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The Year Nostalgia Took Over

Why looking back on the past is so popular in the present

Two summers ago, Kyle Mooney got to hang out with Luke Skywalker. That August in Salt Lake City, Mark Hamill spent a few days on the set of Brigsby Bear. He plays a key role in the movie, which the curly-haired Saturday Night Live cast member starred in and cowrote. For most of their time together, Mooney was afraid to bring up Star Wars. He didn’t want to come off as a fanboy. Then, on the last night of shooting, the comedian gave in to his urge. To his relief, the actor indulged him.

“He’s down to engage you on that level and talk about it,” the 33-year-old Mooney told me. “He would’ve been cool with me broaching the subject earlier.” Hamill briefly spoke about how the new Star Wars trilogy came together and mentioned a conversation that he had with George Lucas before the filmmaker sold his eponymous studio to Disney. “He was so cool about it,” Mooney said. Hamill even autographed comic books for Mooney’s nieces and nephews. For Mooney, a dedicated collector of VHS tapes, T-shirts, and memorabilia from the 1980s and ’90s, it was a euphoric moment.

That the real version of one of Mooney’s cherished action figures appeared in his passion project was miraculously fitting. The indie film centers on a man-child named James whose worldview is shaped by a fictional television show that uncannily resembles a typical kids’ program from the ’80s. The titular character, an anthropomorphic bear that looks like a cross between Teddy Ruxpin and a long-lost member of the house band at Chuck E. Cheese’s, teaches the story’s bunker-dwelling protagonist life lessons. Hamill’s performance as Brigsby’s disturbed maker enhances the film’s endearing sentimentality. After all, who better to create an iconic childhood hero than an iconic childhood hero himself?

If there’s one piece of entertainment perfectly built for 2017, it’s Brigsby Bear. While attempting to break ground, it also pays homage. “I think we’re all trying to capture a feeling or emotion that was maybe prevalent in our lives when we were younger,” Mooney said. This was the year that nostalgia completely enveloped popular culture.

At the domestic box office, 14 of the top 20 highest-grossing blockbusters were franchises. Set in 1988 and 1989 and based on Stephen King’s 1986 novel of the same name, It has raked in $327 million. And Lady Bird, a potential Best Picture contender, takes place across 2002 and 2003.

TV was filled with period pieces (The Americans, The Deuce, GLOW, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Snowfall, Stranger Things), remakes (She’s Gotta Have It, Lethal Weapon), and updates (Fuller House, Will & Grace). ESPN’s 30 for 30 launched a series of historical podcasts in addition to a three-part look at the Celtics-Lakers rivalry and Nature Boy, a documentary about wrestler Ric Flair. My beloved Simpsons even made a mockumentary about the 25-year-old episode “Homer at the Bat.”

Nike’s state-of-the-art self-lacing sneakers generated much less hype than its collaboration with fashion designer Virgil Abloh. Pairs of his deconstructed Air Jordan 1s, shoes that first came out in 1985, are selling on eBay for upward of $1,000. And then there’s Nintendo. The gaming giant advertised its new Switch system during Super Bowl LI, but arguably made a bigger splash in June when it announced that it soon would be rolling out a mini incarnation of the nearly three-decade-old Super NES.

What is fueling the current obsession with the past? The most obvious and cynical answer is that America is terrifyingly susceptible to “late capitalism’s soulless excavation of nostalgia,” as someone recently put it to Jeremy Gordon of The Outline. For example, Geico is now using characters from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, an ’80s cartoon conceived for the purpose of selling toys, to peddle car insurance. Another explanation might lie in the fact that, as my best friend likes to point out, our debt-ridden generation of 20- and 30-somethings is frozen in a state of adolescence.

“It’s not to say everything was rosy in the ’80s and ’90s,” said Michael H. Weber, who along with Scott Neustadter wrote The Disaster Artist, a movie set in 2002 and 2003. “It’s that people are yearning for any other time but right now.”

Research indicates that this habit isn’t just rational. It’s healthy. “Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety,” John Tierney of The New York Times wrote in a 2013 feature about the psychological study of the phenomenon. “It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.”

Bombarded by bad news and disillusioned by the prospect of a bleak future, it makes sense that we’re constantly looking to the past for comfort, hope, and answers. Now that so many of our childhood experiences are digitized, it’s easier than ever to fall down the rabbit hole of nostalgia.

Kyle Mooney plays James Pope in Brigsby Bear.

For Mooney, the act of watching earnest sitcoms like Saved by the Bell and Family Matters is oddly soothing. “It’s a security blanket,” he said. “And it is something that you can turn to and you know will be consistent.” This idea defines Brigsby Bear. Once James enters the outside world, his Brigsby fixation continues, causing concern among the people closest to him. It becomes clear, however, that his talking-bear infatuation stems not from longing for his old life in the bunker but rather from his desire to hold onto the one thing that helped him survive years of trauma.

