Book Review: “Was It Yesterday?: Nostalgia in Contemporary Film and Television” — Looking at the Past, Fearlessly

By Allen Michie

The essays in this excellent volume consistently show that nostalgia is about something, and it matters.

Was It Yesterday?: Nostalgia in Contemporary Film and Television, Ed.Matthew Leggatt. SUNY Press, 294 pages, Hardcover, $95, Kindle, $32.95

These are the good ol’ days for nostalgia. Movies and television have been wallowing in it for the last several years, and audiences sigh wistfully, tuning in for more. Here are a few arbitrary examples from the 2021 Emmy and Academy Award nominees in the Drama category: The Crown, Pose, This Is Us, Mank, Minari, and The Trial of the Chicago 7. Going back a few years, the surplus of backward-looking hits includes Stranger Things, La La Land, Mad Men, American Hustle, Ready Player One, and Wandavision. This is not to mention all the reboots, comic book cinema, and Disney live-action remakes of movies ticket-buying parents remember from their childhoods.

To document and analyze all this extravagant quasi-remembering, editor Matthew Leggatt has assembled a collection of academic essays, Was It Yesterday?: Nostalgia in Contemporary Film and Television, part of SUNY Press’s Horizons of Cinema series. “Whether you believe that the wave of nostalgia we’re currently experiencing offers positive hopes for reengaging with history, or whether you see a warning that our culture is in full retreat from the present, there is evidently much more to nostalgia than just the formation of catchy political slogans or the recycling, remaking, and rebooting of a few old movies and TV series,” Leggatt writes. “Nostalgia is an industry, but it is also, as scholars have noted, an amalgam of a complex web of different affects, practices, aesthetics, emotions, and fetishes.”

All 14 of these diverse and often brilliant essays are revelatory because they accept how much is at stake. The sweetness of nostalgia is not often valued here. (There are exceptions, such as Daniel Varndell’s sensitive comparison of Julie Andrews echoing scenes from The Sound of Music in The Princess Diaries movies.) Nostalgia is usually seen as less of a personal emotion than a social force. How it is applied for both good and ill — and profit and loss — depends on a number of different artistic and cultural motivations. As these authors consider an impressive array of films and television shows from silent films to 21st-century blockbusters, they explore nostalgia’s force and appeal. Nostalgia is a way to negotiate difficult periods of history, avoid history altogether, radicalize the future (to both the left and right), anesthetize the pliant masses in a materialist economy, enter a self-referential hall of mirrors, and even structure the very nature of memory and identity. Was it Yesterday? is no sentimental journey

It’s a strength of the collection that “nostalgia” is given no single unifying definition. Jason Sperb’s superb essay breaks the concept down into “affective,” “peripheral,” “representational,” and “simulacric” nostalgias, each with its own common plot patterns. Sperb makes a sharp distinction between nostalgia and history that is both useful and, while it is necessarily oversimplified, true:

Simplification Contradiction
Seduction Negotiation
Imagination Documentation
Wholes Fragments
Reassuring Unsettling
Monologue Dialogue
Innocence Knowledge

The authors provide several other definitions and categorizations of nostalgia. Christine Sprengler equates it with “metamodernism,” Ross P. Garner identifies “memetic tangible nostalgia” in such physical objects as souvenirs and fan merchandise, and Fran Mason discusses a “spatialized past” that includes landscapes. Tracey Mollet sensibly returns to the roots of the word itself as a foundation for her argument about modern conceptions of home and family embedded in the ’80s series Stranger Things: “Derived from the word nostos, ‘to return home,’ and algia, indicative of a yearning or a longing, nostalgia literally means ‘homesickness.’”

Having a variety of definitions is a benefit, but boundaries need to be drawn. At times, historical fiction, documentary realism, and nostalgia are perceived to have a shifting, kaleidoscopic relationship. Ian Peters recognizes this in his treatment of two TV series about the Cold War, Americans and Deutschland 83/86. Sometimes, as in our post-9/11 existence, programs about the recent past can be “less a celebration of history and more a reminder that the past and the present are eerily similar…. The resulting programs are a hybrid of nostalgia and antinostalgia that both celebrates the past and criticizes the present for failing to learn from it.” Peters comes up with another example of how, given shifting current events, something that starts out as a historical fiction becomes fodder for nostalgia. Trump’s election in 2016 was both a cause and a symptom of the US’s obsession with nostalgia, which began with the cultural strategy of Ronald Reagan. “Donald Trump was elected on the basis of nostalgia, in his infamous pronouncements to ‘Make America Great Again (emphasis mine),” writes Mollet. Of course, Reagan plugged nostalgic fantasies into the Republican Party platform long before Trump exploited them. Leggatt labels Trump a “Reagan-like imposter.”

It is difficult to say whether “sociopolitical issues of the past” dominate the analyses in the book. It might be expected that a collection of academic essays would emphasize nostalgia (along with every other supporting aspect of the entertainment industry) as a sociopolitical construction driven by bourgeois class consciousness and an unrelenting profit motive. There are essays here that do that, as in Sperb’s description of two trends in Hollywood’s fascination with nostalgia: “The first is its troubling (and unresolvable) tensions with historical consciousness in a consumer culture that largely defines the past according to its financial worth. The second, following that point, is that nostalgia is itself often the commodity that people desire when consuming popular media, not the film or TV show that facilitates it.”

The center of gravity for the sociopolitical themes in many of the volume’s essays is theorist Frederic Jameson. (It became a rather distracting game for me to see how long I would have to read an essay before his name came up.) Jameson’s famous essays “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” (1983) and “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” (1984, later a book in 1990) trademarked what has become the Marxist default position on postmodernism. The argument in a nutshell: nostalgic films are oversimplified pastiches of clichés, valuing style over substance and image over reality, so conservative corporate interests can distract us from dealing with history’s urgent demands. “Nostalgia art gives us the image of various generations of the past as fashion-plate images that entertain no determinable ideological relationship to other moments of time,” Jameson asserts. “They are not the outcome of anything, nor are they the antecedents of our present; they are simply images.” As Mason summarizes it, the ’70s keeps coming up in Jameson’s work because the ’70s were “already nostalgic for signs of cultural cohesion, authenticity, originality, or individuality, the loss of which are part of the wider constellation of postmodernism.”

Refreshingly, many of the essayists in Was It Yesterday? push back against the notion that nostalgia is only about images reflecting empty images. Postmodernism is becoming (or maybe has already become) not the vehicle of nostalgia, but the subject of it. It’s just so ’90s. Political relevance is far more urgent in the 2020s. For example, Vera Dika argues that Get Out is a horror movie pastiche of other horror movies such as Eyes Without a Face, Psycho, and Ringu (in addition to substantially revisiting Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which I suppose was a kind of white suburban horror movie in 1967). But Dika is not content to end it as Jameson would, where (as Dika puts it) “the return of older cultural productions in new works closes us to the past, offering only aesthetic styles on a depthless surface.” Instead, this pastiche of older films invites critical thinking because it “opposes the past to the present, and so fosters a dialogue…. the references are metaphorically used to direct attention to race relations, to the threat posed to blacks by white society.”

Mason’s essay places another spin on Jameson’s notion that ’70s nostalgia is a pointless house of cards built on nothing but itself. Mason considers the interesting case of alternate realities — movies like Inglourious Basterds or the second season of Fargo, where historical events are altered, omitted, or reimagined. Mason calls this a “spatialized past, a landscape or country that exists as a self-contained textual reality, a time capsule of the past in which events are imagined differently to the past as it happened.” The ’70s are perfect for this kind of “temporal-free zone,” but not because it was an era that longed for cohesion and authenticity. It’s because “the 1970s is a decade without the kind of popular cultural metanarrative that attaches to, for example, the 1950s and its associations with conformism, Cold War politics, suburban living, and postwar consumer society, the countercultural ‘swinging sixties,’ or the materialistic Reaganite 1980s.” Mason quotes Bruce Schulman: the ’70s is an “‘eminently forgettable decade’ that produces only empty signs of ‘bad clothes, bad hair, and bad music’.” In other words, the ’70s was so boring that no one cares much if you misremember it. Still, note the critical language of “metanarratives” and “empty signs” — this is cultural deconstruction, not postmodernism. The essays in this volume consistently show that nostalgia is about something, and it matters. Perhaps it’s time to put away your copy of Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism next to your MC Hammer CD and Pretty Woman VHS.

Aaron Tveit (left) and Julianne Hough rehearse for Grease Live!. Photo: Kevin Estrada/FOX

So, what’s new in nostalgia this year? Among the things that the 2020s have that previous decades didn’t is an always-on media landscape driven by boardrooms full of young marketing executives who know their stuff. One of the most original essays in the volume is “On the Limits of Nostalgia: Understanding the Marketplace for Remaking and Rebooting the Hollywood Musical” by Justin Wyatt, who gives the television special Grease Live! (2016) perhaps its debut analysis in an academic publication. Why was Grease Live! (a nostalgic remake of a nostalgic movie of a nostalgic Broadway show) an enormous hit while the 2011 remake of Footloose and the multiple remakes of Fame were flops? Wyatt nimbly breaks it down. One of the major reasons: Grease Live! masterfully employed what Wyatt calls “transmedia storytelling,” using multiple “entry points” into youth culture. “While a vast majority of television shows and events push social media hashtags,” he writes, “Grease Live! benefited significantly by making its social media request while the event was actually happening. Viewers were reminded to access behind-the-scenes footage on the show’s Facebook page. In addition, viewers were asked to tweet the hashtag #GreaseLive, resulting in more than two million tweets.”

Aiding and abetting this fourth-wall-breaking party atmosphere was the decision to incorporate audience members into the production. Also, actors were seen physically leaving the back lot soundstage on live TV and running over to a nearby carnival: “The suggestion is that the world of Grease may seem artificial, but it plays out just as much in the real world as in the dramatic one.” Grease Live! succeeded because it treated nostalgia in a distinctly contemporary way: “The immersive experience, the transparency of the production, and the ability to bring the viewer into the musical through the trope of liveness all affect the building blocks of the creative property. These entry points also suggest that nostalgia may work best when made explicit, with the difference between the now (the live moment) and the past (the media property) underscored.”

Something else that’s very 2020s about current nostalgia trends is the material culture surrounding it. Garner’s essay “Mimetic Tangible Nostalgia and Spatial Cosplay: Replica Merchandise and Place in Fandom’s Material Cultures” calls attention to the physical manifestations of movie and TV nostalgia hawked via collectable souvenirs, action figures, and replicas. A life-sized model of Thanos’s Infinity Gauntlet from Avengers: Infinity War will set you back about $1,300. What drives people to buy such things, attend Star Trek conventions, and court one another at Comic-Con dressed as Wookies? Garner speculates via murky sentences: : “If dressing the fan body ‘allows fans to visualize their affect for certain texts,’ then by extension, spatial cosplayers express their affect through mimetic tangible nostalgia’s potential to ontologically bridge between discursively bounded notions of reality and fiction and past and present.” Much analysis is given to where people decide to put their souvenir stuff (or, as Garner puts it, people must “work within constraints arising out of nationally — and historically — specific discourses of domestic architecture when constructing personal spaces that communicate mimetic tangible nostalgia”). The conclusion: you can’t line up your action figure collection in your office at work (computer support technicians perhaps excepted) unless you want your boss to hit you with some unpleasant structuring discourses: “While a fan-occupier may decorate an office (cubicle) with replica items to perform their fan attachments, these demonstrations of individual agency may exist in tension with other structuring discourses, such as the expectations of professional identities or management policies.” The question of whether you should wear your Incredible Hulk outfit to the office is left pending. “Further investigation is required into how mimetic tangible nostalgia sits alongside discourses structuring (potential) spatial cosplay sites.” At no point does Garner consider the motive of — let alone come up with jargon for — fun.

The volume ends appropriately with two excellent essays that lighten the tone in a way that speaks to both general and academic readers. The preceding essays offered a persuasive overview of what nostalgia is, and how nostalgia works. The final two pieces offer takes on why nostalgia works, widening the focus to consider what a philosophy of nostalgia might be. Murray Pomerance and William Rothman know that a film or TV show can deal with the past without being nostalgic. In “Remembering It Well: Nostalgia, Cinema, Fracture,” Pomerance cites not Jameson but William Wordsworth, recalling that poetry is “powerful emotion recollected in tranquility.” Similarly, “Nostalgia is in the maintenance of feeling through memory, the preservation of insight.” Nostalgia is a yearning for the past, but the past is gone, and the best we can hope for is a hollow simulacrum which may only have a superficial resemblance. After all, nostalgia in the movies and TV is all about other people’s memories, not our own. So is nostalgia therefore a waste of time? Is it just a pointless indulgence?

A life-sized model of Thanos’s Infinity Gauntlet from Avengers: Infinity War will set you back about $1,300.

“Fond memory may not be an aspiration to another life, it may be an affirmation of the life we have, and that life includes images, not just things,” Pomerance answers. Nostalgia can usefully serve as a kind of fantasy therapy. With confidently nonacademic language and a Wordsworthian perspective, Pomerance writes, “Nostalgia may be nothing other than our way of accessing a past fantasy, in whole or in part, the fantasy by its nature being alive in itself, in the strange way that fantasies having once come alive remain alive. Reinvocation is thus a blossoming of life.”

Rothman has the final words in his insightful (and somewhat cranky) essay “Nostalgia Ain’t What It Used to Be.” Props to editor Leggatt for ending the volume with an essay that cuts against the grain of all those that came before. Rothman claims that American movies are spending far less time on nostalgia now than they did during the ’40s and early ’50s (for example, How Green Was My Valley or Singin’ in the Rain). Examining how and why movies from that era looked back at what was perceived as an easier prewar period, Rothman discovers something essential to nostalgia. It’s not about commerce, or about references to other movies, or sanitizing the painful past, or seeking antidotes for our painful present. It’s about childhood. Nostalgia has a “requisite wistful yearning, its longing for a happier, freer time that has slipped into the past, like childhood, and is now accessible only in memory. Indeed, I don’t think it’s possible to experience nostalgia without knowing, in one’s heart, that one’s childhood is past, that one is no longer entitled to the privileges and responsibilities (or rather, irresponsibilities) we grant to children.”

From there Rothman dares to ask the next logical question. Since nostalgia is “knowledge of the irrecoverable loss of something precious to us,” then how can it be pleasurable? The impossibility of bringing the past into the present, and of keeping the present from slipping into the past, provides “a bittersweet pleasure akin to what the Japanese call mono no aware, the exquisite sense of the fleetingness of all beauty.” Nostalgia seizes us, and we willingly return to its grip, because “Shame, guilt, and rancor haunt so much of our lives that we are often fearful of remembering the past, but when we feel nostalgic, we look back at our past without fear.”

Allen Michie works in higher education administration in Austin, TX.


  1. Steve Provizer on August 31, 2021 at 10:32 am

    Fantastic precis of the book, Allen. In music, nostalgia plays out in its own, complicated fashion. On one hand: “That was our song…” “That’s what they were playing when I broke my arm in a mosh pit…” etc. That same effect happens with jazz, but you also have the split between what people think is “real” jazz. Are people indulging in nostalgia when they classify Trad or Bop as more real than say, hip-hop hybrids or free playing? This begs the question of the role of aesthetics in nostalgia, which is implicit in the essays but as far as I can see is not explicitly tackled.

    • Allen Michie on August 31, 2021 at 2:21 pm

      I fully agree about music. Maybe that’s another book. An entire aesthetic of nostalgia (sketched out in the final two essays here) would be interesting. Perhaps a reader can point us to a book that already does that. For example, there’s clearly nostalgia in film and music, but what about dance (maybe the Lindy Hop revival)? Or graphic arts (why is Norman Rockwell nostalgic but not, say, Winslow Homer)? Does nostalgia work the same way in theater as it does in film (the chapter on “Grease Live!” suggests maybe not)?

      It seems with current academic trends favoring affect and aesthetics, nostalgia is ripe for more exploration.

      Your question about classification being a function of nostalgia brings up an interesting point that also appears in the reviewed book. Nostalgia is a personal thing, only about you, and only for you (as in your example, “That’s what they were playing when I broke my arm in a mosh pit”). But when you’re watching a nostalgic movie or TV show, it’s someone else’s nostalgia in which you’re participating. Another approach, as in “Ready Player One,” is to cast a wide net for all kinds of things about a certain time period and hope that at least a few things resonate personally for the audience (“I remember that breakfast cereal when I was growing up!”). But what’s really going on when we feel someone else’s nostalgia? Are we agreeing to participate in it, or are we manipulated by it, and are our feelings vicarious ones? Does that make them insincere and therefore less powerful? Is it a good or bad thing to have emotional investment in someone else’s memories? Or, as some essays suggest, do our own memories of the past get distorted or even replaced by images from film and TV?

      • Steve Provizer on September 1, 2021 at 10:29 am

        As you say, seeing an image can seem voyeuristic, while music seems to have the power to strike deepest.

        I think it’s safe to say that our own memories of the past are already distorted–a simulacrum we create. Other memories have some obvious survivalist function (this is my house, my dog, my boss…), but who knows what function nostalgia–one form of memory–serves.

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