Hollywood may have a reputation for presenting fantasy worlds in its movies, but Visual Arts professor Christine Sprengler says film can also teach us a lot about history and the nature of our access to it.
“There is an argument that nostalgia films trading in visual spectacle sever our connection to the past and provide no meaningful representations of history,” she says, “but I would argue that they help us to engage with the past – including its myths – and to understand how history is written about and understood.”
Sprengler recently finished writing her first book, Screening Nostalgia: Populuxe Props and Technicolor Aesthetics in Contemporary American Film, which looks at the relationship between past and present in nostalgia film, and the effects of mass-mediated memory. In it, she explains how cinema can provide significant insights into a generation’s preoccupations, concerns, interests and values.
Popular film provides us with a mediated way of reading into the past that should not be dismissed simply because it’s based in fiction.
“Taken in context, archival footage has been mediated, too,” Sprengler says. Portrayals in movies can help researchers learn about a generation’s fears, aspirations and lived experiences that have been otherwise ignored in favour of historical sound bites or popular recitations of public history. As such, film can help viewers engage with questions about memory and history in a more meaningful manner. “Nostalgia film tells us what’s of concern to us in the present and serves as a lens through which we can filter past events,” she says.
Sprengler contends that cinema’s visual dimensions – including its props, costumes and cinematographic techniques – can also help initiate critical explorations of the past.
These visual triggers and archetypal images – including, for example, how the tailfin car hearkens back to the 1950s – translate across media and provide us with a dominant shorthand for the whole construct of an era, she says. “Canonical objects are rich in meaning and central to so many cultural constructs.”
With her first book already in the can, Sprengler has begun a new project looking at a genre of contemporary art that attempts to explore the effects cinema has on cultural memory. Called paracinema by film theorist Jonathan Walley, this art form tries to generate the effects of cinema without using traditional materials or the physical support of film.
“The nature of the intersection between art and film over the last 20 years is the focus,” Sprengler says. “By looking at cinema at a pivotal moment through the lens of art, we might better understand their relationship and what one can teach us about the other.”
With the right approach, your next DVD might open a window unto the past rather than simply providing a couple hours of escape.