The modern past steals the screen: “Midnight in Paris” and “Submarine”

This time around, I will give a glance at the prominent position of the near, modern past in two current movies: Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” (2011) and Richard Ayoade’s “Submarine” (2010). Neither of them are history movies, honestly depicting historical material. Instead they are blatantly using the past as fantasy for the present imagination, placing them insistently in the field of retromania.
MidnightInParis-Stills-002-650x433 (1)midnight-in-paris-movie-poster-011 Through “Midnight in Paris” the fantasy comes alive with the protagonist walking into a lifelike cultural fantasy of the art scene bohemia of the 1920’s Paris. And it works as an inspired antithesis to the dull and disenchanted present, making a fruitful ‘present past’. Even though there are traps that shall not be revealed here, “Midnight in Paris” supports the temporal fantasies with a predominant approval of the cultural nostalgia as a legal strategy, both fulfilling and revealing this nostalgic fantasies.


“Submarine” is a temporally more twisted affair. Away from glamourous Paris and glorious fantasies of avantgarde heroes and welcome to snotty teenagers in the Wales province some decades ago. Exactly when is not good to know. Chosen emblems of 1980’s popular culture and technology occurs in a distinctly 1960’s and 1970’s like environment with simoultaneus cronological defects and details. Thus, we are puzzled about the meaning of the setting: Should it be plausible as an illustration of provincial delay? Is it just an aesthetic backdrop, setting a mysterious light upon it, half a tone beyond reality?
The usual temporal signifiers in this kind of movies, the soundtrack, gives no clue. It is made of a song suite from the present by Alex Turner from the Arctic Monkeys. The pictures themselves are in clear, diffuse retro texture, with selected scenes miming a handheld camera as a specific mood creator.
This undefined, but characteristic past setting is both kind of dystopic and strangely attractive. This combination is typical for retro, surrounding the past with irony and nostalgia.

The Psychedelic Revivalism Revisited

The Sixties were a culturally decisive decade – also concerning the role of the past and the basis for retro. Maybe it is exactly in the middle of the decade that we have “The rift of retro’ (Simon Reynolds: “Retromania”, 2011) and the shift from futurism to revivalism as the fuel of cultural fantasy. The moment is defined in the upper right corner of The Beatles lp Rubber Soul (December 1965) with the ornamented graphics. Few months after an exhibtion of Aubrey Beardsley at the in itself retro Victoria and Albert Museum were the starting gathering of the London underground scene took place. And, simoultaneusly, the first psychedelic posters appeared in San Francisco.
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Here, a relatively recent past style were intensively used to creaty a visual culture for the psychedelic counter culture from ‘Swinging London’ to ‘Nouveau Frisco’. The Art Nouveau or Jugenstil were seemingly the opposite of the dominating high modernism.  Therefore it was appropriate for a counter culture as a demonstrative language both for internal and outwards directed communication. In a larger and slightly generalized perspective it could be seen as the first turn from “present futures” to “present pasts” in the terms of Huyssen (mentioned in my first post below) in the cutting edge culture. That it was also a manifestation of popular and counter culture is also an important condition for retro.

This is a complex and rich art historical field that I will not cover here. I will just mention a fascinating view into the psychedelic art that I recently had the opportunity to get in the archives of Design Museum Danmark (formerly and rightly Kunstindustrimuseet). Here Morten Lander Andersen from Danmarks Rockmuseum had invited me to join the study of the true pioneer of psychedelic poster in Denmark, Ove von Späth. From 1966 into psychedelic ’67 he created series of posters of high graphical value for Danish artists like Beefeaters, Poul Dissing and Exploding Mushroom and visiting artists like John Mayall and Bert Jansch.

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The use of the Art Nouveau is distinct and even stated in his unique and overlooked book from the time Psychedeliske ’67 (private press, 1969). Here the Jugendstil is praised as “… The first school of art that was deliberately created independently and as a break with 2,000 years of a Roman dominant perception …” (“Den første stilart, der skabtes bevidst selvstændigt og som et brud med 2000 års romersk dominerende stilopfattelse”) (p. 37). The revival must be careful and graphically responsible, von Späth emphazises. The emblematic San Franscico covers are surprisingly mentioned as unsuccessful examples. There are limits for the revivalism that the psychedelic culture did not respect when it went all in with “… bun dough-like fashion-ads and the sign painters’ scams …” (“bolledejsagtige mode-annoncer og skiltemalerfiduser”) (p. 15).


Von Späth did not stay in “psychedelic ’67” as this example show, but was leaving the potential of a fascinating art and design historical study. He is now known as Ove von Spaeth and seemingly dedicated to the study of the historical Moses and other spiritual and historical issues (See: Hopefully we will one day be able enjoy his work through an exhibition or publication.

Regarding the psychedelic style of the 1960’s and its lasting inspiration on the arts, an exhibition is psychedelic contemporary art is coming up at Holstebro Kunstmuseum: Looks interesting!