The Past Never Gets Old

Tutorial Essay: Hilary (Spring) 2013

Britain at the Movies: Film and national identity since 1914


Why were late 20th century directors so nostalgic for earlier periods?

Lowenthal and Binney have argued that ‘both the aims and the force of preservation are specific to national and local circumstances. However, the impulse to preserve can also be seen as universal. Preservation can be seen as a momentary ‘fad’ fuelled by nostalgia for more progressive or peaceful epochs. This implies that romantic views of the past are provoked by discontent with the present and mistrust of the future. ‘Nostalgia,’ or sentimentalising the past, can therefore be seen as a means of coming to terms with change. However, not all films made in the late 20th century were about the past, and those that were, were often about the recent past, within living memory. For example, My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) is set in the 80s. It is important therefore not to overstate the presence of ‘nostalgic’ films. Nevertheless, a perceived trend for nostalgia in the late 20th century is present not only in films but more widely. Prince wrote in 1981 that the need for qualities that enable preservation ‘were never more needed than at present.’ Groups such as English Heritage (founded 1983) and a myriad of local history groups and museums were set up, and foundations such as the National Trust (1895) grew in popularity. Samuel has argued that, ‘as a literary trope…heritage seems to be an entirely twentieth century phenomenon.’ ‘Heritage’ has become an umbrella term used to embrace artefacts and remembrances of a vast range of times and places, and interest in ruins such as Stonehenge was and is popular alongside interest in textiles mills and old mines. The range in the scope of ‘things people are nostalgic about/romanticise’ is so wide that it could be argued it is purely escapism. However, the fact the focus of historical interest in the late twentieth century increasingly lay in the ‘ordinary’ experience of the un-exotic recent past suggests that more is at stake.

It is impossible to impose a unified political outlook on ‘nostalgic’ films. Since the publication of The Invention of Tradition (ed. Hobsbawm and Ranger, 1983) many have viewed commemoration as a cheat by which authorities impose their version of events on others. This view is too harsh, as throughout time minority groups have been able to construct their own historical narrative, even if they have lacked the means to disseminate it. Samuel takes a more balanced stance, arguing that the heritage industry is neither conservative nor socialist, as ‘everything is grist to its mill.’ As he goes on to argue, ‘conservationism is a global phenomenon.’ It is therefore unconvincing to argue that preserving and/or revisiting the past is reactionary or progressive. It can be both. Although, as Lowenthal has claimed, ‘re-enactments often slant the past for nationalist aims,’ they can also be used to ‘democratise’ history by bringing the experience of the ‘ordinary’ to the forefront. Hareven has pointed out that historiographical trends from the sixties complemented this; an interest in the experience of groups such as slaves, women, and workers, and in childhood, age, and family, combined to make interest in the ‘everyday’ an intellectual as well as populist concern of history. As she explains, ‘the personal experience has become part of the folklore of the community. That in turn is beginning to be transformed and legitimised into history.’ Studying ‘ordinary’ experience can be seen as democratic, particularly when ‘heritage’ is seen as being preserved for ‘the common good,’ as an explanation of the past rather than an attempt to impose a moral or political agenda. Additionally, preservation is increasingly viewed as a collaborative community effort. However, the study of the ‘ordinary’ as equalling the ‘authentic’ should be seen as more problematic, since reference to ‘ordinary’ ‘authentic’ experience is often utilised to support both conservative and progressive arguments.

