From The Shape of Water to Dunkirk: How nostalgia makes for an alluring cinematic canvas
Across prominent film festivals and mainstream film awards like the Oscars, Golden Globes, SAG and BAFTAs, stories rooted in the past tend to get critical appreciation and top honours.
A shy, mute janitor falls in love with an amphibian humanoid, nearly a monster. She goes on to make love to this creature. An American teenager, who loves his music and books, falls in love with an exuberant American academic during an idyllic Italian summer. The Battle of Dunkirk is replete with haunting imagery of misery, suffering and courage. A little after the 9/11 bombings, and their life altering impact of American society and economy, Lady Bird dreams of spreading her wings and flying off to an Ivy League university. And audiences love to live her dream.
The past is where present day filmmakers seek, find and create inspiration. It’s this fascination, with a time gone by, that has begun to emerge as alluring and enduring canvasses on which cinematic tales find life. Rooted in universal emotions, these films have found admiration at the Oscars and major awards. Across prominent film festivals and mainstream film awards like the Golden Globes, SAG and BAFTAs, stories rooted in the past tend to get critical appreciation and top honours.
This year’s Oscar nominations feature The Shape of Water, Dunkirk, Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird prominently. Darkest Hour and Phantom Thread also get their fair share, and The Post have made it to Best Picture.
Somehow, the strongest connection these filmmakers and/or writers feel is to an incident, memory or story from the past — when they were young and free to dream. In this context, the past is not to be equated with history. Instead, it refers to an era when digital communications and social media didn’t dominate. This was a time when emotions, experiences and thoughts took shape in an individual space — isolated in one’s mind and not instantly ‘shared’. This is also a time when those behind these beautiful films were growing up and maturing.
The directors who’ve made these Oscar favorites give you a glimpse of the impact of their past on their presently applauded films.
Before The Shape Of Water caught on with Hollywood’s mainstream awards, the film was riding on major anticipation at key film festivals. At Venice, Guillermo Del Toro admitted that this inter species love story was the very first film that he had wanted to make. He has worked with Daniel Klaus, his co writer for Trollhunters, a Netflix series and ideated with Vanessa Taylor, to finally develop the script over 5 years. Del Toro spent his own money to create this amphibian from the Amazon. He makes this logic defying film believable by giving it suitable context. Set in the 1960s, with the Cold War at its peak, mistrust ruling American political life. There was a tendency to mark anyone who didn’t fit in as an outcast. Elisa, as a mute woman, her best friend, Zelda as a Black person and her neighbor, Giles as a gay advertising artist, didn’t fit in. Del Toro’s context of The Shape of Water resonates effectively with present day American social climate- where those viewed as ‘other’ (immigrant, homosexual, Hispanic) is being marginalized.
Raising the context of the past a few notches higher is Christopher Nolan with Dunkirk. Shot on 70 MM, using old methods of cinema trickery like stick figures in a bombing scene viewed from the skies, Nolan has told this gloomy, bloody historic battle of 10 days with a purist approach. He shot the film on the beachhead of Dunkirk where unexploded ordnance still remains. Having used his parallel time frames narrative, Nolan has told this tale like it was- a result of disastrous military strategy by the Allies, a feast of aerial blood letting for the Nazis and a survival story for the soldiers. Nolan highlights common courage by focusing on rescues by fishermen, which is part of British folklore. Dunkirk revises the template of World War 2 films, presenting the messy, gory side of all consuming war. Nolan found inspiration in stories around the Battle of Dunkirk that he had grown up hearing at home; his grand father was in the RAF and had lost his life during WW2. Nolan debunks the near mythical quality of the Battle of Dunkirk in his film, making it all the more relevant today- in the end, war means loss, above all else.
British WW 2 history forms the plot of Darkest Hour, chronicling Winston Churchill’s early days in office when Hitler’s threat loomed large over the British Isles. Incredibly, this prime minister’s feats and courage bordering on insanity, as well as difficult decisions, hace formed fodder for film and TV many times. Yet, each time, the story resonates, and with this one telling it from Churchill’s perspective, Darkest Hour brings alive a key phase of global history for millennials. Similarly, Spielberg’s The Post alludes to the well-known Pentagon Papers Leak. Daniel Ellsberg’s life has been the subject of popular discourse in the USA before. The Most Dangerous Man in America, a documentary on him turning whistle blower on the government was highly popular. Told from the perspective of Katherine Graham, the new person in charge of the Washington Post, the film has become popular because it brings to light a game changing journalistic effort. It also salutes a courageous, tenacious woman subtly.
It’s not just historic incidents that make the context of the past powerful backdrops for film narrative. Certain stories also breathe better in the recent past. James Ivory’s Oscar nominated screenplay of Call Me By Your Name is convincing and beautiful because the love story is set at a time before Tinder, Instagram or Facebook. It’s romantic in it’s context of an Italian summer in a small village, where the Walkman or a tape recorder provide music and people read books in the sun (not on the Kindle). Love seems to blossom in all it’s shades in this era that evokes nostalgia for many 30 plus people today. James Ivory, the 89-year-old scriptwriter of this film, alludes to the commonalities of his modern love story to other Merchant- Ivory productions. The Italian countryside, a big house with many corners and a languid pace of life makes Elio’s love, hopes and heart break so much more convincing. (Timothy Chalamet’s Oscar nominated performance). Elio doesn’t have twitter to vent. It’s the Eighties.
Likewise, Lady Bird’s ambitions, despite a bad economy and a worse job scene to go to an Ivy League college connect strongly with American and European audiences today. Like the post 9/11 scenario, debt, joblessness and evictions have become permanent fixtures in American life; going to college may be a distant dream for many.
The root of these imaginative and evocative celluloid stories is experiences and memories that these filmmakers and their collaborating writers felt deeply when they were younger. With the present era, where micro blogging, Tinder, social media and photo sharing have become compulsive habits, not many experiences are introspected upon, or left for further analysis. While a different kind of story telling will eventually emerge from the current mind set of Insta-life, for love, romance, dreams and hope to blossom, the past seems to be the ideal space to revisit for storytellers.
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