this planet, it only made sense that I would think of it as a yawning stretch of time. Yet there was another reason 1962 seemed so very, very long ago. American Graffiti, the first self-conscious youth nostalgia film, took place on the other side of a vast cultural divide. It was really about the ’50s — the end of the ’50s — and what had come in between had fundamentally altered America and the rest of the world. The very phrase “the 1960s” seemed to call up four different eras at once: think of them as Beatlemania, the Summer of Love, the 1968 Chicago convention, and Altamont. By the time the ’70s arrived, America was groggy with change. There was a feeling, however illusory, that everything important had already happened, and that the time had come to hang out, to listen to Steely Dan and reggae and be mellow. To stop changing. To look back.

American Graffiti was the first movie that invited its audience — or, at least, a huge swatch of it — to think back with proprietary fondness on an era that the audience itself had no real memory of. To me and my friends, the ’50s were so far away that the decade might as well have taken place on the moon. But in high school that year, the era “came back” with a surreal vengeance. For a while, everyone played ’50s music, danced ’50s dances, and tried to pretend that they were living inside American Graffiti. The good-time cultural frenzy the movie touched off culminated in the launch of Happy Days (which was basically American Graffiti: The Sitcom), and it cemented the new world of pop nostalgia that George Lucas, the film’s young director, had created. Nostalgia would no longer be for the era you grew up in — it would be for the era you wished you grew up in.

But here’s the really weird part. Now that we live in a culture that feeds, round the clock, on nostalgia — a culture that American Graffiti, to a large degree, pioneered — filmmakers who are looking to provide a similar fix of blast-from-the-past excitement now have to reach back further and further in time to create that same exotically fun, slightly dislocating, Wow, can you believe kids once did that? sort of feeling. I first became aware of this in 1993, when Dazed and Confused was released. Richard Linklater’s uncanny ’70s youth movie took place on the last day of high school in 1976 — which, by the early ’90s, seemed as distant and innocent and fascinating an age, as lusciously different from our own, as the end of the greaser era had in Graffiti. But whereas George Lucas simply reached into his pocketful of memories from a decade before, Linklater now had to go back 17 years to create that full, teasing time-warp effect.

And the time warp just keeps getting stretched. Greg Mottola’s lovely, newly released Adventureland is set in the long-ago, far-away days of 1987 — the world of John Hughes and MTV, when kids were just learning how to be jaded and knowing and ironic, and therefore seem shockingly innocent compared to the jaded and knowing and ironic kids of today. If anything, the film’s setting feels more familiar, less jarringly outdated, than the periods of American Graffiti or Dazed and Confused did when those films were released. And that’s because the ’80s, far more than the ’70s or the ’50s, never really went away. Greed, fashion mania, saber-rattling right-wing presidents, pop music transformed by images into consumer product: a lot of the defining trends of the past decade were kick-started by the Reagan era. Yet Adventureland takes place 22 years ago, exactly twice as far back in time as American Graffiti did. If this trend continues, then the first terrific nostalgia movie set in the Obama era won’t even come out until something like 2036. At that point, we’ll probably all be more than ready to go back to a past that tickles us because it suddenly — or finally — seems so much more soulful than the present.