On Loop

by Eddie Sánchez

photography by Lydia Horne

VHS was the worst. For those of you born after the War on Terror began, the Video Home System was a roll of magnetic tape encased in a cheap plastic shell as a means of affordably creating, storing, and distributing moving images from the comfort of one’s home. It held consumers hostage in 1980 as the dominant home video format until DVD mercifully supplanted it in June of 2003. Video Cassettes were horrendously bulky, and renting one from your local Blockbuster or Hollywood Video often meant having to rewind it back from the very end of the film, potentially spoiling the movie for you because some jackass neglected to do it himself. The actual tape inside the videocassette was always all too easy to damage, a single particle of dust carrying with it the threat of ruining your footage forever.  And that was before you had even taken into account that the average VHS tape had a picture resolution four and a half times smaller than you could stream on Netflix right now.

There’s no argument against how much better home video is today compared to the 1980s and ‘90s. But even still, anyone who’s ever unearthed a dusty old VCR from their parents’ attic and popped in a random tape is overwhelmed by the otherworldly power emanating from this bygone medium. Be it a forgotten family vacation, or your worn out copy of All Dogs Go to Heaven, the warped static haze is capable of evoking a mysteriously bittersweet sentimentality that asks us to not only forgive the shortcomings of this flawed format, but to actually long for them.

Compare this to vinyl records, for instance, which are currently enjoying another rise in sales for the 17th year in a row following their apparent death in the ‘90s.  Although vinyl can at least offer a richness of sound typically lost in its digital counterparts, it is its imperfections — the warm crackling and popping of a turntable’s stylus skating across the black, rippling grooves of a vinyl record—that bears a larger responsibility for attracting a new generation of consumers.

This allure, of an obsolete format’s signature limitations, was most recently deployed to great effect and in Charlotte Wells’ 2022 debut feature, Aftersun, which introduces a videocassette tape as the framing device for a young woman’s reflection upon a formative trip she took with her troubled young father as a little girl. The jittering of the tape served as an efficient shorthand for a melancholic yearning immediately familiar to anyone who sees the film. 

This yearning is what we call Nostalgia. And no other artform in the world is better suited to harness and wield its power than Cinema, as it is, after all, the preservation and repetition of the past.  Events as they were experienced in real time, documented and recreated at 24 photographs per second,then edited so as to remember only the best takes.  Films allow us to witness and re-witness not just literal, objective happenings, but the beliefs, fashions, and values of past cultures via the subjective decisions of artists in representing those happenings. You are not only revisiting exactly what things looked like; you are revisiting exactly how they felt.

Cinema is nostalgia, but nostalgia is a disease. Or, at least that's what Swiss physician Johannes Hofer meant when he coined the term in 1688 as the way to best describe the medical affliction that ran rampant through the ranks of Swiss mercenaries stationed abroad, many of whom were suddenly incapable of adequately performing their duties. They couldn’t eat, they couldn’t move all because they felt too estranged from their loved ones out in these far-flung parts of the world. To encapsulate these dramatic symptoms, Hofer took the Greek words nostos, meaning homecoming, and algos, meaning pain, and combined them to create nostalgia—or quite literally, homesickness.

The very origin of the term speaks to the dangerous potency of the condition it denotes, although, of course, not every case of it is a serious one—or even a necessarily negative one. In fact, there are psychologists today who posit that nostalgia is a crucial component in how we narrativize our lives, formulate or reaffirm our identities, and establish our place in like-minded communities or tribes. 

Say you have a sibling you haven’t spoken to in a long time with whom you have a complicated relationship with. One day you find a souvenir from a really fun trip that you had as kids, and your brain rewards you for this recollection with a hit of dopamine that you go on to associate with the subject of that memory—your sibling. Suddenly you have the urge to call and reconnect, the rush so powerful that it whitewashes why details of you stopped talking to your sibling in the first place. Like with any other hit, the stuff can be profoundly addictive.

Although nostalgia is not unique to any era of human history, ours has had a particularly obsessive relationship with it for the past decade or so. When it comes to discussions of nostalgia’s place in our popular culture, the proliferation of films adapted from familiar intellectual property (IP) is likely the first thing that comes to mind. Take all 50 of the 10 highest grossing movies of each of the past five years (skipping 2020) and you’ll notice that a staggering 49 of them are sequels, reboots, or installments in a shared cinematic universe. 

Because the dominance of popular IP has been obvious since sequels first established box-office supremacy back in the early 2000s, its ubiquity can ironically conceal just how deep its roots have actually grown in the years since. Even as recently as 2015, films like Minions and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 were once sandwiched in between American Sniper and The Martian in their year's top 10 list. Now, even the world of prestige television—once touted as the new hallowed ground on which serious narrative art could still take refuge—has been Disneyfied with shows like The Mandalorian and House of the Dragon dominating the conversation.