The Dave McCary–helmed drama, which also features Claire Danes, Greg Kinnear, and Andy Samberg, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and hit theaters in July. It wasn’t a smash, but the movie has passionate fans. “No YOU cried watching Brigsby Bear on a plane,” one jokingly tweeted this month. That emotional admirer was Rian Johnson, the director of Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

I know, I know. Nostalgia isn’t new. In fact, it’s almost 330 years old. In 1688, Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer formed the term by combining the Greek words nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain). He used the portmanteau to describe an affliction affecting homesick soldiers, who’d begun suffering from intense physical symptoms. For several centuries, soldiers were diagnosed with nostalgia. Gradually it went from being known as a harmful medical condition to something far more benign.

By the late 20th century, wistfulness had become prevalent in pop culture. In the ’70s, American Graffiti and Happy Days revisited the ’50s and early ’60s. In 1980, a Baby Boomer–friendly radio format debuted: classic rock. In the late ’80s, shows like The Wonder Years looked back on the late ’60s. Not all nostalgia idealized the past. In 1992, Nirvana’s video for “In Bloom” parodied Ed Sullivan–style variety shows. Freaks and Geeks, the NBC dramedy that ran for a season in 1999 and 2000, was a hilarious, awkward, painful, and most of all accurate portrait of high school in 1980 and 1981. In the ’00s, my college roommates and I binged on VH1’s snarky celebrity-talking-head-studded clip shows I Love the ’80s and I Love the ’90s.

Over the past decade, seemingly every single bit of media ever produced has found its way online. When The Onion headlined a story, “U.S. Dept. of Retro Warns, ‘We May Be Running Out of Past’” in 1997, few understood that the internet would eventually ruin the joke. Practically any memory, no matter how insignificant, is today only a click away. “The tiny thing in the back of my brain I’ve been thinking about for 30 years?” Mooney said. “Now I can relive it.”

Few of the athletes and hip-hop artists who lovingly namecheck and imitate Ric Flair actually saw him wrestle during his ’80s glory years, but they’re able to watch nearly all of his legendary promos on YouTube. The evocative clips of Flair that director Rory Karpf included in Nature Boy helped make the film a sensation.

“This is the most response I’ve ever gotten from a project,” said Karpf, who has also made documentaries about the Manning family, Christian Laettner, and Dale Earnhardt. “I know it’s big when my kids’ teachers have seen it. They mention it to my sons.”

It’s hard to remember a time when finding Flair highlights online would’ve been a challenge. But not long ago, the online vault was neither very full nor widely accessible.

That is the world writer-director Greta Gerwig brought to the screen in Lady Bird, which is set in her hometown of Sacramento in 2002 and 2003. The semi-autobiographical film’s lower-middle-class main character, played by Saoirse Ronan, doesn’t have access to high-speed internet. Back then, smartphones were primitive and expensive. “She had no one dictating what was cool,” said April Napier, the movie’s costume designer. Lady Bird developed her unique sense of style by reading magazines and shopping at thrift stores. To accentuate that distinct aesthetic, Napier filled Lady Bird’s wardrobe not only with clothes of the era, but also handfuls of vintage items. A memorable example: the acorn-print dress she wears while auditioning for the school musical. It’s from the ’70s.

For inspiration, Napier watched movies like Kids (1995), 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), and Bring It On (2000)—the designer pointed out that teenage fashion in California’s Central Valley was slightly behind the times—and flipped through old Delia’s catalogs. Characters are dressed in ill-fitting khakis, baggy sweaters, boot-cut jeans, and Juicy Couture sweats. Danny, played by Lucas Hedges, even has a puka shell necklace. “It was not an attractive time for fashion,” Napier said.

Saoirse Ronan and Lucas Hedges in Lady Bird.

Outfitting the cast wasn’t exactly easy. Most costume houses don’t have sections dedicated to the ’00s, a time when clothing was becoming more and more disposable. Napier remembered Gerwig, who graduated from high school in 2002, sharing a picture of a once-ubiquitous multicolor stripe Gap sweater. “If we could find that sweater,” Napier recalled Gerwig saying, “that would be insane.” Napier ended up spotting it in only one place: the Warner Bros. costume department.

While seeing the movie, the sight of Lady Bird wearing that top led my wife to turn to me and say, “I had that sweater!” She’s not the only one to geek out over it. “Everybody,” Napier said, “had that fucking sweater.”

Lady Bird’s sweater transported my wife to her last year of high school. It was a touchstone. All good nostalgic stories have at least a few. Stranger Things Season 2 overflowed with them. Of the many ’80s references in the second season, Mooney was partial to the inclusion of Dragon’s Lair, the arcade staple featuring animation by Don Bluth. (In the first episode, Dustin and his pals kick ass in the notoriously difficult game.) Paul Kermizian, one of the founders of the New York City retro gaming saloon Barcade, told me that the chain has only one Dragon’s Lair cabinet, at its Chelsea location. “That has been a big story for our customer base,” he said. Mooney goes to Barcade to play Dragon’s Lair. He’s not alone in his fondness for the game.

