In his new weekly column, Here & Now & Then, Michael Koresky explores one of cinema’s uncanniest properties: the false sense of déjà vu it imparts in the viewer, which makes us feel like we’ve seen and experienced places and times in which we never existed. Each week, he will choose a year from throughout film history, and examine three titles from that year, made as contemporary works, revealing that all films—even horror, fantasy, comedies, and melodramas—are in one way or another documentaries of their time.
I can still recall the seventies in New York like it was yesterday: graffiti overtaking the walls on the crowded 1, 2, 3 lines; neon signs for peep shows staring back at rumpled pedestrians with their hands shoved in their jacket pockets; art-house lines around the corner for the latest Bergman or Fellini. And I have fifties American suburbia at my fingertips as well, a deceptively bright place populated by mothers in summery floral dresses, dads coming home from work with briefcases and wingtip shoes, their “gee, whiz” sons tossing a ball around in striped shirts and coonskin caps, and teenage daughters twirling phone cords while on the party line. It’s almost as vivid as those high society metropolitan boudoirs and foyers of the thirties, in extravagant apartments that were home to dinner parties of such taste and finery that it was easy to forget the economic turmoil going on outside.
Of course, I never lived in any of these times or places. But of all the complex sensations movie-watching can impart, perhaps the oddest is that as viewers we feel as if we’ve come to know and understand the movements and textures of eras earlier than our own.
The narrative of each of our lives essentially begins in that arbitrary year of our birth, but our memories have become falsified by film. Through fictions we find hints of truth and reality—backgrounds, clothes, extras, behavior—that rhythmically or physically evoke a period in history we may not have been privy to. This is the ultimate uncanny effect of the screen—that it grants a sense of impossible déjà vu.
When I think of the span of cinema history, it’s always first in terms of dates. This is of course true of those years in which I existed: what is Jurassic Park if not that movie I saw on that opening night in June 1993 in that theater in Tyngsboro, Massachusetts, surrounded by those hushed, feverish spectators? But it’s also true of those years even before my parents’ birth: what currency could The Magnificent Ambersons have if it wasn’t the film Welles made in 1942, after Citizen Kane, during the war, before the ignominious downfall, made as a period piece looking back and forward with anxiety? That even fantasy films, such as the former, and period pieces, like the latter, tell us something about the time in which they were made as readily as films intended as contemporary reflections is another strange truth of the medium. In texture and acting style and musical orchestration, a film can be in two places at once: Bob Clark’s holiday perennial A Christmas Story annually brings me back to 1983, the year it was made, as much as it does to its meticulously recreated prewar radio days.
Other writers and artists have made eloquent cases for the documentary qualities inherent even in preposterous fictions, such as, say, Double Indemnity (1944) or Poltergeist (1982), adequate reflections of their times both. In divorcing films from their contexts, Christian Marclay’s mammoth installation The Clock, for instance, reminds us of film’s capability of forever capturing a single fleeting moment, and, implicitly, that film is a record of time, forever ticking away as we move closer to death. Sounds heavy, but it’s really just another way of expressing the dynamism of movies. The Bazinian thrill we get from them is the thrill of living in the moment, which is complicated by the fact that it’s someone else’s moment, and it is both constructed and irreducibly real.
This column, Here & Now & Then, isn’t intended as any sort of serious historiographical endeavor. Rather, it’s a way of reckoning with a personal movie past. Each week I’ll look at a different year (before or after my birth—out of necessary deference to the span of film history, more will be from before) and discuss three movies made during that year. What have these films communicated to me, probably accidentally, about their respective eras? I thought a good place to start this experiment would be 1979, the year I was born. The fact that I emerged six months before the changeover to the decade that would always be remembered for foreclosed farms and leg-warmers allows me to boast, for no sensible reason, that I am a “child of the seventies.” Quite obviously untrue, as my life doesn’t appear to have been particularly affected by either the Iran hostage crisis or the release of Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall, clearly the two most important things that happened in the decade’s six remaining months.