Recognizable IP, however, is only one example of how an excess of nostalgia has manifested itself in American moviemaking. In the last two years alone, Steven Speilberg, James Grey, and Kenneth Brannagh all directed high-profile autofictions about their own childhoods with The Fabelmans, Armageddon Time, and Belfast, respectively.  James Grey himself once mused on The Big Picture podcast that this microtrend might be the result of a generation of autonomous writer-directors now living in constant fear that the next truly original movie they make could be their last. And in treating every greenlight as a potential swan song, auteurs have felt an even greater urge to revisit formative experiences or recreate romanticized pasts, as is the case in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza. Although some of this could simply be chalked up to an aversion to cell phones and the internet onscreen (you try filming a text exchange in a way that isn’t boring) the real issue might be that making sense of the past is significantly less fraught than tying to capture the present.

According to a recent study done by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, when researchers asked participants to read news stories that were emotionally distressing, those participants were more likely to engage afterward with nostalgic material, than the participants who read positive or neutral news articles. Nostalgia is a form of escapism; an easy and natural response to our helplessness.  

But existential challenges are nothing new to humanity—so why does the timbre of our nostalgia feel more dire than ever before? 

Loneliness has been identified by psychologists as a particularly potent trigger for nostalgia, given its connection to how we shape our identities and relate to our communities. More than 1 in 3 Americans today say they are lonely, per a Harvard study. That rises to 61% when looking at younger people, and 51% among mothers with young kids. According to AEI’s Survey Center on American Life, the percentage of men with at least 6 close friends fell from 50% in 1990 to 25% in 2021. 1 in 5 single men say they have no close friends at all. Even before social media alienated us from face-to-face human interactions, consumerism had slowly eroded and replaced the traditional cornerstones of our communities since the late-1940s. Our identities gradually began to revolve not around religion, or cultural heritage, or family ties, but the content we loved, the clothing we wore, and the products we could purchase. Divided, our consciousnesses were all the more easy for multinational corporations to colonize with brand awareness using the weaponized Freudian marketing practices advertising agencies developed in the 1960s. And like a parasite removing and replacing a fish’s tongue, it worked.

By the 1980s, consumerism became easier to care about than the problems our world faces, giving rise to blockbusters, nerd culture, and media merchandising. The stereotype of the lonely little boy taking solace in comic books and science-fiction became a wave of arrested development that the companies responsible for our favorite films and TV shows could then leverage to sell more graphic tees with Captain America on them. As fans, we’ve invested our identities in communities centered around fictional characters and, through them, created a warped sense of populist ownership. We take to Star Wars message boards to wage war against Disney’s casting decisions, foaming at the mouth because it's our identity, really, that’s at stake.

To understand why exploiting this psychology can be so dangerous, look no further than American politics. While Republicans tell us old fairy tales about when America was once great, and how it could be that way again, Democrats rely on exaggerated memories of how much simpler things were when Obama was our president. Both parties exploit our nostalgia to keep themselves in power without solving any of our real problems and we believe them because we want to be anywhere else but here.

To be able to think critically and resist this simplistic and numbing view of the world, we need to be challenged, beginning with the stories we tell ourselves. For my money, no other medium can more directly help us see the world in ways we didn’t previously know were possible, than film. As of my writing this piece, Barbie, Oppenheimer, and The Sound of Freedom occupy the first, fifth, and tenth spots on the 2023 Box Office Top 10, and films like Mission: Impossible, Indiana Jones, and The Flash have all had Hollywood on red alert about the health of their tent pole franchises after disappointing theatrical runs. 

Do audiences finally want something new? Outspoken proponents of the art of film like Francis Ford Coppola have already expressed their optimism, saying that the success of originals this past summer could signal the dawning of a new age for Hollywood, where audiences once again feel safe taking their chances on titles they don’t immediately recognize. 

Following the success of Barbie, however, Mattel announced their master plan for a comprehensive cinematic universe, hocking each of their other properties beginning with Hot Wheels and Polly Pocket. Only time will tell how the market and the industry will actually respond, but expecting anything other than the current status quo feels like wishful thinking.

But there are artists out there who are fighting for originality. The future of film that I’m proposing could look something like Todd Field’s 2022 Best Picture nominee, Tár. Defying easy categorization, here is a daringly present-set film about daringly present subject matter. Neither left-wing, nor right, it searched only for a proximity to an amorphous truth that reflected our own biases back at us. It’s a movie so authentic to our time that many moviegoers confused its eponymous protagonist for a real person.

In that vein, if pop culture is our new reality, the communal storytelling that defines our community in the 21st century, we need to fight to ensure that the narratives we create enrich us; helping us make sense of the world we wish to escape and providing us with the blueprint for a future we’d like to live in. 

Nostalgia itself is not the enemy, just a tool

As a cinephile, I can be as guilty as anyone of clinging on too tightly to an endangered past. I collect blu-rays. Movie theaters are my cathedrals and I’m the little old lady hissing about how mass is under-attended. I want to go back to a past when a movie like The Graduate could gross more than any other in its given year. Nostalgia can serve to help us fight for the preservation of what we value, the weapons of our cultural prison taken up against our oppressors, but we must be careful not to let it lull us back into an escapist, rose-tinted simplicity. To do that, we’ll have to finish rewinding and eject the damn tape.