Retromania

“The bastard form of mass culture is humiliated repetition … Always new books, new programs, new films, news items, but always the same meaning.” Good old Roland Barthes had a point. If only he could see this year’s lineup of movies, he would probably allow himself a smile. Think Muppets, Star Trek, Tron, The Smurfs, True Grit, Arthur, etc. In this day and age a “humiliating repetition” assumed a form of a “retromania,” or obsession with the cultural artifacts of one’s own immediate past. Brian thinks it’s the aversion to risk that drives the culture industry (film, TV, music, fashion, design). Why would a studio/designer/TV producer invest a ton of money into something new when they can invest it in something that worked so well the first time around? The strategy seems simple enough: to reach your target, the only think you need to do is to dig up things that have been popular in that very same generation’s childhood. Other generations follow because there is nothing like a nostalgia for something that we have never experienced (how many times have you heard a lament about how awesome New York was in the ‘70?). I think there’s more than risk-aversion to it, though. I think the trend has more to do with a macro social and economical trend that can be best described as “the end is near” and “catastrophes are reality.” Faced with uneasy facts of global warming, economic breakdowns, political insecurity, and — above all — a lack of a clear path to overcome these hardships, people look for comfort of their not-so-distant life that they recognize and feel safe in. I only wonder what kind of movies Chinese make these days. I bet you Karate Kid ain’t one of them.

p.s. there’s an interesting book on “retromania.” I’ve read only a few pages but it looks promising. You should check it out.

Originally published on November 27, 2011