So, even though I was technically alive in 1979, my experience of it comes from the manufactured memories produced by movies. My most vivid recollections seem to be located in New York; Bloomington, Indiana; and a suburban Pennsylvania shopping mall. As for the city so nice they named it twice, I wish I could show my erudition and say that either Woody Allen’s lovely Manhattan or Bob Fosse’s grungy Broadway ballad All That Jazz, masterpieces both, first comes to mind, but it’s actually that year’s Best Picture winner, Robert Benton’s Kramer vs. Kramer that offers up the vision of New York I first identified with. Woody and Bob’s Big Apple were intimidating, adult places, given over to outsized exultations in the former and nightmarish panic in the latter. Kramer vs. Kramer was instantly recognizable to a child, and that’s why it’s stayed lodged in my brain for so many years. The family, unlike mine, might have lived in a city apartment, and mop-topped tyke Billy might have pronounced the word “coffee” with an odd New York brogue, but otherwise I could understand these people’s domesticity, whether they ultimately embraced (Dustin Hoffman’s dad, Ted) or rejected (Meryl Streep’s mom, Joanna) it. For reasons superficial as well as not, Kramer feels more like an ‘80s movie than a seventies one: its focus on boomer self-actualization through work, its tendency to sand away its rough edges with eminent tastefulness (Nestor Almendros photography, Vivaldi score), the casting of Jobeth Williams. And though it’s remembered for being a dramatic look at divorce, it’s actually just a more reactionary, anti-feminist version of 1987’s Baby Boom, both expressions of the difficulties in juggling careers and families.
Meanwhile, over in Bloomington, Dave, Mike, Cyril (Cyril!), and Moocher were not quite on the cusp of having to concern themselves with such adult matters. These were the boys of Breaking Away, the sleeper whose massive success produced an entire animal house’s worth of inferior coming-of-agers in the following decade (Losin’ It, anyone?). The film may lead up to a climactic bicycle race, but more evocative are Jackie Earle Haley’s acne, Dennis Quaid’s lanky shirtlessness, and all those scenes set at the quarry, not a place I ever wanted to go but which nevertheless represents the escape I wish I had as an option in my teen years (I could have climbed the neighborhood water tower if not for my fear of heights). It’s no surprise that Breaking Away so authentically captures its sun-dappled after-school suburban aimlessness, since director Peter Yates is a master of milieu (his The Friends of Eddie Coyle is so transporting a depiction of the grungy outskirts of Beantown that it convinces me I must have had a former life as a Greater Boston bank robber). Before Hoosiers, and before Bloomington became a liberal oasis (deemed the most gay-friendly town in the U.S. a few years ago!) in a sea of conservatism, Breaking Away was its major cultural claim to fame—a fact I can attest to considering the amount of times it was invoked when I frequented the town throughout the eighties and nineties to visit my extended family.
Manhattan apartments and Midwestern bicycle races are dangerous alien galaxies compared to the safe zone of the shopping mall, even when it’s inhabited by zombies. George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (released in the U.S. in 1979) is perhaps for me the most vivid transmission from the period, mostly because it’s so confined to an environment familiar to the suburban teen I once was. Despite its fantastical nature, this film captures the flavor of its time better than any other I can remember. Aside from all the glorious gut-ripping carnage that happens at the real-life two-level Monroeville Mall, one of my chief pleasures watching Dawn has always been glimpses of what Pennsylvania suburbanites were shopping for in the seventies. Between late 1977 and early 1978, Romero and his crew took over the mall every night after it closed; the set dressing was minimal, so most of what you’re seeing is as authentic a snapshot of a time and place as, say Louis Malle’s concurrent Minnesota-set documentary God’s Country (originally conceived as a film about the American shopping mall). Looking past the beheadings and hacksawed limbs, you can see the Bakers Shoes, J.C. Penneys, Foxmoor Casuals, Kamps, and Joan Bari boutiques that once served the PA locals. (As far as individual products go, I wonder whether Jaclar sneakers—one of the looters late in the film tries to abscond with a huge pile of them—were once a hot item). The lack of slickness is what gives Romero’s Dawn of the Dead its lasting, grungy brilliance; not only are the Tom Savini makeup effects tactile, so is the location itself. There’s a seeming artlessness to Dawn, which makes it feel unlike any other horror movie (especially the sped-up, machine-tooled Zack Snyder remake). Just ignore the eviscerations, and it’s clear Romero’s made the inadvertent nonfiction portrait of seventies America.
Michael Koresky is the staff writer of the Criterion Collection, as well as the co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot. His writings have appeared in Film Comment, Cinema Scope, indieWIRE, Moving Image Source, and The Village Voice.