Spoilers henceforth for ‘Take Me Home Tonight’; . And ‘Stranger Things’ Season 1 I guess.
Nostalgia is funny. It’s difficulty to properly define, but everyone knows what it is when they see it. By its very nature it is always regressive to some capacity. Sometimes positively so, sometimes negatively so, but in damn near every case it is inversely looking.
It’s also taken over the pop-culture world. For those who have been living under a rock, the mass culture in the last few years has featured innumerable remakes/reboots of varying sorts. The seventh Star Wars film, and the second reboot of this century, is officially the highest grossing domestic film of all time as of writing this. In the last five years alone, properties such as: Max Max, Ghostbusters, Poltergeist, It, Pete’s Dragon, Halloween, and a never-ending stream of Disney animated features brought to life, have all in some capacity been rebooted. This list, by the way, barely scratches at the surface of the innumerable amount of present-day pop culture that is partially driven by nostalgia.
If you know your history of cinema, this development shouldn’t be surprising. The aforementioned king of present-day pop culture, Star Wars, is itself a product of nostalgic regeneration, with text having been heavily inspired by serialized adventures from three decades plus prior. The cycle continues with those serials being indebted to literary serials from the past, and so on and so forth. Time is ultimately an infinite loop.
This popularity is a little befuddling to someone who made it through exactly two episodes of Stranger Things and came to the apt conclusion that it simply wasn’t for him. I had a lot of fun coming with the above list of rebooted properties, but I invite you to try it out for yourself, and consider just how far the rabbit hole goes. It’s a little disconcerting a thought experiment. When you come to the realization that even pseudo-prestige pictures such as Jonah Hill’s Mid90s and Damien Chazelle’s La La Land are heavily indebted to the longings for a time since past, you have to stop to ask yourself: “is there anything today that isn’t partially predicated on nostalgia?”
Since the concept of nostalgia is so effusive in today’s media landscape, we might as well at least try to deconstruct it. What should be the ideal road map to designing something based around nostalgia? How can nostalgia be used to provide us with understandings of the present? Why are we even nostalgic in the first place? Thus, and in consideration of the fact that his new comedy Stuber dropped this past Friday, I bring forth Michael Dowses Take Me Home Tonight as an example of nostalgia par excellence.
Video essayist Lindsay Ellis’ work on nostalgia heavily inspired my thinking for this week’s topic. I highly recommend the essay. To provide a summary, however, Ellis draws upon the work of academics such as Marc Le Sueur in order to define the ways in which nostalgia has routinely been presented. Ellis opens up the possibility of a form of nostalgia known as “deconstructive nostalgia,” for works that critically retreats into the past, and provides The Iron Giant as an example of such a film. This form of nostalgia, she argues, while still comforting, is the more critical alternative to the blissful comfort of a nostalgia that welcomes the past with open arms.
This is the side that I fall upon. To defend my Stranger Things hot take from earlier, things that are awash in “remember this,” are generally not my speed. The biggest issue I had from my brief foray is that everything felt strangely a temporal, an 80s that only exists through the lens of movies, television, and Stephen King novels from the time, being consumed by someone wearing the eyes of today. I’m not the only person to voice these complaints, and I can point to pieces specifically those from Screen Anarchy’s Matt Brown(who provides a nuanced and yet still positive take on the series) and Myke Bartlett’s writing in Screen Education, as others who have attempted to question what exactly is Stranger Things’ modus operandi and specifically how does that allow a disconnect from reality.
This is not to discredit your enjoyment of the series if you’re one of the many fans. I use this example, precisely because it didn’t work for me, and the reason it didn’t work for me is because I found very little of it applicable to the existential fears I’m feeling today. Once I hit pause, the world of Stranger Things doesn’t exist anymore, because it never existed.
So why then do I believe a forgotten Michael Dowse film from the beginning of this decade succeeds where one of the most popular shows from television’s golden age does not? Take Me Home Tonight is no less nostalgia than any other nostalgia-based piece. The film is the story of Matt Franklin (Topher Grace), a recent graduate of MIT, who aimlessly spends his days working at a local video store. During one fateful day Matt’s High School Crush Tori Frederking (Teresa Palmer) enters the video store, prompting Matt to lie about his profession in the lead-up to a madcap evening occurring during a High School reunion.
Did I mention that the film occurs during the 1980s? This is evident about three minutes in when the film goes into its kind of cheesy credits, stylized to look like yearbook credits, with familiar iconography from the time such as the “Take On Me” music video and Ronald Regan pins, all set to Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf.” Michael Biehn, aka Kyle Reese from the first Terminator, cameos as Matt’s father. As far as period pieces go, Take Me Home Tonight is nothing if not eerily accurate.
This accuracy extends to some of the decade’s darker elements. Cocaine use, for example, is depicted; a choice that ultimately proved controversial enough to delay the films eventual release for four full years. Sexual harassment in the workplace, likewise, is similarly brought forward in the form of Tori’s creepy boss. Furthermore, Dowse’s film is most frequently critiqued for being extremely familiar, and supposedly clinging very closely to the standardized rom-com text of, “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back.” The film, however, actually deconstructs these tropes, by having Tori call Matt out on his lies, and reiterating that this still makes him a loser just like he was in High School all those years ago.
In failing to paint the 80s as purely rosy, Take Me Home Tonight manages to capture the emotions present, and in turn, make them universal. This film cares little for capturing the decade’s thrills. Instead, it prefers to capture the decade’s fears. I’ve always felt that Michael Dowse is filmmaker who has never really been afforded his due, however, his greatest strength is on full display here, namely, his ability to cut straight to the heart of banter and conversation to convey deeply realized truths. A conversation between Matt and Tori on a balcony becomes about more than simply her conveying just how much she hates her 9-5, it becomes about the two of them discovering that they both share similar trepidations about the rest of their lives. Dowse is able to convey all of this through shot-reverse-shot structure, the most basic of cinematic techniques, but the success of how well he uses this structure is entirely dependent on the fact that he has the right shot at every moment, allowing his actors and the changing pace of the editing to carry the scene.
Probably the worst thing that happened to Take Me Home Tonight, is that it struggled to get a release for four full years. Despite completing shooting in 2007, Universal shelved the film till late 2010, before Rouge, a subsidiary of Relativity Media, purchased the film for $10 million. The film struggled to generate an audience, grossing a paltry 6.9 million and failing to recuperate its budget. Audiences were caught in-between a time where this may have felt relevant, and a time where it would’ve been just another piece of a pop-culture landscape obsessed with the past.
Thematically, however, Take Me Home Tonight is far more relevant to a late 2000s than an early 2010s. In 2007, the world was on the precipice of financial collapse. A turbulent Bush administration that was rife with global instability, was reaching the apex of its domestic oversight, or lack thereof. There was a feeling of panic that I remember, with swaths of people unsure and scare of their future. Ultimately what the film is attempting to convey is that uncertainty is universal, and afflicts all youth. Matt’s revelation is not that he wasn’t cool enough to talk to Tori, it’s that what made him uncool was his fear of rejection and failure, the very same subconscious demons eating away at him in his present.
Ultimately this is what I believe we are supposed to feel during nostalgic conjuring of the past. Not a trip through the meadows of a bygone era that was a simpler time, but a reassurance that things are going to turn out okay. In a time where we’re hurtling towards the apocalypse and a television star is the most powerful man in the free world, it just might be comforting to look back to a time where we were hurtling towards the abyss and a movie star was the most powerful man in the free world and think, “gee, it turned out okay for them.” And if it turned out okay for them, maybe it’ll turn out okay for us too. Simply conjuring a remembrance of Alf does not provide this. It’s the emotions that do.