Of Time and the City (2008), despite being lauded by critics at its premier at the Cannes festival in 2008, is an almost nauseatingly nostalgic piece. Sukhdev Sandhu describes it as a risible and almost militantly superficial piece of regional PR’ saying, ‘rarely have I had the misfortune to sit through such a relentlessly maudlin drool of clichés and sentiment.  The archival footage overlaid with Terence Davies’ autobiographical commentary is clearly a very subjective piece. Peter Bradshaw described it in The Guardian as ‘a heartfelt and even ecstatic study of Liverpool…the movie is brashly emotional and sentimental… Davies is incensed by postwar Britain’s caste system… Miseries have been swept away, but certainties also. What are [the working class’s] loyalties? What is their identity? If consumerism has abolished the shackle of class and, consequently, the aspirational escape route of education and culture, then what now are their challenges, their private pains? The overwhelming tone is one of loss and regretful change, although this is at points countered with positive change being registered, for example where he contrasts his Catholic upbringing with the new (seen here as beneficial) ideas he was exposed to in the sixties by films such as Victim (1961). On the whole, however, the film appears to be an attempt at making peace with the past, particularly by using poetry and music. Arguably, this could be an effect of age, Davies was in his early sixties when he made the film, and a tendency to look back with fondness on youth is often described as characteristic of people of a pensionable age. Nevertheless, a need to evaluate the past, to collate archival footage and tell a story about it, is indicative of uncertainty, which could support the claim that nostalgia is a mark of a sick society. Davies was funded by a number of public bodies, including Liverpool’s Digital Departures project, suggesting that this need was (and is) more than a personal one, but is relevant to whole communities.

Similarly, Billy Elliot, (2000) is arguably more about the late 90s than it is about the 80s. Though it focuses on the recent past, through the narrative the modern day is reconciled with the past. The framing of the narrative allows him to overcome his past struggle in the present day, as he achieves success as a dancer on the London stage. Several critics have dismissed the importance of the historical context, for example Charlotte O’Sullivan wrote for The Independent ‘it’s as raw a slice of escapism as you could wish for.’ Reviewing the film for the BBC, William Gallagher wrote: ‘it’s really about anyone who has wanted to do something with their lives.’ Audience reviews on the IMDb website (from across the world) focus more on the human interest story as a location for present fears than on the miners’ strike. For example, one user commented that the strike merely ‘brings the story down to the earth and adds the necessary tension’ to make it believable. The trailer for Billy Elliot emphasises Billy’s individual journey, opening with ‘inside every one of us is a special talent, waiting to come out’. It is not until 1:30 that the context of the miners’ strike is referred to, and this is only for a brief moment. The film was commercially successful outside of Britain, and received several American awards. This all implies that it transcends historical and local meaning, because it has been interpreted as almost universally relatable.

Nevertheless, it also can be seen as speaking specifically to the British political climate of the late 90s and early 2000s. Alderson argues that the film functions as a ‘national allegory’, saying, ‘Billy Elliot represents the transition to neoliberalism as one from a repressive and repressed ‘masculine’ past to a more tolerant, expressive, cosmopolitan, and ‘feminine’ present.’ By exploring gender the film addresses the issue of uncertain identity in a changing world; Alderson has argued that the crisis of masculinity is Billy’s mining father Jacky’s. Change is specifically linked to the mine closures, marking the strike out as a watershed in the transition to neo-liberalism and then ‘New Labour’. Sinfield has described the character of Billy as a ‘Blairite image’, a ‘forward-looking cultural icon.’ In using his talent to ‘escape’ his class and geographical location, Billy is an emblem of the type of progression that New Labour promoted. For example, a Guardian article in 2009 ran the story ‘Government Pledges Cash Help for Education’s ‘Billy Elliots.’’ The fact that the paper used Billy Elliot to describe the scheme, which paid grants of £250 to intelligent and talented young people, implies that Billy’s story remains relevant.

