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.
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 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.
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.
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: www.moses-egypt.net). 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: http://www.holstebrokunstmuseum.dk/da/udstillinger/aktuelle.aspx?Action=1&NewsId=192&PID=4027 Looks interesting!
The content of this page would at most times in the cultural history of Man seem exaggerated, novel and irrational.
So it is not today. The intensive, cultural reuse of the near, modern past is a sign of the times to a degree that we in the words of Simon Reynolds went into the new millenium with the ‘Re-Decade’ – the age of retro. The years 2000-2010 also given the name of ‘the noughties‘ – where we had enough of ideas of the future, but could not get enough of the past, from prestigious restorations of the far past to the ironic commemoration of the near past in retro. As the German-American culture critic Andreas Huyssen has noted the last decades have witnessed “a turning towards the past that stands in stark contrast to the privileging of the future so characteristic of the earlier decades of twentieth-century modernity” (Huyssen: Present Pasts, 2002, p. 11), marking a shift from ‘present futures’ to ‘present pasts’ in the collective imagination. The paradoxical thing about this ‘memory boom’ is that does not result in a sense of understanding or settledness about the past, but corresponds more with an experience of memory fatigue, amnesia and lack of history. An interesting background for the current retromania that I think can be seen as both being an obvious part of the memory boom as well as some kind of reaction, even counter culture to it.
Retro is itself a new term. First registered in use according to Webster’s in 1974 and in Danish in 1979. Before it was only in use as a prefix in words as retrospective. And we must go up to the time around 1990 to see retro established in the sense it is understood today as a distinctive, aesthetic goal in itself. Maybe the most surprising thing about retro is that it has stayed on the scene to this day and thereby lasted much longer than its object’s original time in the limelight. Think about it: ‘Greaser-fifties-style’ can only have been credible for a few years from around 1958 to 1962 and the frowned upon 1970’s style only distinct and fashionable from 1972 to disco and punk took over long before that decade had ended. The second life of these fashions have by far in longer than their first time around.
Returning to the dictionaries, I recently came upon Politikens Slangordbog from 1983. While I turned the pages of this mirror of the popular culture and discovered some 30 graphic slang expressions of ‘medisterpølse’ (for you from abroad see this delicatess here) and words as “pensionistkasse” (12-pack of beer), “Christianiatank” (the Citroën 2CV) and “sømandsballon” that would linguistically equip me for an Amager pub anno 1983, it stroke me, if our use of slang has also changed towards the present pasts: the slang use of today is much based on anachronisms and irony. Deliberately using a backdated word is a category in itself, supplementing the ones recognised by the authors of the slang dictionaries (see here).
With this little commemoration of Politikens Slangordbog of 1983 I will wellcome you to this blog. Here I will share ideas and impressions around retro and revivalculture, the topic of my PhD project “I Wish It Could Be 1965 Again – Retro Culture as Contemporary Aesthetic and Cultural Memory” at the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies at the University of Copenhagen.
Welcome and enjoy!
As a bonus from the slang dictionary, I can give you the following authentic retro slang for the new semester:
“Pædagogsolarium” – Overhead projector
“Agent 003” – Teacher
“Borgerspeed” – Coffee