“You can go and get the clothes and the haircuts, but to have the kids [in Stranger Things] standing in line at the arcade to play Dragon’s Lair—that triggers memories,” said Karpf, who met with Shawn Levy this fall after learning that the Stranger Things co-executive producer liked Nature Boy.

Sadie Sink as Max Mayfield in Stranger Things.

The feel of the arcade, not merely the sight of a classic game, is what brings people back to childhood. Super Nintendo emulators have long been available online. But there’s something intoxicating about hooking up a physical console to your television and holding that bulbous plastic controller in your hand. Enjoying Super Mario World the way that you would when you were a kid is just more satisfying than playing it on your laptop. (The same principle applies to the ’70s-infused Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: Awesome Mix Vol. 2, which is now being sold on cassette.) We can’t stop ourselves from being sucked into the past, and Nintendo knew it. As of early November, the company had sold more than 2 million Super NES Classics.

In October, I spent an hour at the Los Angeles branch of Round Two, a store specializing in rare sneakers, Supreme gear, and vintage apparel. Sifting through rack after rack of faded T-shirts—among many others, the Beastie Boys, Naughty by Nature, Nike, Queen, and The Simpsons were represented—one by one admittedly gave me a rush. It was like a museum where I could take the art home. I splurged on a gray “BO KNOWS” tee that I would’ve begged my parents for in 1991.

But as much as I love that damn shirt, it’s a heathered reminder that memories are and always have been purchasable. Nostalgia is an easy sell. The Baywatch movie was a dud, but it still made nearly $178 million worldwide. The rebooted Mummy was so bad that Universal is reportedly abandoning a proposed series of monster flicks—and it still pulled in $409 million globally. In 2017, no movie on earth has made more money than Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast.

Hell, these days ugly Christmas sweaters are mass-produced and come in hundreds of different patterns and themes. We’ve reached a point where we’re now longing for things that weren’t any good in the first place.

That was never more viscerally apparent than after the premiere of the third season of the Adult Swim animated series Rick and Morty. In the episode, which aired in April, alcoholic, nihilistic inventor Rick goes on a rant about the Szechuan dipping sauce that McDonald’s offered for a short stretch in 1998 as part of a promotional campaign for the Disney film Mulan. As Claire McNear put it in The Ringer: “It’s a funny joke: Thing No One Remembers Or Cares About is in fact a Thing Of Great Importance to the main character of a cartoon. … Except that fans of Rick and Morty are, as a rule, not capable of moving on.”

Over the next few months, a segment of the show’s most obnoxious fans begged McDonald’s to bring back Szechuan sauce. Naturally, the fast food behemoth gave in. For a single day back in October, the condiment returned. But the stunt didn’t go well. Many Rick and Morty obsessives lined up to get their hands on the sweet, sweet goo only to find out that their local Golden Arches had run out of the stuff. Soon the trolls were calling for a boycott and accusing McDonald’s employees of hoarding the precious dipping sauce. The company then pulled its French Fry oil–soaked tail out of its mouth, apologized, and vowed to bring back Szechuan sauce this winter.

The Disaster Artist’s Weber, who’s 39, remembers a time when “it was an effort to find the other people who cared about the SNL sketch that happened at 10 minutes to 1.” Now, in a matter of moments, thousands of people can band together to demand packets of flavored corn syrup.

Is modern nostalgia always this miserably soulless? It doesn’t have to be. If done well, it can be profound. In November Slate debuted Slow Burn: A Podcast About Watergate. Each of the weekly installments examines an aspect of the scandal that listeners may have forgotten. The timing of the show’s creation, which quickly shot up the iTunes chart after the first episode, was no accident. Host Leon Neyfakh explicitly draws parallels between the Richard Nixon and Donald Trump presidencies. In a way, it’s a primer on how to live through unpredictable times. “It provides,” Neyfakh said, “some measure of hope.”

Ultimately, that’s what we want from nostalgia: something that makes us hopeful. The biggest movie of the year qualifies. The Last Jedi, unlike its immediate predecessor, doesn’t seem to be built from the husk of the original Star Wars trilogy. It somehow stays true to the ethos of the most popular movie franchise in history and manages to take the series in new directions. It’s nostalgia at its best.

“Whether it’s a children’s TV show or a video game or a comic book or whatever,” Mooney said, “we’re all just trying to get that feeling back of when we first saw that thing or played with that thing or watched that thing.”

As the year comes to a close, it appears that the nostalgia trend isn’t going to die anytime soon. Jordan Peele is rebooting The Twilight Zone. Steven Spielberg is adapting dystopian pop culture reference receptacle Ready Player One. James Franco just announced that he’ll be directing and starring in a Shel Silverstein biopic. Homage-paying entertainment is inescapable.

And as impossible as it is to fathom now, screenwriter Scott Neustadter reminded me, “there will come a time when we’re all nostalgic for this particular moment.” The world may have felt like it was coming to an end in 2017, but that won’t stop us from reliving it again in the future.


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