2016’s movies were obsessed with memory, the past.

The Movie Club, 2016

Why Were So Many of 2016’s Movies Obsessed With the Past?

The Movie Club, 2016

Why Were So Many of 2016’s Movies Obsessed With the Past?
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Jan. 2 2017 9:30 AM

The Movie Club, 2016

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Why were so many of the year’s movies obsessed with the past?

obsessed with the past.

Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Roadside Attractions, A24, Focus Features, Walt Disney Pictures, Fox Searchlight Pictures, FilmNation Entertainment.

Dear Dana, Amy, and Mark,

First of all, thanks for including me in the Movie Club this year! It feels strange to join a discussion I’ve been an admiring spectator of in the past, but here goes …

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Dana, your question about what trends or currents ran through this year’s films is one that’s been on my mind as well. And I do think there was something bubbling up. I wrote a bit about it in my piece this September on the New York Film Festival—a fest whose 2016 lineup seemed to be unusually fixated on the idea of time and the persistence of memory. Is it gauche to quote myself? I’m gonna quote myself. Here’s what I wrote: “Given that the world today is watching as elements of its darkest hidden self re-emerge—from old, simmering hatreds to the simplistic bluster of neo-feudal strongmen—it only makes sense that our movies are now focused on history and trauma (be it political or personal) and our futile attempts to bury, absolve, and forget.”

The NYFF had titles like Julieta and Aquarius and Personal Shopper and Manchester by the Sea and The Unknown Girl and I Am Not Your Negro and Karl Marx City and I Called Him Morgan and The B-Side and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk—all of which are about exhuming or preserving or otherwise confronting the past. (And most of these played other fests as well, so it’s not just a New York thing.) Moonlight, too, has a structure that ensures that each of its sections is founded on the half-remembered memory of the previous one; thanks to the film’s three big leaps forward in time, the characters hazily recall things that for us viewers happened just minutes ago.

But it went beyond the festival(s). The year had at least three big animated kids’ movies in which major characters lost their memories (Kubo and the Two Strings, Finding Dory, and the criminally underseen Little Prince). In Arrival, a flashback is eventually revealed to be a flash-forward, knocking around inside a mind for whom past, present, and future have lost their meanings. In Nocturnal Animals, the past is translated into a fiction that then transforms the present. In Jackie, we see Jacqueline Kennedy struggling with a personal trauma that she realizes will become a defining memory for the whole nation … so she seizes control of the narrative and recasts it as myth.

Or look at the drip-drip-drip reveal of Denzel Washington’s past in Fences, a work whose immediacy and modest setting hide whole lifetimes of hurt. Or the animated mass shooting doc Tower, which didn’t just interview talking heads and reconstruct the 1966 shooting at the University of Texas but actually re-created a dialogue with history, intercutting the survivors in the present with their staged, animated, younger selves.

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Heck, I’d argue that even Hell or High Water can be considered in this light. Mark is absolutely right that its sense of economic desperation feels of the moment. But the movie also conjures up a cowboys-and-robbers narrative from the past, complete with weather-beaten outlaws and Jeff Bridges as an aging lawman on one last chase. Meanwhile, you have Gil Birmingham as his partner Alberto, a Mexican/Native American/evangelical Texas Ranger who gets, I think, the film’s key moment—when he looks out at a dying town and ruminates on the cycles of history that have taken this land from different groups. “A hundred and fifty years ago, all this was my ancestors’ land … till the grandparents of all these folks took it. Now it’s being taken from them.” Except, as he notes, “it ain’t no army doing it.” It’s the banks. The story is old, but the devils are new.

So where does all this looking backward come from? Maybe it’s just the nature of the medium: Film does memory better than many of the other arts, and even blockbusters like to throw in some pointed backstory here and there. (I mean, isn’t barely repressed trauma the special sauce with which so many superhero movies try to redeem themselves? The good ones manage to actively explore it, while the mediocre ones just slather it around for cheap emotional manipulation.)

But I do think there’s something in the air, akin to the period following 9/11 and the Iraq war when our horror flicks suddenly got supergraphic and torturey. Maybe the response to the Obama presidency made everyone realize that the old demons that we thought we’d vanquished were just hovering beneath the surface, waiting to be let back out. Maybe it’s because the world in general still seems caught up in all the grievances of the past. (I mean, if you told me a year ago that Nazis would suddenly cease to be mere cartoon villains and that I’d find myself a little too emotionally invested in the spectacle of Ben Affleck shooting KKK members in the face, I’d have said you were crazy.) All this stuff swirling around us finds its way into the work—sometimes purposefully, sometimes subconsciously, through projection and displacement and inadvertent metaphor. Who the hell knows?

As for La La Land—which, as everyone’s already noted, basically lives inside a memory—I loved it. It was in my top 20. (But I also enjoyed Amy’s eloquent takedown.) I liked that amid all the studio gloss and snow-globe wonderment, there was a rickety quality to it—in Ryan Gosling’s too-cool-for-school dancing, in the way the sets looked like they were about to topple over, in the not-entirely-perfect choreography. And I will say that, while watching it, I was reminded not so much of Vincente Minnelli or Jacques Demy but Nicholas Ray, with his delusional characters and his uncontrollable bursts of awkward emotion—and that was before Damien Chazelle actually trotted out Rebel Without a Cause. All that said, the title I want to pair La La Land up with most for a double feature is David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. With their tales of Hollywood dreams deferred, their alternating perspectives, their nightclubs opening onto other dimensions and transforming identities, they’d make a perfect match.

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But I also love a good divisive debate, and the one around Chazelle’s movie has been fascinating. When we did our Village Voice film poll, La La Land handily won the category of the Movie Everyone Is Wrong About, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it got votes there from both admirers and detractors. And it seems that each side seems to think that they’re the besieged underdog.

This brings up one of my favorite questions, with which I’ll leave you for now—though feel free to ignore it, since it’s basically unanswerable. Looking forward 10, or even 20 years into the future (yes, I am assuming, perhaps stupidly, that not only will there still be a future but a future in which people will still give a damn about cinema), what 2016 movie will we all turn out to have been wrong about? I continue to have this uneasy suspicion that the answer is Neon Demon, a film I can’t say I liked but, for whatever reason, still can’t shake.

Love,

Bilge

Bilge Ebiri is a film critic for the Village Voice. His work has also appeared in New York magazine, Rolling Stone, Bookforum, and Businessweek.