The fact that the film is set in the recent past is important. Philip French wrote for The Observer, ‘the film offers the 1984-85 miners’ strike as a defining moment when the values and attitudes created by industrial society lost their validity’. By using the strike as a turning point, the film constructs a narrative in which the need for change in industry and lifestyle is presented as sad, but inevitable. The theme of modernisation is present throughout, for example, the speech where Billy describes his need to dance as ‘like electricity’, this contrasts with the dirt and hard labour of coal-based energy supplies. Apart from the short term consequence of the strike, the closure of the mines had long term ramifications for the economy and local communities. In March 1984 there were 170 working mines employing 170,000 miners, by 1992 this had dropped to 50 mines employing 46,000 miners, and by 1994 17 mines employed 11,000. This drastic drop had a huge and remaining impact on pit villages. Billy Elliot therefore perhaps should not be described as ‘nostalgic’ because it deals with events in living memory that to a degree, still affect people. The portrayal of the miners is able to be sympathetic because the film uses hindsight to present their cause as doomed. As Mr Wilkinson, (Billy’s dance teacher’s husband) says, ‘if it costs more for you to pay everybody to drag the coal out than you get for the coal when you sell it, then what does that tell you?’ Whilst the inevitability of the strikes failure is present throughout, the portrayal of characters such as Mr Wilkinson, the alcoholic unemployed slob, is much more unsympathetic than that of the miners. Similarly, the Police are presented without sympathy, seen as a faceless, violent armed force. This is perhaps over-exaggerated, for example the sequence where Tony is chased by hordes of riot Police verges on the unrealistic. This representation of the state as too confrontational and more violent than the strikers contains a criticism of the handling of events whilst simultaneously showing that the mining way of life was untenable. The film therefore mediates between the two ‘sides,’ attempting to articulate each view whilst retaining compassion for the workers.

A focus on childhood and youth is a common trope in films which reflect on the past. In Of Time and the City, substantial time is devoted to footage of children playing and singing in the street. Davies seems to use them as metaphors for a lost innocence. This nostalgic romanticising of childhood can be described as reactionary or conservative. However, in Billy Elliot, the eleven year old Billy epitomises the new. The exchange between him and his father on the coach to London articulates the idea that to progress, people need to be willing to shed some of their local identity. Billy asks: So, what’s it like, like? […] London.’ Jacky replies: ‘I don’t know, son. I never made it past Durham.  Billy: ‘Have you never been?’ Jacky: ‘Why would I want to go to London?’ Billy: ‘It’s the capital city!’ Jacky: Well, there are no mines in London. ‘Billy: Jesus Christ, is that all you think about?’ This dialogue highlights a generational and aspirational gap. Whilst the older generation of miners has no choice eventually but to return to work, Billy is, in the narrative of the film, a symbol of hope for the future, which for audiences, is now. In his comparison of Kes (1969) and Billy Elliot, Sinfield has argued that, ‘despite Billy Elliot’s personal success, it is Billy Caspar who embodies a potential for social change.’ Perhaps this should be modified; Billy Caspar in Kes does not actually achieve change in either an individual or communal sense, and his story is left ambiguously without a full sense of closure. The film hints that change is necessary but does not offer any developed solution. Conversely, Billy Elliot is a symbol of change on an individual level, which has been accomplished. This is a result of the films intentions and framing, Kes is set in its present day and is an exposition of ‘working class experience’ whilst the narrative of Billy Elliot is reflective.

‘Nostalgia’ enables the articulation of experience and allows people to reconcile past, present, and future. As Lowenthal has argued, the past is not just ‘back there’ but is ‘assimilated in ourselves, and resurrected into an ever changing present. ‘Nostalgia’ is therefore not solely about explaining the past or escaping to the past, but is about seeking to establish a present identity. In 1981 Lowenthal claimed that ‘the modern impulse toward preservation is partly a reaction to the increasing evanescence of the things that pass through our lives.’ This implies that perceived rapid change in society can lead people to try to ‘fix’ the past as a stable entity. An ‘obsession’ with the past is often seen as an unhealthy mark of a ‘sick society’. Change in Britain in the latter half of the twentieth century, particularly the drop in manufacturing, recession, unemployment rises, and decrease in British international power, fits this pattern. ‘Nostalgia’ can therefore be seen as an attempt to come to terms with the recent past, and the present. Samuel has argued that ‘it is the genius of television…that it can reinvent historical characters in such a way as to make them speak in the authentic accent of the here and now.’ The same can be said of film. This is because the past exerts pressure on the present, whilst it in turn is shaped by today. As Samuel argues, ‘memory is historically conditioned, changing colour and shape according to the emergencies of the moment.’ The past is actively shaped by anyone constructing a narrative, including both historians and filmmakers. They choose what to display, and simulate ‘the past’ in an attempt to seek ‘authenticity’.

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