That 70s Sequence: Remembering the Bad Old Days in Summer of Sam
by R. Colin Tait
Why, in the 1990s, did so many films obsess over and imitate distinctly 1970s film style, iconography, and content? A cycle of films, including Casino (Martin Scorsese, 1995), Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997), The Ice Storm (Ang Lee, 1997), The Last Days of Disco (Walt Stillman, 1998), 54 (Mark Christopher, 1998), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Terry Gilliam, 1998), and The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola, 1999), obsessively recreated the ‘bad objects’ of Americana-drugs, gambling, pornography, serial-killing, and bankrupt cities-within the urban spaces of the 1970s. This cycle continued into the 2000s with Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, 2000), Blow (Ted Demme, 2001), and more recently, Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007) and American Gangster (Ridley Scott, 2007). All of these works privileged the 1970s as a lost object of desire, as opposed to earlier nostalgic representations like American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973) and its TV cousin, Happy Days (Garry Marshall 1974-1984), which longed for the innocence of pre-Vietnam, Eisenhower-esque small-town America. Thus, the evocation of the ‘good old/bad old days’ dichotomy warrants that we wade deeply into this murky phenomenon to explain its historical significance, its narrative logic, as well as exactly what this specific brand of nostalgia is trying to express. Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam (1999) provides an excellent case study of how this trend plays out, in a scene that presents a dazzling display of 70s iconography choreographed to The Who’s “Baba O’Riley/Teenage Wasteland.” Not only does the scene absorb the logic of the music video and summarize the film, but it also presents a personalized rendition of the era, which we can deconstruct to get to the root of this nostalgia.
That Spike Lee’s generation of filmmakers came of age in the 1970s might begin to explain their peculiar longing for that decade. Similar to the directors of the Hollywood renaissance before them, the so-called “Rebels on the Backlot” (see Waxman) modelled themselves after the directors and films they watched during their formative years. As deWaard argues, these artists (and Spike Lee in particular) emulated a personal form of filmmaking while branding themselves within in a highly-competitive marketplace. This ciné-literate generation of artists found themselves imitating American icons like Martin Scorsese and setting their scenes to the soundtracks of their youth. One of the hallmarks of this nostalgic practice remains the ‘1970s Sequence’, which filmmakers as diverse as Richard Linklater, Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, P.T. Anderson, Todd Haynes, Ang Lee, and Spike Lee all insert into their work. That each of these directors made a tribute film to the 1970s marked the cultural values of a generation (X?) which came of age and rose to prominence. More often than not, these sequences disrupt the coherence of their narratives, presenting what is essentially a music video to a 70s song. While loosely inspired by the events within the movie, they often move outside of their narrative frameworks to express a totally different logic, favouring style over formal structure.
As is the case with Summer of Sam’s “Baba O’Riley” scene, such sequences possess a storytelling function independent of the plot-line, like a condensation of the movie’s emotional spirit, which resembles the movie in miniature. Rapid-fire cutting, temporal manipulation (usually slow-motion), and over-processed and tinted film stocks together comprise a remarkably standard stylistic of the present’s nostalgic gaze upon the 70s. All of these techniques fetishize a lost era’s cinematic style while paradoxically evoking a contemporary visuality supplied by modern (often digital) technology. The influence of postmodernism, whether stated as an economic or aesthetic mode, remains central to this theorization, particularly because these sequences are textbook examples of cinematic pastiche. The curious fascination with this raw and unprepossessing recent past, compounded by an aesthetic that betrays its own present-tenseness, endows these films with a schizophrenic sense of waning affect.
Similarly, one cannot overstate the importance of MTV and the considerable influence that popular music has had in contemporary cinema since the late 1960s. This phenomenon accelerated even further in the 1980s, particularly as directors such as Russell Mulcahy (Highlander, 1986) pioneered the art of short-form (narrative) music video-making for the British pop group Duran Duran. In America, others like John Landis (”Thriller,” 1983) and Martin Scorsese (”Bad,” 1987) joined the ranks of directors who alternated between film and music video making in the 1980s. Additionally, the 1990s saw the rise of a new generation who began their careers in the advertising and music video industries; David Fincher (Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” “Vogue”), Spike Jonze (The Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage,” Weezer’s “Buddy Holly”), and Michel Gondry (Bjork’s “Human Behaviour”) all moved into feature films within the decade.
As the film and music industries continued to aesthetically converge, videos served to cross-market ancillary products, often under the same corporate banner. The function of the movie soundtrack became increasingly important, not only for the studio’s bottom-line but also for creating investment opportunities that led to cross-ownership between studios and music companies. In this era, traditional cause-and-effect narratives were destabilized to accommodate material that could be repurposed for music videos. The result was a platform that was able to sell both the movie and the soundtrack simultaneously. An early example of this phenomenon was Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, 1977), which contained full-length song and dance sequences within its diegesis in a manner that simultaneously resembled real-time musical numbers and prefigured the multi-angle shots and rhythmic editing of the music